The 71st Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race gets underway today amid concerns that the weather may turn for the worse during the 640 nautical mile race south. A southerly with winds of up to 55 knots is expected to hit the fleet tonight as it makes its way down the south coast of NSW.
The 1998 Sydney-to-Hobart was the deadliest in Australian sailing history.
A severe low pressure front hit the majority of the fleet as it sailed down the New South Wales coast towards the Bass Strait, bringing winds up to 70 knots and waves as big as 20 metres.
Of the 115 starters, only 44 boats made it to Hobart, with 66 yachts forced to retire, five lost at sea and six sailors drowned.
More than 40 people were rescued in daring helicopter lifts in boiling seas, with others saved by Navy ships and fishing boats.
A coroner’s inquest into the deaths was critical of both the race management and the Bureau of Meteorology. As a result crew eligibility rules were tightened, and other safety procedures put in place.
In The Australian today, Roger Badham, Australia’s foremost marine meteorologist, says there is a 20-30% chance this year’s race could face similar conditions to the 1998 tragedy.
It was enough to make the crew of the most successful boat in the race’s history, Wild Oats XI, to have second thoughts.
Wild Oats XI tactician Iain Murray asked race organisers to consider delaying the start of the Boxing Day classic.
The idea was met with derision by other racers, including Wild Rose’s Jen Wells, said if you’re not prepared to face 45-plus knots, you shouldn’t be competing.
To understand to severity of the 1998 race, Business Insider found the 64-page transcript of a 1999 interview with Don Buckley who competed on 41-footer “B52”, owned by Wayne Miller. The NSW police conducted the interview a month after the tragedy.
Buckley, nicknamed ” the Admiral”, has had an impressive professional sailing career. He used to sail with Murray on 18ft skiffs and won five world championships, was part of the crew on Australia’s 1987 America’s Cup defence in Fremantle, and competed in multiple Sydney-to-Hobart races.
“I felt comfortable with everyone, it was a good outfit. Certainly lot of experience,” he said of his yacht and crew in the 1998 race.
Buckley recalls the weather forecast predicted that a low pressure system forming down the coast, “and that it would be a spanner in the works and that we might have some, some hard stuff”.
“Most people expect at some time in the Hobart race you’d have a southerly and it’s just the cycle of the race,” he said.
No alarm bells early on
“It didn’t ring any more alarm bells than OK, it will hit us at some stage.”
The crew had a plan of attack: as soon as they saw “switches” – winds picking up or the skies changing – they would go straight to storm sails, and they would be come in from western side, to sail in less current, meaning they wouldn’t be hit as hard if a big southerly picked up.
“We felt comfortable, we’d gone through the safety stuff, we had a strategy,” he said.
And for the first 12 hours it was “just champagne sailing,” Buckley recalls.
He remembers the navigator telling him winds of more than 60 knots were predicted.
“The feeling on the boat was, you know, it’s just a little bit more than 60 and, and it won’t last that long…
“The next thing that happened to me, I got crook, I got really sick, and the sickest I’ve been by a long way… in all of the sailing that I’ve done. Just hopeless, just almost as if I was frozen.”
And then most of the crew followed.
“I think it (sickness) has a major, major influence on… when people end up in stride, it probably separates them from being able to survive or not,” he says.
“We were just coping through the day, we were just managing.
“[We] kept hearing the forecast and it was getting rougher and rougher basically.
“Really what terrified me about that is I thought to myself, ‘Well I’m probably on paper the most experienced person here’… that really haunts me, and it haunted me at the time, I think I’ve got to do more, you know.”
From bad to worse
Conditions were increasingly fierce, forcing boats to retire, seeking shelter in Eden, the point of no return before crossing Bass straight. The weather was literally tearing yachts apart. Crews fell sick so they physically didn’t have enough people left to sail.
B52’s decision to use the storm sails and stick to the western side gave them the confidence to continue.
“We sort of felt ‘Well, let’s keep on going and it should be just like a normal southerly and it’ll end soon’,” Buckley said.
“The day passed and it was just a blur.”
After an extended watch on deck, the crew gave Buckley some extra rest time. But by the time he came back on watch the situation was far worse.
“I came up and I was really horrified with what I saw, it was very frightening, as much wind as I’d seen and the waves… I though Jesus, this is no good.
“Every 10 minutes it was, you know, white water coming and we’d have to struggle over that one.”
“I felt uneasy about how much wind we were sailing in… I came down and let one of the other guys in our watch have a go [steering] and I just sat there down below. We had the radio on all the time, and we were just getting, just hearing Maydays and all this sort of stuff.
“[Then] we hear one of the, it was a Melbourne yacht… a big solid thing. I heard him, I heard his Mayday, and he talked about how he’d been rolled, and he’d lost a guy in the water.”
It was around 6.30pm. Darkness approached. Some decisions needed to be made.
“I said ‘Look’, you know, ‘Has anyone any ideas, what’s the next thing we do?’, you know, ‘Do we, how can we slow it down?’.
