Sharing the Helm

In 1998's treacherous Sydney to Hobart, Tasmania, ocean race, tragedy obscured the incredible story of teamwork abourd the diminuitive AFR Midnight Rambler.
April 24, 2013

By race time on Saturday, Dec. 26, 115 sailing yachts had registered in Sydney, the crown jewel of southeastern Australia’s coast. Their names were as assorted as the design of the boats themselves—Atara, Business Post Naiad, Renegade, Team Jaguar Infinity III—though almost all had the same plan when the starting gun sounded.

They would round the first mark of the course and speed straight for a marker offshore, then follow a direct line to Hobart, 626 nautical miles (720 land miles) away, near Tasmania’s southern tip—185 degrees on the compass, with no more maneuvering required than to compensate for the wind.

With the wind from a nor’easter starting to blow in, the boats accelerated through the afternoon and evening. The wind and current flattened the sea, giving the AFR Midnight Rambler and its Aussie crew a clear run to the Bass Strait (separating the Australian mainland and Tasmania). The sturdy but unspectacular 35-footer had fallen behind much of the fleet early in the afternoon, but took off and flew like a Jet Ski into the pitch-black night. Soon there were thunderstorms, with lightning everywhere.

On Dec. 23, three days before the race, most computer models were forecasting winds of around 25 to 40 knots (more than 46 mph) from the south, or moderate northeasterly winds at the entrance of the Bass Strait. Shortly before the race began—and unbeknownst to many sailors—those predictions changed.

Just over an hour into the race, forecasters from the Bureau of Meteorology’s Sydney office upgraded their gale warning to a storm warning. With the storm warning, gusts of 70 knots—more than 80 mph—were to be expected. In 1998, the term hurricane was not used for the waters off southeastern Australia, though the winds building to the south would have qualified.

John “Jonno” Whitfeld, a crewman on the Midnight Rambler, was hypnotized by nature’s light show and by the sensation of the boat’s building speed. We’re just smokin’, he said to himself. They had never sailed the boat in heavy weather like this, and part of the excitement was wondering what would happen next.

The first front hit the Rambler at 3 a.m. on Dec. 27. As the most experienced helmsman, 36-year-old skipper Ed Psaltis took responsibility for steering through the waves as the thunderstorm intensified.

The wind kept building, and the waves kept getting higher. By Sunday morning, the wind was sustained at 60 to 70 knots, with gusts of 80 knots or more, and waves as high as 80 or 90 feet. It was as if the ocean had lost its mind.

Ed continued to steer through the day, but was mentally and physically exhausted. I’m the best guy to steer this boat. I’m the guy in charge, and these are my six friends. If I can’t get the boat through these waves, people will die. Feeling the full weight of his responsibility, Ed fought back fatigue and focused on getting the boat through the brutal storm.

Under normal conditions, Ed was good at managing the crew and assessing who should go below for rest. But these conditions were anything but normal, and he had lost track of everything except fighting the waves to keep everyone alive.

While Ed was consumed with his job at the helm, Gordon “Gordo” Livingstone was glued to the rail as his wave-spotter. Chris Rockell had been getting ready to relieve Gordo when he fell and cracked his head open. Now Chris was immobilized below, and Gordo stayed in position.

Gordo took it for granted that he would fill in for his injured mate. Each time Gordo thought it couldn’t blow any harder, it did. The air was saturated with water, and the crests of the enormous waves were being blown apart by the wind and hurled into the air. The water, speeding through the air to hit Gordo’s exposed skin, stung with excruciating pain. In an attempt to protect his face, Gordo put his hand up in front of his face to shield himself and realized he could barely see his glove through the rain and spume.

Even though being on deck was hard, Gordo wondered if going down below would be even worse. Being stuck below deck meant losing any sense of what was going on—like riding a roller coaster in the dark and blindfolded.

With Ed completely preoccupied by steering, and in the confusion of Chris’s injury and the storm, Gordo was forgotten and Arthur Psaltis was the first one to realize what had happened. Gordo has been manning the rail as the wave-spotter for almost four hours! Even an hour would have been enough. Gordo needed a break, and Arthur decided to speak up.

Ed and Arthur had a special relationship, even for brothers. They were close but also shared a prickly competitiveness. They had sailed together since they were young boys. They were best mates and rivals at the same time. Arthur understood that Ed could push too hard, and he often “had a go” at Ed on this sensitive issue.

