Cairns sailor Doug Macleod recently returned home after the South African racing yacht Wizard, on which he was crewing, sank in the Indian Ocean. By Rosemary Jilderts.
The Wizard had been bought by South African businessman, Gerrie Boshoff, specifically to compete in the ARC Around the World Rally. But after losing her mast 700 nm off the Australian coast she sat in Cairns for 32 months while Gerrie battled with the insurer. Eventually the patience of Federal Authorities wore thin and Wizard was ordered to leave Australia. After a brief test sail, with a crew of eight on board she sailed out of Cairns on August 7, 2011. Next stop Bali.
After two days of mostly motoring the wind picked up and one reef - then a second - was put in. For the first time since leaving Cairns they sailed beautifully, doing about 9 knots in 18 knots of breeze.
Day three saw Wizard threading her way through Albany and Prince of Wales Passages into the Torres Strait. Breakdowns were common… some minor, some major. The mainsail delaminated but with the addition of multi-coloured patches they came back up to speed. By then they were 1008nm from Bali, 1300nm from Cairns … over halfway.
Windless days beset them as they entered the Timor Sea. The crew spent listless days, hand-steering hour after hour as their autopilot wasn’t working properly. Averaging around 6 knots motor-sailing, the occasional puff of wind didn’t help.
Friday August 19 dawned still and calm, but behind them a dark black line announced the imminent arrival of wind. Gusts of 20-30 knots hit and soon Wizard was flying at 9 then 10 knots, through the afternoon, that night and most of Saturday. Suddenly Bali didn’t seem so far away.
Because Gerrie didn’t get the required CAIT (Cruising Application Indonesian Territories) the inevitable hassles occurred with Authorities in Bali. Gerrie had to bargain hard for not abiding by the country’s entry requirements.
After clearing Bali, Wizard set sail for Christmas Island which was swarming with Federal Police. Crewmembers were fascinated with the people and the scenery, the birds and crabs, wild chillies and passionfruit, cheap beer and great breakfasts. Christmas to Cocos was made with 15-20 knots behind and Wizard maintained speeds of 8-10 knots for two days and three nights. They arrived at dawn to a picture-perfect scene. As they anchored in the blue-green, palm tree-encircled lagoon at deserted Direction Island, black tipped reef sharks came in to check out the boat. Formalities were completed by Australian Federal Police who arrived by jet ski with a tourism representative perched on the back.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous. I reckon it’s the pick of any place I’ve seen,” Doug said. “Direction Island is where you anchor … where the old Telegraph Station used to be. It cost $10 a night to anchor.”
Out of sight
After leaving Cocos, Wizard’s bow was pointed towards Chagos but plans came to an abrupt halt three days later when the sight in Gerrie’s right eye deteriorated. Five countries’ Sea Rescue Organisations became involved in this medical emergency.
First contact was with the South African emergency services … who contacted the Australians … who asked the British if the boat could call in to Diego Garcia for treatment. The Brits contacted the Americans at the base but were advised the boat could only enter if “life or limb was endangered”. They decided to head for Rodrigues “at full racing speed”.
Eight days of flat-out racing followed with “the prize our skipper’s eyesight.” Trade winds blew them towards their destination over a black ocean. Helmsmen battled choppy seas, four metre swells and 30 knots of wind, reaching speeds of 13 knots as Wizard crested a wave then surfed down its face.
Powering onwards the crew enjoyed an exhilarating ride, investing her helmsmen with a feeling of power as she flew over and through the waves. She didn’t stumble, she didn’t falter … this 12 tonne piece of racing machinery.
Their position had to be reported to Australia every 12 hours. Waiting at Rodrigues were bureaucrats and medical people – Immigration, Customs, Health and the Harbour Master. Wizard’s crew were unanimous in their praise for the emergency services of South Africa, Australia, Britain, Mauritius and Rodrigues.
The skipper was packed off to South Africa where his detached retina was repaired and recovery began.
There was time to explore Rodrigues while Gerrie was recovering. Doug enthused, “A beautiful island, but environmentally wrecked. The people are friendly and their government is excellent. Before they leave school every student must read, write and do arithmetic in English, French, Hindi and Creole.”
When Gerrie returned to Rodrigues, some crewmembers had flown home. The yacht’s complement now consisted of only five.
The sailing was fast and exciting, although Doug admitted that between Christmas and Cocos they averaged between 15 and 20 knots which he wasn’t comfortable with. Wizard was being pushed hard so shackles broke from metal fatigue. Doug believes that if Australian Customs had allowed them another two days many problems wouldn’t have occurred.
In the early hours of November 3 the wind was blowing around 35 knots with 5 metres seas. They were sailing comfortably around 500nm off Durbin … about a day or a day and a half out … when all hell broke loose.
