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Mayday in April -
Kling Wines Double-handed race - 21st April, 2012

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And the fog rolls in..........

Course: Start #10(S) – No.4 (S) – Milnerton (S) - Paarden Island (S) – No.10 (S) – No.4 (S) – Paarden Island (S) - No.10 (S)/Finish
Wind: Mod SW (6 to 10 knots). Temp: 20C Intermittent fog. Viz very poor at times.
Sails: Reefed Main (Quantum); No.2 Genoa (Quantum); A-3 Spinnaker (North)
Crew: Craig Preston ; Trygve Roberts
Total Mass: 170 kg
Max Speed: 10.3 knots
Distance: 8.5 nm
Position: 1 st
Fleet size: 20

The enemy is in town
(Ed note: Names have been changed by request)
Through the intense quiet of the fog the VHF seemed inordinately loud:
“THIS IS Far Canal, Far Canal, Far Canal. WE'RE ON THE BEACH. MAYDAY!”

At first it sounded like a practical joke. The boat in trouble was crewed by two highly competent sailors. The wind was light; the sea was flat and no doubt the boat is equipped with a chart plotter and almost guaranteed that the skipper had plotted the Milnerton mark as part of the course. They were the race leaders at the time of the incident. So how on earth could they be aground on the beach? The answer was our old foe – dense fog. It is amazing how quickly one becomes disoriented. This is exactly what happened to the crew on Far Canal. There are so many valuable lessons to be learnt from this day. I will summarise at the end for those who want to learn with me. At no point is it my intention to criticise what the crew on Far Canal did, it is merely a wake-up call for the average club sailor to learn from.

Steady growth in short-handed sailing
Double handed racing has been steadily growing in fleet size over the past 2 years and the attraction simply has to be the absolute ease of arranging crew, not to mention a generous sponsor who produces some really fine red wine, which is sampled by competitors with a certain amount of gusto frequently observed in sailing circles. There were over 20 entries and with hindsight, it's not that surprising that double handed sailing is now numerically stronger than fully crewed racing. With the absence of frequent racing on offer in the winter program, I had been thinking about possibly giving it a try on the Pacer 27. Saturday past was the day of reckoning. Everything seemed right in terms of weather, timing and enthusiasm, so Craig and I got the boat rigged for the race. I wanted to go ultra conservative and ensure we had a manageable setup in case things went pear-shaped. We rigged the boat with our smallest setup – a reefed main, a No.2 jib and a fractional A3 spinnaker. We also left the outboard on the stern and as always, we wore life jackets. We agreed to take things calmly and not rush anything.

It's a lot easier with six crew!

There was a blanket of fog hanging over Table Bay – rising and falling - a cold, wet blanket with visibility down to just 40 meters at times. The fog horn at Green Point Light was booming out its warning in regular and monotonous signals. The RO wisely postponed the start, then once visibility improved to around 300 meters, set a safe course for the fleet, well out of the shipping lanes. I noted with a great deal of satisfaction, that the club had insisted on life jackets being compulsory. We had a great start and then suddenly the No.4 mark disappeared from view as the fog dropped back down. We knew it was up ahead somewhere and we could see the Sunkiss 3200 “Yolo” to windward, looming out the fog and "Far Canal" was also just ahead. We had to pinch a bit for height and squeaked around the mark in 3rd place.

Expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised.
This was the first time ever sailing the Pacer 27 two up. Despite our reduced sail area and the light breeze we were working with, we were able to sail fully powered up and going fast. The first kite hoist was definitely going to be interesting. I looped a bungee cord around the tiller once the boat was heading downwind and ran forward to get the spinnaker halyard. Up went the kite and it set first time. We surprised ourselves as we were both expecting a wrap or some or the other snag. We got onto our optimum VMG angle and the fleet quickly disappeared in the fog behind us. We had “Yolo” ahead and to leeward and “Far Canal” about 100 meters ahead of “Yolo” and on the same track. We were sailing slightly higher than them.

"Far Canal " does a disappearing trick
Contrary to what we all expected, the fog seemed to get thicker the closer we got to Milnerton. We were gradually overhauling "Yolo" but "Far Canal" was pulling ahead and disappearing in the fog. It was time to look for the Milnerton mark. A glance at the GPS showed we were below the rhumb line, but it didn't feel like that, so we happily sheeted in a bit tighter and headed to where the GPS indicated we should go. Both of us felt the GPS was wrong and we should be heading lower. Both of the other boats appeared to be sailing a deliberately lower course than us and then doubt starts setting in. How could they all be wrong and only us right? I decided (and taking well learned lessons from my flying days) to rather trust my instruments and stuck to the GPS routing. We overhauled “Yolo” which was just visible to leeward in the fog, on our starboard side. "Far Canal" was further ahead but well below our track. We could vaguely make out the dark shape of their hull. Soon enough the Milnerton mark popped into view dead ahead. Good ol' Garmin! I was fairly certain that "Far Canal" had not rounded the mark, which put us in 1st place. We got the jib up and the kite down and rounded the mark heading back for Paarden Island. “Yolo” altered course when they saw us and waved a thank you for spotting the mark for them. There was no sign of "Far Canal" at that stage. We had no idea where they were as visibility remained at around 40 meters.

