The Rescue, and the Recovery. By John Welsford
Denny and I had a long telephone conversation with Howard three days ago. He’s in much better spirits now that he has been able to rest, recover some and that the amazing rescue of Southern Cross is behind him. His voyage is far from over as now he has the logistical challenge of getting the boat from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas, back tracking his course.
What a story the boat rescue is! I know the facts and the facts of Howards voyage, battle with the deadly and extremely rare “Tromba cyclones” that capsized his boat and finally blew him off it. I am very much looking forward to his words should he feel that would like to recount his experiences publicly. Right now he is just glad to have survived what the Armada says on film was an “impossible survival.” Their patrol boat was nearby fighting the same Tromba cyclones.
Howard had a lot invested in that boat. Five years of planning, building, thinking, testing, trials, provisioning and shipping. She is the culmination of many years of ambition, hard work and drive. Its no exaggeration to say that his soul is a part of that little boat. I met Southern Cross in Punta Arenas and became as much a part of her as Howard. He did a magnificent job building her to yacht finish and in my estimation her loss would have been very difficult for him in spite of his stating, “Things don’t matter, I am alive. I am reluctant to say much because I put myself here willingly and am so sorry if I have caused anyone else a moment of anxiety. I have never been one to like drama or sea stories. I am truly sorry for any concern caused. I came for a personal experience and yet it by circumstance had to be (for the first time for me) a public experience as I tried to help the film effort being done by John and Dave. I was never for one moment motivated to sail or make a foolish move for the sake of the film. I sailed at my pace and safely. I feel akin to what my friend Josh said was like the well prepared mountain climber who gets hit by an avalanche, it happens.”
Please note: We are in New Zealand and Howard in the southern most settlement on earth, Pt Williams Chile and telephone talk is spotty at best. I believe I got the facts straight. Below is a skeleton account of an incredible story of survival. Howard has since been hosted by the Armada de Chile and was part of a videotaped reunion during which the Captain of the patrol boat and one of the rescuers talked about the impossibility that he survived the hour and thirty minutes in the water and the night in the open in horrendous conditions. In the filmed reunion they recounted how afraid they were that they could not get to him in time due to the extreme weather at Georgiana and their amazement at his self management, survival kit and skills. His story has already inspired many Chileans as it made national news because of the length of time he was in the water and on land in the open. The Armada has thrown doors open to him and Howard has talked at length with them about his dry suit and layering method. There is a filmed presentation he was asked to make by the Amada in which in a touching moment he hears a former Armada officer recount that his previous rounding of Cape Horn is still a legend in Pt Williams and in the Armada.
Howard who has always told me there wasn’t much of a story to film in his voyage finally has a sea story and an amazing one, much of which is captured on film. All I could say to him and others is “Wow.” We hope he comes out of hiding in Puerto Williams on the south shore of the Beagle Channel where he is recuperating to tell his story as we hope the film will eventually do. Amazingly he actually wanted to continue sailing south to Cape Horn and back but cannot given his physical issues plus he was forced to cut anchors free when rescuing his boat and in addition some key gear was lost to the sea. His friend Dr. Richard Paulsen perhaps best summed up Howard as “indefatigable”, I’d have to agree.
His story is inspirational, amazing, chilling and multi faceted including an astounding act of will that culminated in a race to save his boat. The boat rescue is a story in itself complete with a competing salvage attempt by another boat that had a one-day jump on the aged fishing boat the El DeCano with John, Patricio and Howard aboard. They raced a narrow weather window, skeptics and a well equipped modern steel hull fishing boat fully capable of plucking Southern Cross from the water even if on the bottom or stripping her clean. The El DeCano with the Cano brothers and Howard standing shifts with Howard navigating rescued Southern Cross by clever moves and will. We’ll never know if the other boat got there first and realized they could not claim salvage or just couldn’t find Southern Cross.
I know there are many hundreds of sailors interested in Howard’s story and I am sure once he recuperates, collects his thoughts that he will tell us through his words and film the details. I do not speak for him but know friends are waiting so here is a very partial synopsis.
The story goes as follows.
Howard first successfully sailed the Strait of Magellan from Punta Arenas passing Cape Froward (known by the Armada and locals as fiercer than Cape Horn because it is). I consider this a feat in itself for any sailor. He then crossed the Strait of Magellan to Isla Dawson exploring the island as he went and amazingly into the Magdalena Channel. He explored south in very challenging sailing conditions few of us could imagine and made his way into the Cockburn Channel on into the Brecknock Channel and finally the western end of the Beagle Channel. A first for a boat of the size he sailed according to the Armada de Chile. During this passage he made his way out into the wilds of the Pacific coast where he had been been trapped for days of really bad weather and hundreds of williwaw winds. He managed the williwaws successfully as any well found yacht would, employing multiple anchors and lines tied off on land. This is the manner in which vessels transiting these waters must move and wait out the volatile conditions. Howard planned well for this as he had been in the region before. He only moved when an opportunity presented itself. His nightmare became the kelp beds, which clogged anchorages that used to be open. I was fully informed of Howard’s anchorage options and had detailed course information on charts. Kelp out growth had increased by between 40 and 60 % since he had last been there.
