Last tack at the needles
Although the westerly wind had risen to a force 5 or 6, our 16 foot Wayfarer was comfortable under a well-reefed main and genoa. A four hour beat against the Solent chop, and a passage through the rip at Hurst Narrows, were behind us. In comparison, the Channel seas were big, long and regular. We had survived the excitement of the williwaws coming off the Needles and the wind was now strong but steady. The Bridge Buoy was close by, fine on the starboard bow. One last tack would allow us to reach south across the Needles and then bear away for St Catherines Point, 15 miles downwind. We thought the hardest part of the trip was almost over and that we could soon relax.
90 minutes later all three of us were in a giant Sikorsky helicopter en route to the Haslar Military hospital at Gosport. Rob and I were cold: Kris had severe hypothermia. What had gone wrong?
Rob Golding and I sail out of Hayling
Island Sailing Club.We both had ambitions to cruise Scotland and decided
to organise a trip to the West Coast in Rob's boat. As part of the preparation
we would sail around the Isle of Wight, in company with other Wayfarers.
I asked Kris, a rowing friend, to join us and he jumped at the chance.
Apart from being great company he has years of dinghy sailing and cruising
experience. It promised to be a very enjoyable weekend.
The last gasp of the continental high gave us an easterly force 2 and a pleasant run down the Solent under spinnaker. The wind dropped off at Southsea and the engine took us most of the way to Calshot. Eager to arrive in time for dinner, we motor-sailed the last mile against a freshening westerly breeze. The low was beginning to move in. Later that evening the forecast gave a westerly force 4 to 5, occasionally 6 off headlands, backing to south west later. We did not want a 6 but apart from that it was a good forecast for a fast passage. We retired for an all-too-brief sleep with our alarm clocks set for 04.00.
Like zombies we packed our kit into the boat as dawn broke and were off by 05.20, in plenty of time to make the Needles by 09.45. It was blowing a force 4 and so, for comforts sake, we stopped to put a reef in the main. A fitting pulled off the boom but it did not take long to get the sail down and lash up the clew. However, from being the first boat in our group to depart we had lost a lot of ground and were almost tail-end charlie.
With the reefed main, and a combined weight of over 40 stone on the windward rail, we were going well and catching up on some of our companions. We cracked open the packed breakfasts off Lymington and devoured our sausage sandwiches, spiced with an occasional dollop of sea water. The wind was getting up so we put the second reef in off Yarmouth which brought the head of the mainsail down level with the head of the genoa. It was a snug rig and we had no problems going through the overfalls in Hurst Narrows. Our back up pump was not needed as the self-bailers were coping well with the occasional lump of water that found its way into the boat.
I should note at this point that we were not tacking well for two reasons. Rob's tacking was slow and not very positive. To compound this Kris and I were having difficulty in getting cleanly from one side of the boat to the other. With a cascade kicker and centre mainsheet arrangement (Rob races his boat) the 'hole' that we had to dive through was too small. The system we evolved was that on the preparatory command I (the forward crew) would duck down amidships, wait for the tack and then release the jib whilst making my way through the hole, closely followed by Kris. It worked well but it did put us in a vulnerable position whilst waiting for the tack.
On approaching Alum Bay we had a couple of problems. The retaining ring had fallen out of the clevis pin that secures the mainsheet block to the back of the centreboard case. We quickly dropped the main. Rob and Kris made the repair whilst I steered her to windward under jib. After that we probably got closer into the shore than we needed to and caught some strong williwaws coming off the Needles. One of them put the side deck under water when Kris was on the downside, taking a leak into the bucket, and Rob could not dump the mainsheet in time. At this point Rob suggested that we turn back and Kris concurred.
I suggested that we tack out to the Bridge Buoy to see if conditions improve. It was only just coming up to 09.00, we were almost there and had more than half an hour in hand before the tide turned. I could understand Rob's apprehension because he thought that the gusts coming off the cliffs equalled the strength of the wind outside the Needles. I was surprised that Kris wanted to turn back but I did not realise that his waterproofs were leaking and that he was starting to get cold. Sure enough the wind became smoother as we headed out of the bay. The bailers worked well and within a couple of minutes the bilges were empty again. We had a steady force 6 and the boat was very well behaved. We had left the Solent chop behind and were now in the regular seas of the English Channel. It was a lot of fun.
