Jordan: When things start to go wrong or what on the open ocean, sometimes they go really wrong really quickly. We make really good boats. We have state of the art navigation systems and we have all the emergency measures in the world to prevent disaster still. We don’t belong there. The sea is not our turf. And if you’ve ever seen a movie about a nautical disaster, it’s not that far off from reality. About a year ago, off of the Eastern coast of Canada, things went really wrong really quickly and all that state of the art technology wasn’t working. When that happens, the boat and its crew can’t do much else, but put out an emergency distress call and pray that somebody answers it and that those people are close enough to help. And if they’re really lucky that the ships that answer the call are part of the Royal Canadian Navy. And are prepared to undertake one of the most dramatic rescues that you’ll hear about outside of a Hollywood pitch meeting. This is the story of that rescue. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Nick Taylor-Vaisey of Maclean’s chronicles the whole dramatic tale. Hey, Nick.
Jordan: First of all, what is the Makena?
Nick: The Makena is a 49 foot yacht. It’s called a Hanse 495 it was, on the inside of beautiful boat. I don’t know a whole lot about boats, but I saw some photos of the, the cabin, uh, and it was decked out. You could wash dishes on that thing. You could sleep very comfortably and you could say all the high seas.
Jordan: It’s a fairly rich person vessel.
Nick: Yeah. I mean, it’s the kind of boat you buy when you have some money to buy a boat.
Jordan: So what happened to her?
Nick: Well, uh, the owner of the boat, uh, it was named John Hagen. He’s a surgeon who lives here in Toronto. And he asked, I have broker who is in the area where he should buy a boat. So John and the broker whose name was Pat Sturgeon, had a few conversations and they found the Makena in Greece, in this Mediterranean port called Lefkas. Their mission was to by the boat, and then find a way to get her to Canada.
Jordan: How do you get a boat to Canada when you buy it overseas? I mean, I guess there’s an obvious answer to that question.
Nick: Well, yeah, I mean, you, you usually on the water, but, uh, there are a few options. You can, you can bring a boat over in a container ship, you know, you can have it shipped, um, almost in a package kind of thing. Or if you want to maybe save a little money depending, um, or have a little more flexibility, you can hire a skipper to get on that boat, hire a small crew and take it where you want it.
Jordan: And this is what he did?
Nick: And that’s what he did.
Jordan: So tell me about the captain and the crew and, and I guess what Rupert Maundrell does, cause this is a job that I didn’t know existed.
Nick: It’s an unbelievable story how he started doing what he’s doing. He was born in Southwestern England. Um, in Devin, a place called Barnstaple. He was a trained actor. At one point, he had his own company. He went bankrupt, he told me, at the age of 28, he was, um, drifting around I think, thinking, you know, what do I do next? At that point? And so he got on a boat. And, uh, loved it. He started sailing and eventually he started delivering boats because he was a very good skipper. Uh, and so 25 years he did that until he was, he was hired to bring the Makena, uh, across the Atlantic. Um, but he’s just a, a natural born Seafarer. And when you talk to him about it, uh, you know, it’s, it’s like he was born on the water. And the way people talk about him is a remarkable, they say it’s almost as if he doesn’t need instruments. He can sail the seas just by sort of, you know, putting his finger in the wind and saying, well, now the waves are gonna come this way, so we better go this way. And, you know, he has autopilot and all the fancy instruments, but, um, he, he’s spent the latter half of his life, um, just having fun sailing boats around the world and he’s gone almost everywhere.
Jordan: So he captained the McKenna, taking it, I guess, from Greece to Canada?
Nick: Yeah. He brought a crew, uh, and a cook. Um, and in October of 2018, they, they met in, uh, in Greece and they spent a few days there getting ready, um, inspecting the boat, making sure everything was in working order. It was by all accounts, a beautiful boat. The Makena was in very good condition. And, uh, and ready for the voyage. He said, um, by text to John, the surgeon, um, looking wonderful. We’re going to get going. And so they sailed through the Mediterranean. They had to stop in Italy, um, everywhere they stopped with scenic, by the way, but they stopped in Italy to fix a steering problem. Fixed it, kept going stop at Gibraltar for a little while, whether stopped them from going much further for a few days. Finally got onto the Azores, which was the final stop before the Atlantic crossing. Um, whether stop them again. There’s a lot of weather in the late fall in the North Atlantic, relatively treacherous waters. So, uh, they were waylaid for, uh, for a while, and, um, it took them quite a, quite a bit of time to get from Greece to the Azores. Um, but then in November, they set sail for Halifax.
