September 30, 2015

dismasted - auckland to puerto williams: part 4

Story/Photos by Somira Sao

Below is the final excerpt from my story about Anasazi Girl getting dismasted in March 2014. A shorter version is featured in the September 2015 issue of Yachting World (UK).  The full story can be read HERE.

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I looked around.  A few of our duffels bags had shifted out of place. Seas were still rough & messy, and I was worried about James up there with the rig loose. I hoped more than anything that there was some way we could make a jury-rig, and that no holes were in the hull or deck. I was incredibly sad and disappointed, but the feeling of relief that everyone was okay overpowered all other emotions.

I could not image a scenario where someone was seriously hurt.  Amazingly, Anasazi Girl had done what she was designed to do, her structural integrity had kept everyone safe.  I thought about the way Raivo and James had moved through the short distance inside the cabin, and how even their impact had been controlled by the layout and the response of the boat.

“Let’s listen,” I said to Tormentina, “and make sure we can hear your Dad.  As soon as it’s safe, we’ll get you moved over to this berth, but for now, let’s be still and quiet, because it’s still dangerous out there and we have to make sure we’re ready to help your Dad if he needs us.”

We listened to the good sounds of his footsteps and the scrape of the carabineer that kept him tethered to the boat as he moved around on deck.

When he came down below, he sat down at the nav station, looking completely defeated.

“It’s a mess out there. There are two head sails streaming in the water. The rig is in three pieces, broken at the top above the hounds and broken about a meter above the deck. That piece is lying fore & aft along the cabin-top. The boom is still attached and I’ve got that secured so it’s not banging around.”

Waves slammed against us and we heard the scrape of carbon as the mast shifted over the cabin.

“Are there any holes in the boat?” I asked.

“No, not that I can see,” he answered.

“Can we save the rig?” I asked.

“I’m going to try. I need to do something right away. With all this stuff floating in the water, we have to minimize any potential damage. We can’t risk damaging the rudders or the hull.”

He looked at the chart, marking our position on both the paper and electronic versions before turning off the electronics. We were approximately 320 miles from Cook Bay.

“If we can get ourselves to Bahia Cook, then we can anchor there until the seas lay down.  Then maybe we can make a jury rig to get into Puerto Williams.” said James.

“Right now I need to focus on cleaning up. The safest thing is for everyone to stay put. Don’t walk around, don’t do anything, just stay in the berths. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

James took a sip of water in silence. He double-checked his safety gear and started up the companion-way steps.

“Now is the time when I have to be really smart,” he said, more to himself than me, before he opened the door.

The hours that followed were the most difficult moments of waiting I have ever experienced. The seas were terrible, and we listened to the sound of James as he worked above. I knew I had to be down below to take care of the kids, but I felt helpless and guilty for being there, dry and safe, while James was out in there risking his life. If it was quiet for too long, I would sometimes let my imagination go to negative thoughts. In this situation, it was very hard to exercise mind control to keep completely positive.

At one point, a wave hit us hard and the mast moved dramatically, scraping loudly across the deck. James gave a loud sharp yell from above.

“Are you OK?!” I yelled.

No answer.

“James!” Tormentina and I yelled again a few times.  “Are you OK?”

Silence. After some time of no response, I got out of the berth and opened the door to yell out, while keeping an eye on the kids. Finally he answered with an “I’m OK.”

We were separated by the cabin-top, but in reality, he was another world away.

Every muscle in my body was knotted with tension as we waited while he continued to work. At last, he came down below.

“Are you alright?” I asked. “You really scared us when we heard you yell. I thought maybe you weren't on the boat anymore.”

“A wave hit the boat and the mast turned 90 degrees,” he said. “I got pinned against the stanchion and life lines,” he explained. “I thought that was going to be it for me.”

“Did you get hurt?”

“Yes, my back, the spot where I got pressed against the stanchion,” he said. “But I got the solent cut away and the got rid of the broken top piece of the mast. The storm jib is gone, but I managed to save the trinquette. I need to cut the rig away – I think that it’s too messy out here and too dangerous to try to keep it on the boat.”

