I usually write my articles after an adventure or incident that I was involved in – from the salty side of the story. This one is different. Twice in recent months I’ve been the one left ashore and the lessons I learned have given me a better appreciation of what goes on when things go wrong at sea and how those ashore are impacted.
My friend Barry is a lifelong sailor. He has done the Cairns to Philippines run twice and crossed to Fiji with me aboard a Catana 45 catamaran, Chaotic Harmony. Last year he was living and cruising in the Philippines for over a year with his wife Joan and young son Euan. Joan was pregnant so they decided to return to Cairns via Palau, the northern route over Papua New Guinea then around the eastern end through the Louisiades. Barry and Joan live aboard a modified Fastback 48ft catamaran. They had done extensive cosmetic work on the boat in the Philippines but she had oldish engines and well worked sails.
Barry is not a great communicator. He is pretty confident and competent and you rarely hear from him unless something is up. The first I knew that he had left the Philippines was from his Facebook site but I had no idea when he planned to arrive in Cairns. I vaguely wondered how he was progressing and was pleased to get a phone call from him after he had arrived in the Louisiades. We talked about some fuel issues and he requested I update Australian Border control on his altered arrival date. He subsequently let me know that they had fuelled up and were planning on departing in a couple of days. As requested, I contacted Border Patrol/Customs and let them know his approximate arrival date in two weeks.
Then I heard nothing. Two weeks had passed so I phoned the number Barry had called me on and spoke to the person who had helped him fuel up. He had left two days after I had last spoken to him and they envisaged that he would have been in Cairns by now.
A little worried, I phone Barry’s son to see if he had heard from him. Nothing.
I waited another couple of days and decided to give Customs a call. They had no further information other than my previous contact. I waited another day then called AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority). They asked details about which I had some scant information – As best I knew there were two adults (one pregnant) and one three year old aboard. I knew he had a VHF radio but was not sure about an HF radio. I knew he did not have a Sat phone and assumed he had an EPIRB although I had no details of this. I had a picture of the boat and Barry and was able to email these to AMSA. As the operator went through the details required I realised how under prepared I was to make a notification.
AMSA calculated that at a 3kt average the catamaran Valhalla was only just due. At this stage they would wait.
Another four days passed and I called AMSA again. They decided that as we were approaching a week overdue on their calculations that a ship alert would be put out.
At this stage my mind started to play games. I contemplated all the problems that Barry might have been facing – both medical and yacht issues. As I had no knowledge of his safety gear, had not seen the yacht for a couple of years, I assumed the worst and that increased the concern. Doctors do that. Until proven otherwise we first exclude the serious stuff. AMSA called me to say that they were upgrading the watch to all ships but given the wide possible location no search was planned at this stage.
At this time I had planned to sail to Lizard Island with friends aboard three catamarans – Leitening Storm, Catcha and Barefoot – for some serious kiteboarding. I notified AMSA that I would be on radio contact if they needed any further information or had any updates. I was also heading in the direction Valhalla was sailing toward – they should be sailing south to Cairns, I was heading north to the Lizard. As we ran downwind on the second day out I spotted a catamaran well out to sea, beating south inside the ribbon reefs. I hailed them on the VHF without success. Two days later AMSA radioed to let me know Valhalla had arrived in Cairns, all okay. Twenty four days from Lousiades to Cairns. That had to be a record for a slow trip ...
I never really told Barry about the events behind the scene although I did ponder the need to get more information if I see myself as keeping an eye one friends doing ocean crossings. I was not an ‘official’ point of contact and had there been a problem then it may have been many weeks before any notification might have occurred if I had not been asked to update their arrival with Border control.
Four months later I received a phone call from AMSA again. This time at 2340 hours, rousing me from a weary sleep at the end of a busy consulting day that had started at 5am.
“Is that Gavin Le Sueur?” the operator from AMSA asked. I replied to the affirmative and he came back with “What can you tell me about the catamaran Catcha?”
