Rescue At Sea: A personal account of overcoming obstacles

The biennial Bermuda One-Two Race, with its singlehanded leg from Newport, RI to Bermuda and a doublehanded return leg, was held this past summer in June. Skippering the Hallberg-Rassy 49 was Dan Alonso, who received the Crystal Catfish Trophy by race officials for his amazing rescue of Jan Steyn from the Columbia 32C Solid Air. Here Dan’s account of the event…

The race was off. Day one the winds were enough to get Halcyon moving. The second day it shut down. Doldrums. Fortunately, it didn’t last. When the wind returned, it would change direction and make this a reaching race.

The router shows the wind will be around 18 knots out of the south for days. I’m hoping it’s enough but more would be better. I need it big enough to shut down the other boats, Halcyon can take it. Heading to the entry point in the Gulf Stream, the wind continues to build. Halcyon is starting to go.

Out in front of me are two boats, Bent (S2 9.1) and Kontradiction (C&C 110). Bent is in my class. They are far away but good targets. The wind is getting strong. I am nearly at full sail, just a small reef in the main. I can feel Halcyon pushing forward. The water is now a steady sound, a crushing wave being pushed off Halcyon’s bow. It is “go” time, and Halcyon is a raging bull just driving through the building sea. After a few years of trying to race this “north sea” cruiser and getting killed in light air, we finally have the race conditions Halcyon thrives in; big winds and nasty sea state.

Since entering the stream, Halcyon has not dropping below 11 knots over the bottom and often in the 12s. We had spent over $5,000 getting the auto pilot repaired just days before the race, but I’m now listening to the motor over working and I’m feeling sick. I’ve just sailed from Charleston to Bermuda and then Bermuda to Newport solo with a constantly failing auto pilot – 1,400 miles of offshore sailing without a pilot. I just can’t bear the emotional stress of a failing pilot again.

Halcyon is no longer keeping her course. It’s happening again, no pilot.

The backup plan for this summer of racing was to use the Hydrovane, “Hydi”, a wind driven autopilot that we installed just before the Charleston to Bermuda race. At the start of that race, and just a few hours before entering into the Gulf Stream, Hydi broke off the stern. I was barely able to wrestle it back aboard.

Hydi is now reinstalled but completely untested. I’m not sure if it’s big enough to steer the boat or if the seas will tear it off the stern again. Fortunately in this whole mess, the wind is on the nose and likely to remain a close reach for the entire race. If both pilots fail, I take comfort knowing I can lock the wheel and at least balance the helm and get close enough to hand steer into Bermuda.

There’s no stopping Halcyon. Pilot or not. She’s crushing the ocean. I feel like I’m standing on a freight train and we’re reeling in Bent and Kontradiction fast. I finally pass them and start looking for more. Who’s next? A day later, I’m hearing VHF transmission. It’s from boats in the first class. I thought they would be long gone. Am I doing that well? Maybe this could be my race. Neither pilot is able to steer the boat on their own so I’m using them together. Hydi takes the load off and the autopilot steers the rest. My pilots are a team. It’s working and if I can hold it for a few days, I’ll finally have my race.

Then the call comes. Halcyon being hailed. Someone’s requesting assistance. He’s got an accent. I think it’s Kontradiction. Are you kidding me? This is my time, and the race I’ve been hoping for. I’m sick for getting beat in light winds. I’ve got no dependable auto pilot but it’s working and I have to stop? I’m pretty sure I’m the only boat in my class doing 9+ knots in this crap.

I think, “Assistance? What does that mean? ” We’re 250 miles from Bermuda in the middle of the ocean. There is another boat on it’s the way, but I’m closer. The sun will set shortly. He wants to know if I can help. The other boat is at the back of his class. He can’t win. Why stop my race? I’m thinking why me? I can win, Halcyon’s killing it. Why me? He’s 17 miles away and I’m 5. What’s the big deal?

And then it takes a moment, but it settles in. Assistance! This guy is leaving his boat! You don’t give assistance in this crap. It’s blowing and the seas are big. It’s freaking bad out here. This is an abandon ship. He needs to leave his boat. Something bad has happened and he’s leaving his boat. My race is done. This guy needs help

I douse the genoa and put away the main. I hail Mike Schum from Kontradiction. He had a strong accent and sounded just like the guy asking for assistance. I was sure this assistance call was Mike. Kontradiction hails back saying he’s fine. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about.

I was just talking to this guy. He told me he’s losing his keel and needs help, he’s abandoning ship. I quit the race and he’s fine? What the f#ck? Am I losing my mind? Did I imagine that? What’s going on here? I hail back to the distressed boat. He responds. The vessel’s name is “Solid Air”, it’s not Kontradiction. It’s real and this was a glimpse of my potentially fragile emotional state. I actually thought I may have imagined it. No kidding, questioning my mind.

