An EXTREME Event – The compelling, true story of the tragic 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race
Debbie Whitmont 1999 – Random House
Sunday 27 December 1998
At around 5.00pm. Gary Ticehurst(shown below), in the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp) helicopter, is still hovering near Standaside, filming the rescues. He knows that cameraman Peter Sinclair is picking up great vision for the evening news but he also knows he should already be heading back to the mainland—he’s running low on fuel. But Sinclair is still filming and Ticehurst is reluctant to leave. Then, at 5.15pm, Ticehurst hears a desperate voice breaking through on the VHF emergency frequency.
‘Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. Here is Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill.’
Ticehurst: ‘Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill. [This is] ABC chopper. Go ahead with your position. Over.
Winston Churchill (shouting): ‘Twenty miles south-east of Twofold Bay. Over.’
Ticehurst: ‘Winston Churchill. Two Zero miles south-east of Twofold Bay. Nature of your mayday? Over.’
Winston Churchill (more urgently): ‘Affirmative. We are getting life rafts on deck, ABC chopper. We are holed. We are taking on water rapidly. We can’t get the motor started to start the pumps.’
Ticehurst: ‘Roger. How many on board?’
Winston Churchill: ‘Niner. Niner.’
Ticehurst: ‘Winston Churchill, ABC chopper. Do you respond? Over.’
Winston Churchill: ‘ Read you, ABC chopper.’
Ticehurst: ‘Roger. We will relay your mayday call. Over.’
Winston Churchill: ‘Roger.’
Ticehurst (to Sinclair): ‘Okay, Peter, we’ve got to leave. I’m running out of fuel.’
Owner/Skipper of the Winston Churchill, Richard Winning.
Ticehurst relays the mayday to Canberra. Then he tries to raise Winston Churchill again, but the radio is silent. The mayday came through so that Ticehurst can’t help thinking Winston Churchill must be quite close to him. But he doesn’t have enough fuel to look for it. Upset and frustrated, he has no choice but to head back to Mallacoota. On the way back he thinks he may have already left the decision too late. The headwind’s much stronger than he expected. Thinking that a forced landing would be better than ditching in the water, he tracks over Gabo Island. Finally, he makes it to Mallacoota with only a few minutes to spare.
Just as Gary Ticehurst is heading for shore, Winston Churchill’s skipper, Richard Winning, hears the airwaves go silent. That lone mayday will be Winston Chuchill’s last call. The yachts batteries are already submerged.
Untill now, Winston Churchill has been sailing relatively comfortably. For most of the afternoon, the boat manages with a storm jib and 3 reefs in the main. When the reef line breaks, the crew takes down the main and continues with only the storm jib. As Winning says later, ‘we were in good shape: the boat was going well, it was snugged down and we didn’t have a problem.’
But as the sea begins building, helmsman John Stanley starts to be concerned. ‘You get to the stage where the wind has reached its predicted 50 knots, but then it’s starting to get to 60 and 70 and you think, “Hang on what have we got here?”’ He thinks about turning back to Eden but decides it won’t be any better. Double-size waves, rogues, loom up around the yacht. Stanley starts trying to count them. One in fifty. Then one in fifteen. He is worried about the night ahead. Maybe they should heave to: head into the wind, stop sailing, maybe turn on the motor if they have to. They’d be out of the race, but so what? ‘Obviously,’ says Stanley, ‘this weather was completely out of hand. There’s no way we are getting what was forecast.’
At about 5.00 p.m. Stanley is below deck, getting up from a bunk. Suddenly he’s jolted three metres across the cabin. ‘I think Richard was steering at the time. This wave must have come out of nowhere, one of those big waves, a rogue wave. It felt like he tried to ride up the side and put the bow just over the top of it, but as he got to the top I could feel the wave just pick the boat up and throw it sideways at a 45-degree angle into the trough of the wave in front. So the wave’s just picking up 25 tonne of boat and just hurling it sideways. I was in the aft coach-house when the boat hit the brick wall on the other side. The water pressure came across the deck, smashed three windows in front of me. Then the water came across and pinned me inside the coach-house.’ For a minute or so, Stanley can’t move. Then he hears shouts for help. Heaving himself free, he rushes on deck. Richard Winning and John Dean are trapped in mid-air, hanging from their safety harnesses.
‘They’d been thrown around the backstay—we have what they call a split backstay on the boat—so the force of that water had thrown them both out, out overboard, around the backstay and suspended them in the air,’ Stanley recalls. ‘Their feet were about two feet off the deck. So that was a big wave. A big wave. When I looked down to leeward, there was about six foot of the bulwark—which is a little fence piece above the deck—completely gone, just smashed completely out of the boat. Now that’s a lot of pressure.’
Stanley knows they have to get the pumps going fast. He untangles Winning and Dean. ‘I said, “C’mon Richard, you start the motor. I’ve got to go down and change the valves over to get the pump working.” By the time I got down there, the water was probably up to 14 inches. I don’t know how much water went down the hatch—the awning came out of the centre hatch—but there was about 10 inches of water over the floorboards, which was a lot of water. I don’t know how much water came through those back windows as well—there was a hell of a lot.’ But the broken windows and the hatch aren’t the only problems. Water is flooding in from below. About four minutes after the wave, the water is rising up more than half a metre over the floorboards.
‘We started taking water very rapidly,’ says Richard Winning. ‘We couldn’t work out why we were sinking so fast.’ From the position of the damage he can see on deck, Winning thinks the water must be coming from amidships. Much later, when he is told about the gap that was seen near his yacht’s bow before the race started, he is convinced that the gap, if it existed, had nothing to do with the damage caused by the wave. John Stanley too, thought Winston Churchill took on water through the middle section of the hull rather than from the front: ‘I’m sure it sprung a plank somewhere on the side of the boat. I couldn’t tell where it was.’ At the time, as Winning goes to start the motor, Stanley yells out to him, ‘must have sprung a plank!’
‘By now,’ says Stanley, ‘the water was up to the top of the batteries, so when we turned the motor on, we only got about five seconds till it stopped. Then I knew we had a problem, a big problem. Richard got a mayday out. Fortunately the radio worked but he only got one call out. Then the batteries went dead. They’d just been completely drowned.’
The crew tries hand-pumping for a few minutes but they can see it’s hopeless. Up until now, Stanley has taken only a casual interest in life rafts. He’s seen them demonstrated, but he’s never had to get into one. Richard Winning, John Stanley and Bruce Gould, the three most experienced sailors on board, decide not to inflate the rafts until the yacht’s deck is completely submerged. They want to wait till the very last minute, when the boats moving as slowly as possible.
The six sailors who perished during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race: