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Deep Impact

Aug 25, 2016 Reader Stories

When the J111 Django left Fiji for Auckland in early July with skipper Ben Costello and crew Bex Hielkema and Andrew Cooke, the forecast was clear, but just a few hundred miles from home, the light winds became fresh, then frightening.

We had a good forecast to leave Fiji,” says Hielkema. “We were getting emails from Clouds [Roger Badham, sailing weather forecaster] and we were looking good. Then a couple of days in, he said there was a low developing fast. He said there would be too much wind. We were running downwind and making good time and everything was looking cool. We knew that at 4am we were going to get thirty knots of breeze and it would build to forty from there.”

In preparation they double-reefed the already small delivery mainsail and hoisted the number four jib before dark. Later, as it got light on Tuesday, July 8, they dropped the main completely and changed to the storm jib.

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67 KNOTS

“Not long after that I saw the wind speedo reach sixty-seven knots,” says Hielkema. “I saw an albatross flying backwards and thought, ‘Shit, this is pretty windy.’ At that moment, I had second thoughts about wanting to do the Volvo Ocean Race.”

The crew was well in control of their vessel until a wave, considerably larger than the 5m swells which had become the norm broke into the cockpit and broached the boat.

“We heard this almighty, bone-shattering crack,” says Hielkema who was belowdecks at the time. “The wave hit us so hard that the fridge lid popped off and smashed into the nav station.”

“It was that crunching, shattering, carbony noise that everyone dreads to hear,” Cooke says.

Costello, Volvo Ocean Race veteran, was at the helm when Django broached.

“The others came up on deck and asked if I had steerage, and I told them I was struggling to control it,” he says. “Once we knew there was a problem, everyone got their lifejackets and gear back on and came up on deck, and I went to make a PAN-PAN call. Then I thought I had better go and have a look at the rudder first.”

The rudder stock had broken where the steering gear was attached, inside the boat.

“I could see the whole bottom of the hull was flexing and was making a horrendous noise,” Costello says. “So I went back up and discussed it with the others and said that the forecast was for this sort of weather for the next three days and we have got no control. We are goosed. There is no way we are going to be able to ride this out. We are at the mercy of the sea. We have got to get off.”

While Costello was on the sat phone, the others got the grab bag, took some seasickness tablets, had an Up& Go, a One Square Meal and a drink of water, and prepared to get off.

“We knew how quickly the boat could go down because when Walawala II sank in the Hong Kong to Vietnam race, they had had the same problem and sank in about five minutes,” says Hielkema.

“I spoke to Taupo Maritime Radio, told them our position and arranged to check in every thirty minutes,” says Costello. “We decided not to turn on the EPIRB unless the boat sank and we had to get into the liferaft. And then we waited.”

WAITING FOR RESCUE

The trio stacked every piece of movable gear into the bow to try to lift the stern. Then they put all the sealed, empty jerry cans in the lazarette to try and get some buoyancy in the aft section of the boat in case it took on water.

“That was Cookie’s idea,” says Hielkema. “He said, ‘That’s my one good idea for the day,’ and Ben goes, ‘Shit, I hope not. We have got plenty of stuff to get through yet.'”

They kept checking the area where the hull was flexing and a crack was forming forward from the front of the rudder bearing.

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“Every time we heard a noise we went back to check it because if it started to go, then we needed to know,” says Costello. “We would sit there with a torch, watching the hull flexing up and down, and this crack getting bigger and bigger, and then opening and closing.”

“It could have lasted three seconds, three minutes, three hours, or three days with it in that state,” says Cooke. “We had no idea. All it would have taken was another of the waves that broke it in the beginning.”

Using the satellite phone, the crew unsuccessfully attempted to contact Django‘s owner, Andrew Reid, who was overseas. Then they called their shore-based coordinator Andrew Potter, flatmate of Hielkema and Costello.

“He was amazing,” says Hielkema. “He called all our families and told them what was happening, which must have been incredibly hard. When he rang Ben’s mother, he said, ‘Hi Mary, it’s Andrew Potter here…’ and she just went completely silent. She knew straight away something was wrong and burst into tears.

“When we managed to get hold of the owner, Andrew Reid, he just said, ‘F*** the boat. It’s just a boat. Get off. The raft is comfortable and you’ve got all the gear. I trust you will make the right decision.'”

“The owner hadn’t skimped on anything,” says Hielkema. “He had got us the best lifejackets and the best liferaft, good tethers; all the gear was good. For that we are very thankful.”

OTAGO ON ITS WAY

At the first check-in with Maritime Radio, they were told that an Orion had been scrambled and would be on the scene first. They were also informed a Russian bulk carrier ship had diverted and would arrive at their location in around eight hours at 6pm.

It wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

Not only would the ship arrive on dark, but the Django crew doubted the Russian ship would be well equipped to carry out a rescue in the conditions.

“We were trying to talk through how they would do it and figured that they would come and sit to windward of us and then drift down on to us,” says Costello. “You basically get one chance and as they collide with the yacht, you have to climb up a cargo net.”

Some time later, they learned that a Navy frigate, the HMNZS Otago, had been diverted from her journey to Tonga and was due to arrive at 8pm.

“When we heard the Navy was coming, we thought, ‘We are going to be fine,'” says Hielkema.

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As they waited, they discussed options about how to manage the damage to the hull but decided none of them was practical. It was a tight squeeze to get in under the cockpit to effect a repair, and if the crack suddenly worsened, any crew working there could be trapped.

