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Lost at Sea

18 Feb 2021

When Nigel Fox set sail on his Duncanson 34 Bison, with his cat Stinky, he didn't expect what was to follow. Nigel tells us his first-hand account of what happened.

"Having slipped out of Darwin on 30th December starting my move back to the east coast the weather conditions have been quite frankly disgustingly bad. 

Currently, I am at Gove Hospital after spending most of yesterday bobbing around in the Arafura Sea after getting unceremoniously pitched off the yacht in a squall.

I was working on fixing a jammed Furler and port side jib sheet that had managed to tie itself into a knot around the stainless-steel wires (I have never seen a sheet do this before), so just to add to the level of danger it's on the lee side of the yacht, so motor started course adjusted on the autohelm, Hydrovane disengaged.

After getting the appropriate tools it was off up along the port side of the boat to get this situation sorted.

From the get-go, this was not a good situation. Lee side of the yacht the autohelm had been put on a setting to get the yacht head to wind to relieve tension on the Furler and port side jib sheet to make my work a bit easier.

This is with it blowing 27 knots, 2-meter swells running in some weird type of double set pattern."

"So as per normal, I don the lifejacket after putting on some shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Hook knife, VHF on lanyard, Jack line attached. All pieces in place, then I step out of the cockpit.

So just as I stepped out from the cockpit one wave had come in, not a problem but then a second wave came in which pitched the yacht on its beam ends putting me over the side. It was quick. Seconds. I went from a stable footing to looking at the yacht from the wrong side of the stantions.

The jack line duely did its job of wrapping itself around one leg while the life jacket end now being taut at a perfect length to leave me hanging me like a piece of washing between it and the anchor point on the life jacket.

As this was hanging me in a slightly head down horizontal position, it kept putting my head and shoulders underwater keeping me there in a position guaranteed to drown me in a fairly short period of time. This is the moment where every sailor's worst nightmare comes fully into play. So I cut the damn jack line, threw the hook knife into the cockpit as I was then dropped into the water as I desperately tried to hang on slowly working aft along the boat to get a better purchase while rocking and rolling through a two-meter swell at 6.5 knots.

While trying to get back on I ended up at the stern of the boat hanging on to the rudder of the hydrovane and while looking at the situation and thinking how to climb up the bugger the life jacket self-inflated causing a massive amount of drag which pulled me off of the stern of the yacht. Such irony that a safety feature became a liability, that left me floating in the brine as the yacht went on its merry way. In the process the carabiner/lanyard to my handheld VHF radio was destroyed so I lost that as well. Losing that VHF radio probably extended my time in the water by at least an hour as I could have used it to talk in the S.A.R. aircraft to me as it first flew overhead some hours later."

"So there I was all alone in the sea, I pulled up the hood on my spinlock life vest enclosed myself as waves had been breaking over me, adjusted the leg straps to pull my body up closer to the life jacket which funnily enough causes you to point feet first into the swell. So once I orientated myself around so the back of my head was towards the swell I then pulled out the PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) but as I had lost my glasses when going over the side I could not actually see the instructions but familiarity with the item came in to play. Extract antenna, flip switch cover, push on the red button for more than one second. Now this is the point where you are putting your faith in the little yellow box with the blinky lights a skinny antenna. The downside is these units do not float on their own while holding it I knew I had to get it out of my hands as I would invariably drop it, once gone so was any possibility of rescue." 

So thinking of a solution the idea of putting the antenna through a vent hole on the life jacket hood seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. So by raising the elasticated strap at the bottom of the hood, threading the antenna through a ventilation hole then pulling the hood back in to place kept the PLB firmly in location, out of the water with the antenna well and truly free to wave around at the sky. Then it was sitting back, and wait, think positive don't panic be calm only think positive thoughts, imagine the alarm going off at AMSA. That was around 09.25 am what I did not know was the connect from AMSA who pulled up my PLB information on their system who then called my nominated contact who was quite surprised when they called as we had been talking the evening before on the sat phone as I updated my sail plan with him.

The evening before was a rough affair, while downstairs eating the world outside of the cabin windows suddenly illuminated.

As per traditional marine etiquette, a stream of expletives was uttered before life-jacket and my Gill jacket was donned stepping out to horizontal rain more akin to several people holding high-pressure hoses in your direction and managed to see 40 knots apparent wind speed before all vision via the glasses was obliterated. Headsail furled, it was not much bigger than a storm sail at that stage anyway as I fired up the autohelm then the motor as I steered her around head to wind before getting out on deck to drop the mainsail which already had two reefs in.

Once safely back in the cockpit it was time to Fire up the radar and putting it on weather mode showed I was in an 8nm in all directions electrical storm pushing out to twelve nautical miles to my south south east. This was a couple of hours after I had decided to run parallel to the Wessel islands as all I could see was electrical storms lighting up the sky from horizon to horizon. 

