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Sailing crew's battle to save yacht lost in the Indian Ocean

by Sail-World Cruising round-up on 27 Jun 2014
Now tragically lost to the ocean - Simanderal in happier days .. .
The first terse report received had all the hallmarks of an impersonal official account - three people rescued from yacht in the Indian Ocean, - But it is the sailmail communication from the sailors themselves that contains the real story. Of particular note in this account is the many methods the quick-thinking-in-a-crisis skipper used to keep yacht Simanderal afloat while waiting for rescue.

First report:

Three people who were on a yacht in the Indian Ocean and sent out a distress signal were rescued early on the morning of June 24th, in an operation instigated by Falmouth and coordinated by the Seychelles Search and Rescue Centre.

The Public Relations Officer of the Seychelles People’s Defence Forces, Major Jean Attala confirmed to media outlets that the man and two women were rescued by a tanker at around 03.00am local time on June 24th, in international waters, some 300 nautical miles from the Seychelles main island of Mahé.




Scottish/Irish couple Michael Hughes and Ger White were in the last quarter of their circumnavigation in their yacht Simanderal, a Malo 45, and were accompanied by a friend, Michelle, when the incident occurred. While they had planned another two years cruising, they were forced to abandon their yacht and were taken off by the tanker Maersk Mediterranean, one of the volunteer ships in the world-wide AMVER ship rescue system. They were midway between Madagascar and the Seychelles when the problem began.

Michael tells the story:
When I took over the watch at 0500 on the 23rd, I noticed that the autopilot was not able to maintain course properly---Michele, coming off watch, told me that it had started performing erratically around an hour earlier. Initially I suspected autopilot problems --they have happened in the past---but when I took over hand steering I recognised that the problem could well be the steering gear or rudder---there were big and rough seas which would inevitably make for heavy steering---but what I was experiencing was too heavy indeed. I called Ger up from bed to take over steering so I could investigate.

A quick look through the small gap to look at the steering gear and I knew we had a big problem---the top of the rudder stock, which should turn but always remain vertical, was moving sideways in 2 dimensions sometimes quite violently. Clearly the rudder had detached from the skeg underneath the boat and was now acting like a pendulum---and there was an ingress of water.

I took the decision that there was no way we could make Mayotte or Madagascar in these seas---some 500 miles distant--- and we changed course for the Seychelles for a number of reasons--the nearest civilisation, a haul out yard which could effect repairs---but already some doubt about our ability to sail the 340 miles--over 2 days--to get there.

I then opened up below the aft locker to get at the top of the rudder stock and assess the damage. Not good. The pendulum was breaking up the surrounding fibreglass mouldings, the water ingress was significant and the violence of the waves on the rudder was causing dramatic movement of the rudder stock which would be impossible to stabilise from the top end. More fibreglass was breaking.

The rest of the day, we were in firefighting mode and I'm afraid my log does not give me timing of any of it! So based on recollection of timing--though confident knowledge of events........

I recognised Simanderal might well founder and around 1000 I telephoned Falmouth Coastguard---who have full record details of the vessel, passage plans etc.---satphones are great!--to advise them of the situation and possible abandonment. They asked if I was issuing a Mayday--I said 'no' and that we were still hoping to make the Seychelles. I issued a Pan-Pan call on VHF but as expected got no response--we had seen no other vessels for the last 1000 miles! And I informed the insurers of the situation.

About 1100 the steering failed--it had been getting increasingly difficult to steer and the cables eventually broke. The emergency steering was of no use---it is difficult enough to use when the rudder stock is fixed in vertical, but impossible with it swinging around, sometimes quite violently. At the time we were roughly pumping out the water as fast as it was coming in, but no better. Without steerage our ability to make the Seychelles seemed unlikely.

Falmouth continued hourly calls and were investigating options---their presence was extraordinarily reassuring! MRCC Seychelles were in the loop, but had no assets that could help. No vessels close by.

By 1400 it was clear to me that we could not make the Seychelles as the water ingress was growing and levels beginning to rise. Our efforts were directed at reducing water ingress, though the violent movement of the rudder stock impeded real success.

Jury steering options were in mind, but with the immediate need to bail out water---by this time 2 of us were permanently hand baling to augment the pumps--meant there was no manpower or time to build a steering rig. As well as bilge pumps, I started the main engine and diverted the sea water intake so it cooled from water in the boat,: started the watermaker so it also was using water in the boat and expelling; and diverted the shower pump-out to drain the bilge. All of this--together with buckets etc.-- seemed to roughly stabilise the water levels.

By 1500 I think it was clear enough that we were going to have to abandon. At the same time Falmouth advised that a tanker, the MAERSK Mediterranean was diverting to rescue us and should be with us in 6 or 7 hours--and we decided our efforts now would be directed at keeping afloat until then. Although I had the liferaft ready to deploy, I wanted if possible to evacuate from the yacht. I subsequently issued a formal Mayday with Falmouth and VHF--though agreed with Falmouth that we would only activate the EPIRB in the event we had to take to the liferaft.



The next several hours are something of a blur! Bailing out, preparing to abandon, trying to reduce water ingress, tiredness, wet, in lifejackets, hourly calls with Falmouth, calls from 1630 with the captain of the Maersk Med to keep us abreast of his progress.

It was good to see the Maersk Med coming in--first on AIS, then her lights. By now it was dark--and no moon--but we still had power with the engine running, and lit like a Christmas tree. They were in place around 2230 and we were liaising on VHF about abandonment process---in the dark, high winds and seas, a small yacht and a large tanker!! The process was frought--whilst I had engine, I had no steering. Initially I could use the bowthruster to give some form of steering, but the excessive use of it caused it too to fail---so the tanker had to do all of the maneuvering.

But eventually we were taken off around 0130. The whole process was nerve wracking getting alongside a vertical wall of rolling steel, a lot of crashing, and eventually one by one jumping onto a ladder over the Maersk Med's side and climbing. We are, of course, hugely grateful to them. The crew are all wonderful--including the Russian captain and the 4 ex-sqaddies who comprise their pirate security team.

Many lessons to learn no doubt as my mind wanders over it. Could we have done more to save the boat? The Seychelles was unquestionably the only option--some 2 days plus away. But the lack of effective steering and the water ingress together with high winds and very heavy seas would have entailed great risk in carrying on. With no chance of a tow, with no other vessels within 100 miles---the Maersk Med was at 90 miles away our nearest chance---and the possibility of further deterioration at any time....???.....we ensured no lives were lost.

The sympathies of all cruising sailors will be with this brave couple and their friend. It could have happened to any of us.

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