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Global Solo Challenge: William MacBrien rescued after 46 hours adrift semi-submerged

by Marco Nannini / Global Solo Challenge 16 Feb 19:20 GMT
William MacBrien rescued after 46 hours adrift semi-submerged in south Pacific © Watatsumi

William was over 1300 nautical miles west of Cape Horn, over 3000 miles from New Zealand, 1600 miles south of the tiny remote Island of Mataroa with a population of just 90 people. William had sailed past Point Nemo just a few days before, the remotes point from any emerging land on our planet. He was closer to Antarctica than to South America where he was headed in his quest to circumnavigate the globe solo, non-stop by the three great capes in the Global Solo Challenge.

The Canadian skipper had handled the navigation very well to that point, with a conservative approach to his sailing that had allowed him to preserve the boat in very good conditions, reporting no technical issues worthy of mention. In our last exchange of messages on Sunday 11th William was in good spirits as chatted via whatsapp. He jokingly complained that he wished he could run the heater more often due to the pungent cold, water temperatures had plunged to 7 degrees Celsius, but his biggest concern was his diminishing reserves of cigarettes!

He was sailing on a boat that I know very well as it is a sistership to the boat I sailed around the world in 2011/2012, Phoenix, aka Sec. Hayai, was an impeccably prepared Akilaria RC1 Class40 with a very good pedigree and which had been sailed around the world in 2008 by none less than Boris Herrmann and also in 2021 in the Globe40 by the current owner. The boat underwent a very meticulous and complete refit in the course of 2023 with no stones left unturned, the work even included the replacement of the keel to ensure the boat was in top condition for the Global Solo Challenge. When William arrived in A Coruna the boat stood out for the impeccable preparation and attention to details and safety, sporting a blindingly bright mainsail top and deck which are required to increase visibility in a search and rescue situation.

We still don't know what happened. William activated an EPIRB indicating he was in distress, the signal via satellite is relayed to the Coast Guard of the country of the boat's flag, in this case the Dutch Coast Guard. The initial response is to verify if the distress is not accidental. As soon as it was confirmed with the owner of the boat that William was indeed at sea taking part in the Global Solo Challenge, the Dutch Coast Guard immediately contacted the Search and Rescue center responsible for the waters where the distress signal originated. In this case MRCC Chile in general and MRCC Punta Arenas in particular.

I was also notified and immediately got in contact with MRCC Chile. As organisers we hold a dossier for every participant to facilitate the exchange of information to ensure no precious time is lost in an emergency situation. Within minutes MRCC had all relevant information on the boat the skipper as well as identification photos, a detailed description of the boat details, construction, watertight compartments, reserve flotation and most importantly contact details for the skipper, his email and whatsapp which he used with Starlink. as well as his emergency handheld satellite phone numbers.

Both myself and MRCC Chile tried to reach the skipper on one of his contacts but there was no response. There was a slim possibility that the EPIRB had self activated, the model of the beacon on board, which I had detailed in the dossier, can be activated manually or when in contact with water. It can sometimes happen that an EPIRB falls off its bracket into a wet bilge and goes off unnoticed, it would really not be the first time, and even the extreme humidity and saline air at those latitudes could potentially accumulate and cause the EPIRB to be triggered.

Whilst an accidental activation was our number one hope we simply could not dismiss something more serious had happened. It was convened therefore with MRCC Chile that there was no other option other than to treat the distress call as a request for immediate assistance. The word immediate is however highly inappropriate in these circumstances. Out of reach of helicopters, rescue can only come from another competitor or a commercial vessel. As we looked at the picture of shipping via satellite AIS the closest ship was over 400 miles away. The alternative was the trimaran Actual taking part in the Arkea Ultim which was 1300 miles away but sailing at 30 knots. Whilst MRCC Chile initiated the procedures and coordination of the rescue by the cargo ship closest to William, I tried to obtain any additional information that could be useful in the operation. It had been many hours since the distress signal had been sent and we had been unable to confirm with William if he was ok and the nature of the distress, or even if it had been an accidental water activation.

I immediately asked the provider of the event trackers, Yellow Brick, to increase the frequency of the position updates to half an hour, as opposed to the usual 4 hours, as this may have helped to shed further light on the situation.

I had the delicate task to contact William's partner, knowing it was night in Canada and that's just the type of call you never want to receive. I tried to be as factual as possible as at that stage we really had so many possible scenarios to consider. Unfortunately William's partner confirmed she too had not heard from William recently, in fact not since he had last used Starlink on Sunday 11th, as in that area is often slow to connect and the weather was easy and stable probably nor requiring frequent updates.

Right, the weather. The weather created more confusion than anything else. During the night William had sailed through a small ridge of light airs which was bringing a rotation in the wind. His boat was sailing slow but had not stopped dead in its tracks. The speed had decreased progressively in the light airs and only became suspiciously slow during the night, 3 knots, then 2.5, then 2.2. It was still possible that he was through a very light patch, that the wind change had brought a cross swell and that his sails had started to flog so annoyingly that he had decided to take his sails down to wait for new wind to fill and was just sleeping. Sometimes the noise of flogging sails in a swell is just unbearable and it is not all that uncommon to occasionally decide to just patiently wait. After all William's goal was not to win, but to complete, his circumnavigation and a few hours lost would have not made any difference to him.

Ari Kansakoski then gave me a call. Who better than him could help me analyse the drift of the boat and understand if it could be a case of dismasting. We both agreed that the boat was too fast to have dismasted. Ari confirmed he would have expected a speed of 1 to 1.5 knots with no mast in those conditions. Additionally the course in relation to the wind was somewhat difficult to understand as the boat was slow but seemed to be still proceeding at 90 degrees to the wind, reaching south.

All the meanwhile I had requested connection logs for his Starlink terminal and call and sms logs for his Iridium phones trying to shed some light as to why he had not made contact with anyone and was unreachable. 8 hours had already passed since he activated the distress signal and effectively all we knew is that the boat had not foundered as we were receiving the up to date reports of his tracker position. This was only partial consolation as the boat is technically insubmersible and it could be half sunk and drifting with the tracker on. We were desperate to confirm that William was in fact still on the boat and well.

Iridium confirmed his two phones were off, in fact the phones had not been on at any time recently. This was not good news. Too many questions were unanswered but most of all, why was William able to trigger the distress call but not make contact with shore? Why was the boat moving, just very slowly? Dismasting and the temporary lull in the wind were by now struck off the list of possibilities.

You can easily imagine what we were all thinking...

Continue reading on the GSC Website...

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