James went back out and worked the following hours to cut the mast away. We could hear him grunting in effort as he worked to lift and move the sails and mast. I was sure that he was running purely on adrenaline at this point because he had hardly had any sleep, food, or water.

Once it was safe for us to move around the cabin, I helped Tormentina get into dry clothes, use the toilet, and eat some food. She was now in my berth, warm and dry, watching a movie with Pearl. Raivo was asleep.

About six hours after the mast first broke, James finally stopped working. He came inside, took his gloves, harness, and jacket off.

He sat down at the navigation station and looked absolutely and completely hammered.

The mast was now gone, at the bottom of the deep blue. So was one head sail, a storm jib, some lines and some hardware. Part of the main that was saved was lying on the side deck. Some of our sheet bags were missing, the mesh at the back of the transom, and a couple of winch handles had disappeared. The water that had come into Tormentina’s quarter berth was from the ballast tank. An air vent pipe coming from that tank had gotten cracked by one of our spares boxes getting shifted around. With us being on our side, saltwater had flowed up back through this pipe.

We did not speak. I offered James some hot soup and water. He ate a little bit, but it was obvious his appetite was completely gone. He laid across the navigation seat, and closed his eyes in complete exhaustion.

While he slept, I stepped out in the cockpit for the first time since we were knocked down. The sun was shining, the horizon was filled with blue skies and a few gentle looking white clouds. Seas were still uncomfortable, but nothing like the monster waves that had been slamming into us.

It was as if the storm had never happened.

However, staring forward at the stump of the mast sticking out of the boat brought me back to reality. James had thrown part of the main over it, and the boat was sailing on course at 3-4 knots with the autopilot and no rig.

I went back down below, still blown away that we had actually lost our rig. While everyone rested, I started to organize things down below, putting loose items away, cleaning, drying the floors, making food. I washed my face and brushed my teeth. These simple things helped make things feel somewhat “normal”.

When James woke up, it was approximately 8 hours after our knock-down. We had lost our Sea-Me and radar units. Fortunately the antennas and comms units mounted on the transom were still intact.  James and I re-worked our NMEA interfacing so it would work with the Sea-Me and radar components gone from the hub. Once it was reconfigured, we fired up our system and our instrument data was once again working with our navigation software. We calculated time, distance, and fuel needed to get to Cook Bay. Based on our calculations, if we motored full power at 6 knots, we could get in within 50-60 hours. We were approximately 50L of fuel short for this distance. This was not taking into consideration opposing factors like currents, wind on our beam, or drift.

We had a choice, let ourselves drift toward Cape Horn and then motor to the Beagle, or we could start to motor now to Bahia Cook.

We did not immediately call anyone. We knew if a rescue was initiated, it was not only a sure-fire way to lose Anasazi Girl, but it would also mean expense & risking the lives of other people.

The boom was designed to stand up. We decided our best chance was to motor to Bahia Cook and then make this jury rig at anchor.

James started the engine and pointed us on course for Bahia Cook. All unnecessary electronics and the heat were turned off, and we all bundled up.

As we motored and watched our fuel drop, we slowly came to terms with the fact that were not going to make it in without help. We reluctantly made a call on the SAT phone to the Port Captain’s office in Puerto Williams to inform them of our situation to see if we could hire a nearby fishing boat to meet us close to Bahia Cook to do a fuel drop. We had filed their number as part of our pre-voyage planning.

In Spanish, James explained to them that we had lost our mast and were approximately 50L short fuel to get into Cook Bay. He gave them his full name, our boat name, position, our MMSI number, last port of call, the number of crew members aboard, and our SAT phone number. He informed them that no one was hurt on board. He told them there was no immediate emergency. James asked them if there were any nearby vessels we could hire to meet us with fuel. They said they would be in contact with us.

That was it. The call was made, and felt somewhat anti-climactic. After a few hours had passed, we were unsure if they fully understood our situation.

