A mid-Atlantic Mayday sends chills down the spine of ARC crew member Craig Gray

Mid-Atlantic rescue: Magic Dragon assists ARC crew

‘Craig, there’s been a Mayday, you have to get up,’ whispered nine-year-old Dorothy, almost apologetically, through the half-open door to my cabin, writes Craig Gray.

I mumbled incoherently while fumbling blearily for clothes. It was 0900.

I’d only finished my watch at 0730ish and had been asleep for about an hour, but a Mayday is a Mayday.

We were smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, some 10 days into my first transatlantic crossing as crew aboard Magic Dragon of Dart – a 1994-built, 55-foot Oyster owned and skippered by Rod Halling and his wife, Jane.

A child swinging on the sprayhood in the cockpit of a yacht

Jane, Lizzie and Craig look on as Peter swings on the sprayhood in the mid-Atlantic

Also aboard were Rod’s daughter from a previous marriage, Lizzie, a competent dinghy sailor, along with Dorothy, and four-year-old twins, Peter and Vera. A real family affair.

We were sailing with the 2021 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), the so-called ‘friendly’ race from Gran Canaria to the Caribbean island of St Lucia in a fleet of some 150 yachts.

As well as unusually squally upwind sailing conditions we had the nagging concern that our watermaker had stopped working, leaving us with a little over 400 litres in the tanks to sustain us for the 10 or so days left aboard.

Major squalls

We sailed on, Magic Dragon making short work of the conditions and running beautifully at around 10-12 knots.

It was the morning of 1 December when we received Boscombe Whaler’s* Mayday.

A minute or so after Dorothy had woken me, I staggered, half asleep, into no small chaos.

Jane was at the chart table in radio contact with Boscombe Whaler’s skipper. The kids were running around the saloon excited at all the kerfuffle.

A yacht in silhouette anchored in the ocean

Magic Dragon of Dart at anchor in the Caribbean

Rod was at the helm with Lizzie beside him. ‘A yacht’s lost its steering. We’re going to help. They’re about six miles away,’ said Rod.

We motored towards our target at around 6 knots.

It was only once we turned into the wind to get the sails away that I fully appreciated how strong it was.

Force 8, gusting to Force 9, and showing no signs of easing.

The 58-foot Hanse that had issued the Mayday had been bashed around with no steering all night long, attempted various fixes to repair a steering quadrant failure, and by morning the difficult decision to abandon ship had been made.

There were two other ARC yachts standing by, but neither had space for all five passengers.

After sailing as a hobby around the Solent and Isle Of Purbeck from age 19 on a friend’s dad’s Virgo Voyager, Craig Gray decided to pursue a career sailing professionally nearly five years ago. Craig jumped at the chance to crew on SV Magic Dragon for 2021’s ARC, and has been working as a skipper and freelance journalist in the West Indies since.

After sailing as a hobby around the Solent and Isle Of Purbeck from age 19 on a friend’s dad’s Virgo Voyager, Craig Gray decided to pursue a career sailing professionally nearly five years ago. Craig jumped at the chance to crew on SV Magic Dragon for 2021’s ARC, and has been working as a skipper and freelance journalist in the West Indies since.

In spite of our broken watermaker, we decided it was more important to get the crew off their boat.

We decided the crew would get into their liferaft, cast themselves off, and we would pick them up in our lee.

It took around an hour to reach the stricken vessel, which gave us time to talk through the manoeuvre and rig lines and ladders on the expected side.

All the children seemed to realise the gravity of the situation. They were unusually quiet and impeccably well behaved.

Continues below…

As we approached the scene, Jane once more got on the radio.

Lizzie and I sat amidships on the portside as we watched Boscombe Whaler’s crew moving around her stern.

One man threw out the liferaft, which inflated beautifully. The yacht was lying with wind abeam due to her sea anchor.

This meant the crew jumping into the liferaft from the open transom, which, due to the swell was at times four or five metres above the water.

All we could do was watch as the first man picked his moment to leap.

Mid-Atlantic rescue

When the right gap in the waves arrived, he pushed himself off the yacht, landing perfectly in the raft.

One by one, the other four crewmembers followed, the painter was cut and Boscombe Whaler drifted away from her crew.

We all cheered, such was the release in tension, but I did wonder if it was the time or the place.

