55' x 40 Tons, Full Keel
24-Ft. Dia. Sea Anchor
Force 12 + Conditions
File S/M-34, obtained from Robin and Maggi Ansell, Campbell River, B.C. - Vessel name ORCA, hailing port George Town (Cayman Islands) - Tahitian Ketch, designed by R. Hartley, LOA 55' x LWL 47' x Beam 13' 6" x Draft 7' x 40 Tons - Full keel - Sea anchor: 24-ft. Diameter Para-Tech on 500' x 1" nylon braid rode with 5/8" stainless steel swivel - No trip line - Deployed in cyclone Justin in deep water about 200 miles off the coast of Queensland, with winds of 65-85 knots and seas of 33-40 feet - Vessel's bow yawed 25°- Drift was 80 n.m. during 53 hours at sea anchor.
ORCA was on the Pacific leg of her planned circumnavigation when she was caught in the web of cyclone Justin 200 miles off the Queensland coast. The largest cyclone in 20 years, Justin caused millions of dollars in damage, capsized barges, left two people dead, twenty three missing and many homeless. Scores of RAAF and US fighter aircraft and fifty warships had to be evacuated from Townsville as Justin tore into a massive joint military exercise - Operation Tandem Thrust.
ORCA might have emerged intact had the cyclone moved on, instead of stalling overhead. Finding themselves boxed in against the Great Barrier Reef, ORCA's skipper and first mate decided to put down the sea anchor.
"Without the sea anchor, they would have found us on the reef," said owner Robin Ansell in a telephone conversation with Victor Shane.
Deployment of the large sea anchor and 500' of 1-inch line was difficult and further exacerbated by some sort of toxic, chemical mist emanating from the wet rope itself. All told ORCA remained tethered to the sea anchor for 53 hours, lying about 50° to the wind (no bridle).
One can only imagine what the conditions must have been like. In an interview with the Townsville Bulletin, Robin and Maggi said "It was like the water was boiling... it didn't have a pattern to the swell. It just hit us from all sides."
The yacht was eventually holed by a rogue wave. "We were hit by a wave which put a hole in the galley and a similar rogue wave tore two ventilator boxes off the deck. We tried to stuff them to stop the water coming in but we realized we couldn't keep up with it."
The couple had to put out a Mayday. Senior Queensland Emergency Services helicopter pilot Peter Hope said it was the worst weather he had ever flown in. He said, "The majority of the swells were 10m but the mast of the yacht was 18m and there were times when you couldn't see it over the top of the waves." Here is a transcript of the DDDB file Shane obtained from Robin and Maggi Ansell:
We were already in very rough sea conditions when we deployed the para-anchor, because for as long as was viable, we motored across the seas to give us as much distance from the Great Barrier Reef as possible. We deployed it through our starboard side bow roller, and once the parachute had opened up, gradually let out the line by having it wound round the mooring bits. The scariest part of the whole thing was being temporarily blinded, which appeared to be caused by the acrid-tasting spray emanating from the rope, which was wet from the rain and salt spray, and squeezed out as a fine mist when it was pulled extremely tight as it was being run out round the mooring bits when we were struggling to let out the line with some control.... In any case, it is a potentially lethal situation, when one can only see vague shapes, and it is impossible to read instruments, etc. for 24-36 hours. (I couldn't even read the bright green of the radar screen). The absolute agony of the burning feeling under the eyelids, and the constant running of the eyes trying to rid themselves of the foreign matter was unbelievable, similar to a severe case of "arc eye." Fortunately we just stayed on the para-anchor, and vision started improving after 24 hours. There was absolutely no possibility in our weather conditions of being able to go forward each hour to check for chafe, also the load on the anchor line made the line like a steel rod, and one could never have got any slack to be able to replace a chafe guard. Realizing this from the start, Robin attached a ten foot length of half-inch section anchor chain to the eye of the line, which ran through the starboard bow roller. This took care of the chafe, as it was impossible to go forward again as far as the bow during the rest of the 53 hours at anchor before our rescue. The next day, only by peering through the window by the internal steering station, when the vessel was at the bottom or top of a trough, could we sometimes catch sight of the white line leading away from the boat. Then as vision improved we could watch the drift on the GPS, which seemed to average out at about 1.5 knots.
We had deployed the whole 500 feet of line, which probably was not enough in those conditions, but once deployed, it was too dangerous to consider adding further line (of which we actually had another 800 feet). Also we did not employ chain for catenary, on this our first use of the anchor. We would guess that the wave length was probably about 150 feet. The rescue pilot said that the yacht was coming off the waves at 12 knots, since he had to reverse at 12 knots to maintain distance from the top of the mast as we rolled up the waves. He was probably hovering at about 100 feet from the water, and the top of our mast was 70 feet from the water.
There were occasional maverick waves, which were double-crested. The result of which was that we rolled over the first crest straight into the advancing front of the second crest, instantly halting the vessel's roll. Roll rate was up to something like 60 degrees per second, so not only were tons of green water dumped over the vessel but the impact on the hull and superstructure was phenomenal. This is what lifted sealed and battened-down hatches pouring in gallons of water and later broke the galley portlight, and subsequently ripped off the starboard dorades and smashed the safety line stanchions. We probably had about 6 [rogue waves] during the 53 hours before being rescued, each sounding and feeling as if one had been hit by an express train. Each increased in severity until the last two were responsible for the physical damage to the vessel.
Once we had issued the Mayday, we spoke via Townsville Radio and subsequently Sydney Radio to the rescue operations center at Canberra, and were informed that a rescue operation was being put in hand. Within an hour we heard that there was a US Hercules in the area to locate us, that a Rescue Helicopter had departed Townsville with an ETA at our position in 50 minutes, and that a Flying Doctor Service Beechcraft King Air with life rafts would be on station if the helicopter had to abort. We activated our Class 1, Type 406 Satellite EPIRB when instructed. Later we were told by our rescuers that without the EPIRB there was no way they could have located us in such atrocious conditions. We then followed their instructions to the letter, to enable the rescue to take place.
We were rescued on 9th March. We have subsequently heard that Townsville took a double hit from Cyclone Justin on 22nd March and suffered significant damage. For a couple of days following our rescue, Townsville Radio issued the position of ORCA as a hazard to shipping. Then the bulletins stopped, and she is assumed sunk.