Collision and death in the Volvo Ocean Race

23 Jan
Vestas 11th Hour Racing after colliding with a Chinese fishing boat
 
I have been wanting to write about the collision that happened in the Volvo Ocean Race between Vestas 11th Hour Racing and a fishing boat at the end of Leg 4, but still, need more facts before I can put together something that makes sense. The accident resulted in the death of a Chinese fisherman. As you can imagine both Vestas and the Volvo Ocean Race media team are being very vague about things and word is that Vestas have quite wisely lawyered up with a local law firm that specializes in Maritime law.
 
Here is what has been pieced together. Vestas 11th Hour Racing was approaching Hong Kong in the middle of the night and at around 2 am collided with a fishing boat. It’s unclear if they hit the boat or the boat hit them but the result was a decent size hole in the side of Vestas and the fishing boat sinking. There were ten crew on the fishing boat and the Vestas crew did an excellent job picking them all out of the water. It was immediately apparent that one of the Chinese crew was severely injured and the maritime authorities arranged for him to be airlifted to a local hospital where he later died.
 
Some of the marine traffic on the approach to Hong Kong
A couple of things come to mind and of course, hindsight is easy. If you have ever approached a major metropolitan area like Hong Kong in the middle of the night you know how hard it is to make out lights on the water from lights on the land, but this should not have been an issue because they were still 30 miles out. That far out I would guess they could see the loom of lights on land but still be able to make out individual lights on the water, but it’s not easy. It appears that many of the fishing boats in the area were from mainland China and were probably being manned by people without much money. Someone was asking why the fishing boats didn’t have AIS on board. AIS is an automatic tracking system used on boats and ships. Give me a break. I would bet half the fishermen out there didn’t have enough money for a toilet let alone nav lights or AIS. It’s also well known that some fishing boats run without lights. When they are hauling in the fish they don’t want the competition to know.
At the time of the accident, Vestas was around 30 miles from the finish with a 16 miles lead over Dongfeng Racing, and it’s reported that the were sailing at 20 knots. They could easily have slowed down to a more prudent speed and not be overtaken by Dongfeng, but again hindsight is everything and we know that it’s not in the nature of most racing sailors to take their foot off the gas if they don’t have to.  I would hope, and I think that this is where the legal issue is going to be sticky, that they had one if not two people stationed on the bow as lookouts. They should also have had spotlights panning the water. If they were relying on the crew in the cockpit and radar to pick up objects they were not doing enough to keep an adequate lookout. Just from the simple fact that there was an accident seems to indicate that there was not an adequate lookout and that could have very serious implications. Remember the collision happened in Chinese territorial waters and therefore will fall under the laws of the Chinese Maritime Authorities. I think that the Vestas team is going to need an unbelievably good lawyer to defend them against what will probably  be either second degree murder charges or manslaughter all conducted in Chinese and under Chinese laws.
 
Leaderboard when Vestas collided with the fishing boat
Like most of us in the sailing community, I am gutted by this and can only imagine how terrible all the VOR sailors must feel, say nothing of the friends and relatives of the deceased man. In the last Volvo Ocean Race, Vestas ended up on a reef and was pretty trashed but Vestus the company salvaged the boat, had it refit and rejoined the race. That was an amazing act of corporate responsibility on their part and they came back again as a sponsor for this race only to have this incident happen. I am pretty sure that we are not going to get anything but vague answers from Volvo and Vestus until long after this has been litigated in court.
 
One last point. Many people in online forums have suggested that Volvo is responsible, that they planned a course that suited their commercial interests over the interests of the sailors. I think that’s rubbish. This is a dangerous race, always has been, and the chances of “stuff” happening along the way is pretty high no matter the course. Having said that don’t surprised if they are pulled into the whole lawsuit issue. There is money there and lawyers like money.
 
 
 
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This article was syndicated from Great Circle Sails Blog

Comments

  1. John Gregory

    Closing on a known fishing ground in the night at 20 knots… Has “Titanic” written all over it.

  2. Jeff

    I think Volvo does bear some responsibility in that they could put the finish line 50 miles out and teams could motor in having superior visibility. That said a man on the bow with a FLIR device would easily see another boat.

  3. Hendrikus PLM Wisker

    I agree, wait until all the facts are known, but agree wholeheartedly with the following

    “in short, the VOR should analyze and rethink the dangers posed by sailing into major maritime waters and ports; especially a busy international port that’s never be called on before. The finish gate could be placed farther out at sea, and perhaps some active patrolling of the route sailed into the port” .

  4. Mitchell Pehlke

    Mr. Hancock – You should have stopped right here: “I have been wanting to write about the collision that happened in the Volvo Ocean Race between Vestus 11th Hour Racing and a fishing boat at the end of Leg 4, but still need more facts before I can put together something that makes sense.” Instead you speculate over and over again with “I would guess they could see the loom of lights on land”, “I would bet half the fishermen out there didn’t have enough money for a toilet let alone nav lights”, “I would hope…that they had one if not two people stationed on the bow as lookouts”, and “If they were relying on the crew in the cockpit and radar to pick up objects they were not doing enough”. You still need more facts, you don’t know any of the above, and yet you wrote anyway. One thing I agree with you on is “I think that’s rubbish”. And as Mr. Webster has pointed out, it’s Vestas, not Vestus.

  5. Peggy Huckel

    Good article here and interesting discussion.
    One possible correction- the articles I read stated that the sailing team rescued one fisherman (the fatality), and the other nine were rescued by a commercial vessel.

  6. Daniel J Irwin, CPA

    Hey guys it’s China…when their high speed train jumped the tracks they didn’t even bother to retrieve all the bodies…they just buried the whole tangled mess. From my Chinese sources I hear that if they settle with the families there will be no criminal charges.

