The Sydney to Hobart is one of the world’s great yacht races. But in 1998 it was struck by terrible disaster, when a ferocious storm forced most of the fleet to retire and claimed six lives.

One of the yachts competing was the 43 footer, the Sword of Orion. During that storm the Sword of Orion was a cork on the ocean, battling its way against huge seas. All of a sudden the crew heard a roar like the sound of a train, a breaking wave of 80 feet hit their yacht side on, and flipped it over. When the boat righted itself, one crewman had been swept away, the mast had torn away from its footing and was threatening to spear straight through the hull, and the equipment and rigging was in terrible shape.

The crew sent out a mayday call and did their best to keep the yacht afloat. They braced the hull to prevent it from collapsing, they started bailing out the water seeping in, and like a cork bobbing on a violent ocean they waited for a rescue team to arrive.

They waited through the night and heard nothing. Then in the dim light of early morning one of the crewman saw something he almost couldn’t believe. There just 150 metres away was another yacht! He raced below deck to grab the flares. He let off the first, but got no response. He let off a second, but got no response. He let off the third, but got no response. Hadn’t they seen him? Couldn’t they see this yacht was in trouble? He let off a fourth and a fifthbut still no response. With their hearts sinking the crew of the Sword of Orion watched the other yacht sail away.

The other yacht was the Margaret Rintoul II The skipper of the Margaret Rintoul had seen the flares set off by the Sword of Orion, but was faced with an agonising decision. One of the first rules of yachting is that you always go to the aid of a yacht in distress. But the Margaret Rintoul was only just making it through the storm herself. The engine was not working, making manoeuvrability in the atrocious conditions very difficult, and to go to the aid of Sword of Orion would mean turning the Margaret Rintoul II side-on to the giant waves, and that would mean a very strong risk that Margaret Rintoul IIwould herself be flipped and left helpless by the sea. Weighing up the risk to his own crew the skipper of the Margaret Rintoul II made the heartbreaking decision to sail on. They eventually sailed to safety, and were later vindicated by the coroner for their choice.

Meanwhile back on the Sword of Orion the crew held on. They were located by a search plane, and a short time after watching it fly off, they heard the drone of a helicopter engine. The helicopter lowered a cable into the raging seas, and a crewman would jump overboard, grab the cable, attach it to themselves and be hoisted to safety. After rescuing three of the nine crew the helicopter had to leave, it was running low on fuel. When it arrived back at base it had just 10 minutes of fuel left. The six remaining crew waited out a cold and terrifying night. Then the next morning another helicopter arrived, able to rescue the remaining six crewman. Moment after the last crewman was rescued the Sword of Orion was flung down the face of another huge wave and began to crack apart.

When we’re in crisis often the only thing we can do is hang on and wait for help. Like the crew of the Margaret Rintoul we might be so overwhelmed by the crisis we face that we’re not able to help others in need. But in a healthy community there will always be those who can help us through.


Source: Scott Higgins. Information on the yacht race found in Rob Mundle, Fatal Storm.