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Carly Hill lost overboard

A couple of days ago we received some terribly sad and shocking news: Our dear friend, Carly Hill, has been lost overboard from the catamaran Oryx.

Oryx in a remote anchorage in Brazil
Oryx in a remote anchorage in Brazil

Oryx had recently crossed the Atlantic from Brazil to spend some time in Carly’s South African homeland. During this month-long adventure Carly’s family and friends were quite worried for her safety – and with some justification, I may say, for the passage across the southern end of the South Atlantic is no sunshine cruise. Ironically, however, it was not while the boat was bouncing about in a mid-ocean gale that Carly went overboard. She vanished from our lives on a day of blue skies and fair breezes, and she was just six miles from the beach.

I’m writing these words partly for the benefit of our mutual friends – other members of the cruising community – and partly as a brief memorial to Carly, but I’m also writing them as a testimony to Pete Hill. I’d been meaning for a long time to write an article about this wonderful duo, and it feels so sad and strange to be writing an obituary instead, but I also feel the need to straighten out some of the nonsense which is being posted elsewhere on the web. Yes, you can imagine how this story is being played out by those spineless worms who, hiding behind anonymity, tag their comments onto the garbled misrepresentations of the gutter-press…

Oryx sailing in the bay of Paranagua, Brazil
Oryx sailing in the bay of Paranagua, Brazil

So – to begin at the beginning, and to deal first with that side of things – Oryx is a very seaworthy vessel, a fact which has been proven by her recent successful crossing of the Atlantic and her survival of two mid-ocean gales. She’s around 33ft long – not 20ft, as reported in the Daily Mail. Those folks glibly appending their criticisms of the boat and her creator might also like to note that Pete has been cruising in (supposedly flimsy) plywood boats such as this one for around 45 years – which is probably longer than some of his critics have been alive and having their noses blown for them.
I’m not even going to bother responding to the person who asks, “Why do these people embark on such dangerous jaunts?” It would take far too long; and you still wouldn’t understand.
I’m so glad that the internet hadn’t been invented when we capsized Maamari with our two tiny children aboard…
There is one report that Carly would have loved, however, and that’s the one which refers to her as a novelist. She’d recently published her first novel and, to quote the spiel on her author’s profile, her dream was always to write. I’m sure that she would love to be remembered in those terms.

There’s a brief paragraph about Pete and Carly and Oryx on our Friends page. We first met them while Pete was putting together a new cruising guide for Brazil, to be published under the auspices of the Royal Cruising Club. To quote a representative of that organisation: “Pete’s work is at the heart of what the Pilotage Foundation is all about. He gives so much time and thought and skill to passing on information about less well-cruised areas of the world.”
Cruising yotties as a community are almost always very generous with their knowledge, whether of boats, or bits of boats, or anchorages, but for Pete the desire to learn and to share is almost a raison d’etre. As we were to learn, in exploring the harbours on the coast of Brazil he left no stone unturned and no tiny creek unexplored and his work was meticulous.

The Mollymawks aboard Oryx with Pete and Carly Hill

We last shared anchorage together in the Bay of Paranagua, and when Oryx set off to navigate the tiny, shallow rythe which joins this harbour to the adjacent one of Cananeia, we were privileged to be invited to join ship. (The creek was too shallow for Mollymawk to be able to get through.) During our time aboard we noted the way in which Pete and Carly always operated in perfect harmony, sharing the sailing and sharing the cooking – but with Pete always being called upon to have the final word in all things. That was evidently the way Carly liked things to be. We also observed that everything aboard this boat was done to a routine, with meals and even afternoon tea being taken at a precise hour. This was by way of great contrast with the muddle-along lifestyle pursued aboard Mollymawk, and we were awed by Pete and Carly’s ability to run their totally unconventional lives in such a tidy and civilised way. The boat, it need hardly be said, was immaculate both inside and out at all times – and this despite our presence.

Carly joined Pete about seven years ago. By this time he had built and sailed three yachts, including Badger; he had raced in the OSTAR (the single-handed transatlantic race), and he had sailed non-stop all the way from the north-eastern corner of Brazil to New Zealand. He had even sailed his “flimsy” plywood boats to Greenland and to Antarctica. For all I know he may have done a dozen other things, but he’s a man of few words with a self-effacing nature, and one learns of his exploits only by gently tweezing the stories out.
Carly, meanwhile, had no previous sailing experience. Before they met, she had devoted herself almost exclusively to her two children and to a career in nursing. The kind of determination which had equipped her to raise her kids singlehandedly whilst simultaneously rising through the ranks of the nursing profession now enabled her to quickly get to grips with learning the ropes aboard a boat. But there’s an irony here, and a bitter one: Carly more than once confided in me that her main reason for wanting to learn how to sail and navigate was so that she would be able to manage if Pete should ever be lost overboard.

