Last year’s “Baja Ha Ha,” the fleet cruise from San Diego to Mexico, provides yet another impetus for all ocean cruisers to reconsider their liferaft situation. You DO have one, right? And it HAS been maintained, inspected and re-certified, right? And you actually know what’s stored in it and how to use it, right? And you don’t keep it in an old valise buried in some locker under a bunch of junk, right? It’s okay to admit to one of these failings; but not okay to ignore it any longer. The skipper and crew of J/World, a 40′ J/120 that sank after a collision with whales during the rally, did all of this right and they’re all alive and well today to talk about it.
In fact, the rescue of J/World’s crew is a textbook example of how smoothly things can go when you truly are prepared for the worst. Even some unlucky breaks didn’t prevent a successful rescue by U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. The specific equipment that kept this crew alive and got them rescued was their Viking RescYou liferaft and their EPIRB. The raft protected them in rough seas some 60 miles offshore southwest of San Diego and the EPIRB alerted authorities and brought the Coast Guard right to their location.
In this photo you see the USCG rescue swimmer AST3 Scott Mochkatel being hoisted back aboard the MH-60 Jayhawk after safely getting all five J/World sailors aboard the helo. The USCG Sector San Diego press release has a link to the actual rescue video (just click on the picture in the press release similar to the one at right).
Here’s how it was recounted by the crew to Viking, the makers of the Rescyou liferaft:
The annual Baja Ha-Ha cruiser rally from San Diego, California, to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, turned into a life threatening situation for five, San Francisco-based, J/World Performance Sailing School participants. Thanks to fast-thinking crew members, an eight-person Viking RescYou liferaft and the United States Coast Guard, they’re all alive today after their 40′ J/120 J World sunk, 60 miles offshore.
For J/World instructors Eugenie Russell and Barry Demak and three, adult J/World students, the rally started in fair conditions. Three days in, the team was enjoying swift passage to Turtle Bay, the first anchorage point, with 20-25 knot winds and 10-15′ swells.
On the third morning, just before 10am and about 200 miles southwest of San Diego, the crew encountered a pod of humpback whales. A severe collision caused the rudder to completely dislodge and J World started taking on tremendous amounts of water.
Captain Russell, an experienced offshore sailor, dealt with the situation calmly and methodically. The crew continued to sail the boat with just the sails to get clear of the whales, while attempting to secure the rudder post and stop the ingress of water with a manual bilge pump. Russell went below deck to retrieve the EPIRB and ditch bag, while Demak gathered additional food, water and equipment.
About 40 minutes after the initial impact, Russell and Demak decided the crew needed to abandon the sinking vessel. They activated the satellite-detectable emergency distress signal and deployed their Viking RescYou liferaft just as a large wave hit the submerging boat.
With the aid of the inflated boarding ramp, the five sailors entered the offshore liferaft, bailed out cold seawater and tried to keep themselves warm and dry. They took stock of the offshore emergency pack contents, read the survival instructions and awaited rescue in windy, high seas.
Soon the team saw a USCG Jayhawk flying past them. Demak radioed the aircraft, while Russell fired one of the SOLAS rocket flares. Once the Viking liferaft was spotted, the USCG executed a textbook evacuation of the five sailors.
Fortunately, the professionally prepared and operated teaching vessel was equipped with the best offshore equipment, including the well-maintained Viking RescYou liferaft. Russell and Demak agree that the Viking liferaft was paramount to their survival. “We were fortunate to have the best equipment in perfect working condition,” said Demak, “but it is just as critical to be confident that it will work as designed and to know how to use it.”
If you’d like to read the full account of the J/World sinking and rescue, the December issue of Latitude 38, original sponsor of the rally, has a fantastic article and interview with Eugenie Russell. And the blog of the J World Sailing School itself has an even more extensive account by the participants themselves.
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