Orbit's Last Voyage
Being set backwards 60 miles by a Force 10 storm five days ago, and having nothing but light headwinds since (20 mile days), we were somewhat pleased to hear the forecast for a Force 9 (45 knot) NW gale, because we would at least be moving in the right direction.
Repairs had taken longer than expected in Reykjavik, and I was late leaving Iceland. Too late in the season to head towards Greenland and Newfoundland, I decided to head for the Canary Islands instead. Met Hugh, my crew, in Keflavik (Iceland), just before I was about to leave. We sailed south, then, to ease into the voyage more gradually, and do a few more repairs, stopped off in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands, on Iceland’s south coast. Had not counted on persistent southerly winds, preventing us from leaving for ten days, since Iceland’s south coast is extremely dangerous in onshore winds, with no other harbors than the one we were in. So, near the end of August, we left Iceland, heading for the Canary Islands.
As the gale began, we broad reached for a while but after a couple of hours of Force 8 winds, the seas, 15 feet or so, were making steering difficult. Running off, the steering was fine, but that was putting us too far east. A little after midday, we dropped the staysail, rounded into the wind on the double-reefed foresail, then replaced the foresail with the storm trysail (off the main mast) and lashed the helm. Orbit was now hove-to comfortably enough, alternating between 30-70 degrees off the wind. Watches were now done mostly belowdeck, looking outside every ten minutes for sea state and traffic, and going ondeck to check for chafe every half-hour.
I started calculating the drift (we were basically drifting slowly downwind while hove-to), as I knew we were somewhere near a relatively shallow area, which would cause the seas to get much rougher. The chart I was using was a small-scale chart of the whole North Atlantic, and with the motion of the boat, positions could only be plotted to within about 10 miles.
I had gotten a weather forecast for the area the previous day from a private forecaster, which told me to expect Force 8 or more this day, as the low pressure system north of us passed over, then, after a letup in the wind while we were in the center, to expect a stronger gale, with highest winds the following morning, between 0900 and 1200. We were a little more NE of where I’d expected to be when talking to the forecaster, so I figured the times for peak winds could be off by an hour or two, but not likely more.
About 1400, suspecting that we might start drifting into shallower water, put the old staysail, 25 feet (8m) of chain, a swivel and rope off the bow as a sea anchor. This held the bow up into the wind and seas a little better.
About 1600, Hugh had made some hot food, and we were about to eat when suddenly we were knocked down to port (leeward) about 80 degrees. This had never happened before. I suspected that the waves had built since I was last on deck (1/2 hour ago), and therefore that the sea anchor line was now too short (the anchor should be one wavelength away from the boat), or else that the sea anchor had somehow failed. Hugh turned off the stove, suggested we call someone to tell them our situation, and started cleaning up the things that had been knocked out of place. I said first we needed to fix the sea anchor, grabbed a spare anchor line and headed for the aft cabin hatch.
Within a minute from the 80 degree knockdown, before I had gotten to the hatch, the boat rolled to port. My head was suddenly in the water on the cabintop, and I held my breath, hoping we would not be upside down for long. The boat continued rolling, without any noticeable pause, and came back upright. The entire 360 degree roll took no longer than 5-6 seconds.
Daylight was streaming in through the hole in the cabintop where the hatch used to be, and there was 1.5 feet (0.5m) of water in the boat. Hugh appeared, face covered in blood, screaming something about the mast (he was in the forward cabin when we rolled). Asked if he was ok, and was the forecabin hatch still there. He wasn’t concerned about himself, but said the forecabin hatch and foremast were broken.
I saw the water was just below the top of the battery, and started the electric bilge pump. I then climbed up the hole where the hatch used to be, telling Hugh we had to put something over where the hatches were to keep the water out.
The deck was a mess. Both masts were in the water, pieces of wood from the obliterated dinghy, deckboxes and hatches were strewn about. The helmsman’s seat lid had escaped its lashing, the worm gear steering was violently broken, and the three flares kept there were gone. Part of the cabintop on the forward cabin had separated from the cabin sides.
The motion of the boat was now much easier (it had never been violent before the knockdown) with waves breaking against the masts and sails that were in the water, upwind of us, instead of breaking against the hull and wetting the deck. Waves were 20-25 (7-8m) feet, the wind was Force 9, many white patches of foam covered the surface of water, basically the same conditions as about a half-hour ago.
Sails (several of which had been stored in the deckbox) were littered about, and I looked for where I could attach what sails to cover up the missing hatches. Hugh came up the forecabin hatch to help, but I told him it would be better if he worked from below and I from above, getting plywood and sails over the holes, and that the bilge pump would look after the water that was already in the boat.
Retrieved the immersion suits from the destroyed dinghy (which was also the lifeboat). Saw the GPS, which had been mounted in the deckhouse, was sitting on the aft cabintop, displaying a position. I saw nothing handy to write down the position, so memorized it, hoping to be able to use the satellite phone to call for assistance later if we could not fix the holes.
After about an hour (about 1700), we had enough wood and sails in place to keep spray and possibly some waves out. I went below, turned off the bilge pump and tried the satellite phone. Unfortunately it was wet, and did not work. Took the emergency radio beacon (EPIRB) out of the ditch kit (a waterproof bag of emergency supplies used for abandoning ship) and turned it on. Later lashed the EPIRB to what was left of the stern rail.
Taped up Hugh’s head with a big bandage from the medical kit. He had about an 8" (20cm) gash, and blood mixed with hair and dirt, making it difficult to see how deep it was.
