Riding in the hearts of Saito and Hunter, the gone-but-not-forgotten English yachtsman Harry Mitchell finally earns his golden earring
In a high-pitched sing-song lilt and with a twinkle in his eye, Englishman Harry Mitchell delivered the same sunny message to all who inquired of his status on any a given day. “Hey, Harry, how ya doing?” someone would ask. And Harry would inevitably cry: “Awl the bet-tah for seeing you!” Now, no one has seen or heard from Harry for far too long. The silence has been deafening.
Four years ago this month, in fact, Harry was lost at sea while competing on Leg 3 of the Around Alone race. To this day, what happened to Harry remains a mystery. In the weeks before one of the two EPIRBs aboard his Class II entrant Henry Hornblower was activated deep in the Southern Ocean on 2 March, 1995, he’d been pushing forth in truly horrendous conditions. His two closest competitors, Robin Davie and Minoru Saito, were keeping a daily radio schedule with Mitchell, who reported countless crashes in vicious seas. “Harry had another knockdown with all hell breaking loose in his cabin,” Davie reported at one stage. “He said his seas were ‘diabolically awful.'” When the distress message was sounded, meteorologists said the wind at the scene of Harry’s position was in excess of 70 knots. Two freighters were diverted to the search area but no trace of the salty skipper was ever found. At 70, Harry was gone to the sea.
Today, Minoru Saito is still plugging along, one of three skippers still en route to the finish line for Leg 3. At 0944, Saito was over 300 miles behind Neal Petersen, who in turn was 253 miles from Punta. The third competitor, Neil Hunter, was 1,071 miles out at the early report. In so many words, Saito has dedicated this Around Alone voyage – he’s already completed two previous races – to his good friend Harry. When he rounded Cape Horn ten days ago, the seasoned mariner (himself no spring chicken at 65) was on his mind. “Very busy drinking a sake with HARRY,” he wrote in a COMSAT email to race ops. “I have a gold earring [for him], one of the pair [I have on board]. I want to present the other one to [Harry’s wife] Diana when I return to Charleston safely.”
It’s a good thing Harry has two ears, for Hunter was also carrying some extra jewelry for his rounding last Friday. “When we got close to the rock [I had] a quiet little ceremony in memory of a bloke who tried to make it here three times in previous races and was lost at sea in his last attempt,” he wrote. “A bloke who I never met, but whose dream of earning the right to wear the golden earring inspired me to follow in his wake and finish what he started. [My girlfriend] Margaret gave me two golden earrings for this occasion, one I will wear proudly, and one I will give to Harry…” Harry had that effect on people. He loved life but hated pants, and would “drop trou” whenever the spirit moved him. He had a favorite expression: “Don’t waste time. Make the best of what you may before you turn into clay.” On his last voyage, he left port a day after the fleet due to the flu. After being cast off from the tow boat, Harry ducked below then reappeared on deck with an old brass horn. To celebrate his freedom to set an outbound course of his own choosing and, well, to celebrate his own stubborn “Harryness,” he reared back his head and blew and blew. Then he put the instrument away and tacked towards the horizon and the waiting sea. Harry vanished on that journey, and the world is now a lesser place. But as Saito and Hunter have proven, Harry Mitchell lives on in the hearts and minds of every sailor who dares dream his wondrous dreams. In every way, he’s earned his rings.