Ali Wood meets the ARC+ crew who battled squalls and rough seas to tow a dismasted yacht to safety
“It all started with a bacon and egg roll,” says skipper Alfie Moore. “We thought we’d run out of ketchup but then Stu found another bottle. We bit into our rolls at the same time, looked at each other and said, ‘yeah, we need this!’.
It was going to be a good day… but then we spotted the dismasted vessel.”
Alfie, together with wife Ceylan, mum Adele Jeal and friend Stu Finch, were undertaking an Atlantic crossing on their Fountaine Pajot Lucia 40, Coco.
They were taking part in the ARC+, the sister event to the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, with a stopover in Cape Verde.
Alfie, an electrical engineer, and his new wife, Ceylan, were on an extended honeymoon, having rented out their house in Croydon to start new lives as liveaboards.
When they met, Alfie had been sailing his whole life on his grandad’s Westerly Berwick. He introduced Ceylan to sailing in 2013.
She loved it so much that, not wanting to spoil the momentum, he went out and bought a 27ft Snapdragon… complete with 2ft of rainwater.
“The fact the boat was storing rainwater was a result for me,” says Alfie. “If it was holding water, then surely it could keep the seawater out.”
They named the boat Mushu after a Disney character and spent the next few months renovating her.
After only two shakedown sails Alfie got a call out of the blue from his grandad’s friend, offering to sell him a 33ft Colvic Countess.
“She had a stern cabin and two heads, and was much bigger than the Snapdragon,” says Alfie. “I bought the boat there and then and waited till that evening – when we were at a birthday party – to tell Ceylan the good news.”
Even after a glass of wine, the news that they’d bought another boat came as quite a shock for Ceylan.
“We’d just finished renovating the last one, and now we were going to start all over!” she says. “But Alfie pointed out we could go further afield, maybe take a sabbatical and sail to the Mediterranean.”
Exploring the world
Fortunately, Ceylan fell in love with the new boat and Alfie was off the hook. They managed to sell Mushu to a friend a few weeks later and welcomed their new Colvic, Cygnus, into the family.
Alfie and Ceylan always talked about sailing away and exploring the world, and it felt like Cygnus would be the ideal boat… until they found Coco.
They’d had five fantastic years exploring the Mediterranean while renovating houses back in the UK.
However, while on passage to Greece they stopped at the Montpellier boat show and Alfie fell in love with another boat, a 40ft Fountaine Pajot.
This was the one they’d sail around the world in.
The Colvic Countess – which was fully kitted out with cruising gear from fishing rods to lifejackets – sold quickly on ebay, and they started making plans.
“I was sad to leave Cygnus,” says Ceylan. “All Alfie could see was the brand new boat we’d be getting, but I was all emotional as it was the last time we’d get to spend with this one.”
In July 2019, during the Covid pandemic, the Fountaine Pajot was delivered.
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“We’d learnt from our time with Cygnus that we wanted a generator so we could charge our batteries and have a washing machine because launderettes cost a fortune,” says Alfie.
“We also wanted a watermaker, so those were the three things we were able to sort out in the UK.”
It was during lockdown, when everyone had spent weeks cooped up indoors, that Ceylan asked Adele if she fancied joining them on an Atlantic passage.
Adele, who had only ever done the occasional day-sail, agreed right away.
“We were stir-crazy indoors, watching YouTube videos all the time. That’s when they mis-sold me this trip on the promise of dolphins and sunsets,” she laughs.
Alfie and Ceylan postponed their wedding twice because of Covid, and finally got married in July 2021.
They booked a place on the ARC+ and invited their friend Stu, who’d delivered the boat to them and accompanied them on previous passages.
“Stu is the master at controlling catamarans,” says Alfie. “He showed us how to manoeuvre boats during a horrendous passage to Gibraltar.”
“We got on so well,” adds Stu. “I told Alfie I’d love to do the Atlantic with them.”
