To sail another day
A yacht is drifting in the Atlantic Ocean. With no sign of the lone sailor onboard, Achill Island lifeboat crew fear the worst – but hope for the best.
The coordinators of a transatlantic race had lost contact with one of the competitors. A fixed wing aircraft from the UK Coastguard had managed to locate the 13m yacht Cariberia 19. But what they found didn’t bode well. The yacht was 35 miles west of Saddle Head. Its headsail was only partially rigged. And there was no sign of sailor Neil Payter onboard.
With a long passage ahead, and not knowing what they would have to deal with, Coxswain Dave decided to take a full crew of seven. At 8.30pm on Sunday 22 May, they launched their Trent class all-weather lifeboat Sam and Ada Moody into the fading light.
It was a bumpy 2½ hours to reach the yacht, which gave the crew time to prepare themselves for the potential scenarios.
‘Were we going to have to search for somebody who had fallen overboard? Or deal with somebody who was injured or sick aboard the vessel itself?’ Dave hypothesises. ‘Would we have to put crew aboard? Or establish a tow? We always have a plan. And in this case, there were multiple plans.’
‘The lift we all needed’
It was dark by the time the lifeboat arrived on scene. Helpfully, the Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter from Sligo located the yacht and hovered there, guiding the lifeboat to it. This saved the lifeboat crew crucial time, because the yacht had drifted a further 5 miles.
At this point, to the delight and relief of all involved in the rescue operation, Neil appeared on deck. ‘Seeing Neil looking safe and well was the lift we all needed,’ says Crew Member and Navigator Terry Hogarth.
Seeing Neil looking safe and well was the lift we all needed
‘All hands on deck’
It turns out Cariberia 19 had lost all power, including steerage. The headsail was jammed in the rigging and couldn’t be lowered. So every time the sail caught a bit of wind, the yacht was off.
The only way Neil was able to communicate with the lifeboat and the rescue helicopter was via a handheld battery-operated VHF radio, which only worked within line of sight.
Agreeing a plan of action, the lifeboat crew and Neil set to work. ‘The safest option all round was to tow the yacht and Neil to a safe haven,’ explains Dave. ‘Towing into the wind would slacken the sail so it wasn’t full of air, making the yacht easier to manage. But passing a heavy tow rope to an uncontrollable vessel that was moving at around 3–5 knots was no mean feat. It required a lot of skill, focus and attention. This is where we earned our tea and biscuits!’
‘It was all hands on deck,’ says Terry. ‘It was a good job there were seven of us because the sea conditions weren’t great. We practise all kinds of scenarios on the water and towing is a big one. In fact, we’d done a towing exercise using our new equipment just 4 days before, so it was all fresh in our minds. And we certainly put the new equipment to the test!’
In it for the long haul
Once the tow was established, the lifeboat crew and Neil prepared themselves for a long, slow and lumpy passage to Clare Island.
‘We were doing 5 knots over 40 nautical miles, so that’s a good 8–9 hours of towing,’ Dave recalls. ‘It was long and tiring. But morale was great. Everyone was delighted with how we’d all worked together and how we'd achieved everything we set out to do – successfully setting up the tow and taking Neil to safety. We were also relieved that was all we were doing – that we weren’t having to search for a person missing in the water.’
It was long and tiring. But morale was great.
As some of the crew succumbed to seasickness, Terry was glad he’d missed his tea the day before. ‘For some reason, I didn’t feel like eating at tea-time. And then when I went to put the tea in the microwave, my pager went off!’
They finally reached Clare Island. After leaving Neil and his yacht in the care of the islanders, the lifeboat crew arrived back at station shortly before 10am on Monday morning – almost 14 hours after launching.
‘It was a long night,’ Terry says. ‘By the end of it, we felt tired and worn out. But our faith in the lifeboat, and in each other, kept us going.’
As for Neil, the people of Clare Island took him under their wing. They treated him like one of their own, allowing him time to recover and rest. They put him up. They fed him. They helped with repairs to his yacht. Until, over a month later, he was ready to sail back to Portsmouth.
‘That’s how we’re treated by the islanders here too,’ says Coxswain Dave. ‘There’s a deep respect for each other. Each island is a home away from home. And that law of the sea applies on islands all around the coast of Ireland, and the UK too. It’s very hard to describe. It’s something you have to experience. Under better circumstances, of course!’
There’s a deep respect for each other. Each island is a home away from home.
'The rescue helicopter was a bit of a surprise'
Neil Payter is a sailing instructor from Gosport in Hampshire. His passion for the sport was passed down from his grandfather, who taught him to sail as a child. Neil got into single-handed sailing in the 1980s and came second in the Jester class of the 2017 OSTAR (Original Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race). Here, Neil recalls what happened during the 2022 race, and how the love (and luck) of the Irish helped him to sail another day:
‘I was doing an Atlantic race single-handed. The race started on 15 May from Plymouth in the UK and finished at Newport, Rhode Island in the US. I wasn’t doing bad actually! I was in the lead at one point.
‘But I had a few problems with the sails – one sail I couldn’t reduce in size or pull down. Long story short, I decided to abandon the race, turn round and head for home.
‘Then the control unit for the hydrogenerator, which powers the electrics, fell off in a storm and got wet and damaged. So I was reliant on my engine, but unfortunately the batteries had gone. A bit like leaving the headlights on in your car. And you can’t bump start a boat engine!
‘With no electrics, steering was a problem. So it was safer to run with the wind and hope to land at Iceland, Greenland or Ireland.
‘Unbeknown to me, my YB unit had stopped working too. It’s a satellite tracking device that’s totally independent of the boat. So I didn’t know that nobody had a clue where I was.
‘The rescue helicopter was a bit of a surprise. They informed me that a lifeboat had been tasked from Achill.
‘The lifeboat crew came all that way out. I wasn’t in distress, but I certainly wasn’t going to say no to a tow into a safe haven. I’m very grateful to all the emergency services. And to the people from Achill and Clare Island who looked after me so well. Everyone treats you like family here.’
Neil’s next big challenge is the Global Solo Challenge in September 2023, sailing non-stop around the world. You can follow Neil’s sailing adventures on his Facebook blog.
Some of Neil’s words are taken from an interview with Radio Presenter Alan Clarke.
Thank you for being there
Behind every RNLI rescue is a whole crew of people, starting with YOU. This rescue was made possible thanks to:
- supporters, fundraisers and donors like you for funding everything RNLI lifeboat crews need to save lives at sea
- Achill Island lifeboat and shore crew for bringing the sailor to safety
- Malin Head Coast Guard for their coordination and communication
- the Coast Guard Rescue Helicopter crew from Sligo for guiding the lifeboat to the yacht
- OSTAR race organisers for raising the alarm
- the UK Coastguard fixed wing aircraft crew for locating the yacht
- the community of Clare Island for their care and hospitality
- a network of RNLI support staff and volunteers for helping with crew training, and the maintenance of Achill Island’s lifeboat service
- the families of Achill Island crew for wholeheartedly supporting their loved ones’ mission to save every one.
Whether you’re an experienced sailor like Neil, or just starting out, familiarising yourself with these top safety tips could save your life.Get sailing advice