Posted by: powellpjc | January 19, 2014

Last Post. Wherein we sink.

Warning to reader:
The journey came to an end on Dec. 4th, 2013, off the coast of Argentina. Our lives were spared. No pictures are attached as no cameras remain.

Sinking at Night.
“When she goes, she’ll go quickly”.
My words to my friend and crewman, Paul. I was right.
There are many dangerous waters in the world and the South Atlantic can rightly claim its place. The yachting books remark on the history of misfortune and misery that has been has dealt to sailors on the passage from Mar del Plata, Argentina, to Cape Horn. A combination of exposed coastline; few safe havens; storms that curl up from the bottom end of South America and the ever-present icy water. All of these can make the journey difficult.
We were doing well, the two of us on la Rosa. Thirteen days south of Mar del Plata we stopped at a beautiful, well-protected natural harbor (uninhabited) that sailors call Caleta Horno. It was a spectacular setting, with high cliffs, jagged clefts and protection from all wind and wave. It was warm and sunny and we rested and prepared for the difficulties ahead. The views from the top of the high ground were pleasing. The warm, rolling pampas to one side and the pacific-looking Atlantic to the other. I checked the weather forecast on my radio and it looked ok. It was time to leave.
The first couple of days were fine as we set our course to Ushuaia, Argentina. Sunny and reasonably good going. We were off the coast of Comodoro Rividavia when conditions took a turn. The wind picked up and switched direction. We were no longer able to head to land and whatever protection that might offer. The wind was contrary to our course and increasing. We took down all sails and rode with the currents and waves. We ‘lay-ahull’ and things were reasonably comfortable. I had ‘lain-ahull’ many times in other oceans and was confident we would be fine. The skies were not too angry looking but the wind kept increasing.
For three days we sat it out, hatches battened and all loose gear below well-secured. There was occasional spray in the cockpit but no swamping waves. We kept a watch on our course and reversed it a couple of times. I didn’t want to drift too far out to sea where the Falkland’s current, combined with the 40+ kt wind would make the water rougher. As it was, the seas were over 13 metres but our boat was riding well. We were 300 km off the coast. At about 4 p.m. I took one look around—for other ships—and decided to have a shower. After long days at sea and a hot shower is always a mood elevator when you are bored, scared or just hard done by.
The minutes after my shower are still a blank but the disaster was real. Paul helped me to understand. A big, bad, breaking wave caught us sideways and rolled the boat through 360 degrees. Hatches collapsed; the heater chimney was ripped clean; the mast snapped at deck level and water poured in everywhere. Our inflatable dinghy was torn in half. Paul was reading in his forward bunk when we were struck and he realized immediately what had happened. He came looking for me.
I was upside down, unconscious and under a metre of water, still in the shower room. My scalp was split open and there was a lot of blood. Scalps are like that. He hauled me to my feet and I came to quickly but had very little understanding of events. I kept asking Paul, ‘What ocean are we in?’ He helped me dress and we sat in the cockpit. We had trouble activating our emergency beacon. The instructions were impossible to read in the gloom and I had not the wits about me to assist Paul. He got it going. A bright strobe light and a signal to satellites about our position, name of our boat, next of kin and the like.
I was deathly cold, sitting in the cockpit. My clothes were soaked and I shivered uncontrollably. It was getting dark and I knew I would not make it through the night. The boat was taking on water, batteries flooded and no pumps working. We were sinking. After two hours there was no sign of rescue nor had we any idea whether or not our signal was received by anyone. Paul found a 2-way radio and I transmitted our mayday message. No answer.
We sat in the slowly filling cockpit—it was too dangerous and dark down below—sipping on a bottle of fine whisky and staring off into the wild waves and night. Booze was the worst thing a couple of hypothermic boys can do but there is the matter of style. I was resigned to the inevitable and just wanted the shivering to be over with.
The green and red lights low on the horizon were heading towards us and the fixed wing plane roared in low and directly overhead. We made radio contact, sort of. Spanish is an acquired language for me and I struggled. I did know the plane was coast guard but I knew he couldn’t rescue us himself. He diverted an oil tanker towards us (we heard later) but when I told him the boat was going to sink in about 10 minutes he said, ‘Don’t worry, there is a helicopter coming.’ The boat was awash now and I told Paul to get ready. Two more waves and she went down. We stepped up into the ocean with no sign of a helicopter in sight but I held the strobe light beacon in one hand and tried to keep my head clear of the breaking waves. I drank a lot of sea water. Then, a lovely sight. Searchlights on the water from the low-flying helicopter coming towards us.
The pilots hovered clear of the huge waves and dropped one swimmer on a cable and then another. These brave boys hauled us to safety. Everything was at the limit. The helicopter’s range, our ability to stay afloat, our strength, our hopes. They did it and we survived. Thanks, Paul. Thanks, boys.

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Responses

  1. What an adventure! Glad everyone is alright. Thanks for the many writings and pictures. I will miss it.

    Alfred

  2. Best blog ever. Thanks for all the great stories.

  3. I have not been able to leave a comment for a few days as I am still sobered by your Last Post and the loss of your boat and dreadful threats to your own lives. I have been travelling with you since the beginning in a virtual way, so your Last Post was all that more poignant. Have enjoyed your writing and have experienced the interesting places you have visited through your eyes. It’s been lovely. All the best for your next adventure.


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