“We never felt like we had made the wrong call,” says Cooke. “At any moment that bearing could have gone and we would have sunk. Time seemed to pass weirdly. You’d look at your watch and it would be three-twenty and an eternity later you’d look back and it would only be three-thirty. But then ten minutes would pass and you’d look back and it would already be five o’clock.”

When the HMNZS Otago was redirected, she was 90nm away but thanks to the conditions, she made excellent speed towards the stricken yacht.

“The captain said that they had it surfing at around thirty knots and it generally tops out at twenty,” says Cooke. “They went from arriving at eight o’clock to getting there at five-twenty.”

CAVALRY TO THE RESCUE

“It was pretty cool hearing over the radio: ‘This is the HMNZS Otago. Our ETA is twenty minutes,'” says Hielkema. “As they arrived they came crashing through these huge waves with spray going everywhere, and there was this double-rainbow behind them. It was amazing.”

Via VHF, Lieutenant Commander Tim Garvan, commanding officer of the Otago, conveyed the plan for transferring the trio from Django to the frigate. The Navy had a gun that would fire a thin rope to the yacht, which Django‘s crew would use to pull across a larger heaving line. The crew were told to get into the liferaft and the Navy crew would pull them across to the pilot ladder.

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The winds, which were still around 50 knots, immediately blew the liferaft upside down. Costello tethered himself to the yacht while he righted the raft, and Hielkema and Cooke climbed in. Costello would be the last into the raft – and was nearly the first out as his harness remained attached to the yacht while the raft drifted away.

“Andrew had got the rope to the Otago in one hand and my tether in the other, trying to get some slack so I could get it undone from the boat,” Costello says.

“It was nice having your boyfriend [Costello] in the liferaft,” adds Hielkema, “rather than knowing he was at home worrying about you.” Clear of their yacht, the crew faced more serious trouble as the frigate, which was to be their saviour, nearly crushed them.

NAVY DIVER

“The Otago was trying to make way, so that they wouldn’t end up side-on to the waves, which pulled us around the back of the ship,” says Costello. “They were doing some fairly big lurches and I could see the rudder and propeller as the stern lifted up, and we started going under the transom. We tried to start easing the rope out to get away from them as we were only a couple of metres away.”

They would not survive if the raft went under the ship. They let go the rope.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we hope they have a Plan B. At least they can’t leave us now; that would be bad PR,'” says Hielkema. “So then they came on the radio and said, ‘Liferaft Django, this is the HMNZS Otago. We are going to deploy a Navy diver with a rope to come and get you.'”

The diver, clad in a sleeveless wetsuit, mask, snorkel and fins, and equipped only with a glow stick and a knife, recovered from the towering drop and swam the 50 metres to the raft in less than a minute.

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“When he got to the raft, the first thing we saw was this massive arm come over the side of the raft and grip onto the boarding ladder,” says Hielkema. “Then his head popped up and he pulled his mask off and gave us a big friendly smile. He didn’t really say much, but Cookie looked at him and goes: ‘What did you do to draw the short straw?'”

But Lieutenant Simon Wasley had not drawn the short straw. Knowing the dangers and difficulty of this rescue, he had pulled rank over many other sailors aboard the ship who had volunteered and insisted that he would swim to the liferaft.

With a line tied to a belt around his waist, Wasley held the raft with one arm and yelled: “Heave!”

His call was echoed by an officer standing on the ship, and then again – this time much louder and deeper – by the 10 men hauling the line around his waist.
“They pulled him sideways by his waist while he has got the raft, with three people inside, and a sea anchor underneath, in one hand,” says Hielkema. “He has got some pretty nice bruises all up his arm now. He was amazing. We couldn’t have asked for a more capable guy.”

Once alongside the ship, Wasley was trapped between the raft and the hull of the frigate. Despite battling to keep himself above water, he never let go of the raft.

“Then he looks at me,” says Hielkema, “and beckons me towards him. He puts a sling around me and shouts, ‘Heave’, and then we hear the ‘Heave…HEEEAVE’ again, and I get lifted out of the raft and up the side of the ship.

On deck, Hielkema attached herself to the third officer in command and was walked through the ship to the sick bay.

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“The first person I saw was a lady called Caitlin,” she said, “and she says, ‘My name is Caitlin and I am a medic.’ A team of people attacked me and got all my wet gear off me while firing questions like: ‘Are you hurt? Are you cold? Are you wet? What size shoes do you take?’ And within two minutes I had a complete change of clothes and a brand new set of ballet shoes from one of the chefs. Then I turned around and see Cookie busting through the door and I thought, ‘I am so happy to see you,’ and then Ben comes in and I said, ‘Thank effing Christ.’ Then the Navy diver comes through the back door, and I was so relieved.”

Despite being aboard the ship, they were still a long way from escaping the five-metre seas that had crippled their boat.

“The ship was moving around a lot,” says Cooke. “They had these stretchers lined up with a pile of clothes on them for each of us and the boat lists to port and everything slides to port and then it does a big roll to starboard and everything goes smashing into the wall on the other side. They told us that they listed the boat over to thirty-three degrees, which is the furthest the boat has ever been over.

“They took us down to the officers’ mess and pointed us towards three showers and said, ‘Go and get warm.’ They showered us, fed us; the captain and officers came and spoke to us and said, ‘Thank you for making the call when you did. We are grateful you did that because it would have been much more risky for us picking you up in the dark.’ We cannot praise the Navy highly enough. They were amazing from start to finish.”

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