Ed was a lot like Sly Stallone in the Rocky movies. His default mode was to carry on with determination even when faced with impossible odds. Arthur thought more about conserving strength. It wasn’t that Arthur was soft—he wasn’t. If Ed saw life as a sprint, Arthur saw it as a marathon. In many ways, they complemented each other.

It was clear to Arthur that they were not going to survive the storm by sprinting. There was no way of knowing how long it would last. Yelling over the noise of the wind, Arthur shouted into Ed’s ear. “Dammit, Ed, Gordo’s still on deck! We’ve got to get a grip; we can’t go on like this. The crew isn’t being managed. It’s not your fault. I know you’ve got to steer, but let me take over and manage the watch.”

Ed came out of his hyperfocused state. He didn’t hesitate. “Yes, just do it!” he screamed back. “I can’t even think about it!”

To the relief of everyone, Arthur dedicated himself to looking after the welfare of the crew, leaving Ed at the helm to do what he did best. Gordo went below and took shelter from the storm, and Michael “Mix” Bencsik came on deck to replace him. Gordo felt a sense of relief, but he was also shocked by what he saw below.

Everyone was visibly shaking. Gordo was battered from his time on the rail. He had been sliding back and forth between two deck fittings, and their shapes were clearly outlined by the dark bruises on his legs. Like everyone else, he was trembling. To warm himself, Gordo crawled into a bunk with Arthur. Arthur tossed a sea blanket over him, but Gordo’s quivering continued.

Arthur was shaking, too. At first Gordo thought they were just cold. That’ll go away when we warm up a bit, he said to himself. But an hour later he realized it was more than being cold. He and his mates were gripped with terror about what the next wave would bring. The physical and psychological toll of the experience was immense, and it couldn’t be fixed with a blanket. Surviving the storm was the only remedy.

Everyone, whether up on deck or below, confronted the very real possibility of death. Arthur thought, We’ve done everything we can do to survive in these conditions; I can’t see a way out, and it’s actually getting worse. He thought about his 14-month-old daughter. I just didn’t have a chance to have an impact on her life. Suddenly he felt angry. If only I’d had a chance.

As the skipper, Ed couldn’t let the others know he thought they might not make it. But he knew that possibility was very real. In the background, the radio was blaring distress calls from other boats in the race, adding to Ed’s feelings of isolation and terror. Just south of Twofold Bay at the entrance of the Bass Strait, the men were surrounded by disaster.

At 5:21 p.m., a mayday call came from the Winston Churchill:

Winston Churchill: Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. Here is Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill. We are holed. We are taking water rapidly. We can’t get the motor started to start the pumps.

ABC Helicopter: Roger. How many onboard?

Winston Churchill: Niner. Niner.

The despair coming through the voice of the skipper made Gordo’s blood run cold, and he shook even more. He knew the crewmen aboard the Winston Churchill were in very serious trouble.

Like the rest of the Rambler’s crew, Mix worried about whether they were going to get out alive. But he still had confidence in his teammates and in their ability to fight the storm. Buoyed by this sense of connection with his mates, he pushed his doubts into the back of his mind. Mix decided to focus only on the present, about the things he could influence, one moment at a time.

Jonno didn’t allow himself to think that they might not make it. To some extent, he felt that their fate was not in their hands. He thought, If the boat gets knocked down, we’ll just have to hang on and see what happens. Then we’ll deal with it.

Each time AFR Midnight Rambler recovered from a knockdown and righted itself, Jonno gained more confidence in the boat. His only concern was that if conditions continued at the current intensity into the night, there could be gear damage. But until it happened, there was no need to dwell on the unknown.

A sense of control is the most important thing, Jonno thought. If we have some control, we will have some way of predicting the outcome. Intent on measuring their power over the storm, Jonno developed a metric.

His scale was simple. If they were in control less than 50 percent of the time, that was bad, demoralizing. Being in control half of the time—exactly 50 percent—was a good thing. If they were half in control, then they were doing all right. Having command more than 50 percent of the time was really good.

There were long periods when Jonno calculated they were in control less than half the time. Every 10 to 15 minutes, he would gauge their situation. Tracking the degree of command became an engaging distraction. It provided a way of marking progress and, paradoxically, a device for feeling safe—even when they were not.

