Video by Óli Lindenskov and Hjaltur Poulsen
"It seemed too unbelievable that this was happening," said Nat Wilson.
The Sheila Yeates breaks away from the Kiviuq.
At first Geoff assumed that the Kiviuq could plow a way through the ice to open water and the Sheila Yeates would follow. But the prop wash from the trawler’s powerful engines sent the ice swirling and pounding against the hull of the Sheila Yeates. The plan quickly changed. Geoff agreed to be towed through the ice, with the Kiviuq crew hauling the Sheila Yeates up into their trawler bay at the stern of the ship. But in order to clear the stern gallows, the Sheila Yeates crew spent hours dismantling the important rigging, her jib stay and head stays, and then securing the hawsers and bridle so that she could be hauled into the ramp.
Once secured in place, it was time to get both ships out of the sea ice to the safety of open water as quickly as possible. The rescue had taken much longer than anticipated. In her precarious position in the trawler bay, it was too dangerous for anyone to remain on the sailboat, so Geoff and his crew climbed on board the Kiviuq.
It was a rough passage from sea ice to open water for the Sheila Yeates. First, the Kiviuq was zigzagging through the ice floes to avoid large growlers. The motion sent the Sheila Yeates banging against the sides of the trawler bay. As they motored through the steep swells at the ice edge, the Sheila Yeates was a hobbyhorse, sinking in the trough of a wave when the Kiviuq was rising and rising in a swell when the Kiviuq was descending. This violent motion tore off her bowsprit, billet, cathead and topmast. If the ship had been built with screws instead of rivets, she would never have survived the ordeal. Then as the Kiviuq and Sheila Yeates made open water, the towline broke, sounding like a gunshot and recoiling with such force that it ricocheted over the deckhouse of the Kiviuq with a crash.
The Sheila Yeates broke its tow line as it came out of the ice. Geoff (in sweater) watches as Hans
Petersen climbs aboard to attach another tow line as the seas build.
The Kiviuq and Sheila Yeates moved slowly eastward in the North Atlantic.
The Sheila Yeates was suddenly floating crewless in the North Atlantic receding into the ocean swells behind the Kiviuq. Hans Petersen, one of the Kiviuq crew known as HP, quickly donned his survival suit and lowered their inflatable dinghy into the water. Rick Palm followed him and they raced across the waves to re-connect the Sheila Yeates. A bridle was secured around the hull of the Sheila Yeates and two lines were tied to the stern of the Kiviuq. There was about 500-feet of towline to ease the stress on the sailboat. The Sheila Yeates seemed to prefer the extra space, dutifully following behind the Kiviuq. She would do so for over 500 miles over the next three days.
“It’s the high drama rescue of the century,” Geoff radioed home. “We have a strong crew. Nobody gave up. But all that night we were out of the real world!” By now
both crews had been up for hours, with the Sheila Yeates crew having been awake for nearly 20 hours. Dazed and exhausted, Geoff and his crew finally climbed into warm, dry bunks to get some needed rest. Nat had been injured on the first day of poling through the ice and his foot and leg were swollen and blue. The crew put cold packs on his foot while he propped it up on his bunk. But all were accounted for and grateful to the Kiviuq crew for their rescue. Camaraderie was high.
Now warm, dry and fed, the crew of the Sheila Yeates could not believe their luck. Not only had they been rescued, but Captain Fancy also planned to take them to the Shetland Islands, one of their destinations and a good place to make boat repairs. In addition, the crew now had Danish beer, Danish bread and hot showers. “We were suddenly fat, dumb and happy on our way to the Shetlands,” said Geoff.
Standing a watch several days later, Nat tried to express his gratitude. “I don’t know how to begin to thank you all for saving us from the ice”, he told Kiviuq’s First Mate, Cecil Bannister.” Bannister replied, “You know, one day it will be us out there.” That was all that needed to be said.
