SA missionary couple lose yacht in high seas drama

Dale and Natalie Smyth, with their childresn, Jack and Jamie.
Dale and Natalie Smyth, with their childresn, Jack and Jamie.

A brave South African missionary couple, Dale and Natalie Smyth, who set sail for Greece in their yacht, Shining Star, 14 months ago lost their vessel and their possessions as they were nearing their destination.

They were traveling with their two small children, Jack and Jamie who are now four and two years old respectively on a dangerous journey from Cape Town to Athens, Greece, around the west coast of Africa.

Their aim was to join the work of Hellenic Ministries in its effective work reaching out to the many islands surrounding Greece and the Mediterranean area.

The journey has had its ups and down as they slowly made their way up the west coast of Africa and then to the friendlier climes of the Mediterranean. They have met with some wonderful people on their journey and also had a number of setbacks which have significantly delayed their journey. Shortly after reaching the port of Cagliari, Italy and setting sail for their final destination in Greece they encountered a major roadblock.

Dale began to suffer an anxiety attack brought about by extreme physical exhaustion, with a lot of chest pain and difficulty breathing. They had no credit left on their sat phone so they had no option but to call the coast guard for help. When Dale described his symptoms they brought a medic with them. However by the time the coastguard arrived at the yacht the medic was too seasick to examine Dale. They took the family on board just in their nightclothes and traveled back to port.

The facts as per Dale
I will let Dale tell the rest of the story in his own words with a little bit of editing to simplify his account:

The journey through from Dakar had become progressively difficult with our gearbox also slowly becoming worse and worse. We could barely use the engine and the weather was constantly unsuitable for good progress under sail. There was a lot of time pressure. Our visas were set to expire shortly. Financially we were trusting God for daily provision.

We almost lost Shining Star in an anchorage in gale force winds and were around 15 m from going aground without the engine capacity to get away. The next day I awoke with a pain on the left side of my chest but ignored it and set sail for Sicily, which was three days away. We tried to get weather information but although we had bought $300 credit on the satphone (Satellite Phone) it had not cleared and unfortunately did not clear till after we lost the boat.

At approximately 19h00, on the same day, I started to experience increasing chest pain on my left side, a shortness of breath and a tingling sensation in my fingertips and face.

These symptoms continued to the point that I suggested to Natalie that she inform the coast guard at Caliari as we were around 30 nautical miles south of Cagliari which was the last safe haven for the next two days.

By this stage I was feeling incredibly weak but managed to assist Natalie to “heave to” our vessel and reduce sail area as the West/North/West wind was increasing. I hove to on a port to help our drift northwards, in order to reduce the distance to Cagliari, which at this time was approximately 25 nautical miles.

Cagliari Radio attempted to get a doctor on the VHF to talk to Natalie but the reception and language barrier made this very difficult. A merchant ship Grande Europa was diverted to stand by to assist. Cagliari Radio informed them that a coast guard vessel would bring a medic to look at Dale’s condition. During this time my condition was stable but there was continuing chest pain, weakness, and shortness of breath.

Approximately two hours later the coast guard arrived and a guard boarded Shining Star and assisted Natalie to drop the sails. He then assisted their vessel to tie up alongside at which point the motion onboard Shining Star became very aggressive due to the sea state and the two vessels being tightly tied alongside one another.

The guard then ordered Natalie and their two children to move across to the coast guard vessel immediately. Natalie said that we would prefer for the medic to come onboard our vessel to assess my condition as the children were peacefully sleeping and my condition was not deteriorating. He replied that the medic was unable to board our vessel. He insisted we depart Shining Star.

We did not query why the Medic could not board, but followed their firm insistence that we leave our vessel, thinking that the medic would do his examination on a more suitable platform. I was also terribly concerned that my vessel would be damaged as a stanchion had already been stove in, and so wanted to follow orders as quickly as possible so the two vessels could temporarily separate.

Natalie asked about what would happen to our vessel and he replied that he would bring it back to Cagliari. Because of this indication, and the guard’s insistence that we depart immediately, we took no passports, boat papers or money with us. The guard allowed no time to put a lifejacket on Jack, but Natalie was able to quickly put a life jacket on two-year-old Jamie.

The guard then asked me if I could assist in getting myself across to the Guardia Costiera vessel and I agreed as I felt stable at this stage. He first asked me to show him the use of my engine as he would bring the vessel to Cagliari, so I started the engine for him and showed him the throttle, and told him the diesel tank was full.

At this stage we took absolutely nothing with us, as it was clearly indicated that Shining Star would be brought to Cagliari. Upon boarding the Guardia Costiera vessel, we departed for Cagliari. It was clearly apparent to us and the coast guard crew, that the medic was unfit for his duties. Due to severe seasickness he could not correctly attend to me for at least 15 minutes as he was vomiting on the aft deck. He then managed to connect an ECG to me and check my blood pressure before departing again to the aft deck due to seasickness.

We then noticed the guard that was left on Shining Star was now onboard with us, and we realized only then that they had actually returned to Shining Star to collect the guard. During this time we were not informed by any crew member that we were returning to Shining Star to collect the Guard. There was still no indication that Shining Star would be abandoned and no opportunity was given to us by the Guardia Costiera crew to retrieve anything. There was also no suggestion that the Guard onboard retrieve our documentation or passports for us.

When we saw the guard returning, Natalie began to insist on an explanation about what was happening to our vessel, and asked if we could retrieve our passports and money. The guard replied saying that this was not possible but not to worry as another boat would bring Shining Star to Cagliari and that the priority was to get us to a hospital. The Guardia Costiera left Shining Star drifting at this point and assured us they were monitoring its position.

Two hours later, they arrived in Cagliari at the Guardia Costiera building and we were met by two ambulances and official coast guard personnel. Two female paramedics boarