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Melbourne to Port Fairy Race 2012 - Rescue at Sea Part 2

by Grant Dunoon as told to Dr Peter Ball on 15 May 2012
TryBooking.com with all survivors aboard arriving in Port Fairy to the cheers from the crowd - 2012 ORCV Melbourne to Port Fairy Race Grant Dunoon
The rescue at sea of the crew of Inception by TryBooking.com, another competitor in the Melbourne to Port Fairy Race 2012, is a gripping story with a great outcome.

What follows part 2 of the account of the events by Grant Dunoon, skipper of TryBooking.com, as told to Dr Peter Ball.


By now, the men in the water had separated into two groups. This made it easier to bring the stern of the boat into position to meet the first group. Having the line of the boat parallel to the waves whilst throttling forward against the wind provided the stable platform they needed to get the men aboard. Kim threw a rope to the first group as they drew near. Once they had gripped the line, he was able to bring them alongside and thence to the stern. The first man unclipped and Peter called for him to place his feet on the lowest rung of the ladder. This provided the purchase they needed to haul the sailor onto the landing and up into the cockpit.

The crew were delighted with their achievement. Despite their early doubts, they had worked out a technique for getting the sailors safely out of the water. Buoyed by their success, they made another orbit and once again manoeuvred into position.

It was a huge physical effort for everyone involved, especially the crew of Inception who had been in the water for about 90 minutes. As well as the cold sapping their energy, they were struggling the entire time against the wind. It pushed against the collars of their lifejackets in such a way that their faces were exposed to a constant barrage of spray. In order to breathe without taking in salt water, they had to fight against the wind to keep their faces in the lee. Although rescue was now at hand, they were tapping their last reserves of strength, and the effort to get on board was almost too much for one of them.

The third man aboard was still daisy-chained to the second. The crew dragged him over the landing but he was unable to move any further. It took nearly 15 minutes to pull him clear of the landing, with his two shipmates imploring him, and TryBooking.com’s crew using all their strength to help him in the confined space of the cockpit.

By now they had their technique down pat with each crew member understanding the role they were playing. The remaining three sailors were brought on-board swiftly as they circled to a position slightly upwind and manoeuvred with throttle adjustments to pick them up in quick succession. Instead of dragging the last three men across the landing, the rescuers brought them up onto their knees so they could catch their breath in an upright position. They were then able to crawl forward and get clear of the stern more quickly.

The last one on board was the Inception skipper, Jeff. He had experienced a terrible shock when Inception went down, but he had shepherded his crew throughout their ordeal, keeping up their morale in dire circumstances. In the final stages of the rescue, he had unclipped himself from his companions and swum to one of the sailors who had drifted apart from the others. Only when his shipmates were safe did he come forward.

However, as Jeff gripped the landing, the bow of TryBooking.com fell into a trough. Ross watched on in horror as the stern lifted, carrying Jeff out of the water as he clung on tenaciously. Peter had taken hold of Jeff, but as the rising stern tipped him off balance, he was flung forward into the sea. Fortunately, he was able to hold onto Jeff as he went over, so he could grip the ladder and climb aboard only slightly wetter than he had been moments before.

The rescue helicopter arrived overhead as the third sailor was brought aboard. Grant feared they might illuminate them with their spotlight and ruin their night vision, but they held off and swept the surrounding area looking for survivors. Once the Inception skipper was aboard and Grant had ascertained that everyone had been picked up, he flashed a light and waved from the boat to let the helicopter know 'all OK'.

Grant cross-checked with the rescued sailors to be sure that no-one was missing. The Inception skipper, Jeff, and his father, Ken, remained in the cockpit but the other four made their way below with the crew of TryBooking.com breaking out blankets for all. The third man aboard, Doug, was placed on the floor so he could not fall, then Grant did a quick check on the condition of the other five sailors. He didn’t want to focus on the sick man and miss a problem with one of the others. Although Doug was not moving, he was verbally responding to questions.

Grant then contacted the helicopter on marine channel 16 (VHF) and reported on the condition of the six rescued sailors. Although all had vomited sea water as they came aboard and several times afterwards, five were now in good spirits with one who appeared to be suffering from hypothermia. The helicopter replied that a ship with 'medical facilities' was being diverted to their position. At this news, Grant went up to the cockpit and advised Ross and Kim to hold TryBooking.com in its current position, motoring as slowly as possible, while they waited for the ship to arrive.

Grant then radioed Peter at ORCV:
'We have all six crew from Inception'. He added that there were now 10 persons on board TryBooking.com, but, 'for information only, our life raft is rated for eight people'.

Grant also advised the ORCV that they were holding for a ship. Peter (ORCV) asked for details of Doug’s condition and advised on suitable treatment, which the TryBooking.com crew had already initiated. Five minutes later, Grant questioned Doug again and reported to Peter (ORCV) that he was showing signs of improving.

