Solo skipper Billy Brannan lost his home when his 34ft yacht Helena was knocked down, rolled and dismasted during an Atlantic storm – and the rescue itself proved to be a challenge
I’ve sailed Northern Europe for about 25 years up to Shetland, Ireland, Holland, Germany and places in-between. But I had never done any long trips and I wondered how I would cope with an ocean passage.
I’d researched the boat and journey for many years but the actual logistics took about a year.
My Fisher 25 wasn’t really suitable due to lack of storage space and windward sailing ability, despite our many thousands of miles together.
I wanted a long keel with encapsulated ballast and a well-protected rudder hung on the back. I wasn’t keen on the Rustler type with the sloping rudder and I liked the Vancouver range from the same yard as my Fisher.
A quite rare Vancouver 34 Pilot came up in fantastic condition in Germany and I jumped on the first plane out. When I saw her I thought, ‘This is a boat that will take me places.’
I set off from Tollesbury, Essex in May 2019 down the Channel and over to Ireland for a couple of months. This gave me and Helena the chance to become acquainted, sailing from Dublin to Dingle.
From Bantry Bay we set off for the first big leg into the Atlantic and south for the Rias of northern Spain, ending up in Vigo and clocking 700 miles.
We then skirted Portugal’s west coast and relaxed in the pleasant Algarve with New Year 2020 celebrated in Seville, Spain.
Mid-January had us on the 550-mile leg to the Canaries, stopping at Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria. With a suitable weather window we set off south and west for the 31-day, 3,000-mile crossing to Marigot Bay in St. Martin.
I felt pretty pleased to accomplish the Atlantic crossing.
When I left Las Palmas, COVID-19 had been mainly confined to China, but I arrived in the Caribbean to find a closed port and an island in lockdown.
It was a shock. I had no news on the trip as I only had short-range radio. It felt like I was in a sci-fi film as the last survivor.
My girlfriend Jo decided not to fly out. The airport was still open but she felt she would hamper my ability to respond to the ever-changing drama. I was only permitted ashore for essential supplies and I spent a month on Helena at anchor.
If you had to be locked down, Marigot Bay was certainly a nice place to be but hurricane season was approaching and I struggled to find reliable updates on the situation in hurricane-safe locations.
Those that were open only seemed to be taking pre-booked boats and situations were changing daily.
I had planned to return to the UK at some point, perhaps a year or so later but I decided to cut loose and head home.
Fuel and water were still available so I made a last stop for fresh food, followed by a short quarantine to minimise the risk of getting ill at sea.
I left on 26 May, heading north towards Bermuda, cutting the corner east as the wind allowed.
At some point on this leg I lost the power supply to my weather fax. The alternative was too electrically noisy to allow a good signal and the emergency battery pack just didn’t work.
I was left following the sailing directions and the information from weather routing I had received before departure.
This became less reliable as the days passed due to changing weather patterns but I knew I had a good, reliable sea boat.
However, after passing north of the Azores I met with a rather malevolent low. So far we had been going well, averaging 134 miles a day, but the pressure was dropping and a bit too quickly. Something was on its way.
The wind increased during the evening and overnight it went from Force 4-5 to Force 7-8 and it was blowing a Severe Gale by morning and rose to Storm Force 10 during the day.
I clocked 56 knots at the peak. The Windpilot was steering well and as I looked astern from the companionway I thought: ‘I’m not sure I should be surviving this.’
The massive waves towered up behind me like the foothills of the Andes. The book predicts between 7m-10m though it’s hard to judge from a small boat.
Variations of Helena’s hull are allowed to enter the Golden Globe race that dips into the Southern Ocean so I wasn’t overly concerned about Helena but I was awed and a little terrified.
The day wore on and we were still alive and going well and by the second evening the wind had dropped a little. It was still blowing really hard but the boat was going really well under just the staysail.
I settled down for the evening and the start of another long night. Because of my earlier concerns I had reorganised my grab bag and safety gear.
I snuggled up in the corner of the pilot house from around 2000. At 2303 (when the clock stopped) there was a massive percussive bang. I felt the boat move in a way I hadn’t felt before.
It started to tumble, water blasted in. I struggled to breathe, I looked for air, there had to be some somewhere. Helena righted herself like she was supposed to. I was struggling to breathe in the soaking, cold darkness.
