Solo sailor, 73, describes sudden trouble at sea: 'The boat had inverted'
Septuagenarian sailor Mervyn Wheatley, shown in this handout image, was making his 19th trip across the Atlantic Ocean when his boat ran into stormy waters and had to be rescued. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
Adina Bresge, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published Monday, June 12, 2017 4:00PM ADT
Last Updated Tuesday, June 13, 2017 7:48AM ADT
HALIFAX -- Alone in the mid-Atlantic, 73-year-old Mervyn Wheatley awoke early Friday to heaving swells threatening to capsize his weathered sailboat, Tamarind.
He stumbled from his bunk in the dark, grabbing a flashlight to assess the damage.
Limp floorboards were stripped away, he said Monday, and water poured into the boat through a punctured porthole. His pump was clogged by floating socks.
"It was in unbelievable shambles," he said. "The boat had inverted. The mast was gone well down by the water."
Wheatley told his story to a packed theatre on the Queen Mary 2, the luxury liner that plucked him from his storm-damaged sailboat over the weekend and was bringing him to Halifax. At least three other boats in a transatlantic race from Plymouth, England, to Newport, Rhode Island, required rescue in rough seas.
Tamarind, outfitted with a bathtub, had for decades been a second home to Wheatley, a former Royal Marine who was making his 19th trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
But the race ran into heavy weather, and when he awoke Friday the boat he had helmed for years seemed to be falling apart. The steering was off. The engine cover was missing. Even the distress signal wasn't working right.
"I had no intention of sending a mayday at this stage ΓÇª but I couldn't turn it off," he said, according to a recording of the event provided to The Canadian Press.
A few ships offered assistance, but Wheatley said his ears perked up when he heard the Queen Mary 2 was near.
As the cruise liner pulled up his rescue, Wheatley scuppered the nearly 20-year-old vessel for safety reasons.
"It wasn't easy getting off," he said.
The weekend rescues, including one sailor who was hoisted into a Cormorant helicopter and flown to St. John's, were handled by the joint rescue co-ordination centre in Halifax.
Spokesman Lt-Cmdr. Jordan Holder said Monday the centre was monitoring seven or eight boats that were still headed for Newport to complete the race.
"They took a severe battering in very, very violent seas," Holder said.
"This is a yacht race that occurs on a fairly regular basis. One of the sailors I understand has completed the race five times. All of the sailors that were participating we've been involved with are experienced ocean-going sailors. So I think it took many people off guard, that it was as bad as it was."
Race organizers said Canadian authorities will likely bear the cost of the rescue operation.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, in Halifax Monday to outline Ottawa's new, 10-year defence policy, said he was proud of the work the rescuers did.
"When it comes to whether it's protecting Canadians or it's our obligations to respond to international disasters like this, we don't look at the dollar cost," he said.
Commodore Charlie Thomson of the host club, the Royal Western Yacht Club in Plymouth, said one of the remaining competitors stopped briefly on the outskirts of Halifax Harbour Monday morning for minor repairs before resuming his trip south.
Thomson said 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
"It's been really bad, it's been really bad. In the many years of this event this is the worst one we can record," said Thomson.
Thomson said Wheatley is well-known in Plymouth, and joked of Wheatley's cruise-ship rescuers that "it's completely in character that he would have been picked up by such a vessel. He's an original."
The Queen Mary 2, with Wheatley aboard, is expected to dock in Halifax Tuesday morning.