The Nina goes missing

‘He’s living my dream’ I thought, after briefly meeting David Dyche, owner of Nina shortly after we had motored 10nm, from a coastal marina, all the way up the river and into the Whangarei Town Centre for lunch in January 2012, with friends.

I got talking with David and he explained he was sailing around the world with his wife and three sons and they had just won the annual Bay of Islands Regatta the week before. Nina was 85 years old and had been designed by an Americas Cup winning designer in 1928. She entered and won a New York to Spain race followed by winning the Fastnet Race a month later. In 2012 she was clearly still fast for her age.

David Dyche, owner and skipper of ‘Nina’ doing some maintenance, while berthed at the Whangarei Town Centre in Northland in January 2012

Nina was 70 foot long and I could tell from talking to David Dyche that he was an experienced sea captain. We headed off down the river after lunch and I did not think much more about the Nina until reading the headlines in the New Zealand Herald 18 months later when the Nina was several days overdue from a trip from New Zealand across the Tasman to Newcastle, Australia. I followed the story for the next few weeks, hoping that a miracle would occur and they would be found safely somewhere in the Tasman Sea.

The disappearance of the Nina launched New Zealand’s biggest maritime search ever, with no success. The crew of the Nina had departed the Bay of Islands at the end of May 2013 and headed out into the Tasman Sea at the worst time of the year. Its wet, windy and cold and storms roll up the Tasman, one after another from June to August each year.

An old, heavy 70 foot long wooden schooner is a handful at the best of times. Add cold, wet, fatigued crew, eight metre swells and winds gusting 65 knots to the mix and its a recipe for disaster. Sadly they disappeared after a final text message said “storm sails shredded last night, now bare poles”.

Some months later I read an article claiming the Nina had not been out of water for three years and was showing signs of deterioration while berthed in New Zealand. David Dyche had originally planned to leave in February 2013, but was delayed until May with engine issues. Eventually they departed for Australia three months later than planned and headed straight into a bad storm.

By October 2013, hope for the Nina’s safety re-emerged after a USA based search group claimed to have seen a satellite image of a vessel the shape of the Nina drifting west of Norfolk Island. I contacted the search group and explained we might head close to the search location on our pending Trans-Tasman trip and they asked me to keep a lookout on radar and visually for the Nina and to send a copy of our latitude and longitude daily logs after arrival in Australia, to confirm the area we had sailed through.

It was a long shot and given the horizon that we could see was only 4-5 nm away and we went six days in a row without seeing a single boat. When you consider the Tasman is 1,100 nm wide, its easy to sail right on past a distressed yacht thats sitting just over the horizon out of sight. Its still hard to believe they were a happy cruising family one day and gone without a trace the next.

Nina tied up at the wharf in the Whangarei Town Basin

This was all happening in the media in the 2-4 months before I was due to head to Auckland to complete final preparations for Ocean Gem’s voyage across the Tasman Sea. As the weeks passed and there was no good news, I became increasing anxious about what might go wrong crossing the Tasman and would lay in bed at night for hours visualising different disaster scenarios and what I would do to overcome them.

What if we lost someone overboard at night in big seas? What if we hit a submerged log or container and started sinking? What if the mast came down and then punched a hole in the side of the hull before we could cut it free? What if the keel broke off and we rolled upside down at night in the dark and I was in my bunk? What if I had a lifejacket on in an upside down hull and I could not get out in the dark? How would we get the liferaft out? What if the seas were six metres and wind 50 knots? What if, what if what if!

What hope did we really have of getting the crew out of an upside down hull, in the dark, in a big sea and launching a liferaft without the wind blowing it away, and all climbing into it before we drift off into the night in different directions, only to die from hypothermia before a ship could steam for two days in our direction to rescue us.

For about a month I had grave fears that something bad would happen to us and I contemplated just paying a delivery skipper to do the job for me. But I was committed to the voyage, it was the adventure of a lifetime for my Dad. Chris Evans (a crew member) was excited too and we would talk endlessly about preparation plans and there was just no turning back. I realised that if I could not brave this trip, I would probably never have the courage to sail across open oceans and I might as well kiss goodbye to my dreams of sailing around the world.

