Monday, 12 May 2008

The Second Race part 2

1500 GMT ICPC Race Headquarters Pendennis Castle Falmouth England.

Mike Trevelyan was perplexed. He was Watch Leader in the Race Operations room and was waiting for Xylonite to post her position in. All the other yachts had sent in their positions and their previous 12-hour logs three hours before at 1200 GMT. All the participating yachts had to send in these reports every 12 hours. This was primarily for safety but the other yachts could then see how they lay in the field. Nothing had been received from Xylonite.

If the position and report was not sent in manually, a PCS should have been sent in automatically by the GMDSS communications suite one-hour later anyway. This safety function which sent a PCS every six hours, but it also enabled the crew to complete a task they might have been involved in without causing alarm at Race HQ.This had not happened either.

Mike said to his deputy Tim Harding

“Ok Tim, I’ll check with them downstairs”

Mike was referring to the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Falmouth who were not actually in Pendennis Castle but below the promontory on which the ancient castle lay. Mike was especially useful as a Watch Leader because he had recently retired as a Coastguard Officer after 20 years and had useful contacts in the CG Service.

He picked up the direct line telephone to the Duty Officer, which would cause his telephone to ring immediately.

Chris Hoskins picked it up and said “Duty Officer.”

“Hello Chris it’s Mike Trevelyan. We haven’t had a 1200Z PCS from one of our fleet. It’s the Xylonite, could you check for me please, but do it yourself and keep it quiet?”

“Afternoon Mike, yes of course. I’ll do it now. The yellow welly brigade has gone home so it’s quiet here. How’s Annie?”

Chris was referring to the hordes of yachts that swarmed around the English Channel in the summer but had now returned home as it was a blustery mid winter day.

Mike replied “She’s fine and glad to see me doing this. She found the return of her husband to normal hours after 20 years of shift work an interruption to her social life!”

Chris chuckled and said “Ok, I’ll bear that in mind when my day comes. I’ll call you back shortly.”

Mike said to Tim “Christopher Hoskins is checking the logs himself. Can you dig out the PIN codes and I’ll alert the Admiral.”

He was referring to Admiral Sir David Hope-Squires RN Rtd. who was the race organiser on behalf of the sponsor. Admiral Hope-Squires was a keen yachtsman himself and had tried to get himself a berth on the race but at 61 years old was considered a bit long in the tooth. He was Commodore of the Joint Services Sailing Club and had organised many offshore races for them and was a committee member for Cowes Week. He had a sharp and analytical mind and was an excellent public speaker.

Ice Cold Vodka were lucky to have him. He would decide what and when to tell the media

‘Shit’ thought Mike. The Xylonite had gone missing on his watch. Any yacht going missing was bad news but losing contact with the Xylonite was really bad news.

When it had been announced that the Prime Minister’s son would be participating in the ICPC, the status of the race had been elevated from yet another offshore race to a major media event. It would take all of the Admiral’s charisma and charm to keep the media’s thirst for information reasonably satisfied without giving the game away.

With a very deep low pressure system developing in the South Atlantic, if the catamaran had broken up or been damaged, find survivors would be unlikely.

Mike knew it would take the Coastguard Officer at least 10 minutes to retrieve the log files of all satellite GMDSS reports for the last three hours. Meanwhile Tim would use the Personal Identification Number code to remotely interrogate the transponder beacon, which was part of Xylonite’s SATCOM C equipment. The PIN codes were kept locked away to prevent unauthorised access to the system.

Mike Trevelyan dialled the Admiral’s mobile telephone number. He was in London but was due back in Falmouth either today or tomorrow.

“Sir Henry, its Michael Trevelyan, Duty Watch Officer at HQ. Sorry to disturb you but is it convenient to talk?”

“Good afternoon Mike, yes go ahead, I’m in a taxi on the way to Paddington. I’m on the 1605 and should be in Truro at 2036.”

“It’s probably nothing but we’ve not had a 12 hourly log or automatic PCS from Xylonite. Your instructions were explicit that you were to be told immediately if the yacht failed to file a report. My assistant is interrogating her transponder and I’m waiting for Falmouth MRCC to check their logs.”

