A very wet and weary Strewth crew appeared out of the murk at Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, at 1500hrs today, accompanied by the faithful guard ship Cloud, the RHKYC’s Kellett VI, and RIB M69.
It was easy to tell which of the two yachts motoring up the harbour was Strewth – the one with the pronounced roll. Just 36 hours earlier she had lost her keel approx 170 nm south east of Hong Kong, en route to Subic Bay in the Rolex China Sea Race 2008.
As she came in to the RHKYC Eastern Pontoon we saw another effect of being keel-less – sideways movement! M69 was needed as tugboat to gently push her into position. And then, safely tied up, it was time for a handshakes all round, thanks from the Strewth crew to Cloud, and kettles of rum and coke on the hardstanding. Said Geoff Hill, owner of Strewth: 'a typical Hong Kong rescue – DRC and smiles all round!'
All assembled sang 'Happy Birthday' to Strewth crew man Mark Woodmansey, and then Geoff Hill and skipper Ben Jonson told the tale:
'At 0300 watch-change yesterday (21 March), we were fine reaching at about 12 kts in 18 kts of breeze, and there was a loud crack. Several crew checked everything we could think of, but couldn’t see anything wrong. 20 m ins later there was another loud crack, and 30 sec after that, she went…'
'The bow went down maybe 30 deg, and the boat rolled 45 or 50 eg – just enough to get the gunwhale wet – the main trimmer dumped everything, and we came upright again with a bit of a kick on the stern from the seaway. It was all very weird, we actually started to trim up and sail again, and were hitting 8-9 kts of boat speed, but the boat was way too tender and had serious leeway, and she was very, very light on the wheel. Definitely wrong. So we rounded up, and checked the keel bolts – one of them was loose, so we thought maybe one had sheared, and the keel had swung out…'
'So it was everyone on deck, harnesses on, we ran through the safety routine. Richard Grimes went over the side to see what was happening down there, and came back and said, 'Nada. There’s nothing, there, it’s all gone.' Heck, we even sent him back for a second look just to make sure!'
'We were really worried that the boat might roll over at any moment. If she did go, it would probably have been just like a slow roll that didn’t stop, just roll, roll, roll and keep going. By now we had the sails down, so there would have been nothing to stop her when she got to 90 deg… '
'We removed the boom, took down all the halyards, and filled all the water tanks to try and get the boat as low and as stable as possible. We had the liferafts ready, the grab bags and flare boxes ready, and the crew ready and now staying on deck.'
'The SSB radio wasn’t responding, so we made a satphone call to Alex Johnstone (RHKYC Sailing Manger) and he passed our situation on to Hong Kong MRCC, who instructed us to continue to check in every 30 mins. And then we started motoring very gently towards Hong Kong at four knots or so. At 0800 we saw a boat on the horizon, we fired a white flare and they came towards us. It was Cloud, a Beneteau 47.7 skippered by Olivier Decamps, alerted to our situation by RHKYC Race Control. They had come to stand by as guard ship… we were very pleased to see them, and very appreciative of their company all the way back to Hong Kong.'
Roger Eastham, RHKYC Boatyard Manager, contacted the boat’s designer, Jim Donovan, who advised that a roll past 50 deg would push us past the point of vanishing stability – so we were proceeding very cautiously. 'A big roll and it might all be over very quickly. Also, we didn’t want to let the boat slam at all – both keel bolt head were still visible inside the boat, and yes we did have appropriate-sized wooden plugs to hand, but we really didn’t want the bolts to pop out. As it was we were leaking only about half a bucketful every four hours from the aft keel bolt.'
'The rest of the trip home was very straightforward. We set a watch, and everyone lived on deck. Everyone had done their Safety and Survival at Sea course, and there were some exceptionally experienced people in the crew – both Geoff Hill and Ben Johnson hava few miles to their credit, so does Grimesy, and Mark Fullerton was on Skandia Wild Thing when she lost her keel in the Bass Strait two years ago.'
'It’s all a bit worrying,' said Geoff at the end. 'Those were new keel bolts, and it’s a simple, not very hi-tech, sort of design. The boat wasn’t being pressed. I have no doubt at all that if we had gone straight over, there would have been loss of life. We wouldn’t all be standing here looking having a drink now.’
'Olivier and the crew of Cloud were absolutely magnificent, and we are very grateful to them. Thank you, one and all.
'Small boats look after small boats, you know! As soon as they came up with us, we got all the emergency drills sorted between us, what they would do if we rolled, what procedures we would all try to follow. We are all very happen that none of it was put in to practice, but it was a great comfort to have a crew of very competent sailors there to accompany us home. Thank you again.'
'And the MRCC were terrific, thank you, and the RHKYC – especially Alex Johnson and Roger Eastham – were terrific too. Roger and Drew Taylor came out from Hong Kong looking for us first thing this morning, and escorted us home.
'With the RIB in attendance we were able to offload five crew on to the Kellett IV immediately, which just made five people less to rescue if something went wrong. Thanks, guys.'
Geoff Hill (Owner)
Ben Johnson (Skipper)
John Binks (Navigator)
Olivier Decamps (Skipper)
Paul Bayfield (Navigator)