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Rough seas, panic and lost friendships

Voyage off New Zealand ends when the crew activates the EPIRB, leaving the skipper fuming and boatless

Voyage off New Zealand ends when the crew activates the EPIRB, leaving the skipper fuming and boatless

A little sailboat, racing ahead of a strong following wind, moves south off western New Zealand. Air Apparent, a 26-foot Compass sloop has four sailors on board: the skipper, his good friend and a couple brought on board at the last minute for an 800-mile delivery.

What had been beautiful weather has turned into rain and nearly gale-force winds. Bill Heritage, 55, who owns Air Apparent, is pleased his boat is making good time. Inside the cabin, however, a storm of a different type is brewing. The crew, with limited experience and two of them seasick, is about to “mutiny.”

Is this, as Heritage believes, a case of inexperienced passengers in a panic? Or as the skipper’s friend Carl Horn, 65, says, is it a one-chance shot at survival by crewmembers who have discovered their captain’s judgment is flawed and his boat ill-equipped?

The minor mutiny March 25 succeeded. An EPIRB was activated. Helicopters arrived. Heritage, an examiner of accountants, and his crew were hoisted off the boat and flown to shore 90 miles to the east. And Air Apparent, somewhere between New Zealand and Australia, sailed on.

Now Heritage, who abandoned salvage plans as too expensive for the value of Air Apparent, wants his crew to buy him a new boat. The crew has sought legal advice. Neither party is talking to the other, although all of them live in Nelson, New Zealand. “I was stunned,” Heritage says of the moment his crew confronted him on that Tuesday and announced they were going to activate the EPIRB. It was a bad ending to a voyage that had begun on Good Friday.

The plan was to sail from Auckland, on New Zealand’s NorthIsland, to Nelson, on the South Island. (The islands are separated by Cook Strait.) Heritage, who had moved from Auckland to Nelson, had invited Horn, his friend of 27 years, and a couple of sailing friends to make the trip. The other friends couldn’t make the trip, however, so Horn recruited a friend, John Lammin, and Lammin’s mate, Sharan Foga. Lammin and Foga met Heritage for the first time when they arrived in Auckland.

The preferred route from Auckland to Nelson would have been a clockwise track along the eastern side of NorthIsland, then through Cook Strait to Nelson on the north end of South Island. “[But] taking into account the weather situation at the time, I chose to go anti-clockwise,” Heritage says. “If I’d written, ‘Dear weather gods, this is the weather I want,’ this is the weather it would be.”

Air Apparent cast off at noon Friday, March 21, and motored northwest for the next two-and-a-half days, rounding the northern tip of the island at midnight Easter Sunday. The forecast was for northeast winds, Heritage says, and they arrived, as the crew turned south Monday morning, blowing 15 to 25 knots. “The morning was beautiful sunshine, and we saw albatross and other birds and a couple of seals sleeping,” Heritage recalls.

But with the first weather came the first nausea for Lammin and Foga, who had “minimal” sailing experience, he says. “Through Monday, the weather changed from glorious sunshine to showers,” Heritage says. “Some of those showers were pretty heavy rain.” The wind remained strong, he says, and Monday night was hard work for the skipper and Horn, the only ones able to function, even though the wind had settled a bit and the seas were around 3 feet.

“Then Tuesday, the wind picked up a bit, and the swells started to get bigger,” Heritage says. “One of my watches, the wind actually got over 30 knots, so I hauled down the main and was sailing just under a small jib because we were making good time. I wanted to keep it simple. At the end of the watch, I told Carl, ‘Keep it sailing. Don’t worry about keeping on course.’ ”

Later, Heritage says, he was in the cabin trying to get some sleep when “there was a shout: ‘Bill, we’re going to switch on the EPIRB.’ ” No one was hysterical, but Heritage says he sensed panic. “It took me totally by surprise that they were going to suddenly use the beacon. There had been no previous indication that I could pick up that they didn’t want to complete the voyage.”

Stunned, Heritage tried to talk his crew out of its joint decision. “We were all short of sleep. We weren’t our best and brightest. Two people had been seasick,” he says.

Heritage had sailed with Horn two or three times, though never overnight. He recalled Horn telling him of sailing experiences in his youth and of being caught in a storm on the St. Lawrence Seaway that ripped the traveler off a sailboat.

“I was trying to say that we had excellent conditions to sail on, that that’s what we should be doing,” he says. He told his crew that the EPIRB was for cases “when there was danger to life, if we were taking on water or dismasted. But I couldn’t dissuade them. They were insistent that we were in some kind of danger.”

The seas were now a maximum of 10 feet and lumpy, Heritage says. “That can be intimidating. They were genuinely frightened.”

There were no raised voices, Heritage says. “Looking back, I would say I must have been in some degree of shock that anyone would think of using an EPIRB so inappropriately,” he says. “Someone reckoned that we were going to broach, but we were sailing on the quarter with a small headsail. It was really an easy point of sail.”

