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Norwegian skipper Are Wiig demonstrates legendary seamanship in the Golden Globe Race 2018

by David Schmidt 10 Sep 2018 08:00 PDT September 10, 2018
Are Wiig was 3rd in fleet when passing through the Marina Rubicon photo gate in Lanzarote - Golden Globe Race © Christophe Favreau / PPL / GGR

As someone who grew up sailing offshore, I was taught at an early age that one only presses "the button" on their EPIRB or personal locator beacon in moments of absolute emergency. True, everyone's definition of an "absolute emergency" varies, but two recent experiences - one personal, the other public and international - caught my attention and brought the responsibilities involved with pressing said button into a new light.

As any experienced adventurer or mariner should well know and appreciate, entire teams of search and rescue professionals are called to put their lives on the line each time the button is pressed, adding a gravity that should help distressed souls determine if their situation qualifies as an absolute emergency.

Sadly, this isn't always the case.

A few weeks ago I was hiking in the mountains near my hometown of Seattle, Washington, with two friends who are both experienced sailors. A few miles from the trailhead, we encountered a large party of hikers who had pulled off to the side of the trail, their packs open and first-aid equipment on display. Apparently, one of the hikers stumbled and broke or injured his wrist (or possibly his forearm) and banged his head on a rock.

While there was some (limited) blood on the trail, our injured hero was lucky to be hiking with two doctors and three nurses, all of whom where swarming the patient, tending to his injuries, calming him down (its fair to say that he lost his head) and generally stabilizing the situation. My friends and I asked if we could provide assistance, but we were told that the group was in great shape, given their mini ER team of medical professionals.

Also, as we were hiking away, one of the nurses casually mentioned that they would be fine, as they had already pressed the SOS button on their PLB.

While the old saw about never judging another man without walking a mile in his hiking boots stands true, my friends and I couldn't believe that someone who was surrounded by medical help and was only separated from his car by maybe two or three miles of (relatively) flat terrain would judge this situation to be an "absolute emergency". True, his wing was damaged and his head was bumped, but his legs and feet were A-OK, and his party had more than enough medical experience, equipment and daylight to get him out safely, sans needing to call in the cavalry.

This moment was made all the more poignant by the fact that one of my companion's has a brother who serves in the United States Coast Guard, so - for her - pressing the button has much more personal potential consequences.

Compare this rather questionable display of human perseverance and commitment to adventure with the awe-inspiring story of Are Wiig (58; NOR), a professional seaman, engineer and marine surveyor who was participating in the singlehanded Golden Globe Race 2018 aboard Olleanna, his OE32 masthead cutter. On August 27, 2018, Wiig called race headquarters on his satellite phone to inform them that he has been rolled through 360 degrees roughly 400 miles southwest of Cape Town, South Africa, and had suffered a broken spar, a broken cabin porthole, and other damages.

According to reports, Wiig, who was belowdecks and uninjured, was sailing in strong 35-45 knot winds and negotiating 22-25 foot seas when the incident occurred. While Wiig was quick to cut most of the rig away to prevent holing his hull, he wisely used some of the canvas as a sea anchor, buying himself time to calmly re-evaluate his lonely situation and formulate a plan for self-rescue.

While this misfortune spelled the end to his race (he had been laying in fourth place at the time of his dismasting), at no point did Mr. Wiig use his EPIRB or PLB, nor did he request outside help.

Flash forward to the evening of September 3, and Wiig and Olleanna limped into Cape Town under a jury rig. Impressively, Wiig had actually sea-trialed his jury-rigged spar system (comprised of two spinnaker poles) prior to starting the GGR 2018, proof positive that races and even some survival situations are won and lost before the starting guns sound.

"This was a great display of seamanship," said Don McIntyre, the GGR 2018's race chairman, in an official race communication.

Peter Muller, a Cape Town resident and one of two local sailors who were on hand to welcome Wiig into Cape Town, offered a sobering assessment of Olleanna in the same race communication: "His boat took a hell of a beating," reported Muller. "The mast had broken in at least two places and the pieces were lashed down on deck. She had a cracked deck and popped porthole. [Wiig] said that the cracks and damage on the starboard side went right through the boat. He had only seen this type of damage before in his work [as a surveyor] when boats had fallen over onto concrete when stored on land."

While I'm no medical professional, nor have I ever truly been in an "absolute emergency" situation (touch wood) outside of driving in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, I've certainly suffered enough backcountry bumps, bruises, back spasms and boat bites to know that there is a stark difference between a relatively minor situation that unfurls less than three miles from the trailhead while in the company of multiple doctors and nurses, and the kind of offshore battering that Wiig and Olleanna sustained, alone and hundreds of miles from dry land.

And while I offer only minimal judgment of the hiker, I wholeheartedly raise my glass to Mr. Wiig, who demonstrated the kind of seamanship, gumption and perseverance that is defining the Golden Globe Race 2018.

As for pushing "the button", all sailors are advised to ponder these two tales of "absolute emergency", and to always consider the lives and welfare of the brave men and women who are duty-bound to respond to emergency calls.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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