CHEEKI RAFIKI: Hull Found, Search Suspended

19 May

Cheeki upside down

The U.S. Coast Guard are coming under major pressure today after they announced yesterday they were suspending their search for possible survivors from Cheeki Rafiki, a Beneteau First 40.7 that went missing in the North Atlantic about 1,000 miles east of Cape Cod on Friday. On Saturday a container ship participating in the search, Maersk Kure, found an overturned hull, with no keel (see photo up top), that most likely was Cheeki Rafiki, but they were unable to inspect the hull closely and found no other debris, no liferaft, and no other signs of survivors. Various luminaries, including Robin Knox-Johnston, the crew’s families, and tens of thousands people who have endorsed an online petition are pleading with the Coast Guard to resume the search.

Cheeki, which is managed by a British firm, Stormforce Coaching, had raced at Antigua and was being delivered back to the UK by an experienced crew of four. They contacted Stormforce on Thursday to report they were taking on water and were diverting to the Azores. On Friday two satellite rescue beacons were ignited–evidently these were personal beacons, not the ship’s EPIRB–and there’s been no word since.

Cheeki racing

Cheeki Rafiki racing at Antigua earlier this month. She finished first in the CSA 5 division

Cheeki map

Last known location

A very tough call this. Knox-Johnston and others are claiming it is “very likely” the crew is adrift in a liferaft, but I’m not so sure. Assuming that the overturned hull is the boat in question, it may be she flipped very suddenly when the keel fell off. (An impending keel failure may well be what was causing the leak.) Two crew on deck thrown suddenly into the water as the boat turtled would explain the personal beacons being ignited. A sudden inversion would also explain why the ship’s EPIRB, presumably stored below, wasn’t ignited. If there was no time to light off the EPIRB, there likely wouldn’t have been enough time to launch and board a liferaft.

It’s a shame the container ship crew couldn’t check out that hull in detail. There could be bodies onboard. But conditions at the time were very strong, and a container ship, obviously, isn’t equipped for that sort of work.

My sudden-inversion scenario is purely speculative, but based on the facts we have now, it seems the likeliest explanation. It certainly makes you think about modern keels. I have bloviated before about the vulnerability of keels on high-end race boats, but this was a common production boat. Unfortunately, other such boats have also lost keels in the past. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to take it for granted that my keel will stay put.

The Coast Guard reports they searched 53 hours for survivors, and that the estimated best-case survival time given the conditions was 20 hours. The crew onboard were James Male, Andrew Bridge, Steve Warren, and Paul Goslin, all from great Britain.


  1. First Last

    I am replying to the post of PeterC. Peter, the sea state that you see in the picture is relatively calm because the hull of the ship is providing a lee. Your very uninformed statement ” ALL merchant ships are trained in lowering a lifeboat at sea – they are required to do this every time they leave a port or voyage.” if you are implying that the lifeboats must be launched, this is grossly incorrect; at least for ships that leave the Ports of Long Beach / LA. American flagged vessels are required by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) to periodically during a set time period to inspect and launch “lifeboats” Individual ship owner policy my dictate more frequent launchings. The USCG mandates “Man overboard drills” without the requirement to launch a lifeboat. What is very important, is that the lifeboats are primarily designed to accommodate and launch crew into the water in the case of imminent sinking or destruction of the ship by fire or explosion. These lifeboats are not conducive for close quarters maneuvering. If the ship had a RIB, it would have been possible. To stop, engage in maneuvers or proceed at minimum steerage in order to inspect debris is a very arduous task for a ship. “pure callousness on the masters’ part.”. To risk crew to do a close up inspection of what appears to be flotsam, jetsam, under those conditions, let alone trying to enter the vessel to verify, identify and retrieve dead bodies is a difficult task. As another commenter wrote, search and rescue of an underwater hull needs expert divers.

  2. Hutchinson

    So when will there be a thorough investigation into the number of keel failures on these modern yachts. All other safety requirements are covered. It seems that we have forgotten the hard lessons learnt for the past. Long keels = ocean-going. Fins = pond.