Everyone was in high spirits until the weather report predicted a front moving in with gale force winds and heavy seas. As conditions deteriorated, the seas grew. For the next two days the Sheila Yeates crew donned survival suits, and HP took them in the Kiviuq’s inflatable zodiac to check for leaks on the Sheila Yeates.
On the second day crew manually pumped the bilge and tried to secure the topsail.
Photo by Nat Wilson
Going out to Sheila Yeates for the last time
Video by Hjaltur Poulsen
The trip was harrowing amid the building waves, and trying to jump from a violently bobbing dinghy to the side of a 50-foot ketch was a daring act of gymnastics. It was difficult enough for the younger crew and amazing that Geoff, now 76, still had the dexterity to match their moves. Much to everyone’s surprise, there was very little water inside Sheila Yeates on the first day of towing.
On day two, the Sheila Yeates was riding lower in the water. This time the crew found water up to the sole of the chart room. The ignition was under water and there was no way to start the engine to pump the water. The crew worked furiously to pump her manually. The strain of being hauled through ocean swells was pulling hard on the bow of the Sheila Yeates and water was seeping in through seems that were opening between her wooden planks.
On the third day the Sheila Yeates had settled dangerously low in the water. It was in desperate need of pumping, but for some unexplainable reason, the motor on the Kiviuq’s zodiac would no longer start. The crew tried everything to get it going but nothing worked. There was now no way to reach the Sheila Yeates.
“To describe feelings when you know it is inevitable that (the ship) is going to founder. It’s so solemn,” said Geoff years later while describing his loss. “It was 12 hours of agony because you know what the end result is going to be. The vessel is going to founder and there is nothing you can do.”
Winds on the third day had risen to Force 8 on the Beaufort scale; 39-46 miles per hour. The crew watched helplessly from the stern of the Kiviuq as the Sheila Yeates sank deeper into the heavy seas. Her bow kept rising to meet the crest of each wave just the way her Nova Scotia boat builders had designed her to do. But with her cabin flooding the sea was overwhelming her from within. Watching this beautiful vessel resist the waves was difficult for everyone, but especially difficult for Geoff who sat high on the stern rigging, motionless and speechless.
The final moments of the Sheila Yeates
Video by Óli Lindenskov and Hjaltur Poulsen
On July 17 at 11:20 GMT the Sheila Yeates foundered and while she put up a final struggle, she slowly sank beneath the waters of the North Atlantic at 60° 55.3 North Latitude, 28° 29.8 West Longitude. The top of her mast circled above the water for a moment, as if signaling a final salute, before it too disappeared from view.
Geoff walked from his position at the back of the trawler into the pilothouse with a vacant look. The assembled crew were silent. He asked Captain Fancy if he could use the satellite phone and made a call to his good friend Tim Carlson in Minnesota. His first words were, “She is no more.” From that moment Geoff took full responsibility for the loss of the Sheila Yeates but it would be a wound that never healed.
“Everyone had their heart in their throat for the loss of the boat, for Geoff, his dream, his world,” remembered Nat.
“It was absolutely heart-stopping,” said Rick. “Geoff had made the Sheila Yeates his life. And it was me watching Geoff watching her go, that made it harder.”
“There wasn’t one grown man not crying,” said Mike. “Geoff’s hurting and everyone was hurting for him. Then suddenly I realized the importance of the ship; all the things the Sheila Yeates had made happen, all the people she brought together, all the laughs and stories that were associated with her. Then I watched the bubbles come up as the boat disappeared. It was heart breaking and gut wrenching. It was a funeral.”
The look on Geoff Pope’s face spoke of a loss that no words could express. It was more than the loss of a boat, more than the loss of 50-feet of handcrafted wood. Boats have a persona, which is why, as Geoff said, “We name them after our daughters and our wives.” And that is why it felt like a death in the family. The ship had brought a lifetime of friends and adventure to Geoff and all who sailed her. It had taken a lifetime of dreaming to build the Sheila Yeates but only a few days to lose her.
60° 55.3 North Latitude, 28° 29.8 West Longitude.
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