We called our close friend Andy Ball in New Zealand, who had been there in Auckland to untie our lines at the dock.  We updated him on the recent events, James telling him that he thought maybe he had cracked one of his ribs cutting the rig away.  We then emailed him details of our position, asking if he could contact New Zealand Coast Guard to assist us with communications with Puerto Williams as we were unsure whether or not they understood.

We also called our friend Richard Duffau, a French sailor who had spent a number of years cruising in Chile, and had spent some years in and out of Puerto Williams. He told us to continue heading for the coast and assured us that if the Armada de Chile were involved, we had nothing to worry about, that they would make sure we got in safely.

We spent a very sleepless night aboard Anasazi Girl. Very early the next morning, we made a second call to the Port Captain’s office in Puerto Williams, updating them with our position, and assuring them of the status of everyone’s health aboard. New Zealand Maritime had been in contact with them.

James asked if they would be able to provide us with any fuel. They told us that they would not be dropping us any fuel. They said a recue had been initiated to pick us up and that the closest merchant vessel had been diverted to our last known position. We needed to contact them every hour on the Iridium with updates on our position.

After this call, James looked at me in pure defeat.

“Somira, they’re not giving us fuel. The Navy launched a rescue.” He then relayed the other half of the conversation.

We couldn’t believe we had gotten this far, and that in an instant, our fate had been altered.

We had suddenly done what we never wished to do, and that was get other people involved and risking their lives to help us. Our life program was about to change very dramatically. If they were sending a container ship, then we did not know how we could possibly do a safe transfer or how in these seas they could come up alongside us, or how they were going to safely lift us and our children such a big height without someone getting hurt. The risk in this situation for us was very high.

James and I wanted to call the Armada and deny a rescue, but felt conflicted because we had our children aboard. If it was just the two of us it was another story. After some time talking, we agreed that getting picked up meant a better guarantee of safety and continued life for our family, even at the higher risk of possibly getting hurt in a transfer. We couldn’t let our egos overshadow the most important thing, and that was the safety of our children.

Over the next two hours, we contacted the Armada with our position, and continued on our course to Cook Bay. When the kids woke up, we told them that the Chilean Navy was going to help us, that they were sending a ship for us to bring us to port. We also told them that this also meant we were going to say goodbye to Anasazi  Girl.

This was very emotional and tearful news for our two oldest, especially Tormentina. The boat had become, over the last three years, their home. Considering their short lives, this was like forever in their minds. We explained that there was a possibility that James could stay aboard and try to get the boat into port himself, but really the Armada was in charge now, and we had to do what they said. The biggest thing was that we would all be safe.

Tormentina said that James staying with the boat wasn’t an option, that we were sticking together like glue, even if it meant losing Anasazi Girl.

James told her that if that was what she wanted, then “sticking together” what was we would do.

Then he asked her what she wanted to do next, that it was just a boat. We were together and we could go anywhere and start a new life.

She replied, “I want to go to live somewhere warm, where I can wear a grass skirt and swim in the water every day.”

We laughed, and said that we would not need to pack very much then.

James prepared the Anasazi Girl for the rescue, clearing everything from the deck. We did not know what side the ship would come alongside us, and figured the best thing to do was to keep everything as clean as possible to guarantee everyone’s safety.

After very difficult comms for the last three calls over very patchy Iridium coverage, we got a call from the Port Captain’s office in Puerto Williams that was crystal clear.

The man on the phone spoke perfect English and said that his name was Captain Juan Soto.

James updated him our position and our current course. James explained to Juan that we were conserving fuel so that we could stay on course and get as close as possible to Cook Bay. He told Juan that he was really worried about how we could safely get picked up by a container carrier.

Juan Soto said, “James, don’t worry. The merchant ship is the stand-by vessel now. I am leaving Puerto Williams right now with my ship and my men, and we’re coming to get you. Please eat, drink water, rest, and turn the heat on.”

James felt instantly at ease after this call. The pain in his back had settled in. When he used the head that morning, he came back saying he was urinating blood. For him, the adrenaline hard worn off and the reality of his physical condition set in, making him realize that trying to get in without help really wasn’t an option.

