They set off their EPIRB but they hadn't registered it, and the resultant delay almost cost the four sailors their lives. In the incident that occurred off the coast of South Africa in the Southern Ocean this week, the four clung to their capsized catamaran then huddled in their life raft for more than nine hours waiting for rescue in five metre seas and winds up to 55 knots.
Intended route of the yacht Gulliver
The four South African sailors, skipper Greg West and crew Frans Sprung, Shaun Kennedy and Mike Morck, were trying to outrun the bad weather when their boat capsized after a sudden strong gust of wind.
Gulliver before the incident
Their EPIRB, which was not registered, did not activate when the vessel capsized, which is what usually occurs. Crew member Kennedy, 34, the only crew member under 60, then swam under the upturned yacht to activate the Epirb manually. Later he also swam under the yacht to release the life raft. When they inflated it, it was swept away by the strong wind but Kennedy swam after it and retrieved it.
The crew then let off distress flares, but these were not seen. Cape Town Radio had picked up the emergency signal, which was transmitting from 12 miles off Cape Infanta, (see map), but because it had not been registered with the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Cape Town, it did not indicate which vessel the signal was coming from.
However, Greg West's wife Marcelle had become alarmed when she could not contact her husband on his cell phone. She reported to both Cape Town Radio and the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).
NSRI spokesman Craig Lambinon explained that Marcelle had raised her concerns with an NSRI volunteer in Knysna, who in turn alerted the NSRI in Mossel Bay. 'She said the last known contact had been when the yacht was off the Breede River, racing towards Mossel Bay. She said she spoke to her husband, Greg, about seven times a day, but now could not reach him,' Lambinon said.
NSRI bases in Still Bay, Witsand and Agulhas were alerted. NSRI Witsand, which was closest, at the mouth of the Breede River, set off towards the signal's position about 12 nautical miles offshore of Cape Infanta in their 5.5m inflatable rescue craft Queenie Payne, in five metre swells and 60 knot winds around 7.30pm.
NSRI Still Bay launched as back up and NSRI Agulhas went on high alert with metro emergency services with the police standing by at Witsand.
When they reached the area where the emergency signal was transmitting from, they tried unsuccessfully to contact the Gulliver on VHF radio. 'We then set off an illuminating flare and noticed a small flickering light just over a mile away, and we motored towards the light,' the rescue crew said.
'On reaching it, at about 11pm, we found the upturned yacht, a 40-foot catamaran, and all four crew were in the life raft which they had tied to the hull. They were suffering from hypothermia and shock, and we took them on to our rescue craft and began the difficult task of motoring back.
'But it was soon evident that the seven people now on board were too heavy for our rescue craft.'
Another NSRI craft was sent to assist, as were two fishing vessels, but eventually the Queenie Payne made it back on her own. The yachtsmen were taken to hospital in Riversdale, one in a serious condition.
Rian Schoeman, of Cape Town Radio, said yesterday: 'The NSRI guys were great, but at the end of the day the skipper’s wife was the real hero of the day.
'She used her initiative to tell us her husband was overdue, which enabled us to put two and two together with the signal. I hope her husband buys her a big chocolate.'
The SA Maritime Safety Authority will investigate the incident as per standard procedure, said Lambinon
Letter from Reader (is this an issue with many sailors?)
Sender: Brian Gormley
Message: Glad they all survived.
Maybe like me they were refused registration by their National Authority(Ireland) because the PLB was bought in on the internet from a foreign source(UK).
Have been trying to sort out a new code without much sucess so far, conflicting advice seems plentiful.