After one month of voyaging he reckoned he had been on land for less than three hours and was happy to be living aboard, very happy as he had established a daily routine. He
had several very difficult times at anchor given the weather and williwaws but was never less than determined to keep exploring. He fully expected such weather before setting sail. Everything worked as he planned and the boat performed according to his words, “perfectly.” He was well fed, warm, and sometimes even dry. His tent worked so well that all of his nights were dry in spite of a wet cockpit. Later I hope he chooses to describe the sailing challenges as his skill was tested to the limit at times.
After a very challenging Westing and turn to the south at Isla Acguire he had a rare opportunity to make miles and he made the most of it. He attempted to sail through the channel between Isla Clementina and Georgiana knowing Georgiana was an extremely dangerous island due to the topographic configuration and proximity to open ocean. He was not going to anchor anywhere on Georgiana and had successfully avoided places like it. Local fishermen avoid it and many do not know where it is including the fishermen (John and Patricio who teamed up with Howard to rescue Southern Cross) as the place is simply too dangerous for safe travel or anchorage. The channel did not pan out yet the day was one of the best of the voyage as he sailed into a fjord few if any boats ever visit. “The film I shot was amazing as it was a magical place” he said.
One year ago I joined Howard at the Chilean military mapping office in Santiago as he selected topographic maps to augment his nautical charts. These topo maps were a key part of his voyaging strategy allowing him to analyze topographic features and select anchorages, which were less dangerous. I was very impressed by Howard’s meticulous charting and his selecting topo maps. He used no electronic navigation assists including GPS, all of his navigation was calculated and pencil on charts.
His selected anchorage on Clementina didn’t pan out due to thick kelp and in the open Southern Ocean he pressed on in waning daylight and gusty 22 knot winds to find an anchorage. He had to navigate through treacherous rocks, breaking Southern Ocean surf and kelp fields. He managed to find and get into a very small Bahia on Isla Clementina. In this case a rope was across an inlet to which fishing boats tie up for severe weather refuge. Howard reached this at 11pm and tied off with two stout lines off the bow as he knew he was in for a fight given changing conditions.
By 4am he was in the teeth of 60 knot williwaws out of the north, these turned west and back north, back and forth sometimes hurtling down the mountains simultaneously. Secured to this line in very rough conditions, he had winds so severe that Southern Cross was at times violently swung around and rolled from gunwale to gunwale (he filmed this). He had deployed a stern anchor but cut it lose on a float so as not to capsize given the directional changes of the williwaws. He endured this for two days and two nights, each night with virtually no sleep. He laid awake in his dry suit with an open knife on his chest, ditch bag ready and head lamp on the ready to cut his way out of the tent if Southern Cross capsized. If the boat had been rolled over with the tent up he’d have been trapped, making it very difficult to get out.
He made a desperate move off the fishermans line at 7:15am on the 3rd day. He had a scant 20 yards to row and his starboard oar was caught by kelp and that was that, he was blown out of the Bahia on Clementina toward Georgiana. He fought all day until he was finally pinned deep in the large bay on Isla Georgiana close to 2 miles away where he made a last ditch stand with his main anchor. During the day of frigid rain and high winds coupled with fighting he cut his right hand and this made for a painful day on top of all the dangers he fought through.
Trombas began to form at 5pm as a result of topography and the shifting northern williwaws. They came from all compass points randomly and continuously. Howard said, “I’ve never been bombed but now can imagine how random it is and how helpless those in the target area must feel. I was mesmerized by the scene, it was hard to believe. In all my time on the water I have never thought there could be such a situation.” I feel I have knowledge to offer the sailing community about this rare day and about my overall experience here, maybe someday.”
Finally, he was hit by a Tromba from port and capsized at approximately 5:30pm. The large bay where he finally anchored was a hell hole for any sailor, lee shore, an ominous whale skeleton on the shore but with a kelp/grass sandy bottom, good holding ground, but the winds there were extreme out of the north at 60 to 72 knots!
I hope he will decide to later recount what he went through on this day as the story is hard to hear as it was a fight for his life in my estimation. He seems reluctant to recount the details but as I said I hope he does. He simply says “It was a very bad day and I am alive and thinking.”
There is a weather phenomena, very rare but known of by the Armada and fishermen who sail in this area, which creates winds so strong that they have been known to sink or crush heavy carvel built fishing boats (words of Juan Matisse). These are known as “Tromba” winds, which are in essence, swarms of very intense small tornadoes (perhaps 100 to 150 feet across and about as high) that last 10 to 30 seconds. This is what Howard was experiencing and they were all around and coming from every direction. He turned on a camera and filmed until survival became the only move left.
We later found out that a Navy Patrol boat on its normal route between Punta Arenas and Puerto Williams, had been ordered to shelter by the Armada and was hiding behind Isla Basket approximately ten miles away. They recorded sustained winds of 72 knots. The Captain of the patrol boat Sibbald on film has stated the winds Howard faced were 66 to 72 knots with winds in the 90 to 100 knot range in the Tromba’s. In“Tromba” wind conditions, bursts of double the base wind can be expected.
