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A Nightmare Sailing Charter in Cuba

Cuban waters in the starless night, with faulty navigation equipment

It was to be a night sail as we left later than anticipated and we set off in the late afternoon after a hearty meal cooked by Kim.
There was a cold front and the sea was choppy but I had been in a lot worse and I was not at all concerned. The weather was warm and it started as a pleasant sail . . . 

Despite this the rocking motion of the boat in the confused seas with a swell of 1~3m and rising to Force 7 meant that 7 of the 10 crew went down with seasickness and only the girls were ok but other than myself they had no sailing knowledge so I felt I had to help Chris helm along with the guys that were alternating being sick and helming in the confused seas. Esteban was suffering particularly badly and I remember someone holding on to his ankles as he threw up over the gunwhale. He was in a awful state and I felt so sorry for him.

With all our experience we kept our course as plotted by our skipper Chris.

As I was one of the first to try and grab a couple of hours sleep as I was on Port watch and Starboard watch were already on deck, I went below and was promptly overcome by nausea and was then sick. I tried to get some sleep but to no avail as I found out later that Alejandro was helming in the accumulating confused seas into a head wind and as I was in the forecabin it was like being on a rollercoaster ride and I had to try and wedge myself in. Alejandro later said that the night got really black and the waves really rolling and large. I felt them and was glad at least I was horizontal in bed! Alejandro was alone at this time and although he said it probably wasn’t for long it felt like forever, and despite his seasickness he carried on whilst everyone else had collapsed to their bunks.

After my 2 hour off-watch was over I felt Richard wiggle my toes to start my watch. I remember thinking that I had had no sleep as I was too nauseous but at least I had only been sick once! I was surprised to see that none of my watch were on deck! They were all down with nausea or seasickness!

I felt that despite the atrocious conditions we were not in danger. But to help everyone grab some sleep and rest as we were all exhausted Chris decided to anchor at the next island (Cayo Guano) with the lighthouse until daylight. I was helming after relieving Alejandro who was shattered. He had been great despite suffering tiredness and seasickness. I helmed for 3hrs as others were so seasick. I was so tired but relieved when Alejandro and I sighted the lighthouse as we were bang on course. I had been helming by the compass and moon but as the moon set we were plunged into darkness and could not see our way. It was difficult to helm but we coped. The compass had no backlight and Alejandro offered me his headtorch and I felt more confident in my abilities as although this was a new experience for me I was coping well. 

Chris was at the helm when he asked that the main be taken down which now had 2 reefs in as we were close to the island of Cayo Guano. We planned to motor in for safety. There was confusion which line going through the clutches was the mainsheet and I was annoyed with myself that I couldn’t work out which one it was as I was unfamiliar with the boat.

Alex was at the mast but could not get the main to go in the lazy jacks as slugs were missing and the sail was falling in a mess. Chris asked that help was needed on the decks and although Richard was on deck he was too ill to attend to the mainsail and Chris said we would have to continue to Cayo Largo if we couldn’t get the mainsail safely in the cover so after some hesitancy I realised it was me or continue on! I thought ‘what the heck’ and clipped on to help Alex. I was out of my comfort zone but the sea state was a little calmer as I clung to the boom for stability and helped tidy up the sail so that we could continue to try and anchor for safety.

Richard suddenly shouted that we were heading straight for the island which was less than 200m away. His eyesight was bloody good and he saved us! We bore away and the charts and plotter showed no island. We should have been in deep water! Chris who had been using both charts and the plotter had lost faith in the gps plotter as it didn't show any if the rocks or islands were in the correct place.

I felt that now we were losing control and just wanted to anchor somewhere safe. I was tired through lack of sleep and so was everyone else. It was exhausting work as seas had not relented. Chris decided to head straight for Cayo Largo which would put us in deep waters and safety as the anchorage at Cayo Guano was unsuitable due to a northerly wind. I felt happier and as Chris had relieved me from the helm I asked if it was ok to go to bed as it was around 2.30am ish as he had help on deck from Jose, Richard and Alex and I was exhausted. I flung myself on my bunk and before my head touched the pillow I was asleep.

Richard worked with Alejandro to give him the bearings to sail from looking into the chart room from on the deck. With the swell Richard got his jeans wet from the water and cold and sea sick. Richard was woken around 0230 and helped from the cockpit but felt too sick to go on deck with the sails. Then when I went to bed Richard took over on the helm through to 0330. Chris wanted to move close to the islands to lay anchor and moved the plotter downstairs and went to bed around 3am. At 0320 Richard woke up Jaime to take over the helm because he was feeling really sick. He also told Yiting to wake up Chris within 30 minutes because he wanted him to be around on deck for the approach to the islands. Richard said that Yiting and Jose who he also woke up should keep a look out for rocks. Richard then went to bed at 330.

I wasn’t asleep for long! 2hrs later around 4.30am I was awoken by a loud grating sound. I thought it must be the anchor and just sat there on my bunk. Then another grating noise and shouting from the cockpit. I panicked and ran on deck.

Richard had also woken up with the crashing noise. Richard exclaimed to Anna and I, 'what the @uck was that'?? Richard and I went upstairs and saw that we were trapped, and preferred that we would get onto the island than stay on a damaged yacht.

I heard shouting from the cockpit and went on deck. Chris had been immediately woken from his 30mins on and 30mins off watch. There was panic as we tried to ascertain in the pitch darkness what was happening when we should have been in deeper water. Chris had decided to anchor just outside a 10m contour line as shown on the plotter as a precaution to the south of Cayo Sal, the next island, as sea state had not improved and there were a lot of sea sickness casualties.

Estaban looked awful and it was obvious he was suffering badly, but somehow his adrenaline kept him going. Everyone remained focussed and no one started panicking, arguing or shouting.