Alfie and Ceylan sailed by themselves to Spain, where they collected Stu, and from there they sailed to Gibraltar.
During the passage they heard a strange broadcast on the VHF.
“The Portuguese coastguard was reporting the latitude and longitude of some orcas, but couldn’t figure out why,” says Alfie. “We thought that’s nice, we’ll go and see them, so we got our binoculars out and tried to get closer. It was only when we got to Gibraltar that we heard they were actually a danger to boats and we were advised to keep away!”
From Gibraltar it was a six-day passage of perfect downwind sailing, but with a tense moment near Morocco when they heard another strange incident over the VHF radio.
“Someone was begging, saying ‘please, please’, and the other guy was swearing,” says Alfie. “It sounded like they’d boarded another boat – a tanker or a ship – and then been locked on that boat. A stowaway maybe? We kept on high alert after that.”
In Gran Canaria they met Adele, who got to work provisioning a month’s supplies.
They bought a vacuum sealer and sealed everything from mincemeat to cubes of cheese and cauliflower, and packed it in the freezer in individual meal bags.
“We still kept talking about the food we were missing,” laughs Alfie. “Wishing we had a bread maker, a Victoria sponge cake, an Uber Eats, a Wagamama!”
Although they enjoyed the stopover in Mindelo, Cape Verde, Alfie says that next time they’d sail direct to the Caribbean.
“I’m glad we’ve done it, it’s a beautiful island, but we got there quite late and spent the few days we had preparing for the next leg. The repair work was second-to-none, though. We had a problem with the autopilot where it connects to the steering gear, but had it fixed straight away.”
It’s just as well they had the work done, as the autopilot would be crucial in the leg that followed, leaving the crew hands-free to rescue a dismasted yacht!
They left Mindelo for the 2,150-mile passage to Grenada.
Almost two weeks later, when 150 miles off Grenada, Alfie spotted the boat in distress.
“I just assumed it was a fishing boat, but as we started tidying up lunch, it struck me that it looked strange,” says Alfie. “He was tiny, beam-on, rolling around in the swell. Something was sticking out the back. When we got the binoculars we realised it was the Windex of a sailing boat, but there was no mast. There was a pole hanging over the side.”
Alfie saved the position on the GPS. They dropped the sails and raced as fast as they could towards the dismasted vessel, reaching him around 3.30pm.
Sailor in distress – time to start boat towing
As they approached they saw a man they guessed in his 50s waving a pink cloth. They tried to communicate with him by VHF, but got no response.
They circled around a couple of times to assess the situation and saw he was in a bad way.
“It was as though he had given up, he was ready to die and had accepted his fate,” says Alfie, “but then the adrenaline kicked in and he managed to hold up three fingers, which we assumed meant he’d been drifting for three days.”
They had difficulty communicating with the man, who only spoke French. They tried to persuade him to come aboard and abandon the yacht.
However, each time Alfie beckoned to him, he shook his head. They were left with no choice but to abandon him or tow him – and there was no way they felt they could leave him.
The French skipper put a fender on a line and drifted it towards Coco. Stu picked it up and tied it to the cleat.
The minute the boat was attached, the French skipper fell to his knees in tears.
However, there was a great deal of snatch on the lines, and Alfie was concerned the port stern cleat would not be able to withstand the loads.
They emptied the lockers to find all the lines they could and laid them out in the cockpit. Stu set about making a proper tow system.
“We rigged a bridle, with fenders down the line at one end of the bridle to keep the line away from the props, and another fender down the line to add drag,” explains Stu.
“It’s common sense to share the loads, instead of pulling one side.”
But the lines were too short, and the crew feared that at any minute the yacht would surf down a wave and hit them.
“The bridle was right, but the length of the tow meant he was on the same wave as us and might hit us,” says Stu.
“He was a 28ft monohull, with only a whisker pole. It looked like he’d either lost or cut away the rigging.”
Twice the lines snapped before sunset, but the crew of Coco were able to reattach them, and stayed calm throughout.
