It was the moment every sailor dreads. Paul Bayfield, an experienced crew member aboard Purple X, a 49ft Oyster yacht on passage from the Philippines to Hong Kong, had just settled into his berth after a spell on watch when there was a horrible noise above followed by a sharp change in the boat’s motion.
The Oyster 49 in action - with mast
“I was just getting comfortable in the bunk,” Bayfield recounted after recovering from his injuries during a dramatic New Year’s eve rescue operation in the South China Sea. “I hear this sound like someone ripping open a cardboard box. That was carbon fibre ripping. I realised what had happened and seconds later the deck crew said, ‘All hands! The mast has gone.’”
Purple X was in trouble but not yet in distress. The dismasting of the £1m yacht had certainly brought an abrupt end to an idyllic cruising holiday for owner-skipper and Citigroup investment banker Raymond Lee, his wife Carolyn, sons Aaron and Joe, aged 18 and 16, and three crew, including Bayfield.
The waves were large and there was a near-gale blowing – they had been sailing under a double-reefed main and staysail – but the crew were strong, the engine was working and the boat was well-equipped. They donned safety gear and cut away the rigging to release the mast and prevent it from damaging the hull. Instead of continuing upwind towards Hong Kong and home, 350 miles away, they turned back towards the Philippines, which was less than half the distance.
Lee and the others were not without worries, however. The electric bilge pump was working constantly and it seemed that water was coming into the boat, perhaps where one of the mast spreaders had pierced the hull. There was a brief fire in the fuse box when the ripped electric wiring from the mast short-circuited in the sea water.
But it was during the subsequent rescue that life became really dangerous for the crew of Purple X. Carolyn Lee had put out a “Pan Pan” message on the radio – a call for help or a notification of an urgent problem that falls one step short of a Mayday distress call – and the crew were also in touch with the Hong Kong Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre by satellite phone. The yacht was located by a spotter plane and a ship, the 110,000-tonne tanker Maersk Princess en route from Taiwan to Thailand, was diverted to assist. After some discussion, they made the fateful decision to abandon ship.
It is difficult at the best of times to board a large tanker at sea from a small boat, and it was made harder on this occasion by high winds and waves and the loss of communications after the battery of the yacht’s handheld VHF radio finally died. Raymond Lee, Bayfield and Martin Franks, following the last available instructions from their rescuers, jumped into the sea to be picked up by a small boat lowered from the tanker.
After a failed attempt to transfer the yacht’s crew via a flailing rope ladder lowered from the tanker’s deck, the boat was hoisted back up with the rescuers and the three yacht crew inside. But as the ship rolled, the plastic boat slammed into the hull. Lee was knocked unconscious and suffered a broken collar-bone and deep gash in his leg, Bayfield injured his back and one of the ship’s crew was also hurt.
Worse was to come. The remaining four people aboard were to put on life rings attached by lines to the ship and jump in the sea so that they could be pulled to the ladder. The two boys made it safely but Carolyn Lee and Victor Gordoncillo, a Filipino crew member, had to swim away with only their life jackets when it seemed the yacht would crush them against the tanker.
Twice they drifted back, had a close brush with the ship’s propeller and ended up far behind the ship in the stormy sea as evening approached. Twice they were found again as the Maersk Princess laboriously turned around and conducted a search. They were finally pulled aboard in a cargo net and the yacht’s crew were all safe.
“It is a horrible, helpless feeling floating away from rescue,” Carolyn Lee told the South China Morning Post. “We were just starting to lose the light when I got on the ship. Another 10 minutes in the water for me, and it would have been all over.”
The crew of Purple X are full of praise for the courage and perseverance of their rescuers from the Maersk Princess, although with the benefit of hindsight they must be asking themselves whether it would not have been wiser to try to make it under their own steam back to the Philippines.
Novice sailors are warned never to step down into a frail life raft from a solid if damaged yacht. Yachts abandoned at sea have on many occasions been found afloat weeks after their crew have died in the open ocean.
In the case of Purple X, however, a ship was at hand to conduct a rescue and everyone who was on the yacht is now alive and well. For a skipper, there can be no tougher decision than the one to abandon ship.
As a result of this article, reader Andrew Chworowsky has written:
I'm a friend of those on board Purple X. Paul Bayfield and Carolyn Lee gave a presentation recently on their experience at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong. An audio recording of this can be found through the following link:
Thought some readers might like to listen. It's very gripping.
Thank you Andrew, very gripping indeed