Readers of GreenSportsBlog are likely familiar with Vestas 11th Hour Racing, the sailing team trying to win the ’round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race while being the most sustainable squad in the race — and, for that matter, one of the greenest teams in any sport, anywhere on the planet. The team was tied for second place as Leg 4 of the race, from Melbourne, Australia to Hong Kong, began. And they were in a strong position heading into Hong Kong when an awful accident took place.
When last we caught up with Vestas 11th Hour Racing in early January, the elite sailing team with a world class sustainability ethos, it was in a tie for second place in the seven boat Volvo Ocean Race field after the first three of 12 legs (Alicante, Spain to Lisbon; Lisbon to Cape Town; Cape Town to Melbourne, Australia).
And the team was near the lead towards the end of Leg 4, when tragedy struck about 30 miles out from the Hong Kong Harbor finish.
In the wee hours of the morning on January 20, Vestas 11th Hour Racing collided with an unlit fishing vessel. Despite a badly damaged bow, team co-founder Mark Towill and the Vestas 11th Hour Racing crew carried out a search and rescue effort. Nine Chinese fishermen were rescued. One member of the fishing boat crew was retrieved and transferred to a helicopter, with the assistance of Hong Kong Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre. He very sadly passed away. Two other race boats offered assistance but were not needed. The Vestas 11th Hour Racing crew were not injured.
Mark Towill, co-founder and team director of Vestas 11th Hour Racing (Photo credit: Vestas 11th Hour Racing)
Towill stood in for Enright as skipper for Leg 4 because the latter had to sit out due to a family crisis. During Leg 3, from Cape Town to Melbourne, Enright had to leave the team because his two-year-old son had been admitted to the hospital with a case of bacterial pneumonia. As Leg 4 neared its conclusion, Enright traveled to Hong Kong to greet the crew at the finish line, but instead pivoted to play an active role in the crisis management process from shore.
“I have been asked if it would have been different if I was onboard. Definitely not,” said Enright. “The crew has been well trained in crisis situations and performed as they should. They knew what to do and I think they did a phenomenal job given the circumstances. There comes a point when family is more important than the job you’ve been hired to do and I was at that point. I did what was best for my family.”
“I’m very proud of our crew,” added Towill. “We were in a very difficult situation with the damage to the bow, but everyone acted professionally and without hesitation. On behalf of the team, our thoughts and prayers go out to the deceased’s family.”
The team released a statement on March 2 saying they were informed that investigations by the Hong Kong and mainland China authorities were nearing their conclusion with no further actions expected to be taken and that Vestas 11th Hour Racing has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
On the same day, the Volvo Ocean Race announced the opening of its own independent investigation into ocean racing at night in areas of high vessel traffic density. The goal is to establish what steps race organizers may take to mitigate risk going forward. Any findings from the report that could benefit the wider sailing community will be released; it is expected to be submitted to the race’s board this June.
Understandably, the loss of a life weighs very heavily on the minds of Towill, Enright, and every other member of the Vestas 11th Hour Racing squad. “On behalf of the team, our thoughts and prayers go out to the deceased’s family,” said Towill.
Despite their heavy hearts, the severe damage suffered by its racing boat, and missing Legs 5 (Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China and back to Hong Kong) and 6 (Hong Kong to Auckland, New Zealand), Vestas 11th Hour Racing is rejoining the field. To do so, a new port bow section was sent to New Zealand, where it was spliced to the hull of the boat.
Repairs being made to Vestas 11th Hour Racing’s boat as team co-founder and skipper Charlie Enright looks on (Photo credit: Atila Madrona/Vestas 11th Hour Racing)
When Vestas 11th Hour Racing gets back on the open ocean, they will most likely find themselves in fifth place overall and out of contention for top honors. And they will face a grueling Leg 7; the 6,700 nautical mile journey from Auckland, New Zealand, around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, and up the Southern Atlantic to Itajaí, Brazil.
While the nautical and competitive obstacles facing the team will be significant, I imagine that the psychological and spiritual hurdles will be even more challenging. Putting my armchair psychologist’s hat on, I think the best thing for Towill, Enright and crew is getting back into the race, bringing the same commitment to the task at hand as they did to the rescue mission.
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