Earthrace tragedy: Collision at sea

Posted By on March 23, 2007

Pete BethuneThose of you who have been following Earthrace and looking for updates like me, might have wondered what’s happening? (no updates for several day until today) I’ve noted that they suffered problems with an engine and would be coming in for repairs, but never suspected the news would be so grim. Unfortunately on March 18 while the boat was traveling north off the coast of Guatemala, they struck a 26 foot fishing skiff with 3 men on board. Sadly one man on the fishing skiff was killed and another seriously injured. It is a terrible tragedy and best explained by the Captain … Skipper Pete Bethune. I’ll attach the most recent three (b)log entries below which detail the ordeal.
EDIT 3/23/2007: I’ve added Pete’s entry for Friday at the bottom of this long post.

Tragedy. Captain’s Blog. Day 9. (18 March 2007)

Two minutes before midnight. Anthony 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 of the coast of Guatemala and heading towards Mexico. Ryan 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.

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 26ft fibreglass fishing skiff, and its tattered remains lie scattered around us. We can hear moans and yelling in the water.
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 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 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 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 fibreglass sticking above the water.

“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 its 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 800rpm 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 realise 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 sat phone and starts making phone calls. The US Coastguard, US 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 metres 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. “Lets 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 Hospital. Puerto Quetzal, some forty nautical miles south of our current position. It’s going to take us 8 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 over 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 ****** 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 sat phone. “This man is dying before our eyes”, I yell at the US Coastguard. You call Guatemala and get a boat out here.” Assist America gets a similar rant. Then the US 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.

At 6:45am there’s finally enough light to have a look at the props. Anthony jumps in. “The blades are all bent”, he says. “Chuck us a large spanner”. He tries this and comes back up. “We need something bigger”. The big monkey wrench is slung over to him. “I need a hand with this”, he says. “The blades are too thick”. So the two of us clamber under the stern, struggling away to straighten the props. We make a small improvement. But only just. Engine speed can be crept up a little, allowing us 7 knots.

But it’s unbearably slow. The problem is our starboard engine is still inoperable because of the oil leak from the day before. We’re on one engine only. “Lets see if we can keep the starboard engine going” I yell at Anthony. My plan is to have all our spare engine oil ready to go in. We place a drip tray under the leak, and just keep recycling the fluid. So as the starboard engine loses fluid, we’ll just top it up. Anthony looks dubious. He’s seen the leak and knows it’ll have oil everywhere in the engine room.

Five minutes later and he’s ready to go. The starboard engine roars into life and I kick Earthrace into gear immediately, making use of the engine while we can. “Pissing oil everywhere Pete”, comes a muffled cry from Anthony. “Just keep her topped up”, I yell back. I’m watching the oil pressure, hovering around 3.8 bar, which is normal. We might be losing fluid, but its not affecting pressure that much. We’re up to 14 knots. Not great, but better than 7. Its cut our travel time in half if we can maintain this.

“Shut her down, shut her down” screams Anthony. We grind back to 7 knots and things go quiet. . I poke my nose in the engine room. Anthony looks like a black sambo, his face covered in oil, and just the whites of his eyes and teeth showing. The entire engine bay is covered in a thin spray, and the bilge is flowing with a black slick of oil. Anthony looks dejected. “Worth a try”, he mutters.

Gonzales by now has had 1000ccmof IV fluid, and his blood pressure has sneaked up to 80/60. David checks if he’s pissed himself but he hasn’t. “The trouble is he’s taken a full litre of fluid into his tiny body, and nothing has come out”, explains David “This means he’s probably good significant internal bleeding.”

Just before 7 o’clock and an email comes through, saying that local authorities have been alerted, but no assets are available to help. Another series of ranting phone calls goes out. At 7:20 another email arrives. A US LT. Colonel has notified the local Coastguard and they are en-route to assist us. Then at 07:23 a third email, saying a Guatemalan Navy vessel has just left San Jose. Suddenly we’re not entirely alone.
Gradually Gonzalez comes back to life. His blood pressure sneaks up. Then he’s awake again, albeit a bit drowsy. Next he wants a piss. Not surprising when he’s had 2500cc of saline. His urine is clear. All good signs. We know he’s not out of danger yet, but he’s now got a fighting chance.

