The South African Navy (SAN) frigate SAS Isandlwana returned to Cape Town on Tuesday morning, after a difficult rescue mission for distressed yachts in the Cape-to-Rio race.
Setting set sail for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil from Cape Town harbour on Saturday afternoon the 36 yacht strong fleet was caught in a massive storm. At least two yachts issued distress calls with another three experiencing problems, including one involving a fire on board. Altogether nine yachts experienced difficulties and were forced to return to shore.
The fleet were approximately 120 nautical miles north-north-west of Cape Town on Sunday January 5 when the yacht Ava transmitted an “Emergency Position Indicating Beacon” at 16h28. Another yacht, Bille, transmitted a “Mayday” using a satellite phone at 16h45. Bille indicated that she had been demasted, resulting in serious injuries and the death of one crew member.
The Organising Committee of the Cape-to-Rio Yacht Race contacted the Navy at approximately 17h30 to initiate a rescue operation for the two yachts that were in distress. The Navy immediately sprang into action and the frigate SAS Isandlwana, which was on operational standby, was tasked to respond. The ships’ company was re-called at 18h00 and within three hours of the initial call, the Isandlwana, under the command of Captain (SAN) Musa Nkomonde, sailed from the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town at 21h30.
On board the frigate were five ships divers, two doctors and three Operational Emergency Care Practitioners (OECPs) from the South African Military Health Services. Also aboard was Royal Cape Yacht Club (RCYC) General Manager, Marcus Reuter.
At approximately 02h46 on Saturday morning, Isandlwana intercepted the yacht Blackcat and was advised that the NSRI would escort the yacht back to Cape Town Harbour.
Isandlwana then proceeded to intercept Bille which was 100nm out to sea. This yacht had experienced two catastrophic events in close succession. A crew member was swept overboard, but was successfully retrieved. Shortly thereafter, the mast broke, resulting in another crew member sustaining fatal injuries and becoming trapped in the rigging. Steering was also compromised. Apart from the fatality, four crew members had also sustained injuries, including the skipper with broken ribs. Two other crew members received light injuries.
Isandlwana made radio contact with the Bille at approximately 04h00. At 05h10 a red flare was sighted and Isandlwana reached the stricken yacht at 05h27. Sea conditions were rough, with six to seven metre swells and poor visibility. The Isandlwana had to wait another hour until 07h43 before it could launch a rigid inflatable boat (Rib) to transfer the crew members from the Bille.
The initial plan was for two injured crew members and the deceased to be transferred to the Isandlwana, but once on station it became apparent that all six surviving crew members had to abandon the yacht.
Petty Officer Godfrey Ditshego, a Senior Diver and Coxswain of the Rib, told defenceWeb they found the yacht in poor condition and very rough seas. “This was a most challenging rescue, taking into account the swell,” Ditshego explained.
He placed two divers aboard the yacht to assist with the transfer of the surviving crew members. This was affected by transferring two crew members at a time. The Rib had to return to the Isandlwana and be hoisted aboard before being replaced in the sea again and return to collect the next batch of survivors. The retrieval of the deceased crew member was left for last and the divers had a difficult time clearing the damaged mast from the port side and cutting away the rigging in order to retrieve the body which was hanging over the side.
The entire transfer and retrieval operation took three and a half hours.
Having made the yacht safe, she was abandoned (leaving a navigational warning beacon on board) as Isandlwana then proceeded to assist the yacht Ava.
Upon contact with AVA, Isandlwana was informed that all four crew members were well. They had lost battery power and were unable to use their main engine but they were returning to port with damaged steering.
At 14h35 the RCYC requested the Isandlwana to make its way to the yacht Do Do as the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre was concerned because they were unable to communicate with the yacht. Upon investigation, Do Do informed them she was making her way back to shore.
The Isandlwana returned to the V&A Waterfront at 08h45 on Tuesday morning, having proved the Navy still has what it takes to undertake difficult rescue missions at short notice.
Captain Nkomonde said he “was happy and proud of the crew for what they had achieved.”
The NSRI also provided assistance of a number of yachts and the South African Air Force has placed a Dakota maritime patrol aircraft on standby.
This is not the first time that the Isandlwana has been involved in maritime rescue missions. The ship was involved in a rescue mission during the 2011 Cape to Rio race when she saved the crew from the dismasted and sinking yacht Izivunguvungu. Then again, in May 2011, she was involving assisting an injured crew members on a Taiwanese fishing vessel off Tristan Da Cunha Island.