leaving Hobart, part 1
We left Hobart a day later than anticipated thanks to issues with the
rudder bearings on one of the boats. That was a good thing for all of us,
as we would have been leaving on New Year’s Day otherwise. Funnily enough,
being exhausted and hungover isn’t exactly conducive to the greatest
sailing in the world.
We set up for the Hobart-Brisbane race a bit differently than any race
before - it was going to be the first time we had so few crew members. We
lost quite a few in Hobart, leaving us with only 11. To be fair though, it
was an incredibly solid group of people who all desperately wanted to be on
the boat, and more importantly racing the boat. Unfortunately Clipper won’t
let the yachts race with less than 12, so we took on a crew member from
another boat. We also organized our watch system and mother rota differently
to take into account the short numbers. Basically we had three watches with
four people each, and always two watches on deck. This was to be my watch
leader training leg so that I could step up when we lost one of our long time
leaders in Brisbane.
We had a really fantastic race start out of the Derwent River. A couple hours
later though, everything went seriously wrong.
We were sailing upwind into decent sized waves, heeled over significantly
(around 40 degrees). I was on watch, on deck, as we woke the guys who had the
first sleep. Next thing I knew, Matt was popping his head up on deck and
telling us to heave to and get all the sails down - immediately.
As it transpires, two crew members had taken a big fall down below. One woman
slid into one of our watch leaders, Derek. The two of them went from high
side to low side, smashing into the bottom of the wet locker. Derek hit his
head hard and was knocked out.
While we were running around lashing down sails so as to prevent them going
overboard in the waves, the guys below deck were lashing Derek down to our
stretcher while Matt started the mayday sequence. It’s still the most
terrifying thing that’s happened during the race. Looking down the hatch, all
you could see was Derek unconscious on the stretcher, in a neck brace, with
his eyes open and unfocused. He spent six minutes out of it like that, while
we all wondered if he was dead.
On deck was still go go go. When we had the sails down enough I took over the
helm. That meant I could hear everything coming in on the VHF radio - from
Coast Guard, other Clipper yachts, Clipper Race office, police, and so on.
Turns out we had an engine failure (right at the worst possible time, of
course). A helicopter flew out to meet us and pick up Derek (only time I’ve
ever seen a flare used) - it also had an engine failure. Eventually it was
agreed that we’d turn around and head for a sheltered bay where a police boat
would meet us. One of the other Clipper boats, Qingdao, came with us as
It took a few hours, but the boat did eventually make it to pick up Derek and
Catherine (suspected that she’d broken some ribs). We offloaded them and
turned around to return to Hobart for the night.
That’s the basic facts.
What that’s not going to tell you is what it feels like to genuinely not know
if a good friend of yours, someone you’ve sailed 15,000+ miles with, has just
died or broken his neck, or just had a concussion. It’s overwhelming. I am so
thankful we had so much to do instead of having downtime to think about it. I
remember standing next to the main as we were tying it up as what was happening
really dawned on me. It must have been written on my face, because one of the
other women on board looked at me, grabbed my arm, and said “you need to keep
it together right now.”
And she was right. So right. If there’s one thing serious thing I’ve learned
from the race it’s that fear and panic spread so quickly. If you can’t stay
calm (at least outwardly) in the really tough conditions, as everything goes
wrong, then you shouldn’t be in charge. Emotions have to stay out of the game.