It’s a situation many offshore sailors have encountered: you’re having a meal when the wind picks up and help is needed on deck. It’s easy to think you will only be needed for a few moments before returning to safety, but you’re unlikely to be fully in tune with conditions on deck.
This is exactly the position Sam Goodchild was in on December 29 when competing in the two-handed Global Ocean Race with Conrad Colman aboard the Class 40 yacht ‘Cessna Citation’. At the time the duo were leading the fleet approaching the end of the leg from Cape Town to Wellington, New Zealand, having enjoyed fast high latitude sailing, covering 7,500 miles in 31 days.
They were less than 200 miles from port sailing in a confused sea shortly after the passage of a cold front, when the wind rapidly increased from the 10 knots to 26 and then 30, necessitating a sail change. Goodchild grabbed his jacket, went up to the foredeck and dropped the jib. Then disaster struck.
Both sailors saw the crest of a huge wave that was set to break over the boat. In the cockpit, Colman turned the boat away from the wind to lessen the impact, while Goodchild – who was not wearing a lifejacket or harness – tried his utmost to prevent himself being swept overboard.
‘I tried to hang on, but it threw me out the side, I landed on the jib and made a few attempts to grab stuff, but nothing successful,’ he said afterwards, ‘so I floated past the cockpit…’
‘I looked to leeward and there was Sam with this look of amazement on his face going past in the water,’ Colman adds. He immediately crash tacked to slow the boat and threw a heaving line towards Goodchild. ‘When I hit the water I knew I must conserve energy, so I tried to get the line when it was close, but it wasn’t going to happen. Then I tried to keep an eye on the boat and save energy.’
As soon as it was clear his crewmate could not reach the heaving line Colman hit the man overboard waypoint on the GPS to mark the incident’s position, then set about organising the boat to return to Goodchild. It inevitably took time to reset a headsail and get the boat under way again.
Goodchild quickly realised his rescue wasn’t going to be imminent: ‘I was wearing full foulies, boots and mid-layer thermals and they filled up with water. Waves began breaking over my head and started pulling me down, so I slowly took [layers] off; mid-layers, smock, everything down to my thermal top. It started getting cold. I had a knife in my smock pocket, so I cut the hood off which is bright yellow, and gave me something to wave.’
Once he had the boat under control, Colman hove to a little to windward of the MOB waypoint and started a search pattern. ‘It was gusting 32 knots with poor visibility and it was very difficult to see anything to windward because of the spray blowing off the top of the waves. I was tacking and reaching across the position I thought he was slowly working downwind. After some time I saw a flash of yellow, just for a split second, and I couldn’t be certain it was Sam.
‘I was able to throw the horseshoe with the flashing light to him. I saw that he’d got it, we both breathed a huge sigh of relief, and I was able to put his actual position on the chart plotter – had drifted a fair way.’
The additional flotation arrived in the nick of time: ‘I was getting tired and struggling to swim after about 25 minutes in the water,’ says Goodchild. Colman then manoeuvred the boat for a second pass, stopping just upwind of Goodchild, where he was able to throw a line, haul him up to the boat and recover him via a rope boarding ladder.
‘As an event we do our utmost to mitigate the risks through safety equipment and training demands, but the greatest mitigation is the competence of our sailors in extreme circumstances,’ explains race director Josh Hall. ‘…there are of course important lessons to be learned from this incident as it is a stark reminder of how fragile personal safety can be, but the way in which both Conrad and Sam dealt with the situation should be saluted and applauded