Gonzalez is loaded into one of our pipe cots and made ready for transfer. Every movement causes him to wince in pain. “Should we give him a shot of morphine” I suggest. David’s not keen on this.

At 9:40am the Navy vessel arrives. And then surprise surprise, one of the fishing boats from last night turns up. The skipper stands belligerently on the bow of the skiff, ordering his crew around. I glare down at this wanker now offering his assistance. Clearly the skiff is the best option, as the Navy vessel looks old and slow. A pity the fisherman wasn’t so generous last night. There’s considerable debate in Spanish on the stern over how to get him onto the skiff, while Gonzalez lies in the cockpit groaning. Finally we manage to get him off, and seconds later, the skiff is zooming off to port, now just 14 miles away.

The Navy Captain then comes inside Earthrace. He wants to know what happened. So I tell him the story of the most horrifying night of my life. We struggle over some of the words, and we’re nearly to port before I finally finish. The Captain came with another young man, who is surprisingly out of uniform. “Who is this”, I ask, pointing at him. “It is the son of the man who is now missing, and he was fishing on the boat last night when you went and asked them for help.” I can see in the young man’s eyes he knows we’re talking about him, but he doesn’t understand. “Does he know his father has drowned”, I ask, tears now starting to well up in my eyes. “Not yet”, the Captain replied, looking away, and also struggling to contain his emotions. Tears roll down my cheeks, and the gravity of last nights events finally sink in.

Arrested. Captain’s Blog. Day 10. (20 March 2007)

“I’ve only got one engine” I say to the Navy captain, “I might need one of your boats to give us a hand docking.” There’s a stiff breeze blowing us towards the wall of Puerto Quetzal. The Captain looks unimpressed, like I should know how to dock a boat with one engine by now. I convince him to have one of his patrol vessels nearby in case we get into difficulty. They’ve been shadowing us for ages, I’m thinking, so we may as well have them give us a hand if we need it. But in the end Earthrace glides gently against the dock and the crew quickly get ropes tied making us secure.

We can see that word is definitely out. There’s an army of military people and officials waiting for us on the dock, all looking down sternly. The scary bit for a Kiwi is they all have guns. Every second one is packing a weapon of some sort, and many of them are pointed aggressively in our direction.

A roll of yellow tape comes out, and before we know it, Earthrace is labelled “Crime Scene” in Spanish. The Captain gives us strict instructions. “You may not leave this vessel tonight.”

“Are we under arrest”, I enquire. “Yes. No. Mmmm. Sort of. It is for your own protection.” I actually don’t mind either way. I’m sure there’s a procedure for them to follow through after an event like this, but I’m keen to know if I am actually under arrest, and if so, what are we charged with. In the end I let it slide. The first of the Officials start coming into the sweaty helm, still wreaking vomit and urine from the night before. Customs, Immigration, Agriculture, Port Captain, Shipping Agent. They all come forward with their paperwork and we diligently fill out the forms. The port Captain, who’s English is passable, says to be very weary of the investigators, the next row of people waiting in line.

The investigators move forward. “We need your statement. Follow us and we write.” He says in faltering English. “But I have no lawyer”, I say. “Nor do I have a Translator. I cannot sign anything until I have both of these.”

“We provide”, he snaps back, and walks out of the helm, expecting me to follow. He finally realises I’m not with him, and comes storming back through the galley. “You come now”, he demands.

“I need my own lawyer and my own translator, and until I have these I will not sign anything”. He glares at me as he storms off, barking orders at one of his offsiders as he goes. The boat seems like a haven to all the hostilities outside. People are glaring menacingly down at us, but in here we feel we’re safe.

An email comes in from the ground crew. They will arrive in Guatemala tonight. We jump on the sat phone and start making phone calls. We need lawyers. Translators. Lets call the NZ Consulate.

Eventually the crowds of people dwindle off and we’re left with just our military guards for the night. Four blokes with assault rifles, pacing backwards and forwards. There’s also a Navy vessel patrolling around us.

