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CNN Presents

Encore Presentation: Proving Ground

Aired January 01, 2002 - 13:00   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Time for CNN PRESENTS. An annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race is a crown jewel in the world of competitive sailing. It is a 630-mile long test of skill, bravado and endurance, through some of the most notorious waters on earth. In 1998, though, weather pattern suggested that the Hobart race could be a wild ride, but no one could have predicted the fatal storm that lay ahead. Now, firsthand accounts from those who survived this hell on high water, as CNN PRESENTS "Proving Ground."


NARRATOR: The Sydney Hobart was always a dangerous yacht race, but no one could ever have imagined the scale of the disaster that would strike in 1998.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mother Nature is completely unforgiving. She's neither merciless nor merciful.


NARRATOR: A storm so severe it left dozens of yachts battling to survive a savage ocean.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Out here, there's no rules, there's no God. There's nothing.


NARRATOR: A tragedy that left six men dead and changed the lives of those who survived forever.

Every Christmas, the city of Sydney gathers for the start of a great Australian tradition. Like its famous landmark, a profile of sails in the wind. It's about man's obsession with the sea, a four- day yacht race across a dangerous and unpredictable ocean.

A challenge so enticing that sailors are willing to go to hell and back just for the prize of saying they competed.

JOHN GIBSON: My first Hobart. It was very exciting. I had no sense of foreboding. Maybe it was my stupidity of the novice, you know, wondering along a cliff edge not knowing the cliff edge is there.

I had done a bit of debriefing with my son; he put on all my gear, the safety harness and the strobe light. He said, listen, Dad, you'll need this, and take this and don't take that. He was getting a bigger bath than I was, because he had done some Hobarts. And there was this fossil, his old man, (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

NARRATOR: The race attracts some of the worlds best and most competitive sailors, but it's also part of its tradition that ocean raising novices like John Gibson turn up to compete along side them.

He joined a yacht called the Winston Churchill, a boat of experienced amateurs who relished the challenge of the big race.

PAUL LUMTIN, WINSTON CHURCHILL: As the months led up to Boxing Day, you think about it more and more and some days you get excited and some days you get scared; because it's one of these races where you know you are going to be cold, and you know you're going to be miserable, and you know you're going to be uncomfortable for four days.

NARRATOR: And in the 1998 Sydney-Hobart, their competitors comprised of some of the best professional sailors money could buy -- many of them crewing a yacht call Sayonara, the multi-million-dollar passion of Larry Ellison, chairman of Oracle corporation.

LARRY ELLISON, SAYONARA: We were favored to win the race. We were already to go. But there was no foreboding. We knew it was going to be tough, and that's what we expected. We didn't expect something that was life-threatening.

NARRATOR: One hundred and fifteen boats headed to the start that morning. It was day one of the great race.

GIBSON: The sheer power, millions of toys, millions of dollar stuff. They get the wind in their teeth and the wires are vibrating and the boat's humming, it's you, the sea, the elements and that power. No one can be on a boat like that and not feel it. It's very passionate. Very passionate.

NARRATOR: But John Gibson's race was going to be about more than just speed. The Winston Churchill was reliving a piece of history. The old timber boat had sailed in the very first race back in 1945. Then, it had been a daring bet between rival sailors, a 630-mile race from Sydney to Hobart in Tasmania.

South along the coast at first. Then, a 180-mile dash across Bass Strait, and that was what made the bet worthwhile. Because Bass Strait is one of the most dangerous stretches of ocean in the world.

Sailors who like to scare each other call it "hell on high water."

ELLISON: There is no body of water like Bass Strait; the waves are extremely steep. The weather is absolutely unpredictable. If we didn't have a biological mechanism in our brain that causes us to repress painful experiences, no one would ever do a second Sydney- Hobart.

NARRATOR: But like fast cars and stunt planes, it was a challenge men like Ellison couldn't resist. Though he was odds-on favorite to win the race, his fiancee had still begged him not to go.

