Anna lost at sea -- Kelly OK
The Loss of Anna
- Glen McConchie, 46, Kiwi.
- Kelly Wright, 58, Yank.
On Saturday, July 31, 2010, about 10 a.m. Tongan time, Glen and I escorted John, our third crewman who was returning to the US, to a guestroom in Pangai on the island of Lifuka in the Ha'apai chain of islands in Tonga, then returned to Anna and hauled the anchor and set sail for Niue, about 250 nm away to the ENE. The winds were from the E and the SE so that we had to beat into them and tack a few times. The winds were fairly constant, ranging from about 12 to about 20 knots, and the skies were almost totally overcast, although there were moments of sunshine. The winds had been stronger, in the 20s, for several days prior and the seas were quite lumpy so that we put the first reef in the main but used the full jib. We also used the lee daggerboard. These conditions prevailed for over 24 hours.
The following day was Sunday Tongan time, but because we crossed the International Date Line and our destination was Niue, we changed our ship's time (as displayed on our main clock and all the navigation instruments) at noon to reflect Niue time, so that Sunday became Saturday, again July 31st.
With a crew of two, even if off watch one tends to remain in the pilothouse unless sleeping and be readily available to assist, and such was the case that afternoon, as I had the noon to 1800 (6 p.m.) watch with Glen right there at my side in the pilothouse. Sometime after noon we were on a starboard tack and were finally able to achieve a good layline to Niue so that we would no longer have to tack, and things seemed to be going our way. The skies were still cloudy but some time after 1400 we noticed that a portion of the cloud cover to the East was especially dark. I turned on the radar at the 12-nm range and it showed rain clouds almost all around with rain clouds to our NE, E, SE, and NW, but the radar displayed no apparent difference or special intensity in the dark cloud. Nevertheless we were somewhat wary of the dark cloud and paid extra attention to our monitoring of the weather. The barometer had dropped only from 1000 mb to 998 mb over the last few hours, which was no cause for alarm, and I hoped that the dark cloud held intense rain that would wash the boat and knock down the seas so that we could shake out the reef in the main and speed up.
Suddenly just after 1500, while observing the anemometer (wind speed and direction indicator), which was displaying apparent and not true wind since we were beating, I noticed that the wind was backing to the S so that rather than beating into the wind, suddenly we were on a beam reach. I began turning the autopilot so that we would remain heading up. Then the wind speed jumped from 18 knots to 25, then to 30, then to 35 in the blink of an eye, both Glen and I yelled "let's reef" and we bounded out into the cockpit. When I saw the anemometer in the cockpit a couple of seconds later, the wind speed showed 45 knots, so I moved to the autopilot and again tried to head the boat up into the wind, while Glen tried to reef the jib. The wind was ferocious, however, and Glen could not control the jib outhaul line so that it started flapping wildly. I was afraid we would rip the sail (which I did last year because of my own operator error) and so shouted at him, "What are you doing?", then reached over and closed the jammer cleat that prevented more line from getting loose. Realizing finally that the wind was overpowering us to a perilous extent, I next moved towards the mainsheet to release it, but in a flash we were up in the air, flying a hull as if we were on a Hobie Cat, and I lost my balance and started tumbling to port. We hung at that position -- roughly 45 deg. -- for a second then over we went. I used the S word. Loudly.
Later Glen said that the highest wind speed he thinks he saw (he is not entirely certain) was 62 knots, and that was some moments before we were blown over so the wind speed was likely much higher.
I found myself in the water underneath Anna somewhere. I had fallen out on what started out as the lee side of the boat but which, when inverted, became the windward side. I remember struggling, seeing various things swirling around me -- blue, white, dark, metal -- and I hoped I would not get entangled and swam underwater to get out from underneath the boat as best I could. I surfaced on the windward side and swam to the stern of the boat, thinking to myself, "better play this one right", but was not panicky and was surprisingly clear-headed, thinking that I should have released the mainsheet and other should-ofs. I quickly climbed aboard Anna's inverted wingdeck that bridges the two hulls. In my memory the sun was shining and there was no wind, the seas calm, but that must be erroneous and perhaps it was just a sense of relief of not being swept away coupled with the relative protection afforded me being between the two hulls.