Ryan, Anthony and I sit in the cockpit, reflecting on the nightmare… and there’s a question that needs answering. I can tell Anthony’s expecting it. An experienced boat captain with a 100-ton licence has crashed Earthrace into another vessel. How could this happen? Anthony lowers his voice, and recounts the minutes leading up to the event. “There were three fishing boats over to port, about a mile or two away. I could see their white lights. I wasn’t sure initially if it was three boats or one. Next I see a white and red flashing light directly ahead, but it’s so small that I figure it’s still a long way away. I’m looking on the chartplotter to see what beacon it is, and then we collide.” Flashing lights, according to maritime law, are only to be used on navigational aids such as beacons. As one of the lawyers put it, “a flashing light on a vessel is meaningless at best, and extremely dangerous at worst”.

I remember seeing a small white and red flashing light when I was swimming around for the lost fisherman and I actually picked it up. It looked more like something you’d find on a pushbike. “And you’re sure there was no white light”, I ask.
“Absolutely”, he says. This is a key point for us, I quickly realise. It is mandatory for a vessel to have at the very least, an all round white light, if they’re at anchor, drifting, or underway. And better still is a red over white, which would indicate they are fishing. To just have a small flashing light means they’re far from correctly marked, and in listening to Anthony, it’s a key factor that led to the accident.

I’m also wondering why they didn’t just move. Ryan provides the answer. He had a chat to Cruz in Spanish on the roof of Earthrace while we were searching. It turns out they were asleep at the time. They set their long lines, then sleep for a while, then check the lines and reset them. And at the time of the collision the fishermen were all asleep.

The final bit if the puzzle for me is the radar. A 26ft-fishing vessel will normally show up well on radar. Why didn’t Anthony pick it up? There are two reasons in fact. Guatemalan Panga boats have very low freeboard, sometimes as low as a foot. And with a foot or two of waves, the returning signals get buried. Secondly, they’re made of fibreglass, and this has a relatively low radar signature. A combination of the two means that Panga boats do not show up well or radar, with weak signals that do not appear until you are relatively close…and without the right lights, a disaster waiting to happen. It doesn’t stop me being pissed off at Anthony though.

A couple of Lawyers arrive, arranged by Nigel in Panama. A quick meeting then they are off to meet family members of the fishermen. The three of us settle back to our cockpit. It’s a beautiful, warm, silent night, except for the crunch of gravel under the guard’s boots up above us. We all realise we haven’t slept in ages, and its been an exhausting day. “I’m buggered. Might hit the scratcher now”, I say. But I stay with the lads chatting. The sleeping quarters are hot and smelly right now. Maybe I’ll sleep outside. I’m pondering this when Dave, the Doctor arrives back.

“Well first off” he says, “Gonzalez is going to operated on tonight. And we’re hoping he’ll be OK. Secondly an angry mob of family members nearly lynched me today at the hospital. And thirdly, you are requested to join Senior Munyos here at the Officers Mess for dinner”.

“Well I can’t leave here”. I say. “I’m under strict orders to remain aboard Earthrace.” Senior Munyos makes it very plain I am being ordered to join him. He has a handgun in a holster and a stern look on his face. So up I clamber, off to the Officers mess for a welcome feed. Freedom. Well almost.

After dinner, we are ushered over to meet the Commandante, apparently top dog on the base. I’m wondering what this is all about. We walk into his office and there is GC4, GC5, Lance and Dave, waiting for us. It’s an emotional meeting. We’re not alone in this, and our team has just doubled in strength…but we’re going to need every one of them, I think to myself.

Word gets around. Captain’s Blog. Day 11. (21 March 2007)

“Banana banana banana”. Spanish has this tendency to sound like this. Senior Munyos is telling us he’s here to take us to breakfast. He’s standing on the dock waiting for us. A big smile and a handshake greet us as we clamber up. We wander into the mess hall and there’s a similarly warm reception. I’m a little surprised, because last night, especially on the dock, our reception wasn’t exactly welcoming.
I’m ushered to a seat next to the port captain. “What do people here think of us?” I enquire. “Well” he says, “when you arrive, we only know one story. But last night we learn your side of the story, and we know you did everything you could. And you saved one of our fisherman”. I wasn’t sure we had saved him at all, although we did at least give him a fighting chance with the saline solution. He goes on, “what happened is an accident that could happen to any seamen”. I’m wondering who told them our side of the story, when I see the Navy captain who’d escorted Earthrace in the previous day, talking animatedly to a group of officers, and pointing our direction. He’s the only local person I’ve discussed events with, but now it seems everyone knows. Which is a good thing I think to myself.

