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Saving Gipsy Moth - How she got into trouble

The 53-foot ketch was 40 degrees off course when she struck the reef at Rangiroa at 1815 hours while on passage to Tahiti.

The 53-foot ketch was 40 degrees off course when she struck the reef at Rangiroa at 1815 hours while on passage to Tahiti. “It wasn’t a huge bang, but as soon as I came on deck I could see she was heeling right over and we were in shallows,” said skipper Antonia Nicholson.

Read the other stories in this package: Saving Gipsy Moth IV    Saving Gipsy Moth - Skipper and mate are dismissed

They had been motorsailing, and the automatic reaction was to put the engine into reverse. At such an angle of heel, however, it was a hopeless gesture. Breaking waves spun the yacht 180 degrees, and her headsail was backed, pinning her onto the reef. The crew let the sheets fly.

“Some pretty huge waves had lifted us up and lifted us on, but it didn’t seem that violent,” said Nicholson. “Nobody fell down, but the boat continued lurching.”

The Yachtmaster Ocean Instructor (an official Royal Yachting Association certification) looked aghast at her mate, Chris Bruce. “God, what’s going to happen?” she asked him.

As Bruce told her, “It’ll be all right,” he heard Linda Crew-Gee, the crew leader, shouting, “Fire! Fire!”

Bruce dashed below. He had been about to prepare dinner on the boat’s Primus stove, but at such an angle the gimbals couldn’t keep it level, and it had burst into flames. He turned off the burners and the flames went out.

After checking that nobody was injured, Nicholson ordered Bruce to send a mayday. The single sideband radio had only a weak signal, and they got no response. They also sent a mayday on the VHF, again with no response. Parachute flares were set off and seen by Blue Water Rally yachts in the area. Onyva, a Hallberg-Rassy 39, and Whitewings, an Oyster 485, were en route to Tahiti from Rangiroa and turned back to give assistance. Bernard Rocquemont and his wife, Dominique, on a passage to Tahiti on the French catamaran Paulina III, got the first satellite call from Nicholson saying, “I need your help!”

“It was a problem that GMIV’s SSB and VHF radios were not working properly,” says Klaus Schuback, who was sailing with his wife, Marlies, on Whitewings.

Glenn McMillan and his wife, Rebecca, on the Hallberg-Rassy, made a mayday relay call. Bruce called UKSA CEO David Green on the Iridium satellite phone.

It was early morning in the United Kingdom, and Green alerted Falmouth Coastguard, which called Gipsy Moth back on the sat phone, took their position and alerted the gendarmerie in Rangiroa. A RIB from Rangiroa’s gendarmerie eventually turned up from the seaward side of the reef, but breaking waves made it impossible to get alongside the stricken ketch.

Crew-Gee waded ashore with a safety line of several ropes tied to her waist and a flashlight. Once it was established that they could wade across the reef to a beach, Gipsy Moth’s dinghy was inflated, then loaded with rations, grab bags and water. Bruce, Crew-Gee and the teenagers headed for dry land pulling it behind them. By now it was 2230. They were met by local rescuers in a RIB and taken across the lagoon to the gendarmerie for a hot meal.

“It was like waving goodbye to my little family,” said Nicholson, who remained on board alone to guard against pilfering. In an attempt to limit the damage, she pushed a fender through a hole in Gipsy Moth’s starboard side. To conserve power, only the masthead light was turned on, marking the ketch’s position on the reef.

Nicholson dozed fitfully on the starboard berth until awoken by a creaking noise. “I turned my searchlight on and noticed a bulkhead was splitting apart,” she said. “I thought she was starting to break up around me, and although I knew she was tough, I moved up to the companionway.” Here she huddled, drenched by waves still breaking over the cockpit, until dawn broke at 0500.

“I have never been so glad to see daylight … until I saw the state of Gipsy Moth,” said Nicholson. “I wept. I couldn’t bear to look at her. I then climbed over the side and walked ashore. I didn’t look back.”

With help from Bruce, who had returned with the local mayor, Nicholson cut some tree branches and used Gipsy Moth’s boom cover to make a shelter on the beach. Inside, she laid some mattresses from the yacht and spent a second night guarding Gipsy Moth, this time with Bruce. The vigil was taken over by local authorities and training skipper John Jeffrey after Night 3, and Nicholson and Bruce were recalled to the UKSA.

Dick Durham is features editor of Yachting Monthly magazine.