Trip Reports

The Kite That Took A Flight (27-Sep-2001-10-00):
10:00 AM local time, Thursday, Sept. 27 (0000 Sept. 27 UTC) Temp. 81, Humidity 86%, Cloud Cover 100%. Still caged at the Royal Papua Yacht Club, Port Moresby, Papua, New Guinea.

The other day Ros of Arafura Maid was racing with some people on 10-meter boat and they needed extra crew so the Captain, bored a bit by our enforced stay here, jumped at the chance. I got on board, met the rest of the crew, and we motored out to the start. The skipper, Ron, is a pro who has done the Whitbread (Volvo) and skippered a boat in the fateful Sydney-Hobart race. As it turned out, we were lucky to have someone that good.

It was blowing in the low twenties but Ron decided to go with the full main, as did many other boats, and their number three. The conditions were not unlike racing in the slot in San Francisco Bay, except, of course, it was warm. Our start wasn't spectacular but we hung in with the crowd. The race was perhaps twenty miles, with maybe six roundings. After a leg or two the wind came up a bit, to 30 and above, and boats started having problems and blowing out sails. Our headsail (they call them "headies" here) went bye-bye, so we hoisted the number four. Spinnakers started to shred. As a result of all the mayhem, we caught the leaders. We were feeling pretty good on the last downwind leg, hitting 11 knots surfing, and were just about ready to hoist the headsail and douse the spinnaker at the leeward mark when things suddenly went wrong.

The afterguy (they call it a "brace") let go and the pole went forward, banging against the headstay. Ron immediately called for the sail to be doused, but the halyard got jammed in the clutch and wouldn't let go. In thirty-plus knots, with four feet of chop, we had to get it down so the skipper yelled "cut" and the halyard was cut away. The sail fell into the water and the bowman and a couple of crew grabbed the sheet to try to pull it in as we sailed by. But the frayed end of the halyard had stuck in the mast somewhere and hadn't let completely go. A puff came along, the boat heeled suddenly to windward, and the halyard came taught, pulled up the kite, and it filled, propelling the bowman, who had the sheet around his arm, right past the shrouds (which he was very lucky not to hit) and shooting him into the water like a cannonball. During this whole mess the boat jibed and a woman was hit in the back with the boom.

OK, you're the skipper. It's blowing like snot, there's heavy chop, you've got the spinnaker flailing and maybe fifty feet to leeward of the boat, there's someone hurt and a man in the water, who'd somehow managed to grab something and was holding on. About two hundred yards further to leeward is a reef. Less than a minute ago, everything was great. Nobody freaked, but a lot of nasty images ran through your correspondent's mind.

Ron hove to and stopped the boat with the spinnaker flying madly and the sheet tailing behind it, way up there in the sky like, one might say, a kite. (Tradewinds students note: The figure eight method wasn't called for here because we already had the victim next to the boat. Heaving to, so he could hang on and not be dragged away because of boat speed, was appropriate.) The halyard was now fully extended but still jammed in the mast so the sail was nearly a hundred feet from the boat and 45 feet in the air. The bowman was holding on to something for dear life, and in this case "for dear life" was not an overstatement. He was not wearing a life vest. He was beside the boat and was a big guy, and fortunately for him a strong one, so I yelled to him to try to work his way back to the transom, which was open. We could never have gotten him over the side. I was very conscious, as I'm sure was the skipper, that we were in the meantime making quite a bit of leeway towards the reef. Another crewman and I wrestled him back on board over the transom. He had a big gash in his leg which it turned out was actually not a cut but had been abraded away by rope. We got him below and lying down, and he yelled to the skipper, "We're still racing!" This meant he didn't want us to withdraw from the race on his account.

We managed somehow to retrieve the spinnaker, which was important because we couldn't sail upwind to get home with it flying like that. We got the headsail up, but the top three feet of the luff ripped out. Luckily, the tear stopped there because with an old main, we needed that jib to get us home. We finished the race but weren't up there in the money anymore. Ron kept the crew focused the entire time and was very quick to make decisions and tell us clearly what he needed done. As a result, what could have been really awful was reduced to a couple of relatively minor injuries and a lost sheet. Relatively minor, but the bowman was treated by a doctor (Dave, Ros' husband) as soon as we got the boat tied up and will require stitches and some recovery time. Dave said he had gone into shock, but he was seen later in the bar hoisting something a bit less dangerous than a kite.

Next report from this loocation: Faith is the Place

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