“Everyone just knew what to do,” said Alfie. “We didn’t even communicate, we just got on with it.”
As night fell, they fuelled up on what they called their ‘eye-popper coffee’ (grateful for the espresso machine), and settled down, never once taking their eyes off the tow line.
“It turned out to be the worst night of the whole passage,” says Aflie. “Squall after squall after squall. It would not end – 40-knot winds and driving rain – but luckily because there was so much rain it had the effect of flattening the seas.”
The French boat, however, was surfing down the waves faster than Coco. It was like a game of cat and mouse.
“He was getting to the bottom, the tow rope would get caught under the keel and turn him sideways to us,” says Stu.
“He was acting like a big sea anchor. We would average 3-4 knots, then the speed would go down to 1 knot and we’d know something was about to happen.”
At one point Coco stopped suddenly, and Stu was thrown against the door.
Meanwhile, Alfie flashed the torch and whistled at the French skipper to check he was still there. He whistled back.
Fortunately, the French skipper managed to stay alert, and each time this happened – whether by luck or skill – he’d free the line and pull up the slack.
Unfortunately, it was sinking rope, not floating rope, which Stu says would have been much better.
As night grew darker, they could no longer see the vessel, but knew it was still there by the faint cabin light, and the stop-start motion caused by the snatching tow lines.
“I knew the skipper was still on board by the smell of his cigarettes,” recalls Adele, “but eventually that stopped too, and we were worried.”
Stu, at the helm, had to put the engine into gear and neutral accordingly, while Adele and Ceylan tried to keep watch by the light of a small diving torch.
Alfie emailed his dad in the UK and asked him to send all the Coastguard numbers of the Caribbean islands.
He repeatedly tried to summon help from the satellite phone.
“It was getting extremely dangerous,” he said. “I called Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago – each one refused to come and get us. I said, ‘we’ve got one rope left, and if it snaps, we can’t do it’. One even said, ‘if you can’t tow him anymore, cut him loose’. We couldn’t do that. He would have died.”
That was the thing that upset Adele the most, and still makes her worry about Alfie and Ceylan sailing around the world.
“What if that had been us out there? No-one would have come for us because we were more than 50 miles out.”
The French skipper reappeared every now and then, but was being tossed around the boat like a rag doll.
He looked ‘vacant’ and was hugging the fender Alfie had given him. At one point he tried to tie the fender to the guardrail, despite Alfie’s protests that this was totally unnecessary and the least of their worries.
He went down below for long periods of time, leading the crew of Coco to worry he’d passed out.
When he came out they tried to cheer him on, clapping him and shouting, “We can do this,” although the situation was distressing for them too.
A visit from Rodders
The uncertainty continued throughout the night, but there was some light relief by way of a resident cattle egret they nicknamed Rodders.
“Long legs, long face. Every time we saw him we thought of Rodney from Only Fools and Horses” says Stu.
They’d been feeding him mahi mahi they’d caught on the voyage. Each night the bird would sleep in the dinghy then peck at the cabin door in the morning for his breakfast. He’d then spend the rest of the day sitting on a chair.
“He was faking an injured wing,” laughs Stu. “We felt sorry for him and fed him, but then when we had to keep chasing him out of the cabin, where he was pooing everywhere, his wing was just fine!”
Throughout the tow Rodney kept a close eye on the crew, even appearing in one of the videos Adele took.
“It was like something out of film,” she laughs. “We were towing in the most awful conditions and had a bird walking around the boat. We were looking at the bird and then at this boat coming towards us, and thinking, ‘is this really happening?’”.
Boat towing in a squall
The worst squall of all was before sunrise. “Alfie jinxed it by saying the sea’s getting better and the wind’s dropping,” says Stu.
“The next minute the wind was howling and we lost our bow cushions.”
When the sun came up and the squall passed, their spirits lifted. They were making good headway, and Alfie discovered a rope he never knew they had, hidden in the bottom of a locker.
