Arriba the Ghost Yacht

Three days earlier we’d been blessed with perfect conditions sailing between Wirrina Cove and Boxing Bay, Kangaroo Island. Upon arrival, we tethered Arriba to the mooring in the western side of the bay in calm conditions. Happy that Arriba was secure, two family members and I went ashore where we enjoyed the next two days on land. Each evening I would check that Arriba’s anchor light shone brightly and the following morning I would check that she was still tethered to the mooring.

By the third morning, we were getting low on food supplies so we decided to set out for Kingscote, twenty minutes away by road. As we drove past Boxing Bay I glanced out to reassure myself that Arriba was where we had left her the day before. A storm had blown in late the previous day and winds had howled all night long. While the winds had subsided, the weather was still foul with an overcast sky and rain clouds hanging ominously offshore. I estimated visibility offshore was less than a mile.

As I cast my eyes over the bay, I could not believe what I was seeing – or what I was not seeing. Arriba was not on her mooring. In fact, neither Arriba nor the giant yellow mooring buoy was anywhere in sight. It was 10:30 am. There is no phone reception at Boxing Bay so we continued south along North Cape Road.

At 10:40 am there was finally mobile phone reception, albeit patchy. I pulled over and called 000.

“What is the nature of the emergency?” the female operator answered.

“I’d like to report a maritime emergency. My yacht is adrift somewhere off the north coast of Kangaroo Island.”

“Where exactly?”

“I don’t know exactly but somewhere north of Boxing Bay.”

“Is anyone on board?”


“It’s not a search and rescue matter then. I’ll notify the Police. They’ll call you back.”

I queried “Should I notify the Australian Maritime Safety Authority?”

“Yes, that’s a good idea.”

They hung up and a few minutes later I duly called AMSA. While a boat adrift in a shipping lane might seem like an emergency to its owner, technically it is not. AMSA informed me that they would, however, issue a maritime sécurité alert to notify passing vessels. They also suggested notifying the SeaLink ferry service and asking them to keep an eye out.

A few minutes later, at 11:01 am, I received a call from SA Police Water Operations. They confirmed the details of my earlier conversion with the 000 operator. They then explained that since it was not a matter for search and rescue, it was a matter for maritime salvage. I would need to contact a salvage operator.

“Who does salvage on Kangaroo Island?” I asked.

“Let me get back to you,” he kindly offered.

While I was waiting for the call from the police, I called my insurer and was immediately routed to voicemail. I tried again two minutes later, this time punching in different options, and managed to get through to someone. She explained that they were short-staffed due to the long weekend, but helpfully offered to find someone to help me.

The police called back at 11:24 am and suggested I contact Jamieson Marine for salvage. Jamo’s, as they are affectionately known, operate the island’s sole marine service center. In fact, I’d purchased an outboard engine from them two years earlier but hadn’t realized that they were in the salvage business too.

I received another call from the police a few minutes later. Using simulation software they had predicted Arriba’s location, estimating her position to be approximately six miles due north of Boxing Bay. I was ecstatic that Arriba was still relatively close to the north coast of Kangaroo Island, albeit adrift in a shipping lane.

I was about to call Jamo’s when, at 12:04 pm, I received a call from Peter from the local coast guard, which on KI is entirely staffed by volunteers. He explained that as there was no threat to life, technically, they were not in a position to send out a vessel. He advised, however, that there might be some “options” once the vessel’s precise location was known.

At 12:30 pm, I called Jamo’s and spoke with Brad. He reiterated, what by now I knew: with the poor visibility they would need precise coordinates, otherwise it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. He offered to call around to see if someone else might be up for the challenge, but there were no takers.

By then, word of a catamaran adrift in Investigator Strait was getting out. At 12:36 pm. I received a call from a friend, Andrew, who was anchored at the Cutter Patch near Troubridge Island on the other side of the strait.

“I heard over VHF that a cat was adrift in Investigator Strait. I don’t suppose it is yours?” he queried.

“It is! And with the mooring attached too!” I lamented.

“At least the weight on the bow should help keep Arriba pointing into the wind.”

“Can you keep an eye out for it? It is headed your way”, I replied, only half-joking.

I was becoming increasingly frustrated but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t fault a single person as everyone had been very understanding. The harsh reality was that in such poor conditions nothing could be done without a GPS fix. So we continued onto Kingscote and completed our errands.

At 1:52 pm I received a call from Nick, my insurer’s assessor.

After briefing him, he said, “The important thing right now is to find your vessel.”

“Sounds good. How do we do that?” I asked.

About then I cursed myself for crippling Arriba’s AIS just one week earlier. The unit’s GPS had been acting up so I’d taken it in for a service. Had the AIS GPS been transmitting I would have known Arriba’s precise location.

“Leave that to me. We just need a break in the weather,” he reassured me.

An hour later I called the coast guard back with an update, well, to say there was no new information.

