Lost at sea: Kiwi sailor spends four days on a life raft after tropical storm lashes the Philippines


Posted 5 years ago

In the beginning, there were five beating hearts in the life raft.

Deadly Tropical Storm Kai-tak — which would eventually take 54 lives — was brushing the waters they’d been sailing off the Philippine island of Dinagat and their 18-metre yacht, Katerina I, had been taking on water for several hours.

Initially, Whangaparaoa-raised Laurie Miller, one of three men on the yacht once owned by US broadcaster Walter Cronkite and host to his powerful friends Bill and Hillary Clinton, wasn’t too worried.

He’d set off an emergency locator beacon before the men and two dogs abandoned the Subic Bay-bound yacht at 2pm on December 13 last year.

There were plenty of provisions tucked inside the inflatable covered raft. And the wonders of modern technology assured Miller the wait for rescue wouldn’t be too long.

But for four days the men would sit in waist-deep, urine-soaked water as waves roaring like freight trains smashed against them.

With no food or water for most of that time, one drank his own urine. Later, Miller would secure his ailing friend upright so he wouldn’t topple and drown inside the raft. But he wouldn’t survive.

Miller this week shared the miraculous tale for the first time, while back in Auckland visiting family.

The crew of Katerina I, pictured at the start of their voyage from which one would not survive: Anthony “Johnny” Mahoney, left, Lionel Ansselin and Laurie Miller. Photo / Supplied


US broadcaster Walter Cronkite sails with then-US president and First Lady Bill and Hillary Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea, in 1998. Cronkite previously owned the Katerina I. File photo / AP

The first sign of trouble came just after midnight on December 13. A strange noise was tracked to the forward thruster — a prop through the hull that moved the boat sideways when mooring.

“Lionel suggested the mount had come loose,” Miller said.

“He’d put it in after he bought the boat. It was a 300mm, quite big for the boat.”

They cleared out the water but at 4am Miller heard another noise. Lifting the floor plate, he saw water.

“We were obviously taking on water but I’d been assured by Lionel he had a huge bilge pump and it wasn’t a problem.”

“We found hoses leaking off generator sets, refrigeration wouldn’t work … coolant lines for the generator were rotten.”

Believing the water was coming in around the forward thruster, he closed the seacocks, worked the hand pump for 90 minutes and started a bucket brigade.

“But it was catching [on us].”

The motor was lost — water came over it — and by afternoon Katerina I was sunk to the decks.

Winds were now 60 knots, the sea 3m and it was raining heavily, Miller said.

Miller worried a big wave over the bow could take the yacht and its life raft.

“Then we’d be really screwed.”

Far from shore and climbing into the eight-person raft, Miller still wasn’t too worried.

“It’s like [when you’re] working. You’ve just got to keep following a path.”

The emergency locator beacon signal had been picked up by Australian authorities.

‘Like a washing machine’
The first night was the most violent.

Miller dropped anchor to stop the raft tipping but it must have broken, because they rolled twice and landed upside down.

“It was like being inside a washing machine — bang, bang.”

Jack Russell cross Spotty was lost, along with all provisions except the flares and a second beacon.

The flares and the second dog, Lucky, would be washed away the second night, when the raft rolled again. The next day Miller set off the remaining beacon.

The saltwater sore scars all over Miller’s body tell their own story of conditions.

“We were sitting in water up to the waist all the time. If anybody tells you that a life raft is dry they’ve not been in one.

“And you can’t get up in those seas to urinate over the side, so the water you’re sitting in has urine in it.”

Miller, barefoot and clad in shorts, shirt, sea smock and inflatable lifejacket, fared better than Johnny.

“Johnny at one stage came up with the idea that you could drink your urine twice. I found a bit of plastic where the cylinder for the life raft was and he actually managed to catch some of his urine and drink it at one stage.

“I wasn’t that desperate yet.”

Time seemed to pass quickly, but Miller couldn’t really explain why.

“Maybe shock, maybe you nod off and sleep while you can. The days go by, you just sort of switch off.”

NZ to Subic bound - Lost at Sea
The tragedy unfolded in Philippines waters. Graphic / Phil Welch

On day three a ship appeared in the distance, but they could do nothing.

By the following morning, the situation had become serious.

Mahoney was delirious, had tried to take his lifejacket off a couple of times and Miller was so worried he secured him upright.

“[I worried] he’d fall over in the water in the raft and drown. He was away with the fairies.”

It was about 1pm when Miller heard a motor. Local fishermen in a tiny boat had stumbled across the raft.

On the return to land, an almost 100km journey to the city of Tandag, Miller again tried to help his friend.

“I tried to give Johnny some water but he kept clamping his mouth shut and saying, ‘No, Mum, I don’t want any.’ I prised his teeth open, and hoped the hell he didn’t bite me, and I got some water in him.”

But it was too late.

Later he struggled to find a pulse on his friend, and hospital staff eventually delivered the bad news.

Miller’s hands were “swollen like a boxer’s”, his crotch had gone black and his friend was dead.

“I kissed him on the chin and said goodbye to him from everybody.”

Miller, who spent four days in a Tandag hospital and two days in a Cairns one, never imagined all three wouldn’t make it out alive.

“I’m a supreme optimist. But now I look back I think we were probably about 24 hours away from joining Johnny.”

NZ to Subic bound - Lost at Sea
Laurie Miller’s hands were “swollen like a boxer’s” after his ordeal. Photo / Supplied

Miller still looks to the sea with wonder and affection. He has been back on the water, and he’ll go offshore again, when the body’s up to it.

He has to reconcile the knowledge Katerina I was found, de-masted and with a hole in its side, on Dinagat.

“There are times I’ve sat and second-guessed myself… the what ifs. Had I done something a little different, maybe Johnny would be alive, maybe the dogs would be, maybe it would’ve turned out differently.

“I try not to [though]. I done what I thought was the right thing at the time.”

Where was the help?
Laurie Miller wants to know why no one comes to the Katerina I crew’s rescue?

A spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority told the Herald on Sunday this week they detected activation of the two distress beacons in the Philippines search and rescue region.

AMSA contacted the Manila Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) Philippines — the authority responsible for the co-ordination of search and rescue in that area.

The centre, which is based at the Philippine Coastguard, confirmed receipt of the notifications and said it was co-ordinating a response, the spokesman said.

The Herald on Sunday was unable to reach the Philippine Coastguard.

Miller said information he’d received under the Freedom of Information Act indicated the Philippine Coastguard didn’t help the men because they were in shark-infested waters and because of the tropical storm.

He told his story so people knew if they got into trouble in Philippine waters,help might not come.

“Or that it might put pressure on the Philippine Coastguard, so they do go out and help.”


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Lost at sea: Kiwi sailor spends four days on a life raft after tropical storm lashes the Philippines


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