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Battered racing yacht, crew limp into San Francisco Bay

 

A battered racing yacht and its bruised crew arrived at a California port Tuesday, three days after a monstrous wave knocked off its steering wheel and injured several crew members during an around-the-world race.

The Geraldton Western Australia was slammed by the giant wave on Saturday about 400 miles west of San Francisco during the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

After the Coast Guard picked up two injured members Sunday, the remaining 11 sailors decided to press on to finish the race's longest leg. They reached the Port of Oakland Tuesday at about 3 a.m., becoming the last of 10 boats to complete a 5,680-mile trek across the Pacific.

A Coast Guard cutter returned to its port in Alameda on Monday afternoon with the two injured crew members.

Jane Hitchens, 50, and Nik Brbora, 29, carefully walked off the Coast Guard ship and waved to reporters before they were put on stretchers and taken to a hospital in separate ambulances.

Brbora was welcomed by his partner, who was sailing on a competing yacht that arrived earlier.
Hitchens, a doctor from Kent, England, appears to have suffered broken ribs, while Brbora, a software engineer from London, injured his pelvis, said assistant race director Justin Taylor, who met with them after they arrived in Alameda.

It was unclear whether they would rejoin the race, which resumes April 14 when crews set sail for Panama and then New York.

"I think if they could get back on the boat tomorrow, they would," Taylor said. "But it's very much up to the doctors whether they're going to get signed off as medically fit to come back."

The two crew members were hurt Saturday when the huge wave smashed over their 68-foot yacht's stern with such force that it carried away the boat's steering wheel and knocked the crew about like bowling pins.

"Every once in a while that wave will come out of nowhere, it's got your name on it and it's going to slam you," said Taylor, a two-time skipper in the contest. "And that's exactly what happened."

The crew managed to quickly replace the steering wheel with a tiller and got the yacht under control by pulling down "the remains of our main sail" and raising a much smaller "storm jib," slowing the boat's progress considerably, captain Juan Coetzer told race organizers in comments posted online.

"The sea was alive with rage," Coetzer said. "Then at our watch change, just before the sun came up (Saturday), a monstrous foaming swell broke over our stern."

The wave pushed the helmsman Mark Burkes into the steering wheel and its pedestal in gale-force winds of more than 50 knots.

"The water had so much force in it that it pushed Mark into the helm, snapping the pedestal clean off," Coetzer reported. "We had no steering and crew were falling all over the boat."

The U.S. Coast Guard sent out a long-range HC-130 Hercules aircraft on Saturday for a rescue effort, but the rough seas and strong winds thwarted an attempt to lower rescuers. Instead, medical supplies were dropped on board and a cutter dispatched to meet the stricken vessel.

Two others who suffered minor injuries decided to continue sailing, race spokeswoman Dee-Dee Taft said. Max Wilson, 62, a farmer from Queensland, Australia, also may have suffered broken ribs, and Burkes, 47, the helmsman at the time, sustained a back injury.

The crew planned to fix the yacht and continue two more legs of the race, which began in Southhampton in England and will finish there July 22 after nearly a year at sea.

The first boat arrived Friday at Jack London Square in Oakland, Calif., where the entire fleet is expected to stay for the next 12 days to make repairs, restock, rest and take part in a sailboat show before embarking for Panama.

An upcoming leg -- the crossing of the North Atlantic -- is typically the hardest of the race, and ocean rescues are not uncommon, Taylor said.

"To get this close to the finish is a tough one to swallow," Taylor said. "I'm disappointed for them."

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