learn­ing curve

Vet­eran power and sail yachts­man Dag Pike re­flects on his mul­ti­ple ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing saved off­shore

Yachting Monthly - - CONTENTS -

‘I was res­cued 13 times.’ Call­ing for help is just the start of a res­cue, and you can af­fect its out­come

In close to 70 years of be­ing on the wa­ter, much of it pro­fes­sion­ally, some of it for rac­ing and record break­ing and some of it for plea­sure, I have man­aged to be res­cued 13 times. It’s not a record I’m par­tic­u­larly proud of but when you try to push the bound­aries of what seems pos­si­ble, you don’t know where the lim­its are un­til you find them.

When I first went to sea in 1950, nav­i­ga­tion was still ba­sic and the risks were con­sid­er­ably higher. How­ever,

I am still alive af­ter 13 rescues so

I must be do­ing some­thing right. Some peo­ple do not make it dur­ing their first res­cue and from my rescues, I have built up a con­sid­er­able fund of ex­pe­ri­ence about how you should cope when things go wrong, what is in­volved when you call for help and how you can have a con­sid­er­able say in how suc­cess­ful the res­cue is go­ing to be.


My first res­cue when I was just 18 years old was off the west coast of Scot­land when we were mak­ing pas­sage around the north of Scot­land in a 6,000-tonne cargo ship in the mid­dle of win­ter. With no cargo on board, the ship was rid­ing high in the wa­ter and mak­ing as much progress side­ways as it was for­wards in the Force 10 west­erly storm and bliz­zard con­di­tions. We missed the vi­tal Sk­er­ryvore Light­house and ended up on the rocks be­tween Tiree and Coll on a pitch-black night. Long be­fore GPS and Decca Nav­i­ga­tor were thought of, we did not have a clue where we were when the SOS was sent out. A po­si­tion is a vi­tal part of any dis­tress mes­sage and it took the Tober­mory Lifeboat 12 hours of search­ing be­fore it found us. We were landed ashore, not much the worse for wear. The thing I re­mem­ber about that ground­ing was the sud­den jolt as I was wo­ken up when we hit the rocks and the noise. For­tu­nately we were in the lee of the is­lands, so the seas were only mod­er­ate. But the worst part is the wait­ing.


Prob­a­bly the most chal­leng­ing of my rescues was in mid-at­lantic when we were mak­ing an at­tempt on the At­lantic speed record in Peter Phillips’ big cata­ma­ran Chaf­foteaux Chal­lenger.

I have done nearly all of my record break­ing in power­boats but hav­ing just set a new At­lantic record un­der power, I was in­vited to be the nav­i­ga­tor and weath­er­man on Chaf­foteaux. Here was a chance to hold both the power and sail­ing records on the At­lantic, a unique dou­ble, and with hind­sight, I agreed to this sail­ing record at­tempt with­out the usual care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion I give to par­tic­i­pat­ing in these chal­leng­ing events. Lit­tle did I know what was in store.

Chaf­foteaux was an 80ft cat but she was pretty ba­sic as far as com­fort was con­cerned. She had also been built on a shoe­string be­cause fund­ing was tight and there was a cock­pit in each hull, which was just a hole cut in the top of the hull. My nav­i­ga­tion sta­tion was in the port cross beam, a space just 4ft high where the ra­dios and the Lo­ran and Decca were housed. I was not on board when Chaf­foteaux

was tested but I had a po­lar di­a­gram that showed per­for­mance on dif­fer­ent head­ings in re­la­tion to the wind. I was to find out later that this was de­vel­oped in slight sea con­di­tions and bore lit­tle re­la­tion to what the per­for­mance might be in the rough seas and strong winds we needed for a record at­tempt. We never did achieve the 25-knot down­wind speed that was promised, and so my cal­cu­la­tions re­gard­ing the course and the weather were quickly com­pro­mised. We were only a cou­ple of days out from New York when it be­came ob­vi­ous that we were not keep­ing up with the promised weather pat­terns, but in those days, when the fore­casts were noth­ing like as ac­cu­rate as they are now, we kept go­ing in the hope that we would pick up favourable winds for high speeds.