  3. ken jackson

    Very Sad day to learn that life raft still in position and that the crew did not have a chance. Lots of q’s remain and as a sailing instructor having freelanced in the SOLENT area and a delivery skipper, I as the recipient of a phone call from a concerned skipper in the middle of the Atlantic would have advised with immediate effect before continuing the conversation, order that skipper to get crew to make ready deployment of life raft and start getting GRABBAG, EPIRB essentials ASAP, then try to talk through a resolution as the Azores were dam far away.
    As for the pic of upturned hull – its obvious the ingress of water was from the keel working loose and that the patch of hull missing was as the keel bolt pulled out they peeled the fibreglass/epoxy exterior sheeting with it.
    Its a big ocean out there – BE PREPARED FOR ANYTHING….

  4. Steve Langdon

    Inadequate design. Inadequate manufacture. See Marchaj on Seaworthiness. Fastnet ’79 here we go again.

  5. Lisa Ferris

    I think its time all cargo and sea fairing vessels be equipped with all means of search and rescue apparatus and equipment…

  6. Hilton Libanori

    It seems that a loose keel fixation started the leak and, finally, when it was lost, the boat was knocked down. Considering that that was the problem, it could had been prevented. In my opinion, it is important to retrieve the boat and proceed with an expertise. This could lead to new construction standards. It is the way it is done in the aviation industry. Why not with million-dollars’s yachts? Furthermore, as a military doctor, I would not stop the rescue efforts so easily.

  7. John D

    An other opinionated comment , pure speculation from your part , Beneteau are as good as their crew,and stronger than you can believe, as a sailor and a pilot,,and ex Beneteau owner I only see lack of knowledge saying that the picture show a calm sea, what seems calm to you might be 15 ft high, did a delivery to San Andres island few years again with seas 15 to 18, asked a cargo ship how is the weather prediction, they answer calm, even if a trop depression was over San Andres, calm for him is not so calm for other. Same with turbulences, not the same if you are in a Cessna or a Piper or if you are in a 747. Loosing a keel can append in a Beneteau or any other fin keel sailboat.When you love to sail, you know that anything can append, and anywhere, I just hope those guys make it.

  8. stephany

    Many sailboats made by US or europeans shipyards have lost their keel the last ten years. No more Beneteau that others. That’s stupid to say “Not surprised it’s …. “If this picture shows a calm sea…someone needs a pair of glasses. That looks very bad for the sailors. That the important point.7 transats in my logbook.

  9. Chad

    On the issue of the liferaft and EPIBR not being found, that’s not a huge surprise. The Hammer release is designed to deploy when it has sunk to a depth of 13′-15′. The cockpit and foredeck of that overturned hull are no more than 3′-4′ under water. Once the hull sinks, the life raft may eventually be found, assuming it was stowed on deck. Additionally, it is possible that if the EPIRB has a hydrostatic release, it may go off at some point in the future as well. It doesn’t mean anyone was alive, it will just mean that the hull finally sank below 15′.

  10. Chad

    The merchant ship came within 40 ft or so of the hull. They wouldn’t be able to put down their rescue boat as there was certainly lines and rigging that would have fouled the rescue boat’s prop. And there was nothing to be gained by putting the rescue boat in anyway. If there was anyone alive on the boat, they would have come out. And there is no way anyone from the freighter could get inside the hull to help if they couldn’t get out. First they don’t carry dive gear and a wetsuit and second, even if they did, it would be too dangerous for anyone other than a trained rescuer due to the rigging and flotsam in and around the boat. The FIRST rule of search and rescue is “Don’t turn one dead body into two”. There was nothing to be gained by looking for dead bodies in the hull and lives would have been risked to do so. The master of the freighter made exactly the right call.

  11. Dick Bennett

    My boat suffered a violent total capsize in force 10, 200 miles south of Iceland. All three on board survived because the boat ( Freedom 35 ) SELF RIGHTED, the carbon fibre spars remained intact and we deployed a parachute drogue. We were able to sail 400 miles to Scotland without assistance.
    If the boat had not self righted we would have been unable to access life raft or epirb and we would have died. Would a First 41.5 self right without its keel(or with it) ? Would most modern production yachts ?

