Climbing the wall

A 341
by Gregory Walsh

Many a shipwrecked sailor, adrift in a life raft, has waited patiently for a ship to appear over the horizon. Literature of the sea is full of such agonizing survival accounts, with every type of human drama being played out among survivors during the interminable wait.

Sometimes the wait never ends. The longed-for ship never appears. Survivors die or disappear with the world never knowing of their plight. Other times, especially nowadays with both survivors and potential rescue ships linked by satellite, both ships and aircraft appear on the horizon, mysteriously vectored towards the impatient survivors.

Sailors in frail lifeboats are likely to cheer their voices away at the first sight of a ship approaching. But just as often the cheering will come to an uneasy halt as it becomes apparent that the greatest challenge yet may be getting aboard the rescue craft, particularly in rough weather.

To anyone on a small yacht or life raft, a full-size ship approaching presents a seagoing spectacle of unimagined proportions. Even a deeply-loaded tanker or freighter of 600 or 800 feet presents an impressively high bow and something in the vicinity of 18 or 20 feet of freeboard amidships. Light vessels or vessels in ballast; can have much more imposing profiles. Most ships, vectored by satellite directions, will head directly for the location of a lifeboat. In rough weather, a life raft, even one equipped with radar reflectors, is usually all but invisible on a ship's radar. The ship will usually keep moving at moderate speed, say, four to six knots, as it approaches.

"The ship that rescued us was the biggest thing I had ever seen, and it was coming right at us. I was very concerned", said Bud Clarity, a retired New Jersey fire department captain who lost his 30-foot yacht on the way to Bermuda last December and was rescued by a Japanese freighter that had been directed to the area by the Coast Guard and the AMVER (automated mutual-assistance vessel rescue) system. Clarity said that the ship was headed directly for him as he floated helplessly in an inflatable life raft that he had launched 12 hours before. "I was looking straight at the bow wave of that 750-foot ship."

Other survivors who have been rescued by ships in mid-ocean say that the ship appears incredibly huge and unmoving, regardless of sea conditions, while the motion of the survivor's craft is greatly exaggerated, especially as the survivors get close to the side of the ship.

"That situation was far more dangerous to us than any other part of our ordeal, including the worst moments of the storm that hit us with winds up to 70 knots", said Clarity. "The bow of the ship kept coming directly at us, but we weren't about to abandon our life raft, so we just hunkered down and watched it approach. In the end, we were pushed aside by the small bow wave and bumped down the side of the ship, making contact once or twice, as the captain attempted to bring it to a halt."

Clarity could have reached out and touched the ship several times as his raft drifted down the side. "We first made contact about where the anchors were", he said. "But, in the end, the ship stopped with us just about amidships. Then we were looking straight up at the crewmembers throwing us lines and wondering how we could ever climb up. I'm 63 years old and in fairly good condition, but I knew that we were both exhausted from the storm and from bailing out our life raft almost constantly for many hours. We both knew that if we couldn't make it up the rope ladder or up the cargo net which they threw over the side, we would probably die."

Clarity and his sailing mate did make it up the side of that ship, but Clarity says he would never want to repeat the experience. "There was so much motion, if we had been in a yacht it would almost certainly have been destroyed in the process." Vulnerable survivors

Survivors in life rafts are particularly vulnerable because of their helpless condition. Lacking all maneuverability, such survivors are necessarily dependent on a rescue ship's ability to maneuver directly alongside or to be able to launch a motorized lifeboat of some sort. Both of those options place extreme pressures on a ship captain. Many ships do not have a small motorboat capable of being launched and retrieved, nor should it be assumed that a ship has crewmembers capable of safely handling such a craft in anything other than calm conditions. For a ship to slow or stop to maneuver in extreme conditions, possibly presenting its beam to heavy seas, can, in some cases, place its cargo and crewmembers in jeopardy. To retrieve survivors from a life raft, a ship must be placed in a position directly alongside and upwind from the survivors, thus presenting them a lee and offering them a chance to get aboard the ship. Were a life raft to drift away from the side of a ship, its occupants would find themselves in a difficult situation. Even with a ladder or cargo net hanging over a ship's side and extending to the waterline, life raft occupants would need to leap into the water and swim to a ship's side. In a cold water location or in storm conditions such an effort could be perilous indeed.

