At 12pm I return to deck for my watch. The sea is choppier and the wind has picked up. Richard, Shaun and Sean had rolled away the Genoa as they were struggling to hold the course in the very choppy and windy sea, although we are back up at 12 to 18kts after dropping some speed through the previous day.
As I take the wheel I ask Mike, who is sitting alongside me, to be ready to grab the wheel, should I be knocked off the steer box as it is rather bumpy. There was no need, as I have a great hour at the helm with gust up to 30kts apparent. I am loving it and I hit speeds of 18kts regularly. Mark comes up on deck towards the end of my hour. He is suffering with a bad cold and has been sleeping quite a lot today. As he takes the helm he hits the record speed of 19kts and all is going well.
I finish my shift and sleep for a few hours, then return to the deck at about 7am and both Sean and Shaun are manning the helm and the genoa is back out. I make coffee and a little while later I eat a tin of mackerel for breakfast. Thereafter, I again sit down to download the weather and plan our course. I am satisfied that we are heading in the direction intended. Shaun is still not able to spend time reading in the cabin as he immediately feels like throwing up.
I do my best to write the first day of the blog but it is difficult with the angle of the boat and the continuous jolting. I manage a simple first post. On return to deck, Peter is on the helm and really enjoying it. He is getting the hang of it after a nervous start to the race. Mike takes over from him at around 1PM for an hour.
After his shift in the early morning, Shaun put out a lure on a bungee. As he had no way to tie the bungee to the boat, he used the 200lb nylon to tie temporarily, what he wrongly assumed was a good knot, while he went downstairs to scrounge for some string to use for this purpose. Unfortunately, he never made it back in time as the lure was taken by a fish, the knot destroyed with a loud snap and all the gear disappeared very quickly into the depths. We never had time to put out another. It happened while Mike was at the helm and he said it was huge! Well, he is a fisherman in Dubai so I don’t know if we should believe his story.
Mark took over from Mike and it was decided to shake the reef in the main, which was duly done. We now were flying along at 12 to 14 knots from 8 to 12 knots as we had done all morning. Wesley was sewing the end of a frayed knot, I was on deck walking to the companionway and Mark was on the wheel around 14:10 when there was a large snapping sound. I turned to see Mark and he shouted that the helm was gone.
I shouted down into the hatch, “all hands-on deck”, as Mark screamed for us to roll away the genoa and take down the main. The boat skidded down wind and we were in danger of gibing dangerously. Wesley leaps into action, furiously rolling the genoa and screaming at me to control and release the genoa sheet. As we got most of the Genoa away, the boom moves into a gybe position.
The preventer we had on fortunately held for a few moments longer, but eventually it broke under the severe strain. The boom came over, throwing the boat into the surf with unbelievable force. I had moved to control the lazy genoa sheet and was moving back to help on leeward side when this happened and I found myself falling flat as the main sheet came across me. Fortunately, nothing gave from the Gybe and I could scramble back out. Mike was out of his bunk by this time and was on deck trying to bring in the main sheet which was in quite a tangle.
I took the main halyard as Wesley and Sean brought down the main. In the meantime, Mark had shouted to Shaun to look at the rudder below deck to ascertain the damage, and followed him below. The boat came under control in a few minutes due to the prompt reactions of the crew and we bobbed around at the mercy of the sea.
I went below to see how I could help and found Shaun and Mark trying to secure the lower half of the rudder shaft with some rope but there wasn’t anything to purchase on. We managed to put some lines around it but this did not really secure the back and forth movement of the shaft. The danger was apparent that the lower part of the shaft and the rudder could work itself loose, and both the rudder shaft and the rudder could fall from the boat, leaving gaping hole.
Water was coming in mildly to start. It was decided that Wesley needed to get into the water to see if he could assess any external damage, possibly securing the rudder to the boat from the outside. I grabbed two fenders and secured them to a line to hand off the stern of the boat. At this stage, Wesley had secured himself to one of the back-stay lines with the assistance of Sean. He leapt into the turbulent water and tried to go under and see. He said the rudder was moving from side to side, and Trekker was furiously rising and falling hard on the water surface with the waves.