Disorientation in the fog was complete. A light and switchy wind did not help matters either, so it was straight back to the GPS, as I asked Craig for a bearing. Once I knew the bearing, it was a question of trying to hold the heading steady on the compass, but instinctively I kept falling off to leeward and had to correct the helm over and over. A look at the GPS track after racing was nothing short of embarrassing! The track suggested the skipper was seriously inebriated.

Fog is good for kreefing
After about 2 minutes of upwind work, we passed a small yellow buoy in the water which looked suspiciously like a crayfish trap marker and a few seconds later we saw five men in a rubber duck. We put two and two together, then forgot about it and focused on our course – still in a total fog white-out. Seconds later the VHF Mayday call came through from "Far Canal". They must have missed the Milnerton mark and continued sailing on a converging course with the beach until they ran aground. So what about the depth sounder? And the Chart Plotter? Well, I don't think we can be too critical. It's a double handed race and both of them would have had their attention focused entirely on locating the mark. And that's how easily things can go wrong in fog.

Our first and immediate obligation was to respond to the Mayday call, but Dale Kushner on “Yolo” beat us to it – followed shortly after by Luke Scott in “Carousel”. There would be precious little we would be able to do in a 27 ft sports boat with a 5 hp outboard. Comms on the VHF indicated that no lives were in danger. As soon as we were satisfied that the situation was under control, we got back onto our heading to the next mark. It was difficult not to be distracted by the radio chatter. The RCYC bridge had contacted the NSRI to send a rescue craft. Meanwhile “Yolo” with its deep draft had traversed the shore line, unable to locate "Far Canal". However, “Carousel” is a shallow draft cruising design with a more powerful engine and she was able to follow the 5 meter contour depth line and located the stranded yacht. One of the crew on "Far Canal" swam a line over to Carousel. Luckily there was little swell or wind, otherwise this could have been a story of major drama. "Yolo" joined the rescue flotilla once visibility improved a bit.

Drama and heroes
Meanwhile the fog had temporarily lifted allowing "Yolo" to spot the rubber duck mentioned earlier. He went over to them and asked them to assist, which they readily agreed to. A number of them were able to be transferred onto the grounded yacht to assist in heeling the boat more. "Carousel" used her engine power to maximum, but the almost 100 meters of joined warp parted, necessitating a second swim and a shorter line, with Carousel venturing even closer to the beach. Volker Vierhaus also stood by with "Celine IV" where the idea was to to a tandem tow, but after the parting of the first line, time was running out in terms of the tide turning. Luke knew it was a "now or never" moment. Finally, helped by a peaking tide, and a correctly set bridle, they managed to get "Far Canal" off the sand and back into deeper water.

What a ships captain sees in fog - sweet nothing!

The fog lifted just before we got to the Paarden Island mark and allowed us to get a view of the fleet coming up from Milnerton. We had a substantial lead and were solidly in first place. Our tactics for the upwind leg to No.4 would be to hug the wall and sail conservatively along the shore. The reduced sail plan was working out really well for us with the boat feeling lively and fast – quite a lot like a dinghy in fact. We were enjoying ourselves and revelling in being out in the front.

As usual, the big lead mines were closing us down on the upwind legs, but we clung onto our lead at No.4 and headed back down to Paarden Island for the last downwind leg. This was a dead run and would not suit us at all as we would have to run the risk of kite wraps having to do several gybes. The gybes were interesting and sort of just happened. My job was to man the old spinnaker sheet, haul in the new one, gybe the main sheet and man the tiller. I ran out of arms and legs halfway through that lot. At some point you just have to leave the boat to its own devices and hope things go well. We managed four of those haphazard gybes on the way down to Paarden Island and still somehow remained in first place, which meant other crews were having more hassles than we were.

Fortune favours the bold
All that was left was a half mile of beating. So typical of being the leading boat, everything just seems to go right. After every tack, we picked up a nice lift and in short order we crossed the line for a 1st and a class handicap win as well. Nice stuff!

Kling Wines lay on a spread of eats accompanied by lovely red wines from the estate. At the prize giving, kudos were given to the three boats that assisted in the rescue to much applause from competitors. The crew from "Far Canal" turned up (to their credit) looking just a tad sheepish, but willing to accept the obvious ragging that would follow. The truth is, it could have happened to any one of us. Never take the weather for granted and treat fog for what it is – highly dangerous for shipping, aircraft and traffic.

