“This is the worst situation you can imagine happening to your team,” said Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag team manager Tim Newton late last March, and he wasn’t exaggerating. Mere hours earlier, he’d been informed by skipper David Witt that crewman John Fisher of Southampton, England, had been lost overboard about 1,400 miles west of Cape Horn as the boat was battling through the Southern Ocean as part of Leg 7 of the Volvo Ocean Race.
According to reports, the sun was just coming up following a stormy night. Apparently, Fisher had temporarily unclipped his harness to help tidy up the rigging forward, when the boat unexpectedly gybed and the mainsheet swept him overboard.
The crew immediately stopped racing and did its best to motor back to where Fisher was lost. Unfortunately, they were never able to find any sign of either the two recure buoys they’d deployed or Fisher, and with the conditions rapidly deteriorating, they had no choice but to continue on to Chile. It is believed Fisher was also knocked unconscious when he was swept overboard.
Afterward, Newton said that his team would do everything it could to ensure any lessons that can be learned from what happened to John are incorporated by the rest of the fleet going forward, adding: “That would be a tremendous legacy for John.”
However, while it’s important that everything that can be done is done to ensure the safety of the sailors in the VOR—and with all due respect to Newton—John Fisher’s “legacy” hardly needs any further burnishing.
For the rest of us, the extreme nature of the VOR is all part of the fun. However, for the competitors, it’s also deadly serious, and they know full well what they’re getting themselves into before they cast off. Fisher is not the first competitor to have lost his life in the course of a VOR or its predecessor, the Whitbread. In fact, he is the sixth.
Which is not to say the Volvo Ocean Race is some kind of death cult. Just the opposite. With its challenges, it teamwork, it physical hardships and, yes, even its danger, it’s a celebration of life at its very best—not just for those taking part, but also for those of us privileged enough to look on and watch what these sailor are up to with nothing less than awe. There’s no need to somehow justify Fisher’s end, no matter how tragic. His own actions speak louder than words.
Bottom line: while anything “positive” that can be gained from Fisher’s passing should be applauded, it’s not really necessary. At the end of the day, he was a brave sailor and by all accounts a fine shipmate, doing what he loved best and competing at the absolutely highest levels of the game: a game that is among the noblest endeavors ever devised by man. Not to minimize the sadness of his loss or in any way trivialize the pain being experienced by his friends and family, but what better legacy could anyone hope for than that?
For more the latest on the VOR, which concludes this month in the Netherlands, visit sailmagazine.com/racing/volvo-ocean-race.