Nova Scotia

British skipper 'very sprightly' after being rescued at sea by Queen Mary 2

Mervyn Wheatley planned to enjoy a lobster lunch in Halifax before heading home to England.

Mervyn Wheatley says he plans to compete in the transatlantic race again

Mervyn Wheatley, the skipper of the Tamarind, arrived safely in Halifax on June 13 after being rescued by the Queen Mary 2. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

A British skipper who was rescued by crew from the Queen Mary 2 says his first indication that he was in trouble was that his boat was floating upside down in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

With a dry sense of humour, Mervyn Wheatley explained how he found himself aboard the "lap of luxury" on the massive ship after his yacht, the Tamarind, foundered on the high seas Friday.

Wheatley, 73, and several sailors aboard other vessels in the Royal Western Yacht Club's transatlantic race ran into trouble about 1,600 kilometres off Newfoundland when they encountered hurricane-force winds and 10- to 15-metre waves.

After his boat capsized and then righted itself, "it was a shambles," Wheatley told reporters after disembarking from the Queen Mary 2 in Halifax on Tuesday morning.

"There was water over the floorboards, except the floorboards weren't there. Food all over the place, clothes all over the place. Of course all the electrics had failed."

'Getting on with the job'

Wheatley, a former major in the Royal Marines, said his military training likely helped him keep his cool, and he immediately started pumping out the water.

"It means I didn't just sit there and burst into tears," he said. "It was just a matter of getting on with the job and getting it sorted out."

British skipper Mervyn Wheatley leaves Plymouth, England, at the start of the OSTAR on May 29, 2017. (Paul Gibbins Photography/Royal Western Yacht Club)

Wheatley said initially he had no intention of calling for help. But once he got into the cockpit, he realized that the emergency beacon, which had been torn off its bracket and was full of water, had activated itself.

He discovered that the self-steering gear was cracked and "at a very strange angle." And all Wheatley — the Tamarind's lone crew member — had left to communicate with was a small, handheld radio.

"And when that ran out, that was it," Wheatley said. "So that didn't look good." 

Airplane responds

By then, it was blowing about 130 km/h. So when he heard the drone of an airplane, he felt an unexpected amount of relief.

"I was so relieved I couldn't even speak on the radio to start off with," he said.

The crew from the Canadian aircraft tried to drop a radio and two lifeboats to him.

A CC-130 Hercules aircraft assisted with the rescue of some of the sailors who were caught in a storm during a transatlantic race last weekend. (Cpl. Vincent Carbonneau/Canadian Press)

"No amount of skill would have done it," Wheatley said. "It was just going to be luck. And sadly, that didn't work."

A merchant ship and a Portuguese airplane then arrived on scene, but conditions were deemed too risky to attempt a rescue.

"The seas were huge. If we had attempted it, I would have died, without a doubt," the skipper said.

Waited until morning

They decided to wait until daylight and calmer seas to try.

By then, the Tamarind's steering cable was broken, the pump wasn't working, and water continued to fill the vessel.

In the morning, the Canadian airplane told Wheatley that the marine ship from the night before was nearby, as well as the Queen Mary 2.

Mervyn Wheatley leaves Plymouth, England, at the start of the race. (Paul Gibbins Photography/Royal Western Yacht Club)

"I said to the pilot, 'If I get any choice here, I think I'll go for the Queen Mary, if that's all right.'"

But Wheatley said he didn't choose the larger ship because of any luxuries aboard, but rather because he felt it would make for a safer transfer off his boat.

Queen Mary 2 arrives

Robert Bissell, the Queen Mary 2's third officer, said he and his crew train for rescues frequently, but this was the first time he had to put that training to use.

Robert Bissell, third officer of the Queen Mary 2, helped rescue British skipper Mervyn Wheatley. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

The rescue boat was launched from 29 metres above the water line and lowered into the ocean's three- to four-metre swells.

As the Tamarind was "bouncing down the side" of the Queen Mary 2 ("I was very worried about the captain's paint work," said Wheatley), the rescue boat pulled up alongside and Wheatley clambered over the guardrails to climb aboard. 

Then, the rescuers and Wheatley were hauled up past 10 decks of the ship as the passengers applauded.

'Lap of luxury'

"And there I was, lap of luxury."

Bissell said Wheatley was "very sprightly" when they arrived.

The Queen Mary 2 docks in Halifax on June 13, 2017, after rescuing a British skipper. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

After a medical inspection, the crew issued the skipper some dry clothing and escorted him to his stateroom.

"I just stood there and laughed," he said. "The contrast between what I had just left, which is a boat in fairly poor condition ... and then this magnificent stateroom, was just surreal."

End of racing?

By the time the rescue was complete, Wheatley and the Tamarind had been bobbing in the ocean for about 36 hours — plenty of time to consider whether he'd ever race again.

"When I was pumping the boat out, I thought, 'OK, that's it. I won't do this again.'"

Wheatley starts the race in Plymouth, England. (Paul Gibbins Photography/Royal Western Yacht Club)

But after a bit more time, and after speaking with his wife, he came to a different conclusion.

"This would be a pretty sad way to leave it. So I'll be doing the next one," Wheatley said.

Asked if he was glad to be back on solid ground, Wheatley said, "Not particularly. I was enjoying being on the ship, actually."

The sailor said he planned to enjoy a nice lobster lunch in Halifax before catching a flight back home later that day.

"I've got to explain to my wife why I've lost the boat."

'Textbook perfect' response

Rear-Admiral John Newton, the commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic, said the weekend's rescues were "textbook perfect," especially considering the wild weather.

"When the ocean gets a chance to whip up these big 15-metre waves over a long period of time, the destructive energy in the ocean is enormous. So we've had some wild cases … but nothing of the intensity of these at least six yachts."

Newton said he doesn't believe any cost associated with the rescue will be passed on to the sailors.

"I don't sense there was negligence or imprudence that we'd go after anybody in this case."

He added that rescue crews gained invaluable experience, and said if it wasn't for yacht races like this one, much of the technology that is now used on a daily basis likely wouldn't exist.

Companies have tested different types of sails and global positioning system technology by sponsoring the boats, so they have become a valuable part of marine safety culture, Newton said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

With files from Olivier Lefebvre and Carolyn Ray

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