High-sea rescue

One minute we were relaxing in our pilothouse at the end of an arduous Atlantic crossing, and the next we found ourselves thrown into a full-blown rescue effort. Andy was on watch, and as he scanned the horizon, he spotted a large low-flying jet. Realizing only a military aircraft would be flying so low 100 miles out to sea and thinking it would be conducting a security patrol, he turned on the VHF.

The radio immediately came to life. “This is Rescue 51. Where are you from and what is your destination?” a crisp British voice asked.

As we were about to answer, another voice replied: “This is Eja from Sweden, bound for the Faroe Islands. We’re a 43-foot yacht and have lost our rudder and need assistance.”

The British aircraft, Rescue 51, was not on a routine patrol. It was coordinating the rescue of a yacht that had sent out a mayday call.

“Eja, Rescue 51. A fishing vessel has responded and is steaming toward you.”

Andy radioed Rescue 51, a Royal Air Force Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, and asked if we could assist in any way. They told us to stand by. We heard the crackle of Eja talking with the fishing boat and getting ready for a tow. Then the fisherman came back, saying he was trying to contact his owner to get permission for towing.

Eja was 100 miles from the west coast of Ireland and 15 miles away from us. The high seas, running after the previous day’s gale, were breaking in a Force 6 wind. Every minute we were sailing farther downwind. We wondered what we could do if the fishing boat would not tow Eja. Could we do it? To avoid a possible hard beat later on, we decided to tack right away and head toward Eja. Just as we came to that decision, the radio came to life again.

“Balaena, Rescue 51,�VbCrLf called the aircraft. “The fishing boat didn’t get permission for towing, only to rescue the crew, and they refuse to abandon ship. Are you able to tow Eja to port?�VbCrLf

“I don’t know if it’s possible in these seas,�VbCrLf Andy replied. “But we are willing to give it a go and are prepared to stand by her as long as is necessary.�VbCrLf

Left alone

The fishing boat departed, as had the helicopter that was first on the scene. Now the Nimrod roared toward its base in Scotland. We felt very small and alone with a big task. We had time to think of what was ahead of us. The seas were much too rough to think about towing Eja, and even if conditions became calm, would we be able to? Could our old 30-horse diesel – which originally powered a Manchester, England, post office van- manage the strain of a double load? How could we handle a yacht that was bigger than Balaena?

The Nimrod had set up a schedule for us with Valentia Coastguard radio station on the west coast of Ireland. It was comforting to report our progress to them. Eja only had VHF radio, so we would be their link with shore. We set the GPS coordinates for Eja’s position that we had been given and steered in her direction. Covering the 15 miles to the southwest to Eja’s position was rough. The seas were more than 12 feet high with swells from southwest and northwest. As we got closer, we were able to speak to the crew of Eja and get updates on their position. The night was dark, and we could not see Eja on the radar until we were within a mile of it. But within three miles, its masthead tricolor light was occasionally visible, flashing above the swells. We finally arrived at the position where Eja was being tossed around; we hove-to nearby under staysail alone.

Now that we were able to communicate on the radio, we learned that without the rudder, Eja had no directional control. They had tried using a sea anchor as a drogue, but the boat always rounded up into the wind and slewed off again. Eja’s skipper, Armin Mueck, and his daughter, Birgitta, were making a television documentary on the whales of western Europe, following them on their migration from the Azores to the Faroe Islands and to the far north of Norway. Karl-Heinz Hermanns and the dog, Laritza, completed the crew. As they were in no immediate danger of sinking, the skipper saw no reason to abandon ship, especially with their valuable photographic equipment and irreplaceable footage onboard.

A long watch

There was nothing for us to do that night, except set up watches and try to get some rest. We needed sleep to prepare for the anticipated effort next day.

Andy went to bed, and I took the first night watch. All I had to do was tack a couple times so we didn’t lose sight of Eja. Alone in the pilothouse, my thoughts went back to 10 days before, when Balaena was waiting in Prince Christian Sound, in the south of Greenland, to depart for Ireland. During three months in arctic waters, we had explored fishing villages tucked into rocky outcrops along the west coast and deep fjords between towering, snowcapped mountains. At the head of the fjords, we often found tranquil anchorages where there had once been Viking settlements. But the tension of the present situation brought me back to one not-so-tranquil anchorage, where we had been woken up by a blasting foehn wind – warm air rushing down the mountains, reaching hurricane force. Failing to claw our way to a protected bay, we had been chased down the fjord and finally anchored in an open roadstead. The gusting wind had tugged at the anchor, and thankfully it dug in well.

