Coast Guard assisting sailors injured during race

Coast Guard assisting sailors injured during race

Michele Ellson
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman David Flores

Updated at 6:47 a.m. Monday, April 2

A pair of sailors who were injured when their yacht was hit by a wave during an around-the-world sailing race were being cared for on the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf on Sunday.

A San Diego-based crew operating on the 418-foot national security cutter brought the injured sailors aboard the Alameda-based vessel via rescue boat about 250 miles off the coast of San Francisco, a Coast Guard release on the incident issued late Sunday night says. The Coast Guard identified them as Jane Hitchens, 50, and Nik Brbora, 29.

A Coast Guard spokesman said Sunday that three of the 13 sailors aboard the 68-foot Geraldton Western Australia were injured when a wave crashed over the ship during Saturday’s storms. The yacht was traveling from Qingdao, China and was 400 miles west of San Francisco when the wave hit, Petty Officer Second Class Levi Read said.

He said the extent of two of the sailors’ injuries was not as severe as originally believed, though the third sailor’s injuries were believed to be serious. The sailors sustained injuries to their rib cages when the wave hit the yacht, Read said.

“At this point it’s not life-threatening, but it certainly needs attention before it becomes life-threatening,” Read said of the sailor’s injuries. He said the Coast Guard is in continual contact with the yacht, which is making its way here at a speed of about nine miles per hour.

Officials with the Clipper Around the World race identified the injured sailors as Hitchens, a British doctor; Brbora, a software engineer who lives in London; and Max Wilson, 62, a farmer from Queensland, Australia. They said a fourth person, Brit Mark Burkes, 47, is injured, but not as seriously as first thought.

Race officials said the wave washed away the yacht’s steering mount and wheel and some of its communications equipment.

“We were racing along in 40-60 knot gusts. The sea was alive with rage. We were making good speed, sailing with the third reef in the main, surfing at 15-20 knots. Then at our watch change, just before the sun came up, a monstrous foaming swell broke over our stern,” skipper Juan Coetzer said.

The weather stalled the Coast Guard’s efforts to assist the sailors early Saturday, but Read said they planned to launch a long-range HC-130 Hercules helicopter Sunday morning in an effort to ascertain the extent of their injuries and provide help. The Coast Guard diverted Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf to provide backup to the helicopter, Read said; he said it’s about 125 miles from the yacht.

The Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Alameda received the call for assistance at 9:45 a.m. Saturday from a counterpart in Britain. The Coast Guard helicopter and aircraft from Air Station Sacramento flew to the ship and dropped medical supplies at 7 p.m. Saturday, but Air National Guardsmen were unable to jump aboard due to the weather, according to a press release issued by the Coast Guard.

Six of the nine boats in the race arrived safely in Oakland’s Jack London Square, and the other three were expected within a day, race officials said. The next leg of the 10-yacht around-the-world race will start April 14 and will send the craft to New York City via the Panama Canal.