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Scenes from Hell

Jan 1, 2003

Scarcely anyone, sailor or non-sailor alike, is unaware of the drama and tragedy that unfolded on Dec. 27 during the 54th running of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. No ocean racing disaster since the 1979 Fastnet has taken a greater toll or put the sport under the microscope to such an extent. Like the Fastnet debacle, this new tragedy has launched another exhaustive round of analysis as well as some serious soul-searching within the ocean sailing community that will continue long after the immediate drama of miraculous rescues and shocking death has played out in the mainstream media.

Ironically, the same storm that terrorized the crewed racers in the Sydney-Hobart brought much-needed wind to several of the leaders in the Around Alone race, who at the time were struggling across the Tasman Sea toward the leg II finish line in Auckland, New Zealand. As in leg I, it was a battle down to the wire, and the leg ended with some huge surprises that had little to do with the weather. All in all, it was a two weeks of intense sailing drama, sure to be discussed and debated for years to come.Recapping the nightmare

The stark, storm-whipped scenes that flashed on our TV screens on the Dec. 27 evening news made it easy to forget that in Australia it was the height of summer and, moreover, the middle of the two-month school holidays. As always, it was a festive occasion as the 115-boat Sydney-Hobart fleet set their spinnakers on a sunny afternoon to begin the 65-mile run down the coast of New South Wales, across Bass Strait, and along the rugged east shore of Tasmania, to a button-hook finish at Hobart in the mouth of the Derwent River. Not that crews expected the race to be a cakewalk. The Bass Strait is a notoriously stormy place and on average every other Sydney-Hobart gets smacked a with full-blown "southern buster." Pre-race forecasts apparently called for a gale of 30 to 40 knots, while weather maps and satellite images showed a massive low pressure system converging with the course.

About an hour after the start, the Met Office revised the forecast to a severe storm warning, and race organizers were apparently alerted by the meteorologists that sailors could be heading into Force 10 conditions. To what extent these warnings were passed on to the competitors is not yet clear. However, the majority were almost certainly aware of a revised official forecast calling for sustained 40- to 55-knot winds (although some may have failed to appreciate the implication of significantly higher gusts). In any case, the storm swept in as the leading big boats entered Bass Strait. The East Australia Current flowing south at three knots opposed the storm winds, creating breaking waves of mammoth proportionsat least 30 feet and possibly even 60.

Almost immediately, many of the crews found themselves in serious trouble. Some sailors suffered broken bones as they were hurled across cockpits and cabins. Yachts were knocked down, rolled, and dismasted. Many of the boats promptly sustained severe hull damage, and several began to sink. The airwaves lit up with Maydays, and the late afternoon sky glowed red with distress flares.

An armada of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraftup to 28 at one pointstarted search-and-rescue operations, assisted by the naval vessel escorting the fleet and fellow racing boats.

When the dust had settled, six sailors were dead and 50 had been plucked from the water or rescued from life rafts. Seventy-three yachts retired, and only 42 completed the course. Three of the six who died were aboard the 50-foot Winston Churchill, a restored 1942 wooden classic that had actually competed in the first Sydney-Hobart more than 50 years earlier. The boat was rolled by a breaking wave, causing the hull to rupture. Nine crewmembers took to two life rafts, one of which was not located for nearly two days. During this time, the ill-fated raft had been blown across the wave tops like a ping-pong ball, capsizing more than 30 times. Three of the five occupantsJim Lawler, Mike Bannister, and John Deanwere dislodged from the disintegrating life raft and lost at sea. Two survivors were later airlifted to safety.

Two fatalities occurred when Post Naiad was rolled 360°. Owner Bruce Guy died of a heart attack, and helmsman Phil Skeggs drowned in the cockpit when the inverted yacht failed to right itself promptly. Seven other crew were winched to safety by helicopters.

The sixth death took place aboard Sword of Orion when 30-year-old Glyn Charles, a former Olympic sailor from Great Britain, was hurled overboard as the boom struck the steering pedestal. Heroes and scapegoats

The heroes and heroines of the hour, particularly in the public eye, were the hundreds of military, police, and civilian rescuers who risked their lives to pluck exhausted sailors from the waters of Bass Strait. But the sailors themselves, for the most part, displayed great courage and competence in coping with conditions far worse than many had even imagined. As with most Corinthian, club-sponsored events, the expertise of the crew ranged from complete novices (18-year-old Melissa McCabe, who won her berth in an essay-writing contest) to hardened professionals, with extensive ocean miles.