What happened?

Having crossed to South Africa last year, Pete and Carly spent the next few months working on the boat, cruising westward and – most important of all, so far as Carly was concerned – getting together with her children and her first little grand-daughter.

On the 17th June, Carly posted what was to be her last ‘status update’ on her facebook page:
Oryx is setting sail for Madagascar tomorrow. We will be taking the scenic route via the Mozambique channel islands … Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers. We will be in contact asap.”

Oryx duly set sail from Durban on the Thursday, and by the following morning she had travelled about 50 miles up the coast. Pete had been on watch during the early hours, and after they had eaten breakfast together at the scheduled hour, he turned in to catch up on his sleep. (He did not doze off, as the Telegraph implies!) The time was 8 o’clock.
At 10 o’clock he awoke to the sailor’s worst nightmare: Carly was not aboard.

I’ve been here, so I know a little bit about the gut-turning shock and the feeling of total disbelief. In my case it never went any further than that – I was swiftly reprieved – because when I began calling his name, the skipper revealed himself. He was half way up the mast… In Pete’s case, his calls went answered.
The wind was on the port quarter and it was blowing at about force three. The sea state was moderate, and the sun was shining. However, even in conditions such as these, searching for a small object in the water is like hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Pete dropped the sails and put out a Mayday call on the VHF, but there were no replies. The boat was about 6 miles off the coast, and so there was no mobile phone reception.

Oryx on a calm day
Oryx on a calm day

Oryx was travelling at about 5½ knots under the self-steering – so, during the time when Pete was asleep she had covered about 11 miles. Although he grew up with nothing more than a sextant and a paper chart to plot his way around the ocean, Pete has not disdained to take advantage of modern electronic gadgetry: he had been making use of a Navionics programme which enables the sailor to see his vessel’s position overlaid on an electronic chart. The programme also keeps track of the course which the boat has been following. So, seemingly, all Pete had to do was turn the boat around and motor back along that line, all the while keeping a sharp look-out for a head or a waving hand.

Alas, it wasn’t so easy as that.
Having arrived back at the pre 08.00 position without catching sight of Carly, Pete resolved to head inshore until he could raise a phone signal and call for help. Having successfully contacted the NSRI (South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute) he then went back out and started a zig-zag search, travelling back along the same track but taking in the area on either side of the line. A couple of hours passed, and he was joined by two lifeboats and no fewer than three helicopters, and he was later told that there was also a light aircraft searching at a higher altitude.

As the sun set and dusk rolled in, the search was called off for the night. According to a spokesman for the NSRI, Pete was advised to return to Durban but he disdained to do so. “He was adamant that he was not going to leave the search area, even though it was not safe to stay at anchor.”
Having passed what must surely have been a most restless night anchored off the open coast, Pete resumed his search at first light. He was shortly afterwards joined by the two NSRI boats, and when they returned to Durban at noon he continued to scour the sea, not giving up until the very end of the second day.
According to Pete, “The NSRI coordinated the search using unprecedented resources in a very efficient manner” – but all to no avail.

Our thoughts are with you, Pete. In a culture where blame and compensation are the norm, perhaps only a sailor can understand that in a situation like this absolutely no one is culpable. Falling overboard is to be compared to the ill-fortune of happening to walk under a tree in the instant while it was falling. On any other day and at any other moment you can walk under the tree in complete safety.
And no one could not have searched any more diligently or cleverly. There was nothing more to be done.
Life is impermanent. Birth leads inevitably to death. When our karma is ripe, there is nothing that anyone else can do to save us from our fate.

Some closing thoughts

This story has really rocked us to the core. We go to sea fully aware of the fact that death lies just one careless step away – but having survived for many years with this threat ever-present yet never making itself felt, we had become a little bit complacent.
“Sounds fishy to me,” say the ignorant bitchers and whiners, commenting on the news report. “Why wasn’t she wearing a lifejacket? All experienced sailors where lifejackets.”
Well, actually, they don’t. In fact, I don’t know any experienced sailors of any nationality who routinely wear a lifejacket. Did you ever try wearing a lifejacket all day, every day? Generally speaking, when they’re in the tropics most sailors prefer to wear nothing at all.
More to the point, I’m not at all sure that a lifejacket would have saved Carly – a teenage friend of mine died (of hypothermia) while wearing a lifejacket – but what certainly would have saved her is a harness and tether.

