Bruce Goodwin's ocean crossing with friends was nearing an end when they encountered a storm; the liferaft was lost, the yacht sank. Skipper Stuart Pedersen tragically died just as he was being plucked to safety
Sunk in a storm with no liferaft: lessons learned
Sailing is one of my passions, so I needed little persuasion when my good friend Stuart Pedersen asked if I could help him and his wife Pamela sail their yacht Essence back to New Zealand from Fiji, writes Bruce Goodwin.
I flew out on Sunday 6 October 2019 and joined the boat’s crew, which also included Pamela’s brother-in-law, Steve Newman.
The next morning we motored down the coast of Viti Levu island to Denarau to clear customs. While waiting for Customs, Stuart and I worked through the pre-voyage job list while Pamela and Steve went to the Nadi market for fresh food.
By evening, we had anchored in Momi Bay, ready for an early getaway.
After breakfast on Tuesday we raised the anchor and stowed it under a bunk down below, thinking that our next stop would be a customs wharf in Tauranga, New Zealand, nearly 1,400 miles south – this action was to impact our decision-making during the fateful storm six days later.
For the first 24 hours we sailed through showers with light, variable winds as we cleared the inter-tropical convergence zone. By Wednesday we were on a broad reach for home, and the blessed conditions would continue through to Sunday.
Essence was a joy to sail. Launched in 2000, it was a mid-cockpit cruising version of a Bavaria 47, well equipped and maintained. She could easily make 7 to 8 knots in little wind.
Conditions were forecast to turn gnarly so Stuart wisely decided to head for shelter at Opua in the Bay of Islands rather than continue towards Tauranga.
The worst of four weather forecasts showed a maximum 45 knots from an easterly or north-easterly quarter. I felt comfortable with this, because it meant we could sail a broad reach straight into the Bay of Islands.
It was not an option to heave-to and wait north of the storm area, because the rest of the week’s forecast showed strong winds from the direction that we wanted to travel.
Sunday saw us still broad-reaching in about 25 knots with reduced sail, still feeling quite comfortable.
Early on Monday Pamela and Stuart set the storm staysail and put the third, final reef in the mainsail. I was due on watch at 0800 but Stuart, who was hand steering, told me not to hurry.
I appeared on deck before 0900 dressed for a wet and cold last day at sea; layered in polypropylene clothing, a lifejacket and safety harness.
The wind had risen overnight to 35 knots, and there was a light, driving rain. We were well past North Cape at this point.
Stuart was happy to remain at the wheel, so we stayed on deck together. Pamela and Steve were taking their minds off the conditions by making funny videos down below.
When I took a turn on the wheel, I noticed the touchscreen chartplotter was no longer functioning due to the continuous rain. We had a choice of a digital or magnetic compass to steer by.
I opted for the digital one – part of the autopilot system. Pamela provided occasional progress updates and sweets.
Stuart and I decided to use second safety tethers, which proved to be wise. As we approached the Northland coast, Stuart and I discussed the idea of turning west to seek shelter in Whangaroa Harbour or the Cavalli Islands.
I concluded that it would be risky to close the coast without the chart plotter to indicate hazards, and without the anchor being immediately available to drop.
It would have been a 20-minute job in calm water to refit the anchor; impossible in those conditions.
Entering Whangaroa Harbour in bad weather is daunting, so we pressed on for Opua. Essence was making 7 to 8.5 knots.
As we rose up the steep swells we could hear and sense the breaking tops approaching from behind, so we would turn downwind and take them across the stern before resuming the broad reach once the swell had passed.
This was working quite well. The wind speed now exceeded the 45-knot forecast. I was surprised by how big and steep the waves were.
I later found out that a sea condition monitor recorded waves off the Bay of Islands up to 7.5m high just eight seconds apart.
The problem was not so much the height of the swells, but their steepness and the breaking portion on their tops.
Due to the randomness, bigger waves inevitably occurred and struck the boat. About 1100 we got knocked over. Essence kept sailing well.
The boat tipped, the leeward railings went underwater and the solar panel was ripped from the stanchions.
Panel, stanchion, lifeline and electrical cable went flailing around off the stern.
I changed my tethers’ attachments one at a time to connect to a jackline across the stern, and began descending to the leeward quarter to clear the damage.
Another deluge ripped me from my handholds. I managed to hook a leg around the final stanchion on the starboard quarter. The damaged kit had broken free, so my efforts were in vain.
Stuart was feeling anxious, so I tried to reassure him by saying that we would be in Opua soon after 1700.
