A huge thanks to Gunboat skipper Chris Bailet for spending so many hours on this interview. Catch up on the Loss of the Rainmaker with Part 1, Part 2, and the report from Ocean Crescent and be sure to read through to the end of the story for Mr. Clean’s take.
SA: So they were 20 minutes out, and they would have 18 minutes to rescue 5 of you.
CB: Yeah, there wasn’t going to be time for grabbing your favorite pillow. I prepared Brian and Max for what was about to happen, and walked them through the steps of evacuation. I went down into the port hull through the hatch to retrieve passports, wallets, cellphones and boat documents. I put everything into a dry bag backpack including the boat computers and the GoPro with which we’d been filming earlier. I went to the bow and set up a bridle with two long dock lines on each forward cleat and a large inflated fender tied to the ends of both.
SA: Was there any thought about making the boat watertight or setting up some way to track her long term?
CB: There was barely time to get our gear together and get the boat ready for the evac! The helo and C130 were on site as we finished final prep for abandonment, and the helo circled the bow and hovered over our port side. The rescue swimmer gave us the thumbs up and began descending towards the water. At the first attempt, the boat surged down a wave at 6kts and we were pushed further downwind from the rescue swimmer. I started the starboard engine again and brought the boat beam to with the boards down at 90degrees. At the second attempt, the helo came over our port aft quarter and the swimmer descended.
SA: Where were the crew at this point?
CB: George was on the transom with Brian and Max, Jon was on comms with the helo, and I was at the helm. Max was the first off, then Brian. Both had help from George, who inflated their lifejackets and assisted them off the port transom towards the swimmer. George was third, then Jon, both with inflated life jackets. I had a few seconds to put the boat through a systems shutdown on the C-Zone, to put the boat into a secure mode to save battery and prevent fire. I stuffed a blanket and cushions into the port companionway to slow the ingress of water into the port hull, and finally, I lashed the EPIRB to a winch. Because of the rescue swimmer not using a basket, I dumped the backpack and transferred the small items into two dry bags, which I clipped to my life jacket. I set off a personal locator and zipped it into my chest pocket, and prepared to abandon as the sun was going down. I jumped off the port transom and met the swimmer, Claude. Once I was in the helo, we were told we’d be landing at Dare Regional in Manteo, NC. They would not be able to make their regular base at Elizabeth City, a few miles further.
SA: Can I get off the edge of my seat now? What was the helicopter ride like?
CB: Long. Freezing cold. Really, really loud. I’m going out on a limb to recommend folks try to avoid that flight.
SA: So now there’s a couple million worth of carbon floating around with a gangsta storm coming. Who went looking?
CB: Quite a few guys tried to be cowboys, as you can imagine, including one fishing vessel Fine Tuna, which took Gunboat employee Michael Reardon aboard. They were on station by Monday night Fine at the last location transmitted by the EPIRB; one media report incorrectly wrote that the CG had slapped some kind of beacon aboard, but the Tuna had only the pings up until they stopped.
SA: And it was crazy out there?
CB: They said they had 80 knots of wind and seas to 25’. And over the next three days, they managed to find some debris along with some items from Rainmaker, but no boat.
SA: Identifiable debris?
CB: Yeah – seat cushion, a deflated fender, beanbag chair, floorboard, ditch bag, couple of other things. Enough to know they were in the right place.
SA: Did you give up after that call?
CB: No, we tried to get up and find her on Tuesday via plane, but naval radio comms told us we were in a closed hot zone practice sector and grounded us. We went out for two searches on Wednesday, with the first centering on the last transmitted position, where Fine Tuna was still searching. We saw floating debris from the air. For the second search, we researched the wind, current, and swell and focused on the probable drift location of the boat had the EPIRB come free during the nasty weather. We had over two hours on station for each search with a pattern of east/west 40 nm, south 10/15mn, then back to the north before heading to Dare regional to refuel.
SA: Final conclusion?
CB: Debris on both searches, but no sign of the Gunboat 55 Rainmaker.
SA: Do you think she will turn up?
CB: It’s a big ocean. Do you?
SA: Okay, you’ve had a chance to tell your whole story, and now there are a bunch of other questions I’d like to ask you to put this whole thing to bed.
CB: Shoot. I’ve got nothing to hide.
AB: How many times have you sailed hundreds of miles offshore in the middle of winter? How many times were you the captain in those past experiences? In situations where you weren’t the captain, what type of discussions and preparation did you witness/participate in regarding “plan b” in the event of a catastrophic failure?
