We're Not Afraid to Die if We Can All Be Together.
Author: Gordon Cook and Alan East
IN July 1976, my wife Mary, son Jonathan, 6, daughter Suzanne,
7, and I set sail from Plymouth, England, to duplicate the round-
the-world voyage made 200 years earlier by Captain James Cook.
For the longest time, Mary and I — a 37-year-old businessman —
had dreamt of sailing in the wake of the famous explorer, and
for the past 16 years we had spent all our leisure time
honing our seafaring skills in British waters.
Our boat Wavewalker, a 23 metre, 30 ton wooden-hulled
beauty, had been professionally built, and we had spent months
fitting it out and testing it in the roughest weather we could find.
The first leg of our planned three-year, 105,000 kilometre
journey passed pleasantly as we sailed down the west coast of
Africa to Cape Town. There, before heading east, we took on two
crewmen — American Larry Vigil and Swiss Herb Seigler — to
help us tackle one of the world’s roughest seas, the southern
On our second day out of Cape Town, we began to encounter
strong gales. For the next few weeks, they blew continuously.
Gales did not worry me; but the size of the waves was alarming —
up to 15 metres, as high as our main mast.
December 25 found us 3,500 kilometres east of Cape Town.
Despite atrocious weather, we had a wonderful holiday complete
with a Christmas tree. New Year’s Day saw no improvement in
the weather, but we reasoned that it had to change soon. And it
did change — for the worse.
At dawn on January 2, the waves were gigantic. We were
sailing with only a small storm jib and were still making eight
knots. As the ship rose to the top of each wave we could see
endless enormous seas rolling towards us, and the screaming
of the wind and spray was painful to the ears. To slow the boat
down, we dropped the storm jib and lashed a heavy mooring
rope in a loop across the stern. Then we double-lashed
everything, went through our life-raft drill, attached lifelines,
donned oilskins and life jackets — and waited.
The first indication of impending disaster came at about
6 p.m., with an ominous silence . The wind dropped, and the
sky immediately grew dark. Then came a growing roar, and an
enormous cloud towered aft of the ship. With horror, I realised
that it was not a cloud, but a wave like no other I had ever seen.
It appeared perfectly vertical and almost twice the height of the
other waves, with a frightful breaking crest.
The roar increased to a thunder as the stern moved up the
face of the wave, and for a moment I thought we might ride over
it. But then a tremendous explosion shook the deck. A torrent
of green and white water broke over the ship, my head smashed
into the wheel and I was aware of flying overboard and sinking
below the waves. I accepted my approaching death, and as I
was losing consciousness, I felt quite peaceful.
Unexpectedly, my head popped out of the water. A few metres
away, Wavewalker was near capsizing, her masts almost
horizontal. Then a wave hurled her upright, my lifeline jerked
taut, I grabbed the guard rails and sailed through the air into
Wavewalker’s main boom. Subsequent waves tossed me around
the deck like a rag doll. My left ribs cracked; my mouth filled
with blood and broken teeth. Somehow, I found the wheel, lined
up the stern for the next wave and hung on.
Water, Water, Everywhere. I could feel that the ship had water
below, but I dared not abandon the wheel to investigate. Suddenly,
the front hatch was thrown open and Mary appeared. “We’re
sinking!” she screamed. “The decks are smashed; we’re full of water.”
“Take the wheel”, I shouted as I scrambled for the hatch.
Larry and Herb were pumping like madmen. Broken timbers
hung at crazy angles, the whole starboard side bulged inwards;
clothes, crockery, charts, tins and toys sloshed about in deep water.
I half-swam, half-crawled into the children’s cabin. “Are you
all right?” I asked. “Yes,” they answered from an upper bunk.
“But my head hurts a bit,” said Sue, pointing to a big bump
above her eyes. I had no time to worry about bumped heads.
After finding a hammer, screws and canvas, I struggled back
on deck. With the starboard side bashed open, we were taking
water with each wave that broke over us. If I couldn’t make
some repairs, we would surely sink.
Somehow I managed to stretch canvas and secure waterproof
hatch covers across the gaping holes. Some water continued to
stream below, but most of it was now being deflected over the side.
More problems arose when our hand pumps started to block
up with the debris floating around the cabins and the electric
pump short-circuited. The water level rose threateningly. Back
on deck I found that our two spare hand pumps had been
wrenched overboard — along with the forestay sail, the jib, the
dinghies and the main anchor.
Then I remembered we had another electric pump under
the chartroom floor. I connected it to an out-pipe, and was
thankful to find that it worked.
The night dragged on with an endless, bitterly cold routine
of pumping, steering and working the radio. We were getting no
replies to our Mayday calls — which was not surprising in this
remote corner of the world.
