A couple of days ago we received some terribly sad and shocking news: Our dear friend, Carly Hill, has been lost overboard from the catamaran Oryx.
Oryx had recently crossed the Atlantic from Brazil to spend some time in Carly’s South African homeland. During this month-long adventure Carly’s family and friends were quite worried for her safety – and with some justification, I may say, for the passage across the southern end of the South Atlantic is no sunshine cruise. Ironically, however, it was not while the boat was bouncing about in a mid-ocean gale that Carly went overboard. She vanished from our lives on a day of blue skies and fair breezes, and she was just six miles from the beach.
I’m writing these words partly for the benefit of our mutual friends – other members of the cruising community – and partly as a brief memorial to Carly, but I’m also writing them as a testimony to Pete Hill. I’d been meaning for a long time to write an article about this wonderful duo, and it feels so sad and strange to be writing an obituary instead, but I also feel the need to straighten out some of the nonsense which is being posted elsewhere on the web. Yes, you can imagine how this story is being played out by those spineless worms who, hiding behind anonymity, tag their comments onto the garbled misrepresentations of the gutter-press…
So – to begin at the beginning, and to deal first with that side of things – Oryx is a very seaworthy vessel, a fact which has been proven by her recent successful crossing of the Atlantic and her survival of two mid-ocean gales. She’s around 33ft long – not 20ft, as reported in the Daily Mail. Those folks glibly appending their criticisms of the boat and her creator might also like to note that Pete has been cruising in (supposedly flimsy) plywood boats such as this one for around 45 years – which is probably longer than some of his critics have been alive and having their noses blown for them.
I’m not even going to bother responding to the person who asks, “Why do these people embark on such dangerous jaunts?” It would take far too long; and you still wouldn’t understand.
I’m so glad that the internet hadn’t been invented when we capsized Maamari with our two tiny children aboard…
There is one report that Carly would have loved, however, and that’s the one which refers to her as a novelist. She’d recently published her first novel and, to quote the spiel on her author’s profile, her dream was always to write. I’m sure that she would love to be remembered in those terms.
There’s a brief paragraph about Pete and Carly and Oryx on our Friends page. We first met them while Pete was putting together a new cruising guide for Brazil, to be published under the auspices of the Royal Cruising Club. To quote a representative of that organisation: “Pete’s work is at the heart of what the Pilotage Foundation is all about. He gives so much time and thought and skill to passing on information about less well-cruised areas of the world.”
Cruising yotties as a community are almost always very generous with their knowledge, whether of boats, or bits of boats, or anchorages, but for Pete the desire to learn and to share is almost a raison d’etre. As we were to learn, in exploring the harbours on the coast of Brazil he left no stone unturned and no tiny creek unexplored and his work was meticulous.
We last shared anchorage together in the Bay of Paranagua, and when Oryx set off to navigate the tiny, shallow rythe which joins this harbour to the adjacent one of Cananeia, we were privileged to be invited to join ship. (The creek was too shallow for Mollymawk to be able to get through.) During our time aboard we noted the way in which Pete and Carly always operated in perfect harmony, sharing the sailing and sharing the cooking – but with Pete always being called upon to have the final word in all things. That was evidently the way Carly liked things to be. We also observed that everything aboard this boat was done to a routine, with meals and even afternoon tea being taken at a precise hour. This was by way of great contrast with the muddle-along lifestyle pursued aboard Mollymawk, and we were awed by Pete and Carly’s ability to run their totally unconventional lives in such a tidy and civilised way. The boat, it need hardly be said, was immaculate both inside and out at all times – and this despite our presence.
Carly joined Pete about seven years ago. By this time he had built and sailed three yachts, including Badger; he had raced in the OSTAR (the single-handed transatlantic race), and he had sailed non-stop all the way from the north-eastern corner of Brazil to New Zealand. He had even sailed his “flimsy” plywood boats to Greenland and to Antarctica. For all I know he may have done a dozen other things, but he’s a man of few words with a self-effacing nature, and one learns of his exploits only by gently tweezing the stories out.
Carly, meanwhile, had no previous sailing experience. Before they met, she had devoted herself almost exclusively to her two children and to a career in nursing. The kind of determination which had equipped her to raise her kids singlehandedly whilst simultaneously rising through the ranks of the nursing profession now enabled her to quickly get to grips with learning the ropes aboard a boat. But there’s an irony here, and a bitter one: Carly more than once confided in me that her main reason for wanting to learn how to sail and navigate was so that she would be able to manage if Pete should ever be lost overboard.
Having crossed to South Africa last year, Pete and Carly spent the next few months working on the boat, cruising westward and – most important of all, so far as Carly was concerned – getting together with her children and her first little grand-daughter.
On the 17th June, Carly posted what was to be her last ‘status update’ on her facebook page:
“Oryx is setting sail for Madagascar tomorrow. We will be taking the scenic route via the Mozambique channel islands … Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers. We will be in contact asap.”
Oryx duly set sail from Durban on the Thursday, and by the following morning she had travelled about 50 miles up the coast. Pete had been on watch during the early hours, and after they had eaten breakfast together at the scheduled hour, he turned in to catch up on his sleep. (He did not doze off, as the Telegraph implies!) The time was 8 o’clock.
At 10 o’clock he awoke to the sailor’s worst nightmare: Carly was not aboard.
