Volvo Ocean Race. How John Fisher Was Lost Overboard

John Fisher at sunset.
pic by Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Race

by Richard Crockett

The questions many have been asking since John Fisher was lost overboard earlier in the week have now been answered by Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag.

The important thing to remember here is that experienced sailors go to sea because they love it for many different reasons. More importantly experienced sailors will only sail with people they trust and know, and on boats they deem to be seaworthy and ‘fit for purpose’. And, accidents do happen at sea irrespective of the number of safety measures taken to avoid them.

This is the statement from Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag:

On Monday 26 March, Team Sun Hung Kai / Scallywag lost John Fisher overboard in the Southern Ocean, approximately 1,400 nautical miles west of Cape Horn.

Despite conducting an exhaustive search in gale force conditions, he has not been recovered.

“This is the worst situation you can imagine happening to your team,” said SHK/Scallywag Team Manager Tim Newton, who has spoken with skipper David Witt and navigator Libby Greenhalgh about what happened on Monday.

“We are absolutely heart-broken for John’s family and friends. I know for David, he has lost his best friend. It’s devastating.”

Newton says he asked the crew to put together a timeline of events to ensure accurate reporting on the incident and it follows here:

• On Monday, 26 March, SHK/Scallywag was racing in Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil, approximately 1,400 nautical miles west of Cape Horn.

• Weather conditions were 35-45 knots with 4 to 5 metre seas with showers reducing visibility. It was 15 minutes before sunrise.

• The team was sailing with a single reef in the mainsail and the J2 jib. The Fractional 0 (FR0) sail was hoisted but furled.

• At roughly 1300 UTC SHK/Scallywag surfed down a large wave leading to an accidental crash gybe.

• John Fisher was on deck, in the cockpit. At the time, he was moving forward to tidy up the FR0 sheet and had therefore unclipped his tether.

• As the mainsail swung across the boat in the gybe, the mainsheet system caught John and knocked him off the boat. The crew on board believe John was unconscious from the blow before he hit the water.

• He was wearing a survival suit with a wetsuit hood and gloves and a lifejacket.

• The JON buoy and the horseshoe buoy were thrown off the back of the boat to mark the position.

• It took some time to get the boat under control and motor sail back to a position near where the man overboard occurred.

• At 1342 (UTC), the team informed Race Control, by e-mail, that there was a man overboard and they were returning to the MOB position to start a search pattern.

• With input from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and Race Control in Alicante, a search and rescue operation was carried out for several hours, but there was no sign of John, the horseshoe buoy, or the JON buoy.

• With weather conditions deteriorating, a difficult decision was taken to abandon the search and preserve the safety of the remaining crew.

Newton says the team is distraught but has a clear focus on getting the crew and boat back to shore.

“This situation isn’t over yet for our team,” Newton said. “The conditions are extremely challenging, with strong winds and a forecast for a building sea state over the next couple of days. Our sole focus, with the assistance of Race Control in Alicante is to get the team into port safely.

“Once we have achieved that, we have time to de-brief more fully and ensure that any lessons that can be learned from what happened to John are incorporated by the rest of the fleet going forward.

“That would be a tremendous legacy for John, who spent so much of his time passing the learnings from his lifetime of experience at sea onto the younger sailors on our team.”

Volvo Ocean Race fleet closing in on Cape Horn

As of the 1300 UTC position report on Wednesday, Team Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking and his crew had opened up a lead of 65-miles since jumping to the front of the pack four days earlier.

The teams have been battling heavy winds gusting more than 40 knots and monstrous seas as they sail downwind towards Cape Horn, where the Southern Ocean is forced through the narrow gap between South America and Antarctica.

The famed Cape marks the passage into the South Atlantic Ocean and means the end of Southern Ocean sailing for the fleet. The ETA for rounding Cape Horn is near midday (UTC) today – Thursday.

Bouwe Bekking driving Brunel in a big sea state.
pic by Yann Riou/Volvo Ocean Race

Behind Brunel, Vestas 11th Hour Racing, MAPFRE and Dongfeng Race Team are within 20 miles of each other, with Turn the Tide on Plastic and team AkzoNobel a further 30 miles behind.

The loss of Scallywag’s John Fisher is still weighing on the minds of many sailors. Turn the Tide on Plastic skipper Dee Caffari offered this moving tribute, describing the atmosphere on board after she told her crew what had happened to her friend ‘Fish’:

“Many tears were shed both openly and privately. Fish was a friend, a fan and a true supporter of our project. He was a gifted sailor who was doing what he loved and that gives us solace at this difficult time. We now look to the skies above and sadly see another spirit of a lost sailor take flight in an Albatross watching over the rest of us out here. “Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends and even more so to Team SHK/Scallywag and the rest of the Volvo Ocean Race family that have lost a loved one.”