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Rescue at Sea

For the past 10 months, Jo and Robbie Ashton have been at sea on their Nordhavn 43 Summer Star making ground on what they intend to be a 5-year circumnavigation. For the past several months, they have been buddy boating with two other sailboats, and one scary night last month in the middle of the South Pacific, they received a call from one of the boats which was mysteriously taking on water. Jo and Robbie didn’t hesitate to turn around and help their friend despite conditions being less-than-friendly for a rescue mission. Jo detailed the frightening account in her excellent blog southernstarnz.com. Read more to learn the profound impact bravery, being cool under pressure, and having a well-thought out plan can have in an emergency situation:

23 June 2014

At around 8.00pm last night we got a call on the SAT phone from Per on Oda to say that Stormvogel was talking on water and may sink, can we turn around and come back to assist. We thought he was joking at first, as Per is a first class comedian and has us in stiches of laughter every day. But Alas, he was not joking. Robbie immediately turned around, this is scary in the swell and the pitch darkness, and there was no moon. We were 35 miles ahead of them by now so it was going to take us a while to get back to them. Robbie pushed Southern Star as fast as he dared, it was a scary time for me. It only took us a couple of hours to get to them. Paul Grace rang the Australian rescue for us as we were in Australian waters but they were already aware of the situation as I had emailed (through the SAT phone) Maritime NZ to notify them that we had turned around, and why and gave them our new position. After consultation with Peter, Per and Robbie it was decided not to do anything in the dark of night, it was just too dangerous. To get our duck off is a mission even in daylight, let alone in the night with the wind and waves, and trying to navigate across to Stormvogel would have been extremely dangerous.

Peter had got a bilge working and had discovered it was broken bolts in his centreboard where the leak was. Peter had gone to bed and heard an unusual water noise. When he investigated he discovered they had water up to the floorboards, the bilges were full of water. Of course they did not know where it was coming from at first, so it must have been absolutely terrifying for them, in the middle of the Coral Sea between Vanuatu and Australia and no land anywhere near. Once they discovered where it was and got the bilge working they could make a plan of action. Peter had asked Per to initiate a mayday call and he set off their EPIRB also. Per contacted Norwegian emergency services and got things underway, which also included notification to Australian Rescue who in turn organised a container ship in the vicinity to divert to Stormvogels position, and a plane to drop off rescue equipment from Vanuatu, if needed. Once it was ascertained that the amount of water coming in was under control they were able to cancel the boat and plane and turn off the EPIRB. We all maintained a 2 hour radio sched, (a scheduled time to contact each other on the VHF radio) all night to ensure that Stormvogel was OK and that there was no change in the amount of water coming in.

Around 8:00am Robbie got the duck off and went and collected Per. Because it was so dangerous Robbie and Per had formulated a plan that if Robbie fell in the water, Oda would be right beside us while he took the duck off and Oda would execute a 90 degree turn across our stern with a fender on a long rope off the stern of Oda that Robbie could grab. Per did a couple of practice runs and I have to say he handled that Yacht like it was a speed boat. Robbie went and collected Per from Oda, Per had timber and tools from Oda and Robbie had a spare new bilge pump, tools and rubber pipe for the bilge. So they boarded Stormvogel and spent some time evaluating the best way to reduce the water flow, it was decided to put more, bigger timber against the end of the shaft to load up the seal and then installing the 2nd bilge pump. Earlier Peter had asked me via VHF if we had any cement. It was suggested from his friend in Germany that he could support the centreboard by cementing it up so it could not move and allow more water in. While the boys were doing this I was getting a call every hour on the SAT phone from Australian Rescue Centre. They were so helpful and he asked me what he could do. I said a couple of bags of cement would be good, not even dreaming that he could produce this. However, he rang me back half an hour later and said there’s a container ship the “Kweilin”, on the way coming to drop two bags of cement off, it is 44 miles away and will be there in about 3 hours. Wow, I was blown away with this. So I informed the skippers and they continued securing the bilges, running wires and pipes for the bilge pump. After discussion it was agreed that Robbie and Per would go alongside the container ship in the duck to collect the cement, then they would drop off the cement to Stormvogel, then drop Per back to Oda and then try and get Robbie and the duck back on Southern Star. The captain of the ship agreed that he would wait and we could complete these manoeuvres on the leeward side of the ship, so we had some protection from the wind and waves. First of all, Robbie and Per went alongside the ship in the duck to collect the cement, which was roped down to them in hessian sacks. Then Stormvogel manoeuvred into the calm spot (which wasn’t that calm) and Robbie and Per delivered the two 60kg cement bags. Then Oda, being skippered by Elizabeth had to manoeuvre into the calm spot to allow Per to board. Elizabeth handled this like a true professional skipper. It took only a few seconds and Per was safely on board. Then it was my turn.

I had to drive up to the container ship, go alongside and hold her there in the leeward side for Robbie to get the duck on and secured. This normally takes 10-15 minutes in calm conditions! It was terrifying, the ship was drifting towards me, it was still windy and the duck was flying about on the crane out of control in the wind it was so dangerous. Then the ship drifted so close to me I had to break off and go around and do it all again.   We eventually got it on although we did some damage to the duck and the boat but Robbie didn’t care too much so long as everyone was safe. It was terrifying to watch Robbie try and control a 500+kilos of duck flying around on the winch and spinning wildly around, hitting our boat and Robbie. I was trying to keep Southern Star in position and not hit the ship. Eventually Peter said put it on autopilot and go and help him. So I put her to a 90degree angle to the ship and went to help. It was horrific and we couldn’t get the duck to sit on the 3 cradle chocks. In the end we got the front on and the back of the duck sitting on the deck, it was the best we could do. The whole time there was about 20 people standing on the deck of the ship, taking photos. Once Robbie was back in the pilothouse I burst into tears (you all know I am a big sook) I was shaking like a leaf. This had really tested my nerves, and my boat driving skills. I consider this comes under technical, and I warned Robbie when we very first met that “I don’t do technical”!

We all radioed the Captain of “Kweilin” to thank him and his crew for their fantastic service. (Peter and Heidi had put a bottle of scotch and some Euro’s in a bag and sent it back up on the rope for them.)

It was a huge relief to get underway again towards Cairns. Although, the whole time this was going down, we were underway, slowly heading in the direction of Cairns, albeit very slowly. Peter had found that the water leak was minimal if the boat was underway and on an even keel.

Poor Peter and Heidi then spent a few hours mixing the cement and getting it into place, and then having to clean up. They must have been absolutely exhausted and worn down. We are so very impressed with how they handled this disaster.

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