Just seven of 21 starters finished the 2017 OSTAR/TWOSTAR shorthanded transatlantic race after a violent storm in June left four skippers in need of rescue and forcing others to retire.

Solo sailor Mervyn Wheatley set out from Plymouth for Newport, Rhode Island on 29 May this year with stirring tunes belting out from his beloved Tamarind, the Formosa 42 that he had owned for nearly two decades. This was to be the 73-year-old’s fifth OSTAR, and a 19th transatlantic for the former Royal Marine and Clipper Round the World Race skipper.

Eleven days later he was preparing to scuttle the yacht that he described as “like another limb”, and step aboard the Queen Mary 2 luxury liner after a 70-knot storm rolled Tamarind, battered the 21-boat OSTAR and TWOSTAR fleet, and set in motion a huge multinational rescue effort across the North Atlantic.

On the morning of 9 June a plunging low pressure system swept across the fleet, reading 964mb at its centre – lower than the fatal Fastnet storm of 1979 – with winds of 60-70 knots and 15m confused North Atlantic seas.

Established in 1960, eight years earlier than the Golden Globe Race, the OSTAR was the first ever solo yacht race – a controversial idea when Blondie Hasler proposed it, racing against the prevailing westerlies. Organised by the Royal Western Yacht Club, the race retains a distinctly Corinthian spirit.

Many skippers are vastly experienced (Wheatley has five Round Britain & Ireland and seven Azores and Back Races to his name), but this event is a world away from professional ocean racing. This year run in conjunction with the double-handed TWOSTAR, 21 competitors of 11 nationalities took part in yachts varying from a 35ft three-quarter tonner to an old Open 60.

Race director John Lewis comments: “The natural pattern of things for the OSTAR is a series of low pressure systems coming over from Newfoundland. The forecast was going to be westerlies, and these guys expect that: it’s wind on the nose for 3,000 miles normally. But we’ve never encountered such an intense storm at this time of year. They called it a winter north’easter in Canada.”

The 2017 edition began with a week of mild winds for most competitors. “I couldn’t believe it was as benign as it was, and we were going well,” recalls Wheatley. “Most of the time the VMG was looking pretty good. It was as good an OSTAR as I’ve had, up until then.”

Wheatley recalls that in the 24 hours before the storm the wind had built steadily, from a Force 5, to 6, then 8. He received a message via satphone from a friend with a weather synopsis but, thinking it was simply a well-meaning gesture, didn’t review it in detail.

“I was being a bit thick really,” he remembers. “I should have thought ‘I wonder why he’s suddenly decided to send me this synopsis?’. But I just thought he was being a nice chap.”

Instead, he prepared the yacht for a heavy, but not especially severe night, and turned in. “By 2100-2200 I’d handed all the sails, because by then it was gusting Force 9. Then I ran the engine to charge the batteries and went to bed.”

Secure in his bunk and unaware of the building storm outside, Wheatley was woken as Tamarind suffered a sudden and dramatic knockdown.

“I have no idea how far down we went. For sure the mast was well below the water,” he recalls.

A floorboard punched a hole in the saloon window, while the rest of the boat was awash with food, floorboards and kit. Realising he had no power, Wheatley set about pumping out the yacht manually.

“It took me a little over three hours to get the water out of the boat,” he recalls. “Then I went up to the cockpit and discovered that the EPIRB had been ripped out of its bracket, and had ended up at the back of the cockpit.

“At this stage it hadn’t even occurred to me to activate the EPIRB, but it was apparent that it had been transmitting for probably four hours.”

Initially Wheatley tried to turn the EPIRB off, to no avail. Further examination revealed that the wind vane had been damaged, and a hefty steel bar connecting the steering gear was cracked. As he assessed the damage, an aircraft flew overhead, and the reality of his situation hit.

“It was Royal Canadian Airforce C-130. The Hercules. I called him up, and he came back, and I couldn’t speak. I was very taken aback. I was just suddenly hit by this sort of emotional wave,” he recalls.

Mervyn Wheatley aboard Tamarind at the start of the 2017 OSTAR.

Rescue of Tamarind by QM2.Photo Dave Ashby

Rescue of Tamarind by QM2. Photo Dave Ashby

Mervyn Wheatley rescue from QM2. Photo by QM2 staff

International rescue in the North Atlantic

In fact the Hercules was just part of a major rescue effort swinging into action, coordinated by the Joint Task Force in Halifax, in conjunction with rescue authorities in Falmouth, Portugal and elsewhere in the US.