ELLISON: I assured her that Sydney-Hobart was one of these things that everyone thought was dangerous, and therefore, it was really cool, because everyone thought it was dangerous. But in fact, it really was not. It was hard; very difficult. It was a real test of our group. But it wasn't actually dangerous.

Twenty years ago, there had been a freak storm that hit the Fast Net (ph) crew where several people died, but that was very, unusual, and the odds against that were a million to one.

NARRATOR: But that morning, the ingredients for just such a storm were forming. Hot winds and a powerful ocean current were driving the boat south. But ahead, advancing out of the Southern Ocean, was a cold front.

In Sydney, the city's weather bureau was already tracking its path. They were supplying the official weather forecast for the race.

And from his home on the coast, a meteorologist hired by Larry Ellison was also watching. He believed a storm was coming, but that morning, signs were that it would be a safe distance from the boats.

ROGER BADHAM, METEOROLOGIST: The consensus of opinion was while there was a fairly intense frontal system coming across from the west, it was going to form a low pressure system, but it was going to form probably east of Tasmania and move away. And hence, the fleet would only get just the absolute edge of that.

NARRATOR: As the onboard cameras recorded the yacht's progress south, the wind behind them was already explosive. But most were simply going too fast to wonder why.

ELLISON: Wind was picking up, and it kept picking up. And it was very heavy and it was gusty; you could feel -- I was driving the boat, and you could actually feel the boat start to accelerate. It was amazing.

We were going twice as fast as the then-record holder, Morning Glory. We were just flying south. And that was a good indicator that something was amiss.

NARRATOR: Half an hour after the start, a new set of weather data downloaded. And what it showed took Badham's breath away. The front was curling back up toward Bass Strait. And worse, a 48-hour prediction put the tight hoops of isobar lines that signaled the storm right in the path of the fleet.

BADHAM: I just thought, bloody hell, this is really bad. The low wasn't going to east of Tasmania, but in fact was going to form in the eastern side of Bass Strait, sometime during Sunday morning, pretty much right where the front of the fleet would be.

NARRATOR: The storm was building on the corner of the coast, right where the currents of Bass Strait slammed into the currents of the Pacific.

As the Sydney-Hobart yachts raced on south, they were given word of the danger building ahead.

On the evening of day one of the race, its organizers broadcast the fleet a storm warning for 45- to 55-mile-an-hour winds. It was the strongest warning the weather bureau could issue, but on the yachts it caused little reaction.

ELLISON: A storm is part of the good fun of the Sydney-Hobart; it's what makes it so unpleasant. Steep waves, 50 knots of breeze, tough sailing, about as tough as sailboat racing gets.

NARRATOR: Like others, the crew of the Winston Churchill took the warning calmly.

LUMTIN: With my relative lack of experience compared to the other sailors onboard, I was always looking to them for signs or, you know, looking for that thing where maybe one of them would look a bit scared, and I was thinking, if Bruce is looking worried, maybe I should worry myself a little bit.

BADHAM: I really didn't think at that stage they should stop racing or anything. I mean, we have all seen pretty bad wind situations. And, it was still 24 hours out.

NARRATOR: By nightfall, the fleet of yachts were still heading south as the storm ahead of them began to build.

GIBSON: You could see it. Looming. It was dusk. And there were boiling black clouds coming toward us. Extraordinary lightning. It was sort of a Walt Disney storm, like the storms in "Bambi," which are so violent -- that little kids hang onto the seat. It was that storm.

NARRATOR: But the electrical storm was just the curtain raiser. Behind it, the weather fronts had collided, and the shape of the real storm forming ahead of the fleet was growing more ominous by the hour.

ELLISON: I felt we had just come through this terrible weather front. If we were now the other side of the front, it was going to be -- we were home free. I decided to go down below into the map station and meet with Mark Rudiger (ph) who was our navigator. And those satellite pictures were coming up.

