extreme sadness

It’s been a seriously tough few days for the 65 sailors and 7 OBR’s ripping through the Southern Ocean right now in the Volvo Ocean Race.
It’s cold, wet and rough (it goes without saying) but unless you have experienced it personally, it’s hard to portray the extra edge that competition gives this already tough environment. As much as we all look forward to getting ‘down south’ there isn’t one person out there who isn’t counting the hours until it’s done.
That said, as tough as it has been for the fleet in general, nothing will compare to the torment that John Fisher’s family will have endured and the sadness and guilt that all his fellow crew members will be dealing with right now.
We have lost a friend, but they have lost a husband, a father and a crewmate.
I have spent much of the last year working alongside John, clocking up thousands of miles together, whilst battling through good and bad times both on and off the water, and he was the most supportive, amiable and steadfast friend and colleague you could wish for. Through thick and thin he propped us all up with his unwavering optimism and professionalism.
Everybody’s personal story around their decision to compete in these events is different but watching him live out his dream took me back twenty-five years to when I did my first race and it saddens me beyond belief, that I won’t be able to shake his hand at the end of it.
This is not the last time I will pay my respects, but for now ‘Fish’, I salute you and all you stood for, thank you for everything you did for us all and know that you will live long in all our memories ……..
These situations are surrounded by emotion and most of it is natural and totally understandable, but it struck me upon reading an article on Sailing Anarchy (extreme anger) that the further removed you are from the situation, the less right you have to express it, especially when it’s not grief or sadness.
Anger is the reserve of his wife, children and close family and the rest of us owe it to them to show our respect and then politely take a back seat. The very last thing I want is a ‘war of words’ but to quote the author I too “have earned the right to have an opinion” and when the time is right and in the right circumstances I will express mine.
There is a huge number of unknowns around this incident, and when the crew complete the, not insignificant, task of getting themselves ashore with their minds still in one piece there will be the appropriate de-briefs and eventually we can all learn what happened and collectively make the process of ocean racing safer.
This process has been going on for decades and, especially in recent years, the progress made in the overall safety of the event is considerable, despite the boats being quicker and more spectacular.
I respect the author for his time at sea, much of which was in way riskier boats than we have now and before the extensive training, equipment and monitoring of the current race but I don’t think it’s right to apportion blame at this early stage especially without more detail.
I strongly disagree that the boats themselves, the designers of those boats, or those that organize the race have avoided responsibility or done anything that puts sailors lives at risk. Aspects can be improved of course, but the implication that the boats are too dangerous is unfounded and the idea that anyone is complicit in John’s death is offensive to a great many of us that trust in those same boats, people and procedures when we put to sea.
None of us are stupid and if the situation was as described we would be negligent in our duties to our families and that is simply not the case.
The sport itself is inherently dangerous, we all acknowledge that, but we do so knowing that the equipment, procedures and, most importantly, our team mates mitigate that risk to an acceptable level and as competitors we all make a conscious decision to leave the dock. I can never quite explain why I do what I do and indeed the last 24 hours have made me think even more about those motives, but I do know that if the risk was somehow completely removed then the attraction would be gone.
There will be some that don’t agree, and they are entitled to their opinions; there will be some that disagree with my view on the safety of these boats and I respect them too, but please let’s not express polarizing views on potential causes in the wake of a man’s death without being in full possession of the facts. I am not trying to push the opposite view or promote debate, and don’t particularly concern myself with the future of the but am keen that we draw proper conclusions based on evidence.
There have been fatalities at sea over the course of this race, and each one is tragic and devastating in equal measure. If you look the VOR / Whitbread race four competitors lost their lives in the earlier races with three in the first race 1973 and one in 1989.
Four more events and fifteen years passed until Hans Horrevoets was sadly lost approaching the UK in 2006 and now we face another tragedy twelve years on. I am not happy with that safety record and one life lost is one too many but until the right people can make the right decisions based on the facts it’s simply pointless to try and suppose what would have saved his life. The implication that it’s getting more dangerous is not supported in evidence.
The deeper question is ‘why’ we choose to compete rather than how. We could have safer boats, safer routes and many other protections but at some point, it simply wouldn’t be worth doing. I don’t for a moment underestimate the significance of this tragedy and it’s truthfully shaken me to my core but it’s important to recognize that no-one is being forced to go out there and we all do it with a deep and well understood acceptance of the risk.
I am not angry, I am deeply saddened, and I feel desperately sorry for his loved ones to whom I offer my sincere condolences
Steve Hayles