Once I had updated my mate Ian of my intended route change and he could see me changing course as my iridium go tracker fired off it's regular thirty minute ping so he could see where I was going as if it stops pinging away then it's either stopped working or the yacht has stopped floating.

Now I am not exactly sure where I did the ribs but later on that evening their somewhat damaged status did make itself well known to me. This all happened the evening before so I was already tenderised before my world really went pear-shaped. 

 As I have no idea how long I was actually in the water for but around four hours is a solid guess before the life-raft was deployed. I was thankful not to be wearing a wristwatch. If I had I would have removed it and put it in a pocket so I could not see it as it would have been a constant checking of the time wondering where everyone was then why is it taking so long.

The psychological effect could have been quite demoralising so make sure you have at least one pocket you can safely fasten closed just in case you should find yourself in a similar position. Put it away and keep it there, time is back to day or night nothing more.  You are now back to cave dweller status no longer an apex predator but very much part of the food chain, not to mention a long way down the list. Take a moment to ponder that, you are now food nothing more nothing less. No longer armed with fancy electronics, a hull, safety plus the tools to hunt you are now the hunted.

Fortunately the sea temperature was around 31 degrees but as the day went on Hyperthermia did enter into the noggin so rolling down the shirt sleeves and doing up the cuffs became a challenge that occupied the grey matter for quite a long time. I think it actually took quite a while as it's not an easy thing to do when rolling around in a life-jacket.

The view is not much chop at wave level so apart from a few curious sea birds, not a lot all else went on. Well until it started raining on me for a short while which did have me looking up at the sky and just saying “really” All skulling movements were carried out submerged as these waters are thick with Tiger sharks a rather large predatory fish more used to hunting at night but very finely attuned to doing so. It also has teeth shaped in such a manner to bite through turtle shells. Making any form of splashing was considered strictly forbidden for obvious reasons.

It was not until the AMSA / S.A.R. jet flew over head for the first time that my day was considerably brighter. I just looked up at it and went yep there is hope. That was when I cursed the loss of my hand held VHF radio as I could have initiated radio communication immediately upon spotting. That could have potentially cut my time in the water by at least an hour or more.

After a few passes, my thoughts were he was doing a thorough search grid. As I have found out the Rescue me PLB has built-in GPS so they had an exact fix on my position. After five passes overhead the sixth was the main event.

The lovely sight on a personal fly past at 200ft ASL as a life raft was dropped from the aircraft, was just fabulous but the icing on the cake was the line run from the aircraft spooled out which landed no more than two meters from my hand. Then it was game on! Pulling like a mad man on what seemed like a Kilometre of line Apparently it's 400 meters of line and the idea is to drop it so it lands on target at the mid way point. 

Now apparently I was the first deployment of a raft to just a person in the sea. Normally it's a disabled vessel of some description but in my case I was apparently little more than a single pixel on a screen the pilot directed in by the consol operator at the back on the aircraft. From what I understand the pilot had maybe one and a half to possibly two seconds of visual on me before I vanished from his range of view. That was some special flying an incredible team effort that played a huge part in getting me home.   

I finally got to the raft but absolutely buggered from pulling myself to it, so a leg was hooked through the boarding ladder while I took a breather and laid back for a bit of a rest. So climbing into a life raft with a life jacket on is a bit of a challenge.

After two attempts of climbing aboard I went sod it, take a moment to think this through. As I own a Switlik life-raft I went through my mind the boarding procedure as per the manufacturer's literature. 

So on my part I had to deflate said jacket and undo the leg straps so I could climb on board.

Memories from when I was a young lad learning how to sail I remembered a life jacket will keep you afloat with very little air in it. So deflating the jacket to assist in my rather ungainly boarding of this floating salvation right there in front of me.  

I had also spent a short while cursing myself that if I did not get this right all the hard work by so many people would be for nothing and did I really want to disappoint so many people through my feeble inaction.

But with the jacket deflated my clambering in was relatively easy in comparison to earlier attempts. So inside the raft was various items to make my life a better place the water being the most enjoyable factor, plus a two way radio so I could talk to the S.A.R. aircraft.

After a bit of chat I was informed the water police were on their way and would be a couple of hours getting to me, so I laid back got as comfortable as I could with the ribs and waited.

During this period the Challenger Jet departed to Nhulunbuy to refuel and a second aircraft came out and circled my position to remind me I had not been forgotten about.

I was relatively comfortable apart from the ribs, some panadol was found, taken then it was searching through the various pockets to see what other goodies I could find.

