Friend lost at sea 2008

‘Blessed Be’ Lost at sea 2008

September 2008 Lost at sea

If you have been following this Sailing from Caribbean to Australia blog you may remember our friends on ‘Blessed Be’ that we left in Savusavu, Fiji, as the crew flew back to Australia for business.  Bruce (Skipper/Owner) returned some time later with a new crew member to bring the yacht a 42 foot Morgan to Australia. Unfortunately when he was sailing back to Australia he ran into a major storm and both he and his crew member was lost at sea.

(The late Bruce Glasson (RIP) on Blessed Be at Savusavu)

It was very sad for all that knew Bruce and unfortunately when a search was being made it did not go that well do to some circumstances many months later I wrote to the magazine Cruising Helmsman for the sole purpose of trying to ensure skippers are aware of shortfalls in the system and how they can ensure things may be better if they get caught in a storm and have to pass messages  on the radio that may end up being important.

This is the letter to the editor of the Cruising Helmsman magazine:

Dear Caroline Before I start may I say that this article is not intended to lay blame on authorities, or anyone else that was involved in this incident. The idea of me writing this is intended to make people aware of the pitfalls in a system or systems and how we can help ourselves when in need.
On the 23 August 2008, a yacht by the name of ‘Blessed Be’ went missing during a storm off the coast of Queensland near Brisbane an extensive search was carried out over a number of days by 21 aircraft and a number of police boats but unfortunately nothing was found and after many days the search was called off. This naturally is very hard for the relatives of the two men on board not knowing what happened to their loved ones and there is no finalisation for them because they are still missing.
During the storm on the 22 August 2008, the skipper of the ‘Blessed Be’ contacted Australian Customs to tell them that they were about 150 nms off Maroochydore and is now less than two days from Brisbane, which is a requirement to notify Customs when bringing a boat into Australia. The next day 23 August they contacted Customs via email to notify them that they had a storm so bad that they had been knocked down and had now changed course to run with the storm and would probably end up in Bundaberg.
The skipper Mr. Bruce Glasson also contacted Coastal Radio Station Adelaide on the 23 August 2008, stating that they were in a storm, they had been knocked down and had now changed their course to 070 degrees, running with the wind and seas they had put out two long warps in an effort to slow them down. He gave their Lat/Long and stated they were 100 nms of the coast of Brisbane and said that they were safe on board but wanted their position registered. This was the last anyone heard from them.
On the 1 September 2008, a concerned relative of the crew alerted AMSA, AMSA stated that a call was put out by Southport’s Seaway Tower on the 27 August 2008 for Blessed Be, unfortunately a vessel with the name Placid P misheard and answered the Seaway Tower thinking it was them that was being called and in answering saying that they were sailing to Newcastle. Radio conditions were not good and this was very unfortunate as this delayed the search.
The search commenced on the 5 September 2008, after the yacht had not turned up but the weather conditions did hamper the search, the search was being conducted between Brisbane and Newcastle due to the radio message of the Seaway Tower. It was some days later that the search changed to Gold Coast to Bundaberg, I believe this was after the information from Adelaide Coastal Radio came to light. Nothing was found and the search was terminated on the Friday night 12 September 2008.
I was contacted on the phone from the Rescue Coordination Centre as my name had been given to them as we used to keep in radio contact with ‘Blessed Be’ when we sailed from Raiatea to Fiji. They had been told by a mutual friend that both ‘Blessed Be’ and ourselves on ‘Alana Rose’ had been caught in the same storm between Tonga and Fiji and was trying to gauge the severity of the storms that ‘Blessed Be’ had experienced. They informed me that they were now changing the search area. I also passed on other contacts that ‘Blessed Be’ may have used during the last leg of their voyage, one being Curly in Savusavu, Fiji and the other Jim, of Rag of the Air on 8173 HF radio at 1900 UTC. I am not sure whether that information was followed up.
With the information I have which is from the newspaper item Sun Herald 14 September, the copy of the radio transcript and talking to the rescue centre Canberra and other people involved I have noticed some pitfalls in the system that really should be addressed.
The information regarding the radio contact from ‘Blessed Be’ to the Adelaide Coastal Radio Station was not produced until some days after the search had commenced, the reasons for this is that there is no legislative requirement for these Coastal Radio Stations to pass the message on unless it is requested by the person giving the message, in this case the skipper of ‘Blessed Be’, or the information is requested by a relative or by the Rescue Coordination Centre.
The skipper of ‘Blessed Be’ probably thought that by giving his position to the Coastal Radio Station that if something had happened this information would be passed on to the respective authorities as he did mention that he was in a severe storm and the storm was getting worse and although everyone was safe on board at that stage he wanted his position recorded. It is evident that this is not the case unless the information that was given is requested by an authority or relative.
The other part of the concern re the message is that although the skipper stated that they were approximately 100 nms of the coast, the given Lat/Long actually places the 166.5 nms due east off the northern tip of Moreton Island. They had changed course from there to 070 degrees which would take them further away from Australian coastline that could result in more than 200 nms off the coast by the next morning. I believe the search area was only up to 120 nms off the coast going on the statements made by the search organisers on the radio news program.
The third point is the confusion in the similar boat name that was called by the Seaway Tower, we use our boat names as call signs and we are all guilty of that even those with correct HF radio call signs. This may be alright for normal conditions but we need to use the issued call signs when it is official. Unfortunately with no licensing for VHF boat names will be used but this could be replaced with the boats registration number in conjunction with the boat name, which brings me to the next point. Boat names, the marina I am visiting at the moment has two yachts with exactly the same name and it is not the first time I have seen it, this is possible with state registration but not so with Australian Registration this can cause confusion in troubled times.
What can we learn by this unfortunate incident? These are my thoughts.