We turned the heat on, and the warmth made the boat feel like home again. We continued making calls with our position report, the connection on the SAT phone was poor, making this simple task difficult.

At one point the Armada informed us that a special Navy plane would be flying overhead that could see submarines in order to make a visual confirmation of our position. Our vessel, being carbon, presented a very small radar signal, and they were concerned about losing us if our communications suddenly failed.

Shortly after, we heard and saw the plane overhead, and James talked to the pilots on the plane on the VHF radio.

True to his word, Commandante Soto was the first to arrive on the scene with his ship PSG-78 Piloto Sibbald, crewed by 28 men.  The plan was to rendezvous with us at first light.

After two nights on our dismasted vessel, we heard and saw the Navy plane fly overhead a second time.  We saw the Sibbald in the distance approaching us, and the merchant vessel standing off.

In big seas, two zodiacs were launched by the Sibbald, one of which tied up alongside us. In the zodiac were two crewman, two rescue divers in wetsuits, a medic, and a young officer who spoke perfect English.

When asked about our health, James told the officer, Lieutenant Javier Germain, that he thought he had cracked a rib, was pissing blood and very much in pain now.

Javier asked permission to come aboard, which we gladly gave. Javier squatted on the starboard side deck and said that we would get transferred first by zodiac, checked over by the medics, then the Commandante would talk to us about what would happen with our boat.  He asked if we were ready to do this, and we answered, "Yes."

I put a hand on Anasazi Girl one last time and said a silent goodbye to her as I stepped off her for the last time, holding back tears. We all watched with heavy hearts as we drove further away from the boat in toward the Sibbald, the saltwater spraying us as we made our way through the seas. In a big swell we were able to tie up alongside the Navy ship after two attempts.

We had prepared the kids for the pickup ahead of time, wearing their helmets and PFD life vests with built-in harnesses with a carbineer hanging and ready to clip. This was perfect, because once we were alongside the Sibbald, we were easily able to clip them safely into a line and they got lifted up quickly and securely. Pearl was lifted first. I climbed up the ladder second after I told Tormentina and Raivo to be brave, that I would see them in just a few moments. Once I was aboard, I was greeted by smiling crew members, who handed Pearl to me immediately.

I was ushered inside while the other two kids were getting lifted and soon they were reunited with me. James was lifted aboard last by a crane, clipped in with the rescue diver. We were all brought into the infirmary, where there were four bunks and an examination table. I removed all the kids’ safety gear and jackets.  There were two medics there who checked our vitals and asked us questions.

After this, Commandante Soto came into the infirmary and welcomed us aboard, speaking perfect English.

He was a tall, fit man in his 40’s, with curly salt & pepper hair.  We both shook his hand tightly, and thanked him for risking his life and his men’s to save us.

James explained to the Commandante in Spanish that when he heard his voice over the SAT phone the day before, he felt instantly at ease about everything.

In that instant of coming face to face with him, we felt an irreversible connection and lifelong friendship solidify between us.

Juan Soto said he had four children, the youngest three were the same age as our children.  He also explained that most of his crew members also had children, and that they were all really happy that we were safe.

The looks in everyone’s eyes aboard said it all.  This was a life changing moment for all of us involved as we came together in this incredible instant.

Juan told us that he believed there was just enough of a weather window that he thought he could tow Anasazi Girl in.  He said he would be willing to put a line on her and would she be okay towed at 15 knots?  If for some reason there was a problem that would create a risk for their vessel or they couldn’t make sufficient speed, then they would have to cut the line.

James and I were shocked. We had fully expected the discussion to be about opening her through holes to sink her, not at all this scenario. Rescues were about saving lives, not things, and we had already let go of the boat.

We agreed to sign a release for them to do this. Lieutenant Germain talked to James about the best way it should be done, then returned with the same divers and crew-men who had been in zodiac that picked us up to tie a tow line to the boat.

