Afilthy night in the Irish Sea and we were only 24 hours into the 2005/2006 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, heading south on the first leg – destination Salvador in Brazil – in a Force 8.
The boat was heeled hard over and bucking violently between waves that seemed to strike from all directions. Foulies – oilskins – were no protection against the stinging rain; seasickness was rampant. I don’t think there was a member of the 17-strong, amateur crew of Liverpool 08 who wasn’t thinking: ''What the ––––! How the hell did I sign up for this.’’ I know I was.
Crouched in the ''snake pit’’, I was trying to make sense of the ''ropes’’ pooled there, while frantic but focused activity took place on deck. Then the watch leader yelled at me to move back towards the stern. My safety line wasn’t long enough to allow it. I unclipped it, staying low and moving cautiously to find another tether point. And in that few seconds a wall of water hit, sweeping me down the deck to slam into the gunnel.
I was lucky, grabbed by an alert crew member and able to clip on again swiftly. But I realised then that this ''adventure of a lifetime’’ – what turned out to be one of my most exhilarating and satisfying experiences to date – could have ended there and then. As news broke on Friday of the death of 40-year-old Sarah Young in the current Clipper race, washed overboard into violent Pacific seas during Leg 9 – the toughest one, from China to the US – the texts, tweets and emails from those I sailed with more than a decade ago started to flood in.
There were sincere and heartfelt expressions of sympathy for Young, her partner, her family – and for the crew of the yacht, IchorCoal, for whom, almost unbelievably, this was not only the second fatality of the race but also the second in its 19-year history. There was a unifying theme to these outpourings, even if it was not articulated as such: "There but for the grace of God…"
We were all chillingly aware that there are occasions during this epic adventure when living or dying is a matter of luck. ''Why didn’t yachtswoman use her tether’’ demanded one headline yesterday. It is a valid question and answering it is key to the investigation into Young’s death now under way. But perhaps, like me, she had unclipped herself briefly for ease of movement or access and that was when the first wave struck, and then another, dragging her under the guard rail.
In September last year, shortly after 12 yachts departed London’s St Katharine Docks at the start of the 11-month race, another member of IchorCoal’s crew, Andrew Ashman, died after being hit by the boom in 30mph winds. In both cases, a terrible absence of luck.
I hope this does not sound trite. It does not lessen the tragedy nor make the losses any easier to bear. But only a fool would imagine that participation in the Clipper race – one of few opportunities that exist for ordinary people to do something truly extraordinary and life-changing – will not expose them to the risk of injury or death.
And that, in all honesty, is part of the attraction for more than 3,000 people of all ages and backgrounds who have signed up to be ''round-the-worlders’’ or ''leggers’’ since 1996. It is an opportunity to be tested, physically and mentally, in an environment that cannot be controlled and where the challenges are unknown. It is a chance, for good or bad, to find out who you really are.
Of course, death and danger aren’t foremost in the thoughts of the weary, commuter whose eyes might alight on one of the cleverly placed race recruitment posters in the Tube or on the bus. A minimum of three weeks intense pre-race training under the merciless scrutiny of a professional skipper hammers the realities home. He or she must take responsibility for the safety of a crew, many of whom have never even rowed across a lake before, on a 40,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe. They want people trained to the max in every aspect of life aboard and prepared for any eventuality.
For me, it was the endless man-overboard drills that cemented an understanding of my dependence on my fellow crew. What we had to expect – demand – of each other to safeguard ourselves, the boat and succeed in the race. But there are no guarantees. Sarah Young relished adventure and liked to challenge herself. She was a qualified Dive Master, marathon runner and had trekked to and led expeditions in far-flung quarters of the planet. She understood the risks. I mourn her loss but I celebrate her spirit.
Yesterday, the crew of the IchorCoal committed her body to the deep in a traditional maritime ceremony. I can only imagine their sadness. Today, they are back tackling more than 3,000 miles of dangerous ocean to Seattle. I wish them Godspeed.