In spite of the scare that came with his injury, Chris found his own way of dealing with the uncertainty. He framed their situation quite clearly. We, as a crew, are pretty good at what we do. We’ve all been doing it for a while. We’re all doing what we all agree is the best thing we can do right now, to make sure we get through this. If we don’t, then we’ve given it our best shot.

Each found a personal strategy for dealing with his fears and also found ways to support one another. They focused on short-term goals, making sure the equipment on the boat was working as well as it could be. They kept the boat tidy, helping to impose a feeling of order on their chaotic state.

They made sure people on watch were relieved and rotating on time. They made sure the helmsmen—Ed and Bob Thomas, who did his share to relieve the leader—had water.

Those coming off watch would get a pat on the back with a congratulatory “well-done.” Everyone below knew what it was like up there, and anyone who stuck it out on deck had given it his all.

On deck, they made sure the mainsail was tightly rolled up and lashed to the deck with the boom. They wanted to be certain that everything was properly secured so that if they did capsize, no one would be hit by loose equipment, adding injury to the havoc.

Negative thoughts went unspoken. Catastrophic possibilities were imagined, but spoken comments were optimistic.

All of them had their peaks and troughs—moments when they utterly excelled and moments when they couldn’t push themselves any harder. The team was acutely sensitive to this ebb and flow in each other’s ability.

Establishing a watch system with people on deck for only an hour at a time and below deck for two hours was critical to sharing the burden. The system helped them maintain stamina, and its psychological impact was equally important. They were much more resilient knowing that their time in hell would end after 60 minutes.

Despite everything they were doing to help each other, by late Sunday afternoon the storm had taken an enormous toll. Ed had been steering for most of the afternoon. Bob had helped, but he had been washed off the helm twice by the gigantic breaking waves. Ed was the best driver, and everyone knew it.

Still, even Ed had limits. Dusk was coming on, with sunset due just after 8 p.m. He began to think, I’m at the end of my tether. I’m not telling the crew, but if this continues, I can’t keep going, and there’s no one else who can steer through waves like this.

Arthur sensed what his brother was feeling. And the thing that struck him about their situation was that the storm was getting worse—and there was still daylight. What would happen when it got dark? This is not good, Arthur thought. Our best helmsman is Ed, and we’ve got to get him to rest before it gets dark. The last thing we need is to have him exhausted and fatigued at night.

Arthur huddled with Bob and agreed on a plan. Climbing up on deck into the storm, Arthur shouted at Ed: “You’ve got to get off the bloody helm and get some sleep. If this thing keeps going through the night, it’s going to get much harder—we might not see daylight! Get off the bloody helm and get down below!”

Ed shot back, “No, no, don’t be stupid! This is tough, tough right now. I’m OK, let me go.”

Arthur didn’t flinch. “You’re not OK. You’re already knackered. You’ve got to let me have a go at steering this boat. I think I can do it. You’re tired. Dusk is only an hour away, and we need our best man in the dark if we’re to going to survive this. Get the hell down below and get some rest!”

Ed looked at his brother. He realized Arthur was right. He had been pushing, pushing and pushing, but he was struggling to keep going. He had to rest before dark. Ed went below and collapsed.

Sprawled on a berth below, Ed began to understand what had happened. If Arthur hadn’t stepped in, he would have been steering at night, physically and emotionally drained, with ragged reflexes. It was too horrifying to think about. Ed drifted into a half-sleep. He was thankful that his brother had given him such a hard dose of reality.

The AFR Midnight Rambler crew listened to the frightening maydays and man-overboard alerts through Sunday night and into Monday morning, as the storm eased. They heard helicopters coming to the rescue of stricken boats, searching for people lost in the water. These were men they knew, friends they had shared good times with and sailed with, not just competitors. A rogue wave that had knocked down and dismantled another boat could have just as easily crushed them.

It was impossible to ignore the tragedies unfolding around them. VC Offshore Stand Aside had been hit to the north, less than 20 miles away. Winston Churchill, close behind them, had sunk. Sword of Orion had met its fate about 20 miles to the east. It was excruciatingly apparent the Rambler had been at the bull’s eye of a deadly target.

