Caribbean, BVIs: Search for Cruising Family’s Abandoned Yacht

On December 21st, 2016, cruising yacht “Dove II”, owned and loved by the Coombes family from the UK, had to be abandoned near the end of her TransAtlantic from the Canaries with rudder failure close to Barbados. The family has been searching for their home ever since. The cruising community is asked to be on the lookout for the drifting Dove II in the Leeward Islands, Caribbean Sea.

Published 7 years ago, updated 5 years ago

Latest drift analysis from Chris Parker:

Based on an assumption that nothing on board has changed since the abandonment, calculations for the approximate location of Dove II tomorrow (January 18, 2017) near 19-12N/64-20W (about 30 miles North of the island of Anegada in the BVI).

Yacht Details:

Name: Dove II (UK flag)

Type: Hanse 531 (sloop)

Colour: Light grey hull, red anti foul, teak deck, white topsides

Characteristics: Burgandy/Maroon mainsail cover, spray hood, bimini (with a white patch in the middle) and genoa UV strip (Genoa is furled).

Surfboards in whiteboard bags on the port and stbd quarter’s, look like dodgers.

2x dive cylinders on the port quarter, 1 yellow 1 white.

White mainsail up with 2 reefs in, the main sheet snapped so the boom will be flapping around.

Abandoned at Position: 16 31.92 N / 052 38.87 W

Date: December 21st, 2016 at 1200 hours UTC.

Report – as told by owner and skipper, James Coombes:

On the 4th of December, 2016, we set off from Tenerife in our 53-foot yacht with a crew of 5. Myself, my wife, our 2 children aged 7 & 9 and my stepfather in law.

Like most yachts crossing last year, we struggled the first week, with light winds down to 20 30. The second week the trades blew a steady 20-30 knots which meant we made up for the time lost from the first week. Fifteen days into the crossing and all was looking good for arrival in Barbados on the eve of the 21st – giving us a few days to prepare for Christmas, which the kids were super-excited about. We also had friends staying in Barbados who’s children couldn’t wait for us to arrive so we could all go surfing on Christmas Day together.

At 1830 on December 19th we were cruising along at 8-12 knots with a poled out Genoa when we heard a horrible crunching sound. Suddenly the boat slewed around 90 degrees with the autohelm alarm sounding. My initial thoughts were that the autopilot had disconnected from the rudder post, but when I tried turning the wheel and not getting any response, my heart sank as I thought I’d lost the actual rudder. We quickly furled in the Genoa, then I donned my dive mask and jumped off the stern with a dive torch to take a look. I took one look under the stern and saw that the rudder post and framework were still intact but the actual grp had completely delaminated and had torn off. Nightmare!!

So now we were broad-side on to a 3-5 meter swell and 30 knots of wind – not good. Over the next 6 hours, we made many attempts at trying to head back downwind. I made a temporary rudder with the spinnaker pole and timber planks. With the wind and the swell nothing worked. We tried to point into the wind to make it more comfortable, but the boat would only sit 90 degrees to the wind and swell.

So – rolling badly and very close to numerous knock-downs, my wife was feeling the situation wasn’t safe enough for the kids and she wanted to get them off the boat. We called Falmouth Coastguard on the sat phone for assistance.

Help arrives

In the early hours, we had a 190m cargo vessel on the scene to assist. They wanted to give us a Lee and throw lines down then pull us alongside. Even on their Lee side with the swell and them rolling made the situation far too dangerous to attempt. I could see it all going horribly wrong, and every time they came around to fire lines at us, I had to use my engine to get out of their way. The language barrier between the cargo ship captain and myself made it difficult to communicate clearly. He was trying his hardest to get close and help, but all I was thinking was if we’re alongside and he rolls on us, or my spreaders collided with his hull, it would all end disastrously.

The coastguard then re-routed another cargo vessel to come and assist. When it was daylight and we were waiting for them to arrive, I pulled down the stainless pole that supports our radar dome on the stern and bolted 2 floorboards – which I had glued and screwed together – to the pole to make another temporary rudder. We couldn’t find a way of securely fixing it to the transom though and with the swell bouncing us around it just wouldn’t work properly. When the second cargo vessel arrived later in the morning it turned out to be 180m, so we went through exactly the same scenario as we had before. This was meant to be an easier transfer, but the dangers were exactly the same.

So after another stressful day of having a 180m cargo vessel bearing down on us and firing lines at us, all attempts failing, we were no closer to disembarking my now, very fraught, crew. The kids were very seasick after 24 hours of horrific rolling and sliding sideways down waves. None of us had slept or eaten properly.

At the end of day 2, the coastguard informed us that another sailing vessel was within 80nm of our position and they were turning around to come to our assistance.

My plan all along was to safely disembark my wife, kids, and father in law. I was going to stay on board and try and drift in on the boat nearer to land then try and sort a tow out.

