Annalise Murphy: Coming to terms with a friend lost at sea

Volvo Ocean Race Diary part 14: If ‘Fish’ was still around he would tell us all to carry on and live his dream for him

John Fisher about to head out onto deck during leg seven from Auckland to Itajai. Photo: Konrad Frost/Volvo Ocean Race

John Fisher about to head out onto deck during leg seven from Auckland to Itajai. Photo: Konrad Frost/Volvo Ocean Race

 

It’s a bit mad really. Three months ago if you’d told me that’d I’d be raring to get going on yet another leg of the Volvo Ocean Race I’d never have believed you. Yet here I am, in Itajai in Brazil, just a few days away from Leg Eight and another 5,700 nautical miles to Newport, Rhode Island, one of the great world sailing destinations.

Since that hard leg from Melbourne to Hong Kong, I’ve completely changed my outlook, and am determined to see this race through to the end in 10 weeks’ time.

This race isn’t for everyone, and it probably isn’t for me, but I’m still determined to finish; I’m really glad I’ve done this and have got my head around it, and I’ve learned stuff about myself that are just life lessons.

In particular, I’ve learned not to give up when you really, really want to give up. I definitely wanted to, but I’m glad I didn’t.

I’ve also had a full month off for a holiday with friends in New Zealand.

From what I can tell, most people involved in the race have a leg that they feel bad and regretful about, and for me that fourth leg was pretty miserable.

But after resolving in Hong Kong to persevere, the leg south again to Auckland was super as we showed we could lead the race to within a few hours of the finish before we were becalmed and we were overtaken.

Ice-cold water over the deck of Scallywag on Leg Seven from Auckland to Itajai, and John Fisher (Fish) standing firm
Ice-cold water over the deck of Scallywag on Leg Seven from Auckland to Itajai, and John Fisher (Fish) standing firm

Down but not out, more and more we’ve proven that we’re getting the hang of these boats and how to race them as good as the established teams. Most of us on our crew are newcomers to ocean racing at this level, most are under-30 and we have a 50:50 male/female line-up; all unlike any of the other six teams.

With four legs left in the race before the finish in The Hague on June 30th, we’re determined to deliver our goal of a podium result in one of these stages.

As I was rotated off the boat for the last leg, I missed out on another Southern Ocean leg and Dee (Caffari) and everyone on board did well to finish with the mast still standing after some rigging damage.

Turn the Tide on Plastic has now had a full boatyard overhaul and inspection, and is now back in the water. Before Sunday’s start we have training, an in-port race, pro-am sailing and boat-loading to complete.

The next leg should actually be quite pleasant. Although we’re expecting light winds at times and plenty of slogging upwind as we’ll be sailing northwards off the coast of Brazil and later the Caribbean there’ll be plenty of trade-wind conditions and sunshine too.

We’ll have the Doldrums – again – but these shouldn’t be too bad as we’ll be crossing so far west. But knowing our luck we’ll get stuck anyway for two weeks!

Newport is something of a sailing mecca, and gets great local support so it will be a super stopover. From there it’s the home straight to Europe and the finish.

After many previous visits to Brazil, mainly to Rio preparing for the 2016 Olympics, I’ve grown to love this country – the people are very warm and friendly. But Itajai is a much smaller city than Rio, and feels a little bit safer. People are very relaxed.

The race is hugely popular here – there were around 47,000 visitors to the race village on one day alone last week, that’s what other ports might expect for the entire stopover. People will stop and ask you interesting questions or just say nice things.

Leg six to Auckland, day 14 on board Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. John Fisher applies some sun cream.
Leg six to Auckland, day 14 on board Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. John Fisher applies some sun cream.

Apart from a brief stint at Christmas, I haven’t been home since August, so leaving Brazil means one step closer to getting home. But behind all the preparations for the start, all of us in the race are conscious of our friend John Fisher from the Scallywag team who was lost overboard in the last leg thousands of miles from land during a Southern Ocean gale three weeks ago.

It’s incredibly sad. I’ve been extremely upset about it, and in a way I’m glad I wasn’t on the boat when the news came through that Fish was lost. I would have found it very hard to hear such news in those kind of conditions.

Unfortunately in this race there are risks and we knew this from the outset – that it isn’t 100 per cent safe. Pushing these boats to the max in some of the remotest parts of the world isn’t completely safe.

I met Fish first back in September when we did the crew medics’ course together. While I grappled with training for techniques that could literally save someone’s life, as I questioned my ability he was calm and assured throughout; he just knew what to do. You could just tell that he had a massive amount of experience, and knew what to do but not in a know-it-all kind of way.

Christmas Eve with John Fisher on the wheel of Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. Photo: Konrad Frost/Volvo Ocean Race
Christmas Eve with John Fisher on the wheel of Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. Photo: Konrad Frost/Volvo Ocean Race

Ever since then we were quite good friends, and always stopped for a chat, which was typical of him, always making time for other people.

He was just one of the nicest people you could meet, and knew everyone involved in the race, not just crew. He was universally liked and admired.

Ocean sailing

Although he had never sailed in this race before, he was very experienced at ocean sailing, and would definitely have been one of the safest people around. What happened to him – moving forward on the deck – is something that all of us do a hundred times a day, and it was simply bad luck that the boat launched off a wave and gybed unexpectedly. He was hit by the mainsail control tackle and knocked overboard, and was probably unconscious by the time he hit the water.

It was Fish who in Hong Kong took me aside and talked it through about me wanting to quit the race. Basically he told me I’d be stupid to drop out!

He was probably the person I spoke to most outside our team, and was a huge influence not just for me but on many others and very generous with his time. He just loved every minute of his involvement in the race.

We are all devastated at his loss and for his family. But like his Scallywag team who are determined to carry on, because of the effect he had on the whole race family, we’re all getting on with what we have to do.

If he was still around he would certainly give us all the same pep-talk: that we should carry on and live his dream for him.

But I still can’t believe he’s gone.

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