Veteran power and sailing yachtsman Dag Pike reflects on a dramatic mid-Atlantic rescue from the stricken catamaran Chaffoteaux Challenger
I have managed to be rescued 13 times in close to 70 years of being on the water, writes Dag Pike.
Much of my boating has been on a professional basis, some of it for racing and record breaking and some of it for pleasure.
It’s not a record I’m particularly proud of but when you try to push the boundaries of what seems possible, you don’t know where the limits are until you find them.
When I first went to sea in 1950, navigation was still basic and the risks were considerably higher.
However, I am still alive after being rescued 13 times so I must be doing something right.
Some people do not make it during their first rescue and from my rescues, I have built up a considerable fund of experience about how you should cope when things go wrong, what is involved when you call for help and how you can have a considerable say in how successful the rescue is going to be.
My first experience of being rescued
My first rescue when I was just 18 years old was off the west coast of Scotland when we were making passage around the north of Scotland in a 6,000-tonne cargo ship in the middle of winter.
With no cargo on board, the ship was riding high in the water and making as much progress sideways as it was forwards in the Force 10 westerly storm and blizzard conditions.
We missed the vital Skerryvore Lighthouse and ended upon the rocks between Tiree and Coll on a pitch-black night.
Long before GPS and Decca Navigator were thought of, we did not have a clue where we were when the SOS was sent out.
A position is a vital part of any distress message and it took the Tobermory Lifeboat 12 hours of searching before it found us.
We were landed ashore, not much the worse for wear.
The thing I remember about that grounding was the sudden jolt as I was woken up when we hit the rocks and the noise.
Fortunately we were in the lee of the islands, so the seas were only moderate.
But the worst part is the waiting.
Probably the most challenging of my rescues was in the mid-Atlantic in 1989 when we were making an attempt on the Atlantic speed record in Peter Phillips’ big catamaran Chaffoteaux Challenger.
I have done nearly all of my record breaking in powerboats but having just set a new Atlantic record under power, I was invited to be the navigator and weatherman on Chaffoteaux.
Here was a chance to hold both the power and sailing records on the Atlantic, a unique double, and with hindsight, I agreed to this sailing record attempt without the usual careful consideration I give to participating in these challenging events.
Little did I know what was in store.
Chaffoteaux was an 80ft catamaran but she was pretty basic as far as comfort was concerned.
She had also been built on a shoestring because funding was tight and there was a cockpit in each hull, which was just a hole cut in the top of the hull.
My navigation station was in the port cross beam, a space just 4ft high where the radios and the Loran and Decca were housed.
I was not on board when Chaffoteaux was tested but I had a polar diagram that showed performance on different headings in relation to the wind.
I was to find out later that this was developed in slight sea conditions and bore little relation to what the performance might be in the rough seas and strong winds we needed for a record attempt.
We never did achieve the 25-knot downwind speed that was promised, and so my calculations regarding the course and the weather were quickly compromised.
We were only a couple of days out from New York when it became obvious that we were not keeping up with the promised weather patterns, but in those days, when the forecasts were nothing like as accurate as they are now, we kept going in the hope that we would pick up favourable winds for high speeds.
A fight for survival
In fact, the conditions got worse.
At one stage, the wind was recorded at close to 100 knots before the instrument broke.
We were running downwind with the fine bows burying into the waves and under bare poles.
We were making about 10 knots even with warps streamed over the stern to slow us down.
We were well out of step with the weather and it got to the stage where the focus became survival rather than record breaking.
It was a wild ride and I was yearning for the relative comfort of breaking records under power where at least it is relatively quick and you’re protected from the weather.
On Chaffoteaux, everything was wet and the crew steering the yacht were fully exposed to the elements and having a miserable time.
From now, it was really just a question of making it across the Atlantic.
Then we noticed cracks starting to appear in the hull extending downwards from the port cockpit!
The holes cut in the hulls for these cockpits was a weak point because it destroyed the continuity of the hull and the cracks started to get longer until they were below the waterline, and you could see them opening and closing as the boat fought its way over the waves.
The wing mast kept us running downwind but still the cracks were moving and water was coming.
Time to take stock and think about what to do.
If the hull broke then there was every chance that the boat would capsize and we were about as far as you can get from land out in the wilds of the Atlantic in April.
Time to send out a Mayday.
I got through to Portishead Radio, explained our predicament and gave a position.
We decided we could survive the night – rescue at night would be more dangerous.
But I was calling up every hour with an updated position saying that if we didn’t come up on the radio, to come and rescue us.
By next morning, the US Coastguard had a ship lined up to rescue us.
Just as we thought rescue was in sight, things started to go wrong.
We had no engine, so the ship had to manoeuvre alongside us.
To see a 300m-long container ship coming up close astern is scary.
The captain did a great job in parking his ship alongside us with his leeway keeping us pinned alongside.
It was 12m up to the deck and we shouted to a crewman to pass a rope.
‘We haven’t got any ropes on this ship,’ was the response, so we continued to drift down the side of the ship.
The rigging caught in a projection on the hull and that brought the mast down.
Now we were starting to panic as the stern of the ship loomed up.
Without the mast up, the low-lying catamaran slid under the stern of the ship where the 9m-diameter propeller was still turning slowly as the captain tried to keep steerage way on his ship.
The boat had turned at this stage and thankfully, it was the bow that went into that propeller first with a mind-numbing crunch.
It was like a big bacon slicer taking chunks off the bow and we feared for our survival.
Even James Bond movies don’t get this frightening.
The noise was incredible and the smell was intense but fortunately, the ship was still going ahead.
We escaped from the clutches of the propeller only to have the ship’s stern descend on us in the heavy swell.
Now we were pushed underwater and hope started to disappear.
Then the boat popped to the surface as we cleared the ship and amazingly, all of us came out without a scratch.
After long discussions with the captain, the ship made another attempt at rescue and this time was successful.
They found a rope to hold us alongside and we made the long climb up a rope ladder to the safety of the ship’s deck.
Chaffoteaux was left to take her chances in the wild sea.
Lesson Learned from being rescued
Two to tango:
There are two parties involved in a rescue at sea: the rescued and the rescuers.
When you are being rescued, you tend to let the rescuers take the initiative and know what to do.
This might be fine when it is an experienced lifeboat crew doing the rescue but out at sea, it will probably be the first time for both the rescued and rescuer.
So have a long discussion about how the rescue will take place because you both have an equal say in this matter and possibly different viewpoints.
Choose your rescue ship carefully… if you can:
A 40ft climb up a ship’s side is a big challenge and may be beyond the capabilities of a tired crew.
Ours was an American ship and the first thing they wanted as we landed on their deck was to sign a disclaimer that we would not sue them for the damage to our boat!
I have been rescued by a British ship and the first thing they did was greet us at the top of the gangway.
There was a steward with a silver tray of brandy glasses offering us a much-needed drink!
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