Volvo Ocean Race sailor John Fisher of Britain wasn't wearing his safety tether when he was knocked off his sloop into the frigid, remote Southern Ocean in gale-force conditions just before sunrise Monday, according to a timeline released by Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag.
Fisher, 47, was lost at sea some 1,400 miles west of Cape Horn, with no other boats within 200 miles.
The team said Wednesday that Fisher had unclipped his tether and left the cockpit to tidy up a sheet when the 65-foot yacht surfed down a large wave, leading to an accidental crash gybe, or an uncontrolled turn.
As the mainsail swung across the boat, the mainsheet system caught Fisher and knocked him off, the team said. The crew turned back but couldn't find Fisher in wind of 35-45 knots and waves of up to 16 feet, with showers reducing visibility. The water temperature was 9 degrees Celsius (48 degrees Fahrenheit).
Team manager Tim Newton spoke with skipper David Witt and navigator Libby Greenhalgh to put together a timeline of the accident. Newton said crew members said they believe Fisher was unconscious from the blow before he hit the water.
Newton said Fisher was wearing a survival suit with a wetsuit hood and gloves and a lifejacket.
"This is the worst situation you can imagine happening to your team," Newton said. "We are absolutely heartbroken for John's family and friends. I know for David, he has lost his best friend. It's devastating."
After Fisher went overboard, the crew threw two buoys into the water to mark the position. It took some time to get the boat under control and motor sail back to where Fisher went into the ocean.
The crew searched for hours but couldn't find Fisher or the buoys.
With the weather deteriorating, the search was abandoned and the crew headed for South America.
"This situation isn't over yet for our team," Newton said. "The conditions are extremely challenging, with strong winds and a forecast for a building sea state over the next couple of days. Our sole focus, with the assistance of Race Control in Alicante, is to get the team into port safely. Once we have achieved that, we have time to debrief more fully and ensure that any lessons that can be learned from what happened to John are incorporated by the rest of the fleet going forward.
"That would be a tremendous legacy for John, who spent so much of his time passing the learnings from his lifetime of experience at sea onto the younger sailors on our team."
Veteran sailors have said that even if a crewman was tethered when he went overboard, he could still die in the cold water because it would take some time to slow the boat and retrieve the sailor.
Earlier in the race, Scallywag crewman Alex Gough was swept overboard during a sail change and was rescued within seven minutes. Gough wasn't wearing a safety harness or life jacket, and Witt said at the time that he was lucky to be alive.
In May 2006, Dutch sailor Hans Horrevoets was swept overboard in the Atlantic Ocean on the leg from New York to Portsmouth, England. The crew turned back and found Horrevoets but could not revive him.
On Monday, the other six boats in the Volvo Ocean Race fleet were some 200 miles away. Fellow competitors were shocked when they heard Fisher had been lost.
"There hasn't been a moment since we heard that I didn't wake up thinking about him and made my fear of losing an own crew member even worse," said Bouwe Bekking, skipper of Team Brunel. "We are riding on the edge over here. We are sailing in conditions where at home I would be afraid that the roof tiles will be blown off the house. And yes, we got caught out as well."
Simon Fisher, navigator on Vestas 11th Hour Racing, said the crew is sailing with heavy hearts.
"The Southern Ocean has been especially tough this year," he said. "It has been more relentless and unforgiving than I can ever remember. With (the) tragedy, these final days in the Pacific will be that much tougher still."
This edition of the race already had been tarnished by a collision involving Vestas 11th Hour Racing and a fishing boat that killed a fisherman in January. The collision off Hong Kong sank the fishing boat and caused severe damage to the racing yacht, forcing it to miss the next two legs.
The teams are on Leg 7 from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil. It will cover 7,600 nautical miles. The entire race will cover some 45,000 nautical miles.