READ: Window storm covers could have prevented fatal yacht sinking: the full Maritime New Zealand report into Essence’s sinking here
About 1135, Pamela called New Zealand’s Marine Operations Centre (MOC) on VHF Channel 16 to report our entry into New Zealand waters, and that we were heading for Opua.
She gave our position, course, speed and other details, and set up an hourly trip report. I thank God for her foresight.
By midday the wind was hitting 60 knots.
Shortly before 1230 Stuart was at the wheel, and I was wedged into the cockpit.
We were 25 miles north-north-east of Cape Brett. I was holding on to stainless steel tubing both sides and felt secure.
We rose up on another swell and without warning, the boat suddenly rolled over as the wave broke.
My hands were ripped from their holds and I was free-falling, snapping to a halt mid-air as my tethers tightened. Then I was underwater, being dragged along fast.
My body was being painfully bent, and the pressure around my harness made it impossible to breathe, which was just as well.
I remember thinking, ‘I’ll just have to wait it out.’ The next thing I knew I was pinned down on the aft deck tangled in the mainsheet.
Stuart was clearing debris off me and reorganising my tethers. I couldn’t feel any injuries: the adrenaline was working pretty well by then. I looked around the deck.
The dodger was ripped to shreds and the steering was still functioning, but the fibreglass cover and electronics around the steering pedestal were smashed.
The mast was still up, the boom was right out – we had set the boom brake – the sails were luffing wildly, and the boat was sitting stably in a semi-hove-to position.
The only thing preventing us from sailing on seemed to be that the mainsheet was entangled with the bimini remnants. We tried to clear it but without success: it required a hacksaw.
We checked on the others down below. It was a shock: they were knee-deep in water, blood was pouring from a wound on Pamela’s head, and Steve was trying to restore order in the saloon.
Stuart and I jumped below, into the water: the companionway steps had been ripped out of place. The starboard saloon windows were smashed and every wave brought a water-fall.
Steve and Pamela stuffed squabs into the window frames, but it was a fruitless exercise. The boat was sinking.
Pamela very calmly put out a Mayday call: ‘We can give no position. Our equipment is damaged.’ Shore station: ‘Turn on your EPIRB.’
We searched frantically for the EPIRB in its cabin wall holder. It was gone. I remembered my personal locator beacon (PLB). It should have been fitted to my lifejacket, but I hadn’t got round to it.
I waded to the forward cabin, spotted the blue lanyard and put it over my neck. The previously locked forward hatch was wide open so I pulled it shut. I tried to turn on the PLB, but my salt water-soaked eyes couldn’t see which button to push. I pushed both, and Steve confirmed it was indicating correctly.
I climbed out to the cockpit to set up the liferaft that was strapped onto the aft deck, but just an empty cradle remained.
I called to the others below: ‘The liferaft’s gone. We’ll have to swim for it. Don’t worry, we can do this.’
Stuart, Pamela and Steve brought up a spare lifejacket, the grab bag, chocolate, and a four-litre bottle of water.
Sunk without a liferaft
I saw no fear or panic on anyone’s face, only a determination to make this work. We ate as much chocolate and drank as much water as we could and checked one another’s lifejackets.
We agreed to connect our tethers after we had left the boat to minimise the risk of snagging on something and going down with it.
Stuart and Steve used the bilge pump in the cockpit, but it was only buying a little time. There was another manual pump in a cabin, but we feared getting trapped.
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It would only have bought us a few minutes, and used up vital energy. The boat gradually sank lower in the water.
Pamela suggested that I open the gate to make it easier for us to depart together. As the bow started to go under, holding the grab bag, I jumped out as far as I could, pulling Pamela with me.
Steve and Stuart followed seconds later, bringing the Danbuoy and life ring. They were lucky to clear the davits, because the boat dived very quickly.
The davits were the last we saw of the Essence.
In the sea
We tethered ourselves in a ‘daisy chain’, while trying to cope with the shock and breathing problems caused by the cold water.
I was coughing and spluttering, and had to make a conscious effort to close my mouth and breathe through my nose to regain control.
We all huddled for warmth, but it made me feel claustrophobic, so I excused myself and floated on my back with my head towards the on-coming waves, with my PLB stuck into the cleft of my lifejacket with the aerial pointing up.
Huge waves tumbled us around. For a time we were underwater: all I could do was hold my breath and hug my lifejacket, knowing its buoyancy would eventually bring me to the surface.
I remembered the handheld VHF radio in the grab bag and passed it to Stuart to use. We were surprised to get a quick reply, confirming that a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion would be overhead in 10 minutes.