The interior of the boat was about a foot (0.3m) deep in stuff, cans from the food locker (which had probably been unbolted during cooking), tools and materials from the parts locker (which appeared to have broken the bolts holding it shut). Everything was covered in a dark, slimy mixture of water, fuel, flour, rice, and the powder from the dry-chemical fire extinguishers.
Hugh continued to work at shoring up the holes and I alternated between assisting with that ondeck and from below. At one point, as I was heading back up on deck to rig the foresail as a second sea anchor, Hugh said if he was unconscious when I returned below, to put him in an immersion suit. I was surprised, having only noticed his head wound, and knowing he had been working non-stop since we rolled at closing the holes. Asked what was wrong with him, he said his leg was broken and he had internal bleeding near his liver from something that had hit him there. I told him I had a splint for his leg, but he refused it, preferring not to get out of his one-piece suit, which was keeping him warm, and to continue working. I could think of nothing that could be done internal bleeding, and continued getting the foresail ready as a sea anchor and clearing the deck of debris.
I had not been paying particular attention to whether or not we were within any country’s 200mile (fishing) limit, and was under the impression we were in international waters. So I was not really expecting the EPIRB to get us rescued (actually, we were in British waters at the time). I was greatly concerned about Hugh’s injuries, and feared he would not survive them, though it was probable that we could keep Orbit afloat during the next gale (by pumping out any water and continuing to fix our repairs) after which we should have five days of lighter winds..
Twilight came, and I helped Hugh into an immersion suit to stay warmer. By nightfall we had done all we could to repair the holes in the cabintop, and I had finished rigging the foresail as a sea anchor, ready to deploy the next morning, when the storm was expected to be worst.
After dark, about 2200, a plane flew over nearby. A mad rush in the darkness followed, to grab the ditch kit and get the flares out. The flares were not very easy to set off. There were three types, all covered in the slime, which, when trying to wipe off with slimy hands or on slimy clothes, tended to cause the ink the instructions were printed in to be dissolved by the diesel fuel in the slime. Trying to hold a flashlight, hang on to the boat and read the instructions for lighting the flares was not easy, but after a couple of minutes, I was able to set one off. The plane seemed to respond with another flare. Set off a few more flares to ensure they had our position.
Got the handheld VHF radio out of the ditch kit and called the plane. It was an RAF Nimrod plane, Rescue 51, and they had asked a nearby Norwegian trawler, Koralen, to assist.
I told Rescue 51 our hatches had been destroyed and cabintop damaged when we were dismasted, and that one person was injured. Confirmed with Hugh that he felt his leg was broken, and that he had internal bleeding as well as the very obvious head wound, and reported it to Rescue 51.
Rescue 51 asked Koralen about medical facilities onboard, and I discussed with Hugh whether he felt he would be ok there. Hugh and I thought his injuries were severe enough that he really needed a hospital, as I doubted anything could be done aboard a ship for internal bleeding.
When the Koralen came closer, her captain thought the seas were too rough to safely be able to transfer anyone by boat. Rescue 51 contacted their base to request a helicopter, and asked what my intentions were. I told them that if they could get Hugh to medical help, I would stay with the boat, and, after the storm was over, clear away the rest of the rigging and motor to Scotland. They strongly suggested that I accompany Hugh to medical help, and I realized they had a point--it was not certain that the boat could be kept afloat during the coming storm, so it would be best to abandon Orbit.
Hugh was ondeck at this time, lying down, coughing up blood, shaking and appearing to be going into shock. I periodically yelled at him or shook him to keep him awake, and asked Rescue 51 if there was anything else I could be doing for him. They suggested taking him below where it would be warmer, and elevating his feet. Got him below, and Koralen drifted down a bag of blankets to keep Hugh warm, a flashlight and another radio, as mine was not working very well.
About 0300, Rescue 51 told us that US Army helicopters would take us off in 5.5 hours. While Koralen was doing a fantastic job of towing us at just the right speed to keep most of the waves off the deck, and our bow into them, we were wondering how well this would continue to work as the expected storm increased, and whether our temporary repairs to the cabintop and hatches would withstand much in the way of waves.
Rescue 51 offered to drop an inflatable raft to us, that we could keep alongside in case Orbit started sinking. It was very difficult to get the raft, attached to 400m (1300 feet) of rope, in the rough seas and darkness. Hauling it in involved waiting until the raft was going down a wave, pulling in a few feet, then cleating the rope until the raft was next going down a wave. It was slow work, holding on, being covered in spray, pulling in the rope. After 1.5 hours, I had the line pulled all the way in, unfortunately, the raft had ripped free of the rope.
At 0830, daylight, two US Armed Forces helicopters and a refueling plane arrived from their base in Keflavik, Iceland. The seas were now about 10 feet (3m). It took about five minutes for the first helicopter to drop their man onto the pitching, rolling deck of Orbit in the gusty winds (not an easy or safe task at all). He went over to Hugh, confirmed he was well enough to be lifted, put him in a harness (a sling that goes underneath the arms), and they were hoisted aboard the helicopter. It took about ten minutes for the second helicopter to get their man onto Orbit, where he told me to get into the harness, then we were hoisted aboard the helicopter.
After the helicopters left, Koralen disconnected the tow, leaving Orbit drifting in the increasing seas. I do not believe Orbit survived the storm.
We were taken to the hospital in Reykjavik. Hugh’s injuries were fortunately not nearly as severe as thought
The exceptional skill and dedication of the British SAR & RAF personnel, the crew of the Norwegian trawler Koralen, the American helicopter and plane crews, the Icelandic Coast Guard and hospital personnel and all others involved in this rescue did a fantastic job, and I thank them for that.
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Copyright Richard Hudson, 2002