Whilst we were awaiting the arrival of the rescue yacht, the 2 cargo vessels stayed close by us to keep a safe eye on us. I’m very grateful for their patience.

So on the 3rd night, the yacht arrived. We all felt that attempting the transfer in the dark wouldn’t be a good idea, so we waited for sunrise.

After another very uncomfortable night, the weather was forecast to ease off in the morning. As the sun rose the wind and the swell was still present with winds gusting to 28knts and a 2-4 m swell. Launching the other yacht’s dinghy was out of the question, the only safe way we saw was to send my family across in a life raft.

They all took a rucksack each then I loaded them up in the life raft and cast them off for the other yacht to pick them up. A very emotional moment I can tell you.

Alone on the boat

So now alone on the boat I tried everything to get her to point downwind. With going full astern trying for the prop walk to turn me before pulling the sails up and trying to goose-wing downwind. I thought if I could just get going downwind then try and steer with the drouges I had out of the stern, all would be ok. My god I tried everything and in the end the main sheet snapped, one of the Genoa sheets snapped and got caught in the prop. Everything I tried, she just kept spinning back and sitting broadside on.

With my family now safely onboard the other yacht, they sat close-by as I kept trying.

I had now spent 60 sleepless hours trying everything I could and I could envisage something really bad happening to me if I was left alone out there. With the boom now swinging around as I rode over the swells and the wind showing no sign of easing off, I made the hardest decision of my life and decided to abandon and join my family.

Yacht abandoned

I left the drouges trailing from the stern, I also left the engine running on tick over to power the batteries to keep the AIS switched on. Navigation lights were not left on. The main was still up.

Leaving my boat was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. All the years of planning for this trip, all the personal belongings we had to leave on board, all the children’s Christmas presents. It breaks my heart just writing this. I am just hoping she’s still afloat or else it’ll all be lost forever.

The crew of the yacht that rescued us were amazing, we were really looked after and brought safely to Martinique.

The search for Dove II

So my intention now is to try and recover my yacht, bring it back in for repair and carry on with our dream trip. After all of our hard work the past few years and the preparation, I really don’t want us to have to go home.


James has been in contact with Glenn Tuttle, net manager of the SSCA HF radio service ‘KPK’, who in partnership with the Caribbean Safety & Security Net is helping alert the cruising community.

The following is action the SSCA’s HF Radio Service “KPK” took on James’ behalf and request:

KPK contacted Orbcomm, Inc. ORBCOMM is a Virginia based global market leader in Satellite AIS (Automatic Identification System)—a vessel tracking system used on ships and by vessel traffic services for identification and location information. Satellite AIS provides a means to track the location of vessels in the most remote areas of the world, especially over open oceans and beyond the reach of terrestrial-based AIS systems. Orbcomm provided KPK with six position reports before and after he abandoned the vessel.

KPK also contacted well-known weather router Chris Parker of the Marine Weather Center ( for his help creating a drift analysis to predict where the vessel is headed. The Marine Weather Center and, chief forecaster Chris Parker provide vessel-specific routing advice for cruisers worldwide. Chris and the SSCA have enjoyed a long relationship, and the SSCA has recognized Chris for the valuable contributions he has made to the cruising community.

Chris worked with the AIS data provided by Orbcomm, Inc., and with historical weather data, was able to make some predictions as to the probable path the Dove II will take.

The following is Chris Parker’s drift analysis as of January 17, 2017:

Based on an assumption that nothing onboard changed since abandonment, I calculated the approximate location of Dove II tomorrow (January 18, 2017) near 19-12N/64-20W (about 30mi N of the island of Anegada in the BVI).

I know you suspect the drogue chaffed through, but without knowing when this might have happened, there is no way to account for it in the drift analysis. Also, there is no way of knowing what direction the vessel would drift without the drogue (one might assume she would drift downwind, but that’s not necessarily true – the keel would still provide lift against the press of wind on the hull and partially hoisted sails). There’s also no way of knowing whether there is currently more or less of a sail plan erected than when you abandoned.

So with all that uncertainty, the best I can do is assume nothing changed on the vessel since abandonment.

In my calculations, I accounted for wind strength, wind direction, and the strength/direction of sea surface currents.

I estimate Dove II has drifted 630 miles, on a bearing of 282T in the 18 days (through 12utc Wed18) since the last AIS location (12utc December 31). That’s about 35mi/day, or about 1.46k speed.

KPK has provided all the pertinent information to the U.S. Coast Guard and asked they consider issuing an AMVER alert for the vessel as a hazard to navigation.

If you spot Dove II

Contact MRCC Martinique (Tel: +596 596 70 92 92 E-mail: [email protected]) or the local coastguard.

James Coombes is offering a $10,000 reward for the safe recovery of the S/V DOVE II. James may be contacted directly at [email protected].

There is a video on YouTube from SY Tilly Mint, the crew that rescued the family:

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