I accidentally found an emergency torch. The air was yellow, ‘Oh gosh,’ (polite edit) I thought, ‘What now?’ My big pot of turmeric had exploded as it had left the locker. I choked on the yellow powder that looked like a nerve gas!
Initially I went into self-protection mode. Are we upright, is the water level increasing? Turn on the pumps and try and get rid of some of the water.
After about an hour I thought, OK, I’m still alive. Will I still be alive if this happens again because the conditions were still the same?
There were two portlights broken; I made a temporary repair but it wouldn’t handle another roll. Two of my three pumps were blocked with debris and hard to clean being so deep in the bilge. I fired the EPIRB.
At first light I was outside clearing the wreckage of the mast and rigging. The antenna arch had taken a battering on the stern. The emergency VHF antenna was damaged but one GPS and one AIS antenna had survived, just.
A French Maritime jet was flying overhead and I managed to reach it with the handheld VHF. The crew asked if I was injured and if I could remain with the boat and what help I needed.
They stayed on scene for a few hours, by which time I had got the engine started and established that a few vital systems were still working. I told the aircrew I could maybe get Helena back home but didn’t have enough fuel. They reported back that a vessel would rendezvous with me at 0600 the next day.
I was asked to leave my VHF on. This wasn’t possible as the charger had been destroyed by water damage during the rollover.
I knew I had to keep comms to a minimum or I would lose the radio altogether. We agreed I would turn on every hour.
This turned out to be a problem as the only reliable clock was on the GPS bit of the handheld VHF. The surviving chart plotter was not telling the right time after it reset itself due to water damage in the power supply.
I was last on Azores time and I had no idea what time zone anyone else was using or what the VHF and GPS were on. By evening other aircraft were above but this time I couldn’t raise them on 16.
I turned off to save power. By morning I was tired, suffering from shock and cold despite finding some dryish clothes and having a rest in the nest of sails in the forepeak, the least wet part of Helena.
I found some yoghurt floating in the bilge and tucked in, some peanuts too, damp and ready salted!
The AIS showed a couple of ships had been tasked to assist by UKCG. We were closing fast and I had to reboot my brain for close quarters and big ships.
It was only just getting light when the Seaways Reymar eventually raised me and suggested they make a lee and I come alongside for gas oil.
Yeah, right. It sounds like a good idea but in the half light and in a mastless boat viciously rolling in a big swell with a black wall of steel rising above me, it was ‘Demolition Derby’ and I was going to lose.
The Chief Officer suggested a line transfer where they tie fuel drums to a heavy line 20m apart, dropped into the sea, and I haul them aboard Helena from a safe distance.
I came near whilst a rather large ‘monkey’s fist’ attached to a light heaving line landed on deck. I hauled this in, got the big transfer line and started hauling. Of course the act of pulling drew me closer to the 69,000-tonne Panamax tanker.
BIG SHIP RESCUE
Several times I had to start the engine and get to a safe distance again, all the while trying to keep an eye on the ropes in the water and where the ship was.
The VHF was left open and the First Officer provided a running commentary of what was happening around me while I concentrated on getting the fuel aboard.
Once all the drums were in Helena’s cockpit I signalled for the crew to retrieve the heavy 30mm line.
This left only the floating yellow messenger line which I signalled them to start hauling. Of course this had managed to tie itself to the steering pedestal and I had to stop the hauling.
Whilst trying to sort the cat’s cradle of plastic line the VHF told me that I was close to the ship’s stern and there was slack rope in the water. I was very close to the overhang of the ship.
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CALLING IT A DAY
I didn’t fancy going underneath so I started the engine and engaged full ahead, keeping an eye on the rope in the water.
We were nearly out of the lee and protection of the tanker and a big wave decided to lift Helena and drop her right over the rope. Before I could knock the engine out of gear there was a banshee scream as the engine stalled from max revs.
The resultant melted mess of plastic would be impossible to dive on and fix in open ocean. With no sails, no engine and no jury rig for at least a few days I decided to abandon ship.
It proved rather difficult to get a big ship alongside a small yacht. We all spend our time trying to make sure it doesn’t happen.
