Stranded below with broken bones: the lonely injury ordeal of a Volvo Ocean Race sailor
Team Brunel sailor Annie Lush recounts the horror accident in the Southern Ocean that left her helpless in a bed bunk for five days
Hobbling around in a protective “moon boot”, Volvo Ocean Race sailor Annie Lush can attest that when you take on Mother Nature, sometimes she bites back.
The around-the-world yacht race is no easy life – there’s the searing daytime heat that can leave crews bored out of their minds and fractious; the lack of sleep; the freeze-dried food and the relentless cold at night.
But there’s also the scary feeling of knowing you could be stranded with a serious injury in the middle of nowhere.
Late in the first week of the third leg between Cape Town and Melbourne, Lush was thrown by a wave in the Southern Ocean and pinned against the lifelines of her Netherlands’ Team Brunel boat. She broke three bones – one in her back and two in her foot.
“I couldn’t move,” she said. “My injury had immobilised me. I was not in a good position where the wave had thrown me on the leeward side of the boat.”
Although she was harnessed on to the boat, the waves kept pummelling Lush.
“We needed to gybe, I needed to move,” she said. “We were doing around 20 knots, it was blowing 30 and we were in huge seas. It’s not easy to slow a boat down in those conditions.”
To make matters worse, Team Brunel was on the edge of the “ice skates”, a no-go zone Volvo advises boats to avoid to keep out of danger where conditions are deemed too rough.
“It was a weird moment of déjà vu – I had trained for this scenario,” said Lush, one of two designated on-board medics.
“The crew helped me down the stairs of the companionway and into the bunk; exactly how we had trained when you realise you are dealing with a possible spinal injury.”
The rest of the crew had to get back on deck, and in one of those rare moments of being alone during the Volvo race, Lush ran through the checklist of possible scenarios of what her injuries may have been.
“I realised the biggest concern was internal bleeding,” she said. “But I figured I would be OK.”
Medical support was given long distance via a call on the satellite phone to a Volvo Ocean Race doctor in the UK, and then every six hours and by email from a clinic in the Netherlands.
Despite having to sit out the fourth leg from Melbourne to Hong Kong – and getting medical help in New Zealand from the same medics who treat the All Blacks – the experience was “all in a day’s work” for Lush.
“Most of all, I didn’t like that I had to stay below deck for five days,” she said. “I still busied myself with tasks down there like bailing the bilge and cooking, but no one wants to be a passenger in the Volvo race. I couldn’t wait to get back on deck.”
Despite her dramatic experience, Lush is committed to the longest race on the planet as it is one of the few platforms that give women equal opportunities on larger boats.
The new rule on crew members means all-male teams are limited to just seven sailors. Mixed crews can be made up of seven men plus two women, or five men and five women.
“Men who win medals at the Olympics have more pathways than women who win medals in the equivalent classes,” said Lush, a former member of the all-female crew on Team SCA, with whom she has established the Magenta Project to get more female sailors into the high-performance boats.
“There is still a disparity,” added Lush, who competed in the 2012 Olympics in the Elliot 6 metre class and just missed out in the Yngling class in 2008.
“At 178cm and 77.5 kilos, I was one of the bigger girls in the SCA team, so I figured I would have to do less grinding this time. I am still one of the strongest, so still spend a lot of time grinding winches.
“We sail with and against the guys. This is the new normal now.”