The Sea Takes a Life

John ‘Fish’ Fisher overboard in the Volvo Ocean Race

photo by Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Race Volvo Ocean Race sailor John ‘Fish’ Fisher, a happy-go-lucky 48-year-old Englishman and father of two, was knocked overboard and lost at sea in an area known as Point Nemo, the spot on earth farthest from land.
      In covering the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race through the years, I met sailing legends who seemed larger than life: Torben Grael, Mike Sanderson, Paul Cayard, Ian Walker and Bouwe Bekking, who is skippering Team Brunel in the current race.
      The Volvo Ocean Race is the preeminent physical challenge on earth. It makes climbing Mt. Everest and the Tour de France look like cake walks. The sailors endure danger and tests of endurance that stretch the limits of mere mortals on a daily basis.
     Over the course of this grueling yearlong sail, there are many winners, but never any losers. Trophies and dollar bills pale in significance against the bravery and tenacious willpower of these amazing men and women who ride sailboat rocket ships through hostile seas so perilous that one wonders about their sanity. These people gladly sail into hurricanes because that’s where they will find the strongest winds. Imagine.
      Sometimes these sailors die.
      On Monday, March 26, ­SHK/Scallywag was racing in Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil, about 1,400 nautical miles west of Cape Horn. This area is known as Point Nemo, after the anti-hero in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Nemo, Latin for no one, signifies the spot on earth farthest from land. No one but lunatics would sail there. It is so isolated that the Russian, European and Japanese space agencies use it as a dumping ground; thus, it is known as the spacecraft cemetery.
       SHK/Scallywag was in last place and hundreds of miles from the nearest competitor or ship. The boat and its sailors were completely on their own.
       The wind was blowing a steady 45 knots and gusting to 70 as they surfed up and down 20-feet seas rolling off Antarctica. At 15 minutes before sunrise, SHK/Scallywag launched down a large wave, hit the bottom of the trough and accidentally crash gybed. John ‘Fish’ Fisher, a happy-go-lucky 48-year-old Englishman and father of two, was in the cockpit.  He was moving forward to untangle some lines and had unclipped his tether just as the mainsail swung across the boat,  knocking him into the raging ocean. The crew believe Fisher was unconscious from the blow before he hit the water.
       Then began the nightmare search for a needle in a foaming haystack. The water temperature was about 35 degrees, but Fisher was wearing a survival suit with a wetsuit hood and gloves and a lifejacket. Maybe he was still alive. The JON buoy and the horseshoe buoy were thrown off the back of the boat to mark the position. But it took at least 30 minutes to get the boat under control, then sail back upwind against towering waves to where Fisher was last seen. The search-and-rescue operation continued for several hours with no sign of Fisher or the two buoys. They had been swallowed by the sea.
       With weather deteriorating, David Witt, the captain of SHK/Scallywag, had to make the most difficult decision of his sailing career: abandon hope and stop searching for his old friend or jeopardize the life of his crew to continue searching. What would you do?
        For the crew of SHK/Scallywag, there was no time to mourn. They had to survive. It would take them at least a week to get safely to port on the west coast of Chile. Reminders of Fisher were with them the whole way. Every time they went below deck after four hours of death-defying sailing, little things  — his cup, toothbrush, clothes — haunted them. 
        The sailors of the Volvo race are like a big family, and the loss of Scallywag’s John Fisher is weighing on the minds of many.
        Skipper Dee Caffari, aboard the all-woman boat Turn the Tide on Plastic, offered this moving tribute, describing the atmosphere on board after she told her crew what had happened to her friend Fish: “Many tears were shed both openly and privately. Fish was a friend, a fan and a true supporter of our project. He was a gifted sailor who was doing what he loved, and that gives us solace at this difficult time. We now look to the skies above and sadly see another spirit of a lost sailor take flight in an Albatross watching over the rest of us out here.”
        And so it goes …