  12. PeterC

    Gee – that sure looks like a completely flat/calm sea in that picture. Completely the opposite of what the Maersk and CG reported about storms and 8 ft. seas. ALL merchant ships are trained in lowering a lifeboat at sea – they are required to do this every time they leave a port or voyage. Amazing they did not stop and investigate – pure callousness on the masters’ part. NOt surprised it’s a Beneteau – they are notorious for being lightly and daintily made. The wrong boat for the north Atlantic.

  13. Brent Grimbeek

    Sailing around the world as we are at the moment … I feel heartbroken for this young skipper and his crew and family members. Knowing what I do being at sea and circumnavigating the globe sometimes in the worst imaginable weather conditions, I must say that sea going farers can be pretty resourceful when it comes to survival. There is EVERY hope of there being a survivor … still! Please do not give up on these young people … I know of people who have survived much longer in worse conditions. Sometimes, survivors are in upturned hulls surviving if they have a hand type water maker and so on … the hull needs to be checked …
    I am concerned that 2 EPIRBS went off … and ultimately … where we are led to believe these devices will save our lives, I am now not as trusting in this technology than I had felt just a week before.
    I would like to know what went on at the rescue co-ordination centre after the EPIRBS were ignited and why there was a failure to locate these people who clearly had purchased and were wearing the safety devices … surely in this day and age where billions are spent on technology in weapons of mass destruction with pinpoint accuracy, we can spend a little money in rescuing people at sea … and with a device that calls out its position repetitively with GPS co ordinates … why has this technology failed these young people?

  14. Ed Shankle

    Probability is infinite. A call has to be made at some point. And remember, those who decide to take the risks do bear the responsibility of the outcome. The CG can only provide so much support.

  15. Seb Sailor

    I feel terrible for the family and friends of the crew and skipper, and can completely understand and sympathize with their pleading for a continuation of the search as long as there is even the tiniest hope to find survivors (or even to find closure with the firm knowledge what happened). However, I have less understanding for the “tens of thousands” of people who, based (presumably) on incomplete information, have joined this quest. I have to wonder whether any of these supporters of “keep searching no matter how small the chances and how high the costs” are among the same people who, only a few weeks ago, where adamantly rejecting any criticism of the couple with the very young child who had to be rescued (successfully, but also at great costs) from their boat by the Coast Guard. A lot of sentiments expressed then were of the type “Go for it – let the worrywarts stay onshore while you give your child the experience of a lifetime”. Yes, that sounds good – until something bad happens. Do you really believe that the shore bound “worry warts” (who realize that sailing, especially blue water sailing, is inherently a dangerous undertaking) should pay their taxes without complaint so that millions can be spent on the (very likely hopeless) search for survivors once things go badly?

  16. Bill Howlett

    My name is still on the title of a 1991 Beneteau 35.5 First; my partner Brian bought me out, but he hasn’t changed the registration or title. I am now nervous because I once lost steering and an out of control boom smacked the head of my only crew. Why did the steering break? Does the builder use inferior parts? The winged keel felt weak under pressure conditions and unless the wind was spilled, the steering could easily go out of control. My inclination is to go after Beneteau. How many other owners have had major problems?