CB: I’ve done a handfull of deliveries out of New England as late as Christmas, a few out of FL all heading to the Caribbean. Acted as Captain on 2 of the 5. We saw some pretty nasty stuff on Tribe one trip down in late December with 40+. Plan B was Bermuda with the southerly, or wait it out and try to make bahamas with the NNW, or back to NC once it all cleared.
SA: How much experience/training do you have with regards to self rescue in the event of a dismasting or other catastrophic failure? Have you ever deployed a sea anchor or drogue? Have you ever had to construct a jury rig? Have you ever had to clear fouled props at sea? Have you ever had to board up windows, companionways, or other points of possible water ingress? Have you ever had to clean up a hydraulic or other slick spills? Are these things you’d thought about? Prepared for?
CB: Until last month, I’d never been on a boat where the rig came down. I’ve deployed a drone on a monohull in a nasty storm, but that’s all. We were prepared to use the storm jib as a drogue, but felt that it would either bring the bow into the waves and bury the longeron or bring the stern up and bring water into the boat. We never really needed to stop the boat, as it turned out.
SA: In the middle of the RM crisis, what was your thought process? Did you and the other crew members discuss your options for self rescue and weigh it against the dangers associated with assisted rescue?
CB: We all discussed it after the first damage assessment. We looked at options, spoke to the Coast Guard, and they told us to fire off the EPIRB immediately, because we’d told them out situation, and they knew what was coming. If we were confident we could have gotten away from the coming front, maybe it would have been a tougher decision, but staying in the same spot and taking hours or a day to get everything sorted – that would have put lives in more danger, period. And being on the very edge of helicopter range adds another reason to the ‘abandon’ column; if things get worse the next day, are you now out of range? At some point you swallow your pride and the idea that you’re invincible and decide you’ve got a shit hand that you can’t bluff your way out of. And you fold, before you lose all your chips.
SA: If rescue hadn’t been an option, and you ignore the weather forecast for a second, are there ways you could have improved the condition of the boat and got things going again?
CB: We didn’t have anything big enough to cover the window that could have supported wind and waves, so that is something to keep in mind. We could have sorted out our engine trouble with enough time and maybe a little less sea state – similar to clearing the prop, which is a hate mission in big waves. I’d like to think that the boat was still a platform for us as long as we needed it, and I don’t have much doubt that, if rescue wasn’t an option, we’d be repairing electronics, engine and window, and waiting for a lull so we could start stripping the longeron to rig it up as a jury mast. It would have definitely taken a few days. BVI, here we come!
SA: You say weather was the biggest factor in your decision to abandon, what was your “plan b” for a catastrophic event when you set out, given the unforgiving forecast? You mentioned the Bahamas and Bermuda. Why weren’t those viable options? Was attempting to get to one these points discussed as a possible option onboard at the time?
CB: I can’t emphasize how quickly things happened out there, it was pretty much a rush from the time we got the rig cleared to the evac, so we may have overlooked some of the options. Bermuda was still 450nm, and wasn’t going to be easy to get to with a NW, N to NE coming in the next 24 hours. Cutting away the longeron was risky and would have taken a lot of thought to do it without dropping someone in the water or punching a hole in the boat. And until we got both engines running and the longeron on deck, we were not going anywhere. And it was the same issue I mentioned above – go towards Bermuda, and now you don’t have a helo option.
SA: The photos from Ocean Crescent show no signs of visible damage to the port hull. Do you think it’s possible that the blow you experienced could have resulted in little/no structural damage?
CB: That photo was taken before they hit us. Look at the picture, the way its set up, was just before we collided with their starboard side.
SA: Having sailed with you before I know how competent and experienced you are, but this is obviously the biggest challenge you’ve experienced in your career. What’s the biggest takeaway for you as a captain (other than “sometimes shit happens at sea”)? What have you learned? How has this experience made you wiser, stronger, better?
CB: There are plenty of small lessons to learn about handling that specific situation in that specific boat, but really, we got our asses kicked by the ocean, and thankfully, no one got hurt. Maybe what I’ve learned best is to pick myself up, dust myself off, and put my fists back up. I love my job, and I love the ocean, and if you spend enough time out there, you’re gonna get cold cocked sooner or later.
SA: That’s it?
