On 13th June, the mooring lines were cast off and we set course for our waypoint near Flores (Azores), a good 1,000 nm further on.
We easily passed the Grand Banks with their foggy and cold weather. We had radio contact with the two rigs before entering the deeper and warmer waters of the Atlantic. Tropical storm Billy had developed off the coast of Nova Scotia but was not going to trouble us on its path to the north-east. We stayed several hundred miles out of the dangerous quadrants. Our satellite communications and Predictwind kept us updated about both the weather – in the form of Gribfiles – and the GMDSS safety messages.
On the fourth day at sea, the weather started to turn as expected, and we tacked towards the north-east. The wind continued to shift to the south during the day, so we would automatically be heading in the right direction. By the evening, this was indeed the case.
The increasing wind forced us to reef the sails and lower the genoa. The sea was choppy but not so much that we were worried. I have always monitored the situation as a skipper. At 3.30 am local time, everything was still under control. At the change of the watch, the logbook was filled in and I laid myself down on the low side in the bunk to get some sleep. A few minutes later I felt the boat jerk up and back down. Nothing special after all those years on the ocean. The water was flowing over the deck and you could hear it running off the ship at a quick speed. I closed my eyes again, but soon I heard the sound of churning water. Water was pouring into the yacht... The floorboards in the kitchen were flooded, as were those in the front bedroom. The door was off its hinges and the loosened floorboards were floating out of control. With each wave, the water pushed its way up through the openings and we saw it rising rapidly. The first reaction was to activate all the pumps on board, while slowing the ship down, not knowing where this water was coming from. There was no visible damage such as a cracked window or something... just that one wave.
It soon became apparent that the rising water was under control but it was not diminishing. Two heavy duty pumps, two shower pumps and the manual bilge pump were fully operational. First, you check everything that you know could cause a leak: the seacocks, the bow thruster, the engine. No peculiarities were found. Only the engine was now under water, including the engine's battery. That meant it could no longer be used. You could see that this had not caused the hundreds of litres of sea water - it tasted salty - to fill the entire boat in a matter of seconds. Because we were really in the middle of the Atlantic Crossing, about 430 nm. away from the coast (800 km) and there is quite some traffic, I sent out my first Mayday via VHF. There was an immediate response from the Independant Pursuit, a cargo ship four miles away, which immediately changed course to our position.
In the meantime, we did a double check of the sea cranes and the engine, but we were unable to find the cause of the salt water flowing in. As a skipper you are responsible for the safety of the ship and crew, there is no way around it. After the second check, I decided that everyone should get ready to leave the ship, gather the most necessary items, take the grab bags (one with emergency material and one with all documents and passports). The risk of not getting out of this predicament safely by staying on board was too great.
It was foggy outside and there was a wind force of 5 to 6 Bft, which meant we did not actually see the cargo ship until late. There is radio contact, the crew must be brought to safety and then you must prepare to leave the ship behind, making sure it will not put any other vessels at risk. As the engine could not be started, we had to get close to the Independant Pursuit under sail. After the first physical contact, it soon became clear that it would be quite tricky, but after a second attempt, we managed to bring the Arruno solidly alongside the cargo ship. The first steps to get everyone safely off the boat were successful. The helpful crew of the cargo ship made sure that we could easily get on the rope ladder that would take us to safety.
A life means everything and ALWAYS prevails over material. Still, the ocean swell made it quite a challenge to get across at the right time. One and a half hours after the water entered the Arruno, everyone was safe and we left the ship to the ocean. We did not have to activate the EPIRB or the life raft.
All the training you go through as a crew member/skipper pays off if you go through the procedures correctly and at a steady pace. Panic spreads like a virus and has a negative impact on this kind of situation. This should be avoided at all times, especially as a skipper. Staying calm and reassuring, while making quick and appropriate decisions based on the data available at the time, is extremely important to manage things.
The sea is calling and one day, in the near future, I will probably leave the safe harbour again for another destination. So it is with people who are attracted to the sea. You take the experience, the lessons-learned with you. The sea gives, the sea takes...
The cause of this calamity? We will probably never know, our guess is as good as anyone’s. After a few days the Arruno is still floating, maybe in a few months she will wash ashore somewhere, maybe she will sink. Everyone is safe, that is what matters.