Rescue at Sea

When a boat skippered by Josh Hall (right) began to sink during an around-the-world yacht race, a competitor gallantly saved him
October 31, 1994

On Sept. 17, 20 sailors left Charleston, S.C., for Capetown, South Africa, on the first leg of the BOC Challenge, a quadrennial single-handed, around-the-world yacht race. The leader, Isabelle Autissier, a 38-year-old Frenchwoman, reached Capetown early Sunday morning in her boat, Ecureuil Poitou Charentes 2, about six days ahead of her closest pursuer. By taking a different tack from the rest of the field, she had built an unprecedented lead of about 1,200 miles on this 6,865-mile leg of a 27,000-mile race that will finish in Charleston sometime in the spring.

A week before Autissier made landfall at Capetown, a drama unfolded about 500 nautical miles off the coast of Brazil. A 60-foot British boat, Gartmore Investment Managers, skippered by 32-year-old Josh Hall, collided with an unknown object and began to sink. Using a sophisticated computer system, Hall was able to send out a distress message with his exact location to race headquarters in Charleston. Alan Nebauer, 31, the skipper of the 50-foot Newcastle Australia, was contacted; he changed course and sailed for more than nine hours before he found and rescued Hall.

SI was able to fax questions two days later to the two sailors through the same computer system that had helped in the rescue. Typing belowdecks on the Newcastle somewhere in the Atlantic, Holland Nebauer wrote a true-life seafaring tale of courage and salvation.

This is their story as it unrolled from the fax machine.

Josh Hall's Account

We had been sailing hard to windward for nigh on five days into surprisingly confused and unsettled seas, which made for an uncomfortable albeit swift dash southward. During this period all the yachts were experiencing the occasional "falling off a wave," whereby the boat flies into the air and crashes down, loosening the fillings of the teeth somewhat. For an hour or so the seas had been particularly awkward, and I was hand-steering to avoid the worst waves. Gartmore is, was, a very strong yacht, and these conditions were her strength so we were powering along at 9.5 to 10 knots, gaining on those ahead and building a gap on those behind.

At around 1830Z [6:30 p.m. Greenwich mean time] on Oct. 17, I steered Gartmore over a wave. We took off, but not badly, and I was expecting a soft landing, but instead there was the most incredible rending sound as the bow came down and the yacht staggered, causing me to fall forward into the wheel.

She picked herself up again and started sailing, but I knew we had hit something badly. I punched the Autohelm 7000 into action and hurried below to investigate. There was a serious hole in the only truly vulnerable spot of the hull—right at the base of the forward bulkhead. The compartment forward was already half filled, and seawater was simply gushing in through the compromised bulkhead and a crack in the bottom of the hull.

I have never felt so scared in all my time at sea, and I desperately tried to organize my thoughts. First priority was a Mayday, and as race headquarters is the hub of a sophisticated satellite communications network that connects it to the fleet, I pressed the two red buttons on the Standard C satellite transceiver. Within a few minutes they would know I was in trouble. At the same time I threw the breaker on the Standard M satellite telephone that COMSAT had given me for the race. It takes about 10 minutes to warm up, and I turned my attention to damage control.

I had been sponsored by ITT Jabsco and provided with some serious electric bilge pumps, which went on automatically. ITT had also supplied the mechanical pump that I used to fill and empty my water ballast tanks, and I had a hose connected to the manifold so that I could use it as a bilge pump. I have since worked out that between all these pumps. I was pumping out around 19,000 liters of water per hour, a sobering thought indeed. Even so, the level of water was slowly but steadily rising. Time to call race control.

I hit the buttons on my SAT-phone, and the truly comforting voice of my dear friend Peter Dunning, race communications coordinator of every BOC Challenge, was soon speaking to me. I told him what had happened, and we agreed that the yacht Newcastle Australia was the nearest help, some 90 miles to the north. As a backup, we agreed I should let off my 406 EPIRB satellite distress beacon and that I should call him every hour.