At 3:28 pm, I received another call from the water police with an updated position estimate. Fortunately, there had not been strong east-west tidal flows and they estimated that Arriba was still approximately due north of Boxing Bay.

Peter from the coast guard called again at 4:35 pm, asking if anyone had reported a location. He suggested that I call Adelaide Airport and request that they notify the airlines.

After hanging up I called Adelaide Airport who fobbed me off to Air Services where I was dropped into voicemail. I left a message but was not confident that it would be heard anytime soon so I decided to contact a pilot friend, Simon.

“Simon, what’s the best way to get the word out to pilots flying into and out of Adelaide,” I asked.

“That would be the Adelaide Airport control tower. They routinely communicate with pilots in their airspace.”

“I tried calling Adelaide Airport but they routed me to Air Services.”

“No, you need to talk to air traffic controllers in the tower. Let me see. Yes, I have their number. Texting you now”.

Pilots, of course, normally communicate with air traffic controllers over VHF radio but they have a phone in the tower too. They kindly accepted my call and offered to get a message out to pilots to keep an eye out for Arriba and report her position.

Nick, the insurance assessor, called back at 7:21 pm.

“Has anyone reported Arriba’s position?” he asked.

“No, and according to the police’s model, she is somewhere in the middle of the strait,” I replied.

“We can’t do much today but at least the weather is clearing. We’ll find her in the morning.”

It would be dark in an hour but I took some comfort in the fact that Arriba’s anchor light was turned on.

The southern coast of Yorke Peninsula due north of Kangaroo Island is extremely rocky. Would I awake to the news that Arriba had smashed on the rocks? It would be a long night. At least we were well stocked with red wine.

The next morning we were blessed with clear skies and light winds from the south. That was the good news. The bad news was that the southerly winds were forecast to strengthen during the day. We, therefore, needed to find Arriba before those southerlies pushed her aground onto Yorke Peninsula.

At 9:08 am, I received a call from Nick. He had lined up a spotter plane and just needed my approval. Naturally, I approved.

An hour later I received the following SMS message from Nick:

Hi Alan. Kevin, who is one of the most experienced pilots in the state, is fueling his plane and will be in the air within 20 minutes. I have given him the water police prediction chart and a picture of a similar vessel. It will take him about half an hour to get there and he will ring me as soon as he sees anything.

At 11:25 am I received the call from Nick I’d been waiting for. Arriba had been spotted at -35.262, 137.6167, about six nautical miles south of Troubridge Point.

Yay! For the first time in twenty-five hours, I knew where my boat was. Now, I just needed to find a way there.

Two minutes later I called Peter with the KI coast guard. He offered to take me to Arriba providing there were no other emergencies. Fair enough.

We met at Emu Bay, at 12:15 pm, and were underway fifteen minutes later. Peter was joined by Ian and Paul.

Approaching Arriba.

An hour later we were abeam of Arriba. Peter skillfully brought the two vessels amidships and I hopped onto Arriba with ease.

After confirming that both of Arriba’s engines fired up, I waved the coastguard crew goodbye.

The seas were building and it took them 90 minutes to motor back to Emu Bay. I decided to motor sail and “sailed” back in just over three hours. By 5:00 pm I was safely anchored in Boxing Bay.

Arriba anchored at Boxing Bay.

What about the failed mooring, you may ask? This was the first source of my embarrassment. The mooring was of my own design and comprised three screw piles in a triangular configuration, each rated to withstand seven tons of force. It had successfully held fast for over a year in all kinds of conditions. That said, the mooring was only ever intended to be temporary and its primary purpose was to secure scientific equipment for AusOcean. Unfortunately, during installation, we’d been unable to fully sink the screw piles into the seafloor due to having hit rocks. All three piles were subsequently yanked out and all were found to be bent. I speculate that once they bent, instead of the vertical force that they were designed to withstand, the force moved sideways, eventually dislodging them.

The second source of my embarrassment was that I could have determined Arriba’s position at any time. All I needed was a web browser. The day after I was reunited with Arriba I held an AusOcean team meeting. I described Arriba’s adventure and mentioned that I’d hired a spotter plane to find her.

One of my interns casually mentioned, “But I could see Arriba’s position on the website.”

I was momentarily stunned by the comment. Then I remembered: Years ago when I first purchased Predict Wind, I’d opted into free vessel tracking. I hadn’t really thought much about how it actually worked till now. I knew that Arriba had an Iridium Go satellite hotspot on board that I used to access the Predict Wind weather service. I also knew that Iridium Go had a built-in GPS receiver. What I’d forgotten was that it was also a transceiver, i.e., could transmit GPS positions. Predict Wind evidently queried the Iridium network to obtain vessel positions.

PredictWind vessel tracking.

I’m not complaining, though. The cost of retrieving Arriba pales in comparison to what might have happened had she ended up shattered on the rocks of southern Yorke Peninsula.

Shakespeare was right when he wrote: “All’s well that ends well.” Of course, that was a comedy, not the story of a ghost yacht.