Goss - the reckoning

Pete Goss has given his first interviews since landing in Nova Scotia and England, Mark Chisnell reports

Friday December 15th 2000, Author: Mark Chisnell, Location: United Kingdom
After arriving in Nova Scotia yesterday, Pete Goss and the Team Philips crew have returned to England, landing on the morning of Friday 15th December. Goss gave a press conference on Thursday in Nova Scotia and another on arrival in England. His view of the events that led up to the abandonment of Team Philips is clear - they were extreme conditions and only the boat saved them.

"The sea was very confused with a storm Force 12 - easily of hurricane strength, which hit us mid-afternoon on Saturday (9th December). The storm lasted approximately eight hours." said Goss in a report on the Team Philips website. "I have never seen a storm like this before. The seas were easily 60 ft and at some points Team Philips' transom was 20 ft beneath the water." It was in these horrific conditions that Team Philips failed and Goss added, "Team Philips is the only reason that we made it through the storm. It was the equivalent of a full on Southern Ocean storm."

Despite taking all the sails down, setting sea anchors and trailing ropes, the wing masts were still driving the boat at 29 knots. Worse was the wave pattern that Goss has described on QuokkaSailing, "We had two conflicting swells: a huge one from the south-west as a result of the depression coming in from the west, and a big residue northerly swell. When the depression bombed, we had an easterly blow against this southwesterly swell. We were just caught in this cauldron of very confused seas leaping up with these rogue waves jumping around like trains." It was three of these heavy waves that did the damage to the pod.

Any yacht could be expected to have trouble with such conditions, and Goss contends that Team Philips did everything it should have and is a "credit to the designer" (despite the designer's own doubts) and reckoning that the wave piercing worked, "I had a bow wave off the pod. I had her over at a 45 degree angle with the rudders out of the water." QuokkaSailing reports Goss as saying.

But the damage sustained was serious, Goss has described a crack in the pod near the primary winches, which he reckoned would have continued to work in the conditions and eventually failed completely - resulting in some of the pod actually breaking away and taking the steering gear with it. Goss says on QuokkaSailing, "I just felt that over a period of time we would lose the steering. And without the steering we were in trouble. These southerly gales would have pushed farther away from the shipping lanes and, you know, life comes first." It seems that the steering was still functional when they made the mayday call and that the decision to abandon was pre-emptive of the damage worsening in the conditions.

But Goss is clear that it was the right decision, though he's conscious that what happened afterwards could have gone either way, "Well, it's still out there floating. It will probably be alright. But the situation we were in was that we were given an opportunity to leave in a safe and seamanlike manner, or we could have stayed with all the unknowns. And with another storm coming, staying just was not the prudent thing to do. There is never a right or wrong decision in these circumstances but there are seven people sitting safe, sound, alive and kicking in this hotel now ... perhaps we could have got back to Dartmouth in one piece. I don't know ..." again from QuokkaSailing.

Earlier reports that considerable further damage may well have been sustained by Team Philips during the rescue have also been confirmed. The container ship, the Hoechst Express owned by Hapag Lloyd, positioned herself to windward of the maxi-cat and drifted down for the rescue to take place in her lee. With scramble nets positioned over the side, Goss has described how the crew dived off the boat for the nets. This was a dangerous operation, and with the boats coming into contact several times damage to the hull and mast on that side is anticipated, however, that they all made it without injury is a testimony to the seamanship of all concerned.

Pete Goss' basic seamanship or ability to tough it out in dangerous and extreme conditions has never been in doubt. This is the man who sailed alone upwind into monstrous conditions in the Southern Ocean to rescue Raphael Dinelli. That the boat failed in conditions that were as bad as could be expected in the Southern Ocean makes this third structural problem palatable, and could be seen to justify this searching examination of Team Philip's abilities. No one was hurt and the authorities were not called upon to organise a rescue 1500 miles into the Southern Ocean.

But ... all this really just avoids the fundamental question that I raised earlier this week - whether such an original piece of design and structure should have been out in the North Atlantic in these conditions in the first place - circumstances forced upon them to some extent by the pressure to enter The Race. Certainly, Peter Johnson, Chairman of the Offshore Committee of the organisation that manages world speed sailing records (WSSRC), has his doubts. Johnson has commented, though not officially, that the circumstances surrounding the build-up to The Race have helped to bring this upon Team Philips.

Johnson reckons that the change in the qualifying rules - from having to come within a percentage time of one of a handful of major ocean passage racing records, to just sailing 2,500 miles - has, "led people on to last minute 'do or die' feats ... The old rules would have prevented this." According to Johnson, "The Race began to panic in August and September and asked WSSRC to stand by for Round Britain and Ireland as [an] extra qualifier. I made it clear that we were strongly averse to timing any boat to go around the north and west of Scotland after 1st November in any year, or before about 21st March. No one disagreed." This was exactly the time and place that Pete Goss chose for the first serious ocean sea trials of his boat.

He has made his own decisions, but the change in the qualifying rules created the opportunity. Without the change, the door would have shut on Team Philips entry to The Race much earlier, Goss simply wouldn't have had time to do any of the original qualifiers and get to Barcelona for the start. Team Philips' withdrawal from The Race would have been forced upon them, and the boat could have been worked up and tested thoroughly in a rather more prudent manner. Who can say where or when the failure would have happened - and whether it would have been at more or less risk to life and limb - if such a process had been undertaken. Speculation is useless - but the chances are that Team Philips would still be in one piece, and not soloing the North Atlantic.

The remaining questions are all about salvage, sponsorship and the future of the boat and her team - none of which Goss has any desire to answer at the moment. He will need time with the sponsors and with his support team to work it out. But conditions have moderated substantially in the North Atlantic (giving the other boats trapped in Channel ports the opportunity to leave for the Med) and there is every prospect that Team Philips could be found and a damage assessment undertaken in the next few days. Only then will Goss be able to fully answer the outstanding questions - but I doubt that this will help him much with an interrogative British press when he lands at Heathrow on Friday morning ....

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