On Friday 18 November legendary Finnish solo sailor Tapio Lehtinen reported his yacht had flooded from the stern and had sunk. He was alone in a life raft in the deep Southern Indian Ocean. Kirsten Neuschäfer, the only female – and one of two South Africans – competing in the Golden Globe Race 2022, knew what she needed to do.
The Golden Globe Race (GGR) is a gruelling 30 000-mile east-about solo circumnavigation that starts and ends in Les Sables-d’Olonne in France. The 2022 race, which started on 4 September, saw 16 sailors set off on their solo circumnavigation, a journey that could take up to 250 days to complete and which features four ‘rendezvous gates’ – Lanzarote, Cape Town, Hobart and Punta del Este – where skippers can be interviewed as they sail past without stopping and where they can pass over films and letters.
Race rules state that entrants sail in yachts and use equipment similar to what was available to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the winner of the original 1968-69 race. This means they sail without the use of modern technology such as satellite-based navigation aids. The safety equipment they carry onboard, such as EPIRBs (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) and AIS (Automatic Identification System), is only allowed to be used in an emergency.
It’s a long time to be at sea, and things can and do go wrong. And when things do go wrong, as they did for Tapio Lehtinen more than 450 nm southeast of Port Elizabeth, rescue is only as close as the nearest ship, or in this case, fellow competitor.
On the morning of Friday 18 November, Tapio Lehtinen reported that his yacht, the Gaia 36 Asteria had flooded from the stern with water reaching deck level in five minutes. His beloved yacht sank within 20 minutes in what he later described as a ‘devastating surprise’.
It began when he awoke to a loud bang and stepped into knee-deep water, with more water flooding in from the engine compartment. He prepared his life raft, put on his dry survival suit, got his GGR communications emergency grab bag and jumped into his raft.
He was not able to get his onboard EPIRB, which went down with his vessel, but it automatically water-activated, sending his first distress alert. GGR safety regulations require a PLB (personal locator beacon) and waterproof VHF handheld radio with GPS to be packed inside the life raft, but in his shock, Lehtinen had forgotten the PLB was there. Once he remembered (after about two hours), he recovered it and turned it on. The spare satellite phone he had in his grab bag was damaged when he jumped into the raft, but inside was the backup waterproof YB3 satellite tracker and texting unit.
When Asteria's EPIRB distress was received by GGR Control, they also noticed that the yacht’s onboard tracker was no longer transmitting and assumed the vessel had sunk and Lehtinen was in his life raft. Control activated the backup YB3 remotely and saw Lehtinen had powered it up. “Are you OK?” was the message they sent.
The stricken sailor was able to confirm he was onboard his raft, and his position was tracked. Using the YB3 unit, Lehtinen was able to send and receive short messages which was a great comfort to him and his family.
According to GGR control, three vessels were then diverted to assist Lehtinen. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Cape Town confirmed communication with Captain Naveen Kumar Mehrotra onboard the bulk carrier MV Darya Gayatri bound for Singapore, whose position was 250 nm northwest of Lehtinen’s position. The carrier was asked to divert and render assistance and it was estimated they would reach Lehtinen between 8.30 and 10am the following day (Saturday, 19 November).
GGR competitors Abhilash Tomy (on Bayanat) and Kirsten Neuschäfer (on Minnehaha) were also asked to assist, their positions being 175 nm and 105 nm away respectively. Neuschäfer confirmed her intentions with the GGR team, stopped racing, broke the seal on her emergency GPS and diverted from her course towards Lehtinen’s position. Tomy also stopped racing and diverted, remaining some distance to the north of her, but available to assist should he be needed.
At just after 8am, Neuschäfer called the GGR management team to confirm that she had rescued Lehtinen and had towed his raft to the Darya Gayatri. “I’m full of adrenaline now, I’ve been up helming all night, and it’s quite something to be manoeuvring so close to a ship, but we’re all good. He was on board, we drank a rum together and then we sent him on his merry way,” she said.
The rescue had involved some nifty sailing and coordinating though. Lehtinen had a visual on Neuschäfer’s yacht but she couldn’t see his life raft in the swell. Neuschäfer could hear Lehtinen on the VHF, but he couldn’t hear her. It was up to the GGR crisis team to home her onto Lehtinen’s position so she got close enough to him to communicate a recovery plan.
“So we [the NSRI] were prepared for the GGR because, even in this race, competitors have grounded their yachts and had to be rescued,” says NSRI’s CEO Dr Cleeve Robertson. “Unfortunately, this incident, more than 400 nm south of Gqeberha is way out of our range. The only rescue resource in the open ocean is the nearest ship.”
“Kirsten responded in the true tradition of maritime rescue and by all accounts took some risks to get there as quickly as possible, recognising that the environment is a real threat to survival and that time was critical.
“Kirsten’s rescue was a testimony to her skill and humanity. Just navigating and finding the casualty is challenging enough but she found him, got the life raft alongside and then recovered him onto her yacht where they shared a rum. She then managed to bring her yacht alongside a container vessel and successfully transfer Tapio onto the pilot ladder and up onto the ship. The skill and risk involved were incredible, she did an amazing job.”
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