The Kiwi co-owner of a 14m yacht that smashed on to a reef west of Noumea had little warning he was about to spark a rescue involving three countries and lose his "treasured" home.
New Zealander Rob Cole, 41, his partner of 12 years American Mark Iaconetti, also 41, and two French crew members will arrive in Brisbane this morning on board the P&O cruise liner Pacific Sun that rescued them from a liferaft after their cutter-rigged sloop, Sambaluka, sank on Friday.
They were sailing from Noumea to Brisbane when they hit an uncharted reef 350 nautical miles west of Noumea early Friday morning.
Iaconetti, who has recently been made a New Zealand citizen, said the yacht was under full sail and making five or six knots when, without warning, the depth sounder showed they were rapidly running out of water.
"We hear a boom! Then we hear another boom, boom! Suddenly we were in the middle of a reef. It happened in 10 seconds."
The stricken yacht began taking on water and the crew set off an emergency locator beacon registered to New Zealand. The signal was picked up by Rescue Co-ordination Centre staff in Wellington, who also picked up a weak mayday call from the yacht. For the next few hours the desperate crew tried to keep the engine running and bailed by hand to keep afloat.
As the water rose, Cole and Iaconetti watched helplessly as personal possessions washed away and sank.
"It was like the Titanic when it went down," Iaconetti said. "The boat was just sinking and sinking and finally the level was up to the level of the table and we were on an angle."
After the engine room flooded and the engine cut out, the crew were still able to communicate on a battery-powered single sideband radio and VHF with a French military aircraft, which dropped a 15-man liferaft.
The liferaft blew on to the reef, and the crew could not reach it due to the rough conditions.
Australian rescue authorities radioed the Pacific Sun, en route from Port Vila in Vanuatu to Brisbane with 1900 passengers on board, requesting the vessel to change its course to rescue the Sambaluka's crew 120 nautical miles away.
For the Pacific Sun's captain, Justin Lawes, the rescue was his third in a 23-year career at sea. It was an anxious six hours for Lawes, who was not able to communicate directly with the stricken yacht but was told the crew had been forced to abandon the sinking vessel and get in the liferaft.
"There are many dangers in a reef - coral, rocks and sharks," Lawes said last night. "The tide was rising, the wind was strong, 25 knots, and there was a large swell. Just as we caught sight of them, the yacht slipped under the waves. I can't imagine how happy they were to see us arrive. It must have been amazing for them."
The shallow and uncharted waters where the yacht ran aground meant the Sun Pacific was forced to keep its distance, one nautical mile away from the Sambaluka while a motorised lifeboat picked up the crew.
Stressed, shaken and suffering from shock, the four sailors were otherwise unharmed when checked by medical staff on the liner. They quickly tucked into a steak dinner and a bottle of wine, Lawes said. "I'm so relieved for them. And so very proud of how my crew handled it."
The solid-teak yacht was purpose-built for offshore cruising and was insured for about half of its $300,000 value. Cole's mother Lenore, who lives in Waiuku, said her son and his partner had planned to cruise the Pacific before heading to Brisbane, where they planned to work for a short time.
Her son was devastated with the shock loss of his home and possessions, she said.
"Everything they own is lost and it's extremely sad, but I know it could have been a lot worse if it was rough seas. Rob's just devastated. They're heartbroken.
"To lose their treasured home and all their personal belongings along with the lovely boat is so sad for them."
She could not express enough gratitude to the Pacific Sun for turning around and rescuing the crew.
- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NZPA