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.
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.
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.
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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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.