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'We're rescuing Santa Claus!' - the rescue of a long distance sailor

by Des Ryan/The Reporter on 14 Dec 2013
Gulf Stream - Easy Go normally crossed it in a day’s sailing, but not this time SW
On November 05 this year, the coal ship Athina L had been called by AMVER to a yacht in trouble in their piece of the ocean. But when the Philippino crew arrived at the rescue scene, they had one reaction: 'We're rescuing Santa Claus!'

Admittedly Bob Groves, Ocean Cruising Club member and long time long distance cruiser, must have looked a bit like Santa Claus with his silver hair and beard, but this time he was on the receiving, not giving end.

The decision to put out a distress signal had not been an easy call for Bob Groves, allthough he now knows he made the right decision and is grateful for his safe return.

Groves was no novice sailor when he made the call, having made the trip to the Caribbean on several occasions in the past.

'I’ve got tens of thousands of miles' he told the Reporter recently, 'I’ve crossed the Atlantic twice, I’ve sailed in Africa and Europe and all through the Caribbean, down towards South America so, you know, I’m pretty familiar with where I need to go.'

But, he says, this time was different and the story he tells is gripping.

Groves left Nova Scotia on October 28 sailing solo on his boat, Easy Go, which he built in 2004, and a good weather forecast.

'The weather changed and I got caught in the Gulf Stream, which in itself isn’t too bad if the winds are right but when they switch to wrong, it’s a really bad place to be.'

He describes his ordeal: 'We (meaning Easy Go and he) found ourselves in very strong storm conditions in an area of the Gulf Stream with strong current some 700 miles off of Cape Cod. We were unable to work our way out of the complex conditions presented by wind over current after 5 days while steadily being driven east.

'We normally try to get across the Gulf Stream in less than one day. Early winter brings on changeable conditions that make this particular passage challenging, even for those of us who have done it a number of times.

'Easy Go performed well in beating to windward in 45 knots of wind for four days with the wind aligning with the current favorably. While rough Easy Go persisted. I was unable to cook or rest adequately in these conditions. When the wind shifted to NE and increased the situation became overwhelming with wind over current. The current in this area was running in excess of 3 knots.



'A series of small equipment failures (sails, electronics and water ingress), that in lesser conditions could have been rectified relatively simply, could not be addressed. My own fatigue and deteriorating condition was a major contributing factor. Making the decision to call for assistance while still afloat and with the energy to save myself was not easy but was necessary. I felt conditions would deteriorate further and this proved to be the case over the next few days with continuous gale to storm force winds followed quickly by Tropical Storm Melissa.

'I was just reaching such a state of exhaustion that I just said, ‘well, okay it’s time to get out of here.’'

Groves put out a mayday call via SPOT technology, which provides the position of the boat through GPS signals. AMVERS (Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue), which is operated via the US Coast Guard, dispatched two ships to attempt a rescue. The first ship was called Bishu Highway.

'Apparently, I was somewhere around 700 miles off Cape Cod, about 1,000 miles off Halifax so it’s a long way out to do a rescue and Bishu Highway came but it was too rough to do anything. So they stayed close by me all night in case I got into serious trouble.'

The second ship, a Greek coal carrier called Athina L, was travelling from New Orleans to Scotland and came 19 hours out of their way to attempt a rescue.

'So at about 5:00 in the morning in the dark I had this huge coal boat, 715 feet long, pull up beside me, in six-metre waves, 40 knots of wind and it took me a while to figure out where I could get up close to them.'

Eventually Groves was able to tie up Easy Go to Athina L. The crew of the coal carrier tossed out a cargo net that Groves began to climb but he slipped and fell in between the two boats.

'One of the seamen threw a heaving line to me, which I was able to tie to my body, and another one got a life ring to me which I put over my body and the crew just pulled me right up, about eight metres up the side of the ship and over the hand rail. At that point, when they got me on deck I lost consciousness, I guess the adrenalin ran out finally,' he said.

Finally safely on board the ship, Groves says he was taken to the ship’s hospital, where he was warmed and his vitals monitored.
'They took care of me for eight days, until we got to Hunterston, Scotland.'

As he recovered aboard the vessel, the crew not only took care of his physical state, the company that owns the vessel also contacted the Canadian Consulate to ensure he would not have trouble entering Scotland.

Although Groves had to abandon his boat, Easy Go, as an experienced sailor he still had his 'ditch bag' with his passport, credit cards, some cash and other forms of identification.

Ocean Cruising Club also to the rescue:
A fellow member of the Ocean Cruising Club who lived near Hunterston offered her home until he was well enough to fly home. Groves sustained internal injuries, 'a lot of bruising and a little internal bleeding,' from which he will recover with time, he noted.

In the meantime he is taking it easy and counting his blessings.

'This group of men, 17 of them, and they’re all from the Phillipines, is the best Christmas present I could have ever got,' he said, noting the men were incredibly kind even as they worried about their own families in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

'I have since returned home to River Bourgeois, Cape Breton where I continue to recover. I mourn the loss of Easy Go. She took great care of me for a lot of ocean miles as did her predecessor the first Easy Go. There was no insurance so the next Easy Go will take some time to come to be. Lost everything but my life; the adventure continues.

Groves says he is grateful to all the people who helped him following his rescue and for the friends and neighbours who offered assistance to his wife Kathy, who was awaiting news of his condition at their home in River Bourgeois.

Bob and Kathy Groves chronicle their sailing adventures on their blog, www.sveasygo.blogspot.ca.

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