Speech notes obtained by 7.30 show how one man predicted the disastrous loss of life which befell the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht fleet, 17 years before it happened.
This Boxing Day marks the 20th anniversary of that yacht race, in which six yachtsmen lost their lives. It ended with Australia’s biggest peacetime search and rescue mission and one of the largest coronial investigations ever held in New South Wales.
‘Six people will be lost overboard’
On a warm summer’s evening in December 1981, some of Sydney’s elite yachtsmen gathered for dinner and speeches at the harbourside penthouse of America’s Cup challenger, Syd Fischer. The event took place under the auspices of the Ocean Racing Club.
One of the after-dinner speakers was renowned naval architect Alan Payne, who told the yachtsmen he wanted to “put something before you”, but “not in public”, according to his speech notes.
“Alan was very concerned about yacht construction in the late seventies,” yachtsman John “Steamer” Stanley, who was present that evening, told 7.30.
“[Yachtsmen were taking] light construction into the ocean and it was dangerous. Alan got up and started to talk about what can happen in Bass Strait in the worst scenario.”
By calculating the number of boats in the Sydney to Hobart race in high 35-knot winds, and the frequency of rogue waves, which can be more than twice the height of other waves, Mr Payne gave the yachtsmen a warning.
“You would have to do 1,000 Hobart races to be sure of seeing one [rogue wave]. You needn’t [worry], but the administrators must,” Mr Payne’s speech notes read.
“Three [boats] will completely disappear. There will be numerous capsizes and dismastings and injuries. Six people will be lost overboard.”
Mr Payne even spoke of the “grief and hardship those deaths will bring”.
“When he finished that speech, no one in that room wanted to go south [to Hobart],” Mr Stanley said.
Seventeen years after Mr Payne’s prophetic speech, Mr Stanley was winched by a rescue helicopter out of the Southern Ocean after spending 28 hours adrift on rogue seas, which claimed the lives of six of his fellow yachtsmen.
“He said one day it would happen,” Mr Stanley told investigating police at Pambula Hospital, NSW, on December 29, 1998.
“When we were caught in Bass Strait that afternoon, I realised that this is what Alan was talking about.”
‘Water like darts in your face’
Mike Marshman was aboard Stand Aside in 1998, one of the first yachts to be dismasted by rogue waves and high winds.
“It also blows the water off the sea, off the tops of the waves which, if you look at it, it’s like darts hitting your face,” Mr Marshman told 7.30.
“Communication is difficult, because the sound of the wind blows your voice away, so you have to yell, scream, almost use sign language to get your message across to the person alongside you.”
The Stand Aside crew’s dramatic rescue was captured by an ABC News helicopter.
“The helicopter pilot said at one stage he had 100 feet of clearance and it went to 15 [feet]. So that’s an 85-foot wave, if you can imagine it,” Mr Marshman said.
“We were lucky, I suppose, the fact that we went over first, so the rescue effort came to us instead of going to Winston Churchill.
“If we had gone second, we may have had a similar circumstance,” he said.
Three crewmen from the Winston Churchill — Mike Bannister, Jim Lawler and John Dean — died.
Despite his near-death experience, Mr Marshman maintains that in sailing, there’s no reward without risk.
“People who do the Sydney to Hobart, or the Fastnet Race in England or climb Mount Everest, are basically thrill-seekers or they just love sailing, so if you put too many rules into it, you’ll take the thrill and the thrill-seeking part of it away,” he said.
It was an attitude which was slammed by the investigating NSW coroner in the inquest held two years after the race.
‘Sailors had a cavalier attitude’
For retired investigating NSW coroner, John Abernethy, it was one of “the biggest inquests I have ever done and one of the biggest inquests that have been held in this state”.
“Based on the evidence I heard from crew and skippers, it was one of largely experienced sailors and masters, some who had a cavalier attitude — it’s a man’s sport and it should stay that way,” Mr Abernethy told 7.30.
“I found it curious that they had quite a poor knowledge of the theory of weather. For example, in general terms the experienced sailors who came before me in my witness box had quite a poor knowledge of the concept of rogue waves,” he said.
‘That’s not how he wanted to go’
Jim Lawler died after being washed away from the life raft he clung to with fellow Winston Churchill crewman John Stanley.
His son, John Lawler, is still upset when people say his father “died doing what he loved”.
“That’s not how he wanted to go,” Mr Lawler told 7.30.
“It would’ve been terrifying to be cold, wet, dark, unable to breathe.”
Mr Lawler said that race revealed the self-interest in the ocean-sailing community.
“We were quite surprised at some of the people that really wanted us to keep quiet about things, not raise any questions about it, not make any fuss, which we couldn’t quite understand,” he said.
“The were all worried about how this was going to make insurance premiums go up for next year’s race.
“To be perfectly frank, it made me stop sailing. I’m not that interested in participating in the clubs that organise these races.
“I’m still sort of unsure why they acted in the way they did to one of their brothers and the family of their brothers. It took away my passion for it.”