Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18

‘End of the World’ – thrill of iconic Cape Horn muted by grief as Volvo Ocean Race crews salute Scallywag’s John Fisher

‘Rounding the horn’ is supposed to be the ultimate in round-the-world sailing but celebrations are muted as respects are paid to a lost colleague

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 5:04pm

It’s known as the “End of the World” and for hundreds of years, sailors considered the seas off the southernmost part of Chile among the most perilous waters on earth – with estimates of up to 10,000 lives lost over the past 400 years.

Given its history, the very act of rounding Cape Horn before heading north to the Americas is considered a major nautical feat and for the Volvo Ocean Race sailors, the once-in-a-life manoeuvre was to be the highlight of the 2017-18, nine-month odyssey.

However, as Team Brunel led the fleet in “rounding the horn” in leg seven, the mood was sombre. On Monday, crew member John Fisher went overboard from Hong Kong-owned boat Scallywag some 1,400 miles west of Cape Horn and is presumed lost at sea.

Brunel skipper Bouwe Bekking took his boat past the Cape on Thursday night (Hong Kong time) and, rather than celebrate, it was a reflective time for the crew. Apart from the sadness of Fisher’s loss, the crew were exhausted from the sheer physical effort of hauling a 65-foot boat through 40-knot winds and waves several storeys high.

“The crew is very, very, very tired,” Bekking wrote in his blog. “Even though we are leading, there is no ‘hooray’ feeling on board … The loss of John is sitting way deeper than people like to admit: I think of him several times in an hour.”

Briton Fisher, 47, fell into the Southern Ocean after being hit by a piece of equipment while attempting to clean up a furled sail. He had momentarily unclipped his safety tether.

David Witt and his crew aboard Scallywag made a desperate attempt to search for Fisher but, because of the treacherous conditions were forced to head downwind towards the west coast of Chile, their leg seven abandoned.

Chris Nicholson aboard Team AkzoNobel, which won leg six from Hong Kong to Auckland ahead of Scallywag, said: “This leg has claimed a good man in Fish. We’ve all been very deeply affected by it and we offer our thoughts to his family and friends.”

The crew of Vestas 11th Hour Racing know all about the real dangers of ocean racing, for the racers and for other vessels. On leg four from Melbourne, Vestas was involved in a collision with a Chinese fishing boat about 30 miles from the finish line in Hong Kong that resulted in the death of a mainland fisherman.

Vestas navigator Simon Fisher said: “I can speak for everyone on board to say we’re all really, really looking forward to getting there [Cape Horn].

“It’s the hardest of the great Capes to take on and this has probably been the toughest Southern Ocean leg on record for quite some time. I’m on my fifth race now and I don’t remember one as hard. As usual it’s blowing about 35-40 knots, so really, there’s just been no let up in the last week and a half to these conditions…

“We’re certainly taking stock to think about what it means to get around Cape Horn and also to pause and think about John and the Scallywag guys who have been through a terrible ordeal and this will be a good moment to pay our respect to them.”

In 1992, a monument depicting an albatross was built on Hornos Island in Cape Horn, a maritime symbol for souls lost at sea.

Turn the Tide on Plastic skipper Dee Caffari, in a tweet the day after Fisher went missing, alluded to an albatross the crew spotted in paying tribute to the sailor

For Caffari, there is pride mixed with grief as she leads a crew of novice sailors around the world.

“It’s a bit like a proud mum moment,” she said about rounding the horn. “This has been the furthest south most of them have ever been. I’ve got six people who had never been in the Southern Ocean before this race who are about to round Cape Horn, which not many people get to do.

“But the tragic news we’ve had this week … it’s made us all realise how vulnerable we are down here, how hostile the environment is down here, and how quickly things can go bad, and how we’ve all lost a friend. That’s affected everyone quite deeply.

“So we’re saying that this rounding is definitely for Fish.”

Meanwhile, overall race leader Mapfre, of Spain, were delayed in their efforts to round the horn having had to suspend racing to repair damages to the boat.

Mapfre has already resumed racing and will be looking to make ground on the fleet as they head towards their destination in Itajai, Brazil.

As of Friday afternoon, Brunel was leading ahead of China’s Dongfeng Race Team, Vestas, AkzoNobel and Turn The Tide on Plastic, which was 78 miles behind the leader. Mapfre is more than 270 miles behind Brunel.