The Rescue Story
23 February 2018
After taking the decision to abandon Taya we started going through our stuff to choose the minimum that we would take with us. As I went through clothes, electronics, documents etc in various lockers I kept looking at parts of the boat, systems, interior work etc... and flashing back to when I had installed them, how much time and money it had taken, and I quickly became overwhelmed with the feeling of how much of a waste this was going to be. For instance when I picked up the laptop I looked at the instrument panel on the chart table and thought about all the wiring, networking, problem solving, phone conversations with the manufacturers, improvements and money that had gone into making the electronics work smoothly. When I picked the sat phone in the dog house I saw the aluminum welds on the structure and thought of the countless hours Nathaniel and I had worked on the damned thing in Crisfield; and so on...
But what was probably the weirdest feeling was that Taya felt completely fine. It was a calm day, the drogue was doing a decent job at steering the boat, although we were going very slowly. Usually when I checked the boat it is with a eye for malfunction, wear, possible problems; but that afternoon I just kept noticing things that were strong and functioning properly; things that had been reliable for many crossings over the years. And all these well performing systems reinforced my feeling that Taya was fine; how could we possibly need to be rescued? I thought that 30 years ago, we would have had to keep going and we would probably have been fine and made it to Valdivia. Back then we would not have been able to contact the Marine Rescue Coordination Center in Chile. So I repeated in my head the rational process that had convinced me that it was logical to abandon Taya. Although I hadn't asked for assistance, the MRCC Chile had deemed it necessary reroute a large freighter to our position. That freighter had to steam 20 hrs out of its way to come to our assistance. The Nanjing Express was the only ship anywhere "close" to us for the foreseeable future, 2 active fronts were going to pass over us in the next few days, and the second one with winds to 45kts. We didn't know if the drogue could steer the boat with winds to 20kts on the beam, going to Valdivia would probably take at least 3 weeks with the chance of more storms, fresh water supply was limited, etc..... but all that rational thinking did not help the feeling that the boat was just fine and that there really was no reason to sink her to the bottom.
The MRCC asked a couple times for an updated position to relay to the Nanjing. And around 10:30 pm she was within VHF range, so I made radio contact. We had prepared 2 small backpacks with papers and a change of clothes and our laptops. But the rest, everything else was going to go down with Taya. We put on our life-jackets and gear and I tell Janneke to be prepared for the scary noise of Taya banging against the freighter's hull but that our hull will be ok, I tell her that our movements should be deliberate and not rushed, to step on the ladder only at the very top of a heave....but she already has figured out all that.
We see the lights of the Nanjing shortly afterwards and the Master slows his ship down to a crawl to come alongside: not an easy task with an 800ft ship and large swells. The darkness of the Nanjing Express' bow 80ft above the water looms above us, and boy, do we feel small only a couple feet above the surface of the ocean. The huge bulb drifts by Taya, and the freighter's hull comes in contact with Taya just aft of her bow. All hands are on deck standing ready at the top of her towering hull topsides. They heave a line once which misses and then a second time, this time landing on the solar panels. I take the line and make it fast to a long line that I had made fast at both ends to the bow and stern cleats. Then it takes about 1/2 an hr to position Taya properly alongside the Nanjing Express.
It has become clear that the climb is not going to be a walk in the park. The top of our mast doesn't even the deck of the Nanjing (hence long climb), the ladder is an Indiana Jones-type rope ladder of fine ancient Chinese hemp with artfully inserted slippery-looking round rungs every 20" or so (hence hard to climb). And of course when Taya goes down the trough of a swell, the ship's hull is heaving up (due to delayed response because of her humungous weight); so this made Taya go up and down her topsides by about 4 meters (we could tell from the depth markings on the side of her hull (from 8m to 12m) and in addition the mast swings with the waves and hits the sides of the freighter's hull, and now I think that the rig might come down (it makes me think of Moitessier's encounter with a freighter during The Long Way, when he feared for the life of Joshua); in addition Taya also moves back and forth along the hull (hence dangerous climb).
First they send us a line for our back packs (good! we thought we might have to climb with the packs on our back; then Shit! we should have taken Janneke's big back pack and the guitar and etc... Oh but no, the evacuation has to be done quickly, no time for extra luggage trips!)
Then it's Janneke's turn. She waits for Taya to be at her highest along the hull and jumps to the ladder,..she's got it and start climbing. Now I have to move fast. I go below, cut open the intake valve on the head and then to the saloon to pull up the depth sensor plug to let the water in. The water comes in, but of course the little mechanism inside the sensor housing that helps reduce the inflow of water when one removes the sensor, and which has never worked, decides that this is the perfect moment to start working. SO the plug is removed, but instead of gushing through a 2" hole, it comes in through a 1/2" opening. So I try to jam it back with my fingers but every single time it springs back up and reduces the flow. Taya does not want to sink and I can't blame her! So I just give up. It'll take longer for her to fill with water but eventually she'll go down. I leave the grigri that Agathe had given me, hanging in the galley, because I decide that Taya needs it more than I do. I had closed all the hatches to keep crap from getting out and floating up to the surface but I crack open one hatch for air to escape as she fills.
I go back up to the cockpit, close the doghouse door and look for my back pack for a few seconds before I remember that I already sent it up with a line: I realize that my thinking is impaired (most will say "nothing new there") and that I should be careful and deliberate about what I'm doing. When I climb on the side decks, I see that Janneke is already aboard the freighter, so it's my turn. I clip the safety line they send me to my harness, I wait for a big heave...not this one, not high enough...the next one is good, I choose the rung to step on, step on it and then grab the ladder with both hands, balance myself and start climbing, I climb a few rungs and look left and see Taya at just about my level! I'm in a trough of a wave and Taya on the crest of one and I think "good thing that the ladder swung aft otherwise I'd be between two metal hulls. I start again the long climb up. Some crew are pulling on the safety line, which pulls the harness, which pulls the crotch strap on the harness, which creates an epic wedgie... But I tell you what, that wedgie's direction is up, and up is good. The climb is long but goes as smoothly as could be hoped for. I'm thinking "I hate heights and for the second time in this passage (the mast climbs were the first instance) I do some height shit that the normal Alan wouldn't tolerate", but I have enough adrenaline flowing in my blood to have absolutely not an iota of fear in my soul. I'm at the top, 3 guys pull me over the guard rail to the deck, and I see Janneke seating there against the cargo hold. I go sit next to her. She's shaking but fine. I am totally out of breath but fine.
After a few minutes we get up and the crew escorts us to the Master's cabin. But before I walk over the railing to have a last look at Taya: she's there, 80 ft below looking just fine. One spreader is dangling but the rig is up and straight, she's floating happily. I feel like I just murdered a happy, unsuspecting child, still unaware that in a few moments she'll be abandoned to die alone. Fuck, that's hard. The Chinese crew is welcoming and wonderful. They bring us some food, we complete elementary formalities. Then they bring us to our cabins: We have individual officers' accommodations, the first hot shower in 6 weeks should feel great, but now I'm too exhausted to appreciate it.