Steering away from the waves would have increased the risk of being rolled. So they tried to attack the waves as directly as they possibly could. It wasn’t a racing decision; it was a survival decision. If their chances of survival had been improved by another move, they would have taken that option.

In the Southern Hemisphere, hurricane-force storms spiral clockwise. The highest wind velocities occur when the direction of the spiral combines with the direction the storm is moving. Bob knew what the Ramblers needed to do to get through the storm. The storm was moving southeast, so they had to go as far west as they could, as quickly as possible. After almost 24 hours in survival mode, they emerged. But what had the other boats done?

By noon on Monday, the Rambler was back to racing, sailing normally along the northern coast of Tasmania. The storm was over at last and now the crew came up on deck to feast on Greek meatballs, a celebratory lunch that was the first thing any of them had eaten in at least 30 hours.

Bob got the position of every boat he could. Plotting their coordinates, he realized the balance of the fleet had sailed east toward New Zealand, going with the gale. As a consequence, they were in the storm longer—some for as long as 36 hours—and they had been blown away from the direct line to Hobart.

During the night, the Ramblers had gained a huge amount of ground over their competitors. Not only had they beaten the storm, but the decision they made to minimize risk turned out to be the best racing strategy as well.

The boats that had gone east included a number of bigger and more favored yachts. Ragamuffin, Quest and Ausmaid were world-class opponents, superb boats, and the Rambler was beating them all. Bob realized they were actually leading in the handicap standings—the rankings to determine which boat got the Tattersall’s Cup. Showing emotion he had held back in the worst of the storm, he shouted, “We’re winning! Just don’t break the bloody boat!” The news lifted everyone’s spirits. It jolted them out of their shock from the storm.

The adrenaline was pumping, and they were on their way to the finish line. The journey down the Tasmanian coast was a blur. The Ramblers were exhausted from the storm, but completely absorbed with capitalizing on their position.

Shortly before 5 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 30, Arthur became convinced they were going to win. It was an emotional moment for Arthur, but his brother was quiet. Ed just continued steering the boat.

AFR Midnight Rambler sailed across the finish line at 5:04 a.m., becoming the smallest boat in 10 years to win the Tattersall’s Cup. It was an extraordinary moment, but Ed couldn’t boastfully pump his boat’s namesake Rolling Stones song from the stereo. The Ramblers couldn’t rejoice in their accomplishment. They were proud, but kept quiet because of the tragedy of the last few days.

Six sailors had perished in the race. Aboard Business Post Naiad, Bruce Guy died of natural causes from a heart attack and Phillip Skeggs became entangled in his equipment and drowned when the boat capsized. On Sword of Orion, Glyn Charles died after being washed overboard when his harness failed. And from Winston Churchill, John Dean, Jim Lawler and Michael Bannister drowned when a wave struck their life raft and washed them away.

Fifty-five sailors were airlifted from the hellacious waves by rescue helicopters, while a record 66 yachts retired from the race. Twelve ships were lost to the sea—including yachts much larger and more technologically advanced than the Rambler, helmed by professionals, “rock stars” of the sailing world.

For the media, the extraordinary accomplishment of the AFR Midnight Rambler was completely eclipsed by the disaster. The fact this small boat had won was almost insignificant. Looking for scapegoats, reporters pointed fingers at boat captains, meteorologists and race officials, anybody and everybody who could be blamed for the deaths.

The controversy came as a surprise to the Ramblers. Like all the sailors, they had made a series of decisions, each of which they believed to be reasonable at the time. They had faced everything nature had thrown at them. The Ramblers’ view was very different from that of the public critics. As Ed saw it, “In the end, only the storm was to blame.”

Ed had followed the tradition of visiting the Shipwright’s Arms Pub ever since his first Sydney to Hobart ocean race, when he was 18, and this night would be no exception. All the greats had gone there for a drink—heroes of the Hobart, as Ed thought of them. The Ramblers walked in together, each elated only on the inside, while carrying a somber expression on the outside, respectful of the fellow sailors who were lost in the storm. Everyone at the packed bar looked up from their pints and saw the Midnight Rambler shirts.

Roger Hickman, a tough competitor and a good friend, started the applause. 

Excerpted from Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race by Dennis N.T. Perkins with Jillian B. Murphy (AMACOM; Nov. 13, 2012; $24.95 hardcover; ISBN: 9780814431986).

See the book's trailer for more about Into the Storm.

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