Battered racing yacht, crew limp toward SF Bay

By Paul Elias

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 2 2012 2:05 p.m. MDT

SAN FRANCISCO — The battered "Geraldton Western Australia" yacht and its bruised crew were limping into port here Monday after a giant wave smashed over the stern with such force that it carried away the boat's steering wheel and knocked the crew about like bowling pins.

A Coast Guard cutter reached the vessel damaged about 400 miles off the San Francisco coast Sunday and removed two injured crew members while the rest of the sailors decided to press on to finish the longest leg of an around-the-world race. The 68-foot yacht is expected to dock in the wee hours Tuesday morning and become the last of 10 boats to complete a 5,680-mile trek across the Pacific.

"The sea was alive with rage," the boat's captain Juan Coetzer told race organizers, who posted his comments online. "Then at our watch change, just before the sun came up (Saturday), a monstrous foaming swell broke over our stern."

The wave pushed the helmsman Mark Burkes into the steering wheel and its pedestal in gale-force winds of more than 50 knots.

"The water had so much force in it that it pushed Mark into the helm, snapping the pedestal clean off," Coetzer reported. "We had no steering and crew were falling all over the boat."

Coetzer said the crew managed to quickly replace the steering wheel with a tiller and got the yacht under control by pulling down "the remains of our main sail" and raising a much smaller "storm jib," slowing the boat's progress considerably.

"We were making good, good speed," Coetzer said of conditions before the accident, "surfing at 15 - 20 knots." The yacht is now traveling at about half that speed.

Assistant race director Justin Taylor, a two-time skipper in the contest, said that crews "drill" for such an event as losing a steering wheel in heavy seas and that the repair took a matter of minutes.

"Their training kicked in," Taylor said.

Taylor said typically the hardest leg of the race is crossing the North Atlantic.

"To get this close to the finish is a tough one to swallow," Taylor said. "I'm disappointed for them."

The U.S. Coast Guard sent out a long-range HC-130 Hercules aircraft on Saturday for a rescue effort, but the rough seas and strong winds thwarted an attempt to lower rescuers. Instead, medical supplies were dropped on board and a cutter dispatched to meet the stricken vessel.

The injured were Jane Hitchens, 50, a doctor from Kent, England, who may have suffered broken ribs; and Nik Brbora, 29, a software engineer from London who may have suffered a sprained pelvis, race spokeswoman Dee-Dee Taft said.

Thirteen people were aboard the yacht. Two others who suffered minor injuries decided to continue sailing, Taft said. Max Wilson, 62, a farmer from Queensland, Australia, also may have suffered broken ribs, and Burkes, 47, the helmsman at the time, sustained a back injury.

The crew planned to fix the yacht and continue two more legs of the race, which began in Southhampton in England and will finish there July 22 after nearly a year at sea. The Geraldton Western Australia is among 10 identical yachts participating in the race. The nine other yachts made it in safely.

The first boat arrived Friday at Jack London Square in Oakland, Calif., where the entire fleet is expected to stay until April 14 to make repairs, restock, rest and take part in a sailboat show before embarking for Panama.

Olly Osbourne, the skipper of Visit Finland and the ninth boat to finish the leg Sunday night, said the crossing of the north Pacific was particularly rough the entire four-week voyage. Osbourne and the crew were thrilled to sight the finish line and surfed a big wave home.

"Coming into the finish, we saw the sun for the first time in the last month, and we did about 27 knots coming into a big breaking wave. It was just an epic feeling; quite exhilarating," Osbourne said. "Then the Golden Gate Bridge appeared — a wonderful sight."

Rich Gould of Swindon, England, who was aboard another competing yacht, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the rough sea swayed his boat along the waves "like a surfboard" and that crewmates were knee-deep in water at the helm.

He said news of his competitors' injuries was a "harsh reminder that sailing in seas like this can be a hell of a challenge."

"It's quite sobering," Gould said.

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