The crew of Jeanneau Sun Fast 37 Happy activated their rescue beacon three hours later, some 170 miles north, by which time the Joint Task Force had broadcast a request for any private or commercial vessels which might be able to assist.

The following morning the Bulgarian crew of the Luffe 37 Furia, Mihail Kopanov and Dian Zaykov, also activated their EPIRB, escalating the scope of the rescue. Furia was within range of a rescue helicopter, while first on scene was an oil and gas supply vessel, the Thor Magni, and a fishing survey plane.

Italian solo sailor Michelle Zambelli on Illumia 12 sent out a distress call on 11 June, some 315 miles off Newfoundland after suffering keel problems following a suspected collision. A Cormorant helicopter was sent, refuelling en route on an oil platform, and Zambelli was able to board his liferaft and drift clear of Illumia 12 before being rescued by the Canadian Air Force helicopter diver.

“Between the Furia and the Tamarind we were looking at a little over 700 nautical miles,” explains Canadian Royal Air Force’s Captain Marc Saucier, aeronautical coordinator for the rescue. Aircraft took off in relay to ensure each yacht had a plane overhead, with multiple flight crews rotating in after 13-hour shifts.

Circling high above Tamarind, the Canadian Hercules pilot tried to drop several spare VHF radios on a long line to Wheatley, but all missed. The first Hercules was replaced by a Portuguese aircraft, then another Canadian one, before a carrier ship arrived on scene at around midnight. However, it quickly became clear to Wheatley that the cargo vessel might not be his saviour.

“I called him up and he said ‘How would you like to get on board my ship?’. Which was not really the question I wanted to hear. It was a bulk carrier. It became apparent he had no climbing nets, there was no sign of a ladder, and there was certainly no plan about how to get me aboard.

“He actually came very close. It was a good bit of seamanship because it was still blowing quite hard, and he came within about 30m, and my blood ran cold. I just thought, no f***ing way.”

Rescue of Happy.

Rescue of Happy.

Abandon ship – transatlantic Mayday

Having decided to wait until morning, Wheatley made himself a freeze-dried meal, but gave up on it as inedible and headed back to bed, adrift in the Atlantic.

The following morning a Hercules returned and told Wheatley that the Queen Mary 2 was on her way. This time the ship’s captain swiftly formed a plan for how he was going to get aboard.

The 245m cruise liner manoeuvred so close that at one point Tamarind banged into her bow-first, spreaders scratching down the paintwork. The rescue plan worked, though, and Wheatley was retrieved by jet boat and safely hauled up to an upper deck.

His sturdy American cruising yacht, with its beautiful solid teak interior, complete with bathtub, was scuttled. “I knew I could do something about the window, I could have put some board across it or some sailcloth. I could have repaired the steering cable, I have a spare steering cable on board, and I’ve changed them before. And I reckon I could have repaired the windvane. So ostensibly I had a viable boat,” he recalls.

“However, what happens when we hit the next gale? Both I and the boat would be in a fairly parlous condition. Everything was completely soaked, all the cushions, all my clothes, I could not get dry and it was bloody cold. I had very little in the way of food, and I was also slightly worried about the water.

“The only sensible thing to do would have been to sail back to the UK, which is downwind, 1,500 miles. That would have been without any lights, no AIS, no radar, no power, and I thought going into the Western Approaches, in any sort of calm and I would just be sitting there, very vulnerable.

“And finally,” he recalls after a pause to compose himself, “there was the effect it would have on my family. It would take at least two weeks and there would be no communications at all. So, that was really the clincher.”

The Dutch crew of the Jeanneau Sun Fast 37 Happy, Wytse Bouma, 55, and Jaap Barendregt, 62, were the second team to send out a distress call, having been dramatically rolled end-over-end and dismasted.

Happy was in 6th position and had been ably contending with Force 8 winds for a couple of days, before Barendregt says that they became concerned. “We saw the first weather forecast on 8 June of quite a serious depression coming up ahead of us. The depression was so large in scale we could not sail around it; it was moving towards us.”

They altered track onto a south-westerly course as they tried to contend with 15m seas and 55-58 knots. “Even before we entered the eye of the storm, in one big wave Wytse was catapulted across the boat and had an 8cm cut on his head.”

