“Abandon to liferaft” are the words every sailor dreads hearing. But yesterday, in strong winds and the pitching Javan Sea, 200 miles off the coast of Indonesia, 16 amateur crew, including five Britons, had to jump off their 68ft racing yacht after it hit a submerged reef in the middle of the night.
The boat Cork Clipper, which is one of 10 taking part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, was in the middle of a sprint from Geraldton in Western Australia to Singapore when disaster struck.
There were 16 crew on board, five British, eight Irish, two Australians and one Chinese, all amateurs plus a professional skipper, Richie Fearon from Derry, Northern Ireland.
At 4.15am local time (8.15am GMT), near the island of Gosong Mampango, the £500,000 vessel hit rocks hidden by the black surface of the sea about 200 miles north-east of Jakarta.
The off-duty crew sleeping would have been woken up by the impact of a 31-tonne racing boat travelling at a rate of knots coming to an immediate and noisy stop. They sent out a Pan-Pan call over the radio – one step down from a Mayday call, seeking immediate help from any vessels in the area – and contacted Falmouth Coastguard in England to alert the international rescue service.
Other members of the Clipper fleet were a couple of miles away. Team Finland and California abandoned the race to go to Cork’s aid.
With the boat stuck fast in the dark, holed and in danger of sinking, the 29-year-old skipper from Derry gave the order to get into the three liferafts carried on board. They used the wind to blow the liferafts from the yacht onto nearby rocks and from there to the waiting boats on the other side. Eight sailors were taken on board each yacht and were given a hot meal and allowed to rest. Remarkably, they suffered only minor bumps and bruises. Their families were informed.
Irishman Sean Coote, 47, who lives in Sunbury on Thames, was on board. He said: "After our evacuation and on reaching the island it was unreal to look back and see Cork on her side with waves breaking over the port beam.
"Our life raft was picked up approximately half an hour after leaving the island by the California crew who were immediately on hand with biscuits and hot tea.
"We are grateful to have escaped with no major injuries and proud to have rallied together as team and survived a harrowing ordeal and test of our resilience."
California is continuing to race on towards Singapore but Team Finland is standing by near Cork, which is lying on its side. A small number of crew members intend to transfer to Cork to survey the damage and report to the race committee, who will decide whether the boat can be salvaged, repaired and continue to compete.
It is not the first serious incident since the 10 boats set off from Hull in September on their 35,000-mile, 10-month voyage. In November Arthur Bowers, 51, from Hull, had to be rescued from the southern Atlantic Ocean by his Hull and Humber crewmates after he was swept overboard by a wave.
Just weeks later, as the fleet set off from Cape Town, South Africa, on their way to Australia, the wind blew Cork into Hull and Humber, causing major damage to both boats in a “T-bone” crash. They had to remain in South Africa for repairs while the race continued without them.
Ian Dickens, marketing director of Clipper ventures, who has sailed round the world in a previous race, said: “All crew are in good shape. They sustained the odd bump or bruise. Since 1996 in Clipper races there have been two million miles of safe passage.
“It’s a round-the-world yacht race. The sea doesn’t see this as an amateur race and say ‘I’m going to tone it down a bit’. The ocean is the ocean – it will behave as it will do and that inevitably leads to challenging situations.”
A spokeswoman for Falmouth Coastguard said: “The crew had a lucky escape. You don’t abandon ship unless you have to.”
A Clipper spokeswoman said the Cork's crew were Alan Moss, 40, from Fareham, Hampshire, Gavin Kelly, 35, from Abbeyfeale, Limerick, Ireland, Keith Hale, 50, from West Yorkshire, Kevin Austen, 26, from Dublin, Marco Giana, 37, who lives in Cork and is Australian, Michael Lewis, 31, who lives in Derby and is Irish, Noreen Osborne, 32, from Belfast, who is Irish, and Orla Mellett, 30, who lives in London and is also Irish.
The remainder of the crew are Sarah Bell, 44, from North Yorkshire, Sarah Boyle, 28, from Cork, Ireland, David Paton, 56, from Preston, Lancashire, Tie Wa Li, 28, from Ruislip, west London, who is Chinese, Jacqui Browne, 49, from Co Kerry, Tania Dolinschek, 46, from Western Australia and Mr Coote.