I’ve been here, so I know a little bit about the gut-turning shock and the feeling of total disbelief. In my case it never went any further than that – I was swiftly reprieved – because when I began calling his name, the skipper revealed himself. He was half way up the mast… In Pete’s case, his calls went answered.
The wind was on the port quarter and it was blowing at about force three. The sea state was moderate, and the sun was shining. However, even in conditions such as these, searching for a small object in the water is like hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Pete dropped the sails and put out a Mayday call on the VHF, but there were no replies. The boat was about 6 miles off the coast, and so there was no mobile phone reception.
Oryx was travelling at about 5½ knots under the self-steering – so, during the time when Pete was asleep she had covered about 11 miles. Although he grew up with nothing more than a sextant and a paper chart to plot his way around the ocean, Pete has not disdained to take advantage of modern electronic gadgetry: he had been making use of a Navionics programme which enables the sailor to see his vessel’s position overlaid on an electronic chart. The programme also keeps track of the course which the boat has been following. So, seemingly, all Pete had to do was turn the boat around and motor back along that line, all the while keeping a sharp look-out for a head or a waving hand.
Alas, it wasn’t so easy as that.
Having arrived back at the pre 08.00 position without catching sight of Carly, Pete resolved to head inshore until he could raise a phone signal and call for help. Having successfully contacted the NSRI (South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute) he then went back out and started a zig-zag search, travelling back along the same track but taking in the area on either side of the line. A couple of hours passed, and he was joined by two lifeboats and no fewer than three helicopters, and he was later told that there was also a light aircraft searching at a higher altitude.
As the sun set and dusk rolled in, the search was called off for the night. According to a spokesman for the NSRI, Pete was advised to return to Durban but he disdained to do so. “He was adamant that he was not going to leave the search area, even though it was not safe to stay at anchor.”
Having passed what must surely have been a most restless night anchored off the open coast, Pete resumed his search at first light. He was shortly afterwards joined by the two NSRI boats, and when they returned to Durban at noon he continued to scour the sea, not giving up until the very end of the second day.
According to Pete, “The NSRI coordinated the search using unprecedented resources in a very efficient manner” – but all to no avail.
Our thoughts are with you, Pete. In a culture where blame and compensation are the norm, perhaps only a sailor can understand that in a situation like this absolutely no one is culpable. Falling overboard is to be compared to the ill-fortune of happening to walk under a tree in the instant while it was falling. On any other day and at any other moment you can walk under the tree in complete safety.
And no one could not have searched any more diligently or cleverly. There was nothing more to be done.
Life is impermanent. Birth leads inevitably to death. When our karma is ripe, there is nothing that anyone else can do to save us from our fate.
Some closing thoughts
This story has really rocked us to the core. We go to sea fully aware of the fact that death lies just one careless step away – but having survived for many years with this threat ever-present yet never making itself felt, we had become a little bit complacent.
“Sounds fishy to me,” say the ignorant bitchers and whiners, commenting on the news report. “Why wasn’t she wearing a lifejacket? All experienced sailors where lifejackets.”
Well, actually, they don’t. In fact, I don’t know any experienced sailors of any nationality who routinely wear a lifejacket. Did you ever try wearing a lifejacket all day, every day? Generally speaking, when they’re in the tropics most sailors prefer to wear nothing at all.
More to the point, I’m not at all sure that a lifejacket would have saved Carly – a teenage friend of mine died (of hypothermia) while wearing a lifejacket – but what certainly would have saved her is a harness and tether.
If Carly had been wearing a harness and tether, then there would simply have been no accident. No moment of sudden hot panic as she realised that she’d slipped, or lost her hold; no mind-numbing horror as the boat sailed away, abandoning her. And for Pete, there would have been no terrible moment of discovering his beloved wife gone, and no gruelling two day search, sailing the boat all alone. There would simply have been no event whatsoever. If she’d been tethered to the boat and had missed her footing, would Carly even have bothered, when Pete awoke, to tell him about it?
“You know, I slipped on the deck! If I hadn’t been wearing my harness I might have gone overboard, perhaps!”
“Really? Hmmm… Maybe the non-slip paint needs re-doing… Is there any more of that cake that you made yesterday?”
If she’d only been wearing a harness and tether…
But you know, harnesses are cumbersome too, and I don’t know anyone who wears one of those full-time, either. Aboard Mollymawk, we wear them (in combination with a CO2 lifejacket) when we consider that conditions are dangerous; and we have an unwritten rule which says that if no one else is on deck then the watch-keeper mustn’t leave the cockpit without donning his armour.
Of course the trouble is, rules are very easily broken when no one else is watching. Imagine a sunshiney day, a moderate sea state, and a gentle breeze just aft of the beam. Are you really going to bother faffing around, wrapping yourself in all that tackle, just so that you can go for’ard and change the nip on the main halyard?
Well from now on, I am – and I’ll be wearing it not so much for myself as for the ones who will have to suffer the consequences if I go missing at sea.
Carly, I can’t believe that you won’t be reading these words.
I keep thinking that I must have dreamt the whole thing. Or maybe you’re stronger than they give you credit for being, and you’ve swum ashore and are resting on a beach…
it doesn’t seem right or fair or even remotely possible that someone so warm-hearted and friendly and so full of the joys of life could very suddenly be snuffed out.
To say that you will be sadly missed is a huge understatement. Living in the shadow of a giant, you were always afraid that you didn’t quite make the grade as a cruising sailor, but actually you were one of the greats.