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  • Writer's pictureKate

A Rough Passage


The highs and lows of sailing are extreme. After plenty of long voyages spanning weeks on our circumnavigation to date , the shorter passages, as it turns out, are sometimes the most difficult.


Day one

On Monday the sixth of May we set off on a 240 nautical mile passage, continuing our journey north up the Australian east coast. After a flat, calm benign start we were soon sailing fast with perfect downwind conditions, totally exhilarated.

Around four pm the wind really picked up and we clocked a top speed for the passage of 14.7 knots. The atmosphere onboard was upbeat and a little tense too, the conditions were feisty. On a broad reach with full mainsail and code zero flying, just as we were about to reef both sails, our fishing line began to scream. The much awaited fish we'd been trying to catch for months finally bit the lure.

Jim brought in the hand line and then furled the code zero while I fought to reel it in. It was the hardest fight I can remember, but in the end, I won. We gaffed it and dragged it onboard as it twitched a few last times. I prepared the cockpit and galley then returned to the helm where I watched things carefully including Jim who was clipped in at the back step. As he filleted the 128cm long Wahoo- a fish we've always wanted to catch, waves broke over his head literally.

With the prized catch and Jim both safely onboard, we turned our attention back to the steadily rising wind speeds and put two reefs in the mainsail, then unfurled the genoa with two reefs in. The whole process of dealing with the fish took three hours, including cleaning up the bloody mess, by which time neither of us could stomach actually eating the fish- so, into the freezer it all went.


Mayday

At seven thirty pm, after a plain pasta dinner, we heard a Mayday distress call on VHF radio. Repeatedly. It became clear that nobody but us was within range to hear it. We answered it. The man said, through very laboured breaths and in broken English, that he was having heart problems and had difficulty breathing. We asked his details: boat name, coordinates, number of people onboard. His answers were becoming increasingly hard to understand and his voice was weakening. There were two onboard and it seemed from what we could discern, the man with heart issues was down below and his friend was steering the vessel. In fact, throughout the ordeal which was to ensue, we would never hear the voice of the second man. That told us it was not feasible for him to leave the helm -not even for a single second.

Meanwhile the sea state had become even more intense: very short, sharp waves jerking us around violently and the winds were a steady thirty knots true. We relayed all the information as best we could to the three closest coastguard stations because it was unclear who had the remit over the particular area where we were. We punched the coordinates into our charting software. The location of this boat was about eight miles off our starboard side.

We received follow up calls and radio contact from the person organising the search and rescue team and also a representative from the emergency services who asked us to guess at the man’s condition and age based on his voice alone. At the same time we continued sailing fast on a track roughly parallel to the vessel in distress.

We were afraid to cause the man speak too much because it sounded like any of these breaths could be his last. But, we wanted to reassure him that a rescue team was being assembled, which is what we were told so we simply gave a summary of the current situation, asking him no questions.


Search and rescue

We abandoned our watch routine. We were both up for the night taking turns manning our mobile phones (we were still within cell phone reach of the mainland), listening out for the radio and keeping an eye on our own situation. Everything seemed to be taking so long. We hadn't heard anything from the man in a while and began to wonder if this was all too late for him already. We had more contact with search and rescue, their deployment of a team was meant to be imminent. We radioed the man again to say things were happening and we would keep him updated. No words this time, just heavy rasping.

By nine thirty pm we were informed that a helicopter being sent would take at least another forty minutes. They still had no direct way to talk to the man and asked us to relay this. We hailed him again, he was unintelligible, gasping for breath. Please don't speak if it's difficult just know help is coming, we urged.

At ten thirty pm we started getting phone calls from search and rescue. They told us to expect the helicopter momentarily. A light in the sky flashed and there it was. Its spotlight drew closer, illuminating the black water off our portside.


Enter Air Sea Rescue

Our communication with them began ‘This is Air Sea Rescue XXX …. please direct us to the vessel in question.’ They flew towards the vessel and finally made direct radio contact.

They finished their few clarifying question by asking ‘What are your intentions?’

'I have no intentions’ he answered ‘I.. just …try …keep …breathing'.

He was safe now, they reassured him: a coast guard boat had been deployed with paramedics onboard and the helicopter would hover and wait until they arrived. He was also asked if he could please drop his sails and turn around to make their journey shorter.

He sounded very weak and just kept rasping quietly. Then ' No, we have lost our engine, we are a sail boat. We can't turn into those waves. That wind…is too strong.'.

Then we could just hear him saying. 'Please help. Hurry. I can't breathe'.

So..no engine, no AIS, no cell phone, no communications capability whatsoever except vhf at a very short range. This nightmare scenario just seemed to be getting worse. But worse was yet to come.

About eleven thirty pm we heard the helicopter talking to the coastguard team. The coastguard boat, complete with two paramedics, had been deployed and made it successfully over the sand bar, out to open water. We began to feel some relief. But this was quashed minutes later when, to our great dismay, they announced that halted the mission and returned to port. 'Mission aborted due to adverse and very dangerous sea conditions'.

The helicopter guy sighed. Then radio silence, but the helicopter itself remained in the sky above us. About twenty minutes later the helicopter radioed the man. 'I need you to hang in there mate.’

No response.

Later, I don’t know what time by this stage, the next update came from the familiar voice of one of the helicopter team ‘The water police are coming instead'.

The man managed to grab his radio. 'How long…how much longer..?'

Answer: 'Two to three hours…they’re ….coming from a bit further away'.

Silence.

'I don't think I'll last that long….. I don't think I’ll make it. Please. Please help'.

Then another blow fifteen minutes or so later: the helicopter had to get back to land due to fuel running out. The radio went quiet then. The only sound was of howling wind and swell crashing in our wake. The sky, once lit by the helicopter’s spotlight became black again. I looked across to see the navigation lights of the vessel twinkling in the distance.


A very long wait

The heavy weather raged on. The water police with paramedics, being sent instead of the coastguard with a presumably bigger and more seaworthy boat, had a difficult passage to get here themselves. At least sixty-five miles. We wondered how they planned to safely remove the man and what would happen to the person still onboard. Did they know how to operate the vessel alone?

This rescue was in the hands of the people best trained and equipped to help. We knew there was nothing we could do to help someone having a heart attack on another vessel in this situation. To even get close to his boat could be catastrophic for both him and us. It was excruciating for everyone.

A local fishing trawler got involved then and offered to take over and keep the vessel in distress company on the radio until help finally arrived.

At three thirty am the man radioed again, his voice so faint now and hard to understand, it was heart breaking to listen to 'Are they….where are they? Is anyone coming?' 'It’s been so long…’

The water police were within one hour from the vessel in distress according to MarineTraffic app. Minutes later we lost radio contact.


Day two

Day two was all squalls and high winds. Our destination for this leg, came into view. Quite a different emotion than the first time we saw the same port in the distance on arrival in Australia back in October. With no sleep whatsoever it was a relief to get into a sheltered port and rest.

We slept like babies and woke to more back and forth on the radio. Another distress call from the same boat. This time stating only one person onboard. The yacht, still with no working engine, had now also lost its mainsail and gib. Arrangements were being made to tow the vessel into port.

When things go badly on the water they can get dangerous very fast. Even relatively close to the Australian East Coast, bad conditions prevented a swift rescue; by our estimation it took the water police with paramedics onboard at least nine hours to attempt the rescue from the time we first raised the alarm.

We know the rescuers had to take risks to get to the boat and we may never understand what events led up to the boat being so poorly equipped for such a situation. As fellow sailors we will withhold judgement but when the dust settles, we will ask the man remaining onboard if he is okay, what became of his friend and what really happened out there.


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