Picture this – you are alone, sailing solo across the Tasman, bringing your new-to-you 10 metre steel yacht back from Australia to New Zealand. Approximately 70 miles off Lord Howe Island you encounter some rough weather, and it goes on and on for hours and the sea state gets worse and worse. Your boat is damaged, and the fuel tank located in the keel of the yacht begins to leak, sloshing stinky slippery diesel all throughout the boat. Unable to source the location of the leak and covered in fuel, you are being thrown around in the rough conditions.
Operating the boat becomes untenable, it is impossible to move around without slipping over, you are tired, nearly slip overboard, scared and feeling sick with the smell and the motion, you suddenly realise that you don’t want to be alone out here any more. You want to be back with your wife and new baby.
What would you do?
Of course until you are in this situation, it is impossible to tell. In Steve Collin’s case, he set off his EPIRB sending a call for help. It was 10am and mid-winter.
However if he thought his situation now was bad, things were about to get a lot worse…
The Australian Rescue Coordination Centre received the EPIRB message, and immediately sent out some aircraft to begin a search, and within three hours they had located the stricken vessel.
The Lars Maersk, a huge container ship was also in the area, and they too reached Steve’s yacht Enya II by late afternoon.
The radios on board Enya II were not operating. Steve could hear their messages, but could not respond.
As the enormous ship sat about 50 metres away, they shot out a messenger line which missed Steve’s yacht, landing in the water 2 metres away.
Instantly and without thought, he instinctively jumped into the water and grabbed that thin messenger line. He knew immediately he was now in very deep trouble. It’s purpose being merely to carry across the much larger line that would have drawn his yacht alongside, no way could that line hold him.
He was in the cold water being dragged and smashed by the waves and current down the huge steel side of the ship. The small messenger line parted and he was washed underneath the overhanging stern which was rising up and down in the huge swell, the weight of the ship literally pushing him under the water. He was finally spat out the back and in to the open sea.
Alone, and it was getting dark.
This was not good. Many things ran through Steve’s mind. Could he last a night at sea? The plane was still circling overhead. The ship now seemed like a speck in the distance. Thankfully unbeknownst to him, the aircraft had him in their night vision equipment and were directing the Captain to him.
Even then, in the conditions it still took an hour to manoevre that massive vessel to him.
Steve was losing hope, but when he opened his eyes, he saw that the ship was back!
Once again they threw lines, missing every time, the wind whipping them far from his grasp. He did thankfully grab a thrown life ring but sadly it was not attached to a line. Once again he was dragged by the current down the side of the ship, under the stern and spat out again in to the sea.
He was able to float more easily now with the life ring. He’d had the foresight to don a life jacket, wetsuit and full wet weather gear in anticipation of the rescue. Without this clothing he would have already succumbed to the elements. To make matters even worse, he found he was getting stung by a huge cloud of jellyfish…
Once again the ship came around, and this time he was able to grab hold of the line and he clipped his safety harness on. The crew began to attempt to haul him up the side of the ship, but with the swell and movement of the ship he risked being squashed underneath. A ladder was lowered down, but he was now so cold and tired, he was unable to pull himself out of the water.
Eventually the ship’s crew were able to lower the enormous gang-plank down the vertical sides of the ship along with one of the Filipino crew members who was able to haul Steve out of the water and protect him as they were winched back up again. it was now 8pm and Steve had spent over three hours in the water.
This brave crewman went on to be given an award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea for his part in the rescue.
The ship continued on to Cairns, where the media were waiting along with some very relieved friends. Some of the articles about the ordeal can be found here:
Steve flew home to New Zealand to be reunited with his family, and had time to digest what had happened, the things he had done right, and the things that went so wrong, and how lucky he had been to get finally rescued.
It was a tough time. The Australian authorities kept contacting him and asking him to de-register the lost vessel. Steve was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and couldn’t handle it. Finally 10 months later he agreed and the Enya II was struck off the list.
The very next day she was spotted off Norfolk Island! She had travelled over 550 miles and through a cyclone on her own over the 10 months, and aside from a broken boom, some ripped sails, plenty of growth on her bottom and a cabin full of diesel, she was in remarkably good condition.
The locals towed her in and hauled her out, and Steve flew over to see her.
Repairs were made, and eventually Steve and another crew member were able to sail her back to New Zealand, and she is currently moored at Waiheke Island.
They say that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and when questioned, Steve said that there are a number of things he would have done differently:
- A more thorough sea trial of the boat before setting off to sea, hopefully this would have presented the diesel tank issue earlier which could have been rectified.
- A thorough check of the communications systems – there were issues with the VHF radio transmissions which could have helped for a smoother rescue.
- Sailing with another crew member on board – could have helped with the problem solving, fatigue and company in the challenging conditions.
- After seeing the amazing condition of the boat after 10 months on her own at sea, Steve thought that instead of trying to fix the diesel issue, he would have just crawled away in to a corner of the boat and waited for the conditions to subside as opposed to trying to sort everything out.
As for the things he wouldn’t change – the wetsuit and clothing he was wearing including the lifejacket, undoubtedly saved his life.
For me, the thing I take away from this, is that whilst we have the ability to press a button and potentially within hours have rescue at hand – the very act of being rescued could actually end up being riskier (for both yourself and the rescuers) than staying in the situation you so desperately want to get out of. This wasn’t really something I had considered in depth before.
I guess that is just a decision you have to make at the time…
Thanks again Steve for such a fantastic talk and for all the people who came along to hear it.