Mayday Postscript

Since returning, I have been in touch with Steve Hancox, skipper and owner of ‘Bryony’ and we have had some interesting correspondence.

Bryony is an old wooden ‘Gaffer’ which Steve restored in the garden of his house in Herefordshire. She is 10 metres over the deck with a 2.85-metre bow sprit.   She is a “double-ender” possibly designed by Colin Archer and was built in Hambourg for a Dutch man in 1922.

Bryony being restored in the garden.

She had had several names in her life and, following the restoration Steve felt it appropriate to rename her. He chose to call her ‘Bryony’ after his god-daughter who died while surfing in Thailand (on the way back from an oceanography project in Cambodia) aged 19.  Having achieved so much in her short life  (she was an excellent skier, horsewoman, surfer and even had a private pilot’s licence) she was an inspiration to get the restoration project finished.   As a further justification when Steve looked up Bryony in his gardener’s dictionary, it said that it is a plant ‘of no use whatsoever in the garden’!

Bryony launched after restoration.

Steve and a non-sailing friend set off from Plymouth bound for Paimpol in North Brittany.   With little wind they were using the engine.   About halfway across, the gearbox failed leaving them wallowing and making no way. Surrounded by shipping they broadcast a ‘pan-pan’ distress call to alert the ships in the area. A pan-pan call is one down from a Mayday and is an alert that you have problems, you don’t necessarily need assistance but that the situation might escalate into a Mayday distress. They exchanged VHF calls with some local ships and waited for the forecast northerly winds to fill in. When the wind finally picked up they tried to tack back towards the English coast but it was directly from the Plymouth direction so, they abandoned the plan to return to Plymouth and resumed their passage to Brittany.   With the wind directly behind them, a big sea running and inexperienced crew, Bryony was in danger of a damaging crash gybe so Steve decided to proceed under headsails alone.   They made good progress with a cruising chute, but this was handed when the wind became too strong.    They were then progressing slowly with just the staysail, waiting for dawn before hoisting further sail.

By this time, Bryony was already long overdue, and relations were concerned for their safety and alerted the French Coastguard authorities. This prompted the helicopter search and our exchanges with Cherbourg Coastguard which I have covered in the earlier ‘Mayday’ blog.

Bryony adjusted her destination to Lezardrieux being nearer and relatively easy to enter under sail and liaised with the French ‘Sauveteurs en Mer’ who had been briefed by the Cherbourg Coastguard. They assisted Bryony onto a pontoon berth where she remains while a replacement gearbox is sourced and fitted.

A satisfactory ending to the story and a happy tale to nicely ‘book end’ my Repatriation series of blogs.

Steve writes:-

I am extremely grateful to Nick and the crew of Hejira who relayed messages between us and the coastguard at Cherbourg who were just out of range of our VHF.   I am sorry (and a little embarrassed) to have caused so much inconvenience and trouble.   We were not in danger at any point.   My main concern was that our families would be worried, and it was a great relief to be able to pass a message to them.    Sadly, sitting at the chart table giving positions and liaising over the VHF while rolling with the following sea was too much for me and I had to make use of the nearby bucket, adding to the concerns of those unfortunate enough to be listening.

I was concerned about heading for the N Brittany coast with an onshore wind and no engine.    Although our intended destination was Paimpol I thought it would be wiser to put into Lezardrieux where we could enter even at low water and at least find an anchorage.     We would have had to wait about 4 hours before we could enter Paimpol.  In any event, having some knowledge of the fearsome rocks and streams in that area I didn’t have the courage to attempt it without an engine.    Generations of sailors have, of course, entered Paimpol under sail alone, but they knew the waters much better than me, and were much better sailors!

By the time we got there the wind had shifted into the West and we ended up having a perfect sail up the Trieux river, anchoring just before the marina.    The coastguard had requested that we contact them by mobile phone once we were close enough to have a signal and we liaised with them all the way in.   They couldn’t have been more helpful.    They put us in touch with the Sauveteurs en Mer in Loguivy who kindly assisted us onto a pontoon.

Apart from a heart-warming reassurance about the kindness of the French coastguard, Sauveteurs-en-Mer and other seafarers (such as Nick) I think the main lesson for me is while being safe is important, letting others know you are safe is important as well.    I will be giving some thought to what else I could have done to let those worried about us know that we were OK.    Maybe a satellite phone is a good option.

Bryony, magnificent under full sail.

This is an Email from Andrew, Steve’s crew on Bryony:-

Hi Nick,
Just to say many thanks for your kind assistance when we needed to reassure the outside world that we were dealing with the gearbox failure causing the apparent complete lack of forward progress. For me just boarding a vessel with my old co-adventurer means we will find entertainment and, whatever happens, we can deal with it.
I have dined out already on the story of Steve being below on the radio with me grimly hanging on to the tiller while he continued to chant “everything’s fine” between large chunders into the adjoining bowl. Stiff upper lip at its finest. When you relayed “no need of assistance”, you did then add “there seems to be some sickness aboard” which made me laugh out loud. Steve remained remarkably good-humoured about my insensitivity. If the tables were turned, I would not have been so good tempered.

I’m not the sailor but the only thing going for me, other than (mostly) ignorant obedience, is that I’m not a puker.

Anyway thanks again and I look forward to receiving your missives. Looking for more sailing adventures in the future and, truth be told, I might find it a bit dull if next time we have a sunny breezy sail all the way across. I’ll just have to put sawdust in the gearbox again. Steve need never know.
All the best,

Andrew (Cabin Boy of the elderly variety)

2 thoughts on “Mayday Postscript

Add yours

  1. Indeed John, the French Authorities were ‘on the case’ even sending the helicopter. They should have phonetically spelt the yacht name which may have saved time and inconvenience – a lesson for me as well, I would ask for confirmation in a similar situation in the future. In the event they apparently dealt with Bryony very well on her arrival. so thanks are certainly justified.

  2. Nick
    Good to have the background and human side to the story. Also good to have thanks and praise for the French Authorities .
    John s

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