Oryx‘s deck has a lot of camber and there are no guardrails, so it would be easy to fall overboard – but all the lines and controls are lead aft, so there shouldn’t be any need to leave the cockpit at sea.

If Carly had been wearing a harness and tether, then there would simply have been no accident. No moment of sudden hot panic as she realised that she’d slipped, or lost her hold; no mind-numbing horror as the boat sailed away, abandoning her. And for Pete, there would have been no terrible moment of discovering his beloved wife gone, and no gruelling two day search, sailing the boat all alone. There would simply have been no event whatsoever. If she’d been tethered to the boat and had missed her footing, would Carly even have bothered, when Pete awoke, to tell him about it?
“You know, I slipped on the deck! If I hadn’t been wearing my harness I might have gone overboard, perhaps!”
“Really? Hmmm… Maybe the non-slip paint needs re-doing… Is there any more of that cake that you made yesterday?”

If she’d only been wearing a harness and tether…
But you know, harnesses are cumbersome too, and I don’t know anyone who wears one of those full-time, either. Aboard Mollymawk, we wear them (in combination with a CO2 lifejacket) when we consider that conditions are dangerous; and we have an unwritten rule which says that if no one else is on deck then the watch-keeper mustn’t leave the cockpit without donning his armour.
Of course the trouble is, rules are very easily broken when no one else is watching. Imagine a sunshiney day, a moderate sea state, and a gentle breeze just aft of the beam. Are you really going to bother faffing around, wrapping yourself in all that tackle, just so that you can go for’ard and change the nip on the main halyard?
Well from now on, I am – and I’ll be wearing it not so much for myself as for the ones who will have to suffer the consequences if I go missing at sea.

Carly, I can’t believe that you won’t be reading these words.
I keep thinking that I must have dreamt the whole thing. Or maybe you’re stronger than they give you credit for being, and you’ve swum ashore and are resting on a beach…
it doesn’t seem right or fair or even remotely possible that someone so warm-hearted and friendly and so full of the joys of life could very suddenly be snuffed out.
To say that you will be sadly missed is a huge understatement. Living in the shadow of a giant, you were always afraid that you didn’t quite make the grade as a cruising sailor, but actually you were one of the greats.

8 Comments

  1. I wonder how painfull must have been to write about a friend going like that. But is important to put things straight. I agree with everthing. When some are naked, crossing the atlantic in a beautifull day of trade winds, no one thinks abou lifejackets and thats the reality. I find strange that is no lifelines to be seen on the sides of the boat. I personally like then very tall. But even that may no prevent the accident since no one knows exactly what happens. She did live fully her sailing years. Just terrible what happens. Thanks for sharing. We all can learn something.

  2. Sorry to hear that terrible news, go safe.

    Looking forward to getting off land and on to my adventure, refitting a van de stad 8 meter off shore. Thinking what would be my best options for mast, rigging and sail (lone sailor with occasional visitors). Any advice would be welcome!

    All the best, Andy.

    ps just waiting for my next payday to buy your book. ( how not to build a boat) think must have a lot in common with my total refit.

  3. Indiana Clarke

    Thank you for a sane commentary.
    I can see how very easy it would be to slip overboard. I have tripped up myself in the cockpit, been hurt and bleeding ( sharp universal clip on the bilge pump), while my exhausted husband slept soundly below.

    I have much respect for Pete’s sailing endeavours. I could identify with the junk rig and sailing on very limited resources. In his first wife’s book, Voyaging on a Small Income, Pete washes up regularly using only a cup of water. I aspire to do the same and regularly joke about how he might have achieved this.
    I am so sorry for Pete and Carly’s family and friends. It is only comforting that she appeared to be happy.

    Indiana Clarke ( getting ready for the big sailaway)

  4. What a touching tribute to a beloved friend, and so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this terrible tragedy, as well as sharing an insight into this amazing couple, and their fabulous adventures aboard. Thanks too for putting all those noxious naysayers in their place…as you say, they could never understand anything about this, or about sailing, let alone the wonderful cruising lifestyle that so many of us have chosen to lead. I look forward to reading more of your incredibly well-written articles. Happy sailing to all of you…hopefully you make it to Mexico someday…would be great to meet you!