As the pictures started to appear on the laptop, we were both transfixed. Just staring at this computer and this picture, and my mouth -- my lips were probably just, actually quietly shacking my head, and I turned and looked at Mark and said, "Mark, Mark, have you ever seen anything like this?" He said -- didn't say a word and just shook his head. And I said, "I have. It was on the Weather Channel. It was called a hurricane."




NARRATOR: At dawn on day two of the Sydney-Hobart race, a helicopter pilot working for Australia's ABC News caught up with the race leaders as they entered Bass Strait.

GARY TICEHURST, HELICOPTER PILOT, AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION: You could see huge waves. The shutter with the contact with the water and the mast and the stays just vibrating and shaking, being windswept by 60 miles an hour, 70-mile-an-hour squalls. It was just an amazing sight.

NARRATOR: At the front of the fleet, the largest yachts were crossing into Bass Strait, just in time to escape the very worst of the storm now closing in.

ELLISON: The normal roar of the storm becomes a high-pitched whining sound; this strange otherworldly sound.

We had the advantage of being a little bit bigger, a little bit deeper crew, a little further out.

The bullet missed us, but it didn't miss everybody.

NARRATOR: As the first group of smaller yachts followed the race leaders into Bass Strait, the most savage part of the storm moved over them. Inside it, unseen by forecasters, was a an extreme event: A small intense center of cyclone-strength winds, worse than anything predicted.

BADHAM: I thought, well, this is Armageddon. It's just your worst nightmare to put a whole group of yachts in one particular place, and then just create the worst weather you can think of.

NARRATOR: At 2:30 p.m., a satellite picked up the first faint signal of an emergency distress beacon.

Three hundred miles away, on an air base outside Melbourne, an air ambulance crew were scrambled to investigate.

PETER DAVIDSON, RESCUE DIVER, VICTORIA AIR AMBULANCE: The guys are in the front listening to radio frequencies, and we heard the mayday come over the radio, we have been hit by a large wave, we have rolled 360 degrees, our mast is being torn off. Our main cabin has been ripped away. We knew we had a huge job ahead of us to try and help any of these guys.

NARRATOR: The air ambulance was still at least two hours flight time from the yacht's location.

The ABC helicopter was the first to reach its position, and below him, the pilot found a yacht called Stand Aside in desperate trouble.

TICEHURST: I'm used to flying through weather fronts, but this was sitting like a whirlwind, and here was Stand Aside in the middle of this with half its roof missing.

NARRATOR: Stand Aside had become a first victim of a wave close to 80 feet tall.

MIKE MARSHMAN, STAND ASIDE: We began to see a very big wave, either in the distance, or back behind you. The mast on the boat was 62 feet high, and the green water of the wave was above the mast and was about 10 feet of whitewater on top of that.

Someone screamed out, try to veer away. It was too late and we just (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the face of the wave.

TICEHURST: We had 50- to 60-foot waves rolling through the air, with breaking tops, and we couldn't help them directly, other than to reassure, but that that's all we could do.

NARRATOR: The Sydney-Hobart race was fast turning to disaster. Stand Aside was just one of a dozen yachts caught in a storm worse than anything predicted. And now, as the first rescuers arrived on the scene, it became clear just how dangerous and difficult it would be to help anyone in this storm.

DAVIDSON: When we first got out there to actually look down and see these guys in this sea state (ph) the way it was, we wondered between ourselves whether we could do anything for them. And we knew that if we didn't do something reasonably quickly, that they won't last much longer.

NARRATOR: The crew decided they would try and rescue any injured sailors first, and a crewman with a severed finger was placed in a life raft. The air ambulance team knew that if the rescue divers cable got tangled with the boat, it could bring their helicopter down.

DAVIDSON: I thought the waves were going to get the helicopter, but to get down to their level where they were, and see these mountains of water, hit by a couple straight-off. It was just absolutely terrifying. Five, six guys; I just thought, this was impossible. It's not going to happen.

NARRATOR: Suddenly, after eight attempts, the raft was within reach. It had taken 20 precious minutes just to get the diver to the first man to be rescued.

