Fall at sea claims ARC skipper’s life

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The 54-year-old sailor was competing in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers when he suffered a head injury

The 54-year-old sailor was competing in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers when he suffered a head injury

Tragedy struck the 22nd annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers when one participant sustained a fatal head injury. John Thompson, 54, a lawyer in Bangor, Northern Ireland, died Dec. 13 after receiving hospital care in Barbados.

Thompson had been skippering Avocet, a 39-foot Oyster he acquired in 1997. The boat has a long history of competition in club and regatta racing. Thompson had raced before, but this was his first ARC. He was sailing with his son Daniel, his brother Richard and two other crewmembers.

Avocet, along with roughly 200 other yachts, left Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain Nov. 25, bound for RodneyBay in St. Lucia, a 2,700-nautical-mile stretch. The passage was going smoothly until Dec. 7. The yacht was 980 nautical miles east of St. Lucia and 1,090 nautical miles west of the Cape VerdeIslands when Thompson lost his footing and fell into the cockpit, face down, according to a report from the crew posted on the ARC Web site (www.worldcruising.com ). Some initial reports claimed Thompson had been struck by the boom.

“He was rolled heavily by the seas into the side of the cockpit,” says Andrew Bishop, managing director of World Cruising Club, organizer of the ARC. Bishop called the accident “just devastating.”

The crew report says Avocet was rolling up to 40 degrees in winds averaging 20 to 35 knots. The boom was held in place by a preventer. When Thompson fell into the cockpit, he grabbed the main sheet, which had gone slack when the boom came back to the centerline, despite the preventer, and rolled onto his back under the sheet. When the sail filled, the sheet snapped taut, pulling Thompson’s head backward.

The report says the crew had the sheets cleared from Thompson within a few seconds. Two crewmembers with Medical Care at Sea qualifications were unable to revive him. The crew contacted the BritishMaritimeRescueCoordinationCenter in Falmouth, Cornwall, and MRCC Fort de France, which attempted to find a ship that could evacuate Thompson and help get him to a hospital. The cruise ship Costa Mediterranea responded and evacuated Thompson in the early hours of Dec. 8. The ship’s medical team tended to him and arranged for transportation to QueenElizabethHospital in Barbados once the ship made port.

A Dec. 9 Avocet blog post stated: “John is still unconscious, but all vital signs are good, and he is responding to pain.” On Dec. 13, however, the blog posted by Thompson’s daughters — Charlotte, Rachel and Vicki — said their father had been declared brain dead and later died.

Shortly after his death, ARC organizers posted a news release expressing their sorrow over the loss and a link to the Avocet Web site for condolences. “I would like to thank all of those who have sent their wishes and prayers and for all the wonderful things said about John,” says Thompson’s wife, Tina, in a Dec. 23 blog post. “I always knew he was wonderful, and I wasn’t too shocked to find out everyone else thought so, too. He was my best friend, my husband, my lover and the best father that any of my children could ever have wished for. He will be in my heart forever.”

Thompson says she hopes the accident will encourage boaters to keep safety first at all times. “I don’t believe this will deter people from participating next year,” says Thompson. “But I hope it will make people realize to be careful when doing any offshore activities, because freak accidents do happen.”

The family is establishing a charity to raise money for QueenElizabethHospital.