'Good morning, I'll be rescuing you today'

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U.S. cruisers save three sailors whose boat sank after grounding on a reef in the South Pacific

Maurice Conti says they were lucky, but the International Maritime Organization says he and his wife showed exceptional bravery in rescuing three sailors after the trio's yacht, Timella, sank in the South Pacific after grounding on a submerged reef at night in breaking surf.

Maurice and Sophie Conti, who were sailing around the world with their two young children, were recognized by the International Maritime Organization and the Cruising Club of America for rescuing three fellow cruisers in the South Pacific.

Maurice and Sophie Conti, both 39 and from San Francisco, have been recognized by the IMO and the Cruising Club of America for undertaking the daring rescue during a yearlong circumnavigation with their children, Annabelle, 4, and Massimo, 6.

The couple met in New Caledonia in 1995 while Maurice was sailing the South Pacific with a friend after college on a Freya 39. He and Sophie married, started careers and had children but "always knew we would do something like this together," Maurice says.

The couple sold their home, quit their jobs - Maurice as creative director of Autodesk, which creates 2-D and 3-D AutoCAD software for engineering and entertainment. In January 2008, they set out from Enseñada, Mexico, to sail around the world. Ten months into the circumnavigation, the couple were a seasoned team as they cruised the islands around Fiji. "Especially with the responsibility for the kids, the teamwork came naturally," Maurice Conti says. "There's still a lot of yelling, but things get done right."

The couple had anchored their 47-foot cruising catamaran, Ocealyus, inside the lagoon at Vatulele, an exclusive resort island 60 miles from Suva, Fiji's capital. Though the Contis usually don't monitor the VHF at night because of all the chitchat, this night - Oct. 13, 2008 - there were no other yachts nearby cluttering the airwaves, so they forgot to turn it off. Just before midnight, they heard the call over the VHF: "Mayday, mayday, mayday."

It was one of the crew on Timella. The stout 33-foot Seadog ketch had gone hard aground on Takau Lakaleka reef, 12 miles east-southeast of the Contis' anchorage. "We've struck a reef, and we are hard aground," the woman's voice said. "The waves are bashing us against the reef. We need help."

Timella had been headed south to Kandavu, where the Contis had just been, when, according to press reports, its engine overheated and Cameron Slagle, its captain, scalded himself making repairs. Fearing Timella wouldn't reach Kandavu because of the engine trouble, Slagle turned toward the southwest coast of Viti Levu, but as he threaded his way through reefs lying between the two islands, Timella ran aground in rough, confused seas.

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In e-mails from Queensland, Australia, where the Contis plan to stay for a while, and from his own blog account of the rescue, Maurice tells of how he and Sophie kept abreast of Timella's worsening situation, all the while trying to coordinate an air or sea rescue that would never materialize. Rescue aircraft in New Zealand were too far away, there were no helicopters in Fiji, and sea rescue vessels in Fiji needed fuel and were unlikely to launch until after sunrise.

With time running out, Ocealyus would be the best hope for saving the crew of Timella: Slagle, an Australian, and his crew, Elizabeth Schoch and Alison Timms.

Analyzing the situation

Slagle first reported that Timella was holding up well in the pounding. She wasn't taking on water, but he said the boat would have to be pulled off the reef. Conti wasn't sure Ocealyus had the muscle to do that, so he relayed the mayday via VHF, hoping to contact Fijian authorities. The only VHF response, faint and broken, was from a cruise ship they later learned was 150 miles away.

The Contis also were carrying a local cell phone and an Iridium satellite phone. Sophie tried to call the resort on the cell, and though she picked up a strong signal, the credit on the phone's SIM card had run out. She tried the Iridium but got no answer and finally called 911 on the cell, figuring the emergency call would go through despite the lack of credit. She successfully hailed the 911 operator on Fiji, who promised someone would call back.