  5. David Duval-Hall

    So sad, we were so shocked when we heard the news, we met pete and carly in cornwall, we built our catamaran Eau De Vie at the same time as pete and carly built oryx, I totally agree with your comments, hindsight wont bring back carly, they were both so very happy and a good team, Pete hill is a very modest man but a very accomplished sailor, I have been at seasince 1965 and a captain since 1972 and I know pete is a far better sailer than I am,

  6. Thank you, Jill for this moving written piece about the tragic loss of a wonderful person, friend, wife, mother and grandmother. I was gutted when I came across the news by chance. I can only imagine what her husband, Pete, must be feeling. I am not a sailor but my thoughts have mirrored yours since I heard about the tragic loss of Carly. I haven’t seen any of the sensational articles that you’ve referred to and Ii don’t want to. For years I’ve been following Carly’s postings on FB about the building of Oryx and her and Pete’s adventures. Clearly Pete is a legendary sailor and highly competent boat builder and he shared his adventurous life with beautiful Carly and made her very happy. Pete has not met me – that was going to be in either Madagascar soon or Australia next year – when I was looking forward to seeing Carly again and to meeting Pete. I’d like to send an email to / write to Pete but don’t know how to contact him so, if you think it appropriate, could you please send me an email with how I can contact him? Thank you again for this well written reasoned article. Well done.

  7. Federico y Candela

    Nos unimos a vosotros, a toda la tripulación de el Molymawck , en estos dias de enorme tristeza y dolor por la perdida en el mar de Carly tripulante del catamarám Oryx. Nuestro recuerdo para Pete y a todos sus familiares y amigos.

    Al Molymawck que os lleve navegando con la misma seguridad que lo ha hecho hasta ahora.

    Un fuerte abrazo Candela y Fede

  8. vicente stanislaw klonowski

    Não é fácil aceitar estes fatos, como também não é nada fácil buscar palavras para solidarizar-se com a dor da perda de uma pessoa querida. Concordo com todos os comentários acima e a homenagem de Jill Dickin foi completa e se expressa muito bem.
    Conheci Pete e Carly por apenas um dia, melhor dizendo por algumas horas de minha vida…
    Encontrei-me com eles após também passar por um naufrágio com uma jangada a 5 milhas no mar de Búzios no estado do Rio de Janeiro na costa do Brasil. Ainda estava meio abalado, havia passado quase uma noite inteira dentro d água sozinho tentando desvirar meu barco. Dias depois após restaurar o barco e me recompor fisicamente retornava para Macaé guando avistei o Oryx, e a primeira vista me encantei com o seu barco, um catamarã com velas biplanas de junco, Pensei comigo, é esta vela que tenho que por na jangada, muito fácil de rizar. Havia capotado porque meu barco não rizava a vela, estava velejando numa jangada nordestina e já tinha feito vários trechos da costa sul do Brasil com este barco … Pensei, é um encontro de barcos diferenciados, os donos devem pensar de forma especial também! Tive a sorte de ter gente a bordo e ao me ver eles logo já foram completamente receptivos. Não falo inglês mas procuramos nos entender assim mesmo. Afinal somos humanos e podemos nos comunicar basicamente. Fui convidado a bordo e prontamente amarrei minha jangada no Oryx e fui descobrindo a obra de arte que era seu barco construído por ele mesmo. Que barco bem feito, bem pensado… Pete me mostrou os laminados de bambu e acho que comentei com ele que a minha retranca, da jangada também era de bambú, considero melhor que o alumínio. Carly gentilmente me ofereceu um chá com torradas e assim trocamos as poucas informações que nossa linguagem de gestos permitiam. Pequei o contato deles e depois enviei para todos os amigos velejadores do sul do Brasil. Pelo menos um deles sei que os recebeu no Rio de Janeiro.
    A notícia do desaparecimento de Carly caiu em mim como uma tragédia de um parente próximo… Descobrimos com isso que somos uma espécie de família, que se encanta sempre ao se reencontrar e também nos machuca muito a perda de um de nós… Só depois fui conhecer melhor a história de marinheiro vivida por Pete Hill… O que posso dizer mais… a não ser Pete meu amigo , aceita meu pesar e siga seu lindo caminho no mar, todos somos parte de sua família.

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