Phil van der Mespel had always dreamed of a long offshore adventure. When unforeseeable disaster struck, careful preparation for the worst-case scenario saw him rescued within hours

This was a 30-year dream – to go solo
on an offshore adventure.

I’d crewed on a yacht from New Zealand to Port Vila, Vanuatu,
in 1987.
 I met my wife, Jenny, and we got married, had a family and built a business and a home.

But, 
I still had that dream.

When I turned 50, my father-in-law gave me a card saying he was passing 
the family yacht on to us.

She was a Townson 32 named Waimanu – not ideal for ocean passagemaking, but others had done it.

A yacht anchored in blue water

Waimanu anchored on the shakedown cruise off New Zealand before things got worse

I spent five years going over every detail of that yacht, getting her ready for our South Pacific adventure. Part of the process was renewing the mast, rig and sails.

A friend and I set off on a two-handed shakedown around the North Island,
a 2,000-mile voyage.

In Nelson, my
 crew got a call, leaving me to sail solo 
up the Tasman and home. I loved it.

After the summer race season, we hauled
 out and got stuck in. I did an advanced first aid course, liferaft training, and bought the gear to achieve Category
1 safety-standard requirement for
New Zealand-registered yachts heading offshore.

Then the weather went to 
bits. Our travel agent daughter flew 
me off to Argentina for a break!

A picture-perfect start

Waimanu and I cleared customs at Marsden Cove. It was just so easy; 
load up at Sandspit Marina, day sail 
up the coast, clear, and away.

Right 
by the Whangarei Heads, I got caught
by a massive williwaw gust at well over
50 knots. Boat speed climbed to over 
11 knots.

My home-built self-steering gear (SSG) got caught somehow and overpowered. Letting the headsail fly,
 I ran off down the wind-against-tide chop.

With some repairs to my SSG,
 I was on my way. The rest was easy, and there was good air behind us all the way.

I went for 800 miles on one gybe. The biggest issue was trying to get the rented sat-phone to text position messages back home. But even that got sorted.

View of heavy weather sailing

Phil found himself in increasingly heavy weather, deeply reefed

At exactly the 800-mile mark, I gybed and completed the leg to Port Vila in
 one run. The last day, wanting to get 
into port in good light, I put the pedal down.

To help things along, I had a spell at the helm and got her to 12.8 knots!
 I shot below for a sleep and returned 
to find I’d been trumped: the SSG had gone to 13.2! I clocked up 164 miles in 24 hours – not bad for 27ft of waterline.

Jenny flew in a day or so later and 
we had the time of our lives. We found secluded anchorages that were not even on charts or in cruising guides.

Those four months were simply unforgettable. Our daughter came up for a week to enjoy the fun with us. It was absolutely worth all the dreaming and hard work.

After checking out the active volcano and getting to know a lot of the locals really well, Jenny flew back home on 
9 November. While I was dropping 
her off at the airport on Tanna island, 
I prepped for my solo voyage home.

Waimanu set sail at dawn on 12 November. It was overcast and a bit snotty, but very doable. The skies cleared but the wind increased.

Over the next couple of days, I had to reef down more
 and more. She was going so well.

The second day out, I managed to make myself a nice omelette. It was to be
 the only cooked meal in a week. A bit rough and little motivation to cook, the peanut butter jar was slowly emptied.

An unwelcome discovery

I discovered water over the cabin sole late on the first day. That night, I found there was a lot of diesel in it. I bailed every 20 minutes throughout the night. The fuel tank had definitely ruptured.

I calculated the ingress to be about 25 litres per hour – not good. Everything got slippery and stank of diesel.

With water still coming in, I charted a course for Nouméa in New Caledonia, then spent a good chunk of the day moving gear and lifting floorboards.

The diesel had gone but the water was still coming in. Then, Eureka! I found it. Right up
by the forward bulkhead, a squirt like 
a boy taking a pee; evidently a plugged cable hole from an old transducer from years ago. I made a tiny wooden plug and tapped it in: problem solved.

Continues below…

During the night, I spoke with a ship and at 0415, the self-steering gear had 
a fit – a gudgeon had parted. I spent 
an hour or two taking the thing apart, rebuilding it and getting it going again. 
I was pleased.

The main was well reefed and the No 3 headsail had several rolls.
 I spent time below out of the wind and listened to podcasts. Later that night,
 I spotted a ship and shone a bright 
torch on the mainsail. Because the 
wind moderated, it is usually quietest just after dawn.

Only hours later, I had 10 rolls in the main and only the storm jib up forward. I figured if the wind got up too much more, I would deploy the series drogue like I had in a 70-knot blow in the Tasman.

Dismasted

At almost 0400 on day six, I fell off
 yet another big wave. It was the fifth that night.

The downside of self-steering is that it can’t see the waves and so every now and then, I would fall into a hole 
if the wave and wind angle changed.
 It was very unnerving, a sudden jolt, followed by a heavy crash. I checked my handheld GPS – I was doing 3 knots.

I got up and saw a ship off to port 
out of the saloon window. Putting on 
my leggings and harness, I dropped 
off yet another big one. Crash! I got
 into the cockpit and the boom was at
 my left shoulder: that’s odd. Then I saw why. The mast had gone!

