One thing that makes sailing such an amazing sport, is the diversity that it offers. You can be a social sailor, a dinghy sailor, a casual sailor, a professional sailor, an Olympic sailor, a cruiser, a one design sailor and an offshore sailor. There are no rules on what level you want to achieve, it’s just a mindset, and understanding how far you can push your own limits.

ANZ Sail Fiji is a 1,100 nautical mile race from Auckland to Denarau Island in Fiji. Heading in a north east direction, you leave the winter months, the overcast days, the rain and the general miserable winter feeling behind, and end up in a location that is the definition of paradise.  Palm trees, cocktails, humidity, shorts and t-shirts and jandles (thongs for the Aussies).

But we can’t forget about those miles that one must venture through to see the palm trees at the end of the tunnel.

It’s the ocean. It’s vast. And once you lose site of land, you are completely reliant on the boat, your fellow crew, and your own being. When all three of these points meet up, you have yourself a dynamic team that can tackle any ocean before them.

But what happens when it goes wrong. What happens when situations beyond your control take over. What happens when you and your crew can no longer rely on the boat in the middle of the ocean. Well it can go one of two ways. You can die, or you can survive.

The human being is a wondrous creature. We find strength when we think death is on the line. We can transform from a standard every day sailor, to a super hero is just seconds. When death is staring you point blank in face, it’s awe inspiring to think of what you can achieve.

At a seminar hosted by Royal Akarana Yacht Club, four sailors who were competing in two very different campaigns, spoke about their experiences in the middle of the ocean. About the reality of saying goodbye to loved ones. About the terror of thinking they may not come out alive.

But they did. It wasn’t their time to go.

Matt, Tony, Kurt & Rob

Matt, Tony, Kurt & Rob

Kurt Boyle and Matt Burkhardt
Pelagian – Shorthanded Sailing Association Round New Zealand Race

Kurt and Matt are the perfect example of weekend warrior sailors. Yachties that love a challenge and you have to hand it to the guys, they set themselves a goal, and they achieved it.

After mortgaging themselves to the nines they managed to pull every last penny from the crack and campaigned Kurt’s Stewart 34 Pelagian in the SSANZ Round New Zealand Race. This is race that has only ever been finished by 14 boats.

They called their Mayday at 1400 hours on a Monday. The boat was half full of water, half way up the oven door. There was plywood covering the windows.

Being thrown around in 15-20m seas they were told that the rescue aircraft Orion could not take off. It was too windy. A ship was steaming their way, but they were 90 miles away and could only manage 5 knots.

Kurt and Matt were on their own.

Kurt: “Matt didn’t know this but I had been silently freaking out since we rounded Cape Regina. I didn’t want to let on because I was meant to be the experienced one on board. I saw the biggest waves of my life. We had three reefs in the main and the number four headsail up. I looked at Matt.

Matt: “I was shitting myself since Cape Regina!”

Kurt: “Matt had lost it too. SSANZ had contacted us because they lost us on the tracker. I turned around and saw a huge wave which pooped the boat. The cockpit filled the the brim. The boat drained and then it happened again. I called to Matt that we needed to do a sail change. The seas were building. We had to take down the headsails and put the storm jib up. It was the first time the storm jib had been used on the boat in 30 years. By now it was 45-50 knots and building so fast.

Matt: “That was the hardest sail change I have every done in my life. The visibility was now down to about half a foot. the rain was like razor blades. It was almost a blind sail change because I spent most of the time under water.”

Kurt: “We were frightened. We hoved too and made a decision to get in the forward bunk and just hold onto each other. We were being pushed sideways down the waves. It sounded liked a freight train. Then we could hear water coming into the boat. We closed the sea cocks and climbed back into the berth. Then we saw water coming into the boat through the bulkhead, so we smeared silicone over the freshly varnished area. There was silicone everywhere. Then we climbed back into the berth again. Time seemed to disappear and we tried to stay calm. We had a torch and took sea sickness pills. More of a placebo if anything. By this time the floor boards were a foot underwater. The quarter berth was fully submerged. We needed to find where the water was coming in. I saw 72 knots. It was howling. Water was coming into the boat like a flushing loo. We were confused. What do we do? Water was coming in up the exhaust. Matt, you’ve gotta go overboard and block the exhaust.”

Matt: “I wasn’t excited about going overboard! It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. At this point, we thought we were going to die. A mooring line was tied around my waist and then tied to the mast. I had to swim through the cockpit. Eventually I managed to wedge the exhaust. But water was still pouring in.”

Kurt: “At this point, we were in survival mode. Before the race we had made some crash pumps, and these saved out lives. To get them going however, we needed to start the engine. We had to undo the plug from the exhaust.

Matt: “I didn’t want to go back over!!! But I did. But I couldn’t get it out because I had pushed the plugs in too deep!”

Kurt: “Eventually Matt got them out and we used the pump and started bucketing the water out. When you have two scared men in the ocean with death starting directly in your fcae, it’s amazing how fast you can bail water. We never wanted to make the Mayday call, but we needed to make sure our family knew of our situation. We didn’t know if we would make it out alive, so we called our families. I rang my wife on the satellite phone and told her what was happening. I said, honey, we are in trouble. She replied and said, Kurt if you die tonight, I know you will have died doing what you love.”