It soon became obvious that it would be impossible to get under the boat in the conditions without possible serious injury. He could also see that it was probably impossible to be able to secure such a large rudder in any event should he make it down there. We pulled him back on board. We could also by now see with the constant tossing that the deck where the upper shaft for the rudder was secured, was heaving in and out.
While we were doing this, Mark had been thinking of what we could do to secure the rudder or fix it. He decided to put out a drogue. Shaun had in the meantime been asked to stay below and watch the shaft to give us immediate warning, should the rudder separate leaving a gaping hole. If that happened, it would not give us much time to abandon ship.
Mark, Shaun and Wesley then tried to improve the bindings around the lower shaft. The rest of us then started to get the life jackets and grab bags ready on deck, including packing secondary bags. Water bottles were tied together and all the sea sick members of the crew were told to stay on deck by Wesley. It was only a matter of time in the current sea that they would get extremely sick. Mike and Peter were suffering the worst and Shaun continued to guts it out below watching the shaft.
It was time for Mark to notify the shore that we had a problem and put out a Pan Pan explaining our difficulty. He also called race control on the satellite phone after receiving no response on the radio. Alasdair called shortly after, jokingly saying that our tracker was not working as we were not moving. I informed him that there was a problem. Race control said that we needed to stand by for further feedback.
At this stage, we noticed that the drogue line had somehow wrapped itself around the keel, and Wesley donned his fins again to go under the boat to release it. In the meantime, Shaun had succumbed to the sea sickness and had come on deck to vomit just as Wesley made his way to the rear of Trekker II. He managed to comment on the beautiful colours in the water, because of the purple cabbage floating from Shaun’s stomach, as he swam by.
Wesley managed to wash himself aboard as the boat came down a wave, hurting his ribs in the process. I rushed to his assistance and as he was clambering upright, a large wave took the rear seat right off its mounting, sweeping the contents – and nearly Wesley – off the boat into 5 kilometre depths below. He threw the seat back to me – I managed to grab it and pass it back to Shaun, who wedged it between the transom and the port wheel while the water gushed around us.
Richard in the meantime was manning the Navigation station in case we got a response from the RCYC on our situation. Shaun returned to his position on his bunk where he could watch for the sudden danger of water gushing in. The water was starting to come in more strongly. Mark, Richard, Sean, Wesley and myself stood in the saloon trying to consider all the possibilities we had. Shaun was listening on from his bunk. Alasdair, Tracey, Mark’s partner, Allan and Michiel were also working furiously to see what could be done as they had all been informed of our situation.
The next few hours went by in a blur. Things got worse and we were informed that no vessel was coming to tow us, as we were too far out and any private tug would take at least 16 hours if it was even available – it was also questionable whether it was even possible to tow us given the state of our rudder. However, the overriding factor was that we were taking on more water and the rudder was moving from side to side in a more vigorous manner than at first.
It was obvious to us that it was working itself loose and it was only a matter of time before it dropped out. The MRCC (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre) in Cape Town were aware of our situation and they eventually advised that we should take the help of the Ship that was in the vicinity, as there might not be another chance of rescue. MV Golafruz, an Iranian bulk carrier was the closest vessel, and they made their way towards us. I called my wife Karey to let her know that we were in a rescue situation but a ship was on the way and she should not worry.
We hopped on board and all was fine… Not really!
A 225-metre tanker approaching a 19-meter yacht in 4 metre swells that are erratic is not for the faint hearted, even with the motor and a good rudder. Of course, we did not have rudder control and could not control our yacht in any way. It was left to the skill of the master on the Golafruz and his team to steer close enough to us, so that they could throw us a line which was then to be used to pull us alongside and secure us long enough for the crew to clamber on board. I remember thinking that this would be an almost impossible task, as we had no way of motoring into position.
I was holding the handheld radio throughout the rescue and could hear the words of the captain as he informed us what he was about to do. He repeated on several occasions that he was looking for the best results and that all fit seamen should come up the ladder first. It was clear that he thought that this was going to be a difficult task and his ideal best results was at least saving the fit who had the best chance of climbing the ship. The ship inched its way closer and closer to us slowing down to 4kts, which was the slowest they can go without risking engine failure in such a choppy sea. As they got closer to us, and with metres between us, we tried to motor Trekker II into position to catch the ropes from the seamen that we could see way up above on the rails of the tanker.
