The following day, the 1,000-foot motor vessel Maersk Kure located an overturned hull that matched the description of the Cheeki Rafiki, but found no sign of the sailors. Following reports from the ship, it was though the missing men could be adrift in the 12-man life-raft the yacht was known to be carrying.
The US Coast Guard is in the business of search and rescue and they know how long a man can survive in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. In this case they put that figure at 20 hours. However, they flew for 53-hours, covering 4,000-square-miles of ocean, before calling off the search.
At this point an incredible thing happened. A petition was begun on social media asking the US Coast Guard to restart the search. A reported 250,000 people signed the petition, myself included. Then the British prime minister added his weight to the argument, making a request on behalf of the families of the missing men to restart the search.
After a break of 48-hours the US Coast Guard, supported by the Rescue Wing of the U.S. Air National Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard, and the RAF restarted the search.
During the new search, a US Navy warship relocated the overturned sailing vessel and dropped a diver into the water. The swimmer reported finding the yacht’s life-raft still secure in its storage space in the aft portion of the boat, indicating the crew had been unable to deploy it.
Following this discovery, the search was abandoned.
This is a brutal story that demands answers and I’m sure there will be a full enquiry.
The following are my own observations.
What struck me as odd was the lack of an EPIRB signal. It could be that the yacht wasn’t carrying one although I find this hard to believe of an experienced crew making another Atlantic crossing. I think it more likely that they were carrying a manually activated EPIRB and it was stowed below. If that was the case then it makes a strong argument for automatic EPIRBs with hydrostatic release.
This brings us to the life-raft. The boat was carrying a 12-man life-raft which the US Navy confirmed hadn’t been deployed. For the voyage to the UK the yacht had a crew of four, although she would race with many more, and this is probably the reason for such a huge life-raft. A 12-man raft would be heavy and cumbersome and, if stowed below or in a cockpit locker, incredibly difficult to launch once the boat went over. Would it have helped to have deployed the raft as soon as the yacht started taking on water and towed it astern? We will never know.
The PLBs activated by the crew did their job and are smart things to carry, but it must be remembered that small locator beacons have a far shorter battery life than a full size EPIRB.
Apparently the yacht was not carrying a satellite phone and was instead communicating with their UK base via onboard email. This tragedy has shown me that in a catastrophic loss, like dropping a keel and capsizing, having a phone onboard could be what saves your life.
I suspect that this whole incident began with a small leak, one that in the beginning the four men were able to deal with. Once the keel fell off then the boat would immediately roll over leaving no time for anything but a terrifying scramble for survival in the cold sea.