The Admiral replied “Yes you were right to call. I’ll call you back from a call box at the station to ensure this is not picked up. We should be there in 20 minutes. Do you think you’ll have more information then?”

Mike could hear the sound of slow moving London traffic in the background. He replied “Yes. I’ll wait for your call.”

The Admiral had already decided that he would stay in London if there was no positive news. He should be there to inform the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary himself at No 10 Downing Street, face to face if he could. He would call a press conference, if necessary at Ice Cold Vodka’s facilities in Pall Mall, nicknamed The Ice House, and keep the media away from race headquarters if he could. No doubt the local press and television would turn up in Cornwall but Mike Harding was a good communicator himself and would keep them at bay with non-committal responses.

1525 GMT Race Headquarters.

Mike’s direct line from the MRCC rang. He picked it up and said “Mike Trevelyan.”

“It’s Chris. I’ve checked and nothing here. I also checked the rest of the fleet and they are all logged. What’s your next step and can I help?”

Mike replied “Thanks very much. We’ll call all of the fleet, at least the back markers anyway as she was next to last with that daft rig of hers. I’d like to leave it until 1900Z when the GMDSS should send a six-hourly PCS automatically. If nothing’s received then we’ll pass it over to you. I’ll give you her last position if you’re ready.”

He dictated the last position and course and speed. 38 deg 37.0 S 35 deg 29.0 W Course 225 degrees at 13.5 knots.

By this he meant that the MRCC would transmit a message on a safety channel to every ship in the South Atlantic and alert the AMVER organisation in Martinsburg, West Virginia USA. Aircraft could be involved also.

The Coastguard Watch Officer said “Ok, I’m due off at 1800 but I’ll brief the oncoming watch that a participating yacht has not reported and play it down. I’ll stay here until you tell us to make a shout.”

Mike replied “Thanks Chris and keep it to yourself for the next few hours.”

He slowly replaced the telephone receiver.

Tim had had no response from the first Transponder Interrogation. He was trying again using a different satellite. A direct call by satellite telephone had not been answered.

The last position of the Xylonite was approximately 1100 nautical miles off the coast of Argentina in the very inhospitable waters of the South Atlantic.

This was getting serious.

1535 Paddington Railway Station

Admiral Sir David Hope-Squires dialled the direct line number to the Watch Officer in Pendennis Castle.

“Mike it’s David Hope-Squires. What do you have?”

The WO replied “The Coastguard have not received anything. We’ve tried to access the transponder twice and also made a satellite call. Nothing.”

“Right. Keep trying. Are the Coastguard pressurising to take it on?” replied Sir David.

“I’ve asked them to wait until 1900Z when the GMDSS should chirp again. If no joy then I don’t think we should delay any longer.”

“I agree” said Sir David, “that would be irresponsible. That should give me enough time to brief the Press Secretary. I’ll return to Head Office and we’ll get a press briefing set up for sometime later tonight. That should keep the media away from you until tomorrow. I’ll fax you a holding statement to use, everything being handled here in London, that sort of thing. We must stress that you still have 11 other boats out there to look out for.”

Mike thought this was the best course of action and said “Fine. The Coastguard will have their own press officer and I’d guess the pack will besiege them for information.”

“Yes, I’m sure they will. I’ll get onto The Commodore. OK Mike I’ll go back to The Ice House. I’ll imagine I’ll be there for some time.”

He replaced the telephone and picked up his bag and briefcase. He walked briskly back towards the taxi rank where he had arrived only five minutes earlier.

The Admiral was already planning. He had number of telephone calls to make.

1615 Her Majesty’s Submarine Sphynx, The South Atlantic.

HMS Sphynx was mid-way through her five-month patrol as part of the British armed forces commitment to the defence of Falkland Islands. Their main task was to be an invisible but ever present threat to any form of seaborne attack to one of the five oil producing platforms around the islands. The Royal Air Force maintained a squadron of ageing Tornado GR5’s at Mount Pleasant airfield. These mounted air patrols and escorted the weekly air link flights in and out of the airport.

The Army maintained a Garrison of 350 troops.