My first concern was Glen. I was standing or kneeling on the inverted wingdeck and looked around for him but could not see him and worried that he could not hold his breath that long. I moved over to a hull and started pounding on it, yelling "Glen! Glen!" Momentarily I heard an answering series of knocks, and I felt mega-relieved and a surge of confidence swept over me. In each hull of Anna there is an emergency escape hatch, which is basically a window under the steps that lead from the pilothouse down into the hulls. Soon Glen's shiny head appeared in the emergency escape hatch of the starboard hull, now to port, and we gave each other the thumbs up sign. Although he could not hear me, I somehow made it clear that he needed to activate the EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) to notify authorities of our emergency, and he nodded assent and disappeared from view. Later he came back and tried to break open the hatch with a hammer and then a fire extinguisher, but was unsuccessful. (I may have the timing wrong: it could be that he tried to break the hatch first before moving off to activate the EPIRB.)
Whereas I had fallen out of the cockpit when Anna capsized, Glen had remained in it, probably holding on to railings around the binnacle. He found himself in an air pocket and simply turned around and with some effort and patience fighting the surging waves, was able to time opening the door just right and re-enter the pilothouse where there also was a pocket of air, although it was quickly diminishing.
Ultimately I saw that it was unlikely that I would get back inside Anna without having to swim underwater and to enter via an open door or hatch or port. I did not want to do that, so I looked around and tried to determine how best to shelter myself. I remember it being bright and sunny and quite comfortable, but again I doubt my memory. Soon I came to realize that there was another venue for my survival besides trying to remain on the inverted deck or getting inside of one of the hulls, and that was our RIB (rigid inflatable boat) dinghy that was floating right there at the stern of Anna. I suppose it was there when I first climbed on but I do not remember it as I was focused on locating Glen, but when I finally noticed it I immediately recognized the dinghy as my salvation. We had parked the dinghy on our aft deck, as was our normal practice, during the passage from Tonga and it was still attached to the dinghy davits. Evidently on capsize she popped up and self-righted for when I first saw her she was floating right side up.
I moved to the dinghy and got in her and began securing her with additional lines to Anna, which I knew would not sink. Ultimately I tied four extra lines from the dinghy to Anna around a stern rail, the rudder, and the saildrive, and then tied a line around my waist and secured it to the dinghy to prevent me from being swept away. Seas washed over me, filling the dinghy, and for a time I stayed busy bailing but soon determined that bailing out the dinghy was a useless waste of my energy, that water came in much faster than I could keep it out, and that the dinghy, being an inflatable, had enough positive buoyancy to stay afloat even if full of water. Luckily we had anticipated that the dinghy might someday be swept away or its outboard not start, so we had loaded some emergency supplies in her small anchor locker, and I now had them to rely on. In the anchor locker I found, besides the dinghy anchor and about 50 feet of anchor line, a floppy hat to keep the sun off, some tools for working on the outboard, a liter of water, a knife, and -- most importantly -- a handheld VHF radio. Except for the floppy hat I left everything in the locker and shut it tightly for I was concerned that the waves that were battering me would wash something away. I intended to preserve everything as long as possible because I had no idea how many days we would await rescue.
On the floor of the dinghy we had also put several items, like a fishing net, a plastic container full of salted-down cut-bait for fishing, a bucket with a sturdy line, other spare lines, and -- most importantly -- the awning we used on the aft deck. It was that awning that prevented me from perhaps suffering hypothermia that night, as all I had on was a pair of shorts and undies underneath, and waves were constantly washing over me, chilling me in the strong breezes that relentlessly buffeted me.