One last tack would allow us to bear away and reach across past the Needles before bearing away again for St Catherines. We discussed what to do next and everyone was happy to continue so a group decision was made to carry on. We had slogged our way upwind in poor conditions and would soon be able to relax and raid the larder.
Rob gave the preparatory command to tack and I ducked down towards the centreline of the boat, waiting for what seemed a minute or more. From this position it was difficult to tell what was going on with the boat but I had the impression that we had slowed down, and then we started to heel. Instinctively I threw myself up to the high side. As I did this I realised that we were going past the point of no return and I dropped into the water so that my weight would not pull the boat upside down.
But the boat inverted immediately. There was no in-between, will she, won't she; just one continuous roll from upright to inverted. The time was about 09.15.
We all felt the same as we started to go over: 'been here before; no problem, get her up, get the sails down, bale her out and sail back to Lymington under genoa with the tide and wind behind us'. But it was not to be.
Kris had managed to get over the top onto the centreboard. I was lying alongside the centreboard case, inside the boat. Kris pulled Rob up onto the board and I shouted through that I would be scooped up as the boat came upright. As it came up Rob shouted to me to release the jib. My first instinct as the boat came upright was to balance the boat but I realised that this would be impossible if the jib was still cleated. However the spinnaker and sheets had been stowed loose and were now plastered all over the swamped boat. The boat was already rolling over again and I could not find the sheet in the very short amount of time available.
Once again we were all in the water next to the capsized boat. Rob managed to get his fingers into the centreboard slot and pull himself onto the top of the upturned hull. I tried but was unable reach the slot, probably because of the amount of wet fleece clothing that I was wearing. I asked Rob if there were any other Wayfarers still visible and suggested that he attract their attention whilst still on the upturned hull, before we tried to right it (one of my better suggestions). Having done this we managed to pull the boat up but it rolled over again and inverted immediately. There was absolutely no time to release sheets or retrieve emergency gear from inside the boat.
We were now too weak to pull the boat upright again, or even to get onto the upturned hull to attract attention. The situation was serious. The other Wayfarer that we had signalled to now arrived and we asked them to contact the coastguard on their VHF radio.
In the meantime, Kris had been giving cause for concern. Once the first recovery attempt had failed, and we were alongside the boat together, he was making some very strange noises. I thought that he might be having a heart attack. After the second recovery attempt he started to look very unhappy with the situation and made it clear that he was cold and wanted out of it. The other Wayfarer was willing to pick him up if he would swim away from our boat, because the sea was too rough for them to come near us without risk of injury, but he would not let go of our boat. In retrospect, I thank God that he did not as he was already very cold, was wearing inadequate clothing with wellingtons and he did not have his lifejacket inflated; it is possible that he would have gone under and drowned.
I do not know just how long we had been in the water before I realised that Kris did not have an inflated lifejacket. Both Rob and I were wearing buoyancy aids and were therefore getting support in the water (and some insulation too, no doubt). I am sure that this was part of the reason why Kris got hypothermia so badly. Not only was he using up more energy by hanging on and treading water to keep himself afloat but he was also, for some time, holding onto the leeward side of the boat. The moving boat and the wavecrests were ducking him under and he swallowed quite a bit of water. Furthermore he had become panicky when his legs got tangled in ropes.
I told Kris to inflate his life jacket but he could not, presumably because he was becoming hypothermic. Rob was closer to him but could not do so either because he was not familiar with the lifejacket (Crewsaver) and did not know that there was a 'jerk to inflate' tab tucked away inside. Luckily I have the same make of lifejacket, found the tab and pulled it to inflate the jacket.
Our companions in the other boat indicated that the lifeboat would be coming and later indicated that it would be with us in five minutes. In the meantime the situation was now stabilising but serious. Kris was in a worse state than either Rob or I but neither of us realised just how serious he was. The other Wayfarer sailed very close by and grabbed Kris to try to drag him away and pull him on board but he clung onto our boat.
