On Wednesday, August 1, John and Janet Imle completed a 700-mile passage onboard their Nordhavn 57, "Bagan", from Bora Bora to the northern Cook Islands, where they anchored for a few days in the calm lagoon of Suwarrow Island. According to the Imles, the best kind of ocean passage is dull and uneventful -" like our Pacific crossing, when my biggest concern was running out of lettuce." However, concerning this most recent voyage, "we are now deciding which actors should play us in the movie version."
Here is their dramatic account of a rescue attempt of a downtrodden sailboat near the Society Islands: It all began quite routinely. After three and a half months in French Polynesia, it was time to move on. We always have extra people join us to help with night watches and provide an extra margin of safety, so two days before departure Peter and Jo Dan flew in from Australia. We had arranged this through mutual friends. The Dans are very experienced sailors who have ordered a custom-built long-range powerboat and wanted the experience of a passage by powerboat. When we set out, Peter and Jo's main worry was that after some time with us they might start to talk funny.
Friday, July 27 - After waiting an hour for a rain squall to clear, we weighed anchor before dawn and headed west for a three-day voyage to our next landfall, Suwarrow. We hadn't been out long before we realized that all our weather information -- from our fancy weather consultant, US weatherfaxes and local sources -- did not match conditions. Winds were higher and the swell was coming from a different direction, making for "confused" seas. Or, as Peter described it, "a bit of a joggle." "Bagan" has plowed through similar conditions many times, but it made for an uncomfortable ride. Dinner banged around in the oven as it slid from side to side, and not everyone had a stomach for dinner. In 24 hours we hadn't seen another boat. We were surprised, though, when a French jet descended and buzzed us twice. Then they hailed us on the radio and asked us to spell our vessel's name. I guess they were making sure we had checked out properly in Bora Bora with that baby-faced French gendarme in short shorts and combat boots.
Saturday, July 28 - As conditions eased during the day, somebody must have jinxed it by saying, "Okay, this is more like it." By nightfall we had winds of 30 knots gusting to 40. This whipped the sea into a froth, with waves averaging 10 to 15 feet. Note I say "averaging" because occasionally, when two waves combined, we'd look to port and see a really big guy coming at us. Captain John changed course to take the seas more comfortably and "Bagan" performed like a soldier throughout. Her stabilizers worked hard and well to right her when she rolled after a punch from a wave. But through this long night I saw hitherto inanimate objects become airborne. The kitchen stepstool flung itself all the way downstairs to the engine room. The contents of the fruit basket took flight. And, for three out of four of us (Captain exempted), we each got thrown, poured or knocked out of bed at some stage (no injuries). I tried to keep things in perspective by saying to myself, "The yachts in the 1998 Sydney-Hobart race would have paid a million dollars for conditions as manageable as these." And "Bagan" did manage them. We have newfound awe for her capabilities.
Sunday, July 29 - Normally on night watch we bless the reassuring arrival of daylight, but this daybreak meant we could now clearly see the serious size of the waves coming at us. We kept wishing the wind would dip down to 20-25 knots and as the day progressed, conditions did ease. Great, we thought. We're through the worst of it! That was before The Phone Call.
After dinner, settling down to another rough but manageable night, we got a call on our satellite phone. Listening to John's response, at first I thought a telemarketer had caught us at a bad time. But it was the yacht "Skie" in Society Islands telling us that their friends in a sailboat en route to Samoa had issued a Mayday -- "disabled and in distress" -- and were we in the area? Comparing the Mayday coordinates with ours, we determined we were about 3 hours away. That was a lucky break for 2,000 tourists, because the New Zealand authorities -- not knowing we were closer -- had notified a cruise ship in French Polynesia to respond. It would have taken the cruise ship 26 hours to get there.
We changed course immediately (actually improving our ride in the rough water!) and started communicating with the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center. The distressed vessel was an Italian-flagged 31-foot sloop, "Amoha One," which had lost her rudder. Two passengers were on board. Ironically, we knew the young couple. We met them briefly at an anchorage in Bora Bora.
