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Canadian sailor rescued from sinking yacht in the South Pacific

For five desperate days, Art Munneke was alone on his sinking yacht in the South Pacific seas, losing hope while bailing water from a sailboat severely damaged by a storm, more than 1,100 kilometres from the nearest island.

The 63-year-old is now headed back home to Salt Spring Island by airplane. He was plucked from his ailing vessel by a Swedish freighter on Sunday, after the Swedes raced toward him for 12 hours to arrive before the weather turned nasty again in an unpredictable stretch of ocean.

"I didn't think I was going to make it; I thought for sure I was done," he told 3 News in Auckland, New Zealand, after the rescue. His 11-metre yacht L'Antillaise is lost, now marked as a navigational hazard on nautical maps.

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With round John Lennon-style glasses and thick wisps of white hair, Mr. Munneke is an experienced sailor. But the accounts from his interview with the television stations and rescuers indicate experience wasn't quite enough.

He left New Zealand on March 26 and was headed home. He had sailed his sloop through rough weather before, but the storm he faced a week later was different. The winds kept getting stronger the rain hitting his small yacht grew harder and the waves were getting higher. Then a crashing wave hit the sailboat and flipped it. Inside, Mr. Munneke was tossed around, suffering a gash over his left eye.

Broken glass and water washed around the boat, wrecking his equipment. The hull was damaged by the storm, allowing a steady flow of water into the vessel. For the next five days he struggled to stay afloat, limping toward the white beaches of the Cook Island of Rarotonga, more than 1,100-kilometres away.

The situation grew worse when the electric pump that was helping keep the boat dry failed. Unable to keep up with the flow of water, Mr. Munneke activated his emergency beacon on Sunday morning.

Dave Wilson was the mission co-ordinator for the New Zealand rescue centre. "There was no question the skipper was in serious danger," he said in a release from the rescue centre. An New Zealand air force search plane was sent to find the yacht.

Nearly 370 kilometres away from Mr. Munneke, the hulking Fidelio was cruising toward New Zealand. The freighter can carry as many as 8,000 cars. Just before noon, the first warning was sent to the ship. An hour later, First Officer Gustaf Karlsson was on the bridge when the Swedes were asked to find the foundering sloop.

"This is the first time this has happened to me and I've been at sea for nine years," Mr. Karlsson said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

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Just after 10:20 p.m. they made radio contact with Mr. Munneke. The first officer was standing on the deck of the Fidelio when they found Mr. Munneke just before midnight. Visibility was limited; it was raining and windy as four-metre swells pounded the yacht. The freighter pulled up alongside Mr. Munneke's vessel and he was able to climb a pilot ladder lowered to sea level.

"I was the first one to welcome him aboard," Mr. Karlsson said. "He looked tired and very wet; otherwise he was in a very good condition, both physically and mentally. He was swimming in a lot of adrenalin."

Known as the Roaring Forties, the stretch of ocean where Mr. Munneke was found has been favoured since the age of sail due to its strong, consistent winds. But those winds make the area prone to sudden and dangerous weather changes.

"I just spoke with the captain about the weather and it's very different when you reach around south 40 degrees latitude, it changes all the time and it can be quite difficult, it's bad," Mr. Karlsson said.

On board the freighter, the crew treated Mr. Munneke's injuries and offered him a hot shower, food and a cabin. The Canadian was in high spirits when the ship pulled into the Ports of Auckland three days later. He said he was ready to head home and "lick his wound."

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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More


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