Two sailors are dead after a well-known Western Australia yacht overturned in windy seas while competing in the 70th annual Bunbury and Return Ocean Race.
The Davidson 50 Finistere had started six hours earlier off Fremantle with a crew of six experienced sailors. It is understood the keel separated from the hull, which caused it to turn over quickly.
The 170 nautical mile started February 23 in Fremantle with the course taking the 16-boat fleet south to Koombana Bay. After completing a short lap of the bay along the Bunbury foreshore, the course returns north for the finish off South Mole in Fremantle.
Finistere, a three-time Sydney to Hobart Race veteran, is owned and skippered by popular yachtsman and Fremantle Sailing Club Vice Commodore Rob Thomas.
The deceased are Paul Charles Owens, 60, and Thomas, in his 70s.
The drama began when one of the crew let off their distress beacon just before midnight as the yacht — one of a small fleet heading south — was about 11 nautical miles south-west of Mandurah.
The signal was picked up by the Australian Marine Safety Authority in Canberra, which then unsuccessfully attempted to contact the boat via radio.
When Finistere’s tracker failed to update itself 15 minutes later, AMSA then contacted Fremantle Water Police and the RAC Rescue helicopter, which was fortuitously conducting training exercises in the area. It arrived on the scene within 30 minutes and found Finistere upside down and semi-submerged.
Three nearby yachts taking part in the Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club-hosted event, Huckleberry (S&S 34), Fourth Dimension (Dufour 40), and Circa (C&C 115), were diverted to assist, rescuing five of the six crew.
Four surviving sailors were not seriously hurt, but Owens, who was dragged on to one of the rescue yachts, was dead, while Thomas could not be found.
Police began a major search at first light on February 24 covering a 233 sqkm area 40 km south-west of Mandurah.
AMSA co-ordinated the search using two RAC Rescue helicopters, the department of Fire and Emergency Services Dauphin helicopter staffed with air observers from Melville and Bassendean State Emergency Service.
Fremantle Water Police, Mandurah, Rockingham and Bunbury Volunteer Marine Rescue crews and two yachts from the race, Fourth Dimension and Circa, took part in the search. At 12.30 pm, Thomas’ body was found floating in the search area.
RFBYC Commodore Dean McAullay said it was too early to speculate about how Finistere overturned. He said it was a Category 3 race, meaning all the sailors had personal beacons on them that would set off a signal when they hit the water.
By the rules, they should have been wearing life jackets and been tethered to the yacht.
“Offshore sailing is inherently risky, anything on the ocean can be unexpected,” McAullay said.
“So as to a serious incident like this, it’s something that we don’t expect. We have our plans in place to be able to manage these things as best we can and we look to learn from these things to make it better for the future.”
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