  • If you call a Coastal Radio Station with an urgent message in a concerned situation, make sure you add your official call sign and boat registration and ask for that to be passed on to the Rescue Coordination Centre in Canberra. Do not assume that the message will be passed on to anyone unless requested. Give a time that you will call back again, make it hourly when you are in a situation this should shorten the activation time if you run into trouble.
  • Many yachts at sea do not plot their course on paper charts on a regular basis they rely on electronic charts, we use both and we plot our course hourly when blue water and coastal sailing. Make sure when you give information that you give accurate position that the Lat/Long matches the distance you are giving.
  • Keep regular radio schedules with radio networks when blue water sailing, there are many out there run by volunteers, if possible make your own with other yachts travelling the same waters.
  • Local boating should log on and off with the VMR or Coastguard radio stations around our coastline when leaving and entering ports. Talking to the Coastguard only about 40% of boats call in when leaving port and entering port. Coastguard do a wonderful job trying to keep us safe use them.

The ‘Blessed Be’ was equipped with a new EPIRB, HF and VHF radio, a satellite phone and life raft. Bruce made sure that he was well equipped and he and his crew were experienced sailors having crossed the Pacific before. The only mistake he may have made was assuming that the message given to the Coastal Radio Station would have been acted upon if something had happened as it did. The Coastal Radio Station also did nothing wrong as they followed procedure and the legislation regulations. This procedure should be reviewed and changed.
We all sail hoping that we do not get into these situations and that we do not encounter the fatal storms, the sea and Mother Nature can be very dangerous and we know this when we leave the shores. My wife and I on our catamaran experienced some nasty storms crossing the Caribbean and the Pacific, ‘Blessed Be’ was in a previous storm with us between Tonga and Fiji that we would not like to experience again.
We met Bruce and ‘Blessed Be’ in Raiatea and sailed the same route catching up at different ports and we kept a regular radio schedule morning and night, Bruce returned to Oz from Savusavu in Fiji to complete some business and we sailed on ahead of him arriving in Australia in July. After ‘Blessed B’ went missing I sent a message out to all yachts that we know heading the same route behind Bruce to keep an eye out for anything and I put a message on the Noonsite website but unfortunately nothing has been found.
Our sympathies go out to the families of Bruce and Graeme the crew of ‘Blessed Be’.