In fact, the con­di­tions got worse. At one stage, the wind was recorded at close to 100 knots be­fore the in­stru­ment broke. We were run­ning down­wind with the fine bows bury­ing into the waves and un­der bare poles. We were mak­ing about 10 knots even with warps streamed over the stern to slow us down. We were well out of step with the weather and it got to the stage where the fo­cus be­came sur­vival rather than record break­ing. It was a wild ride and I was yearn­ing for the rel­a­tive com­fort of break­ing records un­der power where at least it is rel­a­tively quick and you’re pro­tected from the weather. On Chaf­foteaux, ev­ery­thing was wet and the crew steer­ing the yacht were fully ex­posed to the el­e­ments and hav­ing a mis­er­able time. From now, it was re­ally just a ques­tion of mak­ing it across the At­lantic.

Then we no­ticed cracks start­ing to ap­pear in the hull ex­tend­ing down­wards from the port cock­pit! The holes cut in the hulls for these cock­pits was a weak point be­cause it de­stroyed the con­ti­nu­ity of the hull and the cracks started to get longer un­til they were be­low the wa­ter­line, and you could see them open­ing and clos­ing as the boat fought its way over the waves. The wing mast kept us run­ning down­wind but still the cracks were mov­ing and wa­ter was com­ing. Time to take stock and think about what to do. If the hull broke then there was ev­ery chance that the boat would cap­size and we were about as far as you can get from land out in the wilds of the At­lantic in April.

Time to send out a May­day. I got through to Por­tishead Ra­dio, ex­plained our predica­ment and gave a po­si­tion. We de­cided we could sur­vive the night – res­cue at night would be more dan­ger­ous. But I was call­ing up ev­ery hour with an up­dated po­si­tion say­ing that if we didn’t come up on the ra­dio, to come and res­cue us. By next morn­ing, the US coast­guard had a ship lined up to res­cue us.

Just as we thought res­cue was in sight, things started to go wrong. We had no en­gine, so the ship had to ma­noeu­vre along­side us. To see a 300m-long con­tainer ship com­ing up close astern is scary. The cap­tain did a great job in park­ing his ship along­side us with his lee­way keep­ing us pinned along­side. It was 12m up to the deck and we shouted to a crew­man to pass a rope. ‘We haven’t got any ropes on this ship,’ was the re­sponse, so we con­tin­ued to drift down the side of the ship.

The rig­ging caught in a pro­jec­tion on the hull and that brought the mast down. Now we were start­ing to panic as the stern of the ship loomed up.

With­out the mast up, the low-ly­ing cata­ma­ran slid un­der the stern of the ship where the 9m-di­am­e­ter pro­pel­ler was still turn­ing slowly as the cap­tain tried to keep steer­age way on his ship. The boat had turned at this stage and thank­fully, it was the bow that went into that pro­pel­ler first with a mind-numb­ing crunch. It was like a big ba­con slicer tak­ing chunks off the bow and we feared for our sur­vival. Even James Bond movies don’t get this fright­en­ing. The noise was in­cred­i­ble and the smell was in­tense but for­tu­nately, the ship was still go­ing ahead. We es­caped from the clutches of the pro­pel­ler only to have the ship’s stern de­scend on us in the heavy swell. Now we were pushed un­der­wa­ter and hope started to dis­ap­pear. Then the boat popped to the sur­face as we cleared the ship and amaz­ingly, all of us came out with­out a scratch.

Af­ter long dis­cus­sions with the cap­tain, the ship made another at­tempt at res­cue and this time was suc­cess­ful. They found a rope to hold us along­side and we made the long climb up a rope lad­der to the safety of the ship’s deck. Chaf­foteaux was left to take her chances in the wild sea.

When you try and push the bound­aries of what seems pos­si­ble, you don’t know where the lim­its are un­til you find them

The res­cue ship ap­proaches Chaf­foteaux mid-at­lantic

The crew of Chaf­foteaux in New York

Cracks ap­peared in the hull spread­ing from the cock­pit

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