A Tale of Survival After Whale Hits Catamaran


By MarEx 2016-04-17 20:02:04

In October last year, two sailors adrift off the South African coast were rescued after their catamaran capsized after a collision with a whale.

French container ship CMA CGM Rossini rescued the men who recounted their harrowing tale to South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).

Andrew Ingram of NSRI writes:

If you had walked past the table around which the seven of us were siting, the chances are that you would not have given us a second glance. But if you had stopped you would have heard Hervé Lepage, master of the 277-meter (910 foot) French registered container carrier CMA CGM Rossini, and the ships' chief engineer, Lyes Lassel, tell the harrowing story of their search for Jean Sitruk, 65, and Kyle Castelyn, 20, after their capsized catamaran Llama Lo was found 50 miles off the Wild Coast, on South Africa's southeastern shores.

Looking up, I see the Table Bay Sea Rescue base behind Captain Lepage. Night is falling. The rescue boat Spirit of Vodacom is lit up inside the base, a fitting backdrop to a story of exceptional seamanship and determination. I look at Kyle, sitting across the table from me. A rake-thin young man with long blond hair and moustache, he sits ramrod straight in his chair. 

His brown eyes are focused, unblinking, on Captain Lepage. I think of the first time I saw him, walking off Spirit of Vodacom. It was mid-October 2015. He had a smile from ear to ear as he walked up to his mother. She threw her arms around him and pulled him towards her. Jean Sitruk, skipper of the Llama Lo, stood on the rescue boat, tears streaming down his face as he watched. 

Only a couple of days before, as the two men battled for survival in the yacht's tiny tender, Jean had thought they would die. “We were nearer death than life,” Jean says. “I hoped to live for my family. But especially for Kyle.”

Jean, from Lyon, France, and his crewman Kyle, from Strand, Cape Town, were on passage from the Maldives. The yacht was on autopilot, making 12-13 knots in rough seas. Both men were down below when, with a loud bang, the yacht momentarily stopped and then swung hard to port. Rushing up on deck Kyle saw a whale on their port side. Water was flooding into the hull through a 70 centimeter (28 inch) hole. 

The boat was going to capsize. With a hole that big there was nothing that the two sailors could do to prevent it. Kyle threw the liferaft overboard, then dashed below to grab emergency supplies, and Jean grabbed the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). Kyle transmitted the VHF call that every seafarer dreads: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is the yacht Llama Lo…”

The catamaran was listing heavily to port as the two men came back on deck, only to see that the liferaft was floating more than 200 meters (650 foot) away. Their only chance now was a small inflatable boat, the yacht's tender. Kyle tried to start the tender to go to the liferaft but the engine wouldn't fire. 

They pushed away from the yacht and watched as she slowly rolled over. It was just after 6pm. As darkness descended on the Indian Ocean the two men drifted away from the capsized catamaran and switched their EPIRB on.

Sea conditions were deteriorating. A wind of 50 knots was battering the two men as the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre at Gris Nez, far away on the north coast of France, received their emergency beacon signal.

Gris Nez alerted the South African MRCC, and a huge rescue effort began. Five ships in the area were diverted to the position; and the East London Sea Rescue volunteers and a military Oryx helicopter launched in the morning.

Through the night Kyle and Jean took turns to paddle the little rubber boat, trying to keep her head into the sea. Huge six to seven meter (23 foot) swells, sometimes crumbling at the top, threatened to turn them over. In the distance they could see the lights of the ships looking for them. Kyle ignited a handheld flare without response, and they decided to keep the remaining flares until the ships were closer.

As the sun rose on a seemingly empty ocean, a wave, bigger than the rest, flipped the little boat, dumping the men into the sea. Kyle had tethered his rucksack to the dinghy and as soon as they had scrambled onto the upturned hull he pulled it up. Inside was six days' supply of fresh water. The gear not tied to the boat, including their flares, was gone. “I saw my packet of Future Life Cereal floating past and grabbed it so at least we would have that to eat,” says Kyle.

Two hours later another wave flipped the tender again, and the men scrambled back into the boat. On the horizon they could see ships. But by now they had drifted far from Llama Lo, and the first ships to arrive at the wreck reported that there was no sign of life aboard. Soon after that the empty liferaft was found.

Nearing the search area was the huge French container carrier CMA CGM Rossini. At sunrise the duty officer called Captain Lepage to the bridge. The ship had been alerted by the French MRCC to the distress signal. By a strange twist of fate the Captain had done his military service at Gris Nez in 1988, and he is also a volunteer with the French Sea Rescue Service, SNSM, in his home town of La Rochelle.

“At 12h15 we called Port Elizabeth Radio and told them that we were getting close to the position,” says Hervé. He knew that there were already five ships in the area. One had found the capsized cat, another the empty liferaft. But none had followed the EPIRB position which was drifting down the coast. “I contacted my company and the MRCC and suggested that we chase the EPIRB.”

At 16h15 the Rossini glided up alongside the wreck. “It was close to my starboard bow and we gave a blast on the horn thinking that they might be inside. There was no response. No sign.”

Hervé gave the order to increase power, and considered the EPIRB positions. Although there was a two-hour time delay, they formed a straight line, drifting away from the liferaft. “We had six pairs of binoculars on the bridge,” says Hervé, “So I called six men up and divided the area to search into sectors. Each man must concentrate only on his sector.”

Then came the skew ball. The MRCC gave the next EPIRB position away off to the left of where it should be. With darkness approaching this required calm thinking and some careful calculations. Captain Lepage gave the order to turn to port. Although he believed that the position was wrong, he had worked out that they would have enough time to check and then, if need be, to loop around and sail back up the drift line that they had been searching.

It was a call that needed to be made by instinct. At 17h50 he gave the command: “Turn to starboard now.” The Rossini's bow came around and Hervé lined her up on track in the opposite direction, before the wild goose chase off the drift line. “The picture that was in my mind was of them in the water with immersion suits on, the EPIRB in their hands.”

He called for an increase of speed, knowing that if they did not find the two yachtsmen before dark their chances of survival would not be good. 

“There.” The call was from the Chief Engineer, Lyes Lassel, who was scanning a sector to port. He had seen a single flash of orange. Binoculars swung and, clearly now, the men on the bridge saw two orange specks – the collars of the life jackets that Kyle and Jean were wearing. The great ship slowed down and turned towards them.

Kyle and Jean had been watching the container carrier for a couple of hours, slowly paddling towards it. “And then they gave three blasts on their horn,” said Kyle, “And then we knew …” His voice trails off and he looks down at the floor.

It was 15 minutes before sunset. And one of the biggest challenges for Captain Lepage and his crew lay ahead: how to get the huge ship alongside the tiny rubber boat and then get the two men up the steel wall of the ship's side?

“I used the wind and the currents,” says Hervé. With great skill he sailed the Rossini up to the little yacht tender, leaving Kyle and Jean only a few meters to paddle to the side of the ship.

Despite his exhaustion, youth was on Kyle's side. He was up the ship's ladder in a flash. But Jean, knowing now that Kyle was safe, had no energy left. As he started the nine meter (30 foot) climb up the rope ladder his hands slipped and he crashed into the sea, losing his lifejacket.

The Chief Officer, Sadi Resdedant, rushed out onto the ladder to help, dropping a helicopter strop on a rope and shouting encouragement to the exhausted sailor. Against the odds, the Rossini's crew managed to get the elderly skipper on board.  “I thought that we would lose him,” says Hervé. “But we did not.”

Source: IMRF Lifeline magazine April 2016

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.