Alan, on Newcastle, was contacted by Standard C [a global E-mail system] and asked to head straight for me. I had told race control I would leave my SSB [single-side band] radio on the 4 MHz frequency we had been using for the skippers' chat hour and listen for Alan's call. Things were happening so quickly. My adventure aboard this superb racing machine had turned into a nightmare. To compound matters, it was getting dark outside, and the ominous sound of the water inside the yacht rushing from side to side as she labored in the seaway was simply terrifying.

Things were dire. I realized I was still heading away from Alan. So I scrambled topside and downed the mainsail to head the boat back northward in the 18-to-20-knot se'ly that was blowing. With a little headsail out, I was making three to four knots still, and I hoped that slowing her would help stem the inward water flow. She felt stricken, and the foredeck was already burying under the surface with the weight of the Hooding forward.

Back down below I took floorboards and braced them up against the damaged area and against the next bulkhead aft, trying to keep water forward of the ship's batteries and communications gear. I rigged up my huge manual bilge pump and started pulling. Shortly after, Alan came up on the radio, and I knew help was on the way. His ETA was 6½ hours. Time had no real meaning to me, though, as I pumped and prayed.

I had to speak to Laura, my wife. I didn't want to scare her, but at the same time I just had to hear her voice. [Hall could call her directly on the Standard M phone.] She answered the phone having already been brought up to date by race control. It broke me to hear her, and some tears were shed, I have to say.

Alan was being constantly updated as to my position by BOC headquarters. The miles diminished rapidly, and when he got within 10 miles, he thought he had my SART [Search and Rescue Transponder] transmission on his radar. I had hoisted the SART up the mast on a halyard, and it worked impressively. To confirm it was me, I sent up a red parachute flare, and 10 minutes later I could see Newcastle's navigation lights bearing down on me.

Though conditions had eased somewhat, it would be far too dangerous for him to come alongside, so we agreed on a life-raft transfer. All my safety gear had been supplied by a company called Suffolk Sailing, and at my departure from England the boss, Graham Gardiner, said to me, "Unlike all your other sponsors, I hope you never have to use what I have given you." Well, I was about to disappoint him, I reflected.

I pulled on my all-in-one survival suit and life jacket and launched the raft over the lee rail, tying it to the yacht. Alan and I were now speaking on our waterproof handheld VHF radios and agreed on the procedure. He sailed past close to scope the scene out, and his yacht glowing in the moonlight was the best thing I had ever seen in my life. To speed Gartmore's sinking so she would not present a danger to any of the following fleet, I stopped the bilge pumps, which were now really lighting a losing battle, and stepped into the life raft. Still tethered by a long line to Gartmore, I drifted away in the breeze and the 10-foot sea that was running. Alan came in close, but just as he threw me a line, Gartmore surged on a wave and violently jerked the raft, threatening to capsize it. Ignoring Alan's line, I whipped out my knife and cut my umbilical cord to Gartmore, now drifting free while Alan jibed hack around out of sight. I stared at poor Gartmore as she labored, hull down. I felt incredibly lonely and sad and scared.

Alan's seamanship was superb, and I was soon tying his line on. Then he dragged me up to his wide-open transom. I scrambled on board, safe at last.

"Welcome aboard, mate," said Alan.

"Thank you," I managed, in the understatement of the century. We hung around for a while until I got warm and dry. Then, neither of us wanting to see Gartmore's final minutes, we left the scene. The flashing light on the SART up in Gartmore's rigging was barely swinging despite the heavy swell, a sure sign that she was settling right down. I gazed aft until it was out of view, her loss beginning to come home to me now that my frantic efforts to keep her afloat had ended.

Alan has been the perfect tonic the past few days as we head for Capetown, though I am sure I have messed up his routine on board. There is no doubt in my mind that the satellite communications, the excellent pumping ability I had and the safety gear and clothing I had on board, coupled with Alan's skillful navigation and boat handling, saved my life. It is probably good for me to spend a little time at sea now to get my head straight, but at the same time I am looking forward immensely to stepping onto terra firma.