Thor Magni rescue of Furia. Credit Atlantic Joint Task Force

Pitchpoled and somersaulted

“Once we entered the eye of the storm the wind reduced somewhat and we could actually bandage it. But we knew we still had to sail out of the depression, which would take another 24 hours including 12 hours of really strong winds.”

The duo had been hand steering for around five hours when disaster struck. “We were taking turns, so one person on deck, keeping the boat on course on a broad reach running with the wind and waves under storm jib.

“When the accident happened, Wytse was steering, it was five in the morning, so still dark, and I was downstairs with all my gear on.

A very large and very steep wave lifted the back of the boat, and we started to surf or almost fall down the wave. The bow on the port side buried itself in the water, and the whole yacht kept being pushed from behind and it literally made a somersault, upside-down. The mast broke. Wytse was under water.

“Very quickly we spun around. Wytse was still attached [by his lifeline] but he was hanging over the starboard side of the railing. He was fixed to the centre of the boat, and dangling over the railing up to his middle.”

Although Happy had been well prepared for such an eventuality, with floorboards and cupboards secured, Wytse was still pelted with objects that had come loose including winch handles. He hurried on deck, and worked to free his co-skipper from the tangle of ropes across the cockpit, only later noticing the blood streaming down his face from a gash to his head.

The pair began to tackle the worst of the rigging, and raised the alarm. After another complex rescue including multiple aircraft, and another aborted attempt to board a container ship, they were safely transferred by liferaft onto the Netherlands flagged ocean-going tug APL Forward some 24 hours later, where they found themselves en route to the Bahamas.

Looking ahead to 2020

Of the 21 boats that started the race, just seven continued racing with others retiring to the UK, Ireland and the Azores after suffering damage. The winner was Andrea Mura on his Open 50, who arrived in Rhode Island four days ahead of his nearest rival.

“He’s a special man, he’s now won two OSTARs, so he’s up there with Loick Peyron,” commented John Lewis. The TWOSTAR winner was the German boat Rote 66, while Conor Fogerty on Bam won the Gypsy Moth prize.

The next OSTAR is scheduled for 2020. “I’ve put my name down,” says Wheatley, who admitted having an eye on a new yacht just a few hours after stepping back onto English soil.

The making of a violent storm in the Atlantic

This started showing up in forecasts as a very powerful system with four or five days’ warning. By this point the fleet had already been at sea for a week and had passed though two low pressure systems, one of which produced gusts close to 40 knots on the nose. Six had already retired.

Initially it showed up as a disturbance between Bermuda and the Chesapeake, but the GFS, ECMWF, Metoffice and PredictWind models all agreed it would very quickly develop as a powerful storm of an intensity rarely seen in mid-summer.

Predictions were for sustained westerly winds above 50 knots and gusts into the mid- or upper 60s on the south side of the system, and for a time north-north-westerlies of a similar strength associated with the cold front to the west of the system. To the north of the centre, however, the forecast was for winds as much as 10-15 knots less than that.

This explains why some boats, notably Zest and Mr Lucky, routed north, sacrificing distance made good in favour of seeking less severe wind and seas. The leaders were sufficiently far west and north and escaped relatively unscathed having only skirted the edge of the system. Tamarind, Happy and others were caught in the strongest part of the storm.

By midnight on 8 June, when the fleet had been at sea for 11 days, the storm was mid-Atlantic, centred at 49°N, 34°W, and right over the path of the fleet. At this stage it was still a compact weather feature, less than 600 miles across, but with a central pressure of only 964mb – 15 millibars below that of the 1979 Fastnet storm. Canadian forecasters described it as being on a par with their strongest winter storms.

Significant wave heights of up to 7.5m were forecast to the south of the centre of the system. While that’s somewhat lower than the reports of 10-15m waves, that figure is still higher than the roof line of a two-storey house. In any case, significant wave height is defined as the average of the highest third of the waves, so one in six would have been larger.

Recent research into rogue waves suggests these may be up to 3.7 times the significant wave height, which would be well above the 15m maximum reported waves.

We have to go back to the 1976 OSTAR to find a comparable storm. A low of 972mb that had developed off Newfoundland hit the fleet on 14 June when it was in a similar position.

Summer storms are often remnants of hurricanes, such as ex-hurricane Bertha, which delayed the start of the 2014 Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland Race. It’s worth noting that, although the Atlantic hurricane season officially starts on 2 June, it doesn’t reach peak activity until September,
so these storms tend to be found in late summer.