From bad to worse — drifting out to sea with no sail or signal


“She’s rolled,” said the skipper. “In a few seconds, she’ll right herself.” With the cabin now under water, it was dark but I could still see the skipper and Paul sitting on the ceiling. Ten seconds passed, and the boat slowly rolled back upright, heaving provisions — cans of food, heads of cabbage, sacks of rice, a frozen piece of beef and a toolbox — across the room. Paul and the skipper were thrown onto their backs. I watched from the small space that was my bunk, where I kept myself braced with my hands and feet against the ceiling.

When I looked up again, the skipper was taking the tool box off his chest. There was no time to feel pain or to examine his broken collarbone. Paul had a gash above his eye and his head was bleeding.

I was on my hands and knees looking out of my bunk when I saw something even more shocking out the cabin window: the mast hanging over the starboard side of the boat. “The mast is broken,” I said.

“Get the bolt cutters,” ordered the skipper, and Paul took out a giant pair of cutters secured inside one of the holds. Without a word, he put his harness on to go out on deck. “You’re going out there in this storm?” I said, terrified. “What if another rogue wave hits?”

But it had to be done. If we didn’t cut the rigging away from the mast to free it, the weight of it could drag the entire boat down.

“Fill this bag with food for the lifeboat,” said the skipper. “I’ll put out the EPIRB.”

An EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) is an international distress call that sends a radio signal out that is picked up by satellite at a central office in the country where the boat is registered, in this case Australia. There, they would follow up on the signal and start rescue operations. The EPIRB would guide the rescue team to our exact location in the ocean. The skipper set off the EPIRB, dropped it into the water and secured it to the boat with the cord.

Our situation was that we had no mast and no sails. The motor had already gone out earlier in the trip, and our radio antenna had been broken off along with the mast during the roll. All we had to rely on was the EPIRB.

I made my way to the V-berth at the front of the cabin, where the dry food was stored, getting ping-ponged from side to side by the rocking of the boat. I crawled past the broken sink, cleared some whiskey bottles out of my way on the floor and climbed over a torn 5-kg bag of rice and into the V-berth, full of upside-down food crates. We had plenty of food, but most of it inappropriate for a lifeboat. The canned food would need a can opener. Uncooked pasta would be too hard on the teeth. Rummage, rummage. Ten packs of ready-made spaghetti sauce in vacuum-packed bags. Rummage, rummage. Twenty-four nature bars. Soy milk? A bit luxurious for a lifeboat, but what the hell. I emerged with a bag full of nature bars, spaghetti sauce and soy milk. We definitely should have brought more chocolate.

Later, I asked Paul what was happening outside.

“First, I cut the rigging around the mast, then went up to the bow to cut away the self-furling jib,” which is on a pole 20 mm in diameter with walls about 3 mm thick. “I sat on the bow, with one leg on each side of the boat, when another rogue wave came. The bow came up over the wave and smashed down, and suddenly I was completely under water. The wave was so strong, it bent the railing and pinned my leg under it. It also snapped the jib pole right off all by itself.”

The mast was now free to go whenever the sea took it.

Meanwhile, the wind and waves had pushed the EPIRB around to the stern of the boat, where it got caught in the solar panels. When the skipper tried to free it, the sharp edges of the panels cut the cord, sending the EPIRB floating away from us, out to sea by itself. We watched in desperation as it drifted away, knowing that now there was no way for anyone to find us. The EPIRB would become a red herring, leading the rescuers away from us rather than to us.

— To be continued next week