It’s Thanksgiving Day in the US and Friday in New Zealand. Happy holiday! Jim’s friend Tom is aboard Sockdolager in Tonga, and they are ready to sail as soon as the weather window arrives. They plan to leave on Monday (Sunday in the US). The route to New Zealand traditionally starts with making a westing while still in the tropical easterlies, almost to a line north of NZ’s North Cape, then heading south in a good position to catch the temperate latitude westerly winds. Orcinius, Charisma, Buena Vista and other friends are already in Opua; Arnamentiere is nearly there. Now it’s our turn, and though I’m ashore, we’re both hoping for a good, safe, enjoyable passage. Jim plans to head for Marsden Cove in Whangerei.
Later today I leave Devonport Auckland to head north, first to spend the weekend with Lin and Larry Pardey at their traditional New Zealand-style Thanksgiving gathering, then further north to Whangerei to await Jim’s arrival. Our Thanksgiving will be celebrated in a couple of weeks with a huge hug and kiss on the dock.
Here's Sockdolager all dressed up in her best heavy weather sails: storm trysail, storm staysail, and the new backstaysail. Except for one incident described below, most boats have so far had too little wind rather than too much. We have light air sails to cover that, too. Jim expects the passage to take from 10 to 15 days.
You might have noticed an unusual posting on our blog, in the comments section under the previous post. We sure did, and that’s what the rest of this post is in response to.
It started with a distress call: The New Zealand Herald’s front-page banner headline on November 10, spread across its full width in giant dramatic letters said “Our three days of hell.” The dramatic rescue at sea of the crew of a sailboat was detailed in the story, and it’s clear there were some heroes that day.
That's an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) above. They're registered in a database that has the owner's and crew's names and a description of the boat. When it is immersed in water or you manually flip the switch, it beams a signal to a satellite, which is received by the SARSAT network in the US, which immediately contacts the nearest country's rescue agency. It's fast; within 40 minutes help can be on the way. You don't turn this on unless you are in real trouble, because in addition to the likely abandoning of your boat, rescues are expensive and mostly taxpayer-funded.
When a distress call goes out on the high seas it’s assumed that everyone will do what they can to help, because among the things shared by long-distance voyagers is a camaraderie that rivals the Thin Blue Line when someone’s in trouble. It’s personal out there. These are people we all know, or know of. So when a distress call goes out, cruising sailors listen to their radios, ready to relay transmissions if needed; they volunteer for organized search and rescue missions; they pray for the safety of the crew if there is nothing else to be done, and they help organize post-trauma care ashore if it will be needed. And if anyone is at sea near the stricken boat (“near” being a relative term out there,) they will turn around and go to their aid, even if it means putting their own boat and crew at great risk. Such was the case in early November, when the season’s first tropical storm, with 60 knots and 11 meter seas reported offshore, struck the area south of Tonga. Jim was safely at a mooring in Vava’u, as were dozens of other boats, some of which had even returned from sea.
An EPIRB signal was received by the NZ Navy, from the 11.6 meter Beneteau yacht Windigo. Aboard was a couple, a Kiwi woman and a British man who had been living in Australia. They were bound for New Zealand. Somehow a message got out that their boat had been rolled, and they were injured; both had head injuries, and the man had a back injury. This sounded serious. The yacht was also reported to be sinking. An EPIRB can't send this kind of detail, so they must still have had a functioning radio. An Orion search plane from New Zealand circled overhead, dropped them a life raft and took some video footage; a cargo ship was diverted, and the sturdy double-ended yacht Adventure Bound, with a Tasmanian couple aboard, managed the extremely risky maneuver of turning around in 30-foot seas to steam back into the teeth of the storm for at least 24 hours, to stand by for another 24 offering assistance. According to reports, the Windigo crew had strapped themselves in the stern area to keep from being battered as the boat tossed, and would wait until the last minute to enter the life raft. The news reported that it was too rough to attempt a transfer to another vessel. We all were beaming them strength and the will to go on.
When a yacht rolls, which means it goes through 360 degrees and is upside down at one point, the forces are tremendous, and it’s very unusual for the mast and rig to survive it. The rig usually breaks, and the entire deck and cockpit area get washed clean of most gear. Often the cabin superstructure is damaged too, and the boat is swamped with water that pours in through any openings, no matter how small, during a rollover. Beneteaus are not known for exceptionally sturdy construction standards in either hull or rig, so it seemed a miracle that the crew was able to transmit a message from their radio about their condition, given that the radio’s antenna is usually part of a boat’s rigging and would likely have been lost. Jim and I discussed this on the phone, exchanging pieces of information we’d gleaned, him from listening to the single sideband radio and me from news reports. We were very happy for that crew to have had this astonishing piece of luck.
