Mount Pleasant sailor coordinates rescue at sea

  • Thursday, June 12, 2014

Captain Bill Haynie PROVIDED

A young Mount Pleasant-based sailing yacht captain recently coordinated a rescue at sea while sailing from Antiqua to Bermuda. Captain Bill Haynie, 27, was several days out of Antiqua, helping deliver a 67-foot Discovery sailboat named “More Magic” to Newport, Rhode Island, in May on a “routine” delivery after racing in Antigua. Several days into the transit, in deteriorating weather, Haynie and the boat’s permanent captain, Sean Heffernan of Ireland, were in the cockpit at 9:30 a.m. when the VHF radio started crackling.

“We heard some squelch coming through on the VHF, in a pattern consistent with a radio call, but were unable to make out any speech,” Haynie says. “We had not been in any contact with any other boats since departing and could not see anyone on the horizon. We turned the radio up a bit and stood by it to see if anything came in more clearly. Another squall passed over us, and in the middle of it, Heff (Sean Heffernan) heard another transmission which he thought was a mayday call. It was still full of static, but he was sure enough that he thought it worth investigating.”

For the next 20 minutes, the crew of More Magic was on the radio trying to establish contact with whomever was transmitting the call, all the while scanning the horizon with binoculars. Soon, they noticed a small sloop on the horizon.

“The sloop had only a piece of its mainsail up, and appeared to be sailing toward us from the north, which is odd, because nobody (in the Caribbean) sails south this time of year,” said Haynie. More Magic got closer to the sloop, made radio contact, and confirmed that it indeed was putting out a distress call. The captain of the sloop, named “WaveCrest,” had suffered a fall headfirst through the companionway, suffered a severe head injury, and as a result was experiencing violent seizures and was totally incoherent. Making matters worse, the boat was out of control as its inexperienced crew dealt with the situation.

Captains Haynie and Heffernan both have tens of thousands of miles of ocean-sailing experience, which was fortuitous for the distressed sloop. After communicating with the distressed vessel, the two captains decided to put Haynie and crew member Christy Clemenson aboard the sloop. Haynie would take control of the sailboat while Clemenson would use her medical training to assess the injuries to the captain of WaveCrest. Clemenson found the captain to have pupils permanently dilated, a rapid pulse, and his extremities were shaking and tingling. It was obvious that he needed to be transported for immediate medical treatment, and given that his condition had deteriorated in the three days since his fall, Haynie and Clemenson felt that three more days at sea might prove fatal.

“We relayed the information back to Heff on More Magic and immediately began devising a plan,” Haynie said. Heff contacted Bermuda Radio Dispatch via More Magic’s satellite phone, and was put on the line with a local doctor, who confirmed Clemenson’s assessment and opinion that the victim should be taken to shore immediately. Bermuda Radio also informed them that they were out of range of Bermuda services (550 nautical miles north), and the closest point of land was Tortola (270 miles south), which fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard station, San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Coast Guard told them there was a Chinese container ship named “ShanHi” 45 miles to the northeast.

“It made sense to Heff and me to proceed with all speed toward the ship,” Haynie recounts. “It could make about 15 knots, WaveCrest could make 5-6, leaving a rendezvous time of 2.5 hours – well before sunset.”

It was at this point that captains Haynie and Heffernan found themselves in a debate with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard did not think the victim could be transported up to a much taller container ship and therefore wanted them to sail south toward the “fly zone,” to reach helicopter range. They decided to heed the Coast Guard’s instructions, so they turned around and sailed south toward Tortola with the container ship overtaking them from behind, with the intention of standing by in case of further distress, help facilitate an air rescue, or to collect the victim in the case that an air rescue was not possible.

After three to four hours sailing in this direction, it became clear to Haynie and Heffernan that sailing south toward the outer limit of the helicopter’s range meant that the best case scenario was a nighttime transfer of the victim, either to the container ship first or perhaps even from the sailboat directly to the chopper. Also during this time, the stricken captain of WaveCrest became extremely agitated and had to be physically restrained. He was actively hallucinating and showing signs of a completely different personality, according to his wife. Given the deteriorating situation and looming darkness, Haynie and Heffernan made a command decision to buck the Coast Guard, turning toward the container ship on an intersecting course in order to make a daylight transfer.