Jordan: What happened?
Nick: Well, a lot of bad things happened relatively quickly. The treacherous weather caught up with them again. Uh, Rupert had this, a satellite phone that he’d borrowed from another sailor, and he was able to get weather reports on sort of four or five hour delays. So he would check the forecast and based on what it said he would, he would steer the boat in a different direction. There was a big weather system coming in and big, low pressure system from the South who was moving North. And he and his crew were going to try to beat it to the North, and they almost got there, um, when you, when you look at some of the screen grabs they have of, uh, of the weather patterns, but they didn’t quite make it and were caught in this little arm of what they all refer to everyone who’s involved in this as a hurricane. It was not a named hurricane, but it was hurricane force winds and it had this little arm that was whipping around and they got caught in it. And, uh, it, for about 24 hours, totally ravaged the boat. Crew was hunkered down. Uh, the waves were, were roaring, the wind was ripping through the, the rigging of the mass on the, uh, on the, on the boat. And they were, I mean, they were, they were rolling safely, but quite violently through huge waves. The kind of waves that you would see in big, bad blockbuster movies. You know, not maybe not the biggest of the big, but huge. So, um, you know, they weathered it and they, and they survived that. Uh, the boat survived intact. They didn’t capsize anything like that, but, uh, when it was safe to emerge and sort of inspect the damage, Rupert, who, uh, never saw a problem he couldn’t fix, came out and saw a problem he almost couldn’t fix because, man, it was just, it was torn. The steering was broken, the rudder was at a place. It took some real seafaring ingenuity to even get the boat operable again. He did it and they kept going. Well, the steering quadrant was broken. The sort of mechanism that connects the rudder to the autopilot and to the , you need to actually change direction in the boat. He had to flip it around and turn it 180 degrees, the steering quadrant, and then weld it into place. Not welding really, he had cables and uh, whatever was at his disposal that would keep things together. And it worked. And so he, I think the crew-
Jordan: The seafaring MacGyver.
Nick: He really was a seafaring MacGyver. And I think the crew was sort of stunned. Um, they were texting as well, back to John, the surgeon, who was a little helpless at this point, and probably starting to feel a little guilty.
Jordan: He’s like, my boat is in the middle of the North Atlantic.
Nick: Yeah, my boats in the middle of the North Atlantic, and this crew that I sent there is with it. And Oh my God, what can I even do? And so he was getting texts and they were saying, we’re pretty sure Rupert’s got an under control, cause he’s a pretty stoic man. And, uh, and he did and they kept going.
Jordan: And then?
Nick: Well, and then they hit more weather. And so goodness, it never really stopped. Um, they were chugging, at this point, as fast as they could to Halifax, where the boat was going to spend the winter before coming to Toronto in the spring, but more weather hit. Um, this time the forecast was just dead wrong. It misled Rupert and, uh, and his crew, and they found themselves overtaken by a storm that I don’t think it was hurricane force, but was nevertheless the kind of thing that would damage of boat that’s already, that’s already damaged. It just, his ingenuity was, um, was unfortunately, uh, somewhat beaten down to nothing by his storm. So, uh, they found themselves, once it had calmed a little bit and they were able to assess the situation, adrift at sea.
Jordan: What do you do in a situation like that?
Nick: Well, in this case, what you do is you look for boats, uh, in the vicinity of your, of your boat. Anybody who can help you is a savior. And fortunately for the Makena, there were two Canadian Navy ships who happened to be coming home from, uh, a mission, a training mission and, uh, and war games and Europe. And they were only about eight nautical miles away from the Makena when everything went super awry. So Rupert, the captain got on the radio with Peter MacNeil, the captain of HMCS Glace Bay. They talked a little bit, and, uh, the ships turned towards the Makena. It was the Glace Bay and HMCS Summerside two, uh, coastal defense vessels, which are two of the smaller ships in the fleet. But by comparison to the Makena, they were quite large and probably looked, you know, a welcome site to a boat adrift without any ability to really go anywhere on its own power.
Jordan: And then they rescued them and it was no problem. And this story is over, right?
Nick: Everything was peachy. The ship came and they just plucked them out. No, it was really difficult. The story of this rescue is, um, the stuff of a movie.