We’d also given copies of the Earthrace DVD to a few of the Officials who came aboard the night before, and it seems these are now doing the rounds. As we’re escorted around the base there are warm smiles and handshakes to greet us. “Buenos Dias”, many of them say. In the space of 12 hours we’ve gone from Pariah to celebrity, even if only inside the military compound.

“This base is your home”, is GC5’s translation of the Comandante’s words. “Anything you need. You ask.”

“Internet” I enquire, not really expecting a positive outcome.

The Commandante gestures that I can use his computer, getting up from his desk and ushering me to his seat. Wow. How cool is that. I’m under military guard at a base, and the head honcho has given me his PC to use. Unbelievable.

“Well what about an office to work from”? Scott gets the request in. El Comandante shows us into a room immediately adjacent to his office. “Perfecto” replies Scott. There’s an RJ45 jack in the wall. “Mmmm” say Scott. “I bet I can get Internet through that as well.” Ten minutes later and we’re in. Earthrace has a new base.

GC4 bought a couple of cellphones on the way in. She calls the hospital where Gonzalez was taken. He was operated on last night, and had a perforated stomach, a perforated intestine, a fractured sternum, and considerable internal bleeding. The prognosis though is the operation went well and they expect him to recover. David is adamant he’d have died without the saline. The amazing thing is we nearly didn’t have saline at all. A Doctor in Charleston came down and asked if we needed anything. All we could think of at the time was saline. How lucky is that.

An email arrives from my daughter Alycia back in New Zealand. She’s upset because her didjeridoo got stolen at School camp. I’m wondering if this is all worth it. I should be back at home with Sharyn and my two cool girls. And a fisherman wouldn’t be lost at sea and another in hospital. We’d bought the didjeridoos several years ago when on this amazing holiday in Australia. My mind wanders off to what seems like a lifetime ago now.

“Pete. The US Consulate is on the phone and want to meet us in the morning”, says Allison. I’m bought back to reality with a thump. “And the Office de Publico want a statement from you.”

The Shadow. Captain’s Blog. Day 11. (22 March 2007)

The warmth of the military people towards us continues to surprise. They diligently turn up on request, driving us to the boat, the mess hall, the Comandante’s office, anywhere we want to go on base. But one thing is pissing me off. We’re not allowed to work on the boat, despite being forced to sleep on it. At the moment I still don’t know what damage there is under the hull, or how much work there is in fixing the props. But they won’t even let us look. We make another request to the Comandante, but he’s adamant. We cannot look under the waterline.
The situation is the Office de Publico must do an inspection of the vessel. But we seem unable to get them to come and perform it. I’m wondering what they hope to find. It is not like we are disputing the fact that a collision took place. We spend much of the morning hassling people but we’re unable to connect with the right ones.

“How about we go and kick a rugby ball around for a while”, I suggest to Ryan. We’re bored, and a run around will do us good I’m thinking. I grab the Waikato Chiefs rugby ball from the forward bunk and run onto the courtyard above earthrace. We start passing and kicking the ball around, and one of our guards comes up. “You play der”, he says, pointing at a soccer pitch behind some barracks. “Safer”. We wander over. It’s too small really, and bumpy. But we give it a go anyway. Ryan’s first kick is a beautiful spiral right into the corner, and as I’m turning to chase it down, my foot dips in a hole and I’m crashing in a heap on the ground. Searing pain burns up my leg. I look down and there’s a golf ball size bulge sticking out from my ankle.

“Get some ice”, I yell at Ryan, and he scampers off. I can tell at the very least it’s a bad sprain, but I’m just praying it ain’t broken. I put some weight on my bad leg. The pain seems the same. I do a tiny hop on the bad leg and it hurts like hell, but not the searing pain you’d have from damaged bones. (bones have nerves along the outside. To tell if they are broken or cracked, just load them by weight say, or jar them a little, like a small jump. If the bones are damaged you’ll have wicked pain). Another minute and my whole ankle has ballooned up. Right now I need ice to stop this getting worse. Ryan runs back with a couple of bottles of water. “The Medic is on his way”, he pants.

