- Published on Thursday, 26 April 2012 05:45
- Written by Jaabir
25 April 2012The wave that struck the yacht Low Speed Chase near the Farallon Islands and ultimately killed five crew members was "unlike anything I've ever seen outside of big-wave surf videos," survivor Bryan Chong said Tuesday, reported by Will Jason from the Marin Independent Journal.
In a nearly 4,000-word statement titled "Letter to the Community," Chong gave the first public account from a survivor of the crew's experience during the Full Crew Farallones Race on April 14.
The incident illustrates how "things can look normal until one event changes everything," wrote Chong, an experienced sailor who defended the sport of ocean sailboat racing but said a greater focus on safety is needed.
"It's my hope and intention that it will spark a wider dialogue within the sailing community about safety standards and, more importantly, safety practices," he wrote.
Chong, 38, of Tiburon, was one of three crew members who survived, along with James "Jay" Bradford of Chicago and Nick Vos of Sonoma.
Marc Kasanin of Belvedere was killed and four others were lost at sea and are presumed dead -- Alan Cahill of Tiburon, Jordan Fromm of Kentfield, Alexis Busch of Tiburon and Elmer Morrissey, a visiting researcher from Ireland.
A marine salvage company used a helicopter equipped with a crane Monday to pluck the 15,000-pound yacht from one of the Farallon Islands and fly it 28 miles to the Half Moon Bay airport.
In a chilling account, Chong described how his team fell behind at the outset of the race amid "still air" and gave up hope of a victory. The sail toward the Farallones was "uneventful," he wrote.
"The mood on the boat is relaxed," he wrote of the sail toward the islands. "We've accepted our place in the back of the pack now, so there is no need to risk equipment or safety. Our mindset is definitely not aggressive."
As the crew approached the South Farallon Islands, Chong controlled the main sail while Cahill -- a professional sailor who was "by far the best driver with the most ocean experience" -- took the helm.
The swells grew larger and the wind blew more forecefully as the yacht approached the northeast corner of the first island, he wrote
The yacht's course was similar to that of the Deception, another yacht shown rounding the islands about an hour earlier in a YouTube video titled "Crewed Farallones April 14 2012."
Before it reached the first island, the Low Speed Chase appeared to be slightly farther from land than the Deception, even with one boat behind it and closer than another, Chong wrote. After it passed the first point on the island, the Low Speed Chase turned and traveled closer to shore than the Deception, he wrote.
"I've been asked by investigators, friends and family just how close we were to the rocky coastline. Truthfully, this is one of the most difficult questions to answer; my focus was almost purely on the distance to the beginning of the break zone. Staying away from the rocks was a secondary concern to staying away from the breakers -- an ocean feature that has scared me since long before this weekend."
On the way to the islands, the yacht had sailed over swells of 10 to 12 feet with larger sets up to 15 feet. As it rounded the island, it "came across the largest swell we've seen all day."
"It begins to crest but we pass over it before it breaks. Thirty seconds later, we will not have such luck."
A "massive" wave, larger than any Chong had ever witnessed, approached from the same direction.
"As the wave approaches it begins to face up, its front flattening as it crests. By the time our boat meets it, there's no escape route."
The yacht headed into the "crashing wall of water."
"I lock my right arm to the bottom lifeline and brace for the impact. The last thing I see is the boat tipping toward vertical with a band of water still above it. A single thought races through my head: 'This is going to be bad.'"
The wave pushed the yacht backwards, rotated it 90 degrees and rolled it over, Vos later told Chong.
Chong was underwater until the water cleared off the deck. Only he and Vos remained on board.
The two tried to pull crewmates back on board but a second wave hit -- now from behind after the yacht rotated -- and knocked Chong overboard. Vos, who broke his leg, was the only person left on board.
After what he was told was about 15 minutes, Chong climbed from the surf onto low rocks.
"People have asked me if I swam for shore. The best way to describe the water in the break zone is a washing machine filled with boulders. You don't really swim."
Chong heard Vos shouting from a distance, and the two found Bradford on the shore.
The three were rescued by the Coast Guard and Air National Guard. Kasanin's body was pulled from the water and the others were not found. A search was suspended the next evening.
"I truly consider myself lucky to have a second chance at life with my wife and 8-week-old son," Chong wrote.
Chong called for a "broader commitment to safety," saying he and his crewmates had not been tethered to the yacht, and that while he and his crewmates were wearing flotation devices, his was "too loose" and he was "concerned about it slipping off." He did not describe others' inflation devices.
"However, the biggest lesson I learned that day wasn't about any piece of equipment," he wrote. "It was about taking personal responsibility for my own safety."
In the opening of his letter, Chong also defended ocean races, a practice some have criticized as overly dangerous, writing, "A sailor's mindset is no different from that of any other athlete" participating in risky sports.
"Despite the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy, skiers all over the world continue to hit the slopes each winter," he wrote.
Sailors choose the level of risk they are willing to take, he wrote.
"I generally consider sailing to be at its finest when you're coming around a mark alongside 20 identical boats, or when you're in the ocean with a kite up on a windy day, the wave action is perfect and you're surfing downwind at speeds usually reserved for powerboats."
Chong concluded with a message to his five crewmates who died: "Alan, Marc, Jordan, Alexis and Elmer. Keep your rig tuned, your kite full and your foulies dry. We'll one day finish our race together."