For several hours I was not sure that Glen had successfully turned on the EPIRB and regretted us not practicing with it. Finally, though, darkness fell and I could see the flashing light of the EPRIB through one of the escape hatches, and felt relieved to know that someone somewhere had been alerted that we were in a emergency.
Riding in the dinghy was very uncomfortable. I compare it to being in a thousand fender benders, because the dinghy was ceaselessly slamming into one of the hulls and bouncing on top of the wingdeck, then would float free only to fetch up with a violent jerk on one of the lines. Moreover, waves were constantly swamping me, ripping the awning out off my hand while I used the other hand to hold on. I counted for awhile and the most I was getting at one stage was about 12 seconds of peace before the next shock. The shocks were so violent that the 15-hp Yamaha outboard broke off its swivel and fell into the depths of the ocean, I suppose due to metal fatigue. It was absolutely the most miserable time I have ever spent, and if I had been forced to suffer another day of that I don't know if I would have been strong enough to take it. I intended to try something different when dawn came, although I did not know exactly what. I tried every position imaginable and ultimately discovered that sitting on the anchor locker and hunkering down with the awning draped over me was the best position since it allowed me to sit as high as possible in the foot or so of water that sloshed around inside the dinghy. As I write it has been a week since we were rescued and I am still stiff and bruised.
Glen did not have it much easier inside. Fumes from the starting batteries wafted through the hulls where air resided, and Anna was getting knocked around herself a great deal and there was broken glass and dangerous items like our galley cutlery floating and washing about. He suffered the worst wound, a nasty gash right on top of his bald head. And while at night I had some light from the moon and stars and could see everything quite clearly, Glen was in total darkness except for the EPIRB's strobe every three seconds.
Anna has a survival pod in each bow that stayed dry, and it was in one of those that Glen spent most of the time. He too was planning for the next and subsequent days. Although the pilothouse was filled with water, Glen ventured from hull to hull during daylight, tying a line between the hulls so he would have something he could pull on as he moved between the hulls. The boat being upside down was disorienting to him, he said, and it took him several attempts before it became clear to him that what had been starboard was now port, and vice versa, and to locate the EPIRB so he could flip the switch and activate it.
I am sure had we not been rescued in such a timely fashion Glen and I would have improved our living conditions on subsequent days for we had ample food and water in the hulls.
At midnight -- about nine hours after the capsize -- I heard an engine. I opened the awning I had wrapped around me and looked around and saw strange lights in the air just a few hundred feet high moving away from us. I hurried to open the dinghy's anchor locker and fetch the VHF, and I turned it on and start jabbering to the aircraft crew that they were to the North of us, that they had missed us, and please come back. "Anna, this is Kiwi Rescue Aircraft 4, and do not worry, because we have an excellent fix on your position and know exactly where you are." I knew we were saved then, but felt no great sense of relief.
It was an Orion aircraft, not a helicopter which I had been expecting, and I was a little let down because I realized that this aircraft was not capable of performing a rescue itself but could only locate us, so that rescue was some time off yet. Sure enough, on asking about rescue I was informed that a freighter had been diverted and would arrive the next morning.
The aircraft came by every hour thereafter and checked on us, and I talked to them via the handheld radio. Occasionally they set off green flares which they had told me earlier was a sign they wanted to talk, but they could have saved the flares because I was eager to talk and called them as soon as they appeared on the scene.
The night passed incredibly quickly, I suppose because it was such an active time with constant recovery from waves and jolts and because once I knew I was going to be rescued I was no longer worried about it. I used deep breathing I learned in yoga to fool myself into feeling warm, telling myself that the deep breath was going from my lungs to my midriff and hips and that the breath was bringing warm air to those parts of my body. For a couple of hours before dawn the seas relented, and whether it was a dream or hallucination, for a moment I thought I was sitting in a dry dinghy with boxes of dark chocolate lined up symmetrically on either side of me. I never once took a sip of the liter of potable water that I had in the dinghy, preferring to save it in the event our rescue was prolonged, but early I did nibble on some of the cut-bait to test whether or not it made me sick, but it was so salty I spit it out and determined to worry about food later.