With a life raft, life boat, or yacht alongside, a ship's crew may attempt to throw down light lines to the survivors to help keep their craft alongside. This practice could be helpful in many cases, but, can create a dangerous situation especially for occupants of a life raft. When Bud Clarity's sailing mate grabbed a line tossed down from the deck of the Japanese freighter, the 47-year-old man was dragged bodily out of the life raft and hung suspended from the line until he climbed and was hauled up to the deck. Clarity watched the drama helplessly from the raft. "I thought, oh my god, I hope he holds on", said Clarity. "I couldn't see whether he went up or down. I was still in the raft, and I was being dragged by the wind past the ship. I had my own survival to worry about after that, since there were no lines attached, I couldn't see how the ship could maneuver back to my position."

Not much better off are survivors adrift in yachts without engine power. Once again, these victims are dependent upon the maneuvering skills of a ship master, and on their own physical ability to climb a ladder or cargo net.

Andrew Maciel of Norwalk, Conn., was rescued, along with three others, from a dismasted and helpless 40-foot sailboat in 1993 while 400 miles off Chesapeake Bay. "Getting onto that ship was more dangerous than anything else we did", he recalled. "We had to jump from the deck of our yacht to the deck of the ship each time we were lifted up by huge swells of more than 20 feet."

Maciel said that the sailboat was smashed repeatedly into the unmoving side of the ship. "We basically had one chance to make it. If any of us fell, it would have been the end. The ship had no cargo net to put over the side. That would have been helpful if any of us had fallen. Steely nerves required. "If you were in good physical condition, it wasn't so hard", he added. "But if you're not, and don't have the nerve to do something like that, then that would have been an extremely stressful and life-threatening situation. It's easy to die out there."

Rescues may be considerably easier if survivors are still in their yacht and if they have an engine to assist with maneuvering. The ship master's job is much easier if he has only to steam ahead at dead-slow speed while providing a lee for a small yacht which can also motor along on the leeward side.

Lane Wilkinson of Portland, Maine, recalled recently the time in 1990 when he was rescued from a badly damaged 32-foot multihull sailboat while 180 miles off the coast of South Carolina. The rescue was made by an 850-foot Swedish freighter bound for Florida.

"We had lost both rudders but we were still able to motor and steer with the outboard engines", he said. "We were able to motor in to the ship which had been waiting to pick us off during the night in force 7 and 8 conditions with huge swells, even on the lee side of the ship. As soon as we got in there, waves would pick us up and slam us against the side of the ship and that became our cue to jump for the ladder which they had hung over the side."

Wilkinson said he had to jump first after two other passengers had balked when it came time to jump. "It was a breathtaking move to make that jump and then to scramble up the ladder, only to be unceremoniously hauled over the deck edge when you reached the top. There was at least 20 feet of freeboard, and we were looking straight up at these crewmembers on deck who didn't speak a word of english. They had thrown us a few lines to keep our boat close but basically there wasn't much they could do to help us."

The great fear, said Wilkinson, who was then 25 years old, was to be smashed between the hulls of yacht and ship. The yacht's port hull, which was up against the ship, was smashed every time, he said, and the sailors could see that they would only get one chance to get aboard the ship. "It was quite intimidating to hear that great boom each time our yacht was smashed into the ship. Making the exit from the boat was definitely the most scary and challenging part of the storm."

Jack Ganssle was not even asking to be rescued but he placed his boat and his life in peril when he came alongside a Polish tanker in 10 to 12 foot seas and force 5 conditions just to acquire some fuel. His 35-foot sailboat had been dismasted and Ganssle, a business owner from Laurel, Md., needed fuel to get home.

"From a sailor's viewpoint, this was a very interesting experience because I've spent my entire sailing career staying well away from the sides of ships",he said. "Yet, here I was, deliberately coming alongside and knowing full well that I was going to take a beating."