DAVIDSON: We launched out of the life raft like a rocket. And the feeling of actually having one guy -- it was just absolute elation to know that you come out there now, and it hasn't all been in vain.

NARRATOR: The rescue was finally under way. One man was safe; 11 more waited their turn. But as one disaster was averted, somewhere out in Bass Strait another was just beginning.



NARRATOR: The Winston Churchill had become the second victim of a vast rogue wave.

GIBSON: Just a tremendous crash, it was like a truck had hit us, and we had fallen off a cliff.

LUMTIN: The waves actually picked the boat up and thrown us sideways into the trough in front.

NARRATOR: With darkness fast approaching, the crew of the Winston Churchill were forced to abandon ship.

GIBSON: When we lost the raft, the decks were virtually awash. The deck actually sank under there. But I just had one hand on the life raft (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and the boat was gone. The boat just went down.

NARRATOR: Two inflatable rubber rafts were now the crew's only lifeline in the storm. John Gibson and four others scrambled into the larger of the two.

GIBSON: I couldn't even climb into the damn thing. Nothing to hang onto. It was all just rubber and it's slippery and the boat was moving. The motion was violent.

NARRATOR: In the raft with him was a friend, John Stanley.

JOHN STANLEY, WINSTON CHURCHILL: Every now and again, you would hear this surf rolling like a train coming. It was a case of hang on and the only hope that it doesn't capsize.

NARRATOR: In the second raft, their four fellow crewmen were already drifting swiftly away.

LUMTIN: These waves were already big and ferocious and huge and deathly. Just the power of it made all of us feel very, very small and frightened. Just that constant fear of, I'm going to die when that next wave that I can hear coming is going to hit us.

NARRATOR: But their predicament was worse than they knew. When their boat sank, they had had to guess their position in the mayday, and their guess was wrong.

The two rafts were now lost in the storm.

The Sydney-Hobart fleet had listened in horror to the two desperate maydays, and now even the fastest boats were battling to survive the savage ocean.

ELLISON: These waves were walls of water, they were just vertical walls of water. It looked like five-story, six-story office buildings, you know, blue-glass office buildings passing us every 45 seconds.

We were at our absolute limits in this storm. And we were on 80- foot boats. We couldn't even imagine what it would be like to be on a 40-footer, with a bunch of guys that sail on weekends. You know, it was a race for survival.

NARRATOR: Behind Larry Ellison's yacht Sayonara, the worst of the storm still hovered above a dozen smaller yachts. While Stand Aside and Winston Churchill had battled to survive, a boat called Sword of Orion tried to plot a route to safety out of the storm.

They decided to turn back for the fishing port of Eden.

SIMON REFFOLD, SWORD OF ORION: You are standing at the precipice, and you know, all below you is dark. You are in something that is just way, way beyond your control. There's waves doing things you have never seen waves do before. The boat starts facing uphill. It's not a common feeling in a boat, if you what i mean, actually going uphill for a distance of time.

And I distinctly remember thinking, I'm not sure whether we will make it to the top of this wave. That's when you get scared.

STEVE KULMAR, SWORD OF ORION: It just never should have been. I mean, the conditions were so extreme and so ferocious, I never seen anything like that, or even heard anything that was this extreme. We jibed the boat, turned the boat around, and headed back toward Eden.

NARRATOR: As the boat turned back, British Olympic yachtsman Glen Charles (ph) came up to replace his friend at the wheel.

KULMAR: Glen (ph) had come on deck through the hatch and had made his way up to where I was sitting. And I think as soon as he stuck his head out of the hatch, you could see the caution on his face, because of the absolute extreme conditions and ferocity of the storm.

All I remember hearing or -- was this sort of a sound as if the boat was dropping -- everything is upside down, and you can hear water pouring in everywhere, and you hear people screaming. And then the boat just rolled all the way around until it came back to where it was.