So I doubled my efforts to prepare for every possible scenario. I planned for repairing holes, broken windows, the capacity to pump hundreds of litres of seawater out of a sinking hull, finding crew overboard in the dark and the ability to ride out a powerful storm and even a cyclone. I spent hours reading research on storm survival and discovered an endless list of failed attempts by yachts in storms to deploy parasail anchors and drogues.

The graduation from sails to storm sails to bare poles to sea anchors and drogues as the weather deteriorates is a science that is not exactly perfect. If you screw it up, you lose equipment, injure crew and may watch your storm survival device shred or disappear overboard if you deploy it incorrectly.

Ocean Gem berthed at Whangarei Town Basin in January 2012, just along from where the Nina was tied up

The more I read and researched parasails and drogues, the more I eliminated every device on the market. Traditionally designed drogues have a single rope a couple of hundred metres long, that stretches initially, until the drogue bites in, with the sudden drag causing the drogue (hand brake) to leap out of the water, with the end result being an out of control yacht racing at pace, down the face of the large wave before hitting the trough and pitch poling (cartwheeling) or, broaching and then rolling 180-360 degrees and snapping off the mast on the way through.

I read one story after another of yachts whose best laid storm plans left to catastrophic failure, loss of yachts and loss of lives. The research led me to the Jordan Series Drogue. It was designed and tested using engineering data from the fatal 1979 Fastnet Race. Rather than a long rope trailed behind the yacht with a large drogue (sea brake) on the end, the Jordan Series Drogue has 150 individual small parachute like cups spread along the 150+ metre rope, acting as a sea brake and reducing a yachts speed when running before a storm by up to 75%.

I read of more than 119 yachts that had all used the drogue successfully in storms across the globe with only three yachts lost and no loss of lives. Once I understood why traditional drogues fail and how the Jordan Series Drogue worked differently, I realised this would give me the confidence that was missing should I end up in a bad storm.

The drogue costs about US$2,400 and is custom made in the USA to match each yachts specifications. It also requires very strong cleats and winches (able to carry 70% of the yachts total weight).

Its so successful at slowing the yacht in a storm that it places massive loading on the attachment points on the stern of the yacht. When I ordered my Jordan Series Drogue, I contacted the boat builder in Auckland that was working on Ocean Gem and sent him the specs that needed checking, so that my stern cleats could handle the load of the drogue.

I was quite surprised by their casual response; “she’ll be right”, “we have never heard of the Jordan Series drogue”, “you will never need it anyway” and “don’t know anyone who has ever used a drogue”.

I thought, yep easy for you when you are safely tucked in your bed while I am in the ocean in the middle of a storm. If The Nina had had a Jordan Series drogue onboard and deployed it, I am in no doubt they would have had a lot more options, more control of their yacht and may have been alive today as well. As I don’t really know what happened to them other than ending up bare-poled in a storm, I can’t say for sure they would have survived, but its all about stacking more odds in your favour rather than against you.

The Nina captured on camera under full sail in Bermuda in 1957

Reading the story of the Nina made me prepare for the absolute worst. I realised that when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest coast, no one can easily save you. You are out of helicopter range, ships can be days away and even if they are nearby, there is huge risk of getting injured or killed climbing up the side of a commercial ship in big seas.

The fatal 1998 Sydney to Hobart race reinforced why getting into a liferaft is an absolute last resort. They can tear, get holes, come apart, flip upside down and eventually if you are out there long enough, will attract sharks.

The goal of any sailor is to keep the hull intact and right way up. No matter what happens, its always the best option to stay with the boat as long as its afloat. Our ability to manage Ocean Gem through a severe storm that could last days was critical to our survival. We could not afford to under prepare and my list and budget just kept growing.

This illustrates how a yacht using a Jordan Series Drogue runs before the sea under control, doing 1-3 knots boat speed while the swell and breaking seas pass underneath at 10-12 knots. Its easier on the yacht and the crew can rest until the storm passes. A yacht running with bare poles before a following sea, will accelerate and surf down the face of the wave, at high risk of losing control and cart wheeling, or broaching and rolling 180-360 degrees in the trough with devastating consequences. A drogue that is not designed to do the job will cause the same outcome.

This content is from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.