been there

We get letters, and this one gives a particularly poignant reference to the Vestas situation…

I ‘m a huge VOR fan- that’s no exaggeration.  I love everything about the race- the boats, the sailors, the venue, the great reporting and media content- I lap it all up like a teenage groupie, checking the website- and SA- several times each day, starting from the moment I wake up.  I’ve become quite fond of each boat and team, the various personalities, and I appreciate what this race means to our beloved sport.  I might even make my next car a Volvo- seriously!

Like hundreds of thousands (I imagine) of fellow sailors around the world, my heart broke when I learned about the tragic fate of Team Vestas Wind.  This is a terrific group of guys, and a wonderful program.  I am very happy that all hands are safe.  I decided to write because this terrible event brought back profound memories that I had more or less filed away in my memory banks, but these memories were wrenched back into the present, as I learned of this occurrence.

You see, I too once had the unfortunate experience of driving a sailboat onto a reef; to experience the feeling of one moment flying along at double digit speeds, blast reaching on an endless ocean propelled by warm trade winds; to suddenly experience the abject horror of seeing a surf line emerge out of the darkness ahead, followed immediately by a gigantic jolt and sickening crunch, as tens of thousands of pounds of yacht meets immoveable coral; followed by sheer terror as huge breaking waves crashed into the hull,  lifting the boat entirely out of the water, to be dropped with a deafening crash again, and again, until pushed up onto the reef; to make the fateful decision to abandon ship, jumping into the dark surf and stumbling along, cut by the coral, then to relative safety while awaiting rescue; and to experience the agony as realization begins to sink in: our voyage is over; a terrible mistake has been made.  Reading about Team Vestas Wind brought that awful night back in vivid detail.

SA has- appropriately at this moment only briefly- mentioned the inevitable question that all must have: How could this have possibly happened?  It seems inconceivable, with all the resources and technology available to the crew, and the collective sailing experience of all aboard, that something like this could have happened.  Moreover, I believe the crash occurred in daylight, making it even more inexplicable.  The answer to this question has yet to be provided- but I doubt we’ll ever get a credible explanation.

In truth, I’m not sure I need one, because I already know what happened, and I know the implications.

Thirty four and half years ago, identical questions were being asked about the shipwreck of the maxi Condor of Bermuda.  Like Vestas Wind, the crew résumés were impressive- the collective ocean miles of the crew was something like 175,000, and a few had done the most recent Whitbread race.  Back then, there was a relatively simple answer as to why we crashed onto Marlon Brando’s island: gross negligence on the part of the skipper, and the navigator.

I’m not all that anxious to learn the details about what happened to Team Vestas Wind, because it is sad to realize that in all likelihood, the skipper and navigator, at least, will never find meaningful work as professional sailors again.  That is terribly tragic, but the sad truth- regardless of how you slice it, dice it, play it or spin it…there simply is no excuse for this to have happened- none.  It was a fuck-up of the highest magnitude.

The lessons I learned thirty four years ago are still true today: (1) Never take an expert’s word for it; check the charts yourself!  (2) Do not be intimidated by professionals!  Professionals are like anyone- they are human, imperfect; they can, and do, make mistakes.  If you are in doubt, if you have a question…..ASK!  Say something!

The afternoon of our departure, I had asked our navigator, “What compass course will we be sailing initially?”  After he gave me the answer, I went to the navigation station, sat at the desk, took out a pair of parallel rules, looked at the chart, located the course he’d given me on the chart’s compass display, and walked off the course from our point of departure.  I found the course took us directly into a tiny atoll, about 35 miles north of Tahiti.  I re-tried the course again, and again, getting the same result each time.  I said to myself, “Nah.  He must know this.  He’s a world-famous professional sailor and navigator, and these are the best ocean sailors on the planet; I am nobody who knows nothing.”  I’ll never forget it.  As we sat on our wrecked ship, with breakers beating against the smashed hull, the moon eventually rose to reveal palm trees, and a sandy beach a couple of hundred yards away. My watch captain exclaimed out loud, “Where the fuck are we???”  I looked at him in complete disgust, and said: “I know exactly where we are!”

Our boat was insured, as is, I imagine, is Team Vestas Wind.  Fortunately, yacht insurance policies do not have a “Stupidity Exclusion,” so there should be full coverage to salvage and repair this beautiful sailboat.  I truly hope it can be repaired in time to return to the VOR, but if that occurs, sad to say, I would expect there’ll be a change of the afterguard. – Anarchist Kirk.