What Next?

Where Next?
Bob Williams
Sun 20 Apr 2014 00:20

Alongside Fukuoka
Weather: mostly overcast, mild

Where to start? I guess where I left off on Thursday afternoon. As I had feared the wind's easing presaged its shift into the north east, from which direction it rapidly strengthened. I reduced sail and we started the bash to windward to get around the northern point of Tsushima. We rounded the headland with its bright flashing light at about 11 pm and were then able to bear away to put the wind on the beam, making the ride relatively comfortable and, despite two reefs in the mainsail and a partially furled jib, fast, with Sylph churning through the waves at six to seven knots.

As I think I mentioned on the outbound leg there is a lot of traffic in the Strait between Japan and South Korea, so I had to keep a near constant look out to monitor which ships were going to cause a potential problem. The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a great aid in this respect because it gives a lot of information that is not available just by the naked eye. It tells you, amongst other things, the ships position, it course and speed, its name, and its international number, plus you can see a trail of dots coming off the symbol indicating its relative motion.  If the dots trail directly away from the contact then you know it closing on a steady bearing and that there is a risk of a collision.

At about 4.30 in the morning I was looking at a close in range scale with two ships passing close by, one about half a mile to the west and the other about a mile to the east.  I would occasionally zoom out in scale to see what other ships were around that might look like a hazard, as well as going on deck and checking the contacts visually.  As mentioned, the trail of dots on the AIS is a great aid to pick out which contacts are likely to be hazard just at a glance.  One contact, the MV Asya, down to the south west at about eight miles was showing such a trail, so, while I continued to monitor the closer in vessels, I was also watching Asya's movements.  At about three miles she still looked to be closing on a steady bearing.  She was doing nineteen knots so the range was closing rapidly.  I called her on the VHF to make sure she could see me.  She came back straight away and said that she could see me and that she would pass clear of me.  I pointed out that we were closing on a steady bearing and Asya's watch officer said that he would alter course to open the range.  I then went on deck to monitor Asya's movements visually, as of course one can see course alterations instantly with the eye, but it takes a while for a course alteration to become apparent looking at a radar display.

As I watched she did not appear to be altering course at all.  Now I was in a bit of a bind.  Despite only being a small yacht compared to the massive size of the Asya, the rules clearly state that when a risk of collision is deemed to exist than the vessel with the right of way, in this case Sylph, shall maintain her course and speed.  This is so as not to confuse the situation, but they also state that when it becomes apparent that the
actions of the give way vessel alone shall be insufficient to avoid a collision than the stand on vessel shall take such action as will best aid the avoidance of a collision.  Well that time had definitely come.  Asya's bulbous bow was riding high and looked more like a knife than a bulb, a knife that was about to cut Sylph in two.  I unlashed the wheel and turned to port.  Sylph came around but of all times to do so, she stalled head to wind.  Looking back I think I was now feeling like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.  I watched as the massive bulk of the Asya loomed down on top of us.  Her towering sides slid only meters away from Sylph, and they just kept on coming.  As Asya continued to slide past I knew the scary part was yet to come, when we would be caught in her quarter wave, and sure enough it came.  I was suddenly underwater and Sylph, now facing away from the Asya, was hit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I thought this was the end for Sylph, if not for me. And as for RC, well, to be honest, at this point his welfare was not uppermost in my mind.   As the water cleared and I resurfaced, I realised that we were still afloat.  I looked below at the sodden chaos of Sylph's saloon. Water was sloshing around and anything loose had been washed on the crest of incoming wave towards the bow.  I was of course saturated.  I looked aft and could see that the wind vane had been demolished.  The stern had been damaged but structurally it still looked intact.  I went below to assess the situation.  RC was on the starboard settee and was not at all happy, but he seemed to be coping well.  My priority was to get the bilge pump going.  First I switched the battery bank switch to both banks and then started the engine so that it would keep the batteries charged, and then I started the electric bilge pump.  Looking on deck, Sylph had turned through 360 degrees and was now sailing off to the south east at about five knots.

It was chaos below, and I was not yet sure whether Sylph’s wounds were going to probe to be fatal or not.  I called Asya on the radio.  I was wet, and shaking with a combination of cold, fear, and rage.  I advised Asya in unequivocal terms that she had just run me down.  She asked what did I want her to do.  I requested that she stand by me while I assess the damage.  The watch officer came back to me and said she was altering course to do so.  I started dong some tidying up on deck, as some gear that had been loose in the cockpit had been thrown around making the cockpit unworkable.  I watched the Asya and she seemed to be continuing to the north east. I was concerned that maybe she could not see me, so I fetched a couple of distress flares from down below and let one off.  I then got on the radio and, to make sure that she did not depart the scene, I broadcast a MAYDAY call.  She acknowledged the call and again asked what I wanted her to do.  I repeated that I wanted her to stand by me until I was sure that Sylph was safe to continue sailing.