Jordan: So you tell me the story.
Nick: Oh my goodness. Yeah. So the ships came alongside, the Naval term for coming up to another boat. They were in constant communication, uh, Rupert and, uh, and, and commander MacNeil. The first idea that the Navy ship had was if they said, you know, Hey Rupert, can you let the life raft go in the water, your life raft on the Makena jump into it and we can get you more easily that way. We can’t, we can’t really get you off the boat because the boat is whipping around, so can you get in that life raft? Rupert said, sure, let’s do it. Tried to put the life raft in the water. It subsequently flipped over. They tried to save it. Uh, it floated away. They were just like, well, now what? Um, because now we don’t have a life raft and we still have four crew on a boat that is increasingly in dire straights. So the next plan was to at least get the crew of the boat immersion suits, which, which are really kind of cool life jackets. They cover your whole body. If you fall into an ocean, you can sort of float until somebody can get to you. And then they were going to call a helicopter, uh, which was training in, um, Cape Breton to come pluck these, these four folks off this boat. Getting those immersion suits to that boat was its own struggle. The two, the ship and the boat had to get very close together. And then the Navy personnel had to fire a line across the boat, uh, which they can then send immersion suits down. And this is in 20 foot waves, uh, and it’s still rainy and the cloud is still very low. The visibility is improving, but still quite poor. So they did successfully shoot that line across the Makena. It’s secured, they sent the immersion suits down. In the process, the boat, the boat, and the ship actually collided a few times and, uh, did more damage to the boat. The ship was fine. Navy ships are, they’re pretty resilient.
Jordan: There’s video of that in your story.
Nick: We have video of it and the story that Rupert sent over and, um, it’s-
Jordan: It looks terrifying.
Nick: It’s the kind of thing that makes. As a, a landlubber like me, pretty queasy. Um, it’s, uh, the way that the ship and the boat rise and fall. I points the boat is level with the ship and you can see the sailors on the Navy ship, but then three seconds later they’re about 20 feet below them. Uh, and it’s just an amazing place to have to try to cooperate doing anything-
Jordan: Get within like a meter of-
Nick: Exactly. Yeah. So the, it took several rotations around the boat for the ship to actually be uh, in a position where it could fire that line and they could send those suits down. The sun is starting to set. And the helicopters that, uh, the joint rescue coordination center in Halifax, which is sort of overseeing this whole thing, sent was making its way from Nova Scotia, from the mainland-
Jordan: How far away is that at this point? How far to sea are they?
Nick: Uh, they were 250 nautical miles or so South. Uh, or Southeast of Halifax, um, which is, uh, quite a ways. Um, it’s, it’s not easily accessible by any search and rescue operation. Uh, the helicopter, in fact, uh, when it was called away from its training mission in Cape Breton Island, had to refuel on a gas rig. Which was itself way off the coast, um, near Sable Island, uh, which is also way off the coast. Uh, it was their only option because they would not have been able to get out to the Makena for as long as they needed to be there, which was uncertain because they had no idea how long the actual rescue would take and then get back with fuel. They just, there was no way they could do that without refuelling. So luckily they could find this. Um, this gas rig and, uh, and again, it was getting darker, but they did manage to re refuel and get on their way and find their way to, uh, this little dot in the ocean, the Makena, and the ship that was beside it. And started the next phase of the rescue.
Jordan: How did they get them out of there in a helicopter? And like, how, first of all, how unusual is it to do a helicopter rescue of this sort out to sea?
Nick: So one of the rescuers, um, Brad Nisbet told me he was, and he ended up on the Makena. We’ll talk more about him. Um, he told me they don’t actually train for this because there’s, there’s no way to actually train for a rescue on a small yacht that uh, has a large mast, uh, flying into the sky in unpredictable waves as the sun is going down. It’s just the, the, the, those conditions are too dangerous for training. And so they train to the limits they can, and they, they train themselves for various scenarios and they sort of, you know, they make their calculated guesses on the best possible approach. Same as the Navy ship did when they shot that line over the boat, this should work. And it did. Helicopter was the same. So they, they went, uh, they went out to the site and they, they were, uh, floating above the Makena. And in a few minutes they came up with a plan. And that plan was, you know, it was a best guess. And, and it involved plucking people off the boat.