Dawn came, the seas started building again and knocking me around, and the Kiwi Rescue Aircraft appeared, this time with a different crew whose English was much more difficult for me to understand. I was informed that Glen would have to make it out of the hull on his own, and that he and I would have to swim to the freighter where the crew would be waiting with lines and lifebuoys. I had not been in visual contact with Glen yet that morning so I had to leave the dinghy and make my way to the emergency escape hatch where I had last seen him. I was still tied to the dinghy so I knew that I would be alright, but the waves knocked me down and swept me away and I instinctively grabbed onto a steering cable with one hand in a vain attempt to stay near the hatch. I had the grapnel anchor in my other hand and beat like hell on the escape hatch for a few seconds, then would be swept away and grab a cable and water would wash over me, then I would make my way back and hammer away again, and then I would be swept away again and I would grab hold of the stainless steel cable that bit into my hands and the force of the waves would push me underwater and twist me around so that holding on the cable proved impossible. I thought I might drown at one point so I made my way back to the dinghy to recover and wait, hoping that Glen had heard my occasional hammering. Because he did not appear, I resolved to try again, only this time not hold the steering cables, but just beat on the hatch as I was passing by, not fighting the waves but riding with them and do the best I could. I did that for a few minutes and soon Glen reappeared and I quickly returned to the dinghy and from there, in a very demonstrative sign language, communicated to him that in twenty minutes the freighter would be in position and that he -- Glen -- would have to get out the hull on his own.
I waited patiently wondering just how Glen would evacuate the boat and begin to worry when I did not see him after several minutes. But Glen was just taking his time, trying to assure that he would not be entangled in any of the rigging. His best means of escape was to use the deck hatch of the sail locker which served as his survival pod, but the deck hatch was no longer on top of the hull but was instead on the bottom, in the water. Glen wisely tied a line to an empty jerry can and pushed that out first so he would have something to grab if necessary to prevent him from being swept away. That popped up and I started calling his name and soon he appeared with a mask and snorkel and his dive knife strapped to his leg, ready to cut through any entangling lines. He made his way to the stern of the boat, I still in the dinghy tied to one hull, he holding onto the other hull, and soon he was able to climb onto the hull and hold on to the upside-down rudder. We chatted a bit.
The freighter was moving close so that we were drifting down on them and the crew was shouting at us and showing us the lines and buoys and the net and ladder we ultimately would have to climb. When the freighter was a hundred feet or so away, I stood up, ripped off the floppy hat and flung it into the water, then told Glen, "here I go, good buddy", and dove into the sea and began swimming. As I approached a crewman tossed me a line, then another dropped me a life buoy, and they started dragging me aft towards the net and ladder that was set up near the superstructure in the rear quarter of the ship. On reaching it I had to wait until a wave picked me up and set me high enough to get a foot on the ladder, then climbed aboard, maybe 15-20 feet, with some difficulty where a crewman wrapped a blanket around me and another held on to me in case I would collapse.
Glen stayed on Anna longer than I and was nearly smashed between the freighter and Anna, and pulled a leg up just in time to suffer only a small cut, but no broken bones. Glen waited for a wave that swept him up and clambered aboard the freighter just behind me. Whereas I shook the hands of the crew, Glen embraced them in a spasm of joy and relief.
I was rescued with only the shorts and underwear I had on. Glen came aboard with shorts and undies, but also the scuba knife strapped on his leg and, at the last minute, he picked up the floppy hat I had been wearing and had tossed into the sea as I dove into the water, and which had drifted right up to the ladder.
The crew filmed the rescue and Glen will upload it to YouTube, but the insurance and salvage people have our only copy at the moment.
