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Saturday, June 25, 2005


Mayday in June -- rammed by rescuers

This is the third part in a four-part series on a sailing disaster while crossing the Pacific to Australia.

News photo
The bow railing was bent not by the crash into the cargo ship during a rescue attempt but by a rogue wave earlier, pinning Paul's leg and burying the sailboat underwater as he was taking off the damaged self-furling jib after a huge wave flipped the boat in a storm.

With a broken mast, no motor, no antenna for our long-range VHF radio to call for help, and a wayward EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) leading rescuers away from us, at 5 p.m. our boat was drifting into darkness.

Then suddenly, Paul said, "I see a ship!" It was miles away on the horizon.

"Get out the flares," said the skipper, and he set off half a dozen flares into the air.

But the cargo ship didn't see us.

The skipper set off half a dozen more, red ones and green ones. But the ship kept moving farther and farther away. We only had a few flares left.

The skipper brought out a hand-held UHF radio, with an internal antenna and a range of 12 to 15 km. Perhaps the ship was within range.

"Mayday! Mayday! This is Louise. Mayday!"

The skipper put out the call several times but no one answered. He put down the transceiver on the table and went outside to look at the ship again.

I picked up the transceiver. "Mayday! Mayday! This is Louise. I see a cargo ship on the port side, can you hear me?" Nothing. I repeated, but no voice came back. I tried the call in Japanese. "Mayday, Mayday! Hidari gawa ni kamotsu sen ga miemasu. Watashitachi no yatto ga miemasuka? Mayday, Mayday." Nothing. Just the lone crackle of the radio.

"Mayday, Mayday," I called over the radio in Spanish. After all, you never know where these cargo ships are going to and coming from. "Algien puede escucharme? Yo veo un barco a mi derecha. Puedes vernos? Mayday, Mayday!"

"Senora?" A voice came back. "This is the KM Trader. What is your position?"

"We don't know. The GPS has fallen into the bilge and is no longer working."

"Can you set off some flares?"

We set off our last few flares.

"We'll be there in about an hour."

But as the red cargo ship came closer and closer, we realized it would not be so easy for such a big ship to rescue us. Having just dropped off a load in the Philippines and now returning to Indonesia, the boat was carrying no weight, making it sit high above the water.

The KM Trader came alongside us on our windward side, with the idea that it would shelter us from the wind and crashing waves. It was dark now, and I stood in the cockpit looking up into the ship's bright light focused on us, the rain crossing sideways through the beam. The deck of the KM Trader soared 10 meters above our boat. I could see people standing on the deck, tiny dots looking down as if looking out of a third-story window. From there, they threw down a life ring on a rope.

But the sea was too rough, and the big swells made it difficult to get the life ring onto our bobbing boat. Meanwhile, Louise was coming dangerously close to the heaving KM Trader. If she hit the side of it, the blow could break her fiberglass hull in half.

Finally, the skipper caught the life ring. "Amy, you'll be first." Both ships were getting tossed by the waves, and our boat was completely out of our control. When it became obvious that Louise was going to slam into the side of the KM Trader, the skipper yelled, "Let go of the life ring!"

In a split-second decision, the skipper launched the life raft. He threw it into the water, and pulled the cord to automatically inflate it. But instead of inflating, the unit just sat there. The skipper pulled the cord again, and the cord came out altogether. The $7,000 life raft had malfunctioned.

"We have nothing left! We've lost our life raft and we have no EPIRB," yelled the skipper in his first visible sign of panic. "We have nothing!" he repeated, his voiced drowned out by the roaring waves and the noise of the KM Trader's engine.

Fiberglas scraped against metal as Louise crashed into the side of the KM Trader, her port side railing buckling against the steel hull of the ship. We braced ourselves and held on to the boat as each swell ground our boat into the wall of steel. Meanwhile, Louise was gradually drifting backward toward the stern of the great ship -- and its propeller.

-- To be continued next week

This is an excerpt from Amy's new book, "Little Titanic: A journey through the Inland Sea and beyond," to be released July 2. Contact her or pre-order a copy at amychavez2000@yahoo.com

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