Finally a driver arrives. It turns out he’s taking us to the medic. We arrive at the Infermaria (hospital) and there’s no one there. “All I want is some bloody ice”, I yelling at the driver, who clearly speaks no English. We sit down and wait, my ankle getting ever worse from the swelling. Finally the Medic arrives. He fossicks around and comes out with a solid blue ice pack, but it hardly touches any of my ankle. “Ryan. Go in there and find some small blocks of ice”, I snap, pointing at the kitchen. Ryan disappears. I can hear him scraping at something. He comes back with a couple of fist fulls of the icy stuff you get around a freezer. Perfect. We pack it around the pregnant ankle. It hurts, but I know it helps. Just a pity it took 20 minutes to get.

I hop back to our office next to El Comandante. It’s then that I first notice my shadow. A small little man in Military Police uniform is following me at a distance. He walks behind buildings and trees, but always keeping me close to his field of view. I hop up to him and introduce myself. He speaks no English, and all I can get is his name is Sanchez. Then at 7 o’clock he is changed for another guy. “It’s like being in a spy movie”, I say to Ryan. “Yeah, and I could take both of them”, Ryan replies. In fact for military police they’re not the most imposing of figures. I reckon I could even escape in my current disabled state, I’m thinking to myself.

“Word from the Lawyers Pete. The inspection is happening now”. GC4 sounds quite excited. “And you’re due in court tomorrow morning”. In fact I was supposed to be in court today, but it got postponed. As for the inspection, that is good news. We wander / hop down to the boat. There’s a bunch of people sniffing around, a couple of them with scuba gear on. They spend much of their time looking at nothing in particular. Although they are especially keen on the radar and night vision system. “Can we work on our boat now”, Scott asks the Inspector after they’re done. It seems there’s one last bit of paper we need, and we can finally work on Earthrace again.

An hour later and the paperwork, complete with signatures and stamps, arrive with GC5. He throws on his wetsuit and gets to work. “Rudders look good”, he yells out. “Starboard sponson OK…Port sponson some scrapes but nothing serious…Port propeller with 4 damaged blades…Starboard propeller with one damaged blade”. GC5 methodically works around the boat. He finally ends up near the bow and takes a long time under the water. “There’s one cigarette packet size bit of damage under here”, he says, pointing beneath the ballast tank. “And that is it”. Wow. It could have been much worse.

GC5 and Anthony work late into the night straightening the propellers. They’re basically using a sledge-hammer to panel-beat them back into shape. The plan is to have these approximately fixed to get us out of here. Then we’ll get a new set installed in Acapulco.

I clamber down into Earthrace and sit in the navigator seat for a while thinking. Give us another day and I’m sure the boat will be all ready to leave. But when we’ll be able to leave is another matter. Some are saying we’ll be here for months and others are saying a few days. In terms of crew, if this does drag out, I’m the only one they’ll want to keep. So it might be the crew and Earthrace could leave while I remain to complete legal proceedings. There are also the families to consider. I’d wanted to meet them to express our condolences, but so far we’ve hit a blank wall. I look up at the dock and I can see my shadow walking around nonchalantly.

Everything goes ballistic.. Captain’s Blog. Day 12. (23 March 2007)

“No court appearance today Pete.” GC4 gives us a quick rundown on progress. Although this sure ain’t progress. I’ve been itching to get in front of the judge and present what happened, and yet every day they delay our appearance. The good news is the Lawyers are meeting with the families later today.

The law here is complicated. There is the civil side, and the criminal side, and at the moment the two are tied together in a complicated web. For us to get out of here, we must reach agreement with the families, and also satisfy the court that the collision was not our fault. But untangling the web is not that simple.

Fernando is trying to explain this to me but I’m just getting frustrated. “Can’t we just treat the two separately”, I ask. Fernando goes off on some tangent and loses me again. “And how come the Judge keeps putting us off”, I demand. Fernando explains the Judge can do whatever he likes with his day. And he can hear the cases when he likes. I’m thinking we should call the US Consulate and get them to exert some pressure. We still haven’t been charged with anything after all. Fernando goes off on another tangent. Eventually he and his advisors leave to meet with the families, and I’m only slightly wiser on how things work here.

