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Atlantic: Swiss yacht hit by one cargo ship and rescued by another

By Sue Richards last modified Sep 09, 2010 09:57 AM

Published: 2010-09-09 09:57:58
Topics: Safety and Medical

Article from

Monnerat Cedric, 31, a Swiss boat builder, and Josiane Guillemette, 25, who had never been to sea before, were sailing south from Cape May to St. Martin (September 2009) in the Caribbean on Cedric's yacht Mea, when they collided with a ship in the dark (approx. 80 miles off Cape Hatteras). Here is his story, translated from French:

In 2007 I went cruising in the the boat that I had built, a 34 foot racer/cruiser named Mea. I spent two years in the Caribbean.

In 2009 I sailed to Quebec, in Canada, and spent several months there. At the end of September I sailed back down the Hudson River to St. Martin, where, in the marina, I met Josianne Guillemette. The intention was that she would make the voyage with me back to St Martin.

It was a Tuesday morning around 11am that we left Cape May. The weather forecast promised us a good following wind to push us south through the Gulf Stream. We started with 10-15 knots, but by evening the winds reached 30 knots gusting upward, and we were then surfing down waves sometimes at 15 knots.

By the next day, the Wednesday, the wind had was reaching 40 knots in the squalls. The boat was behaving very well, and we were alternating watches of four hours each. Josianne had been a very fast learner, was not afraid no matter how strong the winds.

By the Thursday the wind had settled to a steady 35 knots when, at 7.30pm we changed watch, and Josianne took the helm. At that time the clouds were low, and it was raining. Josianne was to sit in the aft cabin, from where she had good visibility for her watch.

Suddenly Boooooom! It was an indescribable shock and very violent. I was thrown to the cabin floor, and felt splinters of wood flying everywhere around me.

Through the rain I could see it was a tanker we had hit, and the mast was down. Rubbing against the hull I could see a hole on the starboard side approximately 3 metres long. The time was 19h45pm, and our position 35 26.245 N 73 58.639 W.

Fortunately the hole was not below the waterline, but the conditions were very rough. We were able to stop some of the water coming into the boat by shoving sailing boat cushions into the hole.

We called the tanker repeatedly with the VHF, but he continued on his way without any acknowledgement.

The mast had fallen over the port side of the boat, and, in the rough conditions, was threatening to puncture a hole in that side of the boat. I set about to try to cut the mast away, but could see that it would take me a long time - maybe too long. Water was coming into the boat, and I estimated that we only had about four hours before it sank. I was conscious of how cold the water was in this part of the ocean.

Suddenly I saw the light of another ship, maybe only 500 metres from us. I had to make a decision quickly, whether to try to save the boat and ourselves, questionable, or save ourselves and let the boat, my home, sink. I called to Josianne to fill two bags with clothes and a few belongings and passports. I shot off all the rockets we had, one after the other, and miraculously, we were seen. I could no longer use the VHF because the batteries were under water, so there was no way to contact the cargo ship that was approaching.

We could not by now manipulate Mea at all, and we collided hard with the rescuing ship. With waves still at three metres, it was no easy thing!

Now we could see a ladder of rope they had thrown over the side, but with each wave our boat hit the side of the ship with great violence. Josianne was going to have to choose the right time to leap at the side of the ship and cling to the ladder, then climb up the side of the ship. They had also lowered a rope over the side to assist. However, as she leapt and caught the rope, the boat moved the wrong way, and Josianne fell between the ship and the yacht, which then crashed again against the side of the ship. I thought she was crushed and lost. However, as she hit the water, her life jacket inflated automatically. She appeared again, still holding the rope and was pulled up the side of the ship. She was in great pain, and found later that she had dislocated her collarbone, but nevertheless made it to the deck of the ship.

I then took both backpacks and waited for the right moment, grabbed the rope and clipped it to my harness. The rescue lasted just one hour. However, then I had to watch my boat, Mea, that I had built, my home, alone in the water, as the engines started and we moved away from her. I watched until I could see her no more.

The ship was the Star of Ismene, and the hospitality of the crew was so heartwarming that, with all their attentions we had soon almost forgotten what had happened to us!

It is very difficult for me to describe this incident in its smallest details. What I must say is that there seemed to be no time to panic. We took every action that we needed to. We had the raft, and we set off an EPIRB, but our rescue by the Star of Ismene was very quick, and made the uncertainty of the alternative not an option.

Certainly, there is no doubt, that if the Star of Ismene had not been there with their sailing spirit, and rescued us at that time, we would surely have been on the edge of survival. It it they whom I thank for our survival.


What Monnerat does not tell is how there had been only the slightest chance that the Star Ismene would see their flare, or how serendipitous it was that they were even in that part of the ocean, as it was off their normal route.

The ship was loaded with 21,500 tons of cargo of coco beans, and travelling north from Singapore to Camden, at the end of a 33 day voyage.

Had the storm swirling around Cape Hatteras that night not been blowing 35 knots, the Star Ismene would have stayed its course and Yuson and his duty mate, Roland Poricallan, would have missed the distress signal. But Yuson ordered a course change to beat the storm and fortuitously came within visual distance of the 34-foot, hand-made, blue-hulled sail boat that was foundering in a shipping lane.

They were about 80 miles offshore when Captain Olivo Yuson spotted the pinpoint of light through a telescope. He immediately slowed the Norwegian-flagged 198 metre ship and manoeuvred the ship through the three metre waves towards the light.

"Rescue is more important than keeping a schedule. We save lives first," said Yuson, who suspected a "shipwreck" and then supervised the rescue.

"She (Josianne) held on tight. If not, it could have been a tragedy," he said. "They were grateful. They called us their angel. We were not aware of other ships in the area, so it's difficult to say what would have happened if we did not arrive," said Yuson, a mariner for 28 years.