For all the times I have lazily and inconsistently jotted down coordinates and weather conditions in sailing logbooks, I have rarely (perhaps, never) revisited the pages I’ve written. And, frankly, I’ve not put much thought into the circumstances that might force me to reexamine those logs.
But as I sit here, looking over the logbook pages of SS2, the five-person rowboat I competed on for the Shoreseeker Challenge as my team attempted to row 300 miles from Barcelona to Sardinia, I am annoyed by the information that’s missing; particularly the information I didn’t write down when conditions deteriorated to the point where I feared for my life. And I regret now, looking over the logbook, that I didn’t take a few seconds out of every hour, especially in the hours I was most terrified, to scrawl a summary of events, along with a few thoughts, as my confidence deteriorated and the rational threads keeping my mind intact started to unravel.
The reason I find myself poring over the logbook now, months after the race has finished, is because the race insurer has rejected Shoreseeker’s claim for the €32,641.50 rescue of the SS2 crew, a rescue which the insurance company has not deemed to be a “necessary rescue” with regards to a medical emergency.
The last entry in the race logbook was written on October 1st (which I hastily recorded as September 31st, a small indicator of my state of mind) at 3:45 am. And it was written by me because I was one of two crew who ended up in the stern cabin with all the communications when conditions deteriorated to the point where no one could risk being up on deck, let alone moving between cabins to discuss an emergency plan. And, unfortunately, a roll of the storm dice meant the skipper ended up in the bow cabin, separated from the boat communications, when conditions got really bad.
I can see a certain desperation in my shaky handwriting at 3:45 am, which reads, briefly, “VERY BAD SQUALL –> GETTING WORSE. 40° 22.1 N 005° 14.0 E / Capsized. Aggy outside when it happened –> hit VHF distress.”
I wish I’d written something after that, but the entire book is blank following that last line, even though, looking back, that line represented only the beginning of what was to come.
My darkest moments came well after that entry at 3:45 am, which was already 24 hours after the sea state got so messy that we had to stop rowing, after the skies turned black and unleashed an apocalyptic thunderstorm, after we struggled in the pelting rain to deploy the parachute anchor and after we spent 24 hours dehydrating from lack of food and water because the fear of having to go to the toilet in a bucket on deck negated any desire to eat or drink.
But there is no written account in the logbook of the truly dark moments, which came after sunrise on October 1st and during the 3 hours of radio silence when no one responded to our VHF distress calls, when our instruments shut down because our main battery had drained to 7 volts while our back-up battery was down to 11.86 volts, when we capsized a second time and when I started to question if we would, in fact, survive this storm.
I wish I’d written down what was going through my mind in those five hours between 3:45 am and our helicopter rescue because the circumstances we dealt with stretched my brain beyond it’s most elastic problem-solving capabilities in ways I’d never been forced to do before, and with an urgency that demanded the real consideration that the very worst was yet to come.
A twisted chess game of survival strategy was being played out in my mind, forcing me to imagine the next two stages of the worst events I could imagine in order to consider what our next move should be. It was like flipping through a series of choose-your-own adventure chapters in my mind, except I didn’t get to choose. I just had to wait and see what was chosen for me. And the possibilities included the following:
Adventure 1: We deploy sea anchor. Wait out storm. Row to Sardinia and win race. (Obviously, the preferred option).
Adventure 2: We deploy sea anchor. Sea anchor doesn’t work. Boat capsizes. Crew is unharmed. Wait out storm. Row to Sardinia and win race.
Adventure 3: Boat capsizes multiple times. Crew injured. Batteries die. Communications lost. Support boat, Sottlo, arrives to help, but it’s too dangerous to transfer crew. Wait out storm with support nearby. Transfer to support boat in calm conditions. Abandon race and get towed to Sardinia.
Adventure 4: Boat capsizes multiple times, injuring crew. Batteries die. Communications lost. Support boat never arrives. Rowboat taking on water. Set off EPIRB. Deploy life raft. Passing ship rescues us once storm subsides. (Obviously, the worst-case scenario).
After the first capsize, my mind followed these paths (and more) to their bitter end in an effort to figure out what we would need to do in the event the next worst thing we could imagine were to happen.
Much to my relief, at every stage of my imagination, I found there was a piece of safety equipment on board designed to be used during the next terrible phase. The life raft, of course, was the ultimate last resort, and there were many stages to go through before we got there. But it gave me some comfort to know that at least we had one on board our little rowing vessel. Even our old sailboat, Hideaway, never had a life raft on board.
This little mental game started for me as soon as we realized our boat wasn’t sitting securely on our sea anchor.