Georgiana is a Tromba generator given topography and the small island off the bay where Howard made his last ditch stand. The “Tromba” were striking all around and coupled with intense williwaws this made for a condition few boats could survive regardless of size. Southern Cross was repeatedly hit by williwaws from all directions and successfully weathered each. Finally a direct hit by a Tromba ended the day and made for the nightmare in the water and 13 hours on land in the open.
Howard recounted the formation of the first close by Tromba and the sound it made as it raced past just missing him. “It was an incredible high pitched screaming sound, hard to imagine.” They were all around according to both Howard and the Armada Captain. Southern Cross was hit and rolled to turtle in perhaps less than 2 seconds. Howard was trapped underneath. He had to take his lifejacket off so he could get out, he swam out from under, put his lifejacket on again, crawled on to the bottom of the boat, righted her and re-boarded. He had practiced this maneuver in training and he and I have trained many sailors to do the same. He was forced to make this maneuver three times as she was capsized again twice by williwaws. Each time he successfully righted Southern Cross utilizing the re-entry slings he designed as righting lines yet he knew there was really no point in doing so given the williwaws and Trombas all around.
On the third righting he was hit just as he was attempting to re-enter and literally picked up and blown off the boat by a Tromba that came from directly ahead. He landed in the water some distance away, his Delorme was torn from around his neck and he did not have his ditch bag. He was able to reach his Delorme beacon, his ditch bag and a buoyant seat cushion as he was blown south and east with no ability to get back to boat.
Although approximately 100 yards to shore, it took him an hour and a half battling the winds to swim to a tiny place where it was possible to get out of the water. His description of the back and forth battle is bone chilling, hard to hear as he swam with legs only and was blown in and out and in and out. He came ashore unable to use hands or legs onto a boulder beach where he sustained injuries. He had no feeling in his legs, hands or lower arms and was shivering violently. He had swallowed much water as the williwaws and Trombas blew it into his mouth and nose and was wracked with nausea. He had foot, hand and shoulder injuries from the landing and crawl.
Howard told me that no Armada personnel were ever put in danger as the Captain determined that a night rescue was too dangerous for his team. The captain explains the situation in a filmed reunion aboard the Sibbald stating they could not sleep as they circled in extreme conditions waiting fearing he could not survive the night. It was a emotional reunion for the Captain, crew and Howard. The Armada has been treating him with the greatest respect as he described almost embarrassingly. No one survives here in the water so long. The Armada has now twice inspected his dry suit and layering technique and on film has stated they want a copy of the video shot to create a notice to mariners suggesting the adoption a similar set up. Foul weather gear is not enough. Fishermen and sailors have perished here quickly as they are being brought back aboard.
It took Howard a few days to recover enough to consider “what next,” but Wednesday 1st March he made the decision to try and rescue Southern Cross in spite of his physical condition and advice of the doctors who treated him. She’d been afloat on her side and secure at anchor when the Armada de Chile took him off the island. Secure at anchor, filled with stores in watertight plastic containers which would float, there was a very good chance that she would still be there. The days that followed as Howard was in Punta Arenas buying a tooth brush, shoes, etc. were extremely bad from a weather perspective. I can only imagine how my friend felt, a friend who has never lost a boat, called for help or even come close.
Howard Rice is a modest man, self contained and independent, and feels humbled by how so many have given him so much. He told me when he was blown off the boat that this thought went through his mind, “So this is how I died, this is how it ended, I had always wondered. I felt peaceful, never in fear, just peaceful. After the initial shock given my seemingly hopeless situation I decided to live for there are many who care about me.”
It was the thoughts of losing his wife, his family and his many friends that kept him going in the most difficult of times in the water and the longest of nights in the open on land in deadly conditions. “John, I am here being quiet and thinking. After my experience e on Georgiana I see the world with new eyes. Puerto Williams is a place I know from years ago and feels like where I should be for now. The Beagle Channel is stunning, the tiny town friendly and so I think and recover. I have logistical hurdles yet to face getting my boat on board a cargo ship for the voyage west and north.”
“Soon I intend to express deepest gratitude and heart felt thanks to all those who have helped me and sent their best wishes. I hope to make something positive for others out of this, a most challenging, fulfilling journey. I would do it again in a heart beat and am so happy hundreds of elementary school kids have benefitted by my and Johns classroom lessons and the classroom satellite phone calls as I sailed.”
From him, through Denny and I, thank you, thank you so much, all of you.
John Welsford, Proud and relieved.
Addendum to progress report #10
The Cano brothers, John and Patricio, are sailors, mountain guides, have been to Antarctica twice, and own the fishing boat, El Decano. Their excellent website, www.extremewilliams.com , explains the many adventure options they offer.
It was their friendship, assistance, and courage that was crucial in the recovery of Southern Cross and I would like to say Muchas Gracias mi Amigos for all you did and are doing.
Below 40 South