‘To say I feel responsible is an understatement’: Skipper of Hong Kong’s Scallywag David Witt talks about death of John Fisher
In his first public appearance since the tragedy, the Australian praises his ‘best mate’ who was lost at sea, as the crew prepare for leg eight of the Volvo Ocean Race
Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag skipper David Witt said he felt responsible for the incident that led to the death of crew member John Fisher, adding that he would have to live with the pain for the rest of his life.
In his first public appearance since 47-year-old Briton Fisher was lost overboard on March 26 in leg seven of the Volvo Ocean Race, Witt spoke at a captain’s press conference in Itajai, Brazil, ahead of the start of Sunday’s eighth leg to Newport, Rhode Island.
An emotional Witt, his voice breaking as he talked about his “best mate”, praised Fisher who he said exemplified the Scallywag ethos putting the team first.
“They say in Australia men don’t cry but I broke that rule and if [John] was standing there beside me he would tell me to harden up. Don’t be soft and get on with it. That’s what we’ll do on Sunday,” said Australian Witt.
“I’ve personally changed from the tragedy as everyone has seen. As the skipper you are responsible for everybody, so I’ve lost a crew member and I’ve lost my best mate. To say I feel responsible is an understatement, and that’s something I shall live with the rest of my life.”
Fisher fell into the treacherous Southern Ocean about 1,400 miles from Cape Horn in severe conditions that saw winds of up to 40 knots and waves 5-6 metres high. He was hit on the head by a piece of equipment the moment he unhooked himself from his safety tether to fix a furled sail.
The Scallywag crew went back under motor to look for Fisher but after four and a half hours decided to give up the search. Fisher was later deemed to be lost at sea.
It was the second man overboard situation for Scallywag. During leg four from Melbourne to Hong Kong, which Scallywag won, Alex Gough fell into the water but was almost immediately rescued.
Witt said the crew employed the highest safety standards during the Southern Ocean journey and it was a case of everything going wrong at the same time.
“From a safety point of view, no, I think we have the highest, probably the highest safety of anything,” said Witt. “We have the best sailors in the world.
“My description of the incident … it was a bit like buying a block of Swiss cheese, all of a sudden the holes line up. A whole lot of things had to sort of coincide and go wrong at the same time.
“I think it’s important to know, if you’ve read the timeline, that John didn’t die from being washed overboard, John was dead before he hit the water. I think that [factor] has been lost a bit and it was pretty important.
“I think what we do has some risks and it’s probably what draws some of us here. We just have to operate in that risk and unfortunately the worst scenario happened. I don’t think we would do anything different than we did.
“I personally think, in the team’s worst moment ever they probably shone the brightest,” he added. “Under the conditions, 45 knot winds, cut the sails away and motor back and search for your mate for four and a half hours, I thought the crew were exceptional.”
Scallywag abandoned the race after the incident and headed for safety in Chile. The crew later decided to continue with the race and on Friday (Hong Kong time) a delivery crew brought the boat into Itajai to an emotional welcome by fans and other crew members.
“John was always the first guy picked, and not because of his sailing ability – John was a very good sailor – but we all agree it’s the hardest sport in the world and the biggest compliment I can give John is that he was the best team player. He put everyone else first.
“The whole ethos that the Scallywag crew try to live by, and probably the most important moral of our team is loyalty and this pretty much describes John.
“For me, he was my best mate and it’s going to be a bit weird, the first time I’m going out to sea without him in 12 years.
“The support we’ve had within the Volvo family has been amazing. It takes special people to do this race, the characters of the people involved in this race has been amplified by the way we’ve been supported by our competitors over the last week.
“When the boat arrived in the dock [the reception we got] was moving. It wasn’t for publicity or for PR, that was just genuine good characters, so I’m sure John would be very proud about that.
“The best thing we can do in John’s memory is get on with the job on Sunday.”