Horn, however, says his concerns about the safety of the voyage began to mount well before the seas picked up Tuesday. “Almost from the start, there were these unsettling things that happened,” he says.

On Good Friday afternoon, says Horn, the time came to put up the sails. “I happened to ask, ‘Bill, I presume you have harnesses for this ship?’ The answer was, ‘No, we don’t have any harnesses.’ ” he says. “We did have life vests, and we wore them during the night.

“At night, we went on watches, four [hours] on and four [hours] off,” Horn continues. “I found that the light in the compass didn’t work.” There was nothing to steer by other than the hand-held GPS Heritage had purchased days before, Horn says.

“Various things didn’t happen; they should have,” Horn says. On Sunday, the boat docked at a wharf to take on fuel only to find the place closed for Easter. So the crew hiked with plastic containers to a filling station across town. “He couldn’t tell us how much the tank held, and he couldn’t tell us the consumption. He purchased about 40 liters of containers, I presume, on the expectation that would be enough. That was a little unsettling, too.”

Although the plan had been to practice reefing the sails on the first day, Horn says, Heritage didn’t get to the drill until the third day. Even the plan to sail along the west coast of North Island instead of the east coast was a last-minute decision, Horn says.

On Monday, Horn says, the arrival of rain and wind gusting to 20 knots was accompanied by 3- to 6.5-foot “real” waves and the “night got worse.” A reef was put in the main, and a smaller jib was raised. On Tuesday morning, the boat was rolling, and a second reef was added before the mainsail came down.

“At noon on Tuesday, when I took over the helm, the seas were 3 to 4 meters [10 to 13 feet], wind gusting 25 to 30,” says Horn. The clouds were “absolutely black” and the boat was running downwind with just the jib.

At around 2:30 in the afternoon, an attempt was made to start the engine, but the battery, having supported the running lights, cabin lights and radio for more than a day without being recharged, was too weak. The crew used a crank, but still couldn’t start the engine. “So the battery continued to discharge. I knew what that meant,” Horn says. “The radio and instrumentation wouldn’t work. … I started to think in terms of, what are our options?”

At this point, steering a course with the wind on the starboard quarter to avoid running downwind, Air Apparent was sailing away from New Zealand with no engine and the prospect of losing the instruments and lights when the battery died. “And no sign of the storm letting up,” says Horn. “I anticipated if we were to run with the storm, we would be several hundred miles out.”

As Heritage slept, Horn turned to Lammin. “I said, ‘John, things aren’t good, and they’re getting worse,’ ” recalls Horn. He conveyed his concerns and lack of confidence in Heritage, adding, “I think we should begin talking whether we should use the beacon. It’s going to take them a couple of hours or three to get here if they come at all.

“John said, ‘Thank you for mentioning this.’ So we talked about it,” Horn says. Then they confronted Heritage with their concerns.

“He got livid, lost his cool, told us in no uncertain terms we were not going to trigger the beacon. We hadn’t sunk. [There was] no dire emergency,” says Horn. “We expressed our concerns about our fatigue — no sleep since Monday afternoon. His suggestion was we just ride it out until the storm abates. We agreed that we would issue a pan pan and we would deploy the sea anchor, which he had purchased for the trip. We issued the pan pan and got no response at all.”

Then the crew opened the sea anchor bag. It looked, Horn says, like Heritage had never opened the bag before, since there was no 70 meters of rope, as the instructions inside the bag said were needed, nor a swivel. And there was little spare line on board, according to Horn. “We had lost so much confidence in Bill that one of us pulled the trigger,” Horn says. “After that, he became upset, went to the forepeak and cloistered himself there for two hours.”

Using jib sheets, Horn and Lammin jury-rigged the sea anchor. Horn found a block in the rigging that had a swivel and added that to the anchor rode. “About 20 minutes before the first helicopter arrived, we had launched the sea anchor,” which was secured to the bow. “The last I saw, it was still facing toward the stern. The boat hadn’t swung around.”

The first helicopter was low on fuel and turned back, but a second arrived and began looking for Air Apparent. The EPIRB, which Heritage had borrowed, was an older model and wasn’t giving a precise signal, the crew later was told. “The second helicopter couldn’t find us,” Horn says. “It flew past us. We saw it go by. We had a hand-held radio and were able to communicate with it. John first gave it to Bill, but he refused to communicate. So John gave it to me. I told them we could see them. A few minutes later, they were hovering over us.

“I say to myself the probability of surviving that Tuesday afternoon was … 30 percent,” Horn says. “So we all decided that we weren’t going to take that chance.”

Heritage asked his crew to pay him the replacement value of his boat: $24,000 (New Zealand). They refused, but the New Zealand press reports that Lammin and Foga donated $14,000 to the non-profit rescue service, and Horn made a smaller contribution, nearly covering the cost of the rescue operation.