Rescued British sailor returns to shore, plans to race across the Atlantic again
Brett Bundale, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published Tuesday, June 13, 2017 2:58PM ADT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 14, 2017 7:29AM ADT
HALIFAX -- Mervyn Wheatley arrived on dry ground Tuesday, looking forward to a Halifax lobster lunch, a flight home to his wife, and buying a new sailboat so he can race across the Atlantic again next year.
The ruddy-faced 73-year-old British skipper came into port aboard the Queen Mary 2 luxury liner, which plucked him from his storm-wrecked yacht during a transatlantic race on the weekend.
Wheatley told reporters he "stood there and laughed" when he was escorted to his opulent stateroom on the massive ocean liner after his ordeal in savage seas.
"The contrast between what I had just left, which was a boat in fairly poor condition with water over the floorboards, to this magnificent state room was just surreal," he said. "There I was in the lap of luxury."
He was met in Halifax Tuesday by Capt. Jonathan Bregman, a pilot with 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 14 Wing Greenwood, who had spotted him amid swelling waters and came to give him a keepsake.
"It's not the most difficult mission (I have undertaken) but it was the most dynamic," said Bregman. "I'll never forget this mission. I'd like him to remember that we came to provide assistance."
He said he was surprised that Wheatley -- one of about two dozen sailors racing from Plymouth, England, to Newport, Rhode Island -- was able to survive his ordeal.
"I was definitely surprised just given the small size of the vessel out in the middle of the Atlantic, but I guess he's a capable sailor ... He was very well composed."
The race started with 21 entries -- 16 solo sailors and five boats with two crew. By Monday, four yachts had been abandoned, one was under tow with a tug and three had been sunk or scuttled
Wheatley, a former 33-year veteran of the Royal Marines, said he was keen to join the race again next year.
He told reporters Tuesday he would return home to tell his wife the story of how he lost the boat.
It starts in the early morning hours of last Friday, on Wheatley's 19th trip across the Atlantic. He was awoken after his sailboat was tossed briefly upside down by a violent storm.
For a fleeting moment, as he manually pumped water out of his battered sailboat, Wheatley said he thought about retiring from the sea: "I thought 'OK that's it. I won't do this again."'
The sailboat's beacon had been ripped off its bracket, automatically sending a distress signal.
It's that signal that would enlist Bregman's help.
"Friday morning at 1 a.m. I was in bed and the phone rang to say that an emergency beacon went off in the middle of the Atlantic," he said. "I saw that there was a huge storm right over the location."
Bregman took on as much fuel as he could and flew more than four hours to Wheatley's location.
"I heard the drone of an aircraft," Wheatley said. "I was so relieved I couldn't even speak on the radio. I was quite surprised how taken aback I was emotionally."
Although a merchant ship responded to the call as well, a rescue under the dark of night with swelling seas was deemed too risky.
"This was incomparably worse then what I've experienced before," said Wheatley."The seas were impressive."
Meanwhile, the Queen Mary 2 had also diverted course to respond. After discussions with the Canadian Coast Guard and the joint rescue co-ordination centre in Halifax, a rescue operation was put in motion.
Before taking the leap onto the rescue ship, Wheatley sunk his sailboat.
"I realized I was going to have to scuttle the boat," he said. "I cut through a pipe. I chose quite a thin pipe so it would go quite slowly so I wouldn't have to watch it sink."
Wheatley estimated it will cost about $135,000 to replace his beloved yacht, Tamarind.
The rescue created a buzz aboard the luxury liner.
"It was quite an entertaining show for all of us," said passenger Ben Pollard, 22, of Newcastle, England. "Everyone on deck loved it ... and cheered when the captain announced that he was rescued."
Pollard said even aboard the Queen Mary 2 -- one of the largest transatlantic ocean liners ever built, complete with 15 restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, a casino and a planetarium -- some passengers were seasick in the storm.
"The ship was really rocking, so I can't imagine what it was like for him on that little ship."
Passenger Brian Kerr, of Baltimore, Md., said the cruise ship's decks were closed during most of the trip.
"For the entire crossing over we were in a gale," he said.
"When we were standing on the decks (during the rescue) it was just awful. The sea was up and down and we're looking at this guy in this yacht going 'How is he hanging on?"'
-- With files from Alison Auld