Kindest regards
John Jenks
This letter is based on the information that I have received through the communication transcript, media reports given by the spokesperson from the Rescue Coordination Centre, the conversation I had with the Rescue Coordination Centre and what was reported by Graeme’s son in the newspaper. 

(L-R, The late Bruce Glasson, me and an earlier Blessed Be crew member Charles)

July 2010

Just last week I received a copy of the report for the coroner that gave me more information, there was some search further out than the 120 nms but only on two occasions where the other areas where six to eight times. The main search was for the life raft calculated on drift patterns that were studied by dropping an indicating drift buoy. My belief is that they still did not go out far enough as I don’t believe they had all the information such as the radio transcript till late in the search. In fact there is no mention of when that message came into play. But they did calculate the search area from a triangulation from Global Star from when an email was sent to Customs. Due to the boat name mix up the search ended up being far too late when they got to the right area considering the incident occurred on the 23 August and they did not search the area out near their last reported position until the 7 September. My theory is that what happened, happened fast as there has been no report of anything from that yacht been found which also indicates that everything was still secured to the yacht when she went down.

I have been continuously in contact with Graeme’s wife as she has used me as a sounding board for some of her questions that may come up at the inquest. She like me is concerned of the pitfalls in the system this is what brought me to write the letter to CH was to make other skippers aware. I was pleased shortly after the letter was published that some skippers came and saw me and asked about what we did in blue water sailing as far as routine safety.

We must remember that sometimes we do things without thinking about what the outcome could be. I can remember when I had my hobby farm of 10 hectares (25 acres), I used to give the children a ride on the carry-all on the back of the tractor one day the lift lever vibrated into the lift position and the children were hanging on for dear life as it went into the air fortunately no one was hurt and the kids thought it was fun. That was the last day I ever took kids for a ride on the tractor because I realised what the outcome could have been.
The sea can be a dangerous place and the sea deserves respect and can demand it at times so we need to be prepared. Sometime ago on two different occasion in two different places two yachts ran aground on reefs off the coast of Queensland and had to be rescued. Both skippers wrote to CH stating that the reefs were not on the charts. The following issue of CH had a letter from the commanding officer of the Hydrographic office stating that he was surprised to hear these claims as the reefs are marked on the Australian charts and he listed the chart numbers of these charts. The skippers were referring to electronic charts. Many skippers today do not carry paper charts this is playing with danger.
Another skipper ran aground off Fiji he admitted that he had not viewed his paper charts for eleven hours and he had his chart plotter on the wrong projection resulting in not showing the contours of the sea below which would have shown the reef. These three incidents could have been avoided.

The world of technology is great it gives us a quick reference but we have to consider that some parts of our ocean was last surveyed by Captain Cook and there is still some areas unsurveyed. I must say though that Captain Cook’s surveyed charts are very accurate considering they were all done with a lead line.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) is a great tool we can put in waypoints to guide us from ‘a’ to ‘b’ commonly known as the rhumb line and we set this rhumb line at the shortest possible distance. One thing to remember is that someone else could be doing the same coming from the opposite direction, if you are both lucky enough to maintain your course on the rhumb line you are on a collision course. This happened to us on one of the largest stretches of water between Galapagos and Hiva Oa (3,025 nms). One afternoon coming out of the setting sun was a Japanese fishing boat we had to take evasive action as the bloke on watch on the other vessel was out on deck watching the water go by. He did not know we were there until we had passed him and I ended up calling him on the radio. His vessel had two radar set operating but they are not much good if no one is watching them.

The list of things that can go wrong is probably endless, all I am trying to say here is think of the ‘what if’s’ when or before you do things and it does not have to only relate to the sea.
Safe sailing.