Now I was getting very cold.  The bilge pump was working, there was no obvious ingress of water, so I decided my next priority was to change into some dry clothes.   I managed to find a dry track suit and then donned a pair of foul weather trousers and sea boots to keep myself relatively dry and warm.  This helped a lot.  At this point the Asya looked like she was continuing on her way and leaving the scene.  While I was starting to feel that all was going to be OK, I thought that while merchant ships have tight schedules to keep, she should not be continuing on her way until I had released her.  I called her up again on the VHF but she did not reply.  I called her again, by name and also by her international MMSI number which I could read off the AIS, just to make sure she knew that I had her identity. She still refused to respond.  I came to the conclusion that she was abandoning the scene, so I wrote her name and number on the white board I keep near Sylph's little communications centre and got on with taking care of Sylph, RC and me.

It was now apparent that we were not taking on any more water and that the bilge pump was evacuating all the water in the bilge nicely.  Sylph was heading a little too far to the east of our desired heading towards Fukuoka.  Looking over the stern I could see that the wind vane rudder was still loosely attached by the struts and was partially in the water, all askew, and was tending to round Sylph up into the wind.  I fund some rope and lashed what was left of the wind vane to a cleat so as to lift the rudder clear of the water.  This didn't actually make much difference, Sylph fell off the wind a little bit with the mainsail was keeping her on a close reach.  Next step then was to hand the mainsail so that the jib might cause her to fall a little more off the wind.  This she in fact did but now she had a tendency to go too far and to gybe.  I realised I was going to have to steer most of the forty odd miles remaining to Fukuoka. In the meantime I had already downgraded my MAYDAY call to a PAN and then a SECURITE, advising ships in my vicinity of my position, and that I was not under command, that is that I could not control Sylph's movements.  Now that all was under control, I no longer needed the SECURITE either, but as it seemed that the ships that had been causing me so much grief had all disappeared, so I didn't bother cancelling the SECURITE message, I just decided to get on with things as best I could.

Once we were about twenty miles out from the coast of Japan I called the Coast Guard, first to confirm my arrival time, which looked like about four pm, and also to advise them of the collision.  The Coast Guard were very helpful and, once they had taken some details they instituted an hourly watch on me where I would call them and advise them of my position, course, speed, and u[dated ETA.Eventually we arrived alongside at the Fukuoka City Yacht Marina.  The quarantine officers came down first and then two Coast Guard officers arrived to take a report of the incident.  I was very lucky to have the assistance of Hiro, one of the marina's management staff, and also Jap (pronounced Yarp, I will leave the problems the spelling of his name can cause to your imagination), a Dutch sailor who, along with his wife, Marijke, has pretty well adopted Japan as his home.

And that pretty much concludes all the dramatic parts of my story over the last 36 hours.  Jap has continued to be of great assistance, and a huge moral support.  I have felt very stupid for getting Sylph into this situation, and at times very upset about my situation.  I have very little idea how this is all going to pan out.  In addition to having to repair Sylph's stern and replace the wind vane, quite a bit of electronic equipment has also been written off as a result to the deluge below.

Having said this, I have spent today completing clearing in procedures, cleaning up Sylph, and trying to salvage as much of the electronics equipment as I can.  My first success has been the satellite phone.  I think its problem was just some water at the antenna connection.  My second success has been the netbook.  I had a spare one of the same brand whose screen had died some years ago.  I had tried replacing the screen twice but ended up giving up on it, buying another netbook and keeping the old one for spares.  My strategy has now paid off, though I would much rather have had no need to have cashed in on it.  I took the screen off the newer netbook, which I judged had suffered terminal immersion damage, removed its screen and used it to bring the old netbook back to life, which is what I am now writing my blog up on.  So this is a second win.

Remaining equipment that appears to have been wrecked includes the HF radio receiver.  That is now in bits, has been washed, and is drying out, however I am not confident of its resurrection.  The printer has also suffered water damage.  I have attempted to dry it out, but its prognosis is also bleak. The little pocket wi-fi device has also died.  Tomorrow I will go see the company that sold it to me and see what can be done to replace it.  So in all I think I am better off on the electronics front then I expected to be 24 hours ago, shortly after the huge amount of water that had found its way below.  Meanwhile all the soft furnishings have been taken out on deck and washed down, so Sylph is looking a bit bare down below at the moment.  At least the V-berth remained relatively dry and RC and I therefore have somewhere to sleep.

I have just done a large batch of laundry and had dinner. Now it is time to say goodnight.

Goodnight, and thank you to all who have paid an interest in the adventures of Sylph and her crew. Hopefully, despite this rather severe set back, they shall continue.

All is well.