Rambler 100—What You Didn’t Know
©2012 Tim McKnight. This article may be re-printed provided that the author is acknowledged and the following legend is added: ‘first published in The Baltimore Community News [Ireland], volume 4: issue 3: Christmas 2012.’
Everyone knows that the racing yacht Rambler 100 lost her keel and capsized during the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race, and that all crewmembers were miraculously rescued by the Baltimore lifeboat Hilda Jarrett and local dive boat Wave Chieftain.
What you may not know is how the events played out minute by minute on that fateful day. The Marine Casualty Investigation Board’s report published in October 2012 gives fascinating insights into what actually happened and when. This article summarises the MCIB’s “Report of Investigation into the Capsize of Yacht ‘Rambler 100’ off the Cork Coast on 15th August 2011” and quotes freely from it, with added details provided by several persons involved in the rescue.
By any reckoning, Rambler 100 (sail number USA 25555) is a massive yacht: length 100ft, beam 25ft, and displacement 33 tonnes. Her mast height was 154ft—54% higher than the yacht’s length overall. She has ballast tanks on either side, with each side capable of holding 8 tonnes of water. She has twin rudders and twin daggerboards, and her canting keel was about 5m (18ft) long. For communications she was fitted with a Yellowbrick tracking device that updates position every 15 minutes on a website; AIS transmitter that sends position, course and speed every few minutes; a Satcom C satellite phone; fixed marine VHF radio with DSC; and several handheld VHF radios. For emergencies, the yacht’s EPIRB was mounted at the aft companionway hatch; there were two ‘grab bags’ stowed under the nav station seat, each containing a portable EPIRB; and there was a ‘safety pack’ for each crewmember containing a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and strobe light.
Rambler 100 left the starting line of the Rolex Fastnet Race near the Isle of Wight at 1310 hrs on Sunday, 14 August 2011. At 1717 hrs on Monday, 15 August she rounded the Fastnet Rock—the first monohull to do so—leaving the Fastnet to port. She then came onto a beat and set a course for the Pantaenius offset buoy located 8nm to the SSW. At this point Rambler 100 was on a port tack with keel canted to windward, weather ballast tanks filled with 8 tonnes of water and making 12 knots of speed. The navigator announced to the crew that they would continue for 29 minutes on a port tack, then four minutes on a starboard tack before rounding Pantaenius and bearing off onto a near reach for Land’s End. At 1800 hrs Met Éireann’s M3 weather buoy registered wind speed of 20kn gusting to 31kn and wave height of 2.8m. There was drizzle and fog at the time and visibility was estimated to be 0.5nm—slightly over 900m. Moments before disaster struck there were eleven crewmembers on deck and ten below. Of the ten below deck, five were in their bunks.
Capsize and Confusion
At 1740 hrs, 23 min after rounding the Fastnet, a loud bang was heard by all on board and the yacht heeled dramatically to starboard. Within 15 seconds she was laid on her starboard side with her mast and sails in the water. Within 60 seconds Rambler 100 had turned turtle, propelled by the motive of 8 tonnes of water in her port-side ballast tanks—briefly suspended 25ft in the air—and the massive weight of her mast and sails.
Of the eleven crew on deck, three managed to climb over the lifelines onto the hull as the yacht heeled. The other eight on deck, including owner/skipper George David and his partner Wendy Touton, were thrown or jumped into the water and swam clear as the yacht came over. Those below deck were thrown to the low side as the yacht capsized. The navigator attempted to send a ‘MAYDAY’ call on the yacht’s VHF radio, but the mast and antenna were by now in the water and no transmission was monitored. The ten below deck—most of them not wearing foul weather gear nor able to access their PFDs (‘lifejackets’)—crawled along companionways to the hatches and swam out below lifelines and through the tangled mess of lines to surface alongside the yacht. No attempt was made to reach the yacht’s EPIRB, and it did not self-deploy. There was no time to launch the yacht’s two life rafts.