A couple of yachts had sailed towards us and thankfully kept their distance. They were not very manoeuvrable and would need expert handling in order to save us without injury. One of them stood by and liaised with the coastguard by radio (their masthead aerial was more efficient than the handheld on the Wayfarer).
Meanwhile we three were re-enacting a scene from the film The Cruel Sea, asking each other if we were OK and keeping up morale. Kris kept telling us to 'breath deeply'. Personally, I did not feel cold. I felt like a battery that was slowly running out of power.
After a while, when we were on top of a wave, we could see a boat approaching. It did not look much like a lifeboat to me and I had visions of an amateur helmsman with twin screw diesels making mincemeat of us in short time. Luckily it was a dive boat on charter to a team from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst with a senior diving instructor and oxygen equipment on board. Saved by the Cavalry!
At the first pass they threw a line which Rob got hold of and used to pull himself to the boat. They had to circle round again to get a line to me, which took a few minutes. This time they asked us both to use the line. Kris and I had a hotel-doorway conversation: 'You go first Kris', 'No, you go first Richard', 'No, you go', 'No, I'm quite warm, really', 'Oh, alright then, I'm not going to hang around here any longer'. I passed the line to Kris, so that he had hold of it, and then pulled myself to the dive boat.
I got myself up the ladder, unassisted, through the open transom onto the cockpit sole. However, once in the boat and safe, I could not support the weight of my torso with my arms and had to paddle my body across the floor with my arms and legs. It was a minute or two before I had the strength to sit up.
Meanwhile Chris was close behind me and had to be pulled on board by the crew. They gave us both coffee from a thermos flask. Kris started throwing up and then lapsed into unconsciousness and started to convulse. The crew administered oxygen from a mask and got him into the wheelhouse. Rob was cold but standing and jumping up and down to keep warm. He was the oldest of the three of us but appeared to be in best shape. We had been in the water for between 45 minutes and one hour.
By now the dive boat was heading back into the Solent and the Lymington inshore lifeboat arrived. They pulled alongside (at about 20 knots) and one of the crew stepped on board. After checking us out he was concerned about the condition that Kris was in and decided to call the helicopter.
I have noticed before that life-threatening situations, such as car crashes, often have a 'third person' element to them ie you almost seem to be a spectator as well as participant. I suppose that this results from the combination of shock and adrenaline that helps you to respond quickly and make important decisions with more detachment.
The next few minutes were very like being in a scene from a film. The dive boat was steaming to windward off Yarmouth at about 20 knots with the lifeboat close by on a parallel course. A huge Sikorsky chopper pulled up only 40 feet or so above the water directly behind us and dropped a winchman on his wire who grabbed the pushpit and stepped aboard. Rob and I were first to go up in a double sling, followed by Kris and the winchman. The view was great.
Inside, the helicopter was huge; I guess big enough to carry 20 people. Rob and I crawled to the back as instructed (it's all done in sign language, because of the noise, which made the experience even more unreal) and Kris was attended to by the crewman and winchman. He was completely unconscious again. His convulsions were so strong that he was having to be restrained by both of the crew.
By now it was a fine, sunny day and I could see rows of neat homes and gardens below us on the Isle of Wight. Such a stark contrast to our predicament only minutes beforehand. I hoped that Kris was going to be OK. His condition was very worrying.
An ambulance and crew crew awaited us on the hospital lawn. As we walked out of the helicopter it felt like a scene from MASH. They had to stretcher Kris, of course. Rob and I both had visions of hot baths but our core temperatures were normal and we got blankets and a cup of tea instead. Survival myths of being warmed up in bed with nurses are just that I am afraid.
Kris's core temperature had dropped to 34 degrees (it should be almost 37) and he got the full treatment; hot saline drips, oxygen, insulating blankets. Warm air pipes disappeared under his bed clothes, I did not like to ask where they went. The main thing was that he was stable and now conscious again.
The Spanish doctor was very good. He asked Kris what he was wearing and advised him that in future he should wear 'all wool'. He would be kept under observation for 24 hours to make sure that there was no lasting damage to his kidneys.
