What search? Kiwi seadog tells his tale

01:22, Sep 26 2011

A New Zealand seadog believed lost aboard a small yacht in the hurricane-swept North Atlantic turned up alive and well today in Portmagee, Ireland.

Frank Cooper, 62, did not know three nations were looking for him and the 10-metre Golden Eagle.

"Delivering boats and living on 'em and sailing 'em is all adventure as long as you survive mate," he said between a meal of roast duck and promises of his first shower in more than a month.

Cooper sailed out of Bermuda on August 21, crewing for its owner, 70-year-old Norwegian Arvid Moe, who was taking the cutter to his home in Bergen.

When the boat did not reach Ireland two weeks ago, a search was launched by Norway, Ireland and France amid fears they had been caught in a hurricane.

Cooper said the Golden Eagle was small.

"She rolls like a drunken pig," he said, and was underpowered. He used most of the diesel aboard to motor-sail up into northern latitudes where he expected westerlies.

"We got them all right; we got the tail ends of two hurricanes, one on top of the other."

Winds were around 60 knots, which Cooper viewed as little more than a strong breeze.

"The seas were pretty impressive and every time you come on deck to deal with something, the spray striking the boat sounded like a handful of gravel being thrown. And on deck as it hit you, it hurt."

Waves were 100 to 150 metres apart, with crests of between seven and nine metres.

"The wind was blowing the crest right off, just like bullets."

The boat had a VHF radio with a range of around 80 kilometres and no long range radio.

Cooper did not believe they were in trouble but the owner had not allowed for the vagaries of weather. He believed that passage would last 25 days.

"When it didn't, the owners' brother in Norway pulled all the bells and whistles out for his lost brother."

Golden Eagle, launched in 1976, was a staunch boat.

"I would go anywhere in that boat, the hull is very thick and very strong.

"And if we had of been in something like these chicken shit Beneteau, Jeanneau or Hunters or anything like that, I would not be talking to you now."

In the hurricane they discovered termite damage on the bowsprit which started coming back toward the deck, threatening to take down the entire rig.

Cooper had some webbing tie-down straps: "Great stuff, Chinese made, but that saved our bacon boy".

The repair slowed them because they could not fully unfurl their jib and a samson post on the deck had broken away.

They had three emergency locator beacons.

"I always carry my own, I have my own delivery kit. I bring my own epirbs [locator beacons], compass, hand-bearing compass, two GPS, charts, and various other things I need.

"I threw a bag on board, and thank God I did."

He had ensured they had plenty of food aboard.

"We ran out of beer and the owner hogged his private stock of vodka and Baileys and I wasn't allowed in."

Cooper said he ended up running the boat solo day and night.

"The owner is inexperienced and elderly and very shaky on his pins and he's 70 years old.

"I am 62 but, for Christ sake mate, I do this stuff everyday."

Cooper had saved a few litres of diesel for landfall, reaching Portmagee in County Kerry early this morning New Zealand time.

"It was just amazing. To me it was just a case of we got here, thank God we are here.

"I was just going to put on my gumboots and walk up the wharf and have a beer."

Instead the local press greeted him.

Now in a waterfront lodge he got what he wanted quickly sorted.

"Been drinking a couple of Carlsbergs, having a nice roast duck dinner, topped off with apple crumble.

"Going to have a shower and have a nice bunk with a nice sleep."

In a couple of days he will resume passage to Bergen.

He'll tighten up the riggings and find paper charts. On his own boat in the Caribbean he has 11,000 paper charts, but had not sailed the Irish coast before.

Against his better judgment for the voyage he went modern.

"I was relying on a fancy $3000 Garmin chart plotter and it shit the bed about 10 days ago. I didn't have any charts."

Cooper, who sailed out of Auckland in 1979, owns Circe, a 32-ton yacht. It was the last boat produced by legendary naval architect Francis Herreshoff.

Cooper sailed it around the world for seven years. He reckoned he pumped 50 million litres of water out of her during the voyage. He left port with $29 and kept going with his skills.

"I deliver boats, I build boats, I rebuild boats, I design boats, I build guitars, I make custom made furniture, I do bars, make bar-tops, custom woodwork for houses. Whatever comes along I do it.

"My whole life has been around boats. I've been a boatwright for 41 years, I've lived in more than 20 countries."

He accepts he is an old man of the sea now.

"If you stick at it long enough, you get at it - I've tried in a half-hearted desultory manner,  to get out of damn yachts."