Today was near the end of an RnR (Rest and Recreation) and AMP (Assisted Maintenance Period). The submarine was moored alongside a Forward Repair Ship of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service in Mare Harbour, a couple of miles from RAF Mount Pleasant and Death Star (the nickname given to the garrison’s accommodation complex built in the early 1980’s).

About a third of the crew were ashore – either sightseeing on one of the Battle Field tours of the 1982 Falkland Island conflict, doing a little shopping in Port Stanley or perhaps jogging or using the gym at Death Star.

Those lucky enough to have been able to get ashore to stretch their legs would be returning by 1800.

Tomorrow was day one of another 14-day patrol. While the sub was in harbour the Royal Navy’s patrol vessel HMS Edinburgh Castle kept watch.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Day Zero

Yacht Xylonite. The South Atlantic.
The time was 0350 and the deck watch in the cockpit of the catamaran was about to change. Philip Santern and Guy Bertillon were due to handover to George Petite and Henri Mercier. They had prepared hot drinks for the oncoming watch. Made just as they were accustomed, but with the addition of a white powder that had originated from a capsule. The drinks had been left inside the cabin for the new watch members to drink as they donned their waterproofs.

As usual, Stuart Bryce Edgar was first in the cockpit, doing up his Musto jacket as he sat down. His eyes scanned the horizon.

'Hello folks, weather looks bad doesn't it?'
‘Yes, still one slab in’ replied Bertillon.
The next person to appear was Tonya Noble, who looked stunning even though she’d also just emerged from her sleeping bag. Stuart had been very attracted to her from the start of the race. Which was just as it had been planned; she was the unwitting bait to entice the eldest son of the Rt. Hon. Howard Edgar Bryce to join the crew.
One by one the others came up and after a brief chat the off going watch went below.

Guy paused by the galley area and noticed that all four mugs that had previously held the hot drinks were empty. They may have not been drunk and simply tipped away, but he doubted it.
They busied themselves with getting into the bunks just vacated by the crew now on watch. Bertillon, as skipper had his own berth.

After 20 minutes Bertillon turned on the speaker system into the cockpit. This could be noticed by one of the crew: even if Bertillon didn't sound the alert button, they might notice the red indicator light come on. He could now eavesdrop on any sounds in the cockpit. He could hear the sound of the winds, the sea and the creak of the running rigging. No voices were heard. Next, he moved carefully into the navigation and chart console area and warmed up the CCTV that was situated on the mainmast. Normally this was used to look at the sea conditions but it could also be trained aft to provide a panoramic shot of the cockpit. Camera footage taken with this and e-mailed ashore was always popular with the news programs and was posted onto the dedicated website.
Again the crew in the cockpit might notice this. Bertillon heard nothing to suggest the crew in the cockpit were aware that the camera was on.

He trained the camera aft. All the crew were slumped in various positions, and appeared to be asleep.
He looked up and saw Santern, Lopez, and Forget looking at him.
'Its time' he said.

He went back into his cabin and reached into the depths of his sleeping bag.
His hand emerged with an automatic pistol. Santern had got up and also had a pistol in his hand. They moved carefully into the cockpit. Everyone in the cockpit was still and appeared to be in a deep coma.
Bertillon and Santern each fired single shots into the heads of all the still figures with the exception of Bryce Edgar.

Guy Bertillon looked visibly shaken after this killing spree. He spewed up all over the
cockpit. It was the stocky Belgian who took control during this critical phase,
which were more vital than the previous twenty minutes.

'Come on Guy' he exhorted, 'let's get this sorted'. He then instructed Lance to go over
to the unoccupied hull and retrieve a waterproof bag hidden deep within it.
Meanwhile he deactivated the autopilot and directed Guy to take the helm.

'Bear up' he commanded 'ease the sheets'' he ordered. The two Frenchmen responded.
The catamaran turned into wind. All the sails flapped noisily as the way came off the
boat. The boat rolled uncomfortably with the wind and swell just forward of the
'Down jib down mainsail' the Belgian ordered.

Guy Bertillon seemed to gather himself together and took charge once more.
'Let's clear the port hull' he said 'Jaques and Jean'
They clambered over to the port hull and soon started bringing back spare supplies,
sails and running rigging. Everything useful was stripped out and taken across to the
starboard hull. An eight-man life raft on the hull was launched into the water, inflated
and then pulled around to the starboard hull.

