'I was scratching my head as to why they would take that route, but knew once I saw their chart I understood'- Captain Paul Hemmings, Commanding Officer of Australian Customs vessel.
Sagitta sinking by the stern - photo courtesy Customs Horn Island helicopter
Three German sailors, rescued in highly dangerous conditions near the Raine Island entrance to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, had inadequate maps of the area and admitted to knowing little about Australian waters when they were rescued by the Australian Customs vessel Storm Bay.
A two-nation operation was involved in the rescue of three sailors from their stricken 10-metre sloop, Sagitta, by the crew of the Australian Customs vessel (ACV) Storm Bay after hitting a reef late on Saturday afternoon, August 30.
Storm Bay’s Commanding Officer Paul Hemmings said the message to be learned from the rescue was for all sailors to carry appropriate charts and information about the areas into which they are sailing.
'They had a large-scale chart which shows a large area of coast but in little detail, when they would have been better with a more-detailed, smaller charts.
'We are forever having problems with rescues in the Torres Strait where people set out in poor conditions and without proper information about their journey. They have to be mindful of what they’re heading into. These three sailors had so little knowledge of the Australian coastline.'
The rescue took place in 'pitch-black darkness', 40 knot winds and with a limited crew on the Storm Bay.The trio aboard the Sagitta set off a German-coded emergency beacon when the boat started taking water. This was received by German authorities who then contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Canberra.
A Customs Coastwatch Dash 8, Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (RCC) Dornier (Rescue 471) and Horn Island helicopter were sent to the area – about 100 nautical miles south-east of Thursday Island – where the stricken vessel was located.
The Coastwatch aircraft, which had been on patrol, located the yacht and handed over to R471 as it was limited by fuel endurance. RCC in Canberra directed the Storm Bay to be the response vessel for the incident, with Storm Bay, which was on patrol in the area, responding immediately and setting a course for the area.
Around eight o’clock that evening, crew of Storm Bay retrieved the three men - aged 56, 60, and 76. All were in good health. The Master of the yacht spoke sufficient English to be understood.
Commander Hemmings told the Torres News the rescue had gone well. 'The Storm Bay was at anchor some 44NM distant but was under way in 7½ minutes from getting the Mayday call, but, unfortunately, with only about 30 minutes of daylight remaining.
'We were at anchor at Cape Grenville in about 25-30 knot winds and this increased to about 40 knots during the trip to effect the rescue. The conditions were very poor, and visibility was down to about 3nm.'
Commander Hemmings had been told in the initial message from Canberra that the boat was sinking and the crew was taking to life rafts.
'This was the worst scenario as we wouldn’t know where they would be in a life raft, given the prevailing conditions. I feared that if we couldn’t get them soon, they would lose their lives. The Dornier (aircraft) was invaluable; it was able to remain in the area and could relay messages from the yacht and was able to pinpoint it, although their visibility was down to only 1900ft. We were able to go straight to the boat.'
Commander Hemmings believed the sloop struck the reef at low tide, was dragged along the reef and floated off on high tide, suffering a hole somewhere.
'When sighted, it was rolling violently side-to-side at about 40 degrees off vertical, and was clear of the lee given by the reef. I ordered the tender away when we were about 3½ nm distant due to the yacht now taking water fast.
‘We were able to take one of the crew on-board the tender with each pass. The tender suffered some minor damage during the rescue. We brought them back to the Storm Bay where we gave them a hot shower, hot meals and dry clothes while we washed and dried their own clothing.'
Commander Hemmings said while the three sailors were all fit, he was particularly concerned for the well-being of the older man. 'He was traumatised and seemed in shock. Later in the night, he was still shaking; I think he was in shock.'
The decision to stay with the yacht was the best possible one.'It was so much easier to locate them. The captain told me later he intended to stay aboard until the yacht sank beneath him.'
Storm Bay’s second-in-command climbed aboard the Sagitta to turn off the EPRIB and then to try to determine the extent of the damage with the possibility of it being towed to safety. 'We decided against that given the prevailing conditions; the safety of the crew always comes first.'
The Storm Bay had only seven crew aboard, compared to its normal complement of nine or 10.
Commander Hemmings was full of praise for his crew. 'They sprung into action as soon as they heard the alarm, and knew exactly what to do; they were outstanding.'
The Storm Bay took about two hours to reach the scene (about 44nm in a direct line), 30 minutes effecting the rescue, and had returned to Cape Grenville by about one o’clock on Sunday morning, by which time the sailors had been made comfortable and were resting. The Sagitta was still afloat at last report, and was drifting with about 30 metres of anchor chain laid out. The yacht is now some distance from where the rescue took place. 'I think the boat would be worth about $250,000. It had all good gear aboard, and looked to be a very comfortable boat.'
Commander Hemmings understands the German citizens had boarded the yacht in Brisbane and had sailed to Cairns from where they set sail for the Torres Strait. They had planned to obtain provisions on Thursday Island and then sail to Darwin and then home to Germany.
'They had no idea of the distance between Cairns and Thursday Island and then Darwin. I was scratching my head as to why they would take that route, but knew once I saw their chart I understood.'