Dismasting may have saved Derek Hatfield's life as he was flung underneath his boat by a breaking wave

Canadian skipper Derek Hatfield has safely reached the Argentinian town of Ushaia after being dismasted near Cape Horn and has been talking about his ordeal. His problems started in large and very steep seas some 30 miles from the island of Cape Horn, an area famous for vicious seas, which build up as the long fetch of the Pacific reaches the shallowing water of the continental shelf. His 40ft Spirit of Canada was apparently picked up on a particularly steep breaking wave and sent headlong down its face to the trough, where the bow of the boat buried and the yacht pitchpoled.

“I have lost the timeline a bit,” he said. “I was so exhausted that I could hardly think, but when I heard the wave I knew that I was in trouble. I was not as big as some of the others, but it was breaking and it made a huge roar as it approached the boat. In seconds we were falling down the face of it until the bow dug in and then we pitchpoled. The boat went straight up and then fell over sideways.”

Hatfield was flung from the cockpit and ended up in the water, underneath the boat. There he heard an explosion as the mast broke and, with that, the boat popped back upright. It is quite possible that the dismasting saved him from drowning.

Clambering back into the boat, Hatfield immediately saw the devastation. The cabin was filled with smoke from the computers shorting out. The autopilots and the instruments were useless, aerials had been ripped out and communications gone; only the satellite phone linked him to land. The canting keel, which had been giving problems, had come loose. Hatches and stanchions had been ripped off and the mast and boom urgently needed to be cut away before they caused worse damage.

Hatfield is now in Ushuaia, and says his goal is to carry on racing in Around Alone. He has been inundated with offers of support and believes it may be possible to get Spirit of Canada patched up and operational again, though time is not on his side.

Derek Hatfield’s experience was of Cape Horn at its fiercest, but he is by no means the first sailor to have been caught out here. Perhaps the most terrifying pitchpole at the Horn was suffered by Miles and Beryl Smeeton and crewmember John Guzzwell, who were sailing the 46ft yawl Tzu Hang round Cape Horn in 1956.

Tzu Hang was pitchpoled, dismasted and very nearly destroyed. The crew managed to make land and repair the boat, but after setting off again the following year they were rolled once more, dismasted and again almost sank. The story was told in the classic book ‘Once is Enough’.

Derek Hatfield’s experience in a 4 tonne 40-footer is bound to raise some questions about the suitability of such a relatively small yacht. Interestingly, Miles Smeeton had this perspective, which is as true now as then, despite the intervening time and evolution of yacht design: “In the end, in a battle for survival, there is no final answer, and no one can be assured that a small yacht will see it through. It depends whether or not she is hit by some particular wave, towering and breaking at just the wrong time.”