In a Boating Emergency

Rescue of Sailing Vessel ‘Storm Rider’, Port Stephens, 21 November 2020

The wailing klaxon ringtone on my mobile phone is decidedly annoying but also very effective at waking me from my sleep.  It’s reserved specifically for SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) messages emanating from the Duty Call-out Officer (DCO), and has two immediate impacts. It fills me with adrenalin and also conveys that lives are at risk somewhere in Port Stephens

And so it was in the early hours of 21 November 20. A SOLAS message goes from the DCO to all boat crew saying simply: ‘SOLAS Coalshaft Bay’. The time is 0414. Sleep-defying ringtones sound off around the bay, and the response is immediate. All available boat crew muster at the dock in Nelson Bay.  Ross – the duty Watchkeeper in the Communications Centre – relays the essential information to the Rescue Vessel (RV) crew. Storm Rider – a 38 foot (12 metre) monohull sailing vessel with two people on board has run aground on the rocky north-eastern shoreline of Coalshaft Bay, one of three anchorages at Broughton Island.

Anthony, on Nav/Radio, obtains up-to-date weather information whilst the remaining four crew (Laurie as Master, Iain on FLIR, and Mick and Ian working the deck) prepare the RV ‘Port Stephens 31’ (PS31) for sea. Lines are cast aside and PS31 departs the berth barely 16 minutes after the SOLAS text was issued, and 17 minutes since all five crew were sound asleep in their beds.

The current weather conditions advised by the Watchkeeper are for winds from the south at 15-20 knots, with a southerly swell of 1.5-2.5 metres. These conditions should make for a reasonably fast voyage with a following sea and winds all the way to Broughton Island.  Estimated time to arrive on scene is just over 30 minutes, and this is relayed to the two persons on board the distressed vessel (DV) by the Watchkeeper.

It is 12 nautical miles from the marina to Broughton Island, and PS31 covers the distance in just under 30 mins at speeds of up to 20 knots. It’s moonless and the first rays of daylight are yet to appear. PS31 is enveloped in an inky darkness, and the crew make full use of radar and FLIR (Forward-Looking Infra-Red camera) as well as visual lookouts to search for any object that might be in their way.  It is amazing how dark a dark night can be; PS31 crossed the port limit between Tomaree and Yacaaba Headlands before threading her way through the offshore islands without the crew ever gaining sight of any of them.  Thankfully, PS31 is equipped with the latest electronic navigation systems and displays, with tried-and-tested pre-loaded Route Plans, thus allowing the crew to navigate in such conditions with a high degree of confidence and safety.

The approach to Coalshaft Bay is tricky, and without due caution it can be quite dangerous.  There are numerous rocky outcrops very close to the surface which are often exposed, and threading between them and into the bay itself in darkness is not for the faint-hearted.  The last half mile or so is best approached with a great deal of caution at about five knots.

The RV’s search lights soon pick up the stricken yacht in the northern corner of the bay, half in and half out of the water. The vessel is resting on a rocky shore-line, with a list of about 45 degrees to port. There are rocks on the beach, and the crew therefore assume there are also rocks in the water just off the beach, so the approach is made with extreme caution.  The first rays of sunlight are just beginning to show, and the scene they now expose for the RV is not pretty.  The DV is in fact in a shallow area where the bottom drops away quite slowly. This area is exposed at low tide. It’s more than three hours into an ebbing tide now, with a low of 0.65 meters due in several more hours. There is an obvious time imperative now; the longer PS31 delays, the more difficult it will be to retrieve the DV from the shore.

The crew decide to attempt to rescue the DV by throwing a weighted heaving line (attached to the heavier towline) from the nose of PS31.  She inches towards the DV with some very keen eyes keeping watch on the water depth.  Crew on the forward deck of PS31 attempt to throw the heaving line, but on two occasions it falls just short.  PS31 edges a little closer for a third throw, which is successfully caught by the crew of the DV who quickly recover the heaving line and towline. PS31 backs away rapidly now into deeper water to avoid being pushed by wind and waves onto the beach, the deck crew working briskly to pay out the towline. Once in safe water, Laurie then spins PS31 through 180 degrees as the deck crew deftly move the towline down the side of the vessel and secure it to PS31’s aft tow post. At the same time the crew of the DV secure the tow line to their forward cleats.

With the towline now securely attached to Storm Rider, the job of trying to get the DV off the beach can commence.  This is a challenging and risky task; a raft of things can go wrong.  If you pull too hard there is a risk of damage to the deck hardware on one or both vessels, but if you don’t pull hard enough you won’t achieve the desired result.  There is a limit to the amount of pulling force that the tow-post on PS31 can withstand (about 1.5 tonnes deadweight), beyond which serious damage can be sustained. The direction of pull also needs weighty consideration to ensure that both the RV and DV aren’t placed in more danger.

In the case of Storm Rider, constant pressure is maintained on the towline for about five minutes. She moves slightly but not enough to free herself.  A correction to the direction of pull is made to compensate for a slight drift, and then PS31 applies power and pulls for another few minutes.  Suddenly, something gives way on the DV and the towline snakes back towards PS31, having come free of the DV. It later transpires that the deck cleats on Storm Rider had been pulled from the deck!

At this time PS31 motors back to within shouting distance, and the skipper of the DV confirms that he wants to make one more attempt at getting off the beach. Heaving and towline are reset and passed over, and this time the DV crew feed the towline through their bow roller and secure it to the base of their mast. The result is a much more secure attachment.

As PS31 commences the next pull it is clear to all that this will be the final attempt, by virtue of the falling tide and the exposure of more and more of Storm Rider’s hull and the rocks obstructing her rudder. A strong pull is therefore commenced and things suddenly look more promising as a small swell begins to unsettle the DV. The tow pressure is maintained, and this combines with the action of the sea to produce a number of shuddering movements. Several minutes pass and Storm Rider slowly begins to work herself free. The tip of her rudder presents one last obstacle as it remains firmly wedged behind a rock. The judicious application of power eventually wins out however and she floats free, minus a small part of her rudder!

PS31 sets a course which takes them out of Coalshaft Bay between rocky outcrops and into deeper water. Storm Rider follows somewhat erratically behind until her crew manage to bring the steerage under control. Within minutes however, they advise PS31 that they have sustained damage to their hull and are taking on water. They do however believe their bilge pumps are up to the task and wish to make their way back to Port Stephens under their own power.  The towline is therefore dropped and PS31 assumes a shadowing position off Storm Rider’s port side. Not wishing to exacerbate the damage to her hull, the DV proceeds to Port Stephens at a steady four to five knots. PS31 remains faithfully by her side for the nearly three hours it takes to motor back.

Upon entering the Port it is obvious that Storm Rider can safely complete the journey to D’Albora Marina under her own steam. PS31 therefore departs the scene and goes ahead at speed to arrange an emergency lift for the vessel onto the hardstand at the marina.

The staff at the boatyard could not be more helpful, and quickly deploy the boat lift with slings in the water. Storm Rider duly enters the marina and motors into the lift with finesse. Slings are carefully positioned under the hull and the DV is soon clear of the water. It is only then that the full extent of the damage to the vessel can be seen.  She has two deep gashes on her portside aft, both extending below the waterline, and the rudder is badly delaminated and missing the bottom few inches. Such damage can, thankfully, be repaired, given time and money. We can be even more thankful that neither of the two men on the DV nor any of the five crew on the RV are suffering now from anything worse than a lack of sleep!