When Golden Globe Race competitor Tapio Lehtinen was woken by a loud bang, he had just enough time to jump into his liferaft. He shares the lessons he learned following his rescue
Sleeping in my bunk, on the morning of Friday 18 November 2022, I was woken by a loud bang, writes Tapio Lehtinen.
We were roughly 450 miles south east of South Africa, and it had been a nice Force 3 ENE wind when I’d gone to bed, with a relatively smooth, long swell.
I am very well used to Asteria’s movements and despite sleeping like a baby in my bunk, I normally wake up when the movement or heel of the boat changes.
Wild bangs against waves also tend to get me out of my deepest sleep. This bang was just a loud noise, not connected to slamming against a wave or any other impact.
My bunk is 55cm wide with a high leeboard and I had already rigged the safety net on top of it in order to prevent me from falling out of the bunk in a possible knockdown or a rollover.
It takes 20 seconds for an old, stiff guy like me to wriggle out of the bunk.
By the time I put my feet on the floorboards they were almost knee deep in the water which was rushing into the cabin from under the companionway ladder and engine room.
It was clear to me that the water was coming at such a pace that the boat was sinking and I to get ready to abandon ship and, if time allowed, to try to see if there was anything I could do to prevent it from happening.
I dashed to the companionway and grabbed my survival suit bag from the locker next to it and threw it into the cockpit.
Next I got the communication equipment watertight grab box containing a satellite phone, emergency VHF, air traffic frequency VHF, YB3- satellite texting device with a tracker, and put that into the cockpit, too, ready to go.
I then tried to open my other two grab bags containing food and medicine, but the water was already above my waist and the level rapidly rising, so I decided my priority was to get my survival suit on and get the liferaft launched as it seemed that the boat would sink in a few minutes.
I got up to the deck, put on my survival suit and cut the straps of the raft with the knife next to it and launched it.
Tapio Lehtinen jumps ship
Everything went quickly and smoothly, the raft opened, I threw the comms box and the bag containing the heavy liner suit to be used under the survival suit into the raft.
As the boat was down in the water almost to deck level, I cut the painter of the raft with the knife and tied the painter with a slip knot to the closest stanchion, so that if the boat did sink, I could release it quickly.
I then took a last desperate look into the cabin in order to see if I could get the grab bags or EPIRB out, but it was hopeless.
The water was already just 15 to 20cm below the deck; diving into the water didn’t seem wise.
I then looked over my shoulder and saw that my slip knot had come undone and the raft was drifting away, already a couple metres from the boat.
So instead of any sentimental last kisses to my friend, it was time for a tiger leap over the lifelines for the raft.
I don’t have any clear recollection of getting into the raft. I must have bounced from the surface of the water as in the next moment I was inside the raft.
My first feeling in the raft was of embarrassment for my slip knot failure and being on the raft instead of the boat.
For decades I have been preaching that it is not a life raft but a death raft.
The learnings of the 1979 Fastnet Race and other disasters is that you leave your boat only when you are 100% sure that it is sinking, climbing up to the raft from a sinking boat.
I would have wanted to have the raft ready for entering but still have a possibility to locate the cause of the flooding and see if there was a way to fix it.
Asteria was fitted with three watertight bulkheads in the bow and two in the transom, and I had been bragging for four years that she was as unsinkable as Titanic.
I’ve learned my lesson and am rather more humble now.
I got the paddle out but no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to get back to the boat.
The only thing left to do was to watch the 20-minute death struggle of my beautiful boat.
It was clear the aft compartments had been breached as the stern sank first with the bow rising up.
The bow was the last visible part of the hull followed by the high-vis yellow top of the mainsail and finally, her VHF antenna.
I stood up in the wobbling life raft to make a last salute to my dear friend. It was an emotional moment.
Once alone in the raft I started getting organised and went through all the stuff I had with me.
I had only been able to take the comms box and the survival suit with me, but I was positively surprised how well the raft was equipped.
As it is a four-person raft, there was a fair amount of emergency water and food, and a small first aid bag.
I immediately applied sun protection to my face as in the boat I try to stay in the shade. I streamed out the sea anchor and emptied and dried the raft with the bailer and sponge provided.
I didn’t have my new waterproof sat phone with me, but in my comms box was another Iridium one.
I tried to put it on, only to find that its battery was flat – my own error. I should have regularly checked the battery condition of the devices in the box while sailing.
An hour later I realised that in the crammed box I had a spare battery for the satellite phone.
I changed the battery and it switched on. I got registered, but when I tried to call Golden Globe Race organiser Don McIntyre with it, it didn’t connect.
