Global Challenge crew is likely to retire from racing and make best speed to New Zealand after landing injured crewman

As the crew of Team Stelmar face 1,000 miles to South America to land a crewman who broke his arm yesterday after being swept against the forestay by a wave, a conclusion is being reached about whether they should retire from the leg to Wellington. At present, Stelmar is heading for either Punta Arenas or Valdivia, the landfall depending on prevailing conditions.

“It’s an interesting decision,” comments Andrew Roberts, Challenge Business’s project director, “and one that will be made by the skipper, but we’ll give him advice, and the advice would be to retire [after landing the crewman] and make best speed to New Zealand. We don’t want a boat in the Southern Ocean in isolation.”

If Team Stelmar were to retire, he adds, they could take a less arduous route to New Zealand, staying above 38 or 40°S and passing well north of the chain of Southern Ocean depressions. They would also be able to motorsail if necessary to make up time.

Apart from the crew’s immediate safety, a longer-term consideration is the schedule of work planned for the halfway point of the race in Wellington. Each of the boats will be lifted out, their rigs taken out and inspected and every item of machinery serviced and checked before the next section of the Southern Ocean. “The knock-on effect is slightly difficult,” admits Andrew Roberts, “but we will make it happen. There is a week of corporate sailing at the end so the lift-out could happen then. The work will be done and the inspections will take place.”

Team Stelmar turned back for South America yesterday evening. Counting the distance to land and then onwards to New Zealand, they now face 5,000 miles of sailing and an additional two weeks at sea. If they retire, they will be able to refuel and take on extra provisions when they reach port.

The race organisers consider it possible that some of the crew of Team Stelmar may want to leave the yacht in South America, in particular those on board for just this leg. A similar situation arose in the last race after two crew were injured in the Bass Strait. In that case, however, those who took cold feet about setting out once again into the Southern Ocean were persuaded to stay. “We can’t constrain them, though,” admits Roberts, “so we’ll need an indication of that in the next few days and then we’d have to take appropriate action.”

When they reach their midway mark, waypoint Alpha, later this week, the Global Challenge fleet will be at the point of no return, and the nearest land would be Chatham Island, some 800 miles east of New Zealand. But to continue on was simply not a sensible option for Team Stelmar, explains Andrew Roberts. “We did consider it, but the specialists at the A&E department at Derriford Hospital [Plymouth] and our fleet doctor, Spike Briggs, agreed that it was too long a period without further medical attention.”

He says that the Chilean Coastguard and Falmouth Coastguard were both involved and investigated whether any ships could help, but explains: “There was nothing in the immediate area, but also the risk of transferring someone would have been so great. The principle was that it was safer to go back.”

The incident and all its implications have been sobering for the rest of the Global Challenge crews, as leading skipper Duggie Gillespie admitted to us today. “I sat down with my crew and we discussed it. We considered what had happened and thought about the safe practices on our boat. It does make you a bit more wary.”