A dismasted yacht

Dismasted and sinking, Phil had to make a quick decision to abandon the yacht

The cap shroud chain plate bolts must have sheared clean off. Clipping on to the jackstay, I crawled along the starboard deck and saw 
a gaping hole in the deck.

The lower shroud had catapulted its support block right through the deck. ‘I can manage this’, I said, ‘It’s doable. Winch the mast clear, cut the rigging away and screw a panel over the deck hole.’

When I got back to the cockpit, the real trouble started – the cabin sole was underwater. I went for the VHF and put out a Mayday three times, forgetting the aerial was underwater.

The unit showed ‘low power’ so I went for the handheld 
in the grab bag. It was flat. I let off two red parachute flares into over 40 knots of wind – but would they see? I tried 
the bilge pump – no change in the level.

Dealing with it

The emotion and adrenaline were pumping. I stopped and said, ‘If you let adrenaline take control, this won’t end well’.

I told myself to think logically, rationally, and cohesively. I remember saying those words aloud. I decided not to panic or be frightened or give in.

A deployed orange liferaft

Phil was able to abandon ship with all of his survival gear

Then I methodically got the liferaft ready and the grab bag. I deployed the raft in case
 I might need it.

 

Opening the grab bag, I activated the EPIRB and threw them into the raft. Then I went for anything aboard that I thought I might need: food, drink.

Comfort was my focus. I figured on three to five days adrift. When the water was well over the bunk boards, I got to the port quarter.

A sailor activating an EPIRB in a liferaft

Activating his EPIRB

I did a final check that the raft’s drogue line was clear of the SSG and in one fluid movement, left the yacht and tumbled into the liferaft.

I cut the tether. I drifted free. I got my phone
out, put it to camera mode and turned 
to get Waimanu in her final moments. There was nothing. She had gone.

 

Survival mode

Sorting my gear out, I took a seasickness tablet. I didn’t feel the least bit ill, but
 the training says to, as liferaft motion 
is different.

I took a good drink; man 
I was thirsty, really dry. After some 
nut bars, I settled down for a long wait. 
I took some footage with the waterproof sport camera, not knowing whether it was even recording. I tried to sleep but couldn’t, so I tried reading, but that just made me dizzy.

The seas were atrocious. The raft slid down big walls of water, the drogue grabbing and snatching to keep the raft from being tumbled. The huge breaking seas collided with the tiny raft and spume, spray and solid water went right over the canopy, shooting water into every vent.

The canopy was making a droning noise in the wind. One drone kept going. I looked out. It was a plane.
 A big Hercules C-130 aircraft went right over the top of us. Wow! That was quick! What a relief. I leaned out and waved, giving them the thumbs up. I’d been in the raft five hours.

A plane in the air above a liferaft

A Hercules C-130 aircraft was the first to respond to Phil’s EPRIB

More than three hours later, the plane dropped a smoke flare on the water –
a ship must be nearby. When I spotted her she looked tiny, rolling in the big sea; I thought she was a small fishing boat.

In fact, she was a decent-sized freighter called Norfolk Guardian. As she loomed near, she slowed and headed up into the weather, the bow bulb heaving clean out of the ocean and plunging back down, burying under plumes of foam.

A rescue boat being launched from a ship

The crew of the Norfolk Guardian launched their small rescue boat after it proved too dangerous to come alongside

Then 
the ship’s prop would come clean out of the water as the waves passed under her stern – I didn’t like it. I yelled, ‘Use the rescue boat!’ They yelled, ‘It’s too rough!’ There was no way I was going from raft to ship; if they didn’t get me with the bow, I’d be mincemeat with the prop.

After a while, a little red tinny came around the stern of the monster and made her way toward me. I’ve never 
seen Tongans so pale. Clearly they were uncomfortable.

I yelled at them to slow down, assuring them the hard part was already done. ‘You got here,’ I was telling them, ‘You guys are heroes!’ I threw them a rope and pulled myself toward them.

The crew of a ship standing around a rescue boat

The crew of the Norfolk Guardian

I hung on to the raft rope but decided 
it was going to be too hard to save. Sadly, I let the rope slip from my fingers to
 drift away on her own. Getting aboard the ship wasn’t easy but once I was committed, I went up that rope ladder like a rat up a drainpipe. I was safe.

Lessons learned


Get in Gear

Spend the money and get the right gear. Save your life as comfortably as you can. I thought carefully about what went into the liferaft: food, drink, and Comfort. My grab-bag had more ‘goodies’ than just the recommended.

Think positive

Don’t think, ‘This won’t happen to me’. Positive mental attitude will save you; practice being positive in any circumstance. Think through procedures for different emergencies. If you have crew, write them out together. ‘If this happens, I do this’: essential for solo sailing. Good sailing isn’t not being afraid; it’s being prepared.

Train

Get physically involved – it’s more powerful than reading instructions or being lectured at. I had never seen a life-raft inflate, or been in one until the very intensive life-raft training with SeaWise Boating Education.

By the end of the day we could swim to the raft and do everything while totally blind-folded. Response comes from training; reaction comes from emotion.

What will you do if something goes wrong? Think about it NOW.
What important gear do you need? It WILL save your life. 
Have you actually practiced what you need to do? You won’t remember theory.