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Earthrace Tragedy

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[Editor's note: A little more than a week after the 78-foot trimaran Earthrace began her quest to break the elapsed record for circumnavigating the globe in a powerboat, the vessel collided with a small fishing boat off the coast of Guatemala. One of the fishermen was presumed killed, another seriously injured. The crew and the biodiesel-fueled vessel were briefly detained in Guatemala pending further investigation. The following is a posting from the Earthrace captain's blog by Peter Bethune, CEO and project founder, describing his recollections of that fateful night.—Capt. Eileen Murphy]

Day 9 / 18 March

Two minutes before midnight. Anthony [Distefano, engineer] is lying asleep. I can see from the faint red glow of our LED lights his nose is bent sideways onto his pillow. It'd make a funny photo, I think to myself. I gently rock his shoulder to wake him up for his turn at the wheel.

Minutes later and I'm in my scratcher and drifting off to sleep. It'd been a long day trying to repair the heat exchanger and with absolutely no success. We're now about 15 miles off the coast of Guatemala and heading towards Mexico. Ryan [Heron, documentary film director] is struggling to sleep. He's been tossing and turning and finally decides to get up for a few minutes. He has a piss out the back, says a few quick words to Anthony, then he's back in his scratcher, trying to drift off. Thinking of Tara no doubt. Anthony settles down at the controls, the autopilot gently tweaking the rudders to keep us heading north.


Phil Klein/Corbis

Suddenly we are all awoken by a deafening series of crashes. I know instantly we've collided with something and run out to see what's happened. Anthony is already in the cockpit area. What lies behind is like a scene from a horror movie. We've driven right over the top of a 26-foot fiberglass fishing skiff, and its tattered remains lie scattered around us. We can hear moans, and one of the fishermen, 21-year-old Carlos Contreras Cruz, emerges out of the darkness and clambers onto the transom step, collapsing in a heap. A second older fisherman, Pedro Salazar Gonzalez, is wheezing and gasping for air, struggling as he bashes under the skiff remains. I jump in the water and grab his pants, hauling him up to the transom. He's limp and hardly helping himself, and I'm wondering why he doesn't just climb out. Anthony grabs his right arm and the man cries out in pain. Anthony yanks and I pull and he's unceremoniously dumped in a heap on the cockpit floor. He lies there groaning in agony.

"There's a third man in the water," yells Anthony desperately. I'd heard him behind the starboard sponson seconds before I jumped in the water, but I'm not sure if he was the old man we'd just pulled from the water. Swimming over there I start grabbing at anything in the water. There are [sic] floating debris everywhere, including the blue buoy Anthony had hurled to him to grab onto. My hand briefly touches something fabric-like. I stop and grope in the water, but it's only a rag. My swim circle gets larger as I work away from the place I know the fisherman had been a few minutes earlier. A sense of helplessness creeps over me. There's the stench of petrol, and a slick of oily fuel lies on the surface...and marine carnage all around us.

Clambering back onto the stern of Earthrace, I get my first good look at the two fishermen. They are sitting in the cockpit, clearly in shock, blood dripping from Gonzalez's head and feet. They are shivering and looking down, seemingly exhausted. "Let's circle the area with the spotlight," I yell at Anthony as I run inside to start the port engine. We commence a series of slow circles through the area, dodging petrol cans, ropes, and the skiff carcass, now with just a few inches of fiberglass sticking above the water.


Robert Sullivan/Getty Images

Peter Bethune, CEo and founder of Earthrace, in front of his wavepiercer.

"Over there," shouts Ryan. I can see the spotlight flickering on a shape in the dark water. A glimmer of hope, only to be extinguished as we get closer and see it's just another bit of debris.

We place a series of Mayday calls on VHF Channel 16. No replies anywhere. We pull Cruz into the helm and have him request help in Spanish on their local channels, but again no replies.

There are three fishing boats in a group huddled just over a mile from our position, so we decide to go and get their help with the search. I increase engine speed, and there's a sudden series of shudders through the thin carbon hull. Ryan has a confused look on his face. "Probably a damaged prop or bent shaft," I say. At 800 rpm we seem to be OK, so we just creep over towards the three lights.

Cruz by now had perked up, and he's on the roof. Once we reach the boats, he starts yelling at them. David, a qualified doctor who joined us for the leg from Panama to Acapulco, climbs up on the roof. His Spanish is reasonable, and he starts asking them to help in the search as well. We think they're joining us but as we idle back to the collision scene, I realize they're remaining fishing. A sense of anger wells up inside me. A local of theirs is dead or drowning just a mile from them, and they're unprepared to help.

Having failed to get any response locally, Anthony grabs the satphone and starts making phone calls. The U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Consulate, friends, anyone we think might be able to chase up some local support.

We track back to the man-overboard mark on our GPS. The skiff lies there forlornly amongst the debris, its outboard motor now almost submerged. "The crap is still all here," comments Ryan. In fact it has hardly moved at all, maybe only a few hundred meters from the original collision site. A couple of sharks are cruising around, probably drawn here by bait and dead fish.

Gonzales meanwhile has deteriorated. His blood pressure started at 104/60, but this has been steadily decreasing. David comes into the helm looking alarmed. "It's down to 84 over 60 and still dropping," he says with some urgency. "Let's give him some saline solution," I suggest. David looks surprised. "You guys have saline?"

We dig out the packets of from under the helm and sling them into our sleeping quarters, now a makeshift hospital. Cruz looks alarmed. He protests in Spanish that we are not to put anything into his friend. There's a stalemate with Cruz standing protectively over Gonzalez.

By now I'm starting to believe that the lost fisherman has probably drowned. And now I've a second fisherman who looks increasingly ill. So I make the decision to abandon the search and take Gonzalez to the hospital. Puerto Quetzal, some 40 nautical miles south of our current position. It's going to take us eight hours at 5 knots, but without any sign of a helicopter (fat chance) or a rescue vessel (possible), we may as well make a start.

David comes back into the helm. "Blood pressure is still dropping, Pete. 70/60." By now I've had enough: "Tell him in Spanish that if he does not get the fluid now, he will die with us tonight. And get the [expletive] saline into him." David connects up the IV, and clear saline fluid starts flowing into his veins—right now his only chance at surviving this nightmare, I'm thinking. Cruz looks dejected, like he lost the battle. But he's too exhausted to fight us anymore.

Gonzalez looks like he's dying. An hour ago he was lucid and talking, albeit with groans thrown in. Now he's silent, his eyes blank and looking nowhere, and his skin grey and lifeless. He's prostate on the bunk in just his knickers, and one skinny arm hanging down. The IV fluid sits above him, cable tied to the pipe cot. Ryan and I glance down at the poor figure. We both know he's dying and in desperate need of a hospital.

I grab the satphone. "This man is dying before our eyes," I yell at the U.S. Coast Guard. You call Guatemala and get a boat out here." Assist America gets a similar rant. Then the U.S. Consulate. It's not like our problems are really their responsibility, but we know they can help. So we keep hassling them.

Meanwhile there's a slight improvement in our friend. 500cc of IV fluid, and his blood pressure has stopped dropping. Not much, but it's a good sign.

This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.