The sight of that plane roaring past will remain with me forever. I raised my hand and yelled, ‘You beauty! We’re going to make it!’
It flew by very low about 200m away, and I was sure the crew had seen us.
Later, when I saw the aerial photographs, I realised how desperately difficult it must have been to spot four tiny figures in a storm-swept ocean.
The Orion disappeared and came back five minutes later. This pattern was repeated four or five times.
Stuart asked on the radio: ‘When are you dropping the liferaft? We’re getting very cold.’
A floating smoke flare landed 100m away. The crew still hadn’t seen us. They got Stuart to countdown on the VHF radio: ‘Now, now: on your port side.’
Apparently because they were flying so low, my PLB position was cutting in and out between the swells.
Eventually, the Orion flew past us waving its wings. They had spotted the Danbuoy.
Test of strength
The Orion disappeared, then moments later a long rope with flags and small parachutes came floating down. I knew a liferaft would be at the end, so I struck out swimming for it.
I was soon out of breath. It seemed to be an impossible task, I kept striking out, then pausing, again and again.
I had no idea how the others, attached behind me, were getting on, but they must have been going for it too. It felt good to grab the rope.
I started pulling myself along. Initially it wasn’t too difficult, but as the raft was blown past, still some distance away, a tremendous pull came on the rope as 50-plus knots of wind propelled it away.
I locked my hands onto the line, knowing it could be my only chance of survival. Every so often the raft dipped between waves and out of the wind, so the tension eased, enabling us to progress.
Then the pull would come on again, and I would hang on with all the strength I could muster.
The Orion crew logged at least 20 minutes between our getting hold of the rope and reaching the raft: the hardest physical battle of my life.
Grabbing the liferaft’s webbing handhold was another milestone, but with a tangle of people, ropes and equipment I couldn’t get onboard.
Eventually, I got part-way in, feet first, and battled to release the hook from my tether to fully board. I turned to help Steve, but nothing worked until we released the tether connecting him to Pamela.
Now Pamela and Stuart were alongside. The unzipped sides of the raft were flapping wildly. Breakers were crashing through the raft.
Steve and I tried to get Pamela and Stuart aboard. Pamela was floating on her back with one hand holding a webbing handle. Her eyes were open, but she was unresponsive as waves washed over her.
Her face was blue-grey, and that moment became the epicentre of the post-traumatic stress disorder which I experienced for months afterwards.
I spoke to Pamela to try to keep her fighting, and pulled at her lifejacket, but she kept slipping underwater.
I yelled at Steve: ‘What’s the plan? I can’t get her in.’ He didn’t know either.
All I could do was hold Pamela’s head out of the water, while Steve looked after Stuart. We were in this position for around 15 minutes, then a helicopter whizzed past and I yelled: ‘Hang on. It won’t be long now.’
There was no sign Pamela could hear me. Soon the rescue swimmer was in the water, attached to the helicopter winch cable.
When he reached the raft, Steve indicated he should take Stuart first. The swimmer cut Stuart and Pamela free and the raft quickly drifted away from them.
Steve and I watched as the helicopter hovered over them. Eventually Stuart and the swimmer were lifted up with a trail of ropes. The swimmer had lost his knife and was unable to clear the lines.
This gave the helicopter crew anxious moments because of the entanglement risk with the tail rotor.
The winchman cut the ropes before swinging Stuart aboard.
The swimmer – a paramedic named Karl Taylor – was a strong, fit man, but he was pushed to his limits that day, going straight back in for Pamela. Steve and I zipped up the sides of the 10-person, oblong liferaft and it felt like the Hilton.
However, the swimmer soon returned. We drifted away and he was airlifted and repositioned beside us. He chose me to go next.
I passed Steve my PLB, while Karl placed a lifebelt around me. In an instant we were being dragged along in the water.
We were soon in the air beside the helicopter, and practised hands swapped carabiners over and swung me aboard.
I was dumped on the deck, then lifted into a seat, and someone put a seatbelt on me. Steve appeared. The smile on his face was precious.
I looked at Pamela. She was very pale, wrapped in aluminium foil thermal blankets. She managed a small smile, which meant so much to me.
Between us was Stuart, wrapped in a tarpaulin. I couldn’t see him, so I started to clear a small area around his face. I needed to get that same smile from him, but a crewman waved me away.
I didn’t understand what he was telling me, so I tried again, and got the same reaction from the crewman.
