Johannesburg - Solo sailor Michael Kuun is safely home in Benoni. But he has lost his yacht and life savings, and almost lost his life in a mid-ocean storm off the West Coast.
Kuun, 47, had to be pulled from raging seas on Sunday on his dream cruise after a dramatic sea rescue deep in the mid-Atlantic, 350 nautical miles north-west of Saldanha Bay.
Kuun and his girlfriend, Wendy Swanepoel, set sail from East London two months ago on the yacht Miscky – bought in East London – and were headed for the Caribbean.
They had heard about a business opportunity on the islands and sold up their homes and possessions, giving up their jobs to start a new adventure.
“We decided that sailing there would be a great experience because, once there, we could explore the islands and still have somewhere to live,” Kuun said from a relative’s home in Benoni.
The couple started out on the first leg of the journey from East London in October with a crew.
“We got there quite easily, but encountered some problems with the rigging of the sails we had repaired in Mossel Bay. This occurred again in Saldanha Bay, but we got it repaired again and I was assured I would be fine to continue the journey,” Kuun said.
He decided to do the long leg of the trip to the Caribbean on his own, with Swanepoel flying out to meet him there.
“I knew I had four days of fairly hectic weather, but after that I would be in the ‘milk run’, which is known as an easy sail. I checked the weather and it forecast winds of no stronger than 24 knots.
“But by day three (Sunday), the winds were at between 35 and 40 knots and the swells at 4 metres.”
Kuun again encountered problems with the sails. He couldn’t lower them because the foils in between the rods were damaged by the wind.
“I was alone on the boat and there is no way I could have climbed up the 16m mast to do the repairs with the speed of the wind. The boat was now sailing with full sails.
“I kept praying for day to break, believing the winds and swells would subside, but they didn’t,” he said.
Exhausted and frustrated, panic set in, so he called Swanepoel, who called the Transnet National Ports Authority, who, in turn, alerted the National Sea Rescue Institute’s (NSRI) Table Bay volunteer sea rescue duty crew.
Meanwhile, the tanker Aqua Fortune was sailing from Mauritania to Singapore. As the nearest vessel, Aqua Fortune was diverted from its voyage to rescue Kuun.
The crew communicated with him over a hand-held radio.
“I had on a wetsuit and a life-jacket, already accepting my fate. I was going to have to abandon the yacht and all my worldly possessions,” he said.
The ship made six attempts to get close enough to Kuun’s yacht, but in heaving swells and high winds, the ship’s captain was reluctant to get too close. He wanted to abandon the rescue effort, and volunteered to stay next to Kuun and wait for a smaller ship to come and do the rescue.
In a last attempt, the tanker moved in closer and rocket-fired a rope at Kuun’s yacht. But it failed because of the wind, and the rope fell in the sea.
“I had no choice but to jump into the sea. I grabbed the rope, but the ship was moving and I was getting dragged alongside a wall of steel next to me. I feared I would be crushed, so I let go,” Kuun said.
He watched helplessly as the ship sailed away from him.
“I was upset. Because I had a life jacket on, my immediate fear was not of drowning. Yes, the waves were hitting me full in the face, but I was more afraid they would not spot me once they got too far away.”
The tanker took 90 minutes to turn around to find Kuun. They threw ropes and a net to him and he climbed on board.
Kuun collapsed, exhausted, after 48 hours of no sleep – 17 of them spent at the helm of his yacht, fighting the elements.
“The crew were great – they treated me like royalty, massaging my feet and trying to keep me warm,” Kuun said.
Arrangements were made with the ship’s owners to take him to Cape Town, where the NSRI’s Table Bay sea rescue craft, Spirit of Vodacom, met the tanker about 14 nautical miles offshore of Mouille Point on Christmas Eve.
Now, back in Benoni with their family, Kuun and Swanepoel say they have to “consolidate”.
“We are pretty broke. All our possessions were on that yacht. We have no jobs or homes. We have a tracker on board and the yacht is still adrift somewhere, but I fear it is going to be too costly to salvage it,” said Kuun.
With hindsight, he realises he may not have had enough experience to sail, despite having a skipper’s certificate – a licence to sail along the coast.
“But the weather was against me, and I believe the repairs were not done properly. Had someone been on board with me, it probably would have been fine, but I have no regrets,” Kuun said.
He arrived in South Africa with his passport – stamped by immigration officials in Cape Town – a few dollars, his wetsuit and life jacket.
His yacht is drifting about 60 nautical miles off Namibia, with a note onboard asking anyone who finds it to contact him.