Tapio Lehtinen on the dramatic events in the Indian Ocean – woke up by a bang and had water up to his knees: “Something had happened in the stern because the boat sank so quickly”

Solo sailor Tapio Lehtinen’s sailboat suddenly sank off South Africa on Friday. After a day in a life raft, Lehtinen was rescued on Saturday morning and is now sitting on a large ship on its way to China.

The sailing competition Golden Global Race has been going on since the beginning of September when the boats left the French coast and set course for Brazil. Two and a half months later, the sailors are off South Africa on their way to Australia.

Three days after Tapio Lehtinen’s sailboat Asteria quickly sank, the 64-year-old is now on a larger ship heading for China. On Saturday morning, fellow sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer was able to pick up Lehtinen in her boat and then he was transferred to the freighter Darya Gayatri.

In an interview with Yle, Lehtinen talks about the dramatic awakening on Friday.

– It was about 8.30 when I was lying in the bunk sleeping. The berth is 55 centimeters wide and well protected. The movements can be violent in rough seas, says Lehtinen.

– I heard a loud bang and woke up from my sleep. It probably took 20 seconds to crawl out. When I put my feet on the floor in the rough there was water up to knee height. The water rushed in from the stern.

Tapio Lehtinen's boat Asteria.
Tapio Lehtinen’s sailboat Asteria is now buried five kilometers deep.


Lehtinen had no time to lose as the boat quickly took on water.

– I realized that it is now serious. I had all the emergency equipment by the stairs. There are three grab bags, in one there is a radio, in the other two water, food and medicines. In addition, there is a fourth bag with a rescue suit.

– First I took the rescue suit and the radio box. Then I started to open the other bags, but by then there was already water up to waist height. I realized that the boat is sinking at such a rate that I don’t have time to open the bags. I had to launch the life raft.

– Then I took a look in the boat to see if I could bring water or a satellite phone, but then the water level was already 15-20 cm from the roof. The boat was practically already full of water and I had to dive in.

The sailboat Asteria was built in 1965 in Italy. Five years ago, Lehtinen bought the boat, which has since undergone a complete renovation in Finland.

– It was probably the strongest boat that participated in the competition. I could never have believed that that boat sinks in five minutes in calm weather, says Lehtinen.

In Lehtinen’s boat there were five watertight bulkheads, three in the bow and two in the stern. He doesn’t know what happened, but suspects that some pipe running through the boat has burst, filling the stern with water and causing some bulkhead to give way.

– Something had happened in the stern because the boat sank so quickly. I could only tell that this was the end of Asteria. In major disasters, many things tend to go wrong, not just one.

Lehtinen encountered new problems when he had to leave the sailboat for the life raft.

– I had tied the life raft to the sailboat with a running knot. I didn’t want the boat to drag the life raft with it. But the running knot opened and the life raft was 2-3 meters from the boat when I had to jump in. I got on the raft and followed Asteria’s sinking for 20 minutes.

The glasses remained on the boat

From the life raft, Lehtinen managed to send an emergency signal and was able to keep in touch with the organizers via satellite. Communication was made difficult by Lehtinen’s glasses following the boat into the depths.

– I managed to read by squinting as best I could.

After just over a day in the life raft, it was the sailor Neuschäfer who first came to the rescue. She offered a sip of rum and led Lehtinen to the freighter. Lehtinen had to climb aboard along a ladder.

– The climb on the side of the ship felt long. On deck the captain and crew were waiting to welcome me.

Tapio Lehtinen sits on a chair in the harbour.
Last summer, Tapio Lehtinen was photographed in Helsinki.

Image: Mimmi Nietula / Yle

The Indian ship Darya Gayatri is on its way from Argentina to China. There is a long way to go and Lehtinen will hardly be able to leave the ship before it arrives.

Lehtinen says that there is no need for him. He likes the Indian food on board.

– I get to walk around the ship, go to the gym and try to keep track of my weight.

Some of the ship’s diaries are in Cape Town, which served as an intermediate stage. The logbooks after that followed in the depth of five kilometers.

On the ship, Lehtinen will try to memorize and again write down the diary contents that could not be saved.

The article is an edited translation of Yle Urheilu’s article Meriltä pelastettu purjehtija Tapio Lehtinen eritat vekenlopun hurjista väheista – “Dyykkasin veteen, sain kisini lautasta ja kiskaisin itseni kyytiin” which is written by Juuso koskinen and Anton Vanha-Majamaa.

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