Trekker, unfortunately twisted around and away from the perfect position due to the angle of the rudder, as we slowly saw the ship move past us and away. The task seemed even more impossible as the captain on the ship told us he would come around again for the second attempt. Darkness was setting in. This time he was very close to us and the bow of the ship was dangerously close to us, but we needed to be in this position if we had any chance at all.
If the bow had somehow sucked us in, it would have cut us down into little bits spitting us out at the back of the ship. The ship inched past us as we again started the motor and tried to give it a little burst in the hope that we would move closer to the side the ship. It gave just enough of a push and then cut out. The crew were throwing ropes to us but we were still too far for them to reach us.
As we slowly slid down the side of the ship, we realise that we are in danger of failing again. Mark tried the motor again and it started for just long enough to send us a bit closer before dying again. The crew were frantically running down the ship following us ready to throw for the 5th time. The first throw was good but went the wrong side of our mast, fell into the water and away from us. I realised that there was one last chance – the seamen watched the previous attempt, threw it to the right side of our mast and we moved into it with some relief.
The job was not done yet – the rope needed to be secured very fast before any tension was placed on it, as it would just rip out the hands of anyone holding it. Wesley was on it and as quick as lightning, he had secured it round the mast with a bow line. The yacht jolted as the tension was taken up.
Our bow nose turned, now perfectly in line with the stern of the ship, and then we hit the ship with a crunching bang. Head to toe, as it were. Two more lines were dropped and secured. The stern line was extremely long and we were having to pull in the slack as it loosened after every swell – the idea being to get our stern alongside tightly.
The rope bit into the head of the winch and jammed there dangerously as we secured it finally. We thought the line could fray and snap at any minute or that the winch head might fly off shooting bits of metal. Somehow throughout the rescue it stayed fast. We were alongside now and it was dark. The ship’s crew lowered a wooden rope ladder as we continued clashing violently with the ship on every surge of the sea and roll of the ship.
Richard was nominated to go up the ladder first to co-ordinate effort from the top. He watched the roll as the ladder sank down 3 to 4 meters between the ship and Trekker, and then rose again. As it sank to the lowest point, he stepped on and headed up the ladder. As we looked up, we could see the spreaders surge towards him and we screamed at him to be careful. If they got to him they could either knock him off or hit him directly with a force that could kill. They came close but never close enough for him to be in any real danger. He scampered over the rails and I heaved a sigh of relief. It could be done.
Sean then headed for the ladder but got his timing wrong and as he started to sink lower between the two boats, his arms came in line with his body and the ladder swung away from the boat leaving his back over Trekker. He shouted for help and Wesley yanked him instantly onto his back on the deck. My heart was in my mouth, he was safe. Mike then went up while Sean recomposed himself. He had a line that kept getting between him and the ladder. Wesley and myself kept flicking it back over him, but if it went taught on the wrong side of him, he could have been plucked off the ladder.
Wesley cut the line from the yacht. Sean then went up – safely this time. We kept shouting for the ladder to be moved further from the spreader, and it was finally done as a safety line was also lowered. Peter then went up with ease, even though he said earlier that he was worried about the climb as he does not like heights. I followed, and then Shaun.
On my turn to get onto the ladder, I watched the surge three times to get the timing before stepping onto the ladder. It was a very scary moment and as I climbed, I thought of my wife and family and said to myself that there is no chance for failure here. I know others had similar thoughts.
Once we were up, Wesley and Mark tied our personal baggage lying in the cockpit to a line that was lowered by the ship’s crew. We managed to get a lot of it off before Wesley climbed the ladder, leaving Mark to open the sea cocks so that Trekker could sink. He then came up and we all watched in silence as the lines were cut and Trekker II moved off into the darkness. A very sad moment for all of us. Relieved that we were safe, but devastated now by the loss of our yacht. She was one of a kind to all of us.
The crew gave us water and sweet cakes on deck and we took our luggage up to the crew mess hall. There we sat trying to be friendly with the crew who were very comforting and appreciated what we had been through. They gave us a meal and then explained to Mark that they had three rooms that we would have to share. Two of us would have to sleep on a narrow couch. We went to our rooms and dreamt of the day and the decisions. Phew, what a day.
Quote of the day: “When faced with a challenge, look for a way, not a way out.” David WeatherfordDONATE