Rescue at Sea
0700 to 1000 hrs. With the dawning sun low on the horizon, Mitch was first to see the absolutely immense (316,676 ton) Atlantic Prosperity coming out of the east. Communications with AP and the USCG continued. It now became clear that the USCG was not coming at all.
The Captain of the AP made the decision to bring us aboard, though it was still not known if we would be going along to Nigeria or if some effort would be made to connect elsewhere with the USCG for our removal by helicopter or CG vessel.
We continued preparations to abandon Epiphany. All of her deck and topside hatches remained secured. Only the companionway remained open. Crew gathered all of their possessions and separated out those items that must remain on board from those items that might be retrieved in the rescue effort. Capt. Ed planned to leave with the Sat Phone and some of the boat’s papers. Gary prepared a “ditch bag” that included the log, his camera and some clothing. The rest of the crew packed ditch bags that included laptops, cameras and some clothing, but these would be left aboard Epiphany due to the difficulties that lay ahead.
The Atlantic Prosperity adeptly maneuvered to our windward, turning her bow to the north and her port side to us, creating lee protection as she slowly drifted down on our position. We deployed the inflatable and quickly convinced ourselves that use of the outboard would be unsafe in these seas. The inflatable would be best utilized as a transporting tool for one person at a time to the receiving vessel, secured with a line fore and aft to complete the ferrying of souls off of the Epiphany.
As the distance closed between the Epiphany and the AP, the Epiphany turned bow to the port side of the AP. First contact was bow-to, with a gentle thud. Crew of the AP sent down lines from some 80’ above. We were directed by the AP’s Chief Officer to secure lines bow and stern. This was done successfully. The mast of E. began to slam into the AP, and soon the starboard side hull of E. began to bang into the AP. As directed by AP, we deployed our 4 fenders while AP sent down two of her fenders on lines to help diminish damage from banging hull to hull.
The bows of both vessels pointed to the north. The AP crew pulled E aft toward the south to move her away from the bow of AP toward more calm waters amidships. Then AP sent down a ladder, inviting our crew to climb up the 80’ to her main deck cap rail. John made the first attempt to get aboard the ladder, but found it impossible to stabilize himself and make any progress upward. After several attempts, we decided to assist John back on board the E. John had to be pulled in quickly to avoid being crushed between the hulls.
Communication with the AP Chief Officer above was very difficult, as his voice, though strong, was being distorted by the distance and the constant noise of the wind, seas and banging hulls. Also, his commands to us were at times confused with commands to his own crew, and his Croat-accented English was difficult to understand. When it became clear that the use of the Jacobs ladder was not practical or safe, the CO of AP went to a new plan.
After deploying a new stern line (the first one broke under the strain of the load), the AP crew moved the E further aft. Using the AP’s portside boom, located further aft, they lowered a cargo net with the pallet inside. Gary got into the inflatable and drifted and paddled with his hands toward the lowering cargo net. The AP CO determined that the pallet was not safe and directed Gary to take it out of the net. However, the pallet was secured to the net in two places and could not be safely removed by Gary from his position in the inflatable which was being tossed by the wild seas. Gary pushed the pallet aside, clambered inside the net with his right foot, held on the top of the net with his hands and arms and indicated to the crew above that he was ready to be raised. After a near complete dunking, the net began its journey aloft. Gary rappelled with his left leg all the way to the cap rail and was brought over the cap to the main deck.
With the first crewmember safely aboard, the pallet was removed and the net was lowered to repeat the rescue process four more times. Mitch, then Harry, then John and finally Capt. Ed were raised and brought aboard. Minor bumps and bruises were incurred by the four remaining crew as the AP rocked and E crewmembers were thrown against the hull of the AP. Once all were safely aboard, the boom hoisting process taking only 25 minutes or so, the CO asked Captain Ed for permission to cut the Epiphany loose from the AP. With great reluctance, Capt. Ed agreed, and the E was cut loose with the dinghy still attached to her stern.