After his experience, Ganssle said he would never do it again. "I had been at sea for an entire month and this was the first solid object I had seen all the time", he said. "The closer I got to the side of that ship, the more I realized how much my own vessel was moving in those seas. One minute I would be looking over the deck at the ship's crew, and the next minute I would be looking at bottom paint. It was just crazy." Difficult maneuvering

Ganssle said it was the most difficult maneuvering of his boating career. Motoring ahead at four knots as the ship steamed at its slowest possible maneuvering speed, he found himself going constantly from full-rudder to full-rudder in either direction just to keep his boat under control. "Waves were bouncing off the sides of that ship in every possible direction. I can't stress enough how difficult it is to steer in that situation", he said.

Ganssle did manage to get his fuel. Two athletic sailors from the ship climbed down to get aboard his vessel and receive fuel containers passed down from above, while Ganssle stayed at the wheel of his own vessel. The yacht skipper would hover about 50 feet off the ship and periodically swoop in for a pick-up as his new Polish shipmates would attempt to grab a fuel container hanging from a line.

"I had every conceivable type of fender hanging over the port side, and we managed to avoid any crippling smash-ups, but I still had to watch the end of my mast break off when one of the sailors pulled in on a bowline and caused my bow to slew in at an angle." The downed mast - which Ganssle had painstakingly recovered after its fall had been lying on deck amidships with a fair amount of it hanging over the bow like a bowsprit.

"That kind of situation was absolutely crazy", he added. "I would never, ever do it again. Any sailors hoping to be rescued in that way are going to be in great danger. The crew has got to jump for a ladder or whatever when the yacht is on the top of a wave or they're going to be killed. And when it's time to go, they've got to go without hesitation. Your crew has got to have balls! But what are the alternatives? Getting into a life raft would be a big mistake, then the crew would be entirely dependent upon the ship to maneuver in alongside. That would be an easy way to die in storm conditions."

As a reminder of the dangers involved, it might be noted here that a California yachtsmen was killed this past December when his damaged sailboat was brought alongside a U.S. naval vessel which was attempting to render assistance. The yachtsmen was reportedly knocked overboard in rough weather when his vessel slammed into the side of the naval vessel. Several others from the yacht were rescued, according to reports.Accidents claim professionals

John Timel, a maritime pilot from Tampa, Fla., knows firsthand the dangers of climbing ladders up the sides of ships. Timel has lost two friends and colleagues in recent pilot ladder accidents.

"One of our pilots died recently when he had a heart attack while climbing up a ladder, and another died when he fell overboard after failing to get onto a ladder", said Timmel, a career merchant mariner. The one who fell overboard died when he got caught in the ship's propeller, according to reports.

"In that case, the pilot became impatient and lunged for the ladder just as a wave was dropping out from under the pilot boat. He grabbed for the ship's ladder but somehow never made the connection and fell into the water."

Timmel and other pilots stress that yachtsmen attempting to climb a ship's ladder should always wear some type of flotation gear, primarily because they may be injured if they fall off the ladder and will need to remain afloat. Pilots also urge mariners to embark from their own vessels from the bow and to always keep one hand grasping either their own vessel or the ladder at all times. Once onto a ladder, the correct procedure is to grasp the side lines which make up the ladder and not to hang onto the rungs or steps.

"You've got to exhibit patience and self-control", said Timmel. "Watch the rhythm of the waves and always make the transfer at the top of the rise so that the vessel will drop away clear of you and not continue to rise up as you begin to climb up the ladder. Crushing injuries are the most common accidents with pilots everywhere, and I'm sure the same is true for yachtsmen who are attempting to get off their vessels in the middle of the ocean."

Pilots also remind yachtsmen that most foreign ships have very few crewmembers who speak English. "In many cases a yacht crew won't be able to get advice from the ship's crew", added Timmel. "They may just drape a ladder over the side and the rest will be up to the yacht crew. Some of them will live or die depending on their common sense, abilities, and luck."

By Ocean Navigator