Indeed, Fiji police did keep in touch throughout the ordeal, but couldn't launch a rescue boat in a timely manner. She then called the New Zealand High Commission in Suva, the equivalent of the embassy, since one of the passengers aboard Timella was a Kiwi. Mike Randall, the attaché and duty officer that night, contacted Fiji search-and-rescue authorities and the New Zealand Search and Rescue Coordination Center in Wellington, which by then had locked on to Timella's EPIRB signal. Maurice Conti says Randall and the staff at the coordination center were valuable resources in helping him and Sophie analyze the situation and decide what to do.

RESCUERS AND RESCUEES (from left): Alison Timms, Elizabeth Schoch, Cameron Slagle and Sophie Conti. Maurice is in front.

Meanwhile, Timella's situation had deteriorated. The boat was taking on water through a hole beneath the engine. The breach in the hull was inaccessible to the crew, and water was pouring in faster than the pumps could handle it. "There is no way she's going to be able to hold on," Slagle reported. "We are definitely sinking, mate. We're going to keep pumping as best we can, but the batteries are going to be under water soon."

New realities. New plans. "We are requesting an airlift," Slagle said. "That's the only way we're getting out of here. Don't put yourself at risk. We're clear onto the reef at this point. They're not going to be able to get to us by boat."

By this time, the Contis were talking directly to the Search and Rescue Coordination Center on the satellite phone. The word from New Zealand: An airlift wasn't going to happen. Fiji had no helicopters, and New Zealand aircraft were too far away. And still there was no ETA from Fiji search and rescue, which was trying to sort out fuel problems.

Minutes later, at around 2:45 a.m., the bad news was in: "We are sinking," Slagle radioed. "The batteries will be under water in a few minutes. We're going to lose contact. We're getting the dinghy out and putting the life raft canister in the dinghy. We've got extra fuel, water, and we're getting some food ready."

Decision time

As Timella's deck slipped beneath the surface, the women climbed into the inflatable dinghy. Slagle, a bear of a man, jumped in the water and held on to it, according to press reports. The dinghy still was tethered to Timella when the yacht's mast fell and punctured the inflatable. Now all three were in the water in life jackets, clinging to the partially inflated boat and likely piquing the interest of marauding sharks. The waters around Takau Lakaleka are known for the tiger, bull and other sharks that cruise the reef. The sharks are big enough and numerous enough that film crews go there to capture chilling shark footage.

It was time for a decision. Timella had sunk. Ocealyus was anchored in the lagoon at Vatulele. Air rescue

wasn't going to happen. A timely rescue out of Suva - 50 miles away from Timella - appeared unlikely. Search-and-rescue authorities in New Zealand had put out a mayday over HF/SSB radio in hopes of raising a response, but there was none. And the rescue coordination center had lost contact with Timella's EPIRB. The Contis talked it over, calculating that they would have to leave at around 3 a.m. to reach Takau Lakaleka reef and Timella by sunrise.

"At the time, we assumed the crew of Timella would be aboard their dinghy and be able to drift to us once we reached their reef," Conti says. "So the only real risk was of us grounding on the reef on the way out of the lagoon at Vatulele. The reef was less than a mile from shore ... so in the worst case, we figured we had pretty good chances of getting the kids and ourselves safely back to shore. The loss of the boat was an acceptable risk to us at the time. ... We [had] to go to Timella."

Before Timella's crew piled into the dinghy, Conti radioed Slagle that Ocealyus was their ticket to a rescue and to expect its arrival in 2-1/2 hours. "We love you, man," Slagle radioed back. "I definitely owe you a beer or two when this is all over." It was the last VHF exchange between Ocealyus and Timella; Slagle didn't have a hand-held VHF to take with him in the dinghy.

The Contis were cruising aboard a 47-foot catamaran.