Solid Air communicates his lat/lon. Just writing it down is a task. Every time I leave the helm to communicate or work the plotter, Halcyon breaches, leaning over a good 30-40 degrees. Without the pilot and in these seas, everything is crazy hard and now I’m breaching every fifth wave. I finally create a waypoint and get going. He’s downwind and it looks like it will take about 45 minute to get there. I’ve got to hand steer. I’m sailing with our small wheel and the steering is stiff, just turning the wheel is a workout. I’ve got the auxiliary on and just the storm sail up. The seas are about 8-12 feet. I’m running with the wind and seeing 30-35 mph.

Halcyon is surfing down each wave. It’s hard to keep her straight. She wants to veer off. How the hell am I going to get his guy aboard? I know the life sling drill, but really? In this sh#t? After about 20 minutes I hail the skipper to work out our plan. He’s thinking of putting out a few fenders. Right! I hail back, “Skipper, you’re going to get wet.”

The tension is building. I know I’ve got to get him but I’ve got no pilot, can’t steer the boat worth a crap and it’s really really awful out. I’m getting closer so I call to update his lat/lon. He now gives me coordinates that are different. I’m not talking drifting a half mile different. He’s 8 miles upwind, where I just came from.

The sun’s going down, 8 miles upwind an hour a half ride and you’re where? What the f#ck? Where are you? Kontradiction is listening and also takes the lat/lon. Mike, skipper of Kontradiction, is a comforting voice and another mind working on this feels good. I’m terrified of wasting more time motoring to new positions where he is not. Dousing the storm jib, I realize it’s windy, really windy. The sail lifts me off the deck with ease.

The drive upwind was nuts. The waves were now pushing 15 feet. The bow was launching into the sky. Things that had never fallen in the cabin after years of storm sailing were now flying about. With no canvas and a big sea state, Halcyon is pitch poling, badly, in all directions. Steering is far beyond difficult, nearly impossible.

I start thinking it was beyond me. I can’t do it. After years of being proud as “Mr. Bad-Ass-Ocean-Storm-Sailor”, I can’t do this. I just can’t do this. It’s too much. What do I do? I still don’t know where he is. What if this new location is also wrong? The sun’s on the horizon now and I’m an hour and a half downwind. Are you kidding me? I’m broken. This should be for helicopters but we’re too far offshore. What do I do? I can’t do this.

As a wrestler, you could break my arm and I wouldn’t quit, but this is too much. Just steering is a monumental task. It takes all my focus and energy. Mike had offered help and I had turned it down. How is that going to help? Two boats? More boats to crash into each other. I’m suddenly overwhelmed with the consideration that I simply will not be able to find him. Here I am terrified of the pickup and I can’t find him. I ask Mike to stick around. Two sets of eyes are better than one. I request a flare. I’m hoping for something visual. Solid Air feels we’re too far apart to see the flare and wants to wait. It makes sense, so we wait.

In Mike’s effort to join the rescue, he loses his jib while dousing and wraps a jib sheet in his prop. I’m already being pushed. Pushed beyond what I’m able to handle and now I’m thinking, is this going to turn into two rescues? Solid Air hails. He’s using AIS to try to get a heading. He tells me I need to head 135 degrees. This makes no sense. This is not in the right direction. It’s a least 100 degrees off. Where is he? I’m just sick, getting my ass kicked heading upwind, the sun’s down and I still don’t know where he is.

While Mike is trying to recover, Solid Air fires a flare. I see it. Thank God , I see it. What a beautiful thing. A SOLAS rocket flare hanging in the sky. I look at the compass. It’s about 180 degrees. I realize that I need to turn on the compass light for the next flare. It’s too dark to read it. When I leave the helm, the boat falls off and is slammed by a wave. More crap flying around the cabin.

I’m cold, soaked and struggle to climb the companion way to get the boat back up wind. Another flare. This one is closer and now at 220 degrees. I request he put all lights on so he’d be easier to see. As I approach, I finally get visual contact. I need to get near enough to evaluate this carefully. This could be really bad if we collide.

I come around and approach from upwind. I didn’t want him getting blown down on me and foul our rigs. I’m really close, 200 feet. Each wave is a pitch poling nightmare. All of a sudden he’s gone. He was just right in front of me and now he’s gone. Lost in the dark.

I climb out of the cockpick to try and see him. Having left the helm, Halcyon is veering out of control again. I’m about to hit him. He’s right here somewhere and I can’t see him. The seas are huge and Halcyon will crush him if we collide. I know I’m only seconds from impact. I can’t see him. Maybe he turned down wind and his lights are faced away. I finally see him and climb back to the helm. With all my might, I’m straining to keep him in sight. I can’t lose him now.