Matt: “We weren’t going to f@#$ing die. We can’t”

Kurt: “We pretty much decided that. We weren’t going f@#$ing to die. We knew that a ship was 40 hours away, so we came up with a plan. Sleep for 20 minutes, bail for two and a half hours. Sleep for 20 minutes, bail for two and a half hours. Do that over and over again. We did that for three days. By this time the storm had passed, and we were drifting. The bilge was full of everything. I didn’t matter how careful we were with packing the boat, when you’re getting thrown around in a washing machine, stuff just ends up everywhere. We drifted into Stewart Island. We made it alive. I don’t know how, but we did”

Matt: “We lost our confidence tough.”

Kurt: “Yes, we did lose confidence. We finished the Round New Zealand Race, but in anything over 15 knots, we got nervous. We had lost confidence in the boat, and in ourselves.”

Kurt and Matt were asked the big question. “Would you do it again?”

“Yes”. It was a very precise reply. It didn’t matter that they faced death, the fact that they got out alive meant they learnt some valuable lessons, and like true sailors, they want to get out there and do it all again.

Kurt and Matt’s story is one of survival. They didn’t have a control centre monitoring their every move like the Volvo Ocean Race. They didn’t have the latest technology, the gadgets, or a team of professionals on board. I’m sure this is where the saying “it can happen to anyone” comes from.

Turn over the page and meet Tony Rae and Rob Salthouse. Combined these two men have done more offshore racing miles than anyone. Volvo campaigns, America’s Cup, European circuit, you name it, they have done it. They are professional sailors. Knowing the ocean, understanding their boat, it’s all part of their job. But just like Kurt and Matt, Tony and Rob experienced something that no sailors should ever experience.

On board Team Vestas Wind in the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race, they smacked head on into a reef in the middle the ocean, all because the navigator on board didn’t zoom in on the state of the art charting system.

Tony Rae & Rob Salthouse
Team Vestas Wind – Volvo Ocean Race

Rob: “We have heard every rock and reef joke there is!”

Tony: “The Volvo boats are highly prepared. It’s a one design class so everything on board is the same. Our set up is different what you would take on the Round New Zealand Race or to Fiji, we have more than you could possibly need, of everything. But yeah, we still ran into a reef.”


At this point Tony read a few paragraphs from navigator Wouter Verbraak’s book “Beyond the Break”. The room was silent and Tony relived the moment as he stumbled through the words before him. It was easy to tell that the experience is still one that haunts.

Tony: “I remember the boat feeling so smooth in the water. We had some decent pace on, about 20 knots of boat speed. Then the next minute we just stopped. When we realised that we were on a rock, or a reef as it turns out, we had no idea how the boat would react. To this day, I still wonder how no one was injured or killed.”

Rob: “We crashed around on that reef for about nine hours. Everyone had to take care of themselves to ensure you did’t get flung overboard as the boat was jolting around.”

Tony: “It’s times like this when you safety at sea training comes into play. We had a numbering off system, and we started doing just that. Numbering off to make sure everyone was still on board. We actually starting doing it just to kill time.”

Rob: “During the race, everyone on board has a job to do. My job was to make sure the boat was ok, and to conduct any repairs if needed. Yeah that was going to be a big ask this time!”

Tony: “We tried to stay on the boat as long as we could. No one wanted to get off and into the liferaft so we made a decision to stay on board until dawn at least. Nico (Chris Nicholson), finally made the call when the boat starting breaking apart. We got everything into grab bags we possibly could because we didn’t know how long we were going to be stuck on the reef for. As the medic on board, I made sure we all the kits just in case we had an injury. On the Volvo boats, there is a locker that is sealed that contains all the major medical stuff. You have to contact Volvo HQ to let them know you are opening this locker. I opened it up, and instead of seeing the pelican case with all the medic gear, I saw crystal blue water, and the reef. I just kept staring, thinking that if I look for long enough, the case would just appear. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. We had to be careful. We only had minimal medic equipment now. My stress levels went through the roof. I was the medic, I was responsible for making sure injuries were properly managed. Normally boats crash forwards, and the bow is the part to go. All the gear we needed was in the stern of the boat, because you don’t crash backwards. But we did…”

Tony and Rob showed footage of the impact again. Although we had all seen it before, everyone had their eyes glued to the screen. I was watching Tony and Rob as they were reliving the frightful moment. Tony was in a daze. His eyes didn’t move from the screen. He was in that moment again. Rob was the opposite. He was twitching, almost to the point of frustrating. Rubbing his arms, wiping his face, he couldn’t stand still. The emotions are still very raw.

Rob: “It’s hard to see that. Feels like I’m going through it all again.”

Tony: “It was time to get into the life raft. But the funny thing was, we weren’t actually in the life raft. We were all standing around it, pushing it away from the boat. I don’t know if that has ever been done before! We actually walked away from the boat.”

Rob: “While Nico was communicating with the local coastguard, he learnt that the lagoon we were in was shark infested. In his best Aussie accent he said to us ‘hey guys, we better get in the life raft, there’s sharks everywhere in his reef.’ All we needed was someone to get taken by a shark!”

Tony: “The next morning we went back to the yacht to start taking everything off. This was so surreal. Who goes back to the yacht they just got in a life raft to get off? It was the strangest feeling. But we survived.”

As the evening drew to a close, you would hear the sighs from the audience. They too felt like that had just lived through two very different yet very similar dramatic moments.

To take away from what was told, and the lessons these sailors learnt, was to be prepared. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t underestimate the power of the ocean. Make sure your crew know where everything is whether your’e going around the cans or offshore.

ANZ Sail Fiji starts on Saturday 4th June at 1100 hours. 18 boats are are entered including two multihulls and three cruising boats. The best vantage points to watch the start will be North Head, Bastian Point, Orakei Wharf and be actually being on the water.

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By Suellen Hurling

Header Image:
Artists Impression. Source.