“We pretty well decided that out next move was to get the storm jib off, so we had just nothing left… and it seems like only minutes later… we just felt the boat roar up a wave and I think there were screams from the guy steering, ‘Look out’, or something, then we just went straight over, upside down, and it was just mayhem.
“You roll over as fast as you could possibly imagine.
“It sounded like a motor accident, just as, as loud, it was just horrific. And the next thing was just slow motion, you know, like, you’re quite used to the boat getting sort of put on its side when it’s windy and everyone sort of hanging on and scrambling, but then it just turned upside down really quickly.
“We found ourselves just standing in it upside down and my instinct was to just open the hatch and swim out, ’cause that’s my skiff sailing thing, if you’re upside down, hop out there and hop on the centre board and haul it up and off you go again, you know.
“But luckily Wayne… and a couple of them had seen various… they’d seen some of the survival films and videos, and, and one of them said ‘No’, and it was actually Wayne.
“We [were] taking water, it was sort of coming up our legs. One of the guys has been sleeping in one of the quarter berths so when we’d gone upside down he had heavy sails and stuff [fall] on top of him, so we dragged him out.”
What happens now?
He remembers the eight of them standing there, thinking “What happens now?”
“One of the guys actually, instinctively tried to Mayday, but, you know, obviously we didn’t know at the time but the mast was snapped off,” he said.
“It seemed like we were over for ages. Consensus is probably three to four minutes.
“I was claustrophobic at the idea of just bein’ in there and sinking.”
He says after the initial shock and fear, rational thinking started to set in. They looked for hatches that could be used to escape through.
“And of course then we’re thinkin’ about the blokes up top,” he said.
“Then we, I think we talked about moving to one side and I think at the very time the next large wave came through and the boat sort of rode down the face [of the wave]… and drove the boat upright again.
“When it came up it was probably worse than when we went down because we had a lot of water in it, and there was stuff everywhere. I was pinned. I had sailed came down on top of me and I was up to [my] neck in water.
“I was screaming at them to get the sails off me, so I could come out, all I wanted to do was run up the hatch.”
A female crew member was struck on the head with the stove top and was trapped under water.
“There was probably two or three feet of water in the boat… everything was just turmoil,” Buckley remembers.
He and another crew member went on deck to find the missing crew members. The men were found clinging to the boat.
When the boat had rolled, one of the crew became stuck with his head through a gap between the spokes in the steering wheels. He had to unclip his harness to escape. When he reached the surface he was 40 metres away from the boat. He swam back and held on for his life.
Once everyone was accounted for, the crew split up and half tried to clean up the damage while the others tried to get the pumps going.
Unable to move, Buckley instructed others how to remove the rigging and cut the ropes so that if they could get the motor going it wouldn’t get tangled.
“During that period.. a couple of us on deck felt very vulnerable, some big crashing waves and it was just look up and go, Jesus, you know, hang on,” Buckley said.
“That was the scaredest I’ve ever been and felt very, very real chance we might not make it.”
Just stay afloat
He admits it wasn’t the swell which they were scared of, rather the white water that formed on top as the wave curled over.
“The waves are so steep at the point and then it rolled over and broke, so it broke all over the boat,” he said.
They hit the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and waited for help to arrive.
Approximately 80 nautical miles south-south-east of Eden, he says they decided to keep sailing, thinking that they would “get hammered more trying to return”.
“The boat was basically OK, and a couple of the guys inside… they became legends, they just got everything going and, you know, the pumps were going and they, actually the other bloke who’s fallen in the water, he manned the pump and just through fear he pumped, I reckon for an hour and a half and didn’t stop,” he said.
“My experience told me that as long as we stay afloat we probably should be alright.”
Buckley says everyone on board was fighting sea sickness, fear and shock but still managed to “show a bit of seamanship and hope something happens”.
The waiting game
With life rafts ready to inflate should they start sinking and the EPIRB activated, Buckley says all they could do was hang on.
“We just hung on, and big waves were cracking on us every now and then and the board would roll up on it’s side, but you just went through the program.”
Around 9pm they saw a small plane and let off a flare gun. Nothing happened. At 9.30pm a Navy helicopter arrived, but with no means to radio to them, they struggled to communicate. It stayed with them for an hour but then left also.
Buckley and a couple of the other crew members came up with the idea of drying between the batteries and the engine to start the motor up.
Despite motoring, Buckley says many of the crew were still too fearful to go back in the cabin in case the boat flipped again.
“My fear about going inside was very strong, a couple of the other guys were the same, I was really paranoid about that, but then I did rationalise that, OK it will be safe inside,” he said.
“We just motored and motored and motored. Got knocked around and crashed and carried in. Then the next thing, the navigator, I remember him wake me up as I’m slopping around on the floor. He said, ‘Mate, I think you should go upstairs’. And I said, ‘Yeah, and he you know, I could tell we were much quieter’.
“I went upstairs and you could see Eden and it was just, you know, 12 knots and a lovely day.”
Read the full interview with the New South Wales police here.
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