June 17, 2019
Kiwi expat Forfar Petrie had just remarked how good sailing conditions were when a loud bang and shuddering crunch echoed through his yacht.
"Someone yelled out we've hit something - that was our first thought," he told the Herald a day after being dramatically rescued at sea by Auckland's Westpac Rescue Helicopter.
En route to Tonga, but drifting about 400 nautical miles from New Zealand, Petrie and his wife Sally - who had spent the past four years living on the boat – were deep in the Pacific Ocean and far from help.
Two other crew members, Anabelle and Dan Davies, were also on board.
Petrie dashed about the 14m yacht looking for signs of impact.
But they hadn't hit anything. Instead, supports holding their mast had snapped, leaving it lurching to the side.
Petrie worried the mast would break free and tear through the boat's hull, potentially taking the liferaft with it and leaving the crew adrift with almost no chance of rescue.
Fashioning an impromptu fix with ropes, they turned back towards New Zealand. For three days, their mast hung by a thread – and along with it their lives.
Battling squalls and heavy seas, they yesterday limped to within 90km of Great Barrier Island until their diesel ran out and their mast finally gave.
As it swung wildly from side-to-side, Petrie put out a mayday call and ordered his crew to pile into the liferaft.
Operating on the edge of their limits, the rescue chopper crew captured dramatic footage of the moment they plucked the four sailors from the ocean about midday yesterday.
Petrie and his crew had been hanging tough for three days.
"When it happens, you don't have time to be frightened or fragile," he said.
But the moment he touched down safely on the tarmac and spoke to his sons, the tears spilled over and "I really became quite emotional", he said.
The dramatic rescue marked a devastating end to a dream retirement the couple had built for themselves.
Originally from New Zealand, the couple had raised a family in Ballina in northern New South Wales, with Petrie working as a nurse in intensive care and wife Sally as a physiotherapist.
But in 2012, the couple bought their much loved MV Squander – a French-made masthead cutter – before setting sail four years ago and living onboard ever since as they cruised Australia's coastline and visited Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
They had spent the last six months in New Zealand catching up with relatives and preparing intensively for a voyage to Tonga.
The Squander was in "better shape" than when the couple bought it. They'd spent tens of thousands of dollars on it and had its rigging inspected before leaving Opua in the Bay of Islands on June 9.
Ironically, it was the rigging that would fail just three days later.
A steel rod connecting a metal plate at the base of the mast to the boat's superstructure snapped late on the afternoon on June 12, leaving the mast lurching and cracks and splits appearing in the deck.
At that moment, the only bit of luck the crew would have for next few days occurred.
"The wind dropped straight away, it started raining and the sea went glassy," Petrie said.
This gave Petrie and his crew the chance to connect ropes to the mast and run them under the boat to create tension that held the mast in place.
It was lifesaving luck.
"If this had been in any other conditions than what we had, we would have lost the mast.
"And with the type of mast it is, there was a very real possibility … the foot of the mast could have cleared the decks and taken out the liferaft."
Having to now rely on their diesel motor and light sails to reach safety, they turned for New Zealand, heading again for the Bay of Islands.
Light winds and seas were forecast.
But as the stricken yacht tried to head west, they ran into 30 to 40 knot headwinds, waves of 3-4m and squalls almost every night that beat them to the south.
"These black clouds would come over - you see them in the moonlight and then all of a sudden you get smashed," Petrie said.
Their damaged rigging and the strong waves stopped them making good progress. On the third day, they switched off their motor, saving the last of their diesel for emergency manoeuvres.
The whole crew had been phenomenal throughout, Petrie said.
Wife Sally managed to keep everyone fed with hot meals despite conditions making it barely possible to walk around the boat.
"And I can tell you, out there that is like winning the lottery," he said.
Underneath the deck, the boat creaked and shuddered and groaned. No one slept a wink.
Throughout the ordeal, Petrie kept in touch with marine rescue co-ordinators in New Zealand, consulting and taking advice from them.
On Saturday night, they advised him a container ship, the MV Maersk Tauranga, was able to drop extra fuel to them that would allow them to motor all the way to New Zealand.
At 8am yesterday, the captain of the giant container ship – "with incredible seamanship" - brought his vessel in close and successfully offloaded 160 litres of fuel.
But it was a final load of 40L of fuel floating on a wooden pallet that proved the Squander's undoing.
Petrie had just tied it to the back of his yacht and was wondering what to do with it when the ropes snapped at the same time as the mast shuddered and finally gave way.
Swaying one metre in each direction in rough seas, there was no saving it this time.
The four sailors piled into their liferaft at 9.30am yesterday morning. They were plucked from the water three hours later as the container ship hovered close by.
Petrie thanked the many people who took part in the rescue that saved their lives.
Dropped in Whitianga, they have been inundated with offers of support from family and friends from the yachting community they met on their travels.
Photos and much of their most prized possessions were lost with their yacht that is now thought to be drifting at sea.
Petrie and his wife were left with just the soggy wet clothes they had worn for the past four days.
"We don't even have a toothbrush," he said.
"But at least we have our lives."