On the night of May 1, the racing yacht Phesheya was making its way toward Charleston, heading to port in the latest leg of the around-the-world Global Ocean Race.
About 200 miles out, the Class40 yacht suddenly found itself surrounded by unidentified warships, red lights flashing on the horizon and fighter jets roaring overhead.
“They were in stealth mode, with their lights off at night,” said Nick Leggatt, co-skipper of the 40-foot Phesheya, which sails out of South Africa. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking when you can’t identify the ships and you are just hoping they can see you.
“The next day, we got a message from the Coast Guard saying they were doing live-missile testing in the area.”
Leggatt and his co-skipper, Phillipa Hutton-Squire, survived their random encounter with a military exercise and made it safely into Charleston Harbor, where the nine-month Global Ocean Race is stopping over until it restarts Saturday.
But their story is another reminder of the perils of ocean racing, made even more real by two tragic accidents off the coast of California last month.
Nine people died in the two incidents, four during the Newport To Ensenada Yacht Race just south of San Diego and five during a race near San Francisco.
Tracking data shows the yacht in the San Diego incident ran into an island off Mexico, and that none of the crew was wearing life jackets. In the other accident, seven of eight crew members were swept overboard, five of them losing their lives.
“We heard the news while we were at sea,” said Leggatt, 45 and a lifelong sailor from South Africa. “It was very sobering.”
Risky racing With the eighth biennial running of the Gulfstreamer Race, from Daytona, Fla., to Charleston, set to begin May 25, racing fast while staying safe on the ocean is a top priority for many sailors.
Another race, the Charleston-to-Newport Atlantic Cup, set sail Friday with 14 two-man teams aboard Class40 boats.
The U.S. Coast Guard in Charleston issues permits for 12 to 15 inshore races each year, according to a spokesman, but does not have to issue permits for off-shore races.
“When you are racing, you take more risks than when you are just pleasure cruising,” said Will Haynie, a longtime Charleston sailor and sailing writer. “Not to find fault with any fellow sailors, but sometimes in the fervor and intensity of racing, you take risks you might not take as a prudent mariner.”
The sailors in the double-handed Global Ocean Race, which began in September in Mallorca, Spain, and concludes next month in Les Sables d’Olonne, France, are well-aware of the dangers — man overboard, freighters and tankers, whales and floating containers, even icebergs.
Yet Conrad Colman, a 28-year-old from New Zealand, said he feels safer on the ocean than he does driving to his hotel.
“My girlfriend hates it when I say that,” said Colman, who along with Scott Cavanough is sailing the Cessna Citation around the world.
“I lost my own father in an incident on a boat when I was just an infant. My parents were sailing around the world and I spent my first year on a boat, and I grew up in a single-parent home as a result of a yachting accident.
“So it is serious. But it’s also my chosen profession, so I have to make peace with it.”
Man overboard Colman and former co-skipper Sam Goodchild made international news in the sailing world with a man-overboard incident near the west coast of New Zealand last Dec. 29.
At dusk, in winds of 35 mph and swells of 20 feet — “Quite boisterous conditions,” Colman said — Goodchild was washed overboard. He was not clipped on to a tether, nor was he wearing a life jacket.
“I saw him going down the side of the boat with a pretty worried look on his face,” Colman said.
Due to some luck and cool thinking — Goodchild stripped down to his boxers and cut the hood of his fluorescent yellow rain jacket, holding it aloft for Colman to spot — the story had a happy ending.
Goodchild was in the 50-degree water for 35 minutes, but Colman was able to get the boat turned around and spot him amid the swells.
The story also contains a lesson.
“I know I need to clip on when I get out of the cockpit,” Colman said. “But despite best intentions, it’s not something that happens every time.”
Colman said his worst fear “is wondering what it would feel like to be swimming and watching your boat sail away from you,” and Charleston sailor Haynie agreed.
“A human being in the water,” Haynie said, “has the visibility of a wet coconut.”
Playing ‘Frogger’ Colman and Cavanough have survived run-ins with huge ships as well. Despite technology that broadcasts the location and direction of freighters and tankers, accidents happen, even in the huge expanse of the ocean.
In Charleston, an average of five vessels a day steam into the harbor, according to the State Ports Authority.
“There’s a lot of traffic out there, and in a high-traffic zone, it’s like playing a game of ‘Frogger,’?” Colman said. “You’ve got to pick your way through. When you are on a small boat, you have a visibility of a max of 10 miles. And a freighter is going something like 20 mph, so if you don’t look every half-hour, something can come over the horizon at you pretty quickly.”
Cavanough, a 30-year-old from Australia, was sailing single-handed when he hit a tanker off the coast of Brazil.
“I was in the doldrums, and couldn’t get out of the way,” he said. “It’s quite scary going down the side of a ship. You get to the back of the ship, and all you can hear is those engines banging away. Even here in Charleston, I hear those ships passing, and it sends shivers down my spine.”
Despite the dangers, sailors such as Colman love the sport.
“It’s an all-encompassing challenge,” he said. “Finance, science, psychology, navigation, sport, self-reliance; it engages every part of you.”
So when in doubt, said Haynie, clip on and look out.
“You have to keep in mind you are dealing with the ocean first,” he said. “And it’s deadly.”