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For those in peril on the sea

Cheeki Rafiki:

As I write this is appears increasingly unlikely that any of the crew aboard the yacht ‘Cheeki Rafiki’ have survived the capsizing in the Atlantic. Now is not the time to ask questions about the sea worthiness of modern yacht designs, nor is it the time to comment on the initial decision of the US Coastguard to suspend the search. Now is the time, however, to give a moments thought to the families of those who have almost certainly been lost, to perhaps to head off any criticism of their efforts to ensure the search continued and to still any voices that might want to curtail the aspirations of those who wish to go to sea in small boats or undertake other potentially hazardous pursuits.

Why do we go to sea?

Obviously different people  have different answers to this question. Some  wish to escape the rat race, others  want to travel the oceans of the world,  visit new places and meet new people. Some  enjoy competitive racing whilst others view it as a challenge. Most ocean voyagers do not take the view that they are challenging nature. Most of us who put to sea in small boats know that in any confrontation with Mother Nature, Mother Nature will win hands down. We tend to go about our business and hope that our intrusion on the oceans goes unnoticed and if noticed, then at least tolerated, by the elements.

Expectations of help:

In truth there is a difference in attitude between coastal sailors and those who go further afield. This is not to criticise those who confine their activities to the estuaries and coastlines but most will have at least some expectation that if all goes disastrously wrong then somebody will be able to render assistance and that assistance will rapidly be on hand. A small minority are an accident waiting to happen; not adequately preparing themselves and merely assuming that ‘somebody’ will get them out of trouble. After all, in our modern society we seem not to expect to have to face the consequences of our own actions and if something goes wrong, it is always somebody else’s fault.

Most Blue Water sailors, on the other hand, fully realise that help is not likely to be at hand when a thousand or so miles from the nearest land. Yes of course we carry the means the alert the Rescue Services but we also carry survival equipment because if or when it all goes wrong, we have to help ourselves.

The type of assistance that you might expect to receive depends on where in the World you are at the time you get into trouble. On my last Atlantic crossing, in 2009, a single-handed sailor suffered what he thought was a heart attack whilst en-route from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. To make a long story short, I became aware of the situation because I heard about it on a weather information radio frequency. Because of propagation problems the message from the boat in difficulties was extremely difficult to decipher and I never did get a position from him. Nevertheless I/we worked-out that the boat was probably about one hundred and fifty miles ahead of us. We being myself and two friends who were crewing for me. We never were able to locate the boat and after a couple of days there was an ominous silence. In the interim, people in Barbados had been alerted and were voluntarily arranging for a boat to put to sea and render medical assistance when the yacht neared the Island. Previously, the person in trouble had said that he did not want the Rescue Services on Martinique to come out to him. He was several hundred miles away and felt he could make it on his own. Sadly he was wrong and the boat, with human remains, was found several months later washed up on a beach in Trinidad. He knew and accepted the risks that are inherent in crossing oceans in a small boat. You might not see elderly relatives again, loved-ones may have accidents and of course you yourself may suffer an illness or accident. It’s all part of the game. We carry emergency beacons and long-range communications equipment in case any help might be available –and in a way just to let people know that we are in trouble even if there is no expectation of assistance–and we carry life-rafts and survival gear that we feel is appropriate in order to save ourselves. Do we expect that others will come to save us? No. Nice if it happens but we all know the risks and accept them, as I’m sure did the crew of ‘Cheeki Rafiki’.

The Rescue Services, in their various guises around the world, exist because of the human impulse to help others in distress. They constantly train, sometimes as unpaid volunteers and sometimes as part of a uniformed service, to perfect their skills. Perhaps this is not the time to suggest that a real rescue mission is valuable training as well but it is an undeniable fact. To actually save lives after many hours of arduous training must be a source of great satisfaction to those involved. Should activities such as mountain climbing, fell walking or sailing be curtailed because of the cost of maintaining rescue services? I think not. To do so would be to suppress one of the things that makes us human–the sense of adventure. Should others foot the bill for getting people out of trouble? I would say a qualified yes. Qualified because if an individual or individuals persist in putting themselves at risk without making adequate preparations then there should come a point where they are told ‘you are on your own or you foot the bill.’ Qualified because there comes a time when a search must be called off if there is no reasonable expectation of finding survivors. Searches do cost money– lots of it– but how do you decide when to call it quits?

Throughout human history, people have always tried to help those in distress. The fact that today we have more effective and thus expensive means of rendering assistance doesn’t mean that the assistance should  be rationed in some way. In a way, I was myself a beneficiary of this ‘largesse’. Sailing in company (with friends Maureen and Paul on board their yacht Calypso) both boats got caught in a tropical storm about halfway between Fiji and Vanuatu (in the Pacific). The boats became separated and we lost radio contact. Convinced that I probably hadn’t survived the storm (yes, it was that bad) they put out a call on their long-range radio to ask if my emergency beacon had been activated. It hadn’t, but a New Zealand Orion aircraft en-route to an Island to search for some missing fishermen lost in the same storm, put out a VHF radio call. I was able to assure them that all was, if not exactly well then at least survivable, and I was now going to New Caledonia. The message was duly passed to all concerned parties. On its return to New Zealand about thirty-six hours later, the same aircraft deviated off-track to get within radio range and contact me again. I was grateful for this human contact and later learned that I had in fact been reported as missing. ABC, an Australian news station, had somehow learned about the situation and having reported that ‘a yachtsman was missing’ now reported that I had been located. In this instance I neither needed nor expected any assistance and indeed I’m not certain how any could have been rendered. The point of me recounting this is the aircraft was en-route to a remote island to offer assistance in searching for missing fishermen. The human impulse to help, you see– and nobody was expecting a poor island nation to foot the bill of the SAR mission. Nobody expected me to foot the bill for the extra fuel used when the aircraft deviated from the direct route in order to be within radio range and check on my situation.

All this means that, in my opinion, the families of those aboard ‘Cheeki Rafiki’ were completely justified in demanding that the search be continued. For those who may be tempted to say that others should not foot the bill for  ‘foolhardy behaviour’ it is worth noting that the crew themselves did not ask for help; they  advised they had a problem and informed people what they were doing to help themselves. Sadly, it appears that they were overtaken by events. There may be lessons to be learned but curtailing or banning potentially hazardous pursuits is not one of them.


  1. Tim C says:

    Well said Peter, I am sure that most people who partake of 'potentially' hazardous activities do so in the full knowledge that they are pushing themselves and their equipment and that sometimes things can and do wrong, driven people do things because they love doing it and the risks will not stop them, Non foolhardy risk takers should be applauded they live life to the full in full knowledge that they could lose their lives.

    Its terribly sad that in this case things went wrong and the crew didn't survive but I bet had it been a little bit luckier and had just survived that they would have been back on the ocean as soon as they had recovered and that would have learnt just a little more about living and loving life.

  2. Paul says:

    Yes, you were on New Zealand radio news too

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