After a few tries I noticed that the antenna was broken. I don’t know at which stage I had broken it, but it is clear that the standard Iridium phone is not rugged enough for this kind of use.
Luckily I also had the YB3 satellite texting device, so with that I was able to keep a once an hour contact with Don.
A handheld GPS was also packed inside the raft, and most importantly a PLB, which I activated.
I hadn’t managed to activate either of Asteria’s two EPIRBs on Asteria – one mounted inside, close to the companionway, and the other in one of the grab bags still on board.
I later heard that the one mounted on board had activated two hours before I activated the PLB.
My YB3 device had a tracking function so Don and MRCC Cape Town (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre) had three ways of getting my location.
I was grateful to Don’s rigorous GGR safety requirements that built in redundancy.
I was lucky to abandon Asteria in the morning, in sunshine and easy weather.
I had got wet inside the boat, but during the day and the afternoon I was able to keep the raft half open and also open my survival suit so that I was fairly dry before the evening.
The raft was also equipped with two hypothermia bags. After sunset it got a bit chilly, so I closed the raft and got into both of the bags.
I packed all the packaging foam into a plastic bag and sat on them. It was actually very comfortable; the four-person raft allowed me to stretch straight diagonally.
I dosed in short naps and one longer three-hour sleep during the night.
I was awoken by an albatross couple having a chat in the lee of the liferaft towards morning.
I love life on the ocean and, safe in the knowledge that my rescue was in good hands, watching the wildlife kept my morale high.
A growing flock of giant petrels gathered around the raft, joined later by storm petrels and a few albatrosses flying around me.
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One petrel, clearly the boss, eventually got close enough to take hold of my finger with his long beak a couple of times.
In the afternoon I got a message from Don that fellow GGR competitor Abhilash Tomy was on his way towards me.
Later I was informed that Kirsten Neuschafer aboard Minnehaha was roughly 100 miles away and the bulk carrier Darya Gayatri was 270 miles away and making 10-12 knots towards me, so I remained relaxed.
In the morning Don messaged that Kirsten’s ETA was earlier as she had found better wind and soon I saw her from the top of the swells on the horizon and established VHF contact with her, but only when both of us were on the top of a swell.
She was not able to see me, but as she was coming downwind towards me, I could tell her to steer 15º to the starboard to get straight towards me.
I then sat again comfortably and to my great joy and surprise a sea turtle appeared next to the raft.
After a while spent admiring the turtle I realised that Kirsten had started sailing roughly 30º to starboard of me. I called her again on VHF but got no answer.
After 15 minutes she was abeam of me relative to the wind. I called her on the VHF with no answer but hoping that she would hear me I said I would fire a parachute flare.
Embarrassingly, it was the first one I had fired in my life. It went accordingly.
I tried to send it directly up, but for some reason it shot off at 45º angle against the wind, arced down and hit the waves before the parachute even opened.
Luckily straight after that Kirsten replied on the VHF and I told her to turn 90º to port.
She later told me had seen the Darya Gayatri as a speck in the horizon and mistaken the 230m bulk carrier for my life raft and was sailing straight past me.
It just shows how difficult it is to find something in big swells even in daylight.
When she was approaching, I said I would fire another parachute flare in three minute. Even though she was waiting and looking for it and this time I fired it straight up, she didn’t see it in the bright daylight, or the handheld flare I also fired.
She then sailed past about half a mile to windward. She saw me once when I was waving the orange hypothermia bag with the paddle above the raft on top of a swell, but then lost me again.
Finally, after the next VHF contact and instructions she got so close that we could talk over the VHF properly and I could give her exact directions so that she came directly towards me.
We then discussed over VHF how she was going to approach and get me aboard Minnehaha.
She furled in the genoa, lowered the main, started the engine and approached the raft to windward of me so I could throw the throwing line to her, which
she put around a winch and pulled me alongside.
I was able to climb onboard Minnehaha with her help. It was great!
We had a big hug and shared a glass of rum and a few chocolate bars to get the blood sugar up.
Darya Gayatri was already approaching and I would soon need to be fit to climb the ladder.
Kirsten and the captain of Darya Gayatri, Naveen Kumar Mehrotra, then had a professional and precise discussion over VHF about how the ship would first position her starboard side against the wind so that Kirsten could then manoeuvre Minnehaha into her lee at a safe distance without risking her rig in the big swell.
Everything went smoothly.
Two throwing lines were thrown to Minnehaha; I grabbed one of them, got back to the raft and tied the line to the raft, and Kirsten let me disembark Minnehaha.
