Golden Globe Race skipper Tapio Lehtinen gives his account of the sinking of his Gaia 36 and his rescue from the southern Indian Ocean
The Gaia 36 was 450 miles south east of Port Elizabeth in South Africa when she began rapidly taking on water, forcing the singlehanded sailor to abandon ship for his liferaft; 24 hours later – on 19 November 2022 – he was rescued by fellow race skipper, Kirsten Neuschafer before being transferred to the bulk carrier Darya Gayatri. The Hong Kong-registered vessel is now on its way to Rizhao in China.
‘Everything happened so quickly. I was sleeping in my bunk when I woke up around 0830. I woke up to a big bang. Although I was sleeping, I do react to the movement of the boat and I am 99% sure we didn’t hit anything. The bang came from the deck or inside the boat. I felt no impact. I have a safety net on top of the bunk so it took around 20 seconds to crawl out of my bunk and put my feet on the floor, and it was already knee deep in water. The water was rushing rapidly from the stern of the boat forward into the cabin,’ Lehtinen told Yachting Monthly from the bulk carrier Darya Gayatri.
The 64-year-old offshore sailor managed to grab his survival suit and his grab bag containing his communications equipment and make his way on deck.
‘I realised I had to leave the boat. I grabbed my survival suit and communication grab bag and got to the deck. Once my survival suit was on, I got the liferaft in the water and then I went back to the companionway to get the other two grab bags, which had food, water and medication in them but, by then, the water was already up to deck level. Everything was floating inside and I realised I would need to dive to get my two grab bags, which I decided not to do in a sinking boat. I knew Abhilash [Tomy] and Kirsten were close to me, and I had 100% confidence and trust in Don’s [Don McIntyre – race chairman] ability to coordinate a rescue. I knew I would not spend more than a day in the raft,’ added the 64-year-old lifelong skipper.
Tapio Lehtinen had already cut the line securing the liferaft to the sinking boat and had tied a quick release knot which could be easily undone.
‘Whilst I was in the companionway, the knot opened and the raft started drifting away. It was about 2-3 metres from the boat. I made a leap from the boat to the raft and luckily I made it. Asteria took 20 minutes to fully sink. When I saw the top of the mainsail I stood up in the liferaft to make the last salute to my friend, which was a pretty emotional moment,’ said Lehtinen, who completely rebuilt the 57-year-old boat for the 2018 Golden Globe Race; he came fifth in the race, having sailed around the world in 322 days due to gooseneck barnacle growth on the boat’s hull.
Lehtinen made further modifications for the 2022 race, including fitting new electrics and a Hydrovane windvane steering system, having found the Windpilot difficult to keep on course in the 2018 race, partly due to the fact it was connected to the boat’s rudder.
The Hydrovane steered with its own rudder blades, which reduced yaw, and enhanced Asteria‘s performance; it also meant the boat’s rudder could be used as a trim tab, improving upwind sailing performance.
‘I re-entered the race as I felt Asteria deserved another chance and I was super happy with the boat and everything was working fine; it was great to sail the boat without the problems of the first Golden Globe Race. I felt totally safe, and had 100% trust in the boat. I was so looking forward to the next 100 days ahead of me It is totally unbelievable that the boat sank on such a beautiful summer day.’
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Tapio Lehtinen said he had time to reflect on the loss of Asteria whilst spending 24 hours in the liferaft, and has now ‘got over the disappointment’, and that he was lucky not to need rescue in stronger winds.
He said the liferaft ‘turned out to be luxury’, and with his dry suit on underneath his survival suit, he was ‘warm and comfortable’.
‘The only thing missing in the liferaft was a Gideon’s Bible and a bathroom, other than that everything was great. I trusted I would be rescued within 24 hours. The first day was light winds and the wind started picking up through the night to a Force 4. I only had one wave break into the liferaft.’
Tapio Lehtinen had plenty of wildlife for company; 20 black Giant Petrel gathered around the liferaft, with the dominant bird even touching his finger with their beak.
Albatross also kept him entertained as he waited for rescue.
