Emma Bamford: Liferafts are not always the best bet in a crisis

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sea safety regulators now instruct that a boat is usually a much safer place to be in a huge ocean than a liferaft, which is akin to a small tent perched on top of a lilo. The lessons learned from the 1979 Fastnet disaster, in which 15 yachtsmen and women died, many in their liferafts after abandoning ship, helped to form this guideline. So for skipper Richie Fearon to order the amateur crew of Cork off the boat, the situation must have been perilous indeed.

I am a member of the Hull and Humber Clipper crew and know well what it is like on these boats. Half of the crew would have been off-watch and asleep in narrow bunkbeds in the forepeak, forward of the mast. When Cork hit the rocks, they will have been jolted out of sleep. Some may have been thrown from their berths on to the pile of sails on the floor. All will have had a mad scramble in poor light (there are only red bulbs used at night, to save the on-watch's night vision) to get on their wet weather gear and lifejackets.

Those on deck, equally shocked by the situation, will have set emergency procedures going – sending a distress call, gathering everyone together, manually pumping and bailing out sea water gushing in through the hole in the hull. When the time came to get into the claustrophobia-inducing liferafts, someone will have snatched up the grab bag of passports and emergency provisions while the strongest crew members clambered in first to help others on board. Then they will have cut the rope tying the raft to Cork.

Other yachts were close by, so when they got into those rafts the 16 crew knew it was for a short time. But this is a round-the-world yacht race and includes long ocean passages, when the nearest ship of any sort may be weeks away and crew can drift for days on end, with only a few millilitres of water and biscuit crumbs to survive. This crew was very lucky. May that luck stay with them and all the other Clipper crews.