"Far Canal" was safely back on her mooring and will be hauled out on Monday for an inspection for damage. This is a story with a happy ending, but let us not treat it lightly. Add any one single aggravating factor, like an ebbing tide, strong wind, or big surf and it could have been a very sad tale to tell with a possible loss of life or vessel.

I wrote an article on fog some months ago, which can be researched by checking the archive section of this website. Go and read it. This is the fog season. It is the wise sailor who takes precautions.

Wisdom with hindsight is easy. The purpose of the following is to educate and not to ridicule.
What should have taken place:
1. A Mayday distress call should only be called if lives are in imminent danger. It should have been a PAN-PAN call.
2. All the basics of sending a Mayday transmission were not adhered to. No position was given. Status of crew's safety was not transmitted. Type of assistance required was not given.
3. Distress calls should be broadcast on Channel 16 (not channel 6)

Here is the correct procedure:
MAYDAY CALL – Use when imminent threat to life.
on Channel 16 (Speak slowly and clearly. Mouth 1 inch from microphone. Remember to push in the transmit button first. Stay out of the wind for clarity )

2. This is sailing vessel Far Canal, Far Canal, Far Canal
3. MAYDAY –"Far Canal", – My position is (read current position off the GPS as follows example: 33. 12345 degrees South - 18.12345 degrees East ) or True bearing and distance from a charted feature (eg. 300 meters West of the Milnerton Light House )
4. State nature of distress: We are aground on the beach. Two crew on board. Both are safe for now.
5. I require immediate assistance
6. Other useful information you think will help a potential rescuer eg: The hull is red. We all have life jackets. We require a powerful motor vessel with shallow draft to tow us back to deeper water. Etc.

Release the transmit button and wait for an acknowledgement
Keep listening on channel 16 for instructions
If there is no response within 30 seconds, repeat the entire Mayday call.

If it is not a life threatening emergency , then put out a PAN PAN CALL. Follow the exact procedure as for a Mayday call, except start your transmission off like this:
This is Far Canal, Far Canal, Far Canal
Continue as from point 3 above.....


SAIL YACHT SKIPPER CLASS Club TCF   Finish Elapsed Corr Place
017 Regent Express Tryg Roberts & C Preston Pacer 27s 1.08   15 56 28 1 36 28 1 44 11 1
SA4114 Necessity David Booth & Carol Booth Beneteau 347 1.04   16 0 19 1 40 19 1 44 20 2
SA919 Viking II B Monteverdi & N Gregory Farr 38 1.085   16 1 25 1 41 25 1 50 2 3
SA1078 Wallbanger Ken Brady/Adrian Spencer Simonis 35 modified 1.095   16 5 18 1 45 18 1 55 18 4
SA6130 Yolo Dale Kushner & Ian Coward Sunfast 3200 1.07   REDRESS
SA4227 Southern Storm Harry Brehm & Pascol Pacer 376 1.19 RETIRED
SAIL YACHT'S NAME SKIPPER CLASS Club TCF   Finish Elapsed Corr Place
014 Nthur Witch Dave Garrard/ D Lyons L34 1.015 16 0 33 1 40 33 1 42 4 1
SA2460 Zikomo Craig Elston/ D Nynes Theta 26 Std 0.84   16 34 32 2 14 32 1 53 1 2
SA979 Iechyd Da Stefan Hundt Miura* 0.91   16 24 35 2 4 35 1 53 22 3
SA2360 Saiorse Tony Blackwell & Cattensbury Atlantis 36 0.965   16 18 21 1 58 21 1 54 13 4
SA818 Ava Ken Botwood & Ken Horton Muira 0.91   16 26 0 2 6 0 1 54 40 5
SA2627 Lets Go Ducan Johnson & Walter Buccaneer 0.8   16 45 12 2 25 12 1 56 10 6
011 Tally Ho John Waller & J Bellamy L 34 1.015   16 16 6 1 56 6 1 57 50 7
SA941 Morgenster Joanne & Freddie Lambretchs L 34 1.015   16 19 12 1 59 12 2 0 59 8
SA702 FTI Flyer Keith Mattison & G Esterhuizen Charger 33 0.99   16 24 3 2 4 3 2 2 49 9
H184 Ancient Mariner M & J Cave Holiday 23 0.85   16 46 56 2 26 56 2 4 53 10
SA1967 Storm Michael Peper & Andre van Tonder Ocean 31 0.955   16 33 34 2 13 34 2 7 34 11
SA2018 Cabaray Ray Matthews & Alan Yeomans Stadt 34 Steel hull mod 0.94 REDRESS
SA1011 Carousel Luke & Gideon Scott Beneteau 390 0.98   REDRESS