Earthrace continues record attempt

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Despite mechanical failures and a fatal collision, the Kiwi skipper is determined to carry on

Despite mechanical failures and a fatal collision, the Kiwi skipper is determined to carry on

A Guatemalan judge has dismissed negligence charges in the fatal collision between Earthrace and a local fishing boat, freeing the 78-foot trihull’s crew to continue their round-the-world record attempt.

“It’s nice to be a free man,” says Pete Bethune, skipper of the biodiesel-fueled Earthrace. “I’ll tell you, you don’t realize how important your freedom is until you lose it. It scares the hell out of you.”

Bethune, a 41-year-old New Zealand petroleum engineer, and his three crewmembers were detained on the boat at a Guatemalan navy base in Puerto Quetzal for five days after the March 18 nighttime accident in which one Guatemalan fisherman was killed and another seriously hurt. Guatemalan President Oscar Berger stepped in after five days and let the crew leave base while waiting for their March 28 court hearing.

Earthrace was eight days into its circumnavigation and motoring along the Guatemalan coast at about 16 knots when Anthony Distefano, who was on watch, spotted a small red-and-white flashing light ahead, according to a press release from Bethune. Distefano thought it was from a beacon and was checking electronic charts to figure out which one when Earthrace collided with the 15-foot skiff. “The small size of the bulb gave him the impression the light was still a considerable distance away,” Bethune’s account says.

Carlos Contreras Cruz made his way to Earthrace’s transom step on his own. The crew helped a second fisherman, Pedro Salazar Gonzalez, aboard, and Earthrace doctor David Stark treated him. Gonzalez was recovering from a perforated intestine and stomach, and a fractured sternum. A third man, Julio David Galiano Contreras, died.

Bethune, who spoke with Soundings from Acapulco, says there was shared responsibility for the accident. The fishing boat probably should have been showing a white anchor light, not a flashing light, as all three men were asleep on the skiff. And though the boat would have shown only faintly on radar, Distefano probably should have caught it and identified it sooner, he says.

Bethune says his insurer reached a settlement with the families before the court hearing. The company agreed to buy a new boat, pay medical bills and pay Contreras’ widow a modest sum, Bethune says.

“It has been a very emotional experience,” he says. “We finally met with the family. … I hope I don’t go through anything like this again, but it’s part of life. It’s part of Earthrace history now.”

On March 29, after the accident delay and an earlier unanticipated prop change in Panama, Earthrace was 13 days behind schedule. Bethune says it will be hard to beat the record now, but not impossible. “It will be a fantastic challenge,” he says.

Earthrace is trying to promote use of biodiesel as a clean, alternative fuel while breaking the 75-day around-the-world record set by another wave-piercing powerboat, British Cable and Wireless Adventurer, in 1998. The $2 million Earthrace started its record attempt March 10 from Barbados.