Should the '98 Sydney-Hobart have been postponed or abandoned? In retrospect, the answer is yes, but to say so is to overlook the fact that a perennial classic like the Sydney-Hobart is an institutionan event with a life of its own. For 54 consecutive years the big race has always started on Dec. 26Boxing Day, as its known in the British Commonwealth. It's a tough, demanding race, and this reputation has traditionally been part of the appeal. With more than 1,000 sailors planning their vacations around the premier event of the season, loved ones waiting to greet the fleet at the finish, and 300,000 well-wishers waving the fleet off, the pressure to press on can get a bit overwhelming.

On the other hand, the '98 disaster was also a warning, and a repeat performance could not to be tolerated. I wouldn't be surprised if future Sydney-Hobart races incorporate a provision to interrupt the contest in mid-stream if the weather turns bad, with a re-start to follow once the worst had passed. By the same token, it's entirely likely that the race organizers would not hesitate to recall the fleet soon after the start should similar weather recur.

Race organizers from the Cruising Club of Australia have taken a pounding, particularly from the Australian media, who have suggested that strongly worded warnings issued by the meteorologists were deliberately ignored. Race organizers did little to further their cause in immediate aftermath of the disaster by citing the standard boilerplate that "skippers alone must decide their boats' fate, rather than a race abandoned by the organizers onshore." CCA spokesman Peter Campbell did allow that "if these conditions had been present on Saturday (Dec. 26), there would have been consideration not to start the race."

The fact that the Sydney-Hobart is an Australian event contested largely by Australian crews repeatedly gives rise to the suggestion that the Aussie hard-case stereotype, spitting in the face of danger, is somehow to blame. But it's difficult to give credence to this notion, because the majority of the fleet promptly withdrew from the race when the sea conditions got really dangerous, and either retreated to harbor or attempted to do so.

Line honors winner, American billionaire Larry Ellison aboard his IMS maxi, Sayonara, carried on in part because it was evident that the weather was worse astern, and the safest course lay in pressing on toward the finish. As for the overall handicap winner, the Hicks 35 AFR Midnight Rambler, co-skippered by Ed Psaltis and Bob Thomas, survival was a combination of luck, sailing skill and determination. Psaltis, who had been striving to win "the Big One" for 17 years, allowed that "if there was an element of luck it was because we got the worst of the weather during the daylight hours and because of that we had the best possible opportunity of getting the yacht over them. I guess you can say we didn't get 'that wave,' the really big one that hit so many of the others. We drove the yacht as hard as we could and as safely as we could."

Stark images of battered, shell-shocked sailors brings to mind a much greater trauma that forever scarred the Australian psychethe catastrophic 1915 amphibious landing at Gallipoli during WW I. No doubt that first wave of naive Aussie troops had charged the Turkish guns without a second thought to the danger. In a way, the '98 Sydney-Hobart experience was similara brutal, unforgettable exclamation point marking the end of an age of innocence.

Certainly, for some Sydney-Hobart veterans, the '98 race was the last straw. At a post-race press conference, a badly shaken Larry Ellison was sharply critical of the race committee for failing to forestall the disaster, and vowed he'd never sail the race again. "Not if I live to be 1,000 years old will I do a Hobart race," said the winner of back-to-back line honors. "This is not what it's supposed to be about. Difficult yes, dangerous no, life threateningdefinitely not." Ellison went on to describe how they'd encountered the worst sea conditions off the southeastern corner of Tasmania after crossing Bass Strait. "We were airborne. The bow was dropping about eight meters and just crashing into the water. Things were breaking everywhere ... the boat was coming apart piece by piece. The smartest thing we did was tack in closer to Tasmania to get a better angle on the waves. We got in under the lee of the Tasmanian coast and got some relief. I'm not sure the boat would have held together if we hadn't done that. I have never experienced anything remotely like that, and I don't want to again."

Sayonara's navigator Mark Rudiger, winner of the last Whitbread, is a top-flight pro sailor, and will no doubt be back. But he too was extremely concerned as he watched the barograph plummet "like coming down the back side of Everest." He reported that "at worst, it was worse than the Whitbread."