Haynie said, “I felt reasonably confident that I could get the victim on board the container ship without incident, so we made the call to contact the ship, set up an intersecting course and started preparing WaveCrest for the transfer maneuver.”

At this point, after Christy Clemenson had spent most of the day as well as her energy tending to the injured victim down below in the pitching, smaller vessel, the decision was made to transfer her back to More Magic and bring over crewmember Meaghan Taylor. Taylor’s more extensive deckhand experience would be needed for the dangerous maneuvers beside the container ship. Haynie’s backup plan if this transfer didn’t work was to return to sailing toward the fly zone for a nighttime rendezvous.

The two young sailboat captains then began communicating their plan to the captain of Chinese container ship, a task made difficult by the fact that its captain and first officer spoke very little English. Onboard WaveCrest, the sails were dropped, the motor started, everything on deck was stowed away or lashed down, and Haynie and Taylor improvised and rigged a sling for the victim, comprised of Taylor’s crew lifevest, which unlike those on WaveCrest, had proper lifting straps, and the boatswain’s chair. Over on More Magic, Heffernan and crew prepared their boat for a man overboard (MOB) rescue in case things went wrong during transfer and the victim went into the water. Haynie was worried about the risk of losing someone overboard during the hairy maneuver, and felt that More Magic was more maneuverable and better equipped to handle an MOB situation than WaveCrest.

Bill Haynie grew up sailing in Charleston’s busy commercial harbor, so he is no stranger to the size and mass of container ships. All his sailing life, he has purposefully avoided sailing anywhere near the behemoths or their intended course. He was now about to take a small 40-foot sloop, pitching and rolling in heavy seas, so close to one that the sailboat’s rigging would bang against the ship’s gunnel – and all this with a fellow sailor’s life at stake.

“Heff and I thought perhaps the ship would have some appropriate gear or means to perform such a rescue transfer,” Haynie said. “We soon realized we were wrong.” All the ship had was its pilot-boarding ladder, which was deployed amidships. It was a rope ladder with heavy wooden rungs, and its swinging motion was alarming. Haynie communicated to the captain of ShanHi for the ship’s crew to toss a line down to WaveCrest as he maneuvered as close as possible. Meaghan Taylor was to fasten the line to the makeshift sling they had devised for the victim, and when the signal was given, begin hoisting him as quickly as possible up the side of the big ship.

“My main fear was that the victim would somehow get caught between the sailboat and the ship,” Haynie said. If that were to happen, the victim could be instantly crushed. The moment came for Captain Bill Haynie to go against all his instincts and experience and purposefully put the sailboat up against the heavily rolling ship. “I was afraid the ship’s hull would catch the rail of WaveCrest and roll us right under it,” Haynie recalls.

On his second pass, he managed to hold the sailboat right at the ship’s boarding ladder for about 20 seconds. About 20 of the ship’s crew appeared high above, all yelling simultaneously and indistinguishably to the sailboat. The first line they tossed down was too small. The second line was so large it could have injured anyone it landed on. Finally, a workable line was provided, and Taylor tied it off to the victim’s sling while two crew from WaveCrest raised the victim up onto the boarding ladder. The ship’s crew pulled him up as Haynie bore away from the ship for the safety of both the victim and the sailboat.

The saga did not end once the victim was on the ship’s deck. The captain of ShanHi then radioed that the victim had become agitated and violent, his crew having to restrain him. He was concerned about liability issues for restraining him. Haynie and Heffernan told the captain it was nothing they hadn’t already had to do, and it was all for the well-being of the victim and was, most likely, saving his life. He was placed in the ship’s infirmary and ShanHi sailed toward Tortola for a rendezvous with the Coast Guard helicopter.

Then Haynie was left with a decision about what to do with WaveCrest. The captain had been its only experienced sailor, his wife had only moderate experience. After some deliberation and consoling from the crew of More Magic, they decided they could manage to get themselves the 200 or so miles to Tortola, and the U.S. Coast Guard was on standby. Bill Haynie and Meaghan Taylor transferred by dinghy back to More Magic, which continued to Bermuda.

When asked if he knew the ultimate outcome for the victim, Haynie said they were told he was taken to a hospital in Puerto Rico and was being treated there.

After having sailed more than 50,000 ocean miles and three trans-Atlantic crossings as a professional captain, Bill Haynie said, “Approaching that huge container ship in rolling seas under those circumstances was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.”

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