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Couple rescued, boat lost to storm on notorious Tonga-Auckland route

by Nancy Knudsen on 11 Nov 2012
Windigo’s crew - Steve Jones and Tania Davies - rescued, but boat, which was Steve’s home, was lost to the sea. SW
Welsh-Australian cruising sailor Stephen Jones broke down while describing the loss of his boat Windigo, which was also his home, to a storm on the notorious route between Tonga and New Zealand. He and his fellow crewmate, New Zealander Tanya Davies, are recovering as they steam towards New Zealand's navy vessel HMNZS Otago on the Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship, Chengtu, which rescued them.

This will take them the rest of the way back to New Zealand while the Chengtu resumes its route to its destination, Hong Kong. How do they feel?

'We are a bit battered and bruised,' according to Tanya, speaking by telephone from the Chengtu, 'but that is nothing compared to being able to live the rest of their lives. We are looking forward to terra firma.'

The storm was unforecast when they left Vava'u in Tonga less than 48 hours previous to its arrival. Soon they found themselves in 10m seas and with 50kts of wind. Both sailors were knocked unconscious when their boat was rolled through 360 degrees and righted itself. They woke to find themselves covered in blood, and Stephen had sustained a back injury. The boat was very damaged, and water was entering the boat through broken hatches.

After setting off their EPIRB they waited for rescue inside the cabin of the 38ft boat, which had also lost engine power.

Tanya described the situation. They were 'like a couple of little balls being tossed around a room,' and and 'the banging, the crashing, the whipping, the crunching, the sloshing. Just the sounds vibrated through every part of your body.'

She added that she was 'totally in shock and completely grateful' to all those involved in the rescue effort. Stephen was very emotional and broke down when describing the loss of his boat to his relieved parents in Wales.


The Chengtu had responded to the emergency call and began steaming towards the damaged yacht. After approximately 15 hours, at about 3.30am they reached the yacht, as did another yacht, Adventure Bound. They both stood by because the weather was too bad to attempt a rescue. After the wind abated to around 20kts, in the morning at about 9.00am, the crew of the Chengtu were able to use ropes and helicopter swings they had on board to fashion some gear which they threw to the two sailors and were able to drag them safely up the side of the ship. Once onboard the Chengtu their medical condition was assessed.

Merchant ships, particularly since the formation of AMVER, have recently taken a large role in the rescues of cruising sailors. Tribute have been paid to the efforts of the Chengtu, and also to the yacht Adventure Bound, which remained on-site overnight, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force, which provided a P3-Orion that made three trips to the stricken yacht providing the only communications link. A French naval plane also made two trips from Noumea to the scene since the emergency beacon was activated on Nov 7 in the afternoon.

It will still be more than 30 hours before the couple reach New Zealand.


The stretch of water between the South Pacific and New Zealand is known as an uncertain and often dangerous stretch of water. In 1994, four sailors lost their lives and at least four cruising boats were destroyed when what has become notoriously known as the 'Queen's Birthday Storm', between November 20-30, hit a regatta fleet unexpectedly. The conditions were similar to the recent incident as to wind strength and wave height.

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