Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rescue At Sea; A Survivor's Account

What is it like to survive a rescue at sea? How difficult is it to grab your survival equipment and jump into your life raft? Do you really need to invest in that EPIRB? Mr. Leo Sherman, rescued off the coast of Madagascar (full story here) recently gave Amver a first hand account of his ordeal and answers many of those questions. This is not easy to read. Nothing has been edited. This is Mr. Sherman's account and we are thankful for his willingness to share it with us.

Editor's note. Mr. Sherman contacted us and provided additional details and insight on his experience. The text remains his exact words, with no editing. The only changes are additions or corrections he wished to include after reading the original post.

Leo and Master Kim

Pictured above is Mr. Leo Sherman with one of his rescuers; Captain Kim of the M/V Auto Banner (photo courtesy of Leo Sherman).

1. Describe the events leading up to the incident.

On January 20th I was doing my watch in growing seas, consistent 18-20 early up to 30-45 or more near the end of my shift. We were about 160 miles (2 days) east of Madagascar, sailing on a westerly course. Quen had been resting in the main cabin all morning, monitoring Joe, the weather conditions, and me. Quen and Joe had talked inside the cabin, while I was finishing my shift. As I came in, I recall being bery h appy to get dry and inside. My only focus at that time was to get dry and warm. We'd been running in a storm or chain of small storm for 1.5 days. At times there would be horizontal rain-winds as high as 50 mph or more, very limited visibility, and intense seas. And then it owuld calm to a lesser (more tolerable) degree of severity. So, we were simply riding it out. The order of watch was Quen, Joe, and then Leo. We all did 3 hours of duty, off 6, 3 on, 6 off, 2 on and 4 off for a 24-hour period. During my final watch, I was on a westerly course and the storm was from the north. Later, I learned the storm was two large storms, combining to be technically classified as Moderate Tropical Storm 6 named Eric. As I steered west, I was running across waves, which were running SSW. We would rise and drop parallel with the peaks and valleys, not perpendicular cutting through them. Queenqueg was slicing right along. I felt okay with this even though when we peaked at a crest and initially tilted it looked awfully far down to the bottom. She'd simply lower as the wave passed under us. The waves weren't always huge. There were all sizes with the hube wave passing periodically. As I'm relieved at the wheel, Queen says he's going to run south with the storm/waves, until the storm blows out. I think he has also decided that if the storm blows us by Madagascar we're going to bypass it and head directly for South Africa. This had previously been discussed. I begin to focus almost immediately on my stomach, chatting with Joe briefly. As we chat, I notice a monster breaking wave behind Quen. I point to show him a big one, but he is focusing on steering. I go back to my food search and tell Joe I'm going to prepare something of substance. We'd been living on soup for the last couple of days. I'm bending over the potato box and the next thing I know is I'm doing a summersault. But, it's not just me, everything in the cabin is hitting the front then the roof of the cabin, then we spin. We pitch poled then spun. Said differently, we flipped stern over forward then spinning 180 degrees. The stern is still trailing us, but now we're upside down. Water is rushing into the cabin from the cracked front window, the rear door and window, and all of the hatches, which are now on the bottom. Almost immediately we are in knee deep water and it's rising quickly. I yell for Joe, asking if he's okay. His reply is yes. I look out of the back and see nothing, but water. It's like an aquarium with debris trailing the boat. The bimini is gone; I'm looking almost straight down and out. The capt. is gone. We begin gathering critical items and tethering them. Joe located 2 dive suits early, which we put on for warmth.Things are washing out the back quickly. We grab as much as we can before the water rises. It's only a short time before we are up to our chest in the main cabin. I tell Joe we need higher ground and leave the cabin to inspect the hull. I retrieve my mask from my cabin and go to the other side. There is 4 maybe 5 feet of air in the hulls at that time. When I return from the hull to tell him the good news, he was up to his chin, calling for me, and sort of excited. It was very hectic and confusing. this all was taking place over just a few moments. I encouraged him to come to the closest hull with the clearest path, he followed. We head to the starboard hull for air. I quickly realized that we'd gone to the wrong side; we were on the captain's side with the spare room. It was full of the captains property and extra, odd pieces of equipment. Our gear all of Joes dive gear, undewater lights, and tools were on the other side. I did dive quickly to locate a tool bag. Joe had found some rope. He started to cut a hole, while I went 15 feet across to the other hull to see if it was still up and full of air; it was. I returned to Joe and we determined it best to change sides to be with our gear. I took one end of the rope. I would secure it on the other side and pull twice, signaling him to do a hand slides transfer to my location. The boat was only 23 foot wide, outside to outside. The hulls were about 4 feet each, making the dive about 15 feet. he did not have a mask or fins. There was a clear path under the floating debris now wedged on the cabin's floor above when I moved across. I secured the rope and pulled twice. He replied with 2 tugs and I waited for his arrival. He never came. I called for him on the other side and looked again. He was gone, I was alone, and I didn't want to be. I wanted and needed Joe's help and guidance. I was back and forth a dozen times retrieving more stuff during the first and second day of my entrapment. I never saw him again after our plan to change sides was put into action. I got a hole cut into the hull in the afternoon of the next day. I spent a horrible second night alone in the dark up to my chest in water. And, I woke to a beautiful red and white freighter the next morning. It had been standing by at a distance all afternoon and night, while I slept exhausted.