Rob and I could leave, but this in itself was a problem. All our clothes were in two sodden black plastic bags. Luckily we both had our car keys, but our cars were 10 miles away in the sailing club car park. The nurses lent us operating gowns and even made up some 'shoes' out of tubular bandaging with knotted ends.
Back at the club we asked the taxi driver to drop us as close as he could and then legged it to our cars before any members saw us. It still felt like being in a film but now, thankfully, more Monty Python than The Cruel Sea.
After something to eat we drove to Lymington to clean the boat up and returned again the next day with a trailer to collect it. By then we were both feeling a little sheepish as the reality of the events of the previous day began to sink in. For me it was an unnerving experience. Many of my assumptions about the stability of the boat when capsized, appropriate clothing and safety gear had completely changed. I also realised that I had made an error of judgement about the strength of the crew as the conditions worsened.
So what went wrong. Clearly we made mistakes. I do not feel that any of them would have been serious if we could have pulled the boat upright. I was shocked at the speed with which it inverted three times.
I will split the post mortem into three sections:
1) Factors that led to the capsize
2) Factors that led to hypothermia
3) Factors that inhibited self-recovery
Factors that led to the capsize
a) helming error
b) sloppy tacking procedure
c) bad crew co-ordination
d) the state of the sea and wind
a) helming error
Out of the three of use Rob is probably the weakest helmsman yet he had been at the helm for four hours. We should probably have suggested that Kris take the helm. Rob had considered offering the helm to one of us but his overalls were not completely waterproof and I was in a better position to take the brunt of the spray. He had not sailed with Kris before and was understandably reluctant to pass the helm to him in the conditions. Having said that, any of us could have capsized a Wayfarer in these conditions given a bit of bad luck.
b) sloppy tacking procedure
Rob was not giving clear 'ready about' and 'lee oh' orders. This would have helped. There were long delays between preparing to go about and going about.
c) bad crew co-ordination
Kris and I were having problems in co-ordinating our movement from one side of the boat to the other initially. This was because there was so little space to pass between the cascade kicker and the centre mainsheet. We had to go through one after the other. I would go to the middle of the boat on the preparatory command with my head the other side of the boom. When we actually tacked I released the jib sheet, made my way up to the new windward side and pulled the jib sheet through so that the clew was not fouled. Kris would then follow me and take up the new sheet. The system was working well but it left us more vulnerable from the time I moved to the centre of the boat until we started tacking.
Kris was also cold which may have slowed down his reaction time.
d) the state of the sea and wind
The wind was force 5 to 6. We were well reefed down under genoa and main with two reefs. The second reef on my mainsail takes the head of the sail down far enough to be level with the head of the genoa (we were using my sails on Rob's boat). I do not recall that we were having to spill wind as we beat out to the Bridge buoy. Someone has said that we would have had lee helm with this combination of sails up. Rob says that he did not experience any problems on the helm. We were pointing and going well.
The Wayfarer that stood by us for one hour was tacking backwards and forwards, as far as I am aware, without problem.
In a well-crewed boat it is unlikely that we would have capsized. However, with a bit of bad luck anybody could capsize in these conditions.
Once the boat had gone over I think it likely that the size of the seas helped to invert the boat. I do not know what the height of the waves was. I would guess 6 feet (without much confidence). However they were big enough that the mast of the capsized boat in a trough would be well below the boat on the face of the wave. If the boat is then moved forward by the wave, the mast and sail are driven under into the inverted position very quickly. I am guessing that this was what was happening.
Factors that led to hypothermia
b) Life jacket
d) Time in water
The kit that Kris was wearing was not adequate but would been just about good enough if we had not capsized. After four hours of beating to windward he was a bit chilly, and probably reacting slowly, but still in reasonable shape. We were just about to bear away and conditions would have become warmer (less apparent wind, drier), he could have eaten some food and got out of the wind. However, once we had gone in to the water his clothing was seriously inadequate.
b) Life jacket
Rob and I were wearing buoyancy aids. These supported us as we tried to right the boat and probably gave some insulation. Kris was wearing a lifejacket which he did not inflate whilst we still stood some chance of righting the boat. I think that he used up a lot more energy in keeping himself afloat because he was having to hang on and tread water. He also swallowed more water than we did as a result of wave action and being pulled under as the boat heaved up and down. The lifejacket provided no insulation.