  17. Liz

    Hi. I’ve been a skipper for many years and around the globe, on a lot of different seas and oceans, as well as on a lot of different boats below 60ft (my favourites). There are a few things that does not make me feel at ease when I read all this correspondence : 1) I don’t know how one can say that 20hrs is the limit for survival. So many people have survived terrible ordeals because human nature has this ability to fight the impossible. 20hrs is… Nothing! 2) I can understand that Maersk Kude did not want to send a crew onto the water to check the hull. But… it does not appear anywhere that the rescue teams have tried. What if they were (or had been) inside? 3) We all know as sailors that maintenance is 90% of your job. The boat has just won a race week in its category, i.e. has surely been pushed to its limits to win it. From the dates, it sounds that the boat left very soon after the finish. Has a real thorough check been done to the boat prior to departure for an ocean passage? 4) Blaming the builder is an option BUT… remember it was a production racing cruiser, built to be light, builders build boats to respond to buyers’ requests and price is always a major feature. You cannot expect to have a Rolls Royce if you buy a Ford, even if it is a very Ford! Of course, I am not eliminating the possibility that there could have been a design failure. But what I often see is that people use and push their boats beyond what they were designed for. If it works for a few years, why not continue? The wear and tear, already big by itself on sail boats, is greater when the boat is pushed to its limits. And it becomes extremely difficult to assess its real damages and apply a good maintenance drill. 5) I would also like to put another point forward: I read the captain was very experienced… aged 21. How experienced can a 21 year old be for an W-E ocean passage on a 40ft racing cruiser responsible for 3 other people? What would his reactions be in a situation of chaos and drama? taking water, losing the keel, capsizing, not being able to deploy the life raft, etc. 6) I read he was the only one paid on board. Was the owner company trying to minimize its costs? What are its responsibilities in enrolling this team? Why is only one person paid when the boat cannot be sailed alone? How much was the young fellow paid for to accept to sail this boat across? By always trying to minimize their running costs, charter companies gamble with people’s life, this is very obvious. The hard days we small boat captains have been living in the last few years make us accept jobs on boats that are sometimes hardly seaworthy. But we often only find it out at sea… And there are more and more captains on the market because sailing has become so easy with the progress in technology (chart plotters, affordable radars, satellite communications…)… Not all of them know how to apprehend tough situations. 7) I am not surprised that the EPIRD or the liferaft did not work or deploy. For me it sounds more like a miracle if they do in the right time! These items are safety aids not 100% safety insurance! I think if we want 100% safety, we ought to stay in a harbour or better change job!

  18. Liz

    Hi. I’ve been a skipper for many years and around the globe. There are a few things that puzzle me in all this correspondance : 1) I don’t know how one can say that 20hrs is the limit for survival. We know by experience that so many people have survived terrible ordeals because human nature has this ability to fight the impossible. 2) I can understand th

  19. Doug L

    I do not mean to be too callus but the wreck was found 1000 miles offshore, they searched for 53 hours, 33 hours longer than the Coast Guard thought was survivable. Eventually it comes down to cost, and I am not willing to spend more of my tax money searching when survival is unlikely. And for thist who compare to the M-370 flight, I believe way too much has been wasted looking for that plane long after there was any hope.

  20. Ralph

    I have sailed commercially and can tell you from the bridge of a cargo ship, a boat of this size looks like a dinghy; it is impossible and very dangerous for a crew to attempt to board a capsized boat looking for survivors, no sane Master will send a boarding party out in a situation like this, further more, only the Coast Guard and Navy are trained in this kind of operation.

  21. Jocelyn Baylow

    After reading the specs on this yacht in Cruising World – google it – , I tend to agree with the the article’s author re the 8′ draught bulb keel detachment. As they were not racing, I can believe the life raft was stowed securely in the area designed for this. But “numerous hatches & porthole openings in the deck”, “minimum 24″h. lifelines”,”1055 s.f. of sail”, & the portable-for-cruising storage cabinetry, etc, in the wide open interior spaces do not bode well in a quick knockdown & sickening 180 deg roll, despite the ocean rated vinyl-resin hull & balsam core. I can believe the 4 young experienced crew members loved the opportunity to sail this nimble racer – God bless them….

  22. Ben Wechsler

    The U.S.C.G. is very, very, very good at calculating where anyone adrift would likely be given a known starting point and time. The report indicates that the expected survival time under the conditions was 20 hours, and they searched for 53 hours. IF there were people in a liferaft, there was certainly no EPIRB with them, and someone could have gotten it out of the capsized hull. The two EPIRBs that were activated had stopped. Just how long would you expect the search to go on? If they went another 20 hours, would people want 20 more? At some point, rational calculation has to control. It is unfortunate, but for whatever reason, speculation aside, the boat capsized and there is no reason to expect to find any survivors after the extent of the search that was conducted. (The comparison to the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is absurd!)