As the seas grew angrier, we noticed the force of the waves and their impact had intensified. And at some point, we could feel that the waves were no longer crashing over the bow and drenching the person perched on deck for anchor watch; they were now smashing over the port side of the boat, each rumbling crash tipping the deck a little more towards the surface of the sea, threatening to roll us.
When the motion of the boat first started to shift, I was sitting upright inside the bow cabin, counting down the minutes until I would have to pull on my foul-weather gear and go out on deck for my hour of anchor watch. And as another wave slammed into us, throwing me off balance and launching me a foot off the mattress, I looked up at the unforgiving fiberglass surface about 3 feet above my head. And for the first time since the storm started, I started to consider what would happen if we capsized. I thought about the position I was in, sitting with the most vulnerable part of my head pointed towards the highest point in the cabin ceiling and suddenly I wished the ceiling wasn’t so far away.
Staring at that cavernous ceiling, I decided to find some way of protecting my head in case we did capsize. But I couldn’t find any of my knitted hats, which had probably washed overboard at this point, so instead I grabbed a sweatshirt and a sleeping bag and I packed them around my skull, which I’d now shoved into the narrowest part of the cabin — the shallow bow point where normally my feet would rest when sleeping.
When my teammate Nick finished his anchor watch, he crawled into the bow cabin dripping wet, relieved to have survived another hour on deck without incident. As the wind speeds continued to build, tossing our little rowboat around like a dog’s chew toy, every hour on deck felt like we were staring down a gun barrel playing a game of Russian Roulette. Except the unlucky player would find themselves being yanked underwater by their tether as the boat rolled 360 degrees.
When Nick climbed inside the cabin, slamming the hatch behind him, he turned around to find me squeezed up in the bow, looking like a mummy with my arms crossed on my chest and my head covered in cloth.
“What the hell…?”
I laughed nervously. “It just occurred to me, if we do capsize, that ceiling is a long way away,” I said. “So I’m trying to position myself so it doesn’t hurt so bad.”
I was laughing because, deep down, I wanted to be joking. After all, we’d been joking all along about being lost at sea and how we should write good-bye messages and launch them overboard in empty bottles. And we joked because we were utterly convinced we would come out of this perfectly okay.
But things were starting to feel less like we might laugh about this later, and more like I might end up using my sea survival training, which I was sincerely hoping I would never need to use.
“Tasha, we are not going to capsize,” Nick said, laughing. “This is not the Atlantic. Stop talking like that.”
“Hey, I’m not being pessimistic. I just want to be prepared!”
By the time we did, in fact, capsize, I had already been preparing for that possibility for 6 long hours.
But the stuff that makes me wish I’d forced myself to keep an hourly account in the logbook is the stuff that happened between 3:45 am and 8:45 am on October 1st. And revisiting those hours in my mind, I think this is how that logbook might have read:
4:30 am – WORSE THAN VERY BAD –> NOT SURE HOW IT CAN GET WORSE BUT, HEY, WE’RE ALIVE. Skipper on deck, pumping water out of starboard food locker. Is that why we’re sitting perpendicular to sea anchor? Skipper removed EPIRB, told me to keep it in cabin, but NOT to activate it yet. His words: “We’re not there yet.” There is a gash on his head.
5:30 am – No word from support boat Sottlo since their message 10 hours ago saying they were 12 nm away. Said they would be within VHF range by dawn. Still no response to VHF distress. No boats on AIS. Low batteries. Shut down instruments and comms to conserve battery – turning on every 30 min. to check for boats. Nothing out there.
6:30 am – WHERE IS SOTTLO? WHY ARE THEY NOT ANSWERING VHF OR SATPHONE? Turning on VHF every 30 min to send out May Day. Concerned email from Ryan on Cheeky Monkey asking what we plan to do – forecast says 40 knot winds at 9 am. Previous forecasts said 25 knot winds and we got 50-60 knots. If forecast says 40 knots, that could mean anything. If Sottlo don’t get here by dawn, WE ARE SCREWED.
7:00 am – Capsized again. No contact with crew in bow cabin to know if they are okay. At least no one on deck this time. Hit SOS on Iridium SatPhone. Tried calling SOS contact but operator couldn’t hear us. Tried calling Tom and Ryan, but they couldn’t hear us. Tried calling Sottlo, but no answer. Sent three text messages via Iridium to Tom on Cheeky Monkey saying (1) just capsized (2) very scared (3) please advise. Iridium battery died – won’t recharge. Second boat battery dying.
7:30 am – SatPhone dead. Received VHF call from ship Boche Mumbai – HALLELUJAH! They say ETA is one hour, but we think it’s a cargo ship. WTF will we do when they get here? Their words: “We are coming to you. We don’t know what to do when we get there, but we’re coming.” BUT, HEY, SOMEBODY KNOWS WE’RE HERE!
