This week five sailors spent 26 hours holding hands in the sea and singing to keep them going after their boat sank suddenly. They had only four life jackets, and took turns to go without. The sixth sailor was missing from the group, and they hoped he was floating somewhere.
It would later emerge that he had sacrificed his own life for two of the others. Finally, it was only a small torchlight in the dark that alerted rescuers to the position of the five, or the tragedy could have been much worse – and the cause? Yet another keel which failed and fell off.
It's little more than a month ago that the International Sailing Federation, expressed alarm at the 'growing number of keel failures', which has 'highlighted the need for yacht designers, boat builders and owners to check their yacht structures'.
Alarm has been growing in the yachting fraternity for years about this, and the admission is good, but the statement alone has not stopped the keels from falling off. The latest tragic story is one of those that make you stop to wonder that it has taken so long for yacht designers and boat builders to take notice.
The crew of six were participating in the Regata de Amigos, a sailing race from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico, that began festively Friday afternoon when their boat, the 'Cynthia Woods,' and approximately 25 other vessels set sail on the planned 700-mile race. Three of them are students: Steven Guy, Joseph Sanana and Ross James Busby. A fourth crew member Travis Wright had graduated last month.Accompanying the students were two safety officers.
The first hint of a problem came at 11:45 p.m. Friday when Safety Officer Roger Stone 'stuck his head up and said we were taking on water,' surviving Safety Officer Steve Conway said. Before he could adjust a sail to relieve wind pressure, 'the boat flipped onto its side,' Conway said. 'That's the point where the keel had to have come apart.'
The on-deck crew were suddenly in the in the sea. A few seconds later, Guy popped up out of the water. Guy said Stone directed him out of the cabin and gave him a final push that freed him from the incoming water. He had also pushed another student against the inrush of water.
'I held my breath and was getting ready to dive under,' Guy said. 'I felt him push me and he pushed me into the cockpit.'
Guy said he grabbed the boat's wheel and pulled himself toward the stern. He said he surfaced next to Conway.
Moquini, 2005 - six sailors lost -
The two students who were below deck at the time reported water shooting up from holes in which long bolts attach to the keel's flange. They tried to stop the water with an emergency plug, but quickly the entire keel was compromised.
For the next 26 hours, the five men waited, treading water in the Gulf of Mexico. All of them have sailing experience, but nothing prepared them for the helplessness of waiting for someone to find them. Keeping them together and in good spirits was the 55-year-old Conway, A&M safety officer and a retired Coast Guard commander.
The five used four life vests and positive attitudes to stay alive, Guy and Conway, director of computing and information services at the Galveston campus, said, as they related the group's struggles and nighttime rescue. They described seeing Coast Guard helicopters methodically searching for them in the distance and a Coast Guard jet flying right over them, but unable to see their heads bobbing in four- to six-foot seas during the day Saturday.
'We could see the search all day,' Conway said.
As told by the Houston Chronicle, it was Steven Conway's little light helped U.S. Coast Guard rescuers spot the group early Sunday morning. Conway said darkness saved the group's lives when a helicopter crew heading directly toward them caught a flash from the safety light Conway had placed on his life vest.
The pilot, Lt. Justo Rivera, said he otherwise could not have seen them as they as they floated 11 miles south of Matagorda Bay.
Within minutes, the chopper was above the survivors, flashing its landing lights to let them know they'd been seen, then popping on a floodlight before sending a swimmer to help them get into a rescue basket, one by one.
Guy spent most of the ordeal being held by the others. After about 18 hours, the sailors began taking turns going without a life vest.
'We were constantly watching the person without the life jacket, to make sure two people were holding him at all times,' Conway said.
As for Conway's life-saving flashlight, he plans to build a glass and wood box to keep it on display in his home. Some other infamous keel failures:
Probably the most infamous was that of Tony Bullimore in 1997, who was saved from the Antarctic after a massive Australian Navy operation.
In 2003, racing yacht Excalibur sank after losing its keel near Port Stephens in Australia, and four of the six crew were lost.
September 2005, Yacht Moquini on a Mauritius to Durban race went missing. Six crew members lives were lost and the Moquini was later discovered floating upside down without a keel.
November 2006. Alex Thomson and Hugo Boss in the Velux 5 Oceans Race lost their keel, the boat capsized, but no lives were lost
February 2007, the owner and four crew of the Max Fun 35 yacht Hooligan V sailed from Plymouth towards Southampton. The boat’s keel became detached and the boat capsized, causing the loss of life of one crew member. Letters to the Editor about this subject:
Sender: David J VENNING
Message: On the evening of 1/4/2001 the yacht RISING FARRSTER, a Binks-Farr 38 enroute from Southport to Sydney, also lost her keel... resulting in the loss/drowning of 2 crew.... this incident was also the subject of an extensive enquiry.... yet it was not the first time construction of Bink's yachts was found to be inadequate.... you're right in bringing attention to this issue..... but much more needs to be done.
Sender: David Pierce
Message: Every picture I have seen of a yacht with a lost keel has been a light displacement yacht with a bolt on keel. The hull bottom has been flat with the keel normally a thin structure with little reinforcement to counter rotational forces at the point of hull attachment. To me it is no surprise that these structures fail. In creating 30-50 foot planing dinghies with lead weights, the designers have created a competitive advantage that is so compelling that owners have been prepared to take the risks (if they knew of them) or just sailed in blissful ignorance (if they were unaware).
Contrast this to the inherent structural integrity of the encapsulated keel, where the hull merges imperceptibly into keel. Slower but safer. Examine the lessons from the 1979 Fastnet race. All the boats with lost keels were light displacement types. Contrast that with the Contessa Class, with an encapsulated keel. Every Contessa, including the 32ft versions finished the race. People who care about their lives were quick to see the lesson. The class took off and holds its second hand value because it is a safe boat.
It is now 29 years since the 1974 Fastnet, and there has been plenty of time for:
- the inquiries to get the facts and report them and make recommendations,
- yacht designers to follow them
- race organisers to set appropriate safety rules.
There is plenty of informed discussion on: http://www.ybw.com/forums/printthread.php/Cat/0/Board/ym/main/1335354/type/thread
There is nothing new here. Modern schools perpetuate the myth that you can't learn anything from history, so I expect the death toll to continue. Buyer beware!