Crippled by pain while sailing solo in the Indian Ocean, Andrew Halcrow had to call for rescue

‘I was saved from death alone in mid-ocean’

In the late 1980s I built a steel yacht in the Shetland Isles with the intention of doing a solo non-stop circumnavigation. It didn’t happen. Instead my brother Terry and I set off on a five-year trip round the world on the trade wind route. The desire to do the long solo trip never left me and in 2006 events conspired to make it happen.

My yacht was a Tahitiana, a double-ended steel cutter 9.6m long, called Elsi Arrub. I had huge confidence in Elsi as a superb sea boat but she was overweight and undercanvassed by today’s standards and I expected to be at sea for about a year.

At the end of 2005 I left my job after eight years as skipper on a local sail training vessel, Swan, and worked full time on preparing Elsi. The voyage would follow the old clipper route down the South Atlantic, through the Southern Ocean south of all the Great Capes: Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn, and back up to Shetland.

Refitting for a green passage

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Elsi and Andrew sailing out of Falmouth at the start of an epic adventure

I knew from our previous circumnavigation that we only used the engine to charge batteries so before leaving I took it out and relied on renewable energy; the wind, the sun and the water I sailed through, for my power. There was no challenge for me in using GPS for navigation and, although I carried a GPS, I used a sextant, compass and log line to keep track of my position.

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Andrew uses a calm spell to sort good onions from bad on deck

Although this was to be a ‘solo’ trip, the only singlehanded bit about it was that I was the only one aboard Elsi. It was really a team effort with my wife Alyson doing the all-important shore side work while I was at sea. As well as helping to get Elsi ready on time she would provide me with regular weather forecasts and be the vital link between the ocean and the shore.

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Elsi and I left Shetland on 27th June 2006. All went well apart from me having a few stomach upsets and Elsi growing a small forest of goose barnacles, which slowed us up a lot.

‘The pain became more severe’

By 19 December we were almost half way round and about 315 miles south-southwest of Cape Leeuwin when the occasional stomach pain suddenly became more severe. I could hardly do anything and the pain was considerable and getting worse. I knew I had to get off and called Alyson on my satphone. She contacted Shetland Coastguard, who called the UK’s International Coastguard station at Falmouth and they passed the message on to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).

I thought it might be some time before any rescue service could reach me so I was surprised to hear an AMSA plane call me on the VHF only four hours later. They told me that a merchant ship, the Elegant Star, was about eight hours behind us and would be at our position around 0300 the following morning. The plan was for the vessel to launch her ship’s boat and come across to pick me up.

‘It was an effort to pick up a winch handle’

Elsi was still sailing east so I knew I had to get the jib down so I could heave to and wait for the Elegant Star. I managed to get myself up on deck, but I was in so much pain that I was literally moving two inches with every step. It was an effort to pick up a winch handle let alone do anything with it. All my headsails were hank-on and I struggled to get the jib down and heave to. For the first time on the voyage I bundled the jib down the forward hatch without bagging it. I wouldn’t need to set it again any time soon. I packed a bag with odds and ends I wanted to take. There was so much stuff but I could only take a limited amount. I put in my passport, the satphone and charger, my logbooks, camera and laptop. In no time the bag was full.

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Andrew had total faith in Elsi’s ability to handle anything the sea dished out, like this scene in the Southern Ocean

As the night wore on the wind and sea picked up to Force 5-6 and by the time the Elegant Star was at my position in the early hours they didn’t think it was safe for them to launch their boat. I had no other option but to get back out on deck, get the sails set again and sail over to them. I got the jib hauled up onto the foredeck one little bit at a time, hanked it on and hauled it up but I didn’t have the strength to winch it properly tight.

We eventually got sailing but we were sailing away from the Elegant Star. I tried to tack a couple of times but Elsi was very sluggish with the growth of barnacles, and I was moving even slower than she was. The seas just kept knocking us back and I couldn’t sheet in or work sails quick enough. In the end I gybed round. There was little I could do to stop the boom crashing across but it actually came over as easy as if we had been in a pond on a summer’s day.

Rescue appears

As we came alongside the Elegant Star’s lee side the crew threw down a line and I made it fast. I had hoped the Elegant Star would take Elsi in tow and crept slowly forward to rig a towline on the bow and drop the jib. Then I tottered back to the boom and got the mainsail down. I wrapped a line around it, but it was far from being a good ‘harbour stow’. I had no fenders aboard and Elsi was clanging and crashing into the ship’s side as we both rolled unevenly in the swell.

