With water pouring in from an unknown source, the crew of the ARC yacht Magritte were rescued just before she sank, Skipper Steve Arnold tells Elaine Bunting the story
Lost in the dark
By the time the retrieval was complete, Magritte had drifted 1.3 miles from the ship’s position and out of her lee. The master manoeuvred again. With no navigation lights, Magritte was lost in the dark. Andy Mills climbed as far up the mizzen mast as he could with the EPIRB, which was pulsing a bright white strobe light, while Georgia lit up the foresail with a torch so SCL Basilea could home in for a second attempt.
At 0200 the two vessels were close enough for the master to order a line-throwing apparatus to be fired. The lee created reduced the wind, but there was still a big swell. A line was fired from the ship. It landed on Magritte’s deck. “We started pulling ourselves in, thinking that’s what they wanted, but it broke and [we were left with] a frayed end. We found out afterwards that they wanted us to attach it to our lifejackets and they would pull us in,” says Steve.
The yacht had drifted 100m astern of the ship when two more lines were fired. But because now they were out of the lee the lines caught the wind and went wide. At 0224 Master Tamas made another manoeuvre, using the bow thruster to turn the ship’s bow to starboard so that the starboard quarter moved closer to the yacht.
“That made it pivot towards us and one of the crew made an Olympian throw that landed on the foredeck. It was a magical throw and we pulled the [monkey leader] until we reached a mooring line and they pulled us in. Then I threw them a stern line,” says Steve.
Leaping for their lives
Now secured by a bow and stern line, Magritte was alongside and a rope ladder was lowered down the ship’s side. Steve says that when he looked below he could see the yacht’s hull portholes underwater.
But the danger was far from over. “The boat was going 3-5m up and down in the swell. We had all our bags and rucksacks with all our precious things, but it was too dangerous. If anything got caught up in the ladder . . . They could only impede us, so we dropped them.
“I gave everyone a number and we had to wait until the boat rose a few feet and then jump onto the wet, slippery rope. I was very nervous making the decision to jump.”
But all went well and the four crew climbed onto the deck at 0354UTC. Teresa managed to take with her a small wash bag, but apart from that the crew left Magritte with just the clothes they stood up in, the T-shirts and shorts, jacket and lifejackets they had been wearing in the late afternoon when the emergency began, sunglasses, phones, credit cards and passports.
“The crew rushed us down below to the officer’s mess and made us as welcome as any human being can,” Steve says. “They gave us food and the [master] insisted we drink some whiskey because we’d had a shock.”
The ship’s crew cut the mooring line and two hours later Magritte’s Yellowbrick Tracker sent its last ping, indicating that the yacht had sunk.
Steve and Teresa were given a spare cabin, Andy the pilot’s room and Georgia slept in the infirmary and, over the ten days it took to reach Spain, the crew set up a routine. The crew allowed them to use an Iridium phone to send email. They played cards, watched films. Steve contacted his insurers, Admiral Yacht Insurance, which was, he says “as good as gold”.
They reached home in the UK just before Christmas where they had to rush around picking up the pieces of their lives, renting a house, buying a car, working out what to do next.
“There are a lot of things to do. I will find a job,” says Steve. When I ask if the experience has put them off or they would think of going cruising again, Steve says: “Yes, definitely. Maybe we will decide to go again, but that is two years away. I have sailed three Atlantic crossings before.
We are all quite seasoned sailors.”
Equipment for power failure
But the experience has made them think carefully about what equipment they should have in the event of a complete power failure. They had a handheld VHF and an Iridium GO! that they could unplug and use independently of the yacht’s batteries. “That call to Falmouth was the best call in the world,” Steve declares.
But they lost their AIS when the batteries were flooded, and learned later that the position SCL Basilea had been given by the rescue authorities was ten miles out. Had Archibald not been standing by, and her AIS position used, or if the ship had had to instigate a search, Steve believes the yacht could easily have sunk before they were rescued.
“I think someone needs to develop an AIS [combination] EPIRB. An EPIRB will get people in the search area, but AIS gives your exact position [ship-to-ship]. Trusting an EPIRB position, to Falmouth and back, is a long bit of string. I had a battery-powered satellite phone, but I wished I’d had a battery-powered AIS as well.”
As for what went wrong, what caused Magritte to flood and sink, Steve Arnold still doesn’t know. “We didn’t hear a bang or any sudden impact,” he says. He doesn’t think they hit anything. They’d had a new gearbox fitted 18 months before and the stern gland was packed then and checked. Was that the culprit?
“That’s the only place we could think of,” he says. “But I don’t know. It must have been a catastrophic failure. But why then, why a day out of Cape Verde, what made it happen? We have no way of knowing.”