“It was about 20m longer than the rest and that made all the difference,” he said. “We managed to get within 6ft of the boat and throw the skipper the new line.”
It was the very last line – a halyard they’d kept on board when they changed the running rigging – but there was no longer any snatch, the sea state had calmed and there was a wave in between the two boats allowing them to rise and surf together.
“If someone says, ‘we towed a boat,’ you’d think it’s just like towing a car,” says Adele. “But it was nothing like it. It was constant. We couldn’t take our eyes off the boat for a minute. Stu was working the engine – neutral, forward – if the boat was catching up he’d be trying to keep the tension. We were just exhausted!”
As they neared Grenada they were relieved to get hold of Suzana Tetlow at the ARC office in Port Louis Marina.
Suzana raised the alarm with the coastguard, who sent out a boat to assist.
Still doubting if the coastguard would arrive, Alfie was relieved to see fellow ARC+ yachts Chula and Big Bubble pop up on his AIS.
Both called him on the VHF to offer words of support.
“Big Bubble thanked us for what we’d done on behalf of all the sailors out there, and it just made me well up,” says Alfie. “Hearing their voice after all we’d been through was such a morale boost.”
Big Bubble confirmed they’d seen the coastguard vessel speed by, which was an enormous relief. After more than 26 hours of towing, help was finally on its way.
“We were just so tired,” says Stu. “Our decisions were getting worse. God knows what decisions we’d have made if we’d had to do any more.
“We’d had no sleep. We were running out of fuel and we didn’t have a boat fit-for-purpose to tow a vessel.”
The worst moment of all
However, relief soon turned to dread as the coastguard vessel arrived and tried to raise the skipper of the French yacht.
For 20 minutes they called him and stood-by, but he didn’t appear.
“We were whistling and shouting over and over,” says Stu. “That was the point when we were all thinking the worst. After all we’d been through, we thought that we’d been towing an empty boat, or that the man had died.”
Finally the skipper appeared in just his pants, and the coastguard threw him a thick tow-line.
As soon as he’d attached it they sped off at full-speed. “It was like a scene from the old whaler movies, when the whale is harpooned and takes off with the boat,” says Stu.
“He was on his knees, hanging on for dear life and getting sprayed. That will wake him up, we thought!” “We smiled for the first time in 26 hours,” adds Adele.
The crew all had a shower to try to relax, but every time they came off a wave, they found themselves wincing, waiting for the sensation of the lines snatching and the boat being tugged back!
The French yacht was taken to Prickly Bay and Coco made her way to Port Louis Marina, crashing unceremoniously into the dock on arrival.
“We got a rope around the prop and the engine cut out,” says Stu.
“That was a ‘tired problem’. I think the thing with adrenaline, it keeps you going, but when your body knows it doesn’t need it any more, it shuts down rapidly.”
The crew were greeted by the ARC and marina staff, and given a rum punch to celebrate their arrival.
Though exhausted, they were desperate to know how the skipper was.
However, because he’d arrived unvaccinated against Covid and without a passport he was confined to his yacht in Port Louis while waiting for an exemption from Grenada’s Chief Medical Officer.
Charlotte Fairhead of Grenada Tourism visited the skipper and learned only that his name was David, and that he was on passage from French Guyana when he lost his rig.
“He’s fine, he said he didn’t need medical assistance and has plenty of water and supplies,” reported Charlotte, adding. “He did ask for cigarettes, though!”
Lessons learned from boat towing in the crew’s own words
- You don’t appreciate a good tow system until you need it. And remember, it works in reverse on the bows. It might be you being towed.
- Because there were four of us, and we’d had lots of sleep prior to finding the vessel, we were up for it. It was a great team effort. Everyone played their part.
- Our super bright torch with flashing facility, and sat phone with Iridium Go were invaluable.
- While we had offshore communications, I don’t think the French skipper had any. An EPIRB, emergency antenna or MOB AIS could have saved him. Or even flares – a ship passed by shortly before we found him.
