The news that a young Dutchman named Hans Horrevoets died after being washed from a yacht that was crossing the Atlantic as part of the Volvo Ocean Race came as a shock to many readers last week. Over the weekend, a second disaster played out as the crew of another yacht, movistar, one of seven in the race, abandoned ship and was rescued by ABN Amro Two, the boat from which Mr. Horrevoets was lost. People who do not know much about ocean racing, which is rarely covered in the mainstream press, were probably surprised to discover that sailing, for all its beauty and seeming effortlessness, can be so dangerous. And they might have assumed that the 32,000-mile, around-the-world race would also be abandoned.
Not a chance.
Even ABN Amro Two, after it recovered Mr. Horrevoets’s body and as it carried the second crew toward Britain, pressed on with the competition. “We are determined to cross the finish line as part of this race,” declared Simon Fisher, the yacht’s navigator. “We will finish this leg for Hans.”
Mr. Horrevoets died early Thursday. In 30 knots of wind, he had been manipulating a line that controlled the spinnaker, an enormous, balloon-like sail that is used for downwind sailing, which was driving his boat toward Britain, then 1,300 miles away. Fifteen-foot waves were regularly crashing over the deck, but shortly after 2 a.m., the bow bore into a steep wave. It was probably bigger than the others, but it was invisible as it approached. Tons of water crashed over the deck. When the yacht emerged, the spinnaker was flapping wildly. The skipper, Sebastien Josse, who was at the wheel, saw that no one was handling the line anymore.
“Where’s Hans — where’s Hans?” Mr. Josse screamed. Then he added: “Man overboard — everyone on deck!”
In the harrowing moments that followed, the boat’s young crew — Mr. Horrevoets was 32, the only crewman over 30 — appears to have done everything right. Mr. Josse had pressed the Man Overboard button to record the boat’s coordinates; a life preserver and position-marking devices were thrown into the water. Given the wind and waves, the sails had to be dropped and the engine turned on before Mr. Josse could turn the boat around, 1.6 miles after Mr. Horrevoets disappeared. The crew then commenced a search, aided by the global positioning system and spotlights. Miraculously, they spotted Mr. Horrevoets 40 minutes later and pulled him aboard shortly after that. But it was already too late.
Mr. Horrevoets was not wearing a life preserver or a harness, which could have been clipped onto the yacht and probably have prevented him from being torn from the boat. His fellow crewmen acknowledged this at a news conference yesterday. Many yachtsmen and others will no doubt be quick to criticize and conclude that this was an avoidable death. But it’s not that simple. When I was onboard ABN Amro One, the sister yacht, for the Annapolis-to-New York leg of the race, I “clipped in” a couple of times during a night of rough weather, but it was much easier for me to do so than the others. I was there only as an observer covering the race for the Journal; I had promised the organizers that I would do nothing to help sail the boat. The 10 members of the actual crew — less than half were typically on deck at any given time — had so much to do that it was difficult to be tethered to the boat all the time.
The wind speed had picked up substantially just before Mr. Horrevoets went overboard. The other members of the crew who were on deck at the time had recently strapped their harnesses on, according to Mr. Josse. Mr. Horrevoets, perhaps because he was handling the spinnaker, a sail that demands constant attention, had not taken the time to go below to grab his. Mr. Josse and other members of the crew say he probably would have done so before long. But during the news conference, they argued that it is impossible to be constantly clipped in. “We take safety very seriously,” Mr. Fisher said, “but at the same time we were racing.”
Clearly the young men of ABN Amro Two pushed their boat hard — earlier in the race they blasted across 546 miles in a single day, a record. Like all ocean racers, they love speed. I would not be surprised if they break the speed limit when they drive their cars, but I do not believe they are reckless. They are smart and they understand risk, and I’d bet they always wear automotive seat belts. And there is no question about their seamanship. They proved that in recovering Mr. Horrevoets’s body and again when they rescued movistar’s crew.
On Saturday night, that crew heard a cracking sound that was loud enough to be heard over the din of high-speed ocean sailing. It sounded like a brittle piece of timber had been snapped in two. Within minutes, they discovered that their canting keel, a heavy appendage that can swing from side to side by 40 degrees, had gone “wobbly” and that water was flowing into the hull. The crew was naturally reluctant to ask ABN Amro Two, which was relatively nearby, for assistance, but as both the inflow of water and the weather worsened, movistar made the call. Early on Sunday, when the two boats were in the eye of a ferocious storm, movistar’s crew abandoned ship and was rescued by Mr. Josse’s crew.
On Monday, Mr. Horrevoets’s body was transferred to a Dutch naval vessel, movistar’s crew disembarked, and ABN Amro Two carried on to finish the leg. At the news conference, Mr. Josse and his crew said they had not yet decided whether they would compete in the final legs of the race, which will conclude in mid-June.
While ABN Amro Two struggled toward England, another dramatic event went almost unnoticed: ABN Amro One reached the finish line just before midnight on Saturday, almost 14 hours ahead of the next boat. In winning the trans-Atlantic leg as well as five of the six previous legs, it clinched a resounding victory as the overall winner of the epic race. Even if it loses the final two legs, it will remain the Volvo champion. It was, of course, a difficult time to celebrate. When I was aboard ABN Amro One, the crew’s affection for the guys on ABN Amro Two — who were deliberately chosen because of their youth and invariably called “the kids” — was obvious. Every time the yachts reported their positions, the first question was always, “How are the kids doing?”
The kids were obviously having a rough time as Mike Sanderson, ABN Amro One’s skipper, stepped off his boat in Portsmouth, England. “What happened to Hans destroyed all of us,” he said. But before the night was over he also recognized the magnitude of his achievement. “It really is my childhood dream,” he said. “This is my Olympic gold medal, this is my climbing Mount Everest. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Mr. Knecht, a Journal reporter, is the author of “Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish” and “The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the Sydney to Hobart Race.”