Monday, September 19, 2016

We met Illias Today

31 JULY 2016

We met Illias today.  We only know his first name, and that he is from Spain.  If I had to guess, and I do because we couldn’t cross the language barrier, I would say early twenties, slim, in great physical shape and not married (based simply on the absence of a wedding band).

We met Illias six and one half miles off the eastern coast of Gibraltar.  He had been having a very bad day so far and our chance meeting was just the thing to lift him up.  As near as we can surmise, Illias had gone for a Jet Ski ride earlier and had a problem with the motor. A problem big enough to punch a hole in the aft part of the sled and partially sink it.  With only the nose of the Jet Ski still above water he was hanging on and drifting eastward in the current and wind.  Ha had been trying to swim/paddle/pull the sled along toward an anchored cargo ship some 1 and one half miles away, but it was an exhausting and futile attempt.  His sport type flotation vest was waterlogged and barely buoyant and the distance to the moored cargo ship was much too far to swim in his exhausted state. He had been in the water for about seven hours, was drifting further and further away from shore and sunset was not far off.

Somewhere out there ...  

Robin and I were underway from Gibraltar to Formentera, the nearest Balearic Island.  We had left Gibraltar about 20 minutes later than planned, but actually two days earlier than planned and it was not much of a worry anyway as we were looking at a nearly 400nm trip into the Mediterranean. Our only concern was that the dreaded ‘weather window’ was rather short and soon we might be facing stiff headwinds and steep seas. So, today was the day to get going as we would have … well, we were forecasted to have ,,, light winds on the tail for at least the first forty some hours along the way. 

Leaving Gibraltar proved the forecasts exactly wrong as we found twenty-five to thirty knots of wind as we exited the Gibraltar Bay and turned east.  At least it was on the tail and we could set up for a downwind run until things changed.  So, we ran the main and mizzen sails out and enjoyed the first hour under a fine, fast but rolling sail with no jib at all.
Pretty soon the winds began to ease and we talked about setting the downwind poles to run the genoa out flat at dead-downwind.  It’s a great system that Amel uses, but it takes a while to rig up and involves two section of articulated poles and four control lines as well as the jib sheets. Once it’s set, it’s a very handy configuration though.

Once we had talked it through, Robin and I went on deck to set it up. We were making fairly good speed on Main and Mizzen but as the wind eased we wanted to be ready to set the Genoa sail.
With the first pole rigged we started to set the second. I was on the foredeck and Robin was on deck by the cockpit and we were both handling the longer, heavier pole.
In my periphery something drew my attention to the water and at about 200 or maybe 300 yards I thought it might be a dolphin or perhaps just some adrift junk but I spotted the nose of a mostly submerged jet-ski bobbing in the waves and the waving arms of a man in the water. At first, it took a moment to register that this wasn’t someone who had just taken a break to snorkel or something like that; it’s difficult to grasp that someone could actually be in serious trouble so your mind searches for alternatives. I yelled and waved and he yelled and waved, only his yell was a desperate almost-scream kind of yell that answered any doubt as to whether or not he was in panic driven difficulty.

It is hard to describe the feelings and mental process of seeing this situation. In the instant you somehow want to believe that everything is OK; that this fellow is just diving or waiting for the water ski boat to come back around or something.  But when I could really identify the Jet Ski nose bobbing in the water and hear the frantic cry it was pretty easy to decide what to do next.  Robin took the helm and I started dousing sails.  We were still going pretty fast and the wind was still pushing twenty knots. Thankfully the seas were only about three to four feet.  I think he (Illias) thought we might be passing him by, as he kept on yelling and waving and expending his last energy trying to attract our attention. In fact we were fully focused by then, but had to run away for a bit to get the sails down and the motor running.

Once the sails were furled we headed back toward him as I readied the throwing line and tried to drop the boarding ladder.  I say tried because I learned that it simply cannot be placed and latched while in any kind of forward motion. The drag of the ladder was too much to permit me to fit it into its retaining eyes. We had to get nearly completely stopped before I could get it set.  We have a Life Sling which could have been deployed (and would have been if we were in rougher seas).  We brought the boat starboard side just upwind and I threw the line.  Illias swam maybe ten feet and grabbed it with a huge yell and pulled himself to the ladder.  I grabbed under his arm to help him aboard and he instantly crumpled on his knees and was sobbing. 
In a couple of minutes we helped him into the cockpit, out of his wet stuff and into dry clothes and blankets. Although he wasn’t shivering his skin was ice cold.  We gave water and a banana and several minutes later some hot soup (which he never got to finish).  I think I heard “Thank You” 50 times.

I radioed a “Pan Pan” to Gibraltar Police and Spanish Coast Guard and was answered quickly.  When I explained we had rescued a swimmer from the water they directed me to another channel where I spoke to Tarifa Radio which controls the commercial traffic in the Straits of Gibraltar. 

We recently outfitted Adagio with an A.I.S. transponder because it is an excellent tool for traffic prediction and conflict resolution.  What I hadn’t considered when we made that decision is that the entities that can see you because you have a transponder no longer have to query you for your position.  “I see your AIS” said the controller at Tarifa Radio, “and will relay your position to the Police and Coast Guard”.  Well, that’s Big Brother watching, and in this case watching out for, us. The Coast Guard loads our coordinates in their GPS and bingo, we’re a waypoint.

We waited perhaps 40 minutes, slowly circling the Jet Ski that wouldn’t quite sink.  I did not want to try to take it in tow as it would mean trying to tie to it by coming alongside or getting in the water or launching the dinghy and Robin and I decided against any additional risk to the equipment.  We had the important part aboard and safe.
When the AIS sounded a “CPA” (Closest Proximity Alarm) it was apparent that the target moving toward us at twenty-two knots was our Cost Guard boat.  They came along side and asked if I spoke Spanish. I replied ‘no’, which is smarter than trying to say “yes, but only a little and very slowly” which is essentially a ‘no’ anyway.

The Coastie say only “make the transfer fast, very fast!” meaning that when they came alongside and we played bumper boats it would be imperative that Illias make the jump between boats as quickly as possible. We did, and he was off Adagio in an instant and with waves and thanks all around he was gone and we headed back on course and they went to see if they could salvage the Jet Ski.
Then we noticed we still had his wet life jacket and t-shirt.  But it didn’t make sense to risk turning around and trying to match up boats again so we will keep them for posterity or perhaps if we learn where Illias is from we can ship them back to him.
All in all a day like none other in our lives.  So many things came together exactly right to put us in the right spot at the right time and to be doing the right thing to see and hear him so that we could offer assistance.  It is impossible to say what would have happened had we missed him, but I am glad we didn’t. 

I wish we could have exchanged information or even had the presence of mind to take a photo (it never even crossed my mind) but I won’t soon forget the pictures in my memory of that sled bobbing in the water and the constant ‘thank you’ from Illias.

You might be right in saying that Illias was very lucky that we came by, but I can’t begin to tell you how lucky WE felt to be in the right place at the right place to pull him out.

The pieces fit.