They tried everything from Williamson turns to firing RPGs at me. These turned out to be rocket line throwers but when you’re on the receiving end it’s another story.
A slow pass on a converging course timed to perfection eventually allowed a heavy line to drop on Helena’s foredeck as I was abeam the bridge.
This was surged to allow me to trail behind the tanker where another line was made fast.
A CHALLENGING CLIMB
Eventually the waves, wind, the Seaways Reymar and Helena all came together, and I caught hold of the Jacob’s ladder let down over the tanker’s stern.
Wearing a small soaked backpack I left Helena and my home for the last time and made the challenging climb.
At the top the crew hauled me over the bulwark, not wanting to lose me at the last moment.
Then they all stepped back and I was handed a mask and taken to an isolation wing. In an interview later they wore full biohazard suits as they told me they had just left Pembroke in Wales and were heading for the USA.
I suddenly realised that although I was only 500 miles from home, I was now going to travel 3,000 miles in the other direction! That was OK, I’d always wanted to travel on a commercial ship and I couldn’t exactly complain!
KIND AND GENEROUS CREW
The all-Filipino crew were so kind and generous. They helped me with clothes, toiletries, shoes and even US dollars for when I went ashore.
I’d stepped off Helena with almost nothing. When they were sure I was well with no injuries or COVID-19 symptoms, after a few days, I was allowed into the main accommodation.
Our original destination of Houston changed to New York and then again to Eagle Point terminal opposite New Jersey.
There I met with Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection who were, thankfully, sympathetic to my situation and gave me an emergency visa waiver.
The agent for the ship in the USA kindly organised my transport to the airport.
I struggled to buy a ticket. They couldn’t change my currency and didn’t take cash. My cards needed my lost phone to validate transactions so I had to call my girlfriend, Jo, to buy me a seat.
A few hours later I was back in my village amongst friends I hadn’t seen for a year – although I couldn’t see them initially due to COVID-19 lockdown, their kind messages flooded in.
I’d been living on adrenaline for a while and it was good to begin to unwind. I do feel a bit of a refugee having lost nearly everything.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get such a good boat again. Helena was my savings, my house and my pension.
My work tools were aboard and I have so much to replace. I’ve been very lucky; I came out more or less unscathed, alive and well. I’ve had such a brilliant voyage over the past year and what an adventure!
- Call for help sooner than later. It’s easier getting picked up from a boat than a liferaft. Even that was difficult.
- Fit an AIS transponder. It makes it easier for rescuers to locate you and saves a big search.
- Don’t forget yourself. Keep as warm and dry as you can and check for injuries. I had a gash on my leg I didn’t know about.
- Look after your communications and preserve battery power. It’s likely the most important comms will be towards the end of the rescue.
- Ropes in the water will get you one day! That line cost me my boat.
- If it is safe, don’t be in a hurry to jettison wreckage – it may be useful.
- Know when to call it a day. Once vessels have left the scene they may not come back for another go having ‘discharged their duty’.
- It’s never the same but do practise with emergency kit. Losing the mast made Helena’s motion so violent that it was hard to do simple tasks.
- It can be a pain but lock your floorboards down. Debris will block your pumps in hard to clear places and you can lose vital gear.
- Have a BIG pump higher up where you can get to it.
About the author
Billy Brannan, aged 63, likes to think he’s retired. He has an engineering background and has worked in a boatyard for 20-plus years. He bought a Fisher 25 after illness ended his passion for sea and whitewater kayaking. The Fisher 25 called Tutak II took him thousands of miles including many trips to the Continent and around the UK and two visits to Shetland. He fitted out a new 55ft motor barge from scratch and lived aboard for many years before finding Helena, his Vancouver 34 Pilot and taking off for blue water.
A friend of Billy, Andrew Eastham, has organised a fundraising appeal on behalf of Billy Brannan, called ‘Sailor loses everything’ with a £30,000 target to help him find a new floating home. Billy said: ‘I made it back to the UK and quarantined with a friend. What a lovely surprise when I found out about this fund. I’ve managed to get some shoes and clothes. It will also mean I can replace some of my many lost tools and get back to some work hopefully. My grateful thanks to you all!’
For more information and to donate, visit: bit.ly/BillyBrannan