Lance had been trained for quite a different task.

The bag he had retrieved contained a squashy package of carefully wrapped Semtex
explosive, several remote detonators, tapes and wire. He had retained the detonation cord
within his personal belongings in the starboard hull.

He ran a thin strip of the malleable explosive as far around the transverse beam connecting the two hulls as he could reach. Next, he cut three metre length of plastic hose from a coil that was part of the on-board spares inventory. The hose was then filled with water and the ends plugged. Santern then taped the hose directly over the ribbon of explosive.
When the Semtex was detonated, the explosion would be directed inwards – an implosion. Finally he connected detcord to this and added a remote detonator to complete the job.

He then put on a safety line, and with one of the others holding him he slid over the
beam until he could reach a small patch of carbon fibre out of sight to anyone in the
cockpit of the catamaran. This patch yielded to a couple of whacks with a hammer,
revealing a small electrical post inside the hull. He connected the wire from another
remote detonator to this, and then crawled back to the starboard hull. The lower part
of the transverse beam had already been primed with Semtex during construction, but it
had not been possible to gain access to the upper part of the beam, which contained
more web frames and longitudinals. Also, the advice received from the former Serbian
army demolitions expert had been to blow out the bottom but blow in the top.

All lines and rigging to the port hull were now systematically severed with bolt-croppers. The safety net between the hulls was cut away.

Lance then took the last carefully wrapped article from his bag: the radio remote control for the detonators. He switched the remote on and verified that each of the remote detonators was live. They transmitted a signal back to his control unit.

'All set?' asked Bertillon
Lance nodded in reply.
'Right everyone into the raft.'
The comatose from of Bryce Edgar had to be manhandled into the raft which was tethered to the starboard hull. All the men got into the raft; this was considered the safest refuge away from the explosive blasts that would shortly follow.

'We'll let the wind blow the raft away’ said Bertillon. This was good sense: the raft
was difficult to paddle and it would drift faster than the boat anyway. After about five
minutes the raft was at the extremity of the rope.

'OK Lance, do it' Bertillon ordered.

The American pressed a button on the unit. There was a muffled bang. The explosion made a thin narrow hole on the underside of the beam. He then set off the explosive charge on the top. Another dull thud followed.

As the smoke and fragments were blown away by the wind it was possible to see the result of the first two detonations.
'Looks like a good cut most of the way round' said Santern. Only a few fragments connected the beam to the starboard hull. The two hulls now moved independently of each other.

This was the vital moment: if the beam didn't sever when Lance set off the final charge,
the port hull would flood with water and could turn over or even take down the starboard hull.

'Last charge going off in 5 seconds' This was a larger charge of 5 kgs. All the occupants of
the raft blocked their ears.
Lance counted down and pressed the last switch.

There was a loud crash and the port hull immediately lurched over. The expert's advice had been good: the hull filled rapidly with water and slipped between the waves, taking the beam with it. The bodies of George Petit, Henri Mercier (both from France), Paul Jackson and Jim Johnson (Britain), and Tanya Noble also went down with the port hull of the Xylonite in over 2000 metres of water. Between them they had accumulated over 30 years of blue-water sailing.

The starboard hull settled upright in the water.

After a moments silence Bertillon started pulling on the rope connecting the liferaft to the remaining hull, with a couple of the others. They raft soon reached the remaining hull. There were a few shards and
splinters but with a little work, only close inspection within half a mile or so would reveal the
remaining stump of the transverse beam.

Although there remained some rigging to sort out so the remaining hull could be made to sail,
the catamaran was no more. A single mono hull yacht would now be seen sailing in almost the opposite direction to the fleet of yachts racing around the Antarctic.
It took about 2 hours to get the rig sorted. It was dark when they finished and were ready to get underway again. One more task remained which they completed using flashlights. As the mainsail was gingerly hoisted, several spray cans of coloured fabric paint were produced. The distinctive markings of the Xylonite logo were obliterated, as were the sail numbers. A false number was spayed on using a pre-prepared stencil. The boat’s name on the bow and the stern would be changed in daylight.
The boat would now be called Equal To All.