Hopes grow dimmer by the day that BOC's Mitchell will be found


March 26, 1995|By PETER BAKER

On April 1, when a fleet of sailboats leaves Punta del Este, Uruguay, for the last leg of the BOC Challenge, it is possible -- perhaps probable -- that the Henry Hornblower will not be among them.

The Hornblower, a 40-foot cutter skippered by a 70-year-old Englishman named Harry Mitchell, has been neither seen nor heard from since March 2, when one of the boat's two emergency radio beacons was activated.

On March 2, Mitchell and his boat were 1,450 miles west of Cape Horn -- 56 degrees, 35 minutes south; 114 degrees, 20 minutes west -- in the cold, desolate reaches of the South Pacific.

This is Mitchell's third attempt to complete the BOC, considered the Everest of sailing. His first try ended before he reached the starting line, the second when he sailed onto a beach in New Zealand.

The third attempt, too, may have ended, and with it a dream the retired businessman and antique clock collector from Southampton told race organizers he has had since childhood -- "to wear a gold earring in my left ear for rounding [Cape] Horn."

The chances of Mitchell ever rounding Cape Horn at the tip of South America grow more remote each day, and on Thursday the Chilean Navy was scheduled to cancel a 24-hour visual and radar watch posted at the cape.

"Henry has tried so long and hard to get around Cape Horn," said BOC official Susan Ward. "It has been his lifelong ambition to do so -- and knowing him as we do, we are still expecting him to sort of just show up."

But Mitchell, the oldest competitor in the 13-boat BOC, and the Hornblower had been having problems, sailing at the back of the Class II (40 to 50 feet) fleet and averaging 140 to 150 nautical miles per day, about 6 knots.

On the second leg, from Cape Town, South Africa, to Sydney, Australia, Mitchell reported the following to race organizers:

"I am in the center of a severe, 60-knot storm. I've lost all the blades on the wind generator. I'm worried. I may lose the GPS antenna. . . . The seas are unbelievable and dangerous. The conditions are the worst I have experienced ever. Hope I come through."

On the second leg, race leader Isabelle Austissier of France had to abandon her boat after being rolled in heavy seas, and was rescued by a British Navy helicopter. Three other boats did not finish the leg.

The Hornblower did reach Sydney, however, six days before the scheduled start of the third leg to Punta del Este, and, after battling the flu, Mitchell started a day behind the rest of the fleet.

At 2200 Greenwich Mean Time on March 2, Mitchell and the Hornblower apparently encountered major difficulties. According to meteorologists in France and California, Mitchell and Japanese racer Minoru Saito were in an area of severe winds, with gusts up to 70 knots.

Saito, aboard Shuten-Dohji II, was 232 miles west-northwest of Mitchell when the Hornblower's stern-mounted emergency radio beacon (EPIRB) was activated.

Saito, while in position to come to Hornblower's aid, could not be contacted. Race organizers discovered later that the same storm had destroyed the long-range communications system aboard Shuten-Dohji II.

On March 3, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Valparaiso, Chile, diverted the bulk carrier Francisca Schulte to Hornblower's last known position. By March 5, the merchant ship was on station, but at 1253 GMT the same day, the EPIRB on Hornblower emitted its last position report.

The master of the Francisca Schulte, S. Mordovin, reported winds in the search down to 28 to 33 knots and 10-foot seas, and based an initial search pattern over 23 square nautical miles on EPIRB positions received earlier.

On March 7, having completed several search patterns, the Francisca Schulte left the area because weather conditions "could endanger the vessel and crew."

"This is an anxious time, but I remind myself that [Harry's] tough as nails," race director Mark Schrader said as the search for Mitchell and the Hornblower continued. "It is possible that, after suffering damage in the horrible conditions, he is sailing along toward Cape Horn and Punta del Este. . . . If circumstances have allowed Harry to survive, it will be with his spirit and sense of humor intact."

On March 8, the MRCC diverted the bulk carrier Doceriver off its course to Brazil to a site 150 miles southeast of Hornblower's last known position. Doceriver arrived on station on March 10 and searched a 60-square-nautical-mile area over a 36-hour span before winds of 48 to 63 knots and swells to 36 feet began to cause "structural stress and overloading of the main engine propulsion and steering gear systems."

On March 16, the ship Resolution Bay passed through the area in which Mitchell and the Hornblower could have been expected to be, 14 days after the EPIRB sent its first emergency transmission. The MRCC reported that "visibility was excellent and nothing was sighted."

The MRCC also said at the time that a watch by all vessels moving through the area would be kept until the end of March.

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