Jordan: Just by lowering a ladder and…
Nick: Yeah, everything sounds so harrowing when you recount it. They, it’s, it’s worth saying that the helicopter at this point was not being piloted by the pilot because the way that they had to orient the aircraft was such that the pilot couldn’t see where they needed to go. He was, he had to face another direction. It was just the way the winds, prevailing winds were in the way the mast was bobbing around. They had to orient the aircraft so that the pilot was looking in the other direction. Unfortunately. They have this cool device though, that they can pass to anyone who knows how to use it on the helicopter, which allows that person to control the motion of the helicopter. So you have a crew of six on a helicopter. The pilot, his first officer, two flight engineers, and two search and rescue techs. One of the flight engineers was the guy who had to keep this helicopter in place and sort of adjust ever so slightly when they needed to, when it needed to make an adjustment. The pilot’s job was to actually just look at waves and, and tell everyone else on the helicopter who was facilitating this rescue when a big wave was coming so they could plan for it, uh, because waves as, uh, as we’ll discuss, um, have a hugely detrimental effect on virtually any rescue operation at sea. But what happened next is, uh, you have the flight engineer now controlling the motion of the aircraft. The pilot and the first officer are looking for waves. Now the search and rescue techs do their job. And they have the scariest job of them all. Uh, their job is to a hoist themselves out of the helicopter on a winch, float through the air, land on the boat, secure every passenger on the boat, uh, in a rescue collar and then sent them up on an, on a winch into the helicopter, which is, which is at this point, far safer than anywhere these people have been for the last two weeks. In order to get from the helicopter down to the boat, uh, you really have to endure, uh, a beating from the wind. You have to avoid a boat that’s flailing and you have to land your feet safely on a deck that is where you have a few square feet to plunk yourself down. Um, it’s, it’s a big boat, 49 feet. That’s huge to me. Um, but it’s a tiny spot when there’s a lot of wind happening-
Jordan: When you’re coming from a helicopter?
Nick: And once again, it’s worth saying, it’s also getting dark at this point. So the first guy got down, um, that’s Brad Nisbet, and then his partner Gabriel Ferland was next, and his experience was probably the worst of them all. Um, he, he just had a terrible time getting from the helicopter down to the boat safely, securely, and, um, without being battered by the Makena, which is just well going in all directions at this point. It’s rotating 45 degrees on every wave, and it’s up and down and backwards and forwards.
Jordan: And then they’re there to hook the passengers up and bring them back up?
Nick: Yeah, that’s job one. It’s the only job really. It’s so Nisbet is down there and he’s on the boat and he’s coordinating. He actually made a joke when he got on the boat, he said to Rupert, this is the best boat I’ve ever, this it the nicest yacht I’ve ever been on. And somehow they shared a laugh, uh, as chaos reigned. Um, but Nisbet got down. Finally, Ferland gets on, gets on board. And so they’re standing there. They’ve decided the order in which the passengers will be evacuated as they have the rescue caller on the cook, whose name is Lisa. You know, there are about, they’re there, they’re about to send her back up. Uh, when the boat hits this, what they describe as a rogue wave sends the boat down, uh, and as the, as the boat is falling down the side of this wave, Gabriel Ferland, the search and rescue tech, is still connected by this winch up to the helicopter. The flight engineer who’s controlling that part of the operation, notices this and sees the wave and tries to pay out more cable so that he can down on the boat, Ferland can stay in place, but he can’t do it fast enough. The line gets taught as the boat goes down the wave and throne is actually wrenched off and thrown about 20 or 30 feet off, overboard into the frigid North Atlantic. Uh, at which point, everybody takes a breath and says, okay, uh, this isn’t, this isn’t easy. This is tough. They get them back into the air. They plunk him on the boat. At that point, I mean, I don’t think any of them would describe it as easy, but that was probably the worst moment. And after that it was about 75 minutes of, uh, pulling passengers off the boat into the air. And when it’s all done, they, they go back up themselves and fly away and leave the Makena out bobbing in the North Atlantic.
Jordan: When you talk to the people involved in this, how close do they feel like they came, cause every time you were telling a part of that story, I was waiting for the part where, Oh, one person went overboard and they were, they were drowned.
