In the closing stages of Leg 2 in the double-handed Global Ocean Race (GOR), a harsh lesson was learnt on Class40 Cessna Citation through quick thinking; instinct and training when Conrad Colman and Sam Goodchild dealt quickly with a Man Over Board (MOB) off the west coast of South Island, New Zealand. Now that both skippers have discussed the MOB with their families and Maritime New Zealand and the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand are aware of the incident, the GOR can now publish details of the MOB as a valuable illustration of the importance of training and safety at sea for all offshore crews, short-handed or fully-crewed.
Colman and Goodchild had been leading the GOR fleet for 20 days as they crossed the Tasman Sea and closed in on the northern tip of South Island with under 160 miles remaining to the finish line in Wellington after a total of 31 days at sea and 7,500 miles of high latitude sailing through the Indian Ocean’s Roaring Forties. Remarkably, 28 year-old Kiwi, Colman, and his 22 year-old, British co-skipper had met just days before the Leg 2 start gun and while both had logged many miles offshore and on Class40s, their union for Leg 2 produced astonishing speeds – setting the GOR Class40 24-hour run at a new record of 359.1 miles – gaining the respect of the other, seasoned crews in the fleet and repelling continuous challenges from the highly-experienced, Kiwi father-and-son duo of Ross and Campbell Field on Class40 BSL.
In the late afternoon (local) on Tuesday 29 December, as their Akilaria RC2, Cessna Citation, closed in on the western coast of South Island, 57 miles south of Cape Farewell at the entrance to Cook Strait and 33 miles west of the Heaphy River’s mouth at the northern end of the Karamea Bight, the youngest team in the GOR held a 56-mile lead over the Fields on BSL and thoughts of victory, fresh food, steak, hot-water showers and the forthcoming reunion with friends and family were foremost in the minds of the two crew.
A cold front had just swept over Cessna Citation leaving in its wake a big sea and breeze of around ten knots. Colman was on watch at the helm wearing lifejacket and harness: “Conditions were probably three to five metres of swell and we had been beating into wind of around 26-33 knots with fog and rain, so pretty shocking visibility and conditions in general,” Colman recalls. Goodchild was below, cooking food during the lull. “Conrad was driving and I was sitting in the cuddy chatting to him,” adds Goodchild.
Conrad Colman describes the quick change in conditions: “The wind went very quickly from 10 to then 26 then 30, so we had one reef in the main and it was clearly time to change from the Solent to staysail,” he confirms. Goodchild left his remaining food and prepared for the sail change: “I put on my jacket and went up on the foredeck and dropped the jib,” he remembers. “I was a bit overconfident and, in retrospect, crazy not clipping on or wearing my lifejacket, but it was a job that had to be done quickly.” With Colman in the cockpit and Goodchild on the foredeck, both co-skippers spotted one significant wave simultaneously: “I was running the pit during the manoeuvre and Sam ran up and pulled the Solent down on the forestay and as he was doing that, I saw a big wave,” says Colman, immediately bearing away to minimise the wave’s impact. Goodchild caught the wave from the corner of his vision as he hauled the headsail down: “It had a big crest which was about to break and it was going to hit us pretty hard,” he says. “A big wall of spray came over the bow and I thought Sam had ducked down as it obscured him completely from view,” continues Colman.
However, Goodchild was scrabbling to find a handhold: “I tried to hang on, but it threw me out the side and I landed on the jib and made a few attempts to grab stuff, but nothing successful.” The 22 year-old yachtsman was quickly flung over the guardrails: “So I floated passed the cockpit, I saw Conrad and Conrad saw me,” he adds. With water pouring aft, for Colman a clear view of the foredeck was impossible. “Then I looked down to leeward of the boat and there was Sam with this look of amazement on his face going passed the gunwhale in the water.” Colman immediately pushed the helm away and crash-tacked Cessna Citation to try and slow the Class40 down. “Then I ran and picked up the heaving line which, thankfully, I knew exactly where it was and how to use it,” he recalls. “I threw it to him and it landed a metre away and as he reached for it, the boat lurched and pulled it out of his reach.” Goodchild lunged for the line: “It got pretty close and I did a quick sprint-swim but missed it,” he confirms.
As soon as it was clear Goodchild could not reach the bright orange heaving line, Colman’s experience as a sailing instructor cut in: “I ran below to punch the MOB button and make a waypoint, then started sailing away from him and I’m sure it was stressful for Sam as he was in the water watching me sail away.” Instantly, Goodchild’s training took over and any panic and futile paddling was averted: “When I hit the water, I knew instinctively that I must conserve energy, so I tried to get the line when it was close, but it wasn’t going to happen,” says Goodchild. “So I tried to keep an eye on the boat and save energy and it was then that all the small things started to add up.” Goodchild was mid-sail change when he was washed overboard and there was no windward sheet on either of the headsails. “So, to tack and come back and get me, Conrad had to re-reeve the sheet, so it took him about ten minutes to tack. At first, I thought it was fine and he’d just turn around and pick me up,” Goodchild continues. “But it slowly started dawning on me as ten minutes passed that he hadn’t tacked yet and I couldn’t see him and he certainly couldn’t see me.”