The side door was closed, then crewmen wrapped thermal blankets around me and Steve as we settled in for the long flight to Whangãrei.
I could feel the cold body of Stuart leaning against me, and I slowly realised that he had died.
He had been so close to making it home.
Many wonderful, true, things have since been said about Stuart, but what remains with me is his devotion to Pamela to the end.
Just minutes earlier, while alongside the liferaft, he had been asking: ‘Where’s Pamela? How is she?’ At Whangãrei, we were met by an ambulance and taken to hospital.
I called my wife, Elaine: ‘Honey, it’s me. I’m okay, but I’m in Whangãrei Hospital. The boat has sunk, and we’ve lost Stuart.’
That was all I could get out. We each gave a report to the police for the coroner’s inquest.
We had no dry clothing, but three cheers for Sharron Beck from Whangãrei’s Town Basin Marina office who visited us, offering hugs, and later, sets of clothes.
Elaine contacted our niece Pam, who lived locally. Steve and I were discharged at 2200 and taken to her home. Pamela stayed in the intensive care unit, being treated for water in her lungs.
The whole thing has changed my life.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my survivor buddies, and how their lives must also be impacted.
That all four of us didn’t perish is due to the teamwork, rapid response, skill and courage of New Zealand’s rescue services.
To lose a good mate has been traumatic beyond what I could imagine.
Stuart had a wonderful zest for life, was successful in business, retired young, and lived life to the full. Despite the voyage’s disastrous end, I don’t want this to be a scare story.
Sailing is still my happy place. I only want to make it safer for us all in the future.
Sunk in a storm with no liferaft: Lessons Learned
- Wear a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB): You can fall overboard any time, not just in bad weather. If your crewmates lose sight of you, you can still be found. Know by touch which buttons to push – you might lose your specs, it might be dark, or your vision might be blurred by salt water.
- Energy & warmth: Dress for the worst-case scenario and eat and drink well, before standing watch in bad weather. You probably won’t get time to eat or put your thermals on in an emergency.
- Beware hypothermia: Lean people succumb to hypothermia far quicker than those packing a bit of weight. They need to be watched and given more food, rest and warm clothing.
- Cold shock: Be prepared for the cold shock if you have to abandon ship. Keep your mouth shut and breathe through your nose to minimise the amount of water you ingest. Getting your breathing under control must take priority.
- Teamwork: Look out for one another when abandoning ship: check lifejackets and harnesses, and be mindful of one another’s needs. Talk each move through, then act together. Positive talk is incredibly important. Once you’re in the water, tether yourselves together.
- Place your EPIRB in a grab-bag: …or risk losing it. Also, having the EPIRB, flares, handheld VHF radio and other rescue essentials all in one, secure place can save precious time.
- Use lanyards: Ensure that the items in the grab-bag, the bag itself, and other emergency essentials such as your PLB and knife, have lanyards – and use them. The risk of losing items in an abandon-ship situation is high. Luckily, we lost our VHF unit only after we no longer needed it.
- Liferaft mountings: Consider how well your liferaft is mounted to the boat. Would the mounting survive the enormous hydraulic pressures that would be exerted on it in a knockdown or roll-over?
- Use flares: Use your flares even if you think your rescuers have seen you – it removes all doubt.
- Beware touch-screen chart plotters: They interpret rain and spray drops hitting them as your finger. Use a different type, or have a back-up.
- Storm shutters or battens: Fit them when bad weather is forecast – waiting until the storm is raging is too late. Battens reduce the likelihood of the windows being burst by the distorting forces exerted on the roof and hull during a knockdown or roll-over. Shutters can significantly reduce water ingress if any windows are burst. This could make the difference between the boat sinking and making it home.
- Accessible bilge pumps: Site manual bilge pumps where they can be used safely. A sinking proceeds frighteningly fast in the final stages. Consider fitting the largest-capacity electric bilge pump possible.
- Know your boat’s limitations: Do not expect your boat to cope with conditions it is not designed for. Don’t take it on a long sea passage if it’s not designed to survive knockdowns and roll-overs: stick to coastal waters where you can run to shelter if the weather turns nasty.
- Anchor readiness: Keep it ready for use at short notice, but ensure it’s well tied down.
- Weather forecast caution: Expect worse than the weather forecast, and sail accordingly. In our case the wind reached 15 knots higher than forecast.
- Tracking app and AIS: Use a tracking app and AIS, and have someone on shore monitor the app. Brief them to alert the emergency services if it stops working, in case the worst has happened and you can’t send a Mayday message yourself. It will assist your rescuers.