While Sophie stood at the bow in the dark, scanning the water for coral heads, her husband navigated out through the reef using the chart plotter to retrace the route they took coming in the day before. "Despite having a chart plotter at the helm, it was more difficult to follow our track very precisely than I expected," Conti says. "Because of the delay from the GPS position, I basically zigzagged over our track the whole way out. We were doing between 2 and 3 knots, so had we hit a coral head we would not have critically damaged the boat."

The rescue

Ocealyus arrived at Takau Lakaleka about 5:30 a.m., just as the sun was coming up. Sophie spotted the reef first, less than 300 meters away. The sea was rough, and the breakers were hidden behind the big ocean swells. As they motored around the half-mile-diameter reef, they saw nothing - no Timella, no dinghy, no slick or debris - and realized the rescue might be more complicated than they had imagined.

At the end of the first lap, Sophie spotted a plastic jerry can floating in the water. The second time around, Maurice thought he saw three black dots in the water inside the reef. Grabbing the binoculars, he saw the three dots bob into sight as each new wave rolled over the reef.

"They were just bobbing there waving their arms, meaning they'd seen us," Conti says. Another change in plans: Conti would have to motor Ocealyus' dinghy over the reef and through the surf to pick up the three sailors while Sophie held Ocealyus off the reef in big swells and a 28-knot wind.

"When I saw the three of them floating in the water without a dinghy or life raft, I knew if I didn't go they wouldn't make it," Conti says. "There was no real internal debate or analysis."

A trained diver, he knew he would have to be self-sufficient if anything went wrong. Ocealyus wouldn't be able to get to him, so he slipped into a dry suit and harness; grabbed some duct tape, a strobe light and hand-held VHF radio; and threw some rocket flares into a dry bag and swim fins and a mask into the dinghy.

One of the hardest parts of this rescue was getting the dinghy off the davits and into the water in the heavy swells. Conti says that once it was in the water, the outboard started right up, and he motored without incident through the confused seas and over the reef to the survivors. "Only once I'm well inside the reef do I spot the crew of Timella again, about 50 meters away," Conti writes in his online account. "All three are in the water with life jackets, clinging to a deflated and partially sunken dinghy. I can see the wreck of Timella as a dark shadow just behind them. As I arrive, the three of them are alert and responsive."

He pulled them aboard and, in what surely is one of the classic lines of rescue lore, announced, "Good morning ladies and gentleman. My name is Maurice, and I'll be rescuing you today."

Meanwhile, Sophie was at the helm aboard Ocealyus. The children were below, instructed to remain there and be quiet. "This was the toughest moment for Sophie," Conti says. "She was in charge of the boat and now [solely] responsible for the kids. If I got into trouble, she would have that to deal with, too."

The boat was doing 5 knots under bare poles, so keeping on-station was difficult. Sophie tacked back and forth to keep off the reef and, as Conti returned in the dinghy with his weary but grateful cargo, she found a heading that left a calm zone at the stern so the sailors could board.

One of the women was suffering from mild hypothermia. Slagle had second-degree burns on his face and arms from the scalding. All three had cuts and bruises on their feet from slapping against the coral.

Four hours later, Ocealyus was in the harbor at Likuri - also known as Robinson Crusoe Island - at the west end of Viti Levu. "We went ashore and gave [Slagle] an opportunity to buy us that beer he had promised, and we toasted to life," Conti says.

The IMO awarded the Contis its Exceptional Bravery at Sea award at a ceremony Nov. 23, 2009, during its annual assembly in London. The Cruising Club of America will award them the Rod Stephens Trophy March 5 at its annual awards dinner at the New York Yacht Club.

In late January, the Conti family was in Queensland winding down their circumnavigation a little early and thinking of settling there for a while. Just as the workaday world earlier had lost some of its luster and fueled their wanderlust, now the "cruising life is losing some of its wonder for us, so it's time to stop before that's completely gone," Conti says. "We're both looking forward to going back to work, and I think we'll have a lot of energy to bring to the table. I'm sure we'll be off looking for more contrast in 10 or 15 years."

And another adventure to tell the grandkids about.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.