Grant them spoke with the helicopter again. They wanted the latitude and longitude of TryBooking.com so they could relay a position fix to the ship. However, the chart plotter display by the radio had been damaged. It had split in two and was hanging from the cabinet by a few wires. Clearly, it would be of no further use. Grant tried to get a fix from the HF radio display, but before he could complete the button sequence, another station reported 'We have you on the AIS position', and they relayed the numbers to the helicopter. He was referring to the Automatic Identification System on board TryBooking.com.

(Until that moment, Grant thought there was only a helicopter in the area. He was unable to identify the second voice and believed it was coming from another vessel in the area. It was subsequently learned that the Dornier aircraft was overhead. It is now unclear whether Grant was speaking with the helicopter or the fixed wing aircraft or both).

Shortly afterwards, the helicopter advised that the ship was about 45 minutes away. However, after some deliberation, a message was relayed from the ship. They were very concerned about attempting a ship-to-ship transfer in the prevailing weather. This was enough for Grant. He asked Kim to power up to 1,800rpm and take up a heading of 300 degrees. This would give them a safe track to the closest port – Warrnambool.

It was now about 0300hrs on Saturday 7th April and Warrnambool was about six hours away. Peter (ORCV) radioed to request position reports every 30 minutes. Grant was now feeling extremely tired and, given that there was a tracking device onTryBooking.com, he agreed to contact ORCV at least once an hour, but he could not commit to a 30 minute schedule.

On route to Warrnambool, Grant spoke further with members of the Inception crew. What he heard caused him to think Doug might have been suffering more from severe shock than hypothermia. However, as they monitored his condition, it seemed that whatever the cause, he was continuing to improve.

During a radio sched at about 0400hrs, Warrnambool Coast Guard reported that the swell was very dangerous in their vicinity. So much so that the Coast Guard was not prepared to leave port. At this news, Grant concluded that it would not be safe for TryBooking.com to enter. Accordingly, they changed course for Port Fairy, with an ETA of 1000hrs.

Epilogue
As things settled down, Grant and Peter put out some sail. The jib was a mess from earlier events and could not be deployed, but putting out a little of the main sheet helped stabilise the boat to some extent.

As dawn broke, the wind eased to about 30kts which allowed them to extend a bit more of the mainsail. This increased their speed from around 4.5kts to 6kts, and conferred more stability. The wind had backed to the southwest, which was ideal for TryBooking.com’s heading. By 0800hrs, the men below began to stir. They grew more conversational as they munched on muesli bars and drank Gatorade. Doug was able to stand and move a little, albeit gingerly.

They spied the Norfolk Pines of Port Fairy just before 1000hrs and were met at the Turning Buoy by a PFYC boat that guided them past the breakwater and into the Moyne River. When they saw the Channel Seven chopper circling overhead, they had some idea of the attention they were about to receive. A crowd of more than 150 people had assembled in front of the yacht club and along the path across the river to welcome them with cheers and applause. Amongst them were friends from Port Fairy, sailors from the other yachts that had arrived earlier and were rafted up on the wharf, and many PFYC members. It was a great feeling to hear the cry go up: 'Three cheers for TryBooking!'

Once tied up, all on board were able to leave the boat without assistance to be met by the ambulance, the police and several news media outlets. As a precautionary measure, the Inception crew were ferried to the hospital for checks, but the crew of TryBooking.com made their way to the PFYC for a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, followed by the awards ceremony. Although only one boat in the fleet, Dry White, had completed the race, all participants received commendations for seamanship in the horrendous conditions. TryBooking.com was presented with a haul of beer and wine in appreciation of their actions the night before.

The crew of TryBooking.com spent the rest of the day drying their gear and resting. Everything had been drenched as a result of the storm, but they did what they could to dry out clothes and blankets. At 1730hrs, after organising fuel, they slipped off the wharf, motored to the mouth of the river and set sail for Melbourne.

Tribute
A lot of things went wrong for participants in the 2012 Melbourne to Port Fairy Ocean Race. Of the 14 starters, only one boat, Dry White, officially finished. The storm that hit the fleet at dusk on Good Friday pounded all the boats mercilessly throughout the night, but Inception was singled out for the worst possible treatment. After having their life raft torn away in the screaming gale, the crew were forced into the heaving seas in darkness when their yacht sank suddenly, giving them barely time to scramble free.

Even with modern safety aids, their prospects for survival that night were slim. Only those who have experienced such trauma themselves will truly understand and appreciate the horror of their ordeal. However, the skipper and crew of TryBooking.com intervened to prevent an awful situation developing into an unimaginable tragedy. Through the skill, resourcefulness, courage and perseverance of Grant, Peter, Ross and Kim, six men, who could so easily have perished that night, are alive today.


Bravo, gentlemen! Bravo!

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