Rescued from Sea

Report Text:

My partner and I were looking forward to a pleasant day out on our recently acquired 38 ft motor yacht.  A couple were to join us. The forecast was dry and sunny but with a South West force 4-5 wind. Our destination was only 30 minutes away.

On the return trip in the late afternoon, conditions had now worsened, with wind strength at 20 knots with 30knot gusts. We had just got our yacht up to a prudent 18 knots checking all was ok with engines, course etc, when we noticed three sets of arms waiving franticly. As we got closer we heard plaintive cries for help. The lads, aged between 15 and 22 were in the water, and worse still a fast ferry was bearing down on them.

What to do? We dare not move out of the way for fear of the ferry running them down if she did not see them. We moved over to them, stopped, and I put out an “ALL SHIPS” on channel 16, stating who we were, where we were (roughly), and what we were doing, and asked the ferry to bear away and slow down. Thankfully he did! I also added that any assistance from any rescue services in the area would be greatly appreciated.

The Coastguard responded immediately informing us that the R.N.L..I.  RIB was to be dispatched!. We now set about getting the casualties aboard.

My guests went aft, leaving me to the helm and responding to what seemed like the world and his wife calling me for information. I was at the same time being given updates and instructions from aft, but felt strangely insular from what was going on back there. I was advised that one of the casualties had now slipped under the bathing platform, and that I should not use the engines. This left us to the mercy of the wind and we turned broadside and started rolling through 30% or so.

To my horror I noticed that the third casualty was drifting. He was 20-30 metres away. I gave one of my guests the task of not letting him out of sight.

As I couldn’t use the engines, I went aft to see what I could do. The dinghy is on davits, which means access to the bathing platform is very restricted when it is up. The horseshoe lifebelt had refused to detach from its carrier and the light and floating line were all tangled up.

My idea had been to lower the dinghy, thereby releasing a great deal of low deck area, and also possibly using the dinghy as a first stop rescue point before getting them onto the boat, but I was too late. With a superhuman effort, one of my guests had been able to get one of the casualties on board. The other was trying unsuccessfully to squeeze himself between the back of the platform and the dinghy. The space looked no wider than the width of a letter box, but between us we managed to drag him aboard also.

I got back to my helm and the radio.  I was able to inform the Coastguard that we had picked up two of the casualties, that we had been joined by another cruiser, which was recovering the third casualty.

On later contacting the Coastguard by telephone, they informed me that the time taken between my All Ships and getting the casualties aboard was eleven minutes, although it had seemed like an hour!

We now had three RIBs in attendance, and all trying to talk to me at once. Also the Coastguard was trying to establish that the casualties were now out of the water. The radio was not silent for a second it seemed. Quite a lot of pressure!!

The RIBs put three men on board to assist.  We were instructed to take the two casualties we had recovered back into the nearby port, with the lifeboat-men on board. We were then joined on shore by a paramedic. One of the casualties was in a bad way with shock, hyperthermia, and had also swallowed some sea water.

We later learned that all three had recovered.

What were they doing out there? They had been washed off their jet-ski, although there was no sign of it on our arrival at the scene. They were all wearing wet suits, but only one had a life vest.

My observations of what went on in those few minutes lead me to muse how I might have done it differently.

Should I have called the ferry, got a reply, and then put out a MAYDAY RELAY, or have pressed the red button on my VHF, I don’t know.

We do not usually wear lifejackets, however I had offered them to our guests, and they had refused. Once the operation had started, there was no time to don them. Obviously it would have been safer to have had them on already. We will probably alter our way of thinking on that one.

A good safety briefing may have helped.

I should have made sure that the horseshoe lifebelt was readily deployable.

CHIRP Comment:

It was heartening to read of this successful rescue.  Had it not been for the prompt action and seamanship of those on the motor yacht, on the rescue craft and on the ferry, the lives of the jet-skiers may have been lost. We are pleased to comment as follows on the “Lessons Learned” as described in the report:

  1. The skipper acted absolutely correctly in identifying the risk from the propellers to those in the water near the stern, and therefore not using the engines, and in posting a look-out to keep sight of the third casualty.
  2. As the persons in the water were in grave and imminent danger and immediate assistance was required, a MAYDAY RELAY call would have been justified. This would immediately have alerted the Coastguard. Alternatively, had the red button on the VHF DSC set been activated, the Coastguard would similarly have been alerted and would have responded to the yacht. In the event, the ALL SHIPS message was immediately heard by the ferry and by the Coastguard, who responded as if the call had been a distress message.
  3. It is salutary to note the comment that, once the operation had started, there was no time to don lifejackets. There are a number of lessons from this:

–    The skipper should set an example and wear a lifejacket.

–    Be courteous but firm with guests on boarding, perhaps saying something like “On this boat we follow RNLI advice to always wear lifejackets.”

–    Despite the urgency of the situation, it would have been advisable to have taken two minutes to discuss the proposed rescue and the precautions for the rescuers. (In some shipping companies, such a safety check is referred to as “Take Two”.)

–    The precautions would include donning lifejackets and possibly safety harnesses before working on the stern platform. Had one of the rescuers fallen overboard whilst trying to assist those in difficulty, the situation could quickly have compounded.

  1. A safety briefing on boarding is indeed good practice.
  2. Safety drills, including man-overboard exercises, can be very valuable in training for “the real thing”. They help to identify glitches, such as a tangled life-buoy line, and improve the confidence of skipper and crew in handling emergency situations. Such drills do not need to be arduous on a leisure craft and, indeed, can provide an interesting activity during the voyage.