The three crewmembers who had made it onto the hull managed to help others onto this exposed and slippery surface. 16 of the 21 crew managed to make it onto the hull but five did not, and they were carried away by wind and waves.
At 1745 hrs (capsize+5min), two PLBs were switched on by crewmembers on the upturned hull. While they waited for rescue, ICAP Leopard and three other competing yachts passed as close as 400m but attempts to attract their attention failed. Meanwhile the PLB signals were picked up by the UK COSPAS-SARSAT Mission Control Centre at Kinloss, Scotland and passed to Valentia Marine Rescue in Co. Kerry at approximately 1829 hrs (+44min). However, the PLBs provided confusing information. Both gave ‘Gigi Barnard’ as contact but there was no competing yacht by that name. Was this the name of a yacht’s crewmember? If so, which yacht?
At 1850 hrs (+1h 10m) Valentia requested Baltimore lifeboat, which by providence was in the area, to reconnoitre the area of the PLB signal. Months earlier lifeboat coxswain Kieran Cotter was contacted by photographer Nigel Millard who had been commissioned by the RNLI to produce a book with photographs featuring lifeboat crews. It was agreed that Nigel Millard would accompany Kieran Cotter, mechanic Pat Collins and crewmembers Ronnie Carthy, Simon Duggan, Don O’Donovan, Paul Synnott and Dairmuid Collins on Hilda Jarrett for the Fastnet Race. The primary aim was to photograph the lifeboat with backdrops of competing yachts. Rambler 100 was a likely candidate but a delay in leaving Baltimore meant that the lifeboat was 1.5nm from the yacht when she rounded the Fastnet. The lifeboat’s speed of 14.5kn exceeded Rambler 100’s 12kn, but there was little chance to catch the yacht before she rounded Pantaenius. Therefore the decision was made to turn back in an effort to photograph ICAP Leopard and two Volvo 70 class yachts that were close behind. The request from Valentia on VHF and the rapidly developing situation that followed changed those plans.
At 1851 hrs (+1h 11m) Valentia put out a CQ call on VHF for ‘Gigi Barnard competing in the Rolex Fastnet Race.’ Receiving no answer, Valentia transmitted a ‘PAN PAN’ at 1851 hrs. By now, five crewmembers had been in a 15°C sea for over one hour.
Baltimore lifeboat began searching the area, but it was not at all clear what should be the object of their search. Keiran Cotter recalls that he did not follow a disciplined search pattern nor have the usual ‘what next’ discussion with his crew. This was because a ‘PAN PAN’ does not indicate any immediate danger to life. Due to the incomplete and even confusing information available then, he recalls the belief that one of the yachts had simply lost a PLB overboard and failed to inform anyone.
Hearing Valentia’s calls on VHF, the navigator of ICAP Leopard recognised the name Gigi Barnard as being George David’s contact person. This information and Rambler 100’s satellite phone number was passed to Valentia. It was also noted then that Rambler 100’s track, as plotted from its AIS and Yellowbrick signals, had disappeared from screens.
At 1930 hrs (+1h 50m), after several unsuccessful attempts to contact Rambler 100 by VHF radio and satellite phone, Valentia declared a ‘MAYDAY’ and tasked Rescue 115 Coast Guard helicopter from Shannon.
At 1946 hrs (+2h 06m), on lookout from Hilda Jarrett‘’s uncomfortable and noisy deck, Baltimore lifeboatman Simon Duggan spotted an unusual flashing light through the fog—a strobe light that accompanied a PLB. Shortly thereafter, what at first looked like a large white RIB came into view. Soon they could see that is was the hull of an upturned yacht with people on it. Valentia was immediately informed, and at 2000 hrs the lifeboat arrived at position 51°20.50’N, 009°37.80’W. The crew on the hull immediately informed the lifeboat that five other crewmembers were in the water and had drifted away. Adrift themselves for more than two hours without a fixed point of reference, the crew indicated that the five had drifted in a direction opposite from the northeasterly direction that they had actually drifted. The lifeboat quickly searched in that direction but, finding nothing, returned to Rambler 100 at 2010 hrs. Suddenly at the centre of a desperate race to locate the five missing crew, lifeboat mechanic Pat Collins was now handling feverish VHF radio traffic between the lifeboat and Valentia, Rescue 115, Wave Chieftain and soon, others. Using the lifeboat’s inflatable dinghy as a bridge, one or two crew at a time were taken onto the lifeboat. By 2020 hrs (+2h 40m), the 16 crew were safely on board Hilda Jarrett.
