“Fifty years ago on the 27th of January, Pionier and her crew of five were almost halfway to Rio. Sailing well, they were lying third on handicap and 11th overall, when around midnight it all changed. Within minutes Pionier was sinking and the crew found themselves afloat in their orange life raft, outside of the shipping lanes and with their Mayday call unheard. Sixteen hours later by pure chance an American ship the SS Potomac spotted an orange dot on the horizon and came to their rescue. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the last remaining crew member Jennifer Webb, now 83. This is her and her late husband, Gordon Webb’s story,”  – Liesl King.

Pionier was a fibreglass, fin keel sloop of 31 feet 10 inches overall. It was an exciting part of the race for us, eleven days out and almost at the halfway point in the South Atlantic between Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro.  We were 1435 miles from Cape Town, 24°30’ South and 7°06’ West. Pionier was going wonderfully. All on board were thrilled to hear the South African Broadcasting Corporation announcement that we were lying third on handicap and 11th in the fleet of almost sixty boats.

This was a vast part of the ocean, far from the world’s shipping routes. The crew were five in number: Willie Schutten, the owner, Peter Flockermann and Tony Keeney, the workhorses, my wife Jennifer, as cook general and reserve helmsman and myself as skipper navigator.

It was Wednesday, the 27th of January, an intensively hot, calm day with frustrating attempts by everybody to get the ship moving. It was a normal night – dark, with no moon, and we settled down to our usual watch system. I was called for my watch at midnight. I had just settled down and was getting the feel of the ship when there was a sudden, loud bang. Pionier gave a violent lurch and seemed to leap out of the water – my instant thought was that the mast had carried away, but all looked well.  The wheel jerked heavily in my hands and I realised that we had hit something quite unseen in the dark. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a flurry of water and there about ten feet astern, two thirds of the tail of a whale rose almost lazily out of the water and slowly disappeared.

The awful bang had woken those below and I called out, “Christ we hit a whale”, then settled down to get on with the business of sailing again. The cry from Jennifer below, who had been thrown bodily from her bunk, “we’re making water fast”, sent a cold chill through me. I shouted to Tony to take the wheel. “Stop the ship.  I got the hatch open and already I could see Jennifer ankle deep in water in the saloon. “Find the leak – where is the water coming in?” I yelled.

Before Willie could get the bilge pump going, I realised it was useless.  “Get a bucket and bail.”  Jennifer had gone forward and felt the water spouting up between her legs. With our water caskets lashed to the table legs directly above the inflow of water, she called out that we would never get to the leak in time. I tore off my shirt with the wild idea of going over the side to plug the leak. One look at the dark, ominous sea made me hesitate – tie a line to myself I thought – then what if she sinks with me tied to the ship… Willie was bailing like a madman, but it was no use, the water was knee deep and gaining.

I shouted to Peter to get on the radio and send out a Mayday. I yanked out our emergency life raft from its tight fitting locker, threw it on the starboard cockpit seat and pulled the rip cord. The loud hiss of the life raft was an almost unspoken signal to the others, because without saying anything the whole operation changed from saving the ship to one of saving our lives. While the life raft was inflating, I had called out to Jennifer to get the water on deck. Jennifer cut the lashings and flung the 50 pound containers to Willie, who staggered out into the cockpit with 100 pounds of water. He helped me launch the raft overside and held it with one arm, using the other to load the constant stream of goods being passed in a frenzy from below.

Down below everything was floating, impending our activities. I threw overboard hatch covers, cushions, floats, life buoys and a hundred and one odd objects to leave a trail of flotsam to assist in any possible rescue work. Above all this I could hear Peter’s quiet, even voice calling repeatedly, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Pionier, Pionier, Pionier….”.  Jennifer was selectively collecting the best available food items from the various lockers. Meanwhile Tony was climbing over and around us, dashing in and out of the ship, being the only one to think of clothing and collecting an amazing assortment which he threw into the raft. Willie, who could see Pionier’s bow almost awash, told Tony to pile into the raft and called out “she’s going, she’s going, get out!” Willie helped Jennifer aboard and Peter and I made for the raft, but Pionier seemed to hesitate at this level.

When we saw Pionier pause in her descent, I wildly thought that we could still save her. I desperately and futilely grabbed a bucket, but it was simply useless, and Willie shouted at me to stop. Below the water was now chest deep. Jennifer shouted to me to get my sextant – a rather useless article on a rubber life raft – but of sentimental value. Peter called to me to get some booze! I had to dive for these but came up with one bottle of whiskey and the sextant. I saw the wallet with all our passports, traveller’s cheques and airline tickets float by and grabbed that too.

Gordon and Jennifer Webb

Jennifer screamed that she was going and as I scrambled over the side,  Pionier’s pulpit dipped below the surface – strangely the navigation lights were still burning brightly. My last view of Pionier, indelibly etched in my mind, was of her stern, lifting with the gleaming topsides, rudder, after rails and stern light shining brightly and gently sliding beneath the waves. She was a wonderful little ship I just could not realise that she was gone forever. She looked positively beautiful as she slid to her death, the mast head light still shining as it went under.

Suddenly there was nothing. Our beautiful Pionier was lost forever and an eerie stillness settled over us with only the slap-slap of the seas against our tiny rubber world breaking the deathly silence. We were far away from any shipping lanes. Somehow, deep down I knew that the Mayday call had not been received. The ghastly reality of our situation crept slowly over me.

To be continued……

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