Just before sunset, nearly a thousand miles from shore, Len and Lisa Rorke, a third crewmember and their Jack Russell Terrier, Dexter jump into in a four-person liferaft as waves crash around them. For four hours they bail water by the gallon, surrounded only by a vast and encroaching darkness. As Lisa thinks of her daughters in the UK who might never see their parents again, a bright light appears in the distance. The light draws closer and soon a massive tanker emerges out of the gloom. It is the best sight of their lives—but not the first time Len and Lisa Rorke been rescued at sea.
On October 20, 2013 Len, Lisa and Dexter set out from Prickly Bay, Grenada, bound for Saint Martin aboard their 50-foot 2007 Beneteau Oceanis, The Blue Pearl. Lisa’s sailing career had begun just two months earlier when she and Len purchased The Blue Pearl and moved aboard full-time. Len, a South African and former member of that country’s National Sea Rescue Institute, had been sailing for over 20 years.
Less than 24 hours after they set out that October, the couple knew the sandy white beaches of Saint Martin would not be in their immediate future. They were sailing at 6.5 knots with 16 knots of wind on a broad reach when The Blue Pearl’s rudder broke away around noon. Seventy-two nautical miles from shore, Len and Lisa instantly lost control of their boat.
As conditions worsened Len activated the boat’s EPIRB and sent out a distress signal. The International Rescue center contacted the US Coast Guard, which diverted a French fishing trawler from 20 nautical miles away to rescue them. Eight hours later, the trawler had The Blue Pearl in tow, and 29 harrowing hours after that the couple, dog and boat all arrived safely in Case Pilot, Martinique.
For the next five weeks the Rorkes awaited a new rudder, and after it was installed, set off for the United States to stock up on provisions and equipment for their next voyage. Once in Fort Lauderdale, they installed AIS, added solar panels, had their boat’s keel strengthened and had their EPIRB replaced by ACR Artex. “We had faith and confidence that we’d done everything we could do to ensure that nothing bad would happen again,” Len says.
With these improvements, Len and Lisa were ready for another adventure.
On April 25, the Rorkes had been at sea for 13 days, first heading northeast toward Bermuda from Turks and Caicos and then turning East towards the Azores on a journey across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. For the first week, the pair and their Belgian crewmember, Henri Worthalter, had enjoyed perfect weather, but conditions had deteriorated since, and the last two days had brought a series of severe storms with high seas and 34-40 knot winds. As evening approached, Len sensed something was off.
“During the storm I felt the helm ripping from one side to another. I heard a knocking noise and next, the cables on the steering quadrant had snapped and ripped the helm right out of my hands. I went immediately to check the aft lazarette, and that’s when I saw the carnage. I knew we were going to sink,” Len recalls.
The three sailors quickly gathered survival gear (food, six gallons of water, wetsuits, and a ditch bag containing fishing tackle, a handheld GPS, batteries, and a spot messenger system), as their situation appeared graver by the second.
“The water was rushing in and the bow was sinking farther down below the water. It was pitch black and we were being thrown around uncontrollably in a storm hundreds of miles wide,” says Len.
Once again, Len set off the EPIRB, and the three sailors and dog leapt into the liferaft. They rolled around in the 25 to 40-foot waves while organizing lines and bailing water as their beloved The Blue Pearl sank right before their eyes.
The Coast Guard 5th District Command Center received their distress call around 2045 hours. Unbeknownst to the Rorkes, the Tilda Kosan, a 351-foot tanker, was just 32 miles away and altered course to come to their rescue. Four hours later, Lisa spotted the ship’s lights approaching, but even with their rescuers close at hand they were not yet out of danger. As the tanker stopped alongside it pushed a wall of water up and onto the raft again and again, constantly threatening to pull the sailors under the massive ship. Finally, the tanker crew threw a rope ladder over the ship’s side for the sailors to climb up to safety.
“This was the point at which we really might have died. With swirling waters in the dead of night we had to throw ourselves onto the ladder hanging on the side of the boat. We had to time our jumps perfectly and then hang on for dear life as the crew pulled us up.”
Two hours later, TheBlue Pearl crew was aboard the Tilda Kosan at last, where they remained in the crew’s care for four days until they reached Bermuda. “The men of the Tilda Kosan risked their lives for us, and to them we’ll always be very grateful. They are the true heroes in this story,” says Len.
After arriving in Bermuda, the Rorkes flew to the United States where they lived for a time with friends, family and even strangers who invited them to stay in their homes for free. Although they are now are out of harm’s way, Len and Lisa are still feeling the shockwaves of their incidents. Since they had been unable to secure insurance coverage for the trans-Atlantic leg of their journey, when the Rorkes lost their ship, they lost everything.
“We’ve been displaced and are nowhere near financially sound. We’ve been brought to our knees,” Lisa says.
The Rorkes are currently in England with family, but will soon return to the United States to stay with a woman they met following the sinking who invited them to stay in her home free of charge. She isn’t the first person who has shown the Rorkes kindness since their rescue. “There are many bad things that can happen in the world, but we had 13 men prepared to fight to save our lives, and when we went to Bermuda and America so many people wanted to help us. It has given us faith in humanity and insight we wouldn’t have had if this hadn’t happened.”
While in Florida, the Rorkes will recuperate and plan the next chapter of their lives. Yes, those plans include sailing. Len wants to stay involved in the marine industry through yacht deliveries and marine surveying. The couple also hopes to share their story with others through motivational speaking and a book. Mostly, Len and Lisa Rorke hope they can be an example to other sailors to emphasize the importance of proper offshore safety preparation and equipment. Along with the United States Coast Guard and the Tilda Kosan crew, it is their liferaft, AIS and EPIRB that the Rorkes credit with saving their lives. As Len puts it “Even if you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, as long as you’re fighting, you’re giving the someone out there chance to save you.”
To read more about the Rorke's story and contribute to their recovery visit their GoFundMe page.
Photo Credits: Len and Lisa Rorke, ACR Electronics