8:30 am – WE’RE NOT GOING TO DIE! THERE’S A HELICOPTER OUTSIDE! SWEET JESUS! My mouth tastes like a cat shat in it, it’s been so long since I’ve had a drink of water, but WHO CARES? SOON WE WILL DRINK ALL THE WATER!
When Rob, our skipper, knocks on the hatch and tells me and Claire to come up on deck, that there’s a rescue helicopter outside, I am flooded with waves of joy that the hell of the last 30 hours is over. But I’m also disappointed that we have to abandon a dream we held on to even through the worst moments of the last few days.
Rob instructs us to leave all our belongings behind, but I quickly rummage through the cabin to grab my iPhone and my GoPro. And as I am searching our upturned cabin, I find the EPIRB Rob handed me several hours ago. And as I hand it to Rob, I see the lights are flashing.
“You set off the EPIRB?” Rob asks.
“No,” I say, confused. “It must have gone off accidentally. Maybe when we capsized?”
Rob shrugs and says, “That must be why the helicopter is here. Well, we would have set it off about now anyway. It’s just sped up the inevitable.”
As I climb out on deck, being careful to stay low as Nick and Aggie crawl out from the bow cabin, I see sentiments of relief and disappointment mixed together on both their faces as they stare up at the massive white and red angel in the sky, the Salvamento Maritimo chopper.
Nick shoots me a grimaced look of guilt and says, “This ain’t gonna be cheap.”
I nod my head. “But what choice do we have?”
We’re both gripping the lifelines tightly as the boat swings back and forth, the bow jerking sideways from the sea anchor line, a phenomenon we can’t figure out.
As I’m buckled into a harness and winched up into the helicopter, our little boat grows smaller below my feet and, suddenly, I can see why the last 30 hours has been so treacherous. Our boat and its sea anchor line is clearly and inexplicably sitting in an L-shape on the surface of the water.
With the winds whipping up another frenzied storm that continued to build for the next 24 hours after we got off that boat, the reality of our situation was this: if we didn’t get rescued at 8:30 am on October 1st, we would have been trapped in those cabins on a faulty sea anchor for 72 hours minimum before someone, anyone, could get to us.
Our support boat, Sottlo, was unable to reach us because they themselves were desperately running from the storm and the cargo ship Boche Mumbai, or any other cargo ship, would have struggled to transfer us safely on board. Yes, we could have waited out that storm on board SS2. But we would have been even more dehydrated, battered and, possibly, worse if we stayed, if we didn’t set off our SOS, DSC and the EPIRB.
At the least severe, we would have been in no physical condition to row after 72 hours of repeatedly capsizing in those building seas.
Salvamento Maritimo’s rescue of SS2 saved the crew from suffering further trauma, injury and dehydration. The idea that this rescue was deemed “not necessary” because of a lack of a medical emergency is inconceivable. We were all in grave danger.
Don’t get me wrong: €32,641.50 is a lot of money.
But we were not in a position to turn down a rescue at any price, and Salvamento Maritimo and its employed rescuers did their job expertly and extracted five battered and terrified crew to safety (not to mention the crew of two other sailboats that same day), so they certainly deserve to be paid for the job they were called to do.
If we were a rogue rowing crew of five who decided on our own to take on this challenge without support and without insurance, there is no doubt in my mind that we should be responsible for paying the €32,641.50 out of our own pockets. Because there’s no doubt in my mind that the safety of five people is worth that price.
But to have purchased insurance that covers this kind of emergency scenario only to find later that coverage has been denied because it wasn’t enough of an emergency is more than disconcerting. It undermines my confidence in insurance coverage of any kind. What is the point of paying into a system that will look for a loop-hole in which they can deny your claim? You might as well just save up €32,641.50 over many years of sailing and rowing for that one time you may or may not find yourself in need of emergency or rescue services.
Or, as some people seem to think, there shouldn’t be people out there on the water in boats of any kind, and if they find themselves in an emergency situation, it’s their own damned fault – they should just deal with it on their own and/or die.
When a few vitriolic comments (among the many positive comments) came in on our YouTube Channel “Chase the Story”, where I posted this video about the race called The one where I get rescued by helicopter trying to row across the Mediterranean, I was reminded of the public hatred that was directed at s/v Rebel Heart nearly two years ago, when they found themselves in an impossible situation and required a rescue on the Pacific Ocean, where they watched as their boat and only home was deliberately sunk.
I was struck at that time by the hatred that spewed from a portion of the self-righteous, non-sailing public who stated that this family, which included two little girls, should die because of their stupidity and irresponsibility as parents. They spat at this family online, demanding that they pay back the American tax-payers for their rescue and for using the resources of a public Coast Guard service.
