Helpless crew can do nothing except watch as one of their own, swept overboard during a capsize, drifts away in a storm
Watson returned below, assuming that Glyn would adopt a safer approach. But he appeared to pay no attention. Less than half an hour after they had turned around, Brownie decided he had to do something. Each time the Sword picked up speed, he thought the boat was about to broach.
Twice, he braced himself against rides that he thought would end in capsizing. Furious, he pulled himself up from his bunk and half shouted at Kooky, ‘We can’t steer the boat this way! We have to get Glyn to head more to the west, or we have to get someone else to steer.’
Kooky, believing that Brownie was on the verge of shock and overreacting, said, ‘It’s okay. Glyn knows what he’s doing.’
‘No, he doesn’t,’ said Brownie. ‘We have to head into the waves, or we’re going to be in major trouble.’
Turning away from Kooky, Brownie stood on the second step so his head reached into the cockpit. ‘For f**k’s sake, turn into the waves,’ he shouted to Glyn. ‘You can’t do this anymore.’
It was already too late. Before Brownie said another word, a monstrous wave at least 40ft high and steeper than the ones preceding it lifted Sword. Seconds after Sword began to ride upward, the wave began to break.
When the tumbling white water caught up to the boat, it broached and was knocked onto its starboard side. As it fell down the wave, the boat tipped so far that the mast was parallel to the sea. Then Sword capsized.
Although Dags’ tether saved him from being washed away, it pulled him underwater. Holding his breath and trying not to panic, he was seized by a horrifying thought: If I don’t disconnect the tether, it will hold me here until I drown but there was so much tension against the tether that he couldn’t release it.
Suddenly, the inverted hull completed a 360° roll, still dragging Dags along by his tether. When it came upright, he was floating in the water, still connected. Energised with adrenaline, he grabbed a stanchion and pulled himself back on board.
Once there, he saw that the mast had fallen. The rigging was wrapped around the port side of the boat like spaghetti. The top half of the aluminium steering wheel had been sheared off. Something else was missing. Where was Glyn?
At first, Dags guessed that he was in the water, connected to the yacht but unable to hoist himself onto the deck. Then he saw Glyn’s orange tether. One end was still attached, but the other was frayed nylon. Looking up, Dags saw a small figure 30ft away. Dags emptied his lungs.
Man in the water
‘Man overboard! Help! Man overboard!’ Down below, Steve Kulmar hit the MAN OVERBOARD button on the GPS. Dags didn’t take his eyes off of Glyn, but his mind raced with questions. Can he swim to us? Should I swim after him? Should I tie a line around myself first? Can we get the boat to him? Will the engine start?
Turning on the engine, even if it worked, wouldn’t have gotten them far because the trailing rigging would wrap around the propeller. And given what had happened to the wheel, steering would have been impossible.
Dags scrambled to throw a lifering, but it went almost nowhere against the wind. Even without a mast or sails, the Sword was being pushed away from Glyn, who, with only his head exposed to the wind, appeared to be almost stationary except for the way he was riding up and down the waves. He wasn’t wearing a life preserver. Like everyone else, he had been relying on his tether.
Glyn began to swim, but he took just six half strokes, using only his left arm, before he stopped. His face was locked in a grimace, perhaps because of pain or perhaps because he couldn’t understand his predicament or why Dags wasn’t coming to get him.
Dags couldn’t believe what he was seeing, either. The chances that a would-be rescuer could swim to his target and bring him back to safety were small, but Dags believed he had no option but to try. Brownie was the first man from below to climb on deck. ‘Glyn’s in the water,’ Dags screamed. ‘I’ve got to get him. Get me a long line. I’m going in.’
Although Glyn was already 50ft from the boat, Brownie didn’t have any trouble spotting him. He looked small, utterly helpless. Finding the spinnaker sheets, Brownie knotted them together. He tied one end to Dags and the other to the deck. Each of the lines was 80ft long, but Brownie was afraid that by the time Dags swam to Glyn, the lines might not be long enough to cover the rapidly expanding gap.
Even if they were, Brownie worried that their weight would make it impossible for Dags to keep himself and Glyn afloat. From the water, it would be difficult for Dags to even see Glyn through the waves. But Dags wanted to go. ‘You won’t get to him,’ Brownie said. ‘It’s too late.’
Dags was breathing hard, almost hyperventilating, and tears were already rolling down his cheeks. Brownie also felt the weight of what was happening, but recognising that two lives were in his hands, he was trying to be rational.
He thought one life was probably already lost, and he was beginning to believe that Dags too would be doomed if he went into the water. After a wave increased the distance to Glyn by what looked like another 20ft, Brownie was certain. Grabbing the chest straps of Dags’s harness, he looked into his friend’s eyes. ‘You’re not going. There’s no way you can get to him.’
Realising that Brownie was probably right, Dags didn’t argue. He just stood near the back of the cockpit, staring at Glyn. By then, several other members of the crew were on the deck, all of them doing the same thing.
Glyn was already having a hard time keeping his head above water, and everyone quickly reached the same unthinkable conclusion – Glyn was going to die, and there was nothing they could do but watch.
For most of the Sword’s crew, there was a strange sense of unreality, although not because there was anything abstract about it. They could still see Glyn, and they knew how easily they could be in precisely the same position.
Steve Kulmar was more shaken than anyone. When he first came on deck, he believed Glyn was looking directly back at him. Unlike the others, who’d met Glyn only a day earlier, Kulmar was looking at a friend.
For him, survivor’s guilt arrived like a lightning bolt. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t asked Glyn to come with us, he said to himself. He was withdrawing into a paralysing state of shocked disbelief.
Just ten minutes after the roll, it was becoming more difficult to see Glyn. His head submerged into each of the passing waves, and it seemed to be taking him longer to get back to the surface.
‘I can’t see him anymore,’ Dags cried out. ‘We’re losing him.’ And he was gone.
First published in the September 2019 edition of Yachting World.