Calmly, Goodchild prepared for an extended period in the water: “I was wearing full foulies and boots and mid-layer thermals and they filled up with water,” he explains. “Waves began breaking over my head and started pulling me down, so, slowly but surely, I stated taking them off; mid-layers, smock, everything down to my thermal top.” Shedding the extra weight came at a heavy price: “It started getting cold,” Goodchild confirms. “I had a knife in my smock pocket, so I cut the hood off my smock, which is bright yellow, and gave me something to wave. I ditched everything else – there was no point holding on to anything that wasn’t going to help me.”
Meanwhile, Colman had Cessna Citation back under control. “Once I’d got the sheets sorted, I tacked back around and came back as close as I could to the MOB waypoint,” he explains. “It was gusting up to 32 knots and very poor visibility and it was very difficult to see anything to windward because of all the spray blowing off the top of the waves, so I tried to secure a position to windward of where I thought he was, then hove-to and drifted down to where he was.” Manoeuvring the boat and constantly climbing through the companionway to check the MOB position kept Colman totally physically and mentally occupied. “Having to short tack and gybe while keeping an eye on the chartplotter to see where he was and calculate the drift to where he might be while I knew I had a very, very tight window of opportunity was hard work – it felt like I needed to be seven places at once!”
Colman’s search pattern was successful: “I was tacking and reaching across the position of where I thought he was and slowly working my way downwind and after some time I saw a flash of yellow, just for a split second and I couldn’t be certain it was Sam.” The Kiwi skipper made two more passes while Goodchild conserved as much energy as possible: “I was going up and down in the troughs of waves, so I was a bit selective when I waved [the severed yellow hood], but he saw me and sailed close.” Colman took the chance with a Dan-buoy: “I was able to throw the horseshoe with the flashing light to him,” he explains. “I saw that he’d got it and we both breathed a huge sigh of relief and I was able to put his actual position on the chart plotter and saw he had drifted a fair way.”
It’s likely that the floatation unit arrived just in time. “By this stage, he’d been in the water for 25 minutes at least. I’m a sailing instructor, so not only have I done this manoeuvre many times, I’ve also taught it, and I know that if you’re cold and exhausted and you don’t have floatation, you run out of energy and the ability to stay afloat.” Goodchild confirms his status: “I was getting pretty tired and struggling to swim after about 25 minutes in the water,” he agrees.
With the horseshoe in Goodchild’s grasp, Colman could manoeuvre the boat again: “After I saw he had floatation I could tack away again and come back to him on a reach, then releasing the sheets and stopping the boat to windward of him,” says Colman. “I had coiled a spare sheet to throw to him as I couldn’t use the heaving line again, but in the flurry of activity to stop the boat from landing on top of him, I actually threw another coil if rope which was the staysail halyard.” Despite his situation Goodchild was fully aware of the dilemma on board: “I had the jib halyard in one hand and the Dan-buoy in the other and Conrad couldn’t drop the jib if he wanted to as I was on the end of the halyard, so he cut the jib sheets.”
With Goodchild connected to the boat by the halyard, he worked closer to the boat. “I hauled him in hand-over-hand, deployed the rope ladder and Sam clambered back on,” says Colman. “I think it was the happiest moment of our lives,” he adds, but there was no time for celebration: “I went straight into the cabin, took off all my remaining wet clothes and jumped into the sleeping bag and started warming up while Conrad tidied up the boat,” explains Goodchild. “We continued for about half an hour with just the mainsail up and went under pilot while we recovered from what could have been a big disaster.”
Just over 24 hours later, Cessna Citation crossed the finish line in Wellington Harbour taking first place in GOR Leg 2, but their experience shortly before entering Cook Strait left a lasting impression: Sam has learnt a valuable lesson: “It was a harsh lesson and one I will never forget,” he confirms. “You hear these stories and think, well that’s a bit stupid, but that’s not going to be me, which is a bit arrogant. It only takes a second for something to turn into a big disaster and I’ll be clipping on in future,” he adds.
For 28 year-old Conrad Colman, the rescue is a landmark moment: “My father was killed in an accident on a boat when I was 11 months-old when not wearing the appropriate safety equipment and, of course, that came rushing back,” he explains. “When I first tacked the boat back round I made a very conscious promise that I wasn’t going to let Sam be alone out there.”
Josh Hall, Race Director of the GOR, is a multiple solo circumnavigator: “Sailing has many inherent risks attached, if it did not there would be no spirit of adventure or challenge and would probably not attract many competitors,” says Hall. “Falling overboard is every sailor’s worst nightmare, more so for their families and friends. Sadly, many sailors have been lost from the decks of well-found yachts – some inexperienced and some highly experienced, the sea is not selective,” he continues. “As an event we do our utmost to mitigate the risks through safety equipment and training demands, but the greatest mitigation is the competence of our sailors in extreme circumstances,” explains Hall. “Every sailor I know has at some time been forward to complete a job that needs doing quickly and forgotten their lifejacket or harness, we all go by the grace of God at times. There are of course important lessons to be learned from this incident as it is a stark reminder of how fragile personal safety can be, but the way in which both Conrad and Sam dealt with the situation should be saluted and applauded. We at the race organisation are extremely proud of them both.”