Shipwreck ends couple's round-the-world dream

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The Independent Online
A British couple, plucked from a storm-lashed rock after being shipwrecked in the Southern Ocean, were yesterday struggling to come terms with the consequences of their ordeal - lucky to be alive but a dream of sailing round the world shattered.

"Everything we have had for the past two-and-a-half years is now at the bottom of the ocean," said Doreen Cheek, recovering in Hobart, Tasmania. "All our photographs, clothes, gifts for our family - everything. It's all just gone forever."

A few hours earlier material considerations were not a priority. Peter and Doreen Cheek's 39-foot yacht Talis II was being battered by 100 mph winds and huge waves against rocks off Maatsuyker Island, 18 miles south of Tasmania.

Half way through a five-year round-the-world voyage, the couple, from the Isle of Wight, had anchored off the main island intending to go ashore and film sea lions and seals. But the wind changed and started to blow on shore, dragging the yacht's two anchors across the sea-bed.

It was dark, and by the time the Cheeks realised their predicament their 20-year old sloop was against the rocks.

"We knew that was the end of the yacht because of this great rock we were just humping up on and rolling from side to side. I expected the boat to just cave in," Mr Cheek, 62, told BBC Radio Five Live.

The couple grabbed some belongings and scrambled into a dinghy, but it was crushed between the yacht and the rock.

"We both went under and came up. I grabbed hold of some kelp and pulled myself up on to the rocks and my wife hung on to my foot. I managed to pull her up as well and we got out." But the ordeal for Mr Cheek and his 58-year-old wife was not over. They were stranded in atrocious conditions on a rock off a barren island, noted as the home off Australia's most southerly lighthouse.

In the haste of abandoning the yacht there was time only to broadcast one brief mayday message and they feared that might have been mistaken for a joke. "We were scared no one would turn up looking for us," said Mr Cheek. "We thought we might have to end up eating seal meat."

But luckily another yacht sheltering from the storm picked up the message and an rescue was launched. An aircraft sent from Hobart was unable to spot the couple so a long-range helicopter was set off from Sale on the Australian mainland. The Cheeks were eventually sighted by the lighthouse keeper. Huddled on their rock, cut off by 25 feet of deep, rough water, they had pulled grass over themselves to keep warm.

Ten hours after sending their mayday plea, the couple were lifted off by a helicopter winchman in conditions described by pilot Jim Llewellyn as the worst he had experienced for a rescue in 23 years. David Gray, of the Australian Search and Rescue Service, said the Cheeks were lucky to be alive. "No one goes down there. It's very, very wild."

The couple were flown to hospital in Hobart suffering from mild hypothermia.

Mr Cheek said: "We have worked so long and so hard on this project. It was not so much frightening, it's just so disappointing to have let this sort of thing happen."

All that was left yesterday of their dream and the yacht Mr Cheek had worked on outside their home in East Cowes was a mast poking above the waves of a lonely ocean. They are now intending to return home to the Isle of Wight.

Mr and Mrs Cheek are experienced ocean sailors and also lucky ones. In 1979, during the same storm that took lives of leading yachtsmen in the Fastnet Race, Mrs Cheek was swept off the deck of Talis II and only survived by grabbing a rope trailing overboard.

"The gods seem to be on their side," their 34-year-old daughter Sue said yesterday.