‘I put my head out [of the raft] and two albatross were next to each other, looking like they were kissing each other with their beaks. It was very romantic. They were there for 20 minutes. Eventually they went off and in the morning a wondering albatross also came within 1-2 m of the raft. I got to see him taking over and gliding right over me. I have never seen an albatross taking off from the water before, it was so close. It was like a jet engine. Just before Kirsten arrived, a sea turtle turned up and come next to the raft. The sea life was expectational. ‘
Tapio Lehtinen said the rescue operation was smooth, with ‘no panic’ due to the compulsory sea survival training before the race start, and the strict rules surrounding the equipment in the grab bag, which included a YB3 Tracker-Texting device, satellite phone, personal locator beacon (PLB), and GMDSS VHF.
‘It [the rescue] went like an instructional film. It was great to get onto Kirsten’s Cape George 36 cutter. First we had a big hug and then a glass of rum and we had time for a nice chat. We saw Darya Gayatri approaching. It took them around half to three-quarters-of-an-hour for the ship to turn, so its side was against the wind so Kirsten could manoeuvre the boat to the lee of the ship, which is 230m long. We couldn’t get too close as there was still a 3-5 metre swell. We got to within 30m of the ship and then they threw a line to Minnehaha, which we caught and tied it to the raft. They then pulled me in the raft alongside [the ship] next to the rope ladder and then I climbed up the ladder and then they pulled the liferaft up to the deck,’ explained Lehtinen, who gave Neuschafer his dry suit as a thank you for the rescue as she didn’t have one; he hopes it will provide her with extra protection in the Southern Ocean.
He said he ‘never imagined’ he would need to be rescued, and fellow Golden Globe Race skippers could ‘trust that whatever happens, that they are in the best possible hands’ in the event of an emergency.
Tapio Lehtinen now has a three week voyage aboard the Darya Gayatri, which is expected to dock in Rizhao, China on the 6 December 2022.
A veteran of the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race, Lehtinen is leading his own team Tapio Lehtinen Sailing in the 2023 Ocean Globe Race (OGR), a retro Whitbread Race, to mark the 50th anniversary of the original 1973 Whitbread. Like the Golden Globe Race, the OGR is being run by Don McIntyre.
The team, made up of young Finnish sailors, will be racing on board the Swan 55 Galiana.
‘I now have time to focus on the Ocean Globe Race; it is very valuable for me, psychologically, that I have the next project in the pipeline. It makes it easier to leave the disappointment behind. I have plenty of time to walk around Darya Gayatri, which even has a gym. My aim is to walk 2km after every meal so I stay fit for the Ocean Globe Race. The crew on the ship are taking splendid care of me and I’ve had some lovely Indian meals. Life is smiling,’ added Tapio Lehtinen.
A feature on Galiana and Tapio Lehtinen Sailing will be published in the January 2023 issue of Yachting Monthly, out on the 8 December 2022.
Current positions of the Golden Globe Race 2022 skippers on 21 November 2022 at 1000 UTC
Simon Curwen, (UK), Biscay 36, Clara
Kirsten Neuschafer, (South Africa), Cape George 36 cutter, Minnehaha
Abhilash Tomy, (India), Rustler 36, Bayanat
Michael Guggenberger, (Austria), Biscay 36, Nuri
Jeremy Bagshaw, (South Africa), OE32, Olleanna
Elliot Smith, (USA), Gale Force 34, Second Wind
Ian Herbert-Jones (UK), Tradewind 35, Puffin
Arnaud Gaist, (France), Barbican 33 Mk 2, Hermes Phoning
Guy Waites (UK), Tradewind 35, Sagarmatha
Edward Walentynowicz, (Canada), Rustler 36, Noah’s Jest
Guy deBoer, (USA), Tashiba 36, Spirit
Mark Sinclair (Australia), Lello 34, Coconut
Pat Lawless, (Ireland), Saltram Saga 36, Green Rebel
Damien Guillou, (France), Rustler 36, PRB
Ertan Beskardes, (UK), Rustler 36, Lazy Otter
Tapio Lehtinen, (Finland), Gaia 36, Asteria
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