The skipper of a yacht who rescued one of his crew from the Pacific has said finding the sailor was worse than looking for a needle in a haystack.
Sean McCarter - who is from Co Donegal - of the Derry-Londonderry-Doire boat in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, said his team mate would have been unconscious and possibly dead if he had not been wearing a dry suit when he fell overboard 2,500 miles from land.
Londoner Andrew Taylor, 46, was in the ocean for an hour and a half before being rescued.
Mr McCarter, 32, and a former RNLI volunteer for Loughswilly, Co Donegal, said: “The moment he went out of sight the Pacific all of a sudden becomes a very big place.
“We had our man overboard position marked on the chart which gives us a point to start searching from and we start going through the motions, trying to estimate where he might have drifted to with the wind and current. We started searching but I mean a needle in a haystack doesn’t even describe what we were looking for.”
Mr Taylor has recovered well from his terrifying ordeal in the early hours of Monday (Irish time) despite suffering severe shock, hypothermia and being hit by the rudder of the 70ft racing yacht as it swung past him.
He was with the skipper trying to change a head sail when the boat rolled violently and he was thrown into the water despite being clipped on.
He said: “It happened so quickly. One second my feet were on the boat the next my head was in the water. There was nothing in between, it was just, bang, gone. There was no feeling of losing my balance or trying to get hold of something or looking for something to hang on to.”
Mr Taylor said conditions deteriorated further while he was in the ocean being tossed about in a swell and when a storm hit with rain, wind and hailstones.
He said: “I got hit from behind by a really big wave. I heard it coming, white water. It hit me from behind, winded me, rolled me over, tipped me upside down, and rolled me over and over and over, like getting wiped out in a surf or washed up on a beach.”
The yacht was about halfway on the 5,600-mile leg across the Pacific from Qingdao, China, to San Francisco when the accident happened in rough conditions.
Mr McCarter, now based in Mallorca and a sailor from a young age, said searching for a longstanding crew member made the rescue operation all the more tense.
“Being a crew member on an RNLI lifeboat we respond to lots of those but there’s a certain detachment when its not somebody you know, a friend or a crew mate. You are just out looking for a diver in the water or somebody who has been swept off a rock,” he said.
“It’s not quite the same as somebody you were just talking with a few moments before, someone you have been sailing with for whatever it is, seven months at this stage, and ultimately somebody I am responsible for.”
The crew have been praised for putting all their training to good use and following man overboard procedures to the letter.
But with the conditions in the middle of the ocean, there were fears for Mr Taylor’s life after he was not seen for such a long period of time.
The skipper said: “The water temp is 10-11 degrees so you really don’t want to have someone in there for really any longer than 10-15 mins. We had huge seas, we’d very strong winds, we’d limited visibility because the sea state was so bad and that made it a lot more challenging..
“As soon as we saw him the initial reaction was a huge relief and then followed quite quickly by we don’t have a clue what state he is in, God forbid dead or alive, conscious, unconscious, injured.
“We got round and as soon as he could sea the boat out of the corner of his eye we could see him waving his arms and that was another massive relief.
“We got near to him and before we knew it he was instructing us how to get him back on board.”
The Pacific leg of the Clipper, between China and the US, is the tenth of 16 stages in the world’s longest ocean race at more than 40,000 miles.