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Two survive on raft three nights after yacht sinks

By Sue Richards last modified Nov 27, 2008 04:09 PM

Published: 2008-11-27 16:09:12
Countries: Spain

As reported by Giles Tremlett, Guardian/Sail-World - 22 Nov 2008

Only a wife's call has saved a British sailor and his Belgian crewmate after three nights adrift on a liferaft in a storm-tossed sea. The sinking was so rapid they had been left without food or drinking water after their boat sank off Spain's Balearic Islands.

Jayesh Patel, 43, said he had a miraculous escape from the 44ft (13-metre) yacht Umbalika as it went down at night after taking on water near Mallorca. He and a Belgian colleague were thrown into the sea before they struggled aboard their liferaft and began a three-day battle against fear, hunger, thirst and the storms that continued to lash the Mediterranean Sea.

"It was a very, very frightening experience. There were 40-50mph winds, waves of two to three metres," he said. "We had no food. The boat went down so fast - in a matter of minutes. We didn't have time to grab anything. We made a Mayday call but for some reason it didn't get through."

Patel, an experienced yachtsman with a commercial captain's licence, said he was putting out the Mayday call when it became clear that the water was about to fill up the cabin on the Umbalika. "I had to swim out along the cabin roof," he said.

When he had finally fought his way out, he was forced up to the surface and found himself beside the man who had been helping him sail the boat towards mainland Spain. They grabbed a liferaft before jumping ship but had no time to find flares, food, water or extra clothes.

"We were in the sea for about 15 to 20 minutes because we had problems getting the liferaft inflated," said Patel.

Patel said he realised that it would take a while before rescue services were warned. "We were due in (mainland) Spain on the Thursday and I didn't think anyone would raise the alarm for at least 20 hours when we hadn't arrived," he said.

Attempts to attract a passing helicopter failed and Patel tried to propel the liferaft to a nearby island. The men also tried to row using a pair of trainers as oars.

On the third night Patel began to get worried as winds were driving them away from the area where passing ships might find them. He began dreaming about food and water.

His wife Louise, who lives in London, became worried when he had not called to say he had arrived safely. The trip was meant to have taken only 22 hours.

"No one was aware of the problem until the sailor's wife dialled 999," a spokeswoman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said yesterday. "They were eventually rescued after four days and three nights in the liferaft and after an air-sea search covering 20,000 sq km."

Mrs Patel raised the alarm on November 13. The 43-year-old mother of two was put through to the Thames Coastguard where staff alerted the International Coastguard Liaison Station at Falmouth, Cornwall, and a message was relayed to Spanish coastguards. An air and sea search was launched and a rescue ship found them floating four-and-a-half miles from the island of Sa Dragonera, off the west coast of Majorca.

Jayesh Patel was barely able to move his legs when the Spanish rescue ship pulled alongside. Once on board the vessel, he dragged himself up to the bridge so he could call and let his family, including his two children Balram, 15, and Ulrika, 12, know that he was safe. He and his Belgian friend had left the holiday island of Majorca bound for the port of Tarragona on the Spanish mainland on November 12.

"The two men were experienced sailors and the woman provided a lot of information about them, their boat and their plans." said a Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) spokesman.

"One of the lessons is that if you have any concerns about anyone anywhere at sea then tell the authorities and something can be done no matter where you are," the spokesman said, adding that the pair had been given the all clear by doctors after the ordeal and had now returned home.

Miguel Chicon, director of the Maritime Rescue Centre in Palma, Majorca, told Spanish reporters on the weekend: "It's a miracle they have been found. The last contact anyone had with them was on Wednesday night when they spoke to their relatives to say they had hit high seas and the boat was rolling and pitching.

"On Friday we began to think the boat must have capsized and began searching for debris or a life craft. I called the captain's wife with the news he was OK. She was overcome - she could not speak."

There is no mention of an EPIRB in the account of the rescue.