Sailing / Whitbread Round the World Race: Crew safety paramount for Maisto: Italian skipper defends decision to activate Brooksfield's emergency distress beacon. Stuart Alexander reports from Fremantle

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The Independent Online
GUIDO MAISTO, skipper of the Italian yacht Brooksfield, whose rescue in the Southern Ocean has been the cause of a stream of arguments here, yesterday defended his decision to activate his emergency distress beacon when his boat was holed during the second leg of the Whitbread Round the World race.

Brooksfield's dramatic rescue has been the cause of several arguments. Two boats have been accused of being reluctant to turn back and search for her, and there has been criticism of the way the organisers controlled news reports of the problem. There have even been hints in Italian newspapers that the danger was never as great as was first suggested.

'If I was again in the same position I would do exactly the same as I have to think first of the safety of the crew,' Maisto said. 'It was important to have assistance as soon as possible.'

Maisto went on to give a graphic description of the circumstances which led to the distress signal being fired. The boat, which arrived here on Monday night, was badly holed under the waterline near the stern when the rudder nearly sheered off after the carbon-fibre post attaching it to the hull split in two. Twisting 90 degrees to its normal position, the rudder started splitting the hull, working against it rather like a crowbar.

Water rushed in immediately, and the crew raced to drop the sails and close the water-tight hatches to seal off the stern section. Even so, nearly three tonnes of water gushed into the yacht in a few minutes, swamping the navigation station and communications equipment, housed in the stern.

The danger was still not over, as the rudder was continuing to widen the hole in the hull. Crewman Andrea Proto tried to detach it from the boat. Up to his waist in freezing water as the boat was tossed around by 40-knot winds and rolling waves, Proto first tried to lasso it from the deck, because it was too dangerous to put a man over the side.

It took the best part of eight hours to release the rudder and broken shaft, and they finally managed it gybing the boat from side to side to snap it off. Then they pumped out the rest of the boat, fitted the emergency rudder, and set to work to staunch the water still rushing into the stern of the boat.

They achieved this by jamming a bucket, lined with bunk foam to improve the seal, into the 40-centimetre hole. To hold it in place they put on top cut-up floorboards, secured with an aluminium pole lashed vertically through the deck.

All this time the emergency beacon had been activated, but, worryingly, no signal was reported for the last 12 hours of the 18 hours it was switched on.

Choking back emotion, Proto said they were very grateful for the arrival of the French maxi, La Poste, which stood by them through the worst weather of the leg, a 70-knot storm.

His skipper added: 'Until the end of that storm we did not know if the repair was strong enough and were always thinking we might still have to leave the boat.'

Dawn Riley, the American who took over as skipper of the Women's Challenge just before the start of the second leg, said yesterday: 'We didn't realise how tough it would be, these boats are a handful.' She hoped to announce new sponsorship soon, expected the crew to stay the same and promised: 'We are looking forward to the next leg and hoping we can improve and keep up with the big boys.'

The international jury yesterday decided not to hear the race committee's protest against Chris Dickson, saying it was invalid, but were asked by the race director, Ian Bailey-Willmot, to reconsider. Their decision on time compensation for the two yachts which went to the aid of Brooksfield, Winston and La Poste, will be announced today.

The British yacht Dolphin & Youth may arrive tomorrow night, local time, having made good progress from the Kerguelen Islands.