“I’d fallen asleep with my wet weather pants on … Wizard was a very wet boat. I felt a slap, just like coming down off a wave. Perhaps a little bit louder. Enough to wake you and say ‘oh yeah’. Then Gerrie woke me saying we were taking water and needed to get into the life raft. I jumped up, threw my jacket on … underneath I had jocks and a t-shirt … and bolted on deck clutching my grab-bag. I’d taken some things out because we only had a day to go, so I later discovered my wallet and medications were missing.
“The water rose around one foot every ten seconds. The yacht didn’t flood immediately but when we tried looking under floorboards our bodyweight was being lifted up. It was difficult to see. We couldn’t find a hole. If we’d been able to locate the damage we’d have put a sail underneath.” Doug wondered if perhaps the keel bolts had pulled out.
The guys on deck had felt nothing untoward; they were still sailing when the rest of the crew arrived on deck. They couldn’t believe anything was wrong.
Getting the life raft operational was harder than anticipated. “You can’t see the triggering rope in the dark and if you cut the wrong string …,” said Doug. It took around 40 minutes to get the raft off the boat as it was so well tied down and too heavy for one person.
“Little was salvaged apart from Gerrie’s satellite phone. The boat had its grab-bags with water and food but I was the only one to have a personal one,” Doug said.
As the yacht sank, Shin Terasawa took photos to document the last moments.
“It was devastating for Gerrie,” Doug reported. “That was to be understood … so close, yet so far. We had no problem getting everybody into the raft but sitting in a circle there’s not quite enough room to stretch your legs out. There were legs on top of legs so every so often we had to change position.”
With 2 EPIRBs and “enough water to sink a battle ship” Doug was optimistic about their rescue. He had experience and training in flipping life rafts but most of the others hadn’t. So once in the raft they went through the instructions to ensure everyone knew what to do if necessary.
A watch system was organised … one hour on, two people at a time at the door, just to keep them occupied. Visibility out of the raft was limited and moving around was difficult so they mainly held a listening watch.
Most of the crew insisted on only triggering one EPIRB and keeping it inside the raft.
“These guys were yachtmasters but they didn’t know they had to put the EPIRB in the water,” said Doug. “While they’ve done ocean voyages they’re mainly dam sailors and didn’t know. I understood their reluctance because there’s nothing in the advertising that says to put it in the water. I argued with them for two hours.
“Shin was the only person to agree with me but his lack of English made it difficult to get his point across. Finally, at 8am, I convinced them to activate the second EPIRB and put them both outside. This apparently worked because when the ship picked us up they said it was exactly 8 o’clock when they got a clear signal from us.”
SA Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre received an initial signal around 4.30 am but attempts to contact Wizard were unsuccessful. When a second beacon detection was received a safety net broadcast to vessels in the area was put out, asking all vessels to respond and assist.
A 5-6 metre swell was running but by 1pm, rescue was imminent. Two ships, EVA Schulte and Voge Felix, had steamed for nearly six hours full speed towards them. By then the Wizard had already sunk. The two men on watch lit flares when the first ship was close.
“The angle we were at, we couldn’t see the guys on the ship waving to us and it seemed to go straight past us. It turned but by then it was out of our sight. It was demoralising,” Doug explained. “Perhaps ships should blow the horn to let survivors know they have been seen.”
Some survivors had difficulty boarding the ship, timing the ‘leap of faith’ from the raft onto the ship’s ladder. Climbing up the barnacle-encrusted hull resulted in many shredded feet.
“The ship’s crew did everything they could … gave us shoes, overalls and other clothing. I was lucky that in my grab bag were my iPad, some odds and ends, a little bit of money but no credit cards initially. In my rush to pack I’d given somebody else a bag to use and he picked up my wallet, thinking it was his.”
The original plan was for the five to remain on the ship which was heading to Singapore. This would have been the right direction for Doug. With the others going to South Africa it was finally decided to land at Mauritius. Initially, the agent didn’t realise they were shipwrecked, so a fee of $3,500 was requested for them to land. Doug could only contact the rescue service in Australia, so he requested they contact Canberra and Mauritius and let them know that they’d need consular assistance if the $3,500 fee was imposed. This request was reversed when it was realised that they were in a yacht not a ship.
Doug was full of praise for Janice Mulleneux, First Secretary and Consul, Australian High Commission. She assisted him from the moment he stepped ashore … through the regulations, driving him for replacement medication and clothing, booking a hotel and arranging his flight home. “You couldn’t ask for more. She, her offsider and driver did an excellent job.”
Gerrie is, of course, devastated at the loss of his beautiful Wizard. “Initially I felt little except for the need to ensure that a distress call was transmitted and that my crew were safely transferred to the life raft. It was only later while we were safely aboard the life raft that a feeling of profound sadness overcame me,” he said.
Life now goes on for these survivors. The crew who had left the vessel must be counting their blessings and those who took to the life raft are now safe and sound on shore. Doug is back on his own yacht, Hold Fast, in Trinity Inlet Cairns and his life is back to normal. For Gerrie, there must be moments of great sadness as he remembers his beautiful Wizard and once again, deals with the insurance company! Shin is looking for another boat on which to crew.
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