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to watch your home, pride and joy set free, unmanned, to gradually disappear over the horizon with very little hope of ever seeing her again.

Craig plays Peter’s guitar on Magic Dragon’s foredeck

Craig plays Peter’s guitar on Magic Dragon’s foredeck

Rod motored around the beleaguered yacht, keeping a fair distance using the engine.

He managed superbly as only a skipper in full control of his own boat can, and Lizzie and I prepared to pick up the crew on our starboard side.

We let them come to us, but with the swell only getting heavier, I worried that they’d be crushed underneath our hull.

Somehow Rod kept the liferaft amidships, and once it was within about 10 feet, I stood up to throw the crew a line.

It went straight through the open liferaft hatch, and into the arms of Raoul, the skipper, who heroically refused to let go until every other person was safely on board Magic Dragon.

Closing in on Boscombe Whaler

Closing in on Boscombe Whaler

Lifting the crew out of the raft was the next task.

The guardrail was open and various ladders and lines were laid over the side, but getting them safely on deck was no mean feat.

First up was Steven, who managed to grab on at the right place and we had little trouble helping him aboard.

Next was Phillip, not the smallest man in the world, and he unfortunately ended up climbing where the guardrail was highest.

Boscombe Whaler’s crew prepares to abandon into the liferaft

Boscombe Whaler’s crew prepares to abandon into the liferaft

I grabbed his arm, and through adrenaline and sheer brute strength, dragged him into the cockpit.

Naomi, Raoul’s wife and a slight lady, was next, and after the previous exertion, I nearly threw her over the boat and back into the sea.

Charlie came up after, along with bags of food and belongings, and finally skipper Raoul, who could at last let go of the rope.

We had been in contact with another boat that was standing by, who offered to send some bottles of water over on a fender, but after a couple of failed attempts we called it off.

New crewmembers

Jane shifted into hostess mode and put the kettle on.

We turned Magic Dragon into the wind to bring her sails out, and got ourselves back on course.

The rest of the journey was entirely without incident, especially as Raoul managed to get our watermaker working.

With the extra food we ate like kings for the remainder of the journey, and with more hands on board everyone doubled up on watches.

Even morale improved, in spite of the Atlantic still giving us a good kicking.

Children making cakes on a yacht

Vera, Peter and Dorothy making cakes for the halfway party

And so late evening on 9 December 2021 Magic Dragon arrived at the marina in Rodney Bay, St Lucia, to rapturous applause and a fanfare of hundreds of foghorns and cheers.

The entire marina turned out to see us in.

As soon as the final line was set, the crew of Boscombe Whaler leapt from the deck of their rescuers and straight into the arms of their loved ones, who, although well aware of the survivors’ wellbeing, yearned to hold them close for that confirmation of their safety.

Magic Dragon’s crew collects the Spirit of the ARC award for carrying out their mid-Atlantic rescue

Magic Dragon’s crew collects the Spirit of the ARC award

It took another week before the majority of yachts crossed the finish line.

On the Friday night, as the ARC prize-giving ceremony drew to a close, the organiser announced: ‘The final award this year is the “Spirit of the ARC” and goes to an individual or crew that has displayed selfless commitment in helping others in the rally… Despite already having seven on board, including three children, they risked their safety to evacuate Boscombe Whaler’s crew, and eight days later delivered them safely to the shores of St Lucia… This year’s ‘Spirit of the ARC’ goes to… Magic Dragon of Dart.’

*Names of abandoned yacht and rescued crew have been changed for publication

Mid-Atlantic rescue: Lessons Learned

  • Man overboard Practice: Prior to the passage Rod and Jane had insisted we spend an afternoon refreshing all the crew on our man overboard manoeuvres. This proved critical.
  • Planning: In the hour between receiving the Mayday and arriving on the scene, we talked through the situation as a crew, discussed the several crew transfer options available to us, and also ways in which things could go wrong.
  • Communication: Once we had a set course of action, Jane spent the majority of time in constant radio contact with Boscombe Whaler’s skipper. This meant that both crews were fully aware of what to expect.
  • Emergency rations: Water was our biggest oversight. Sounds obvious but you can never have too much of it, and you should never rely solely on your watermaker. We did have an emergency 80 litres on board, but we should have insisted that Boscombe Whaler’s crew bring as much with them as possible.

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