Hours later, we quickly underway toward Bahia Cook.  James was lying in a berth in the sick bay, finally physically finished after this epic and very difficult trial of the sea. He was certain he had broken one or two ribs.  He was now fully dehydrated, on pain meds and an IV.

I felt as though we were in a dream. Maybe we had really died, and this was some post-life fantasy being lived out. Or maybe I was still stuck in that moment before water was about to rush inside the boat. I had to pinch myself, as my kids and I stood on the aft deck of the Navy ship, watching our dismasted sailboat getting towed behind us just beyond the ship’s wake.

 We were all safe, with James suffering minor injuries.  As if by letting the boat go, she was somehow miraculously returned to us.  We were together and Anasazi Girl was coming home with us.













Comandante Juan Soto - Our hero & friend for life.
PSG-78 Piloto Sibbald
Commandate Juan Soto
PSG-78 Piloto Sibbald
My crew with Juan Soto aboard the PSG-78 Piloto Sibbald
Commandante Juan Soto
PSG-78 Piloto Sibbald
Liutenant Jaiver German - the first person to come aboard Anasazi Girl three days after the mast broke.
PSG-78 Piloto Sibbald
Javier German & Rodrigo Rojas, who were the first to arrive on the scene at Anasazi Girl in the zodiac.
Both men returned a second time to Anasazi Girl while we were at sea, Rodrigo tied the tow line to the Sibbald.
Pedro Rivera - Medic
The first to first arrive by zodiac to Anasazi Girl & one of three medics who assisted us and cared for James during transport.
 Osvaldo Álvarez - Rescue Diver
First to arrive by zodiac on the scene at Anasazi Girl.
Patricio Hidalgo - Rescue Diver
One of the first to arrive by zodiac on the scene at Anasazi Girl and
one of those wild guys who jumps out of helicopters into the ocean.

10 comments:

  1. Incredible story. Thanks so much for writing and sharing that. I know it must be hard to relive it all that way!

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    1. Thanks Rebecca for your support & for reading the details of our story... very fortunate and grateful for how it all ended. Now to get back up & sailing again!! We are half-way to earning the funds needed to make our repairs.

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  2. I have been following you for some time now and never commented. This story is incredible and needs to be made into a movie. WIth the small children, the sea and the handsome Chilean Captain, it has all the makings of a major hit. Hopefully you will make a small fortune that will allow you to continue your amazing journey. Un abrazo, Louise Larsen

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    1. Thanks Louise for taking the time to comment. It was a very special moment for all parties involved. The story of Soto and the heroic crew of the Sibbald is a story in and of itself. A majority of the men aboard who came to rescue us left their families - wife and small children / same ages as ours - in Puerto Williams. These families waited for almost three days, understanding that their fathers/husbands were at sea, trying to help another family in distress.

      When we arrived in Puerto Williams and became part of the community, this created a very unique bond between all of us.

      The crew were very emotional, some explaining to us that they didn't fully understand why they were doing their job all these years, not until that first moment when they saw our small 40' boat floating out there at sea and our family waiting out in the cockpit for the ship.

      Very often in intensive rescue situations, the rescuer & the rescued never meet again. In this case, our kids play & go to school with the children of the men who saved our lives. Incredible thing for the kids to understand.

      As for a film - an American film-maker, Sam Greenfield (OBR for the last Volvo Ocean Race/Team Dongfeng) is en route to make a documentary about our family now.

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    2. Amazing! I cannot wait for the movie. Peace, Louise

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  3. Incredible story. Thank you so much for having written down every moment and sharing that with us. I had tears in my eyes reading your experience. I wish you guys all the best for your next adventures.

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  4. Thanks Venessa! Our spirits are strong and the adventure continues... Abrazos grandes, Somira

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  5. Great, emotional story! Worth to be known! – Best wishes, Georg

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  6. Thanks for sharing your story. I think it's important for sailors to learn about how you and James reacted to the dismasting and how you kept the boat and yourselves safe; and also important for everyone to hear about the rescue crew that went out to help you. Good luck with continuing on!

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