A death at sea, the long version(you did ask for it..)
Sarah Grace goes to sea
Chris Yerbury and Sophy White
Mon 4 Jun 2007 17:36
Mid morning, mid Atlantic, sunny with few clouds, wind less than 5knts and we were motoring north east looking for long-promised westerlies north of the high pressure ridge we were crossing.
"Sarah Grace, Sarah Grace, what is your position?" calls an unfamiliar heavily accented foreign voice over the VHF radio. This is an unusual way to start radio contact. Usually the caller gives your vessel's name followed by theirs, you reply, both change from the calling channel and a conversation commences. Iain answered and duly gave our latitude and longitude and then the caller announced "I am now coming to your position" and ended the conversation.
Almost the only time contact is made from a ship is if they are on a potential collision course and that is a pretty rare occurrence in my experience. Yacht to yacht conversations tend to be rather more chatty. VHF contact equates to line of sight being established from one boat's aerial to the other's. So our first response was to shoot in to the cockpit and see where this mystery boat was. From one blue horizon to another, the ocean was as empty as ever.
So who and where was this unidentified caller and why had they called? Did they really say they were heading for us? How did they know our name? All these unanswered questions led to wide ranging speculation. If there aren't any boats around perhaps it was a call from a spotter plane, or a submarine: how do submarines communicate anyway,radio waves don't travel through water....and how do they navigate because GPS won't work down there either? Was the call directed to another boat out of sight that was on a collision course and it was a case of mistaken identity? Perhaps we had just given out our position to pirates....
About half an hour later the voice again called with the same question, and this time, suspicions aroused, I got to the bottom of it before giving our new position. It was a large ship who had earlier issued a request into the radio ether requesting medical help for a collapsed crew member. A yacht that we talk to twice a day responded to the call and had told them Sarah Grace had a doctor aboard. He also passed on the position we had given at our morning radio net a few hours earlier. Thinking telephone advice may be helpful before I could get to the patient, I asked for some information. From the halting english, it emerged the man had been found lying on the floor at about 9am, motionless and with no respirations,pulse or pupil reactions. "Do you think he is dead?" I asked. Long pause, "Please come and see, I don't know".
About an hour later the superstructure of a large ship appeared over the horizon, coming directly for us and we were soon circling behind the stern of a stationary huge bulk carrier. They initially requested we come along side so I could get on to the boarding ladder. I was aware that yachts beside 50' walls of black steel always come off worst with rig damage as the yacht rolls only part of the potential down side. So they lowered one of their liferafts- a very solid 20' open boat manned by 4 crew in orange overalls,workman's helmets and old bulky lifejackets. I hopped aboard as they came alongside SG and then as the boat was lifted on a wave, I started up the boarding ladder. Iain and Karen tended Sarah Grace and immediately set to emptying our 5 jerry cans of diesel into the tank in anticipation of a possible imminent refill. This is always a tricky messy job, made no easier by the rolling induced by a lazy 3-4ft swell.
At the top of the ladder I was met by the strained looking cigarette smoking Greek captain, one of about 3 people wearing down at heel casual clothes among a loose group of ethnically diverse overall clad crew. As we entered the "hospital room" a straggling retinue of about a dozen crowded round the open doors.
From first glance, the man lying on his back in bed was clearly dead. Pulling back the sheet his hands, which had been positioned across his chest as if in a coffin, were clasping a crucifix. Examination did not reveal any external injuries, a blow to the head etc and so it is likely he died from a heart attack .
Up steep stairs to the bridge and then I tried to ascertain if there was any particular paperwork or procedure I had to go through. In the end I had a very brief conversation with the shipping line's medical person in Greece outlining the facts but obtained no instruction as to any thing in particular to do. So I made a brief medical report,obtained a photocopy of it, and gave all my details to one of the crew.
The captain was understandably very upset because the dead man was his best friend and, as chief mechanic, he was now without a key crew member. He was also concerned he would now be associated with bad luck at sea and told me he was considering his future as a captain. By way of thanks, he produced from his drinks cupboard two bottles of whisky- I accepted one and refused the second, his need for spirits was greater than mine. He also offered victuals of all sorts and we were grateful to have our now empty jerry cans refilled. There was however a long discussion with various members of the crew as to the suitability of the dark looking ship diesel for Sarah Grace's Volvo penta engine. The subject was not concluded before a visit to the vast engine room- more than four stories high and lined with the biggest bits of machinery I have ever seen. The central space could comfortably accommodate the average detached house. There the rather harried newly promoted 2nd mechanic ran some diesel over his hand to show me how good it was.
The jerry cans were lowered down to the lifeboat whose engine was by now producing an unhealthily large amount of smoke. By the time it was my turn to descend the boarding ladder the engine had stopped completely and could not be restarted- further adding to the captain's stress. With the lifeboat immobilised, we decided to bring Sarah Grace along side the lifeboat for a quick transfer of myself and the jerry cans. The width of the lifeboat kept us out from the ship but it was with a little difficulty that we clawed ourselves away from there. Not discernable from the ship but apparent to Iain on Sarah Grace, the ship was moving sideways at about half a knot even in the minimal breeze.
I still wonder why the captain felt it was necessary to summon a doctor under those circumstances. He did very well to produce one, hundreds of miles out into the seemingly empty Atlantic. There was lots to talk about on our radio net that evening and a bottle of whisky to fuel our shore party when we all finally reach the Azores. I'm still not sure about using the ship diesel- a non functioning engine out here would be a big problem- so I will canvas further expert opinion. An Azorean fisherman may yet be the beneficiary of the ship captain's generosity.