He was wearing heavy wellington boots and his legs were getting caught up in ropes. This made him panicky, which burned energy.
d) Time in Water
When the Sandhurst divers threw the rope to Rob he grabbed it and pulled himself to their boat. Being very cold it is not surprising that Rob did not think to pass the rope to us as well, and he was not to know that the boat was going to have to spend valuable minutes moving off in order come in again with the correct line. We should have got Kris out of the water first but having said that, neither Rob nor I realised just how seriously hypothermic he had become.
3) Factors that inhibited self-recovery
The Wayfarer inverted without pausing on the capsize and each of the two times that we righted her.
We did not have any masthead buoyancy. Ironically, Rob normally sails with sailhead buoyancy but we were using my sails which do not have any. Rob and I discussed this two weeks beforehand and I said that I thought that it was not a big deal. I have attended two Wayfarer Association Cruising Weekends, read the Association handbook, numerous logs, spoken to many cruising Wayfarer sailors and supervised a couple of hundred Wayfarer capsizes in sheltered water. I had formed the opinion that masthead buoyancy was nice to have but not essential.
The boat was loaded with quite a bit of gear. The lifeboatmen said that they had a struggle bringing it upright (they very kindly took it back to Lymington and even put the engine upside down in bin of fresh water).
Various containers were lashed under the seats. These may have had an effect on buoyancy.
Because the boat was inverted we did not have access to our VHF or our flares.
I was unable to climb onto the upturned hull. There was nothing to hold onto and I could not reach the centreboard slot. I am reasonably fit and it is likely that the weight of wet fleece clothing that I was wearing contributed to my helplessness.
Rob had made up two rope ends from plaited anchor warp which he tied to the shroud plates to use as hauling lines in the event of a capsize. These would have been very useful if the boat had rested with the mast level with the water. However, with the boat inverted, they were not long enough to throw across the upturned hull.
Rob had taken the centreboard out to check it for damage and had painted it up. However he had not adjusted the tensioner properly and the board would not stay in its down position when the boat was inverted ie it fell back into the slot. Kris said that he was in danger of damaging his fingers when he pulled back on the board to right the boat. There was a real chance that the trailing edge would close on his fingers.
The loose spinnaker gear in the waterlogged boat made it very difficult for me to find the jammed jib sheet in the short amount of time that the boat was upright. Actually, I do not remember it staying upright. Each time that it capsized it seemed like a continuous roll from upright to inverted.
Issues for consideration
1) Should we have turned back sooner?
Probably. I persuaded the other two to continue when we were in Alum Bay because I thought that they were suggesting a return for the wrong reasons. I suppose that I was thinking that 'I can probably handle the conditions around the corner, they probably aren't nearly as bad as we imagine them to be' when what I should have been thinking was 'Rob has been on the helm for four hours and is not the best helm in the boat (that was probably Kris). Kris is not wearing enough warm gear, is he getting cold? We have not sailed much together and we are not tacking as well as we should be'. I should have been thinking more about the strength of the crew as a unit and not so much about whether I was warm and dry enough and whether I reckoned that I could cope with the conditions.
Having said that, we had only a few minutes to go before these considerations would have been history ie the helming would have been much easier off the wind and Kris could have warmed up by eating some food and sheltering out of the wind.
2) Capsize and You're Dead
We were all under the illusion that we could right the boat and self-rescue from a capsize. The worst that was therefore likely to happen would have been that we would get wet and cold (but not hypothermic), drop the mainsail and run downwind, with the turning tide to Yarmouth or Lymington. Not a very worrying worst-case scenario.
None of us realised that we would not be able to right the boat. I feel that this is the main factor that gave rise to our predicament. I wonder how many others have sailed a loaded Wayfarer in rough seas on the assumption that they can right it themselves if they capsize.