My leg is still aching, and I hardly slept last night. It didn’t seem to matter what angle I put it on. Its an ugly sight, and has started to go blue from bruising. “You’re an elephant man”, says Ryan, as I saunter down at the lunch table and put my swollen leg up on a spare chair. My shadow comes past and makes a series of disapproving clucking noises. He’s given up trying to be in the background now. He just walks beside me wherever go.

We head back to our office, and everyone is talking about press releases. Until now we haven’t let anything out, other than a couple of interviews back to New Zealand. Nor have we done any blogs…and everyone in the team has a strong opinion. “There’s no way we will gain anything from a press release now”, says David, “and if any of it gets aired in Guatemala it’ll just piss everyone here off.” A couple others in the team agree with him.

Another call from one of Anthony’s friends comes through. It seems his family and friends have been running a tag team to keep up the pressure on us not releasing anything. I snap and tell her to stop hassling us. Next she starts telling me about what the state department has advised her. This from someone who rammed ships when she was with Sea Shepherd. I’m wondering what the State Department would say about that. To be fair, she and the family are only trying to give us advice, and this lady was really helpful in getting the US Consulate involved on the night of the accident. But I’ve spent well over an hour listening to them on the phone today and the time just isn’t productive.

We’re back in the office and GC5 reckons we should run the press releases. GC4 is on the fence. John calls in from Panama. “We must have a press release out there Pete. Sponsors need to know what’s happening, and we cannot hide any longer.” I wander into the spare email room we’ve commandeered to be alone for a bit. We’ve hardly achieved anything today because we’re all arguing about what to release. The thing is, we have nothing to hide. It was an accident, caused in a large part by a boat not having a white light and the fisherman all being asleep. It doesn’t completely excuse the fact that a collision took place, but it certainly places a large chunk of blame on the fishermen.

It would seem if we make the wrong decision, I’m the one who will cop it. As Captain of the boat, I’m responsible. Anthony was driving, but the Guatemalans have no interest in him, and in fact he is free to go. If anyone is forced to spend time behind bars, it will be me. So bugger it. We’ll run the lot I decide.

I wander back into the office. The debate is about to start afresh again. “Team”, I say. “We are running the press release. We have nothing to hide, and it is better that people know what happened than speculate. From now on, it is up to Devann and myself to determine what goes out.” David starts a sentence, but I stop him. “Look David, it’s my call, and I’m going to run it.”

I grab Scott. He’s written a couple of blogs but they were put on hold. “Get them loaded Scott. From tonight, I want all blogs and press releases up to date, and that includes yours.”

Devann in San Diego is stressed. She’s been getting pressure not to send out the press release as well. I tell her to just do it, and she obediently starts the email server beaming our press release all over the world… and then things just go ballistic. Phone calls and emails start rocking in from all corners of the globe. Some of them are supportive, but some are suggesting we’ve been wrong to release such detailed information. She’s worried we’ve done the wrong thing. She sends an email. “I’m going out to get boozed tonight”. Mmmm. Nice idea

My final job of the day is awkward, and I’d been avoiding it all day. I take Anthony aside for a chat, but I’m not really sure how to broach the subject. This guy has given his life to Earthrace over the last few months, but I’m not sure about continuing with him as crew, given his role in the accident. He’s already given this some thought. “You know Pete,” he starts, “it might be better if I step down as Engineer.” His voice starts to falter. “And maybe help you guys from San Diego or North Carolina.” I can’t help but admire him. He’s one of the most outstanding people we’ve had on the team, and he truly believes in what we’re doing. My mind wanders back to a few days earlier when he emerged from the engine bay completely covered in oil. Anthony has been a loyal servant of Earthrace, and has done everything I’ve asked. I feel like I’m cheating on him to let him go. But deep down I think it is the best for the team. We decide he can finish off the maintenance tomorrow then fly home. And I know his family will be relived.

I lie awake thinking of the sacrifices people like Anthony and Devann continue to make for Earthrace. No one is getting paid, and yet the hours they all do are horrendous. What a strange alchemy Earthrace is that it can engender such commitment from people for no reward. I start to wonder if I’m asking too much of people who are overly generous. It’s something I’ve thought about many times…and I still don’t know the answer.


Desultory - des-uhl-tawr-ee, -tohr-ee

  1. lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful: desultory conversation.
  2. digressing from or unconnected with the main subject; random: a desultory remark.