    The religion of China is money…sadly they will be looking for a lot of it from the VOR and Vestas People.

    China will not want this to in any way interfere with commerce. Unless one of the sailors starts shoplifting (and that’s not going to happen, they aren’t basketball players) there should be no problem that money (or a call from the President) cannot handle.

    WE will never hear the whole story. It is really smart for them to crawl under the “cone of silence”. As much as we hate not knowing what happened and miss the videos, they have to control the situation.

  7. Sam

    While we are on this subject __ I believe it would be a great time for each and everyone of us to brush up on our knowledge on navigation regulations. As a 40+ year of experience sailor myself I find it sad indeed that many of us are not as familiar with the regulations as we should be. One comment above about sailing vessels having a right of way over fishing vessels shows a very clear lack of knowledge of the actual regulations (yet unfortunately he actually thinks he knows what he is talking about), which shows he will naturally violate the actual regulations due to his lack of knowledge). Please, reading all of the Rules and Regulations does not hurt or cause harm or discomfort. Please, everyone please read all of the official regulations and do your part to make sailing the seas safer for all of us. There is nothing more dangerous that a fellow sailor who thinks he knows the rules when he is incorrect in what he thinks.
    https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=navRuleChanges

  8. Scott

    Chip – I completely agree with you. I too have had close calls in the Chesapeake sailing at night, under way with a way on, and at anchor. There are more variables than we could possibly know right now about the conditions that night. Let’s hold our blame and suspicions until the facts get litigated and released.

  9. Scott

    In short, the VOR should analyze and rethink the dangers posed by sailing into major maritime waters and ports; especially a busy international port that’s never be called on before. The finish gate could be placed farther out at sea, and perhaps some active patrolling of the route sailed into the port. Just my after-the-fact opinion. I’d like to express my condolences to the lost fisherman and his family. And to the crew of Vestas – God bless.

  10. John Poindexter

    I agree with James Isbester. It is crazy to have a race course in such congested waters as indicated in the AIS plot. The waypoint should have been much further to sea. My observation is that racers do not pay much attention to other vessels’ right-of-way in the Chesapeake Bay where I sail. I have commanded USN warships and have found that many sailors do not pay enough attention to the rules-of-road. The Fitzgerald and McCain collisions were primarily the responsibility of their commanding officers and this applies here as well. People forget the general prudential rule and no amount of electronic devices take the place of alert watch standing.

  11. Chip Lawson

    And I also wanted to commend the crew on Vestas for their seamanship during the emergency and recovery of the fishermen and to Team Akzonobel and Team Dongfong for their willingness and seamanship to standby as needed during the emergency. Well done to all teams!

  12. Mike

    Shit Happens. That being said a sail boat under sail properly lighted and on starboard has the right of way.

  13. Chip Lawson

    Wow, it is so easy to be an armchair quarterback/sailor these days. I commend Brain for a thoughtful and “look at all sides” blog. Until more of the facts are known, no one should be pointing fingers or assigning blame. Did the fishing boat have lights on? Until we know the answer to that question, no one alive can proclaim blame. Did the fishing boat have a lookout/watch posted? Until we know that, again it is premature to play “the blame game”. So please armchair sailors, wait until we have some facts before spouting off in righteous indignation. Anyone who has sailed offshore at night knows that “accidents happen” even when all required procedures and best practices are followed. I once nearly T-boned an anchored powerboat in the Gulf of Mexico. It was in good weather in modest (boat speed 6 knots and calm water) conditions and there were two of us on deck maintaining watch. With no lights at all on the powerboat and a moonless night, I only saw the powerboat seconds before impact and took evasive action “just in time” and cleared him by maybe 10 feet. I cannot conceive of how difficult it would be to see someone when traveling at 20 knots with wind at 23 knots and the accompanying seas if in fact the fishing boat had no lights n(to be determined). And lets not forget that freighters and ocean going cargo ships enter and depart Hong Kong at speed nearly the same, and possibly greater, than Vestas. At this point, choose to wait for the facts to emerge before “laying blame”. But most of all I feel for the lost Chinese sailor and his family and for the crew of Vestas who are undoubtedly going through the most difficult time of their lives. Are prayers and wishes are with both.

  14. David Rigsby

    We have had very good results detecting and forming tracks on small wooden or fiberglass craft. While I’m not familiar with the characteristics of the Chinese fishing craft, we were making excellent detections, track formation and CPA calculations against the small 1-3 man fishing boats in the Gulf of Aden. The newer radars such as the SIMRAD/NAVICO 4G and HALO family are excellent for detections and add on software such as our own can provide CPA and along with a time estimate. An audible and light warning can be provided for the crew, and the systems work autonomously so no additional crew required.

  15. James Isbester

    I enjoy Brian’s insights, but I think his suggestion that the Volvo management has no responsibility is, itself, rubbish. Brian states: “This is a dangerous race, always has been, and the chances of ‘stuff’ happening along the way is pretty high no matter the course.” Sure. Sailors take chances with their lives and their sponsors’ money all the time. Sailors and sponsors both understand the risk. to run raceboats through crowded waters at night is totally different. It turns civilian maritimers into the equivalent of gates on a slalom ski course. But here, the gates don’t even know they are gates until they get knocked over and someone’s family no longer has a breadwinner.

  16. Shorty

    This race should not have been run in that area at night if the dangers were known, which evidently they were.

  17. Barnacle Bill

    I have to read this again but it seems that those involved, including racers, should face jail time.

  18. Glenn

    My guess is the fishing vessel had no running lights on… if they were fishing they would have deck lights to allow for that. More than likely they were all asleep below… sad but when US naval vessels run into freighters and they have the best electronics/radars available as well as port and starboard lookouts… and that is their only job… they are also not trying to sail at breakneck speed… well anything can happen.

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