REFFOLD: The first thing we heard was "man overboard." You don't want to hear that. You never want to hear that.

NARRATOR: A wall of water had slammed the boat on end; the impact had all but ripped the wheel where Glen (ph) had stood from the boat. His safety harness had torn, and in the water, he appeared to be very seriously injured.

KULMAR: We were drifting quite quickly apart from him and then Daryn (ph) got a hold of a sheet of rope, and was going to tie it around himself and dive in and swim back to Glen (ph). In those conditions, extreme conditions, we prevented him from doing that. He just would never have gotten to him. He would never have got to him. Of that, I am absolutely confident.

REFFOLD: I guess guys tend to think they are the hero that they wish they were. And I think we all probably would have jumped into the ocean safely.

I won't ever get over the fact that there was a moment of indecision, but I don't know what the net result would have been if a different decision had been made, in terms of going and getting Glen (ph). And that you just don't know.

NARRATOR: Glen Charles (ph) was never found.

The storm was now about survival. A choice between saving yourself and trying to find a way to help others. Now, as Sword of Orion drifted helpless and sinking, another yacht appeared on the horizon.

REFFOLD: We started lighting flares off. We had torches on deck, and -- and you know, this is exciting. And then you have this whole, they are just doing that. They are just going the one direction, you want to see them doing something, you want to see them come toward you, you want to see them wave and flash torches and acknowledge your existence.

KULMAR: It was just the most dreadful sensation. I can't describe to you -- we're in a yacht, we're battling the thing out. We have lost one crew member, and there was absolutely no recognition from that boat to say that that they had recognized us or seen us.

NARRATOR: The yacht skipper had tried to signal the boat with a flashlight, but decided that to turn and help would have risked the lives of his crew. He reported Sword of Orion's position to the emergency services, and sailed on.

Sword of Orion was by now one of seven boats sending distress signals in an area just 30 miles wide.

By late afternoon on day two, a massive search and rescue operation was under way.

In all, 55 people would be whisked to safety. Among them, the crew of Sword of Orion, rescued eight hours after the loss of Glen Charles (ph).

But as night fell, there were still no news of the Winston Churchill and her crew.




NARRATOR: Five hours after the sinking of the Winston Churchill, its two life rafts drifted, lost in the storm. And then, soon after midnight, the problems in Gibson and Stanley's raft began in earnest. GIBSON: A monster wave picked the raft up, and tipped us upside down. Then we were in trouble. We were in trouble before. We were in serious trouble now.

JOHN STANLEY, WINSTON CHURCHILL: We had the roof frame, as we standing atop it. We were talking as to what we were going to do, we realized that, you know, the biggest problem was oxygen.

GIBSON: We knew that we had to do something about air. (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And I remember someone saying, no Mark, it's death out there. I thought, geez, that's a bit -- you know, it's a bit over the top, and then within maybe 30 seconds of me saying that, and Mark hadn't gone out, a huge wave swept us. And had he been outside the raft, he would have been swept away.

NARRATOR: Some distance away, the four others in the second raft had also been flipped over. They tried to ride it from the inside, but the weight of the water was too great.

LUMTIN: We said, OK, there is no choice. One of us has to go out and tip it up. This was a real frightening concept for everyone, because out there, there's not right and wrong. There's no rules, there's no God. There is nothing. You don't have anything to fall back on, apart from your own instinct and what you think is going to work.

NARRATOR: Getting out of the raft meant taking off a life jacket and braving 50-foot waves and 65-mile-an-hour winds. The skipper of the Winston Churchill decided he had to risk it.

LUMTIN: We had to rip this door out. As soon as I got out, Richard was gone. He was out.

We could hear him outside, saying to us, "I'm over here! Pull the raft this way." Sure enough, he pulled it over and brought it upright again.

NARRATOR: Stanley and Gibson's raft was still drifting upside down. Oxygen was running out fast. The stranded men had to act.

