Lucky Duck to the Rescue
Two sailors are plucked from the sea, thanks to a northbound delivery crew's fortuitous breakdowns and solid seamanship. A special report from our September 2009 issue
Stanek learned that both men were stressed, wet, and cold but in relatively good shape. They said that should Tovarish go down, they were ready and able to leave the boat with life vests, boat fenders, and personal items.
Once those details were written in Lucky Duck's log, Stanek turned to the logical safety items for abandoning ship. Did they know the location of their flares? Was the dinghy in the water? Did they have a life raft, and was it ready to deploy? He asked about the handheld waterproof VHF, the color and style of the life raft, the ditch bag, fresh water, and such signaling devices as mirrors, whistles, and a foghorn.
The news wasn't good. Tovarish's dinghy was deflated and inaccessible belowdecks. The sailors had no life raft, ditch bag, or handheld VHF radio. They had a new U.S. Coast Guard-approved minimum flare kit but no signaling devices other than the whistles on their vests. Their cellphones had no signal. Meanwhile, the water was over the tabletop and the settee, and they were huddled in the cockpit.
Once he'd verified crew-welfare and abandon-ship procedures, Stanek tried to brainstorm with the Russian captain, Mikhail Zrelov, to discover where the hull was breeched and whether some further action by the crew could stem the tide. By then he'd learned that the captain and his Canadian mate, Mike Butler, were delivering the unfamiliar-to-them boat for the owner. They reported that the water was now becoming dangerous belowdecks, sloshing around heavily in the swells. A full inspection of such possible trouble areas as through-hulls and the stuffing box, Zrelov reported, was out of the question. It was evident that the boat was going down very soon.
Now less than five miles away, Stanek asked for a flare to confirm Zrelov's location, but they made no sighting. The procedure was repeated at one mile, but still they spotted nothing. Mikhail later said that of the four flares, one failed to ignite, one nearly fell back on deck after reaching the spreaders, and two barely cleared the masthead before going out.
Lucky Duck finally spotted Tovarish in the growing dawn, and in a matter of 20 minutes, Stanek maneuvered his boat upwind of the disabled vessel to begin the rescue in lumpy seas.
"Once we were on site, things happened very quickly," Stanek said. "The water finally reached the level of the companionway, and the two crew jumped clear and swam away. It was amazing how fast the bow tilted skyward and the whole boat slipped beneath the water. It was eerie watching the cabin lights and navigation lights-all still on-sink below the waves.
"I've never seen a boat sink before," he said. "Watching it go down was a very sad and sobering experience."
Soon the rescued men were in dry clothes and talking about their experience while wolfing down a hot breakfast. Their voices were hushed, and their eyes constantly panned the blank horizon in all directions. They knew that things could've turned out much differently.
Eventually, Stanek and his new guests considered the options and decided it would be best to proceed to the port of Matthew Town, on Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas, where the two shipwrecked sailors were turned over to authorities with the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association.
They say that all rescues are a matter of timing, luck, and execution; this one certainly proves the point. This is also a tale of two boats and two crews, one ready for anything, the other not. If even one of the dozens of separate strands that held this rescue together had come unraveled, two sailors might have disappeared without a trace. The moral of the story is that preparation aboard cruising boats is never a steady state; it's an ongoing action best commenced long before you head out to sea. Simply slipping dock lines and hoping for the best is a pretty thin philosophy on which to bank your life when putting to sea. You can't depend on meeting up with a Lucky Duck.
R. J. Rubadeau, a frequent CW contributor, sailed with Jim Stanek on an expedition that took them around Cape Horn.