I was then pulled against the side of Darya Gayatri to the bottom of a 10m rope ladder.
With the raft rising and falling a couple of metres in the swell, I managed to choose the right moment to grab the ladder.
The 10m climb felt more like 30m. But everything went fine, with the crew of Darya Gayatri on deck helping and welcoming me onboard, then pulling the raft up after me.
Since then, I have been enjoying the hospitality of the Indian crew, who have provided me with clothes, a bed, transport to Jakarta and wonderful Indian cuisine.
*Tapio has since made landfall in Jakarta and is now making arrangements to travel back to Finland in time for Christmas.
Lessons Learned: The boat
- Construction: I may never know what caused the sinking. I completed a full refit of my boat in before the 2018 GGR, including additional kevlar lamination over the hull, a new deck, new longitudinal stringers and five new watertight bulkheads. With retrospect, I would take both the external strengthening of the hull laminate, as well as the internal longitudinal stringers all the way to the transom of the boat.
- Through hull fittings: My first thought was that a through hull fitting must have failed between the two stern watertight bulkheads, filling the compartment and breaking the bulkhead so the water could flood forwards, but could a single failed skin fitting let in 20-30 cubic metres of water in just five minutes? In any case, I will now only use through-hull fittings with an external flange rather than the ones faired flush to the hull, which may be less strong, and will re-examine whether bronze or composite is a stronger choice.
- Windvane & transom loads: A new force stressing the transom compared with the 2018 race was my new Hydrovane windvane with its own steering blade attached aft of the transom. While this gave improved course-holding, it may have put the narrow stern under a new, sideways stress. Could wave and rigging stress over the best part of 40,000 miles in four years have caused delamination of the hull? The sheerline of the deck was intact and the rig didn’t go slack, so she didn’t fold in half, but could a hole have opened up somewhere aft? The boat is now 5,000m beneath the waves, so we’ll never know for sure.
Lessons Learned: Abandoning Ship
- Sat comms is paramount: I was pleased with the order in which I grabbed the things to take into the raft. The absolute first priority is a satellite device, which lets the MRCC and, in my case, the race organisers know where I am. Even in remote waters help is rarely more than two to four days away. You will not die in hunger or even in thirst during that time. An EPIRB, PLB, and ideally a satellite tracker and messaging device is your best friend.
- Survival suit: Next was the survival suit. I was lucky with the weather, but if you get wet and it is cold, hypothermia will hit you sooner than thirst or hunger. You have to keep warm and dry with a survival suit.
- Casting off too soon: It was a mistake to cut the painter. There was a good and safe-to-use round-ended knife attached to the raft next to the painter, but as I had never seen the raft open, I didn’t dare to rely on it. I would put a pocket knife ready in the pocket of my survival suit. I very nearly lost my main means of survival when it drifted off.
- Location signalling: It wasn’t easy for Kirsten to spot the raft between the swells. I needed a way to be more visible, and holding the high-vis hypothermia bag up on a paddle wasn’t very stable. How about a telescopic fishing rod and a high-vis flag, a balloon, or a kite which would have flown even higher? Collapsible emergency VHF antennae are now available that would have made me more visible and also helped with my radio transmissions
Lessons Learned: Equipment
- Reading glasses: I need strong reading glasses, so I should definitely have had a pair packed in my comms grab box and another pair in the pocket of my survivalsuit. I struggled to read and write text messages.
- Photography: A spare GoPro-camera would have allowed me to document the sinking, the wildlife and the rescue, for which I had plenty of time.
- Watch your raft being packed: The Plastimo raft was well equipped in addition to the emergency water and food. The only thing missing
was a Gideon Bible and a bathroom. It would have helped, however, if I had seen exactly what was inside and where it was stowed beforehand.
- Flares: I was disappointed with how my pyrotechnic flares performed. Prior practice would have helped with my operation of them.
- Zip lubrication: Check that the zipper of your survival suit is lubricated. Luckily, I had the lubrication stuff in the raft. But a dry, heavy-duty metal zipper is a real challenge if not lubricated, and could become a real safety issue if you can’t get it closed. Besides, an old man needs to open it every once in a while.
- Calls of nature: Finally, what the hell do you do in a life raft if you need to poo? I knew that help was on its way, so I fed the emergency food to the petrels (they didn’t like it) and avoided the challenge. For female sailors, something like a ‘she-wee’ would avoid the need to remove the whole survival suit, which would neither be easy nor particularly safe. Urinating inside the suit, for either gender, is likely to get you wet and very cold.
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