Monday July 30 - We arrived on the scene at midnight. Conditions were rough. We were thankful we had illegally exported our ITT Night Vision goggles, because infrared was the only way we spotted the drifting sailboat from a distance. The yacht had absolutely zero radar reflectivity, so we had to rely solely on visual sighting of a dim mast light in high waves. New Zealand had dispatched an Orion aircraft, which arrived about when we did. The airplane made radio contact with us, describing "Amoha's" location, and then descended to 1,000 feet to help light the way from our boat to the yacht. Now that the rescue vessel (us!!!) was on the scene, the airplane left. Despite her small size, "Amoha" had a satellite phone onboard, so we were able to communicate with them by both VHF radio and sat telephone. We all decided no action would be taken until daybreak. The owners, Paolo and Marliss, said they were drifting comfortably on bare poles with a sea anchor out. "Not worse than a rolly anchorage," they said. I'm so glad THEY were comfy because we were worse off than ever. To keep them in sight, we spent the night circling the vessel. Circling sounds easy, but turning into heavy seas and taking the wind from all sides is an experience I would wish on no one. It was an admirable but exhausting feat by helmsmen John and Peter.
Despite having called a Mayday, "Amoha" had no immediate risk of loss of life. Their boat was not sinking; it just had no steerage. Paolo wanted a tow, but it was impossible to even contemplate that in heavy seas, with the nearest land 160 miles away. Peter and John talked by radio with Paolo, giving advice on how to jury-rig a rudder. Paolo tried and failed and so at 9 AM said they wanted to abandon ship. We all understood this was a serious procedure and wished we could have left it to the experts. But it was too far for Kiwi Rescue to respond, so we began to formulate a plan. We had practiced man overboard drills but none of us had ever tried to recover people from a life raft before. John went over our rescue plan with the NZ coordinators and got their advice. Paolo and Marliss were going to have to leave the safety of their drifting boat and board their tiny life raft. Then, in 15-foot waves and 30-knot winds, John would have to precisely maneuver "Bagan" alongside the wildly bobbing raft. We prepared our man overboard hoist to pull them onboard once their raft was secured to our boat. We knew we'd have to slow down basically to a stop in heavy seas. Our stabilizers wouldn't be operating, so our boat was going to wallow "like a pig," as John described it. We stowed and lashed everything in sight. We donned our safety gear. We tied mooring lines along both sides, to provide more ways the lifeboat passengers could get ahold of our boat. We prepared heaving lines and the Lifesling safety harness. Believe me, nobody was looking forward to this. The only good news: we were too tense to be seasick.
We kept in steady communication with the sailboat and the NZ authorities. We explained our plan to Paolo and then took a few close passes by him, feeling out the conditions for doing the same maneuver even more tightly once they had boarded the life raft. Paolo must have watched closely how we crashed through the heavy seas, imagining himself and his wife abob in those relentless waves. He hailed us on the radio. "I think," he said, "we maybe just float. Not get off the boat." We asked him to give this serious thought because this would mean we would leave the scene and there would be no help for hundreds of miles. "I call you back in 15 minutes," he said. Of course, one part of us wanted them to stay with their boat. It was in no immediate danger of foundering, and we all believed there were alternatives an experienced seaman could find for regaining some steerage. On the other hand, we did not want to leave them out there, knowing conditions could worsen and not knowing if he could devise a fix. In 15 minutes he called back. "Yes, we decide to stay with our boat. We will try to fix the boat and have friends who can be here in a few days." We asked him one more time if this was his final decision. We then asked permission from New Zealand to leave the scene. It was authorized and the Mayday cancelled.
We had spent 12 hours on the scene. None of us had gotten any sleep. We were exhausted and eager to reach land, but it was with trepidation we left the young couple alone in the ocean. They were profusely grateful for our help and reassured us they would manage by themselves. So we returned to our course toward Suwarrow. The Mayday had delayed us by a day, but at least the last night was less rough than the others. We all noted the irony that for four days we had not seen any other vessel -- except for the woebegone "Amoha."
Tuesday July 31 - We reached landfall at dawn. We are safe and sound. We are staying in touch with Paolo and Marliss, who are still drifting. We plan to stay here for a few days, then complete our passage from here to Samoa, which should take two and a half days. And now the weather is good.
I cannot describe the depth of our happiness to sit peacefully at anchor in the protected lagoon of beatiful Suwarrow with a dozen other boats. I also cannot emphasize how grateful we are to have such a rugged, well-built boat that performed so admirably and kept us safe in trying conditions. Most of all, I cannot imagine what thoughts must have run through the minds of Peter and Jo, who participated so capably in this unanticipated drama on the high seas. But I do recall at the end of this ordeal, Jo said, "I think in my next life I'll take up farming!"
Please don't expect me to maintain this level of excitement in future Ship's Logs, Over and out,