Chris asked that everyone be woken despite their seasickness. I was terrified as I couldn't see outside the boat through the darkness but I realised this was now serious. The torch provided was useless and when recharged the handle got redhot. To help, Alex used his headtorch. I just wanted this to end.

The grating noise continued and people were getting distraught. Chris tried several times to put the yacht in reverse but it was stuck fast. He ordered everyone to hike from the Starboard side to help free the boat to no avail. After trying for 30mins but seemed like an eternity I asked Chris should we send a mayday as it was obvious we were now stuck on rocks and I was really concerned for our safety? Chris agreed and we both shouted down the companionway to send a mayday. We got no response from the radio. Alex lost his voice trying constantly and I said keep trying as someone may still be receiving our messages as I learnt on my VHF course, so Kim took over and despite NO Sailing experience she did a clear concise mayday. I was impressed and pleased we could rely on her to continue.

Chris took command and issued orders for the evacuation into unknown territory at around 6am and it was still dark. He gave me orders as I was coastal skipper certified and I delegated some of his orders and it worked well. Despite being terrified no one was panicking. We looked for flares and I grew despondent until Kim asked what a plastic box was and I realised it was an epirb! I set it off and I was so reassured by the flashing light. I continually held it above my head to ensure a good signal and attached it to me so that if we were in the sea we could be located. Someone eventually found the flares and several were set off by Chris where he found that half were faulty which produced a few swear words from him!

Chris and I struggled to get liferaft out of locker as it was well jammed in with diesel cans and stuff. At this point I thought OMG I am never going to see my first grandchild to be born in a few days time.

Richard and Esteban were trying to get the dingy in water and off the starboard deck as we were crashing against the rocks. It was an awful sound. We were scared but not panicking. Our throats were so dry with fear but Yiting and Ana kept handing water bottles to everyone and Kim was stuffing food into any bags that she could find to take with us. The stanchions were breaking easily off the yacht by the dinghy as they were already loose.

Jaime and Richard worked on getting the dinghy round to the port side of the yacht which was challenging because of the wind and waves crashing. We then took it to the starboard side and damaging the stanchions, they eventually dragged it onto the island. 

The life raft was put on the port side and Chris asked me to paddle across to the island with a line so everyone could get across. I pulled myself over the side of the listing yacht and into the water but it came up to my waist and I was not comfortable swimming across to the island so Chris suggested bringing the life raft across to the Starboard side to use as a bridge to the island and I dropped into it after the painter was secured to the yacht and I tried to secure a line to the rocks on the island but I couldn’t as the liferaft was listing in the seas and I kept banging my legs on the rocks through the floor of the liferaft. I helped Ana into the liferaft followed by Kim who helped secure the raft to the rocks. It was a struggle but we all made it across. Food and water and essential lifesaving equipment was ordered to be thrown into the liferaft by Chris as we may be marooned on the island for a few days as no-one was responding to our constant mayday calls. We thought that lights from a ship had been spotted and Chris set off the last of the flares and I raised the EPIRB that was still attached to me as a beacon, but no ship was seen. 

After a time in the darkness on the island dawn broke and I felt a little happier but we were still marooned on a desert island with no signs of rescue. I tried to send text messages to loved ones but there was no network coverage. I grew a little despondent.

After a few hours we saw a yacht mast over the North West side of the island and Kim and Esteban went to raise help as the rescue yacht was not coming to our aid either due to the rocks or it had spotted us and was just sheltering in the lee of the island on the east side. They came across sinking sand up to their waist and had to return. I was so disheartened. I offered to hike around the island the long way over rocks and coral. Richard came with me and we made it after nearly an hour. It was hard work over the volcanic terrain. I was so elated to see the rescue yacht in the distance but I was disheartened to see it sailing away. We rushed to take off our life jackets and frantically waved them in the air to attract attention. The Dream Yacht Charters boat eventually raised a dinghy and returned to us but couldn’t get close due to the rocks and waves crashing on the rocky shore. Richard dived in off the rocks to the German rescue dingy (their German skipper had heard our mayday and he woke all his crewmates to carry out the rescue).

Richard swam to the German rescue operation in their dinghy. They didn't speak English but the catamaran they took him to were very welcoming and served freshly baked bread - very good as he hadn't eaten since our earlier lunch and been sick a lot in the late evening.

I was hesitant to swim in the choppy waves, but after they returned to the yacht with Richard I waited for water and made the return journey to the shipwreck camp where we all hiked to our rescue boat.  They followed me back with all the bags we could carry to the lee shore where another Dream Yacht Charters catamaran was then waiting for us manned by Austrians who had been eating an early breakfast ready for their fishing trip. It had taken both boats 1.5 to 2hrs to reach us. Everyone was elated. On board safely, I looked at Ana and we both hugged tightly and sobbed for the first time as we were so relieved it was all over. 10hrs after our Mayday the Police yacht turned up at the catamaran with a doctor and nurse to attend to any casualties as they believed Richard had been bitten by a shark in his swim to the dinghy, but it was a false alarm and not so excitingly his cuts were due to coral, cacti and bushes on the island.

We all thought how important it was that we had each other for support, and that everybody behaved bravely, selflessly, calmly, and caring for the others during the incident, and what a huge difference it made to the (happy) outcome. Chris said our presence of mind, determination, and calmness were unimpeachable and central to a successful outcome.

We couldn't believe how calm we had all been through all the dramas and that at some point we thought we were going to die. The evacuation by Chris had gone well and he managed to get us all off the stricken boat safely with no broken bones.

February 2013: Written by Lynda Watts (spokesperson for the team that included WCoMC’s Freeman, Richard Stewart, and WCoMC friend and [along with Richard] a member of the WCoMC Royalist Regatta entry, Chris Lait.