The 74-meter motor yacht Plvs Vltra was underway from Dubai to the Mediterranean on June 20, 2021, when the OOW heard a Mayday call on the VHF. Nine miles away, 50 nautical miles off the coast of Oman, a 100-meter cargo ship was sinking. The superyacht altered course towards the vessel, which soon disappeared from ECDIS and radar, completely submerged in the heavy seas. When they arrived at the site, they found 10 sailors in the water and two life rafts floating about a mile away.
The men in the water were exhausted and soaked in diesel from a slick that spanned a quarter mile of sea surface. The fumes were overpowering, further weakening the swimmers. Seas were three to four meters while the southwest wind howled at 25 to 30 knots. Getting them on board Plvs Vltra would be no mean feat.
“To recover the ten men in the water, it was necessary to take the vessel to them,” says the delivery captain, Martyn Walker. “I have long been a firm believer that most rescue boats will not be available when needed and certainly it never entered our head to try and launch ours in these conditions. To do so was impossible and totally unsafe.”
Capt. Walker’s initial plan was simple: hold the yacht to windward, have the deck crew throw lines to men in the water, and pull them on board. “This is far from what happened and that method, it seems, would have been impossible and more dangerous than how we ended up recovering them,” he says.
Because of the current, Walker could not hold the bow into the wind. The bow thruster was of no use, being underpowered for the conditions and often out of the water in the huge swell, and he had to lay off the engines when nearby the swimmers. “So by default, the stern of the boat kept coming into the waves,” says Walker. “You would think you’d want the bow to windward and try to bring (the MOBs) on. But imagine if the bow is to windward in a 15-foot sea — how high that swim platform is coming up.”
“Panic set in with the men in the water. They pushed and shoved to be first on, resulting in us having to keep going back around as we lost one or two each time….”
With the stern to windward, each wave that crashed over the back washed men on board — and lost some too. “Panic set in with the men in the water. They pushed and shoved to be first on, resulting in us having to keep going back around as we lost one or two each time. We made many moves to get everyone on board,” says Walker.
Two of Plvs Vltra’s crew on the swim platform also got swept overboard. They were able to get back on board and attached their harnesses. They held on to the men as they were washed aboard and helped them to the main deck when the wave subsided. Walker estimates the last man they rescued had been in the water for two-and-a-half hours and was “minutes from drowning.”
This real-life worst-case scenario was a first for Capt. Walker in his decades commanding yachts. “None of us had been in a situation (like this) before. We were just making it up as we went.” He shares some of the lessons he learned.
First of all, he wishes he had kept a crewmember in the wheelhouse with him to handle communications. Instead he sent the deck crew off to don life jackets and gather heaving lines. Meanwhile, two other responding vessels were calling Plvs Vltra on the VHF and, since they were in a NATO response area, the British Coast Guard was also calling on the SAT phone. “In between steering the vessel towards the area where the men were in the water, keeping the vessel to windward, and listening to the lookouts, I was overwhelmed with trying to answering the radio and telephone,” says Walker. “I have always had the ETO in the wheelhouse while maneuvering past large vessels. This should be a standard procedure when maneuvering, be it in and out of port or during a fire, MOB, or recovery such as this.”
Secondly, stow for the worst. A yacht’s interior is not designed for heaving to in those conditions. It crossed Walker’s mind that the rescue could end up being expensive for the owner with breakages on board. Fortunately, they were well prepared. “Stopping in these conditions without great interior stowage would have been a disaster,” he says.
“I have long been a firm believer that most rescue boats will not be available when needed and certainly it never entered our head to try and launch ours in these conditions. To do so was impossible and totally unsafe.”
Next, think about how to get someone on board. Even on a calm day, not all crewmembers would be able to pull themselves onto the swim platform on a yacht this size. “Try it one day on a drill,” Walker suggests. And there is no way even the fittest person could do it on a pitching boat after being soaked in diesel for an hour, he points out. In the debriefing, they discussed whether using a net or a swim ladder would have helped and everyone agreed that the survivors were too tired to climb a net and a ladder could not have stayed in position in the swell.
Finally, experience counts. Walker credits much of their success to the Royal Marines who were on board as security detail for the Gulf of Aden transit. One served as a lookout outside the wheelhouse for the captain, while the team leader coordinated the rescue on deck. Their experience vastly surpassed that of the yacht’s young crew.
“If we had not had three trained marines who are very well-rehearsed in mission planning, we may have had a weaker response,” he says. “This is why I suggest putting a plan in place before the start of a voyage so all crew knows their part.”
This article originally ran in the December 2021 issue of Dockwalk.