2. How did the rescue unfold?

Either the EPIRB went off automatically when it got wet or Joe set if off manually. I'm not sure.

3. Did you have a small drybag with essential documents and cash ready? Were you able to grab it prior to the rescue?

No, there was no prepared, emergency bag. When the accident happened, Joe and I gathered and secured important stuff initially, which included water canisters, a flashlight, the cooler containing some food items, the EPIRB. There were no personal items gathered; we gathered survival items from the main cabin as it was flooding. We did grab wet suits early and put them on. I got my dive gear and knew my money belt was secure where it was. I gathered some personal items, placing them in my carry bag, as I sorted through the items in the boat during the 2 days upside down. When I was getting ready to abandon ship, I emptied my water frm the 2 plastic containers. I used a flife jacket and the 2 air filled plastic water containers as flotation devices for the bags and myself. As I prepared to exit the capsized vessel, I grapped and tethered my bag containing misc. items including my passport and money belt. I had also grabbed a couple of small ditty bags wtih small truly unimportant items like toiletries. At the last minute, I grabbed one of Joe's large, full army bags that was simply floating by me just before I crawled out of the hole and attached it to my bundle. I thought it would be nice to bring something of his back. It was too heavy, but I tried to bring it anyway. I tossed everything over the bow, put my dive mask on, and started swimming toward the freighter. As I swam to the freighter, the bags weighted me down, allowing Queequeg to catch me. It was rushing along with the wind and almost ran over me. I had to swim to the side dragging the bags, which placed me between the two boats, Queequeg and the Auto Banner. I had my knee and ankle crushed lightly between the hulls of the freighter and the Queequeg. As the freighter rolled side to side with the wind and waves, the bages began to be drawn under the frieghter, draggping me under. The Auto Banner crew had tossed me a rope. I was holding onto it, but there was too much slack. I kept yelling "pull...pull...pull", but the rope remained slack. I was being beaten on the had and pushed under the water repeatedly by the bottom of the freighter. My mask was knocked loose and I was gulping water. It was very windy and the waves were 4 to 6 feet at that time. I finally had to let go of the bundle of bags and floats, including the bag with my passport and money belt, to save my life. I used both hands to pull myself from under the freighter. A life saving ring on a rope was tossed down, as was a rope ladder. I dropped the rope and held onto the life saving ring, until I could get a good grip on the ladder.

4. How were you hoisted aboard the rescue ship?

After being bashed in the head several times, I simply put a leg through the rope ladder and put my arm through to the elbow, and then grabbed my wrist with the other hand. I looked up and the crew pulled me up about 6 or 7 meters.

