A truly incredible story from Blue Robinson.

John Fisher was a member of the Sun Hung Kai Scallywag Volvo Ocean Race team, who was lost overboard in the Southern Ocean fourteen hundred miles west of Cape Horn on March 26th 2018, and his body was never recovered. Sitting here writing about Fish, who was English, (he had the Union Flag on the back of his foul weather gear, but moved to Adelaide, where he lived with his wife and two children) – is tough, because John was one of the quiet ones; but man was he a good bloke, and if there was a problem onboard, he was the go-to man who would always have a solution.

Fish also was an educator, who loved to share his extensive knowledge and experience with the younger men and women he sailed with. I raced with the team, and John was a super-friendly and massively respected guy, who talked little and worked hard, and when he did chat – the last time we spoke was in the team base in Auckland just before the start of Leg 7 of the VOR, he had a huge smile on his face. 

Waking up to the news two years ago that John had gone into the water and that his mates were searching for him was utterly stomach churning, as I could picture what was unfolding right then. I jumped off Scallywag at the start of of Leg 4 out of Melbourne, and by the time I surfaced, I could see the boat rapidly sliding into the distance, knowing that within minutes my head would just be a dot to the crew, as the team RIB closed in to drag me out of the water.

Along with all of the the Volvo Ocean Race crews in the Southern Ocean, John would have been wearing his heavy-duty ocean dry suit, with layers of thermals underneath and a lifejacket/harness on top. The fleet was getting down to the colder part of Leg 7, so John was wearing a neoprene balaclava and gloves, and since the leg start all the crew had all been wearing boots, and so moving around the cockpit was slow but steady in these tough conditions – more of a shuffle than a clean step. He would have been clipped on, but moving around means unclipping then re-fastening yourself to a jackstay or strong point, and as always, there is an enormous amount of water firing across the deck. 

Ever since the Whitbread Race ushered in the Whitbread 60’s in the 1993/94 edition, this has been the case. The Whitbread 60’s, Volvo 70’s and recently VO65’s racing hard in the Southern Ocean nosedive, punch into the back of waves, broach, or get slammed by a wave that suddenly doubles in size – as two swells generated from systems thousands of miles apart combine exactly where you are sailing, then break as if on a beach, to flick your boat on its side like a capsized dinghy, leaving helmsman hanging suspended from a spoke in the steering wheel.

It was Tom Braidwood, a crew member onboard Sun Hung Kai Scallywag on that leg, who told me years ago that surfing down waves in the Southern Ocean, there is so much water coming over the deck, there are times when you are floating as if you are body-surfing at the beach, tumbling and spinning with no idea where you will end up, until your safety harness tether pulls tight and dumps you on the deck. Or not.

The report from the team confirms that John had unclipped his safety harness, and was moving forward in the cockpit to re-clip then tidy up a sheet on the Fractional Code Zero. As he was moving forwards, the boat surfed down a large wave and crash-gybed, the mainsheet system hitting John and knocking him off the boat – with the crew also reporting they believe he was unconscious from that impact.

There would have been a moment of panic for those on deck, suddenly realising he was over the side, and for John – had he been conscious, the realisation that he was alone in the Southern Ocean would have been one of pure terror. The crew would have reacted quickly, throwing the bright orange JON and horseshoe buoy’s over the side and shouting to alert all down below, whilst banging the large red man-overboard button on the side of the steering pedestal, to log their position – but, a boat sailing at twenty knots travels through the water at over ten metres per second, and Scallywag was moving much faster than that in the freezing thirty-five, gusting forty-five knot westerly that was powering them to Cape Horn. 

And to make matters infinitely worse, as a crew member on deck – you can’t see.

On Leg Zero of that Volvo Ocean Race, I was onboard Sun Hung Kai Scallywag for the Round The Isle of Wight and St Malo-Lisbon legs, and I learned just how hard it is to focus on anything outside the boat for a sustained period. Racing around the Isle of Wight it was gusting to thirty knots, meaning that any spray from the bow when you are running or reaching, is roaring back to slam into the cockpit and massively restrict your field of vision, even looking aft.

As the terrifying situation onboard Sun Hung Kai Scallywag was unfolding on March 26th, Volvo Ocean Race HQ were monitoring this, and confirmed the crew turned the boat around quickly and started a search pattern – but how many precious minutes would that take, on a boat hurtling through the Southern Ocean travelling at over ten metres per second? 

And when you turn the boat around and start to flog upwind into thirty-five plus knots of wind and five-metre seas, desperate for a glimpse of your mate in the water – again, you can’t see. Without ski goggles you simply cannot face into that wind and spray for long, and wearing ski goggles with all that spray firing back at you, its like staring though heavy rain on a car windscreen.

Any attempt to motor-sail into those sort of conditions is extremely challenging. I was the late replacement for a crew change on the Cape Horn leg of the BT Challenge from Buenos Aires to Wellington, and so helmed into the prevailing winds and currents around Cape Horn, then on the brutal five thousand mile slog upwind, through the Southern Ocean to New Zealand. 

In those conditions, the boat is slamming so violently, launching off the tops of waves then burying its bow up to the mast in the following trough, it takes a massive effort just to stand up and hang on to the boat – and through all of this, your field of vision is incredibly close.

Even when Scallywag was at at the top of a swell, where the wind suddenly seems to rise and scream around you, the crew would have been desperately trying to focus and scan as much of the ocean as they could, with the wind, spray and freezing rain showers clawing their eyes as they searched for their mate; and through all this just to communicate with each other, they would have had to shout at the top of their lungs as they searched, hoping and willing to get a glimpse of him.

John was wearing a bright red ocean dry-suit, but the warm, neoprene balaclava he was wearing was black, and with his head just above the water, that would have been hard to see. This is not a criticism, just an observation. When the crew were looking for Alex Gough after he was flicked overboard on leg 4 from Melbourne-Hong Kong – in tropical conditions with a slight swell, Alex was wearing a black long sleeved shirt and shorts, and the crew only saw him because he raised his arm – and anyone who has done a survival course in a swimming pool wearing foul weather gear, with an inflated lifejacket and sea boots on, knows that any sustained movement is exhausting. 

And so had John been conscious, he would have raised his arm and waved, hoping and willing to be seen and picked up: but it was not to be. David Witt and his crew would have been frantic – straining into the wind to see their mate, desperate to do one more circuit – one more lap, another pass, knowing that John could suddenly pop out of a swell and appear right next to the boat in these conditions.

But as time wore on and the light began to fade, the appalling thought began to enter their minds that they wouldn’t find him, and with a gale rapidly approaching they would have to abandon their search, and swing the bow downwind again. 

Right then, after the hope and encouragement fired by all the crew, doing everything they could, straining on deck to spot John Fisher, there would have been nine devastated and completely broken men and women onboard Sun Hung Kai Scallywag; eight sailors, plus Konrad Frost, the highly respected OBR. 

Before every ocean leg – and certainly before a Southern Ocean leg, each sailor in that race took time out from the team and their family and thought about what lay ahead. The cold, the fatigue, and the sheer brutality involved in pushing the boat day and night to its limits.

Of what will happen, and what might happen. John Fisher would have done this, then quietly dealt with those thoughts and joined his mates onboard Sun Hung Kai Scallywag at start line of Leg 7 in Auckland, ready to push as hard as he possibly could, in an endeavour that he and all the team passionately believed in. It’s not the Volvo 65 that’s at fault, or the race itself, or the skipper or crew, or the kit – its just that racing through the Southern Ocean is at times, incredibly dangerous. And that is one of the reasons why we do it.

  • Blue Robinson.