The speed of the communications was truly wonderful and should be a comfort to the other racers. Perhaps not as comforting is the thought of what I hit. I do not know what it was, but by holing Gartmore in such a structurally strong area, I feel we hit the edge of something immovable. The chances of the collision are probably billions to one, but it happened, and I am now very grateful for being here. Alan and I were already chatting to each other daily on the radio, and with very similar projects and similar boat speeds, we were having a real tussle on the racetrack. We both talk too much as well, so although we are getting on really well, we both have sore throats after a month of limited vocal-cord use. It is strange to be with someone else after more than 30 days alone, but we are both enjoying having someone else to make coffee and do dishes, that's for sure.

From Alan Nebauer

I think Josh has covered most of the details. When I first got a message to urgently contact race control, I thought that perhaps something had happened at home. However, when I got through to HQ and heard for the first time that Josh was in trouble and that I was the nearest boat, I immediately plotted Gartmore's position, which was accurate to the minute thanks to the latest Trimble navigation and COMSAT communications equipment.

I laid a course to Josh, who was at that time 84 miles away from Newcastle Australia. Josh and I were soon speaking on the 4 MHz radio frequency, and we agreed that we should speak and update positions half hourly. Josh informed me that he was losing Gartmore, and all I could do was offer some encouragement and proceed as fast as I could to the scene.

I had met Josh only once in the hectic time before the start of the race, but we had been enjoying the camaraderie of common goals and experiences during our daily chats on the radio over the last 30-odd days at sea. So as I hardened sheets and headed toward Josh, it was with a real empathy for him. I know the years of hard work it took to put his campaign together. We both enjoy the support of our fantastic wives and have young children. I think I knew pretty much how Josh would be feeling.

I tried to be lighthearted on our radio contacts (Aussie humor in a crisis, probably not the best remedy). I must admit there was no humor when Josh, busy working to keep Gartmore afloat, lost track of time and left me waiting for an hour and a half by the radio with no response to my repeated calls.

My job was a lot easier than Josh's. I could only go as fast as I could and continually plot our relative positions. Being a Christian, I was able to pray and was confident that I would reach Josh in time. It was a fantastic moment to see Gartmore's navigational lights break the horizon and have the SART signal confirm his location 10 miles ahead on the radar screen. As I sailed up to Gartmore, I thanked God for the full moon and that the wind and seas had abated enough to make the transfer a lot easier.

It was horrible to see Gartmore in such an unnatural position, down by the head and sitting very heavy and low in the water. It must have been terrifying to be on her for so long. It's a credit to Josh that he kept her alive without any hint of panic. I was proud of my "pommy mate."

His was an orderly evacuation. The life raft was inflated and alongside Gartmore. Josh had managed to save a few items of personal equipment, not forgetting some gear he had borrowed, to return to the owners (pretty thoughtful, hey?). Kitted up in his survival clothes, he looked the part of the shipwrecked mariner as he scrambled out of the raft into my cockpit. With, I think, a grin on his face.

The worst part was the finality of it all as he cut the tether from Gartmore to the raft and was really solo for the few minutes it took to maneuver alongside the bright-orange canopy. It took us both some time to collect our wits. The priority was to get Josh down below to a Dinty Moore stew I had on the stove, as he had no time for food during his ordeal.

What is it like to suddenly have crew in a solo race? I think both our routines are out of whack, and it will take us a few days to settle down. The race has become secondary to just getting to Capetown so Josh can be with his family again. Suddenly to be able to have conversation is exhausting after 30 days of solitude, and I have to keep reminding myself to concentrate on racing.

As of Sunday night, the Newcastle Australia was in fourth place in Class II (yachts 40 to 50 feet), an estimated 15 days from Capetown. The BOC race committee has said it will deduct the time Nebauer spent rescuing Hall from his race total.

ILLUSTRATIONAARON STONE PHOTOBILLY BLACK ILLUSTRATIONAARON STONEHall was able to phone his wife directly, but the sound of her voice reduced him to tears. ILLUSTRATIONAARON STONEGartmore hit an unidentified object 500 nautical miles off Brazil. ILLUSTRATIONAARON STONENebauer (below) arrived just in time to save Hall. PHOTOBILLY BLACK[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)