I have been wanting to write about the collision that happened in the Volvo Ocean Race between Vestas 11th Hour Racing and a fishing boat at the end of Leg 4, but still need more facts before I can put together something that makes sense. The accident resulted in the death of a Chinese fisherman. As you can imagine both Vestas and the Volvo Ocean Race media team are being very vague about things and word is that Vestas have quite wisely lawyer-ed up with a local law firm that specializes in Maritime law.
Here is what has been pieced together. Vestas 11th Hour Racing was approaching Hong Kong in the middle of the night and at around 2am collided with a fishing boat. It’s unclear if they hit the boat or the boat hit them but the result was a decent size hole in the side of Vestas and the fishing boat sinking. There were ten crew on the fishing boat and the Vestas crew did an excellent job picking them all out of the water. It was immediately apparent that one of the Chinese crew was severely injured and the maritime authorities arranged for him to be airlifted to a local hospital where he later died.
A couple of things come to mind and of course hindsight is easy. If you have ever approached a major metropolitan area like Hong Kong in the middle of the night you know how hard it is to make out lights on the water from lights on the land, but this should not have been an issue because they were still 30 miles out. That far out I would guess they could see the loom of lights on land but still be able to make out individual lights on the water, but it’s not easy. It appears that many of the fishing boats in the area were from mainland China and were probably being manned by people without much money. Someone was asking why the fishing boats didn’t have AIS on board. AIS is an automatic tracking system used on boats and ships. Give me a break. I would bet half the fishermen out there didn’t have enough money for a toilet let alone nav lights or AIS. It’s also well known that some fishing boats run without lights. When they are hauling in the fish they don’t want the competition to know.
At the time of the accident Vestas was around 30 miles from the finish with a 16 mile lead over Dongfeng Racing, and it’s reported that the were sailing at 20 knots. They could easily have slowed down to a more prudent speed and not be overtaken by Dongfeng, but again hindsight is everything and we know that it’s not in the nature of most racing sailors to take their foot off the gas if they don’t have to.
I would hope, and I think that this is where the legal issue is going to be sticky, that they had one if not two people stationed on the bow as lookouts. They should also have had spotlights panning the water. If they were relying on the crew in the cockpit and radar to pick up objects they were not doing enough to keep an adequate lookout.
Just from the simple fact that there was an accident seems to indicate that there was not an adequate lookout and that could have very serious implications. Remember the collision happened in Chinese territorial waters and therefore will fall under the laws of the Chinese Maritime Authorities. I think that the Vestas team is going to need an unbelievably good lawyer to defend them against what will probably be either second degree murder charges or manslaughter all conducted in Chinese and under Chinese laws.
Like most of us in the sailing community I am gutted by this and can only imagine how terrible all the VOR sailors must feel, say nothing of the friends and relatives of the deceased man. In the last Volvo Ocean Race Vestas ended up on a reef and was pretty trashed but Vestas the company salvaged the boat, had it refit and rejoined the race.
That was an amazing act of corporate responsibility on their part and they came back again as a sponsor for this race only to have this incident happen. I am pretty sure that we are not going to get anything but vague answers from Volvo and Vestas until long after this has been litigated in court.
One last point. Many people in online forums have suggested that Volvo is responsible, that they planned a course that suited their commercial interests over the interests of the sailors. I think that’s rubbish. This is a dangerous race, always has been, and the chances of “stuff” happening along the way is pretty high no matter the course. Having said that don’t surprised if they are pulled into the whole lawsuit issue. There is money there and lawyers like money.