CB: What else can I say? We don’t know how much wind hit us, we don’t know what happened to the rig, and we don’t know what happened to the boat. I’m confident Gunboat is investigating everything they can to address some of the problems we had and I’m sure you’ll hear from them at some point, but my actions were all about making sure everyone was as safe as possible, and I don’t have any regrets. It’s better to be a live donkey than a dead lion.
SA: Thanks very much Chris.
CB: See ya in St. Martin, Clean
Because of Gunboat’s stature as one of the sport’s most visible brands, and their long association with Sailing Anarchy (and the fact that there are thousands of cabin-fever crazy anarchists buried under the snow), there’s been a massive amount of interest in the forums in the Rainmaker saga, with a small but vocal number of you complaining that you weren’t getting ‘the whole story.’ We have some advice for you: Get over it, because 15 years ago, you wouldn’t have heard about it at all. We’re grateful to be able to bring a factual account of the story to you, one that we’ve backed up with information from Commanders and other crew. We’re also so glad to have quality advertisers like Gunboat who would never even consider asking us to quash this report or threaten us in any way. Like us, they believe in transparency, and like us, they wanted the story to be told. But it’s important that you know our stand on this interview, and our own thoughts on this incident.
First off, Bailet is a personal friend of mine, and a longtime reader of SA. Would I lie for him? Not in a million years. But rather than ask him hard followups, I trusted him enough to accept him at his word. If you want to call that a soft interview, that’s your right. No one is making you read it.
Second off, Gunboat founder Peter Johnstone is a sponsor, advertiser, and friend of SA almost since Gunboat began. Would we lie for him, or let him write his own version of the news? Never. Would our feelings for PJ and Gunboat make us go a little lighter on them than another brand? We have to admit this is possible.
Finally, this is a multi-million dollar loss that’s now a multi-million dollar check for an insurance company to write, and you know what insurance companies really do, right? They sue people – especially when they have to eat millions of dollars. So we’ve got a maritime incident on international waters on a private luxury yacht owned by a very wealthy man, and all the details are in the hands of a tiny number of people, none of whom are about to go against their legal advice. Now there’s no way that Chris was running all this by a lawyer, but I have little doubt that he was advised on parts of this interview. It was either that or nothing at all.
Finally, while almost all the gaps in the report are due to lack of information (the rig failure mode, for instance), there are definitely a few revealing gaps that bother me. While I prefer to avoid speculating in the absense of evidence, I need to point them out so I can feel good about all the work I’ve done on this report.
Gap 1: Departure. While I wouldn’t have hesitated to leave on the forecast Rainmaker had, it would be for the express purpose of hauling ass. Rainmaker’s average speeds up to the dismasting don’t indicate she was in any rush at all, and if that’s the case, there was no reason for them to leave with that forecast.
Gap 2: Brian and Max. There are a couple of references to the owner and his son being in shock, but otherwise they are barely mentioned in the story at all. This feels more to me like Chris’s well-known loyalty to his employer than anything else, but it seems to me that Brian and Max’s condition may have played a bigger role in the decision to abandon than the interview lets on.
Gap 3: Mayday or Pan Pan. The decision to abandon was made much simpler because of the Mayday call and the USCG advice to switch on the EPIRB. Once that happened, the crew spent all their time working on rescue-related jobs until evacuated. I am not second-guessing their call, but I am definitely wondering whether it was another factor (see above) that kept this very experienced and resourceful crew from at least making the effort to get the boat shipshape and start to think about what it would take to self-rescue.
Gap 4: Mainsheet. While one of the crew took the helm from the autopilot within a second of when the squall hit, because he was immediately wrestling with the wheel, he was unable to reach the emergency mainsheet dump button about a foot in front of the helm. The rig came down a few seconds later. Would a mainsheet dump have saved the rig? We weren’t there, but there’s certainly a chance it could have. But if I was sailing along on a delivery at 10-20 knots in 35-40 knots with a storm jib and triple reefed main up, I might think one person could handle both jobs from a foot away, too. I’d be wrong, but I didn’t know that until after this incident.
Overall, I find Chris and the crew to have done an exemplary job keeping themselves and their novice bluewater sailing owner and his son alive after a nasty dismasting in an unforecast and extreme weather event and complicated rescue. There will be people second-guessing this one for years to come, but neither the crew nor Gunboat have anything to be ashamed about. Chris Bailet proved that his shoreside preparation is tops and that he’s great under fire, and he’ll no doubt be working on another Gunboat before too long. And I wouldn’t hesitate to do a delivery with him, any time, anywhere.