  23. Brian Hess

    I skipper a 1976 model year Camper-Nicholson 33 by Ron Holland here in the Puget Sound. I love my boat. I know she is safe and sturdy and bluewater worthy, as she was built in England and sailed all over the world, including the North Atlantic. I am her new skipper and have spent a lot of time on her in the last year I’ve owned her.

    What I am curious about is the hull design and keel issues with these newer (and very expensive) Beneteau Firsts. Is this becoming a common issue? I would think that if you are going to spend almost a million dollars (or more) on a vessel such as this that they would have been designed with more safety in mind. What about the liferaft deployment locker? Why not design a boat that would automatically release die markers and the raft if it is capsized or sank? And if the boat sank, the beacon on board should have been activated on it’s own. If they can do it on Naval vessels, I am sure that they can do so on a sloop.

    Ultimately, the keel should NEVER separate from the hull–otherwise it is extremely poor engineering.

    My condolences to the families and friends of the lost crew. The whole point of my comment is to direct questions to the naval architects that are designing these vessels, because sailing is dangerous, and they should put preservation of the lives of the crew into the design of the vessels they create in front of performance when possible. It’s one thing to put a “disclaimer” into the dangers of sailing, but PFDs are not just life preservers, they are auto-deployable and saltwater activated equipment like rafts, die markers, and gps personal locators.

  24. Ren

    I don’t get why the Maersk ship left without checking. I do believe they have life rafts they can lower/launch and re-use ?

  25. First Last

    I am amazed that people are indulging in not so realistic expectations. “There is a good change”. “Most likely…”. No, there is a “possibility” they may have survived, as well as the negative, “possibility they did not survive. My interpretation of the events: A keel failure, a flip, no one able to egress the boat and or deploy a life raft.

  26. Richard Parent

    I skipper a Beneteau 456SD and check my Keel bolts regularly. We race the boat on the coast of Maine. When I first purchased the “Beausoleil” it had blisters on the bottom which Beneteau fixed at their expense. I remember that they took core samples that revealed 1.5 inches of solid fiberglass on the bottom. Whenever I sit at the starting line in light winds I am not pleased at the weight of the vessel but when we are screaming in 25knot winds, I know that she will perform and be a solid and safe platform for me and my crew. I agree that they probably carried life rafts and some of them should have survived. I don’t know why their EPIRB didn’t signal from the overturned vessel. Prayers go out to the crew.

  27. Win Blodgett

    considering the incredibly vast resources that are spent on downed planes with no likely survivors it’s not acceptable that more resources are not allocated in cases like this when there is a good chance that the resourceful crew is alive, adrift, roughing it, and awaiting rescue.

    Also, forgive my ignorance but why couldn’t that hull have been inspected?

  28. Richard

    A well written account and sadly my exact thoughts too. A 40.7 will in offshore races excluding transatlantic (& some other – but not fastnet, Sydey-H or Middle sea) race under cat 2 regs, some of the comments before do not accurately reflect that. Also, an inverted hull can trap a liferaft, made all the worse with a hydrostatic raft release as it inflates and jams in the cockpit – hence Cat 0 & Cat 1 having transom release rafts.

  29. Steve Burrows

    A British charter yacht would be annually inspected for compliance with the MCA Codes of Practice for Small Commercial Vessels. ( The codes require that liferafts, for area category 0 (unrestricted) vessels, be stowed on the weather deck, or in an open space and be fitted with hydrostatic release units so that they float free and inflate automatically.

    The codes allow, for vessels less than 15m, for EPIRBs to be stowed in an accessible place, they don´t need to be float free type. However, this yacht raced and the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations require that EPIRBs are water activated as well as manually actvated.

    I concur with thoughts on boat strength for offshore work, but strongly built boats don´t win races. Racing involves pushing the boat well into the designers´ safety margins, to their limits at times, even beyond. Repeatedly. The need to win is often great enough to lead to unintentional groundings which are the big risk for fin keeled boats. Not good preparation for an eastbound crossing to northern Europe.

  30. Carole Matz

    This is terrible for the families concerned but I have read that this type of yacht was not designed to sail across the Atlantic. Reports said that such a vessel was more suitable for sailing around the Mediterranean in gentle waters and not too far offshore.

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