Sea Rescue on Savannah by Paul Morris.
The water in the harbour is glassy and still. Anemometers atop masts turn lazily. I hope for a little breeze outside the breakwater so that we can unfurl our sails. I discuss our options with the crew. No wind, we’ll motor to Clifton. If there’s enough breeze to sail, we’ll go out into the bay for an hour or so and then head to Granger Bay, anchor and have lunch. A lazy, relaxed Sunday on the water.
The wind strength is perfect. I estimate that it’s blowing around thirteen knots. Maybe gusting to fifteen. In the distance I see a couple of other sailing boats healing over. A beautiful sight.
The south east gales have caused an upwelling of the frigid waters to the south of the continent. The Benguela current brings it to our coast on the south west tip of Africa. Even during our hot, dry summers, we sail on a cold sea.
I pull on a sweater. It’s an old favourite. Fleecy lined and windproof. It’s not enough. I ask Jen to pass me my big jacket from below. Given to me by a friend who spent several years as a scientist on Marion Island, it has the Antarctic Project badge on the pocket. The jacket is quilted, heavy and waterproof. The cuffs seal snugly around my wrists. Even on winter’s days, it is usually too warm. But today I’m comfortable in it. Today seems colder than it should be in late spring with the sun shining. Shorts weather on land. We sail on a cold sea.
The sailing couldn’t be better. We head towards Robben Island on a beam reach. Out loud I say, “Happiness is…” and smile as much to myself as to the crew.
We pass the beautiful yacht Spilhaus. Classic lines and black sails, she looks like something from a painting as she heads back to the harbour. Jean Louis and I are thinking the same thing. With little discussion it’s clear that we are enjoying this too much to turn around. Granger Bay, as pleasant as it can be to anchor there, is less appealing than continuing to the Island. To be at anchor for lunch we were approaching time to tack back to the mainland. Back to Granger Bay with its jet skis and power boats. So we continue, agreeing that anchoring off Robben Island would better meet the mood we are all in.
Even in the lee of the Island it is cold. To get more protection we sail beyond Murray Bay harbour to anchor behind the north breakwater. The yacht Saoirse passes us on their way home. We wave and they wave. We see no other yacht until we are about to enter the harbour again later in the afternoon. By then, the whole day has changed.
Lunch is French. Jean Louis and Sandrine have baked a quiche. A delicious salad is produced. A small glass of wine each, though I pass. With them I don’t mind. A glass of wine is part of lunch, not the start of a drinking session.
We eat and chat. Afterwards Jen and Sandrine stretch out in the sun and doze. The breakwater and the spray dodger keep the cold wind off us. I’m content. Jean Louis and I gaze out at the sea, alone with our thoughts. I listen to the cormorant colony ashore and the piping of oyster catchers and think that right now, life is good.
I’m reluctant to leave. I could happily spend the night here. But we all need to get home.
None of us know that not far away a fight for life has begun.
The sails are soon pulling and Savannah is cutting easily through the flat water in Robben Island’s lee. The wind is still from the south west. It may even have picked up a little. The sailing conditions are still perfect. Still cold.
No swell to contend with. There is some wind chop, but not much. Savannah is close hauled now and I point her bow just to windward of the harbour entrance. We’ll be back on our mooring in an hour or so.
“Did you hear that weird sound?” I ask Jen.
“It must be a seagull.”
“No, that’s not a seagull.”
I hear it again. Shrill and ragged. I’ve never heard this sound before. It must be a bird of some kind. Certainly no sea mammal. I search the sea to starboard, the direction of the sound. Nothing.
Then I see a kayak. The yellow hull a just visible sliver on the dark water. I tell the others. The strange sound is forgotten for the moment.
“It’s a long way out for a kayak. Let’s just check that everything’s okay.” I say. I sometimes take my own kayak out from Three Anchor Bay. I know that hard core kayak fisherman sometimes paddle out to fish off the island. But it is getting late in the afternoon. And the conditions aren’t ideal for such a long paddle.
We turn on the engine and furl the head sail because the craft is directly to windward from us.
I hear the shrill sound again. It’s coming from direction of the kayak. I see the glinting of a paddle. It’s not the rhythmic motion of someone paddling. It’s the motion of someone waving it for attention.
The screaming is frantic even though we have turned towards them. I wave so they know we’ve seen them.
The kayak is two or three hundred metres away and we’re motoring straight for them. I take the handheld VHF and call Cape Town Radio to report the kayak in distress. Two casualties in the water. That we are going to get them on board.
The operator keeps asking me questions. After a while I tell them to standby. I have to manoeuvre Savannah safely alongside the people in the water. My main priority is the people in distress and danger. While I’m focussed on the paddlers, I can still hear Cape Town Radio calling Savannah.
While I’ve been on the radio, Jean Louis has dropped the mainsail. The sail will be one less thing to manage when we bring the casualties alongside.