Sue’s head had swollen alarmingly; she had two enormous
black eyes, and now she showed us a deep cut on her arm.
When I asked why she hadn’t made more of her injuries before
this, she replied, “I didn’t want to worry you when you were
trying to save us all."
By morning on January 3, the pumps had the water level
sufficiently under control for us to take two hours’ rest in
rotation. But we still had a tremendous leak somewhere below
the waterline and, on checking, I found that nearly all the boat’s
main rib frames were smashed down to the keel. In fact, there
was nothing holding up a whole section of the starboard hull
except a few cupboard partitions.
We had survived for 15 hours since the wave hit, but
Wavewalker wouldn’t hold together long enough for us to reach
Australia. I checked our charts and calculated that there were
two small islands a few hundred kilometres to the east. One of
them, Ile Amsterdam, was a French scientific base. Our only
hope was to reach these pinpricks in the vast ocean.
But unless the wind and seas abated so we could hoist sail, our chances
would be slim indeed. The great wave had put our auxilliary
engine out of action.
On January 4, after 36 hours of continuous pumping, we
reached the last few centimetres of water. Now, we had only to
keep pace with the water still coming in. We could not set any
sail on the main mast. Pressure on the rigging would simply
pull the damaged section of the hull apart, so we hoisted the
storm jib and headed for where I thought the two islands were.
Mary found some corned beef and cracker biscuits, and we ate
our first meal in almost two days.
But our respite was short-lived. At 4 p.m. black clouds began
building up behind us; within the hour the wind was back to 40
knots and the seas were getting higher. The weather continued
to deteriorate throughout the night, and by dawn on January 5,
our situation was again desperate.
When I went in to comfort the children, Jon asked, “Daddy,
are we going to die?” I tried to assure him that we could make it.
“But, Daddy,” he went on, “we aren’t afraid of dying if we can all
be together — you and Mummy, Sue and I.”
I could find no words with which to respond, but I left the
children’s cabin determined to fight the sea with everything I
had. To protect the weakened starboard side, I decided to heave-
to — with the undamaged port hull facing the oncoming waves,
using an improvised sea anchor of heavy nylon rope and two 22
litre plastic barrels of paraffin.
That evening, Mary and I sat together holding hands, as the
motion of the ship brought more and more water in through the
broken planks. We both felt the end was very near.
But Wavewalker rode out the storm and by the morning of
January 6, with the wind easing, I tried to get a reading on the
sextant. Back in the chartroom, I worked on wind speeds,
changes of course, drift and current in an effort to calculate
our position. The best I could determine was that we were
somewhere in 150,000 kilometres of ocean looking for a 65
While I was thinking, Sue, moving painfully, joined me. The
left side of her head was now very swollen and her blackened
eyes narrowed to slits. She gave me a card she had made.
On the front she had drawn caricatures of Mary and me
with the words: “Here are some funny people. Did they make
you laugh? I laughed a lot as well.” Inside was a message: “Oh,
how I love you both. So this card is to say thank you and let’s
hope for the best.” Somehow we had to make it.
I checked and rechecked my calculations. We had lost our main
compass and I was using a spare which had not been corrected
for magnetic variation. I made an allowance for this and another
estimate of the influence of the westerly currents which flow
through this part of the Indian Ocean.
About 2 p.m., I went on deck and asked Larry to steer a
course of 185 degrees. If we were lucky, I told him with a
conviction I did not feel, he could expect to see the island at
about 5 p.m.
Then with a heavy heart, I went below, climbed on my bunk
and amazingly, dozed off. When I woke it was 6 p.m., and growing
dark. I knew we must have missed the island, and with the sail
we had left, we couldn’t hope to beat back into the westerly winds.
At that moment, a tousled head appeared by my bunk. “Can I
have a hug?” Jonathan asked. Sue was right behind him.
“Why am I getting a hug now?” I asked.
“Because you are the best daddy in the whole world — and
the best captain,” my son replied.
“Not today, Jon, I’m afraid.”
“Why, you must be,” said Sue in a matter-of-fact voice. “You
found the island.”
“What!” I shouted.
“It’s out there in front of us,” they chorused, “as big as a
I rushed on deck and gazed with relief at the stark outline of
Ile Amsterdam. It was only a bleak piece of volcanic rock, with
little vegetation — the most beautiful island in the world!
We anchored offshore for the night, and the next morning
all 28 inhabitants of the island cheered as they helped us ashore.
With land under my feet again, my thoughts were full of
Larry and Herbie, cheerful and optimistic under the direst stress,
and of Mary, who stayed at the wheel for all those crucial hours.
Most of all, I thought of a seven-year-old girl, who did not want
us to worry about a head injury (which subsequently took six
minor operations to remove a recurring blood clot between skin
and skull), and of a six-year-old boy who was not afraid to die.