The ten-person crew on the freighter, Forum Pacific, was comprised of a Fijian master, Tonga 1st mate, Fijian 2nd mate, Fijian boatswain, and the rest were from Sri Lanka. They were not only competent in rescuing us but wonderful people, too. They gave us clothes, tended to our wounds, fed us well, staged a kava drinking party for us, and were at our beck and call as if we were on a cruise ship. The 2nd mate, a youngish fellow, even gave us $560 out of his own pocket and said we did not have to repay him!
The Forum Pacific is 87 meters long, displaces about 30,000 tons, and runs a circuit from Auckland to Tonga to Niue to the Cook Islands then back to Auckland, largely delivering aviation fuel in large canisters, vehicles and containers. Lucky for us they were in route between Tonga and Niue at the time of our capsize and did not have to divert far out of the way to rescue us. There was some delay, though, and the people of Niue were eagerly awaiting the ship when she arrived, especially because there was a toilet paper shortage on the island.
The Forum Pacific previously sailed in the Indian Ocean and was captured by Somali pirates and the crew held for ransom for six months. Only one of the present crew, the Sri Lankan electrician, had been held hostage. He said, except for the initial attack with RPGs, the Somalis were nice. The ransom paid he said was $1.8 million.
On arrival at Niue the New Zealand High Commission took over and began processing Glen and contacted the US Embassy to start getting me a replacement passport. I emailed my insurance agency and arranged for a wire transfer of funds. We were sort of local celebrities and had to repeat this story umpteen times to all the yachties.
Niue has only one flight per week, and it is to and from Auckland, and we were able to get tickets and returned to NZ after about five days. Glen flew on to Christchurch on the South Island to visit family while I have been busy here in Auckland with the US Consulate General, insurance, and a potential salvagor, who coincidentally owns the Forum Pacific.
Glen and I were unlucky that such an intense wind hit us, but on the other had were very fortunate that things fell into place for a quick rescue. Having the EPIRB that sent out our GPS position was key to that, as was the competency of New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Committee who sent an aircraft to find us 1400 nm away! Lucky were we too that the Forum Pacific was nearby and that she had a competent crew. And we were also lucky we had not secured the dinghy to the aft deck as we sometimes do for a long passage, but had instead just set her down on her chocks which allowed her to float out and provide me with shelter.
The EPIRB incidentally continued to transmit for four days. Anna moved at a leisurely half knot to the NW, and is still afloat awaiting salvage.
I never thought I was going to die. As soon as I hit the water after the capsize I obviously realized that my chances for an early departure were suddenly greatly increased and that I must focus on surviving, but I never for a second felt the fear of death. Some of that comes from many disaster experiences (set out below), and the knowledge that catamarans do not sink. A couple of days after rescue, though, about four in the morning as I lay in bed in Niue, I thought how damn close Glen and I had come, and chills swept over me.
People here in NZ are telling us that Anna is the largest cruising (that is, non-racing) catamaran ever to capsize.
I have now had the following disaster experiences at sea:
- Was on a catamaran that sunk to deck level due to a maintenance oversight in False Bay, South Africa, 2001, and was rescued by the SA Navy.
- Was on a catamaran (the same as above) that was breaking up and the hulls separating from the bridgedeck, on a voyage planned to be from South Africa to Portugal, about 2007, and we barely made it into port in Namibia.
- Was alone on a motorcat in Labrador that lost both engines and was floating among icebergs and was rescued by local fishermen.
- Was on a catamaran that lost both headstays.
- Was on a catamaran that ripped its jib.
- Was knocked overboard by the boom in an accidental jibe.
- Was on a catamaran that had a trampoline track torn away.
- Was on a catamaran that had three stanchions knocked over when deploying a sea anchor.
- Was on a catamaran that lost its hydraulic steering.
- Was on a catamaran that lost its cable steering.
- Was on a catamaran on which a radial drive (quadrant) came loose from the rudder post.
- And now, was on the largest known cruising catamaran to capsize, saved by NZ rescue aircraft and a passing freighter.
I don't blame anyone who is reluctant to go sailing with me.