140107. Cape Town. Injured Cape To Rio crew members being escorted from the Isandlwana. The South African Navy dispatched one of its naval frigates, Isandlwana to assist some of the Yachts who was in trouble on the second day of the race. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

The captain of the navy frigate which rescued the stricken Angolan yacht Bille, and entrant in the Cape2Rio race, has spoken of the divers’ courage during the dramatic rescue.

The SAS Isandlwana arrived in the port of Cape Town this morning with six crew members and the body of the sailor Antonio Bartolomeu.

The Angolan consul, members of the crew’s family and the Angolan sailing team were ushered aboard the vessel, docked at East Pier at the V&A Waterfront, by the SA Navy’s rear admiral Philip Schoultz.

At 10.10am, Bartolomeu’s body was ceremoniously walked off the navy vessel with the SA naval officers bidding him farewell in formal salute.

Onboard the vessel a short while later, Isandlwana’s commanding officer, Captain Musa Nkomonde, told of how they had reached Bille by radio at about 4am, around 100 nautical miles north-west of Cape Town.

“We had to wait for sunrise and then for the sea to subside but it remained marginal. The swell was 5m to 6m high, and it was going to be a dangerous operation, but we decided to go for it.

The ship’s senior diver, Petty Officer Godfrey Ditsheto, was in charge onboard a 6m high-powered semi-rigid inflatable rescue craft, which sped to the yacht Bille.

Upon arrival, they found that Bartolomeu had been hit by the snapped mast and his body lay tangled in the rigging which hung over the side of the yacht.

In violent seas, Ditsheto and his navy divers transferred three pairs of survivors onto the rescue craft and then back to the mother ship.

On each occasion, the rescue craft had to be winched back up onto the frigate. Captain Nkomonde turned the frigate against the direction of the massive swell to create a few moments of calm on the leeside of the vessel, into which the rescue craft was dropped, before speeding off to get the next pair of survivors.

“The most dangerous thing for the survivors was hypothermia during the previous night – most of them could hardly move,” Ditsheto said.

“I had to keep them calm, as well as my own divers – some of them were juniors.”

Finally, on the fourth trip, the crew had managed to cut away the rigging with Bartolomeu’s body in it and take it back to the frigate.

At the time of publication today, two vessels from the stricken Cape2Rio fleet had returned to Saldanha, three to Cape Town, one was under tow by a salvage vessel, three were sailing back – damaged but under their own steam, making a total of 10 out of 35, including Bille.

Cape Argus