Now the kicker here was I had lost my glasses when dismounting the yacht. The activation of the PLB was second nature as I had familiarised myself with its operation so instinctively knew what to do to fire it up.

Now I was confronted with lots of packets that I could not read to see what they contained. The “food” was tack? Sea biscuits? Well, something slightly off white in colour which I deemed good to use as splints should I break a finger or arm in the process.

Other packets opened... a glow stick, nope not much good in the daylight so that was put down and discarded.

Ahh a packet of something granular is this edible I wondered? So I tore it open, spilt some immediately down my front as I tried a piece. That was pretty quickly spat out and the packet thrown over the side. Which if I had been able to read was actually a sea marker dye packet. But more on that later.

During this process of exploration I had been kneeling on the glow stick which had succumbed to my weight then split in half. Filling the bottom of the raft in a nice bright green dye. The yellow from the flavour tested yellow sea dye was also down my front so I was starting to look like some rather deranged sea creature with a wild camouflage colour scheme ideal to hide from predators in some spectacular colourful reef.

So by this stage I am looking at the mess I had created in such a short period of time my rather stained appearance but not fully taking in my now bright yellow toe and fingernails.

Drastic action had to take place so off came the shirt and as you can only do in the middle of an unfolding disaster/rescue scenario I did some laundry!

Boy did that dye get everywhere so after several rinses the shirt was finally free of it's additional colouring the shorts were black so little care there but I did think that police boat is probably due to arrive about now. So I scuttled across to the other side of the raft and sure enough, there was a police launch heading my way.

 They picked up on the line and started dragging me towards them some friendly banter came from their craft asking if there was really room for nine people in the raft to which I confirmed there was space for a party and did you bring the cheese and crackers? The smiles and strange looks with laughter did catch me a bit off guard but hey happy rescuers and always welcome. 

It was not until a short while later one of them commented upon my bright yellow smile after I had asked what was cracking them up. Then I had to recant the story of being blind as a bat sans glasses and my two-year-old manner of eating my way through everything inside of the raft, flares excluded.

Once alongside various items were decanted from the raft to the Police launch followed by a quick scramble into their launch. Upon boarding, I noticed all of the additional fuel cans and mentioned that this was probably a non-smoking voyage then? 

Then I was told how they had to beg borrow steal enough fuel cans as I was way beyond the range of the Police launch and they had to refuel at Truant island on the way back. After a stop and refuel we resumed the drive back. 

As light faded the speed was knocked back resulting in a seven hour drive back to Nhulumbuy to be met by a waiting ambulance to whisk me away to the hospital. But the paramedics were a bit perplexed when I said can you just give me a moment as I am absolutely busting for a pee.

Once they had turned their backs and walked away with the gurney to shore I spun around pulled out the old feller and made like the Trevy fountain while probably making a far too loud groan of sheer pleasure as my over-full bladder emptied itself.

Then it was a short walk to the waiting gurney where my delight at clean white sheets was met with huge smiles as I gingerly laid down  as all sorts of sticky things were stuck all over the place so essential items could be measured to make sure I didn't cark on the way to ED.

So that is part one, now we have part two ED Plus the retrieval of the yacht not forgetting the cat!

My arrival at ED was a rather special event as it's not too often they get people in who have had an extended swim in the ocean then rescued to be brought back for their immediate attention.

By this stage it was around 23.30 hours with a rumbly grumbly tummy I was asked if I wanted something to eat and drink.

To say I lit up like a fuel can with a match recently thrown in was an understatement. My blood sugars were checked as being a diabetic that was an item of potential concern but levels were in  a pretty good area considering the Peanut nut butter and jam sandwich given to me by one of the rescue police plus a fair slug of water things were actually quite good.

One of the nurses found me some toasted sandwiches and a rather nice Thai red curry chicken with rice. Mind you this was after a really nice long shower to wash all that saltwater away. 

Even though my spinlock life jacket had a hood I had still swallowed a fair bit of saltwater so the voice was hitting some weird notes. If I had not had that hood on my life-jacket there is still a good chance I would have drowned through forced ingestion of seawater.

The paperwork was an amusing process as after the basics of name date of birth address etc every other question seemed to get the same response. Nurse, Medicare card? Me, On the boat, Medication? On the boat and so on and so forth. I was literally there in a shirt a pair of shorts and a life jacket. Everything else was on the boat. Wallet, credit cards, Identification, but I did have my radio operators licence on me. The rationale being that in the pocket with my PLB was a form of identification should things have turned out in a terminal manner.  You plan for the worst but hope for the best. I have a name and it's not John Doe.

Now from the back of the room I can hear voices saying but what about the cat? Well firstly I would answer that yes I am fine as is she. But more people seem concerned with her welfare as opposed to mine. 

Did I mention I am fine and so is the cat?"

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