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Berrimilla rolls at the Devil’s Corner

by Rob Kothe on 11 Jan 2007
Berrimilla II - Rolex Sydney To Hobart Yacht Race 2006 Crosbie Lorimer
The East Australian current roars south each summer and in a southerly gale the seaway on the corner of Bass Strait along the Victorian coast and up into the NSW coast, can be devilish.

It is often a ‘washing machine seaway’. The westerly swells roll through from Africa and a low system generated southern surge collide with the current. In 2006 that current was running at more than four knots.

Boat breaking weather for the southbound fleet. A few weeks later and another disaster, as one of the Hobart fleet, cruising back to Sydney rolls 360 degrees at the Devil’s Corner.

Alex Whitworth’s 33 footer Berrimilla, built in 1977, has not missed a Sydney to Hobart race since 1994. She is a noted hard weather performer and was the smallest boat to finish the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race winning her division. She had sailed around the world in 2005 via the Capes' after the 2005 race and before the 2006 race, without mishap. Yet the sturdy Brolga 33 was rolled and dismasted north of Gabo Island, 57 miles south east of Eden, at 3:50am last Monday (8th January) morning.

Here is the update from 15 Hobart race veteran Whitworth, who sailed Berrimilla around the world with Peter Crozier. This time they were sailing back to Sydney with Alan Fenwick and Tom Crozier (not related).

‘A filthy night, with low level rain squalls, 45-50 knots from the south (the weather bureau said 60 knots). We were running under bare poles, with the boom centred and locked down with a preventer. There were lots of big breaking waves and I’d noticed, that with the heavier gusts we would be hit by waves that could be 30 to 60 degrees out of the normal. I’d come off helm and Peter Crozier had taken over and I went straight to sleep.

‘Peter says the big wave that rolled us came through almost on the port beam and we rolled to starboard. He was washed off the stern of the boat at the end of his tether, in the ocean he was spinning like a lure under water. Then the wave surge planted him back on the pushpit.

‘As Berrimilla rolled the mast had been ripped out of the boat, the main break in the mast was below the coach-house roof, so there was a depressed fracture in the roof. One of the cabin windows, 6mm thick Lexan, blew out and water poured into the boat. The mast was in three or four pieces, and with it the rigging was wrapped around the hull.

‘It seems that as we rolled, I was thrown out of my bunk onto the roof of the coach house, then as the boat rolled upright I smashed down onto the bulkhead frame and I went from being asleep to being unconscious. I woke up in water on the floor of the boat, in pain. I did not know what had happened, I was totally disoriented, I thought we were still racing, I did not know who was on the boat.

‘I have some heavy bruising on my head, shoulder and arm and have lost a temporary tooth cap, but its all repairable.

‘The other guys were thankfully uninjured.’

‘I was OK in a few minutes, we made an assessment of the situation and I made the decision that setting off the 406 EPIRB was the best thing to do at the time.

‘We sorted out the boat fairly quickly, cut away the mast and rigging before dawn. We emptied most of the water out of the boat and we managed to retrieve all the sails and start the engine. I rang AMSA on the sat phone and reported we were OK. They thanked us, but said they would still come for us.

‘A fixed wing search and rescue plane from Melbourne flew over us soon after dawn, but they could not find us initially, visibility was so bad still low cloud and rain. I managed to call them on the radio. Soon after a big ship appeared, then within a couple of hours the Falcon, the Water Police launch from Eden arrived. Those guys were just great.’

Sargeant Brinkley was skippering the Falcon. ‘When we reached Berrimilla arounde 8:30am the swell was still from the south west, with wind from the south east, providing the confused seaway.

‘We decided not to try and get a tow line onto her until she was out of Bass Strait and north of Green Cape where the seaway had quietened, so we accompanied her as she struggled north.

‘As soon as we could we put on the towline: eight knots was better than four knots and we reached Eden at 21:15 on Monday night.’

Brinkley believe the area, called by some sailors, ‘the Devil’s Corner’ is certainly the most treacherous area on the Australian coast line.

This morning Berrimilla was dockside in Bermagui, 20 miles north of Eden. Alex Whitworth and his crew were waiting for repairs to her starter motor, which a few days after its saltwater immersion, was being uncooperative.

‘We will motor slowly back to Sydney, we will be back out sailing as soon as we can. I will look better then.’ the bruised and battered veteran smiled.
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