November 2005 Shark Bytes
Posted on Wednesday, 30 November 2005
When I last wrote at the end of September I very excitedly told everyone of the upcoming trip that we had planned to Mozambique. The biggest mistake that I made was to mention all the different shark species that we were hoping to encounter. I should have learned from experience never to do this as I now especially feel that it is bad luck!
The trip actually turned into a real disaster… The plan was for Chris to sail a yacht up from Cape Town to Richard’s Bay (South Africa’s most northern Port before Mozambique). Myself and the rest of the team were then to join Chris here for the start of our journey.
The piece of coastline from Cape Town to Durban is 800 sea miles of extremely treacherous seas and many a vessel has come unstuck here. We were concerned about the weather as in terms of prevailing winds it was not the right time of the year to be heading in this direction, but we really did not have a choice. I was able to monitor the forecasted weather reports whilst at home. As the yacht inched further up the coast the weather reports were forecasting uncomfortable wind and swell, but nothing life threatening so although Chris and the crew were not experiencing good conditions they pushed on in uncomfortable conditions. On day 5 one of the two diesel engines malfunctioned and stopped working altogether. We were in cell phone contact and when Chris called to tell me what had happened I asked him if he was worried. We had been on a previous trip where an engine failed on the yacht we were on and we still managed OK so I was not overly concerned. When he replied that Yes, he was worried I really went cold as this was the first time I had ever heard Chris say something like this whilst at sea.
Losing one of the engines meant that because the wind (which was blowing about 50km’s or 30 miles per hour) was coming head on the yacht did not have enough power to head in a straight direction. Therefore the crew had to now tack miles out to sea and then back again only to gain a mile or two over a long period of time. At this time the yacht was caught in St Francis Bay which is about 45 miles wide and they had to get around a point called Cape Recife in order to reach the safety of Port Elizabeth.
I was getting the updated weather forecasts and the conditions were just not improving. The wind was at about 25-30knots (55km and 35miles) and the swell at 3-4m’s/ 13foot. These are not horrendous conditions but the fact that they did not have enough power was a big problem.
After 36 hours they were still battling to get out of St Francis Bay. There was tremendous pressure being put on the sails and the mast from the wind. At the time that Chris was at the helm the yacht came down a steep wave and stalled. A fraction later as the wind caught the sails the pressure just became too great and the mast snapped about a quarter from the base. The mast came crashing down a few meters from Chris’s head, landing on the deck. Apparently the noise was just unreal and the best way to describe it was to compare it to a thunder flash being let off next to your ear!
On board with Chris were the Skipper, Ken and his daughter Amy as well as our Irish friend Seamus who was going to be doing the entire trip with us. Fortunately they were all in the cabin at the time as if anyone had been on deck something far worse could have happened.
The VHF radio could not be used as the antenna had gone down with the mast but Chris was able to make contact with The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) by cell phone.
The NSRI immediately dispatched a rescue team. The Port Elizabeth unit has the most powerful rescue boat at its disposal, a 36-foot self-righting powerboat. Chris then phoned me to let me know what had happened and that the NSRI was on its way. It took the NSRI about 2 hours to reach them and in that time the yacht had drifted just about the entire distanced covered in the last 36 hours! In the meantime Chris and the crew had used the safety bolt cutters that were on board to sever the mast and rigging. When the stays were cut the mast came back into the hull of the yacht but fortunately above the water line. This still meant that a large, gaping hole had to be temporarily stuffed with life jackets, towels etc to stop water coming in.
They also very fortunately had on board very good rope that was to serve as spare anchor line. Chris and Seamus hauled this out and created a bridle line to be used as a towrope, another blessing in disguise as the NSRI only had with them a 30-meter towline. In that kind of weather the rope would never have held.