Nick: Yeah. I mean it’s a story that is full of good luck and just a lot of people who feel a lot of pride in their training. Um, they had, they had the rescue collar around the cook, um, and when Ferland was, was wrenched off and thrown overboard, the rescue callers slipped off of her neck. Had it not done that she would also have been wrenched overboard. I mean, um, and she wasn’t. But boy, was that fortuitous, I mean, they, they were able to get her into the helicopter and nice and dry. But there’s this sense of, of luck on the, on the part of Rupert and the folks on the boat. Um, and of course, John, the surgeon, the owner of back home, who is just so grateful that everyone made it, made it out. Um, but when you talked to the guys on the helicopter and you talk to the sailors on Glace Bay, there’s this just immense pride. Uh, they’re thinking about the rescue to this day. Um, they don’t forget that kind of thing because these rescues aren’t so rare that the search and rescue techs do one in their career. I mean, they, they happen. Um, but they don’t always happen like this. And, uh, it’s not always this dire. Rupert said he never felt the crew of his boat was endangered to the degree that they were going to lose their lives. But he did call the Navy and ask for help only as a last resort because he had run out of options. You can’t just float around the ocean when you, when you don’t have a boat that you can steer. He had just run out of options. He felt great shame about that. It was the only boat you had ever lost. Um, but it impacted him more than I think almost anybody else in a, in a really deep personal way.
Jordan: And if those Navy ships hadn’t been eight nautical miles away.
Nick: Absolutely. I mean, they had come through some of the same weather, uh, as the Makena, they were, I have a feeling it’s a lot easier to, to weather those storms on a ship that big. Um, but they were steaming towards Halifax and they were actually going to be earlier than they were scheduled to arrive. The commander, Peter McNeil, uh, his plan was to surprise his family because Christmas was only a week away. So it was so exciting to him that, uh, that they would be able to actually get home early. And, I mean, they spent so much time overseas and just with unpredictable schedules that to be able to see his kids early, it would be amazing. They got the call. And they turned South and they, they met this, uh, they met this boat that was flailing in the water. But you know, you look at a map of all the vessels on the water, uh, on a, on a site that tracks ships and it looks like they’re the little ocean highways where we’re ships are always near each other. In a sense that’s true, but in a much more realistic sense, it was so lucky that they were so close and able to, uh, to join that rescue.
Jordan: Everybody through luck and skill and bravery is safe. Where’s the Makena now?
Nick: Nobody knows. Nobody knows where that little boat is. Um, it was unbelievable. Six months after this, uh, near tragedy, uh, on the North Atlantic, Pat sturgeon got an email that’s the broker who helped buy this boat from the maritime rescue coordination center in the Azores, uh, the Point de Regatta MRCC and they said, Mr Sturgeon, we’ve spotted a boat about 30 miles or 40 miles uh, off of the Azores and it’s the Makena. Yeah. A cruise ship had been sailing to the sores and had just come upon this thing on the calmest day. We know this because there were photos of the boat, beautiful blue skies, no waves at all, just little lappy you waves that you have at a cottage. And they took some photos of the Makena sent them to, to Pat Sturgeon. And, um, I wasn’t there when he saw that email, but his eyes must’ve just widened. He sent those photos to John, the surgeon, Rupert, uh, the skipper, and, and they were all just, um. Uh, you know, just sho– marvel– they just marveled at the sight of this, of this boat, which was still afloat. It turns out it had floated, after the rescue, floated down near Cape Cod, and then caught the Gulf stream, which is a very powerful Atlanta current. Took the Makena right across over a period of six months to the Azores. Uh, about three weeks later it was spotted again on the other side of the Azores by a freighter. And after that, nobody knows.
Jordan: Could still be out there just floating around.
Nick: You know, who knows? Uh, ocean currents are powerful things. Wind, uh, is, is somewhat predictable on a normal day, but, you know, anything can throw a boat off, but there is a chance if all the currents kind of work as they’re supposed to, these are just conveyor belts in the ocean, there’s a chance in the McKenna six months, however many months later, he’d still be bobbing around about 250 nautical miles off Halifax, where it all happened in December, 2018.
Jordan: What a story. Thanks Nick.
Nick: Unbelievable story. Thank you.
Jordan: Nick Taylor-Vaisey is a writer with Maclain’s. That was The Big Story for more from us, including many stories, but perhaps none so dramatic as this one had to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. You can talk to me if you want to ignore everyone else at @theGameSheet. You can also get this podcast and all the other podcasts on Frequency in your favorite podcast player, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, or one of like 50, 60 other ones. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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