Meanwhile, Valentia had tasked a second Coast Guard helicopter, Rescue 117 from Waterford, and Naval Service vessel L. E. Ciara to join in the search. Valentia had also requested Wave Chieftain, a dive boat chartered by a film crew from Team Phaedo, to join in the search. In another stroke of providence, Wave Chieftain was owned and skippered by Baltimore lifeboatman Jerry Smith.
Shortly after Hilda Jarrett’s first sighting of the stricken yacht, Wave Chieftain had reached a position about 0.25nm from Rambler 100. At 2018 hrs (+2h 38m), Valentia requested Wave Chieftain to search along a course of 055° from the upturned yacht, having predicted the drift pattern from a software package, SARMAP. Within 13 minutes, at 2031 hrs (+2h 51m), Wave Chieftain reported to Valentia the sighting of the remaining five crewmembers.
In addition to being well-practiced in lifeboat procedures, skipper Jerry Smith’s job as a dive instructor and guide often involved lifting persons into his boat from the sea. A major risk to casualties in sea rescues is ‘circum-rescue collapse.’ Unless they are lifted out correctly, death can occur at the very moment of rescue—and this skipper understood that better than many. Using Wave Chieftain’s hydraulic dive platform the casualties were brought on board, George David having ensured that the others of his crew were safely on board before he was hoisted on to the deck. At 2042 hrs, all five were safely on board Wave Chieftain. By this time the five had been in the water for almost exactly three hours.
Baltimore lifeboat Hilda Jarrett joined Wave Chieftain on position. There was great joy and emotion on both boats as Rambler 100’s 21 crewmembers realised that all had been recovered and, although cold, wet and worse for wear, all were safe. Both boats now made way for Baltimore. En route to Baltimore it was noted that Wendy Touton was suffering from hypothermia and needed immediate medical attention. At 2127 hrs Rescue 115 made rendezvous with Wave Chieftain west of Cape Clear and winched her on board for transport to Tralee General Hospital in Co. Kerry. Although her condition initially worsened, Wendy Touton made a full recovery.
At 2135 hrs (+3h 55m), Hilda Jarrett arrived in Baltimore carrying 16 survivors; and shortly thereafter Wave Chieftain arrived carrying four more. The survivors were met by ambulance staff and members of the local community, among them some medical doctors. They were taken to the Baltimore Sailing Club where dry clothes had been collected for them. Accommodation was provided for them locally for several days since their personal effects and travel documents were still on the stricken yacht. After a few days the hull was recovered and towed back to Baltimore where she stayed for a time. Within days of the capsize a fisherman found a wallet in his nets that contained over $1000 in cash. Saying nothing, he brought the wallet to Bushe’s Bar in Baltimore and it was soon reunited with its owner, a Rambler 100 crewman, with cash intact.
The MCIB report concludes that the keel failure caused the yacht to capsize and recommends many changes to the ISAF’s regulations governing offshore racing events. In addition, some practical lessons are mentioned that are applicable to any boat owner/user. These include:
• the use of crotch/thigh straps with PFDs—without which, Rambler 100 crew commented, PFDs were not properly effective;
• the importance of a PLB being carried on the person or attached to a PFD; and
• maintaining up-to-date information in EPIRB and PLB databases.
The latter is especially important when a boat changes ownership, an emergency contact changes, or the colour of a boat’s hull or sails is changed. This information can be easily updated through the ISA’s Small Craft Register or the Irish Register of Shipping.
Not mentioned in the report but true beyond doubt is the providential convergence of events and actions by many unnamed persons that prevented the probable loss of twenty-one lives.