STANLEY: We all agreed that there was no guarantee that someone going in in the pitch black trying to right this raft would not be knocked off and lost. So we hesitated. Then it got down to the obvious thing to do, is to cut a hole, and let some air in.

GIBSON: There was no other way out. And I guess as a bride and a groom cut a cake together, so the five of us had to put our heads on the knife.

We stayed like that for some time, until another monster came through and this time it landed (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

NARRATOR: Suddenly, the hole that had been their salvation became their peril. Under their weight, the opening began to grow.

STANLEY: The split just got bigger and bigger, and it went right across the bottom of the raft.

GIBSON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). The split becoming bigger. We ended up (UNINTELLIGIBLE), just a ring.

NARRATOR: Then, in the early hours of the morning, a wave came through that none of them heard.

GIBSON: I thought my body has been pulled. And then I was falling. And I was falling, and I was tumbling, and I was moving. And I was roaring down the face of a monster wave.

STANLEY: Eventually, it stopped, and I came up to grab some air, and I grabbed air, and I yelled out, "is everybody there?"

NARRATOR: Of the four others in the raft, John Gibson's was the only reply.

GIBSON: I looked around, and there about 75 years back of us, a sea of white foam behind us, just a white trail where the wave had broken, I heard voices and then I saw a little strobe light, a little blue light flashing.

And I knew right away it was Jim, because he had one and I had one. I thought, that's great, Jim's OK.

So -- I -- I heard some voices; I couldn't tell you what they were saying; I heard voices shouting out. I recognized the voices, it was Jim or Michael or John and they were shouting, like, where are you? Are you OK? Or something like that.

Well, we were 75 yards away in this rubber ring, being moved at speed, maybe three knots in this howling wind and these waves, and we couldn't do anything. We couldn't stop the raft. We had no way of getting back to them, and that's the last we saw of them.

NARRATOR: The bodies of Mike Bannister (ph) and Jim Lauler (ph) were picked up late the next day. John Dean (ph) was never found.




NARRATOR: From dawn on day three, every civilian plane available had joined the search for the Winston Churchill, and all through the day, the cost of the tragedy was counted.

The crew of Sword of Orion had been picked up in the early hours. And later that day, rescuers brought in the survivors of another boat called Business Post Naiad. Their skipper had died of a heart attack, and a member of their crew had drowned.

In all, 12 yachts had been abandoned. Four had sunk without trace. By then, late in the afternoon, an Air Corps search plane was sent out to investigate a sighting of a single life raft. It had drifted nearly 90 miles of the last position of the Winston Churchill.

Below them, they found the raft of Paul Lumtin and his three friends.

LUMTIN: It was just relief, you know, of all that fear and all that torture and all that you go through, you get picked up. That little thing in the back of your head goes, I knew we were going to get through this. I don't know what you are worried about.

As dusk fell, rescuers set a new search area for the second raft.

In the darkness, it would be down to the military. Air force search planes, and navy helicopters capable of night rescue. John Stanley and John Gibson had now been lost at sea for nearly 28 hours.

GIBSON: I think we probably played little (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I started to think of all the lovely times I had. And in particular, all the beautiful people I'd known. Particularly, the opposite sex. And that took a lot of time.

Particularly Jane; you know, we had been married three years at that stage. And I thought of that extraordinary relationship I had had with Jane, and how our lives would have gone on if we had been married.

STANLEY: I remember an albatross landing right behind John; it was about 15 feet away from me. And I looked at it, and I didn't say anything, and I thought that's good luck.

It was dark. We were still -- I thought this is going to be a long, hard night.

GIBSON: I guess it was about half past nine, we heard a plane and we saw its lights and immediately lit a little strobe light -- flash, flash, flash, and the plane got closer and closer and saw the lights.

NARRATOR: Above them, a navy helicopter returning to base overheard news of the sighting.

LT. COMMANDER RICK NEVILLE, ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY: We heard the Air Force Orion aircraft talking about a light source he had seen in the water. We descended back into the clouds and the blackness and the turbulence. It wasn't until we turned on our search lights that you could actually see the real conditions. We knew they were in big trouble, those guys. They were just in their life raft and hanging on for a grim death.

