Last month the boat Gold Coast Australia sustained crew member injuries and was forced to land in Taiwan after helicopter airlift attempts and ship-to-ship transfer had to be aborted during rough sea state.
The skipper of Singapore, Ben Bowley, wrote a graphic account of the extreme conditions sailors faced.
At times the yacht has been less of a big red bus and more of a big red submarine. In the early hours of this morning the boat punched through an enormous solid wall of water, stopped dead and then we had the next wave break directly over the boat. The yacht ended up hove-to with the cockpit and snake-pit full to the brim with water. All the on watch (harnessed on at all times in these conditions) ended up fully immersed and floating.
To give some example of how much water came thundering over the deck, our wooden helming board that normally sits wedged in the aft corner of the cockpit well ended up wedged between the radar post and the pushpit about a foot clear of the deck. So much water came pouring down the companionway that a spare life-jacket in a pocket outside of my cabin inflated. It has taken the best part of four hours to finish getting the water out of the bilges this morning. Luckily no one was hurt and nothing got broken.
I've experienced these conditions and they definitely put the power of nature in perspective. Below is a self-portrait after two-weeks on the Pacific Ocean of what I came to appreciate as normal in any kind of breeze and wave state — goggles, full foul-weather gear, life-vest, harness, tethers, jacklines…. The photo may at first give the impression of calm but note how shiny the deck is and how the lines have been pushed together from waves crashing over the windward side.
The real challenge with ocean sailing is that you not only are in the grip of dangerously unpredictable forces, but you are a very long way from assistance or a controlled/stable environment.
A competitor in the Volvo Round the World Race once described to me what being a professional ocean sailor is like: "imagine playing rugby at maximum physical output, but without rest, and if you break a rib you have to keep going in the wet and cold for days or even weeks".
I used to think of it like climbing Everest because of all the gear and fitness involved, but it really is more like space travel because you depend so much upon a self-sufficient vessel for survival. The Everest of Amateur Sailing blog gives more details.
Tim Burgess, 31, broke his left leg above the knee while working on a headsail change on the foredeck of [Gold Coast Australia], which is competing in the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race and is racing from Singapore to Qingdao, China.
Waves up to four metres high and winds of around 30 knots have been providing a gruelling test for the amateur crews of all ten 68-foot yachts and the conditions.
“The force with which Nick [Woodward] hit his head on the lockers beside the bunk was enough to crack the plywood. There are no obvious signs of further injury however he still has a headache so we are evacuating him as a precautionary measure,” explains [Gold Coast Australia Skipper Richard Hewson].
I suspect he's lucky it was plywood instead of carbon. Once in port both were successfully transferred to hospital and given medical care.
Updated to add a first-person account of the conditions and accident:
Sleep became the unknown, the unfamiliar as we all struggled to get any rest in the pounding swell and challenging conditions where a hour of sleep was considered a good nights rest.
With these cold rough conditions our physical state was taking a pounding. My hands were so sore to touch from trying to drag sails down again the gale force winds, my eyes were red and raw from trying to see through the continues spray when I was helming and I had even managed to get wind burn not only on my lips but my eyelids as well. My fatigue was extreme where my muscles would be burning from just getting on to the deck.
Just when Tim was tying down one of the last sail ties I noticed a large wave coming. I shouted ‘Wave’ which gave Tim enough warning to hold on. He was sitting with his legs either side of the inner-forestay and as the wave cascaded down the deck it washed his leg underneath the Stay Sail and pushed his body around the inner-forestay snapping his leg in two place above his knee.
Although the boat was just 60 nautical miles from land at 8 am when the accident happened, the crew could not transfer the injured men to medical care until 9 hours later.