Catcha, a Windspeed 38, was en route to Brisbane with two friends – skipper Jamie and his cousin and crew Michael. I had planned to join them at Easter to do the Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race and they had left Cairns two weeks previously. It was with Michael and Jamie that I had sailed north to Lizard island a few months earlier. Fortunately, I had spoken to Michael’s brother earlier in the evening and he said they were trying to get to Brisbane for the weekend and had left Gladstone earlier that day.
“Why?” I enquired. Obviously something was up.
“You have been listed as the third contact on the EPIRB details for Catcha. The first number dialled out, the second was incorrect,” he replied. “We have the EPIRB for Catcha currently going off 3nm off Hook Point.”
I was now very much wide awake and with my mobile glued to my ear I staggered downstairs and fired up my computer.
The EPRIB was going off on the southern end of Fraser island.
“That is where Catcha could be. They were overnighting between Gladstone and Brisbane,” I said. AMSA had the yacht details from the EPRIB registration. As the operator went through the information they had I checked the weather on the BOM site and on bouyweather. On a quick glance It looked like excellent conditions – no rain, light winds.
“If the EPIRB is going off then it is likely that something has happened,” I commented. “Both Jamie and Michael are experienced yachtsman although mainly in racing rather than cruising”. My mind was flitting with possibilities. Man overboard? Fire? Explosion?
While the operator gave me the details of the other contacts – one was Jamie’s mother and the other Michael’s brother – I dialled Michael, then Jamie’s mobiles. Nothing. No answer. That probably excluded man overboard.
“We are activating a helicopter to find the boat,” The operator said. ‘We will be in touch when we have news. If you could be the point of contact for family but at this stage we do not know anything.’
Sleep was not an option now. I went through the weather more closely. There was a swell warning – a result of the cyclone in Fiji – but no storms and squalls evident on the BOM radar. The weather would deteriorate in another 24 hours. I tried their phones again. Still no answer on the two mobiles.
A little over an hour later AMSA called. They had sighted a capsized catamaran outside the surf line in the Wide Bay bar area. There appeared to be two people holding on to the underside of the hulls. AMSA were activating the Tin Can Bay water police or coast guard to attempt a rescue.
I phoned Michael’s mother and let her know what was happening and that the boys have been spotted. I was then able to get Jamie’s sister’s number and Michael’s brother’s new number and let them know also. The families were now all in touch and aware of the unfolding drama. New information appeared when Michael’s brother said the boys had sailed down inside Fraser Island and probably crossed the Wide Bay Bay. Now the situation made more sense. Catcha had obviously capsized on the notorious bar somewhere in the ‘Mad Mile’ – and the outgoing tide taken her to sea where they initiated the EPIRB
By 3.30am the Tin Can Bay Coast guard had rescued Jamie and Michael from the capsized Catcha. Conditions were rough on the bar and the coast guard was not planning on attempting re-entry until the change of tide slack water. But the boys were okay.
After the tide change near dawn the crew of Catcha finally made shore thanks to the valiant efforts of AMSA, the helicopter crew and the Coast Guard. I phoned all the families again and put my head down for a 20 minute catnap before up and back the surgery. It was not my best day consulting and a wave of exhaustion – sleep deprivation and worry combined – kicked in when I finally arrived back home. I am sure the lack of adrenalin by being ashore rather than in the thick of the drama makes it a bit harder to cope with.
The loss of Catcha highlighted the benefit of having all the notifications, contacts, details and safety equipment in place. It that made for a positive outcome, sans catamaran. The rough weather kicked in the next day and Catcha washed up in pieces on Inskip point.
When you decide who is a contact person for your EPIRB or make a notification to any of the reporting authorities don’t treat the seriousness of the details lightly. Do not underestimate the stress on those left behind and do your best to cover bases with updated contacts, details and time frames. This helps the authorities do the right thing by you and helps those ashore help make the decisions which, if things go belly up, might save your lives.