After crashing off a monstrous wave in the Southern Ocean, Global Ocean Race leaders Ross and Campbell Field of Team Buckley Systems have suffered damage to their yacht and are heading back to New Zealand.
For the past 24 hours, the yacht has been smashing into in storm force winds and huge seas south east of the Chatham Islands.
'We were leading the fleet under autopilot in big rolling seas,' said Ross Field. 'The wind was up to 45 knots, gusting into the 50s. Campbell was on watch in the cockpit and I was down below in the navigation station, when we just launched off a huge wave.'
As the yacht crashed down into the trough behind the wave, all the wind instruments were wiped off the top of the mast. Ross Field was flung across the boat, injuring his back.
The loss of the wind instruments is a major blow, because it means their autopilots cannot function.
The boat instantly spun out of control and crash gybed. 'We ended up with all our ballast on the wrong side and lying with the mast virtually in the water, at the mercy of the waves,' said Ross.
After bringing the boat under control and assessing their situation, the father and son pair decided they could not continue racing.
To carry on with Leg 3 of the race would mean hand-steering the boat nearly 6,000 miles through some of the most hostile conditions on the planet, round Cape Horn and up to Uruguay.
'The loss of our autopilots is like losing a crew member,' said Ross.
'We are absolutely gutted to be in this situation. We were leading the fleet at the time and we felt this leg through the Southern Ocean was an opportunity for us to really stretch our legs.'
After scoring a first and second in the opening two legs of the round the world race, Team Buckley Systems was at the top of the leader board on points. The fleet of five Class 40 yachts started Leg 3 of the race from Wellington last Sunday and Team Buckley Systems surged into an early lead.
They tracked south-east to 49°S, before angling back towards the north to clear a mandatory scoring gate at 47°S. From the outset the Field duo was critical of this gate, because it denied skippers the ability to choose the fastest and best course for the conditions.
'Having to head north forced us to go upwind in horrendous conditions,' he said. 'The irony is that 100 miles further south we would have been sailing downwind in great weather.'
The father and son pair notified the race authorities, their principal sponsor, Buckley Systems Ltd, and their fellow competitors that they were making their way back to Auckland. They expected to complete the 1200 miles passage in five to seven days.
Bill Buckley, Managing Director of Buckley Systems, said he was bitterly disappointed for the Fields. 'Ross and Campbell are extremely determined and competitive yachtsmen,' he said. 'They are tough campaigners and certainly would not take this decision lightly, particularly when they were in such a strong position.
'Their safety is paramount and we fully support them turning back, rather than continuing to race with Ross injured and the boat severely compromised.'