It was around breakfast time in Spanish Water, Curaçao, when a woman’s voice came up on VHF channel 72. She spoke in rapid French and was clearly stressed. We couldn’t understand much, just that they were somewhere outside the anchorage and needed assistance of some kind. Nobody responded, possibly because nobody listening understood. Louise Stone, a friend on a nearby cruising boat, called and suggested she and I go out and see if we could help. She has a big dinghy, outboard, and towing facility, and maybe that’s what was needed.
Louise picked me up from our cutter Syrius and we sped out of Spanish Water to find the yacht rolling around in the swell about a mile offshore west of the entrance. The elderly man and his wife acknowledged us gratefully and with my rusty schoolgirl French, and much gesticulation, it appeared that the yacht was sans moteur and needed a tow. The west running current was preventing them from reaching Spanish Water under sail and they were losing ground.
We wanted to help, we’ve done it before, but this yacht was big and heavy and there was a swell running. Towing her east against the current wasn’t going to be easy. We assessed the situation and decided that maybe it was doable. Louise held her dingy in place in front of the plunging yacht and the skipper threw us a line. Shame on him, it was webbing, which has absolutely no stretch. Somewhere in the dark recesses we knew we should not accept that line but we were there, the people were a bit frantic and the skipper seemed to have nothing else to hand. And we didn’t think his wife, who was clinging to the wheel, was going to be much help in finding something better.
Louise sighed with bighearted resignation and gave me the go ahead. I wrapped the line around the towing post and she gingerly throttled forward, trying to take up the slack as gently as possible. We had a mile to go. It would be slow.
We set off with the yacht plunging astern. Every jarring snub shook the dingy, stressed the outboard and almost stopped us in the water.
Louise increased the revs.
I watched the towing post for signs of stress, trying to be philosophical. If the platform tore away and the dinghy flooded, we had a cellphone and handheld VHF and could maybe get off a quick message. Surely the occupants of the yacht would put out a call on our behalf? Maybe we could swim to the yacht, but climbing up his freeboard in this swell wouldn’t be easy, probably impossible. We weren’t sixteen. My husband would find us.
We pressed on … and then it happened. There was a loud crack, the platform started to wobble and the engine cut out. “Throw them off,” Louise shouted, but I was already busy and the French boat fell back, much to their dismay. We signaled that we had problems, they nodded, not knowing what they were. The job had been bigger than our hearts.
The boats parted company and began losing ground to the west, us faster than the yacht.
We checked the dinghy to assess the damage. The towing platform was loose but we weren’t taking water. We tried starting the engine. Nothing. On inspection Louise found that the fuel line had ruptured when the platform tore. Now we had no power and were adrift in the current like the French.
Wanting to salvage what we could of the situation, and not wanting to confuse things with a report of two drifting boats, we contacted the Coast Guard by VHF. For some reason they wanted to talk on a cellphone, so we switched. We reported the French boat’s dilemma but they got confused and thought we were on the yacht even though we said “tender to,” and Louise’s boat’s name. After we straightened that out, well, it seems they were busy. We tried the voluntary rescue base but the French boat didn’t qualify as they weren’t sinking. “Sorry,” they said, “it has to be an emergency. Tell them to head for the nearest port. They’ve got sails, right?”
We tried to relay the news to the yacht but they never replied.
We radioed Barry, my husband, and filled him in. He had been trying to find someone in Spanish Water who spoke both French and English to communicate with the yacht and relay to us, but by the time he did, the French boat couldn’t be raised. As there wasn’t a lot he could do, we only have a small fiberglass dingy and 3hp engine, Barry organized with a friend, Doug Hurst, on Gabrielle, to come and assist us. With extra fuel it was Doug to the rescue.
By this time we were off Willemstad and further out to sea. Doug had to motor about four miles, which stretched him to the limit. When he found us, Louise managed to reconnect the fuel line and, with Doug close by, made it back under our own power. As we approached Spanish Water we saw the French yacht far to the west. Her sails were deeply reefed and she was beating hard against the current and swell. We don’t know where they made landfall, but they arrived in Spanish Water about three weeks later. They had worked through it, which I realized, dismally, is what probably would have happened if we hadn’t tried to help them in the first place. All we’d achieved was to break Louise’s dingy, put Doug and ourselves in potential danger, and ruin a good breakfast.
Of course we want to help each other, but first think it through rationally to be sure that’s what you achieve.
Candy and Barry Colley, from South Africa, have lived aboard for 33 years and in the Caribbean since 1992. They have been based in the ABC Islands since 2004.