3) No emergency equipment
Because the VHF radio and flares were in the boat they were inaccessible. I had one suitable pocket in my waterproofs and chose to use it for my GPS which turned out to be the wrong decision. Kris and I had a discussion beforehand. None of his pockets were suitable. Ultimately it was more important that I had the VHF in my pocket rather than the GPS. But I had not reckoned on an inversion and with the boat on its side we could have accessed all the emergency gear.
4) Usefulness of Lifejackets
I question the usefulness of lifejackets for open boat cruising. With a buoyancy aid on you will burn less energy and stand more chance of self-rescue. It will also insulate you. Once you lapse into unconsciousness it is not going to do you much good. But Kris was not far off dying with a lifejacket on. I do not suppose that Rob and I would have been much more than 15 or 20 minutes behind him. I would say that it is much more important to be able to get the boat upright and save yourself than to have an extra 20 minutes in which someone might find and rescue you.
5) Appropriate Clothing
A couple of people have suggested that we should have been wearing drysuits. To be honest I had never even considered it. Maybe it's my age. They weren't available when I did most of my dinghy sailing. I have only got back into Wayfarers in the last three years.
Some have suggested wearing wet suits. I had discounted this idea previously because I do not think that they are very warm when you are inactive for long periods of time. They are also pretty disgusting to wear for more than a few hours.
I did think that I was very appropriately dressed but I was wrong. I was warm as toast out of the water and very agile. In the water I became a waterlogged Mr Blobby.
Rob was wearing a fleece/pertex two-piece suit by Buffalo. It may be that this is much lighter when wet. I do not know. I have heard many people swear by it over the years and have been told that people have dried out two hours after a capsize with their body heat.
The ideal clothing has to keep you warm and light out of and in the water.
6) Attracting Attention
I think that it is worth pointing out to anybody who might find themselves in this situation that we attracted attention before the second try at righting the boat. We probably did not have the strength to get back onto the hull after that. To try to attract attention from the water next to an upturned Wayfarer with a centreboard in its case ..... I doubt that it would have worked.
7) Buoyancy Compartments
I was surprised at the amount of water
in the buoyancy compartments of the boat after two or three hours inverted.
I reckon that the boat would have floated for less than six hours on
the basis of the amount of water inside the compartments.
Description of crew and boat
Rob Golding (owner and helm). Rob is 60 years old and has been sailing in dinghies all his life. He has owned four Wayfarers. He jogs regularly and keeps himself fit.
Rob was wearing wet suit boots, Buffalo polypropylene fleece-lined, pertex salopettes and top with matching underpants ie part of the Buffalo 'system', Harrishock buoyancy aid, one piece waterproof (ish) overall, scarf, woollen hat.
Kris Nisson is about 55 years old. He has been sailing since the age of 14. He and his wife Caroline have won many Albacore trophies. Ten years ago they bought a folkboat in which they has cruised extensively on the South Coast and Normandy/Brittany including four Round the Island Races ie Isle of Wight. He rows and trains regularly and is generally fit although he did have a very debilitating dose of 'flu five weeks before the capsize.
Kris was wearing track suit bottoms, socks and gumboots, shirt, Guernsey sweater, Musto chest high trousers (old and no longer very waterproof),Musto jacket (ditto), baseball hat.
Richard Gooderick is 43 years old. He too been sailing since the age of 14 in a variety of dinghies, mainly Lasers, Enterprises and Wayfarers. He has crewed extensively in various parts of the world, has taught sailing in the UK and Canada and has owned or shared three cruisers which he has sailed between Chichester and the Spanish Rias. He rows and trains regularly.
Richard was wearing Aigle neoprene-lined dinghy boots, Henri Lloyd chest high fleece-lined salopettes (not waterproof), M and S lycra shorts, Patagonia T shirt, Patagonia fleece top, Musto Snug jacket (fleece-lined with windproof outer shell), XM Breathing chest high trousers, Holt-Allen Racing buoyancy aid under an XM breathing Jacket with high fleece-lined collar and hood, Musto fleece-lined watch cap with ear flaps.
The cockpit contained:
With the benefit of hindsight I would make a note of the following:
1. Enough masthead and sailhead buoyancy to ensure that the boat will
lie on its side when capsized.