Australian sailors no doubt bore the brunt of the emotional maelstrom that followed in the wake of the storm. Australian sailor/journalist Rob Mundle, reporting for the U.S. newsletter Grand Prix Sailor, described it as "the toughest writing assignment I've ever faced." He goes on to describe how a friend, Steve Kulmura veteran of 17 Sydney-Hobarts and five Fastnetshas sworn off the race forever. As Kulmur put it, "My new seaboots and wet-weather gear are on Sword of Orion. She has sunk. There is no better place for them. I will never do another Hobart race."

The analysis begins

Two major inquiries into the events surrounding the Sydney-Hobart disaster were announced on December 30, the first by the New South Wales coroner's office, and the second an internal investigation by the Cruising Club of Australia. Race organizers, after briefly resisting calls for a probe, had a change of heartno doubt realizing that any other course of action might hint of a cover-up.

Certainly there's a great deal to be learned by systematically debriefing competitors, rescuers etc., and analyzing the results. After 17 sailors lost their lives in the '79 Fastnet, the ensuing inquiries led to new understanding of the dynamics of breaking-wave capsizes, potential weak points in yacht structures, the deficiencies of life rafts, and a wide range of other lessons.

Sailing experience obviously contributed greatly to the success and survival of many competitors, but, as overall handicap winner Psaltis explained, luck also played a role in these extreme conditions. Rogue waves are generally believed to form when several waves momentarily converge, and yachts that happen to be in the wrong spot at the wrong moment may be doomed regardless of other considerations.

By the same token, there is no clear-cut pattern regarding the types of boats that suffered most severely in the storm. At one end of the spectrum was an elderly wooden yacht of conservative design, while at the other was Sword of Orion, a modern Grand Prix racer with a crack crew.

Rig damage was fairly widespread in the '98 Sydney-Hobart, but only five yachts were dismasted outright, and several survived roll-overs with the rig still largely intact. At first glance this appears to be a significantly lower casualty rate than what occurred in the '79 Fastnet, and may well indicate that rig reliability has improved considerably since the IOR days. Also in contrast to '79, only two yachts broke rudders, again suggesting that designers and builders have learned a thing or two over the past two decades. Solo sailors skirt the storm

For the leading group in Around Alone, the storm that decimated the Hobart fleet was pretty much business as usual after 6,000 miles of Southern Ocean sailing. Several days before, the three front-running Class I skippers had chosen distinctly different routes for their swing north into the Tasman Sea, which at the time was dominated by high pressure and light air. Overall leader Giovanni Soldini was the farthest east when he angled north for the tip of New Zealand, Marc Thiercelin the farthest west, and Mike Golding in between. Of the three, only Thiercelin was caught by the storm. For a period of several hours his progress slowed to two knots, causing Around Alone race organizers some real concern. Soon after, however, he re-emerged at good speed.

But a bit father back, two solo sailors were benefiting greatly from the storm. Isabelle Autissier, after apparently falling prey once again to the leg II jinx which saw her abandon ship in the previous Around Alone, rode the edge of the storm to get back into contention and challenge Thiercelin for third. Earlier she'd fallen badly off the pace when forced to sail for 10 days with a reefed main and severely damaged sail track. An impromptu pit stop at Adventure Bay in southern Tasmania enabled temporary repairs to be made, and the timing of the low did the rest.

Class II leader J.P. Mouligne also played the weather perfectlychopping into the lead of the larger Class I boats, and ultimately entering Auckland on the heels of Thiercelin and Autissier. Just earlier, Mike Golding suffered a devastating setback, grounding on a sand bar just 200 miles out of Auckland. His boat, Group Four, was damaged too severely to finish the leg, and it currently looks like the sailor who had previously held a comfortable overall lead may be unable to continue at all. Halfway around, Autissier holds a narrow combined time lead over Soldini, the leg II winner with Thiercelin close behind. In Class II, Mouligne was a staggering 700 miles ahead of Mike Garside in second place, while Brad Van Liew is pushing Garside very hard.

Why did the solo sailors fair better than the Sydney-Hobart fleet? Being positioned farther south clearly had a lot to do with it, as did a course that allowed these downwind-oriented boats to sail much broader angles.

In any case, the analysis of the events of December 27/28 is still in the early stages. But, hopefully, we can learn enough from this tragedy that nothing comparable will happen again.