I later learned from Jan that he had put the boat away, turned off the lights and secured the cabin at my approach.

Solid Air is leaning funny. Her stern to the wind. And she’s lurching strangely. Halcyon is wanting to surf each wave. It’s just too much. Docking a 27 ton boat, healing 35 degrees while surfing at 10 knots. This is just insane.

I had decided earlier to use the sling on a spin sheet. I wanted the heavier line for winching and more mass to throw. The line that comes with the sling floats and the spin sheet does not. I’m risking a prop wrap if I miss and that just CAN NOT happen. The line is now carefully coiled, short and sitting on the stern quarter. It’s time.

I head to Solid Air. Halcyon is charging at her stern quarter. At about 40 feet from collision, I turn the helm to port. I know she would fall off like a breach and as she does, I run for the sling. I’m now about 20 feet away from him but heading away. I throw the sling and it hits him in the chest. I scurry back to the helm to back down on the auxiliary and ditch as much speed as I can. Halcyon’s breaching.

Jan, skipper of Solid Air has his arm through the sling. I run the line to the winch and with a power drill begin hauling. Halcyon’s momentum launches him from his stern and he’s skipping across the water.

I got him.

Thank God I got him.

I knew this had to fly first shot. A second try would be in total darkness; he would be impossible to find. As he approaches the rail, the battery quits. I try to lift him but it is not going to happen. I go to the winch and start to crank by hand. It’s taking too long. He is being slammed under the Halcyon’s hull with each wave. We can hear each other. He is being battered under the hull but is okay.

I suddenly think of the boarding ladder. I quickly dig it out and put it on the rail. It is still too high. I continue to winch. Just a little higher. He is finally able to reach it. I lean over and together with a last effort, he is aboard.

Halcyon is still bare poled and out of control. I raise the storm jib and put out some mainsail. With Halcyon’s helm balanced, I can lock the wheel and get us under control. I am back under way but hardly a racing clip. I have no idea what had just happened. I am wet and miserable. Jan calls the race committee to update them while I shower. How nuts. Still in a storm, just completed a rescue and I want to be showered and dry. Needing to wash off this trauma.

Jan showers next. I give him dry clothes. We eat paella I had made the day before. I put him to bed and turn Halcyon back towards Bermuda. Pulling an email from the Sat phone, I discover that Aggressive, the leading boat, is in front of me. I want to race but I’m struggling. I’m struggling to find the drive, the courage to sail aggressively. I have smaller sails up.

Balancing the helm with bigger sail area and autopilot issues is too much; not now. I’m still freaked out and feeling timid. Before the rescue, Halcyon was cranking along at 9.5 knots in what was approaching gale conditions. We were now comfortable and going 6.5 so I set my alarms and sleep.

Waking, I find that Bent is in front of me and beatable. Jan explains to me that I would be given back the lost time from rescue. So once again, it’s “go” time. I tell Halcyon “Bent’s in front of you”. Like an excited puppy, she lights up as we start chasing him down. I pop the Genoa, unfurl the main and she is powered up again. At 9.5 knots she is quickly closing the gap. I know the dream of winning first in class is not likely. I just want to cross the line ahead of Bent. I need to find the racer in me, something stronger than the broken rescuer.

It looks like I’m going to roll Bent again. The winds are blowing 28 and Halcyon’s loving it but there’s a problem. Without a pilot I can’t come off the wind. I need another 30 degrees to avoid hitting the reefs. It’s still too far to hand steer. I’m catching up quickly but I’m going the wrong way. If I reef, I may be able to come off wind and get my heading but I’ll lose boat speed. With only a few miles to go I reef. Halcyon loses speed, and I know it’s done. With a few tacks the race is over. My battle with Bent is done and it’s time to just stop.

Arriving in Customs, I am greeted by Jan’s wife. She is crying, hysterical. Barely able to make words, crying “thank you,” calling me a hero. “Thank you for saving my husband.”

I don’t even understand. I am so blown away by her. This moment is a powerful shift. It cracks open my emotions. This was more than picking up another racer. In the harbor, alone again, anchor finally down, I lie on the fore deck and just lose it. Just cry and cry.

Everything had gone fine, and I’m just emotionally destroyed. The guy just needed assistance. Right! What is assistance 500 miles offshore? It’s not bringing a guy a fan belt. It’s one scary thing that leaves you depleted, damaged and grateful to have pushed through when you thought you could not.

On corrected time, Halcyon finished 2nd in class and 4th in fleet… with a little detour.

DAN

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