I found the skewed logic of the hateful public fascinating. Because, as we all know, the chances of dying in a car accident are much greater than any chance of dying in a boat or at sea. Yet we don’t attack parents for daring to take their kids out in a car, putting their families’ lives at risk while driving down roads crowded with unpredictable vehicles at speeds ten times faster than any sailboat goes.
And when a car ends up in a ditch in a snowstorm, and a driver has to call roadside services to pull them out, we don’t see the media pages filled with vitriol over those “irresponsible people” putting the lives of roadside service employees at risk because they decided to go driving in the snow. And we don’t read comments from the public about how these people should die for being so stupid and relying on their car instead of walking safely on their own two feet like other, more responsible citizens would do.
Yet those are like a few of the comments we got on our YouTube Channel. Even one which accused me of using the rescue services of Salvamento Maritimo like AAA. (For you non-Americans out there, AAA is a road-side service in the United States for which car-driving members pay an annual fee to insure they can receive help if they ever need any kind of roadside assistance.)
Specifically, one commenter wrote, “I don’t know what the point of these type of escapades are, but they sure do end up costing the taxpayers a lot of money in jet flybys and Coast Guard rescues. All for a pointless leisure activity.”
And the response by another commenter read, “Piss poor planning and then depending on the rescue services like the triple A.”
But I’m not here to entertain short-sighted comparisons of my so-called abuse of maritime rescue resources in Spain to my privileged use of AAA in the United States.
All I know is the five crew of SS2 needed assistance on October 1st, 2015. That is a fact. And we are grateful for the resources of Salvamento Maritimo for being able to provide that assistance, even with a hefty price tag of €32,641.50.
As for the flippant comments about lack of preparation, the race organizers of the Shoreseeker Challenge equipped our boats with every piece of emergency and safety equipment available on the market today to make sure that we had all the resources we needed to remain safe in the event of any worst-case scenario.
Like any emergency and safety equipment on board your boat, you always hope that you’ve spent the money in vain — that you will never have to use your life jacket, your personal AIS, the DSC on your VHF, the SOS on your SatPhone, your EPIRB or your life raft. But responsible and well-prepared boaters have some or all of these items on board and they have thought through the scenarios that might require their use.
It was the same on our little rowboat. It’s just that, unfortunately, we were forced to run through the chain of emergency equipment and use every safety item we had on board. Every item except for our life raft (thank goodness).
I am incredibly grateful for every single piece of equipment we used, which was thoughtfully provided by the Shoreseeker Challenge. Because it meant we were able to get ourselves to safety before any grave injury happened. We, the crew of SS2, were living our worst case scenario and that is a mental exercise I don’t often get to run through, even while living and cruising on a boat full-time.
But we did it and we survived, unharmed.
It is a fact of life that sometimes things go wrong, even when you’ve planned and prepared for everything to go right. And when that happens, you need to pull out all the emergency stops. That’s what the safety equipment and rescue resources are there for.
I don’t regret taking advantage of all the resources we had at our disposal when things went terribly and unexpectedly wrong on the Mediterranean.
The only thing I regret is that I didn’t write everything down in the logbook as it was happening. Because now, more than ever, I can see why that silly little logbook is so important: it’s a window into a moment that you can never truly revisit unless you’ve written it all down.
An update from me, Tasha, the nutcase who writes on this blog…occasionally
I have an exciting announcement! This week I will be starting a regular newsletter of informal updates about what I’m up to, where I am in the world (even my mother can’t keep track of me, so that really is insider info), and anything exciting I might be busting to tell you about on a regular basis.
I want this newsletter to be something very different from my blog, which is my space to tell stories about my adventures sailing around the world. I see this newsletter as more of a direct letter to you, my readers and friends, telling you briefly and informally about the stuff that’s going on in the background. You know, any mad challenges I’ve taken on but haven’t told my readers (or mother) about yet, musings on plans we’re mulling over, pictures of my cats in costumes or anything, really, so long as I’m excited to share it with you.
So if that sounds like something you’re on board with, subscribe to my newsletter by clicking below:
I promise not to disappoint. Well, unless you’re not a fan of cats in funny costumes. Then I might totally disappoint you. But, hell, you never know until you try, right?
And if you haven’t subscribed to our brand-spanking-new YouTube Channel, Chase the Story, for regular updates on videos made on board s/v Cheeky Monkey, then you’ve got some extra clicking to do — right here, at this link below:
Thanks, everyone, for all your support. You’ll be hearing from me soon!*
*That is, if you subscribe to my newsletter. If not, who knows when you’ll hear from me next because, lord knows, I’m behind on my blog updates. But I swear I have a good reason for it (you’ll just have to subscribe to the newsletter to find out why). See what I did there?