We never met this couple but I remembered Windigo because the name is shared by a legendary racing yacht I remember fondly. She was moored near us in Bora Bora, along with Adventure Bound, whose crew we met and enjoyed a pleasant conversation with. So, when I saw the video news footage of Windigo with her mast intact and mainsail and genoa still neatly furled, and floating on her lines in a condition that no one could call sinking, I was again amazed that so little damage was evident.
Here's a news photo of her:
Photo credit: BBC
The news programs reported that once the seas began to calm a bit, the couple was able to motor their yacht over to the cargo ship, and footage of them being hoisted aboard was dramatic. They looked shaken, and I assumed they must have been badly injured to abandon their yacht like that. The news media did not say what had become of the yacht other than “left to sink.” I assumed, mistakenly, that this couple had made the ethical decision to scuttle and sink their boat by opening the seacocks, because they had to know that nearly 40 other boats were still in Tonga and would be making that passage along the same route.
The news clip of this couple arriving in port a few days later surprised me. I had been expecting to see two injured people being helped down the gangway of the cargo ship. What I did not expect to see was a woman kicking up her heels and whooping it up as she approached the camera. Later it was reported that the injuries had not been serious.
The camaraderie mentioned earlier comes with some assumptions. It’s assumed that boats that have gotten as far as Tonga know a thing or two about offshore passagemaking, which boils down to a certain basic level of competency and prudence and acceptable risk. It is assumed that if you take to voyaging across the high seas that you are self-sufficient, carry enough safety equipment, and will only call for help if help is truly needed. I can't question the Windigo couple’s decision to call for help and abandon their boat, because I wasn't there and cannot say how bad conditions were.
However, it’s clear now that the boat was not in sinking condition and has since not sunk. Deliberately leaving an unattended boat to drift in the path of all those other boats about to make the passage makes some assumptions, too, the kind that I would not call selfless. Nor can the fact that they went to sea knowing this storm was coming (or worse, were ignorant of the forecast) be called competent seamanship. Other cruising boats who opted to seek shelter in Tonga watched in disbelief as Windigo left for sea under threat of that big storm. So I have to assume that they made some conscious choices. They chose rather cavalierly to go to sea in a tropical storm. They chose to call for help knowing that help would come and would likely put others at risk. They chose to not sink their yacht because they knew it was still in good condition, and that it might be possible to get it back—correction, for someone else to bring it back. In any other social situation this would be called scamming the system. I know that’s a strong statement, but I am angry, and here’s why:
A few days later, this now-rescued couple, or a friend of theirs, it’s not clear to me, posted a comment on our blog beneath the “Still Asunder Down Under” post. We have no idea how they found our blog. They asked Jim to please keep a lookout for their boat, and asked him if he can get close enough to it, to go aboard and close the hatch because they are concerned about water getting in. Let me repeat this: they are concerned about water getting into their boat.
In the comment they said that the engine, rig and sails are in excellent condition (read the comment for yourself if it’s still there) but that the batteries are probably dead because they’d left the engine running after they abandoned the boat. Think about that. They could have saved the batteries for lighting the boat so others might see it at night—LED lights can last for a long time—but they chose to step off the boat with the engine still running, the seacocks closed so it wouldn’t sink, and evidently no thoughts for the safety of others. A young friend on another boat about to sail this route hopes to spot Windigo so he can sail it back to NZ for them. That would be a great kindness.
The couple gave us the boat’s coordinates as of November 17. When I repeated all this news on the phone to an astounded Jim, he said, “That’s right on our route.”
For what it’s worth to other boats making this passage, Windigo’s position on November 17 was:
24 degrees, 49.3 minutes South
179 degrees, 49.2 minutes East
179 degrees, 49.2 minutes East
Now I have something to say to these people:
Dear Steve and Tania,
You left an unlighted floating hazard directly in the path of dozens of your fellow sailors. You assumed that they can either spot it in daylight hours, or that at night they can avoid colliding with it. You abandoned your boat when it seemed by your own admission to be perfectly able to sail and motor toward its destination. You had a responsibility to practice good seamanship, and you shirked it, and now it’s personal, because your boat is directly on the route of our boat and others, and all you can think of is how to get yours back undamaged. You are not heroes. You did not deserve a hero’s welcome on your arrival. Adventure Bound is the hero, slipping into port after hand-steering for hundreds of miles because the seas damaged their steering gear.
Yes it’s a big ocean, but you have added needless worry to the lives of our friends and family, and to the crews and friends and families of the other boats crossing your boat’s path. You have added stress by your thoughtlessness, to an already stressful time when I have to be ashore in New Zealand due to unexpected heart problems, watching and waiting and hoping that your boat does not lie directly in Jim’s path in darkness. You should have behaved more responsibly toward your fellow sailors: if you abandon your boat at sea, sink it.