Cape Town - When SA Navy divers reached the stricken Angolan yacht Bille, 100 nautical miles north-west of the west coast, they found the six crew members “shaken, traumatised, in an absolutely bad state”.
And the seventh crewman, António Bartolomeu, lay dead, half-on and half-off the deck, entangled in the rigging surrounding the yacht’s mast, which had killed him when it snapped.
This was the grim scene that greeted senior navy diver aboard the SAS Isandlwana Petty Officer Godfrey Ditshego shortly after dawn on Monday.
In heaving swells up to seven metres high, he commanded the rescue from his tiny rubber duck’s helm as his three fellow navy divers retrieved the crew in pairs.
“It was a unique rescue because of the conditions – it was risky to even launch our vessel,” he explained.
For four hours between 6.30am and 10.30am, they ferried the six Angolans back to the SAS Isandlwana that lay heaved to in the sea just short of a nautical mile away.
The divers and the entire frigate’s complement were later profusely thanked by the injured, surviving Angolans, but Ditshego denied they were “heroes”, as suggested.
“We were just doing our job,” he told the Cape Argus quietly.
Earlier, the yacht Black Cat was the first of four Cape2Rio yachts the SAS Isandlwana encountered after racing out of Cape Town on Sunday night to find the stricken fleet and assist where necessary.
Black Cat’s crew advised the captain of the frigate, Captain Musa Nkomonde, that they were “okay”, leaving the frigate to sail at top speed to the Bille.
Such was the violence of the seas that once Nkomonde had realised how dangerous the rescue effort of its crew would be that he spent time alone in his private cabin, trying to decide whether to risk his navy divers’ lives in the attempt.
Eventually, his decision was: “We’re going to go for it.”
“I’m very proud of my crew,” Nkomonde said aboard his vessel on Tuesday.
By last night, two yachts in the fleet – Peekay and Avante – had reached Yachtport in Saldanha, while three had arrived back in Cape Town: Avocet, FTI Flyer and Black Cat.
Four more were limping home – Ava, DoDo, Isla and Indaba, on which one crewman had a broken rib.
Bille is due to be retrieved by the Angolans after being abandoned at sea after the crew’s rescue.
Of these 10, Peekay and Indaba plan to set sail again, with their crews undaunted by the storm of Saturday night.
Far to the west, the fastest yachts in the fleet are flying towards Rio.
By 3pm on Tuesday afternoon, Maserati had clocked more than 1 100 nautical miles in just over 72 hours, and DStv Explora and Scarlet Runner, of Cape Town and Australia, respectively, over 800 nautical miles.
In contrast, the Cape Cat 44, Genevieve Too, had barely begun, having inched along covering just over 380 nautical miles in the first three days and with more than 3 000 nautical miles still to go.