5. What happened once aboard the rescue ship?

I was taken to the bridge to report to the emergency officials. I was given something to drink.My case was transferred to the Miami Coast guard office because I was having trouble communicating with the French fellow at LaReunion. After reporting the details of the accident, I was taken to a cabin and stripped down to shower and remove the diesel fuel and salt. I was immediately fed. Then my small wounds were treated. I went to bed to recuperate. It was only an hour or two before another call came through from my family. I spent 12 days on the Auto Banner. I was treated extremely well. I was able to move about the ship freely.

Leo on phone

Mr. Leo Sherman moments after being rescued by the M/V Auto Banner talking with rescue authorities (photo courtesy of Leo Sherman).

6. How were you repatriated?

I was supposed to have been transferred from the freighter to a French Navy ship. There was bad weather immediately after my extraction from the ocean and this transfer did not happen. I would have gone back to either Mauritius or LaReunion. Instead, I was left on the freighter for 12 days, traveling to Luanda, Angola. I didn't and still don't understand why I wasn't taken off earlier. These 12 days did allow me to heal, rest and reflect, but it took me far from where I should have been to allow for an easier extraction from Africa. It cost me $400 for one night in a hotel and $700 to get to an international airport.

The U.S. Embassy was involved early on. I spoke with them within the first couple of days. They tracked me down and knew where I was going to come ashore, Angola. When the Auto Banner docked, the US Embassy personnel were on the dock waiting for me. They came aboard with the Angola Customs and Immigration officials. They had been made aware of my situation. The Embassy personnel translated and assisted me with getting off the ship. I was required to fill out a "Stowaway" form and was released to the custody of the US Embassy personnel. I was transported to the US Embassy, photographed, and given a new temporary passport. I was taken to a hotel for the evening. The next morning I was transported to the airport and escorted through the airport by an Immigration Official and a US Embassy staffer. The airport Immigration authority didn't want to allow me an exit visa without a fee. The Angolan officials on the boat had assured me that all fees would be waived. After much debate and persistence by my escorts, the airport immigration officials gave in and allowed me to pass without fee. I flew to Johannesburg, then to London, and finally to Chicago where my family greeted me.

7. What suggestions would you give other ocean sailors? What did you wish you had once you were rescued? Is there one item you consider essential? What could you have done without?

Utilize your safety equipment; don't just have it on the boat. Be ready, don't let your guard down, have an emergency bag, keep your watertight bags closed, and keep your important items bagged and tethered. For catamarans, I would have an emergency bag with rations, water, knife, fishing line, and other critical items secured under the floorboards in case of capsizing. When the boat flips, everything is tossed and quickly obscured under water. You can't see it or find it.

Have your critical items (flare gun, GPS, SatPhone, +) located in the same place all the time. Have them tethered in water tight containers.

At that time all I wanted was my life. I gave up all the material things and cash at the very last moment. I was given drink, food, and rest- I was given all I needed. Fortunately I suffered very minor injuries. The only essential item was water and I had several gallons. I could have used a functional flashlight. I only had my wristwatch dial light. If the dive suits hadn't drifted by, I would have been extremely cold. I kept thinking I wish I had fishing gear; I did have a spear. After I was pulled up into the Auto Banner, I pleaded with the crew to get my bundle of bags floating with the red water containers and life jacket. They were unable to retrieve it. I only wish I had been lucid enough to stuff my passport and money belt down into my dive suit before abandoning ship. This was a huge loss and could have paid for my travel home.

Mr. Sherman will be reunited with the crew of the M/V Auto Banner on February 26th when the Auto Banner calls on the Port of Jacksonville. The United States Coast Guard will also present the crew of the Auto Banner with an Amver pennant and certificate of merit for their efforts in saving Mr. Sherman. We will post an update once we have photos from the event.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic story! This is what being in the Coast Guard is all about...knowing that what we do helps to save lives around the world.

Loganville Tiger said...

Great Story!!