Waiting in Prince Christian Sound, at the end of our Greenland cruise, the weather maps had shown a three-day weather window before the arrival of a new depression, reinforced by ex-hurricane Irene. We decided to leave at once and sail as fast as possible toward Ireland. With big seas leftover from the last gale and a fresh northerly wind, we held on to all the sail we could, crashing through the waves for two days at an average speed of more than 7 knots. Thankfully the center of the low missed us, but we had to lie a-hull for 18 hours, 400 miles to the southeast of Greenland, riding out the passing of the first weather system.

A second gale

The second gale came a few days later as we approached Ireland. Strong westerlies forced us to lie a-hull for another short period before we raised sail again and packed away the trysail and storm jib.

When we first heard the call from the RAF plane, we had been relaxing, with the sweet anticipation of a landfall the following morning. I wondered if the weather conditions would allow us to be able to help Eja, and how long would we have to wait for the seas to go down.

Sleep eluded Andy. He could not help thinking over how to tackle a tow. His main concern was that the motion of the boats would be so great that the line would break or pull out a fitting. What is more, if the tow pulled to one side, the towline could be snapped against our stern-hung rudder. Planning details kept his mind spinning.

The wind increased in the morning. We were in relative comfort, but without sail, poor Eja was tossed about like a ping-pong ball, one second showing her rudderless bottom and the next disappearing behind a liquid mountain. On the radio, Andy went through emergency steering with them. They tried using drogues and a headsail, but she would always swing up into wind, and conditions were far too rough to assemble a jury-rudder or to start towing. So they kept drifting downwind at 1.5 knots in what looked like a merry dance, while we hove-to on alternate tacks, back and forth. A lessening of the wind was forecast for the next day. So with high hopes, we settled down for another night of standing by and waiting.

Now or never

At dawn, after 30 hours of waiting, Andy decided it was now or never, because a new gale was forecast in 36 hours. The swells were still high enough that we would lose sight of Eja’s deck when less than 100 yards away. It was out of the question to sail close enough to throw a line between the boats. Andy requested that they tie fenders to all the nylon warp they had (about 60 yards) and let it out. As the heavier Eja drifted downwind, the line, supported by the fenders, would trail behind them. Once the line was deployed, we powered up to it, snagging the nylon with a boat hook. That was not as easy as it sounds, as the swells wanted to drive the line under the boat and wrap it around our propeller. Once we had it aboard, we attached our 100 yards of 3/4-inch polypropylene and, working into a downwind position, very slowly increased speed to get a steady pull. Eja had no directional stability, and even with a small sail set forward, at first the boat wanted to round into wind as soon as it started to move and then sway off 90� to either side of our course. But the line gradually took up the strain, and Eja followed Balaena – we were on our way!

There was plenty of wind, so we set sail and cut the engine. We soon had to reduce sail, as Eja shot off too far when we exceeded 4 knots. There were no problems at our end; the line, attached to two heavy mooring posts on the stern deck, had sufficient stretch to prevent snubbing and ran through heavy 2-inch rubber tubes to stop chafe. But Eja had problems with chafing. On three occasions we had to heave-to while they made adjustments, which was easier said than done. It was a tricky job to keep the line slack without getting too close or having it foul the propeller. With the crests of the seas driving both boats about, the distance of 100 yards seemed dangerously close.

Seeing it through

The tow went without a hitch, and we carried on all day and night. As we neared the coast, the wind started to drop. The coastguard offered the assistance of a volunteer lifeboat, but we felt we should complete what we had started. The wind dropped completely in the early morning, and we motored slowly into Bantry Bay and toward a small marina in Lawrence Cove on Bere Island. Even in the smooth waters, Eja continued to veer off at 90�, now looking like it was enjoying a saucy tango, throwing its bow up at the turns and making its passage twice as long as ours. Yet we had total control aboard Balaena and hardly felt any strain.

Docking involved dropping the tow and coming alongside Eja. With the two boats tied together with bow and stern lines and springs, we maneuvered alongside the pontoon. Steering both boats at the same time and coming alongside without being able to see the dock was made easy by the hand signals Andy and I have practiced over the years.

The tow had taken 30 hours and covered 83 miles when plotted on the chart. The drift had been 15 miles in our favor. There followed an emotional meeting with Birgitta, Armin, Karl-Heinz and Laritza. On unstable legs, we all set off to find an inn. The bonds we had formed out at sea grew and strengthened as we relived our experiences over nourishing food and flowing Guinness.

Ulla Norlander and Andy O’Grady left New Zealand six years ago to sail the world. They were on their way to England and the sailing waters of the Solent that O’Grady frequented as a youngster and to Norlander’s home on the west coast of Sweden.

By Ocean Navigator