I tell Jen to get the rope ladder we use for swimming from the stern lazarette. It’s not ideal, but it’s quickly deployed by lashing it to the toe-rail.
I put the engine in neutral. Savannah drifts towards the kayakers. The wind and chop slows us too quickly, so I gun the engine for a second or two to keep up our momentum. We stop right next to them.
There’s a woman and a man. She’s in the water and he’s half lying on the kayak. Jean Louis throws them a line but it’s clear that they aren’t capable of grasping it. It’s also clear that they are severely hypothermic. We need to get them out of the water as soon as possible.
But we’re drifting off. The wind has pushed the bow away and we’ve moved too far away for any attempt to get them on board. I shout to them, and gesture, that I am going to circle round and come back again.
On the second attempt I stop the boat close. The man lunges and Sandrine grabs his arm. I have made my way from the cockpit to the port shrouds and manage to grab his other arm. I’ve no idea where Sandrine has found the strength, but she has already pulled him some way out of the water. I take hold of his other arm. His skin is wet and cold. I find it hard to grip. His body is no longer fully under his control. He can’t grip us back to help. We heave. Jean Louis is with us now and the three of us pull until his waist is level with the top of the guardrail.
“Bend over at the waist.” I urge. I want most of his weight inside the boat in case he slips from our grasp. I don’t want him falling back into the water. We bend him onto the boat and tip his legs over. He’s safely out of the water. But not out of danger from the effects of the cold.
The man tries to speak but his sounds don’t resemble words.
I go back to the tiller. The woman is still clinging to the kayak and we’ve drifted away again. She’s astern of us now. I say I’ll go around again but Jean Louis says to go astern. She’s far enough away for me to give a burst of reverse thrust. I put the boat in neutral again and steer to port so that the woman is on my starboard quarter.
Jean Louis says afterwards that he felt the incredible strength in her as she gripped his forearm. The two of us haul her out of the water. The last bit is the most difficult. I reach down to grab clothing. I need more leverage. But the only clothing to grab hold of is a pair of bikini bottoms. Instead, I take hold of the bottom of her PFD and we drag her over the guard rail and into the cockpit.
Jean Louis asks me to help him lift the kayak onto the deck. But it’s waterlogged and too heavy. He attaches it with a spare jib sheet so that we can take it in tow.
We move the casualties below. It’s warm in the saloon. On deck they would continue to lose body heat. Any more loss of heat would kill them. The man is severely hypothermic. She is slightly better. She gets herself down the companionway ladder. But his is almost a dead weight. He struggles to walk. I go below and he is passed down to me. Jen and Sandrine wrap him in blankets and any spare clothing available. I tell them to lay him on the floor rather than on the bunk. There is more stability there. I don’t want him to roll off and hurt himself. There are lee-cloths but once they are up it will be difficult to attend to him.
She is dressed in Jen’s sailing fleece and jacket. My heavy jacket now covers her bare legs.
At first the crew think that our new passengers are foreigners. We can’t understand them. Eventually I pick up an Afrikaans phrase. They are so hypothermic that their speech is slurred. She’s in better shape and warms up quickly. He keeps asking for her. He can’t see her on the bunk. She answers him. They ask each other if the other is alright. He sounds confused.
At some point, because he can’t feel his legs, he thinks he has lost them and has to be reassured. Sandrine works hard to warm his lower legs and feet. When I go below to see how things are going, leaving Jean Louis on the tiller, I see that he looks drowsy. His eyes are closing. I tell Jen to lie down next to him to give him her body heat. He isn’t generating enough on his own.
I talk to Cape Town Radio again. They tell me that the NSRI are on the way. Earlier, during the operation to get the couple on board, I heard sea rescue talking to Cape Town Radio. I’m reassured knowing that a boat is on its way to us.
As soon as the casualties are settled, I unfurl the genoa. With the engine it gives us better speed. Through the adrenaline I begin to feel the chill of the wind again. My jacket and sweater are being used to warm the two wet people recovering below.
The NSRI call me for an update on my position. I tell them we are passing the Landfall buoy. A little while later I see the red RIB. They are soon alongside asking for permission to put a team of two on board. Their whole crew is professional. The medic quickly decides to leave the man on board Savannah. To move him would set his rewarming back by twenty minutes, we are told. They arrange with Port Control for us to enter the harbour even though there is a container vessel exiting the port. The casualty is too severely hypothermic to wait.
We follow the rescue boat to the V&A. There’s a team on the pontoon to take our lines, a doctor, an ambulance crew. Diners at Quay Four, knives and forks hovering, stare.
She steps off the boat wearing a mismatch of our crew’s gear. She’s wearing an old pair of my shorts that I use for boat work. He comes off on a stretcher.
It’s a day for hard lessons. Not least that we sail on a cold sea.