The crew had lowered the ship’s gangway thinking I could walk up it. One of the crew was waiting for me at the bottom end. I took one look and knew I couldn’t do it. There was a gap I would need to jump across and at that time I couldn’t even have jumped over a postage stamp. I indicated to them that it was impossible. They dropped down a rope pilot ladder.

I was pretty weary by then, but when it came rolling down the ship’s side I knew I had to get up it. My bag was down below but I knew I couldn’t carry it up with me and in my poor state I was past caring anyhow. It was about eight, maybe ten metres to the deck. I didn’t know if I could get up but I knew I had to try.

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Crippled by pain, Andrew had to dig really deep to find the strength to climb Elegant Star’s pilot ladder

I waited until Elsi lifted on a swell then reached up and grabbed hold of the ladder as Elsi fell away below me. I knew I had to keep going up before the next swell lifted her again and she crashed into me. I had to keep focused, keep going up and I knew, from having seen quite a few sea survival videos, that once I was at the top I couldn’t just collapse and relax. Too many casualties have done that on the point of rescue and just faded away. I had to keep thinking the deck was just another step on the way until I slowly wound down.

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The crew of the Elegant Star look on as Andrew inches his way up the ladder

Before I knew it I was at the ship’s rail. A strong hand grabbed my arm to make sure I didn’t fall back down. I was led into the ship’s sick bay and was there till the following day when we were close enough to the shore for a helicopter to come out and take me off. I was flown in to Albany hospital where they operated on me. It was appendicitis. My appendix had been burst for about two days and peritonitis had set in. I was lucky to get away with my life.

Lessons learned

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Andrew checks the bottlescrews and chainplates. Regular maintenance is crucial

People have asked me why I didn’t get my appendix out before leaving. I had considered it, but I figured I had been very healthy for the past 47 years and surely that year I would be OK too.

Usually it’s considered a young person’s ailment and most cases occur between the ages of 10-20. I was told of a Dutchman, my age, who planned a similar trip. He went to his doctor and asked if he should get his appendix taken out before he went. The doctor said that at his age he was far more likely to have a heart attack so did he want him to remove that as well?

Some people do get their appendix out before going on a long trip; some get all their teeth taken out as well. Perhaps the best advice is: if in doubt, get it out.

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Elsi nears Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean. Andrew was already having stomach upsets

Having the satphone was a great help as I could explain to Alyson exactly what the problem was, along with my position and it was a real stroke of luck that the Elegant Star was able to pick me up.

All the rescue services were excellent and that facilitated a quick rescue in a remote part of the ocean.

I didn’t have an EPIRB on board for reasons of expense. An EPIRB is great when there is either no time or no means to get a message out or to keep track of a boat or liferaft. It does exactly what it says, it indicates your position in an emergency, but it is limited in that the only information it can put out is a position. The satphone was far more useful in my situation.

If money had been no problem then I would have carried one and would recommend one to others if they can afford it, but I had to choose, and I chose the satphone.

‘They found your boat, mate!’

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After drifting for seven weeks, Elsi was spotted and salvaged. It’s a remarkable story that Andrew has committed to paper in his new book, Into the Southern Ocean

Alyson flew out to join Andrew. They agreed with Albany fisherman Robin Greene, skipper of the 60ft Kiama, that he would go out to find her with two days’ notice of her sighting. They chartered a small aircraft twice but there was no sign of Elsi. They returned to Shetland.

Some 54 days later, Rescue Coordination Centre Australia was notified of a yacht in trouble about 180 miles south-west of Albany and sent up a reconnaissance aircraft. On its way out the aircraft flew over a derelict-looking yacht and took a photo. Someone in RCC Australia remembered Elsi and compared the photo to one taken during Andrew’s rescue. It matched! A delighted Andrew was informed.

Andrew contacted Robin with the reported position, flew out to Australia and was thrilled to hear that Robin had found Elsi. Despite vowing never to try it again, he did, on a non-stop, solo westabout route but was rolled and dismasted shortly after rounding Cape Horn and rescued, this time by the Chilean Navy.

Andrew Halcrow

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Andrew, seen here rounding Cape Horn on a later voyage with Elsi, has been sailing for almost 50 years and has covered more than 100,000 miles as skipper on large and small sailing boats. He has skippered a variety of commercial vessels including eight years with the Shetland sail training vessel Swan. He now works as a Shetland Coastguard