Yacht wreck survivor speaks out

Thu, Apr 26, 2012, 01:00

One of three survivors from a California yacht wreck in which two Irish men went missing, said the moments he spent overboard felt like he was in "a washing machine filled with boulders."

He added that the five crew mates who went missing in the wreck earlier this month might have been saved had they worn safety harnesses.

Elmer Morrissey (32), from the Highlands, Glounthaune, Co Cork, and his friend Alan Cahill (36), originally from Killeens, near Blarney on the outskirts of the city, are missing after the boat, named the Low Speed Chase, was hit by a series of waves as it rounded the Farallon Islands in the Pacific off San Francisco.

Three of the yacht’s eight crew members survived the wreck and one body was subsequently recovered from the water.

In a letter posted to the website Sailing Anarchy, Bryan Chong of Tiburon, California, said he and the seven other sailors aboard the 38-foot Low Speed Chase should have been tethered to the boat.

A series of powerful waves thrashed the vessel earlier this month as it rounded a rugged island chain during the Full Crew Farallones Race off San Francisco, sweeping crew members overboard into the frigid Pacific and tossing the boat onto a rocky shoal.

"Hopefully, this incident will spur a wider discussion on sailboat safety," wrote Mr Chong.

The US Coast Guard recovered the body of one crewman from the water. Four other sailors, including the two Irish men have not been found.

After investigating the incident, San Francisco police issued a statement yesterday saying they "could not determine any criminal negligence."

Although sailors disagree about the benefits of tethering, the US Sailing Association recommends safety harnesses be used in rough weather and on cold water. The conditions in the Pacific during the race qualified.

"Everyone was wearing life jackets, and there were eight tethers on the boat - mine around my neck. Unfortunately, none of us were clipped in when the wave hit," wrote Mr Chong, who had never before sailed the ocean race course.

"I'd say to myself, 'I can just clip in when something bad is about to happen,'" he wrote in Tuesday's online posting.

But the father of an 8-week-old son had no time to react when a wave crashed into the boat off the South Farallones.

The islands, Mr Chong said, "have a rugged, haunting beauty about them, but there's no time for sightseeing as we approach."

Alan Cahill, The best man at Mr Chong's wedding, was steering the boat, and Mr Chong was trimming the mainsail when they passed over the day's largest swell, he recalled.

A wave he described as "massive ... unlike anything I've ever seen outside of big-wave surf videos," threw everyone overboard except Mr Chong and crew mate Nick Vos, who broke his leg.

"The sails were shredded, the mast snapped, and every flotation device had been ripped off," Chong recounted. He said he and Mr Vos tried to pull their crew mates back onto the boat. Then a second wave hit them from behind and dumped Mr Chong into the shark-infested water.

"People have asked me if I swam to shore," he wrote. "The best way to describe the water in the break zone is a washing machine filled with boulders. You don't really swim. The water took me where it wanted to take me."

Mr Chong was rescued by the Coast Guard and Air National Guard, along with Mr Vos and the owner-captain of the boat, James Bradford.

Agencies