GIBSON: We heard the sound of a chopper. Then, across the water came this great sea of light. We were enveloped in these lights coming down; it was an extraordinary sensation.

NARRATOR: But as the rescue diver was being lowered, a crisis was approaching. The power and the size of the wind and waves had began to confuse the flight control computer, holding the helicopter in its night hover.

GIBSON: We're standing there looking at each other, and the next thing I knew, we took off together. We just took off at speed.

NEVILLE: The next thing we knew, the automatic flight control computer just tripped off-line. (UNINTELLIGIBLE), so if it gets confused, you are in real danger of crashing into the sea. It's very traumatic and your heart is right here.

NARRATOR: As Gibson was whisked to safety, the computer began to trip off-line again. The pilot wasn't going to risk the rescue divers' life a second time. Stanley would have to get himself out.

NEVILLE: All we wanted to do was pick the second guy up and get out of town. We decided to inch down a single rescue strap for the second guy to try to put on. I was mushing, as it was being inched down, put it on correctly, please put it on correct.y.

STANLEY: They started pulling me up, and I got about 20, 25 feet up, and I realized I was taking the raft with me. So, I just put my hands up and I went back into the ocean.

NEVILLE: I said, how the hell did he fall back in the water, Walt? And Walt said, "I don't know. He was there one minute, and gone the next."

NARRATOR: With one final effort, Stanley had managed to untangle himself from the raft.

STANLEY: They dropped the ring again, and I just grabbed it this time, and whipped it on, and they just pulled me up. And I just went straight into that chopper and just laid down, and said thank God.

NARRATOR: John Stanley and John Gibson were the last of the Hobart-Sydney sailors to be brought home alive.




NARRATOR: By dawn of day four, Larry Ellison's boat Sayonara had made it safely across Bass Strait. Their speed had saved them from the worst of the storm, but ever since they heard the tragedy unfolding behind them.

ELLISON: We had a lead in the race, and no one cared. But everyone cared about the morning, about the sunrise and how incredibly beautiful it was. Everyone was very, very reflective. Coasting our way toward the finish line, there was hardly a word spoken.

It was a pretty emotional moment when we finally got in. Everyone was happy to be alive. NARRATOR: Of the 115 boats that left Sydney, just 44 made it to the finish line. By Tuesday, the storm had moved on, and out over the Pacific. In its wake, six men were dead.

In the aftermath, questions flew around Sydney. The organizers were criticized for not stopping the race in time, and the boats for not turning in. But most of all, people directed their anger at the weather forecasters. The sailors had been willing to take on the storm warning, but in the computer age of forecasting, they expected the sea and wind to behave just as the models predicted.

BADHAM: Even those models still have trouble predicting extreme events. They're never going to actually pinpoint the really -- intensity of the storm, or the little bits and pieces that go on in there. And over a big area, of maybe hundreds and hundreds of square miles, it just so happened that half a dozen boats were in that little area where the confluence of currents and the waves were worst.

ELLISON: I guess we didn't listen carefully enough to the warnings that were there. I don't think it was arrogance so much as curiosity.

And I think we go into these races, and as it gets harder and harder, we learn more about ourselves and how we stack up. And it's very hard to walk away from those tests and walk away from those challenges.

NARRATOR: But all the survivors of the Winston Churchill had seen it firsthand: The brutal consequences of their vulnerability in the storm.

For John Gibson, it's something he'll never forget.

GIBSON: It's good to be alive. Life is beautiful. Every day is sensational. I mean, I've got a second chance, and I'm really trying to make the most of it. I still love the sea, but I've seen what it can do.

The sea is the sea. And we're human beings, and we're out of our element. And in Hobart, the sea went berserk. I mean, the waves were just berserk. And man was in a place he shouldn't have been, and six men are dead. (UNINTELLIGIBLE).