- It was a relief having a well-kitted boat and not worrying about the gear – whether that was the VHF or the Raymarine autopilot.
- Don’t rely on the coastguard for a tow. If you’re too far out they may not come for you.
- Experiment with the tow length to get both boats on the wave at the same time. We started with 2 x 60m lines attached to the stern cleats by a bridle. We later doubled this length.
- Keep spares! When we first got the boat we changed all the running rigging to Dyneema but we kept the old lines as spares. The old halyard was the strongest, longest rope we had.
RYA expert opinion on boat towing and the experience of Coco‘s crew
The experiences of the Coco’s crew raise some interesting points, writes Richard Falk, the RYA director of training and qualifications.
Firstly, most of the Caribbean islands are extremely limited in terms of search and rescue resources.
They have vessels of limited size and range, sometimes less than 20 miles from their shoreline.
International conventions dictate which nations have responsibility for which sea areas.
Somewhere such as Australia, for example, has responsibility several thousand miles from its coastline to the south, while other nations have significantly smaller patches for which they are responsible.
The other obvious point here is that neither vessel issued a distress call.
Calling a phone number for the relevant coastguard and asking for a tow is not the same as a vessel issuing either a Pan Pan or Mayday.
Quite rightly, they’d indicated they could use some help, but perhaps their expectation of the resources that might be available from a small Caribbean Island nation were not aligned with reality.
Had the threat to life or vessel been imminent and the call escalated to a Mayday I’ve no doubt the response would have been somewhat different.
Boat towing offshore
How long should a tow be?
There is no specific length for a tow, but generally longer is better. The length should be equal multiples of the sea’s wavelength to ensure both boats are roughly on the same cycle of the waves.
For example climbing to the peak, or descending to the trough in sequence. This will help keep both vessels at a similar speed and make for a more comfortable tow.
Should a tow line be dynamic or static?
Both the tow line and the bridles for the towing vessel and casualty vessel should be ‘dynamic’ rather than ‘static’.
That is to say they should have good properties of stretch. This means that as the load on the line is increased suddenly due to wave action, the tow line absorbs as much of that shock loading as possible.
Place a weight mid-way along the tow A weight placed mid-way along the tow line creates a catenary effect (making a curve below). This assists in reducing the effect of shock loading as waves pass under both vessels.
What do you do if the casualty vessel catches up?
Where the casualty vessel is tending to accelerate toward the towing vessel, the situation may be improved by trailing a warp from the towed vessel.
This helps to dampen any acceleration in a following sea.
Towing vessel – how to rig a bridle
Cleats on vessels are intended to secure a vessel alongside a berth in a static environment – not to take the weight of a towed vessel for hours on end in open water.
It’s therefore essential the load of the bridle is distributed around other strong points on the vessel.
In the case of the towing vessel, it may be sensible to secure a bridle to the primary sheet winch on one side, taking a turn around an aft cleat as the line leaves the stern of the vessel, before running the line back to the other aft cleat and securing it finally to the primary winch on the opposite side.
Securing the tow line to the bridle using a large shackle will reduce the likelihood of chafe between the two lines.
Casualty vessel – how to rig a bridle
The casualty vessel should similarly rig a bridle from the bow. Ideally this will be led back from the two bow cleats to strong points further aft.
Again, primary winches are often a useful anchor point.
A means of communication between the towing vessel and the casualty vessel is important to ensure that adjustment can be made where necessary.
This may be radio or hand/torch signal. Ensure a clear plan is agreed before commencing a tow so that both vessels are aware of how to rig their respective towing gear.
The condition of the tow line, bridles and securing points on both vessels should be monitored closely throughout the tow.
Be particularly alert to the risk of chafe.
Be prepared to cease the tow
If conditions deteriorate or damage is being caused to one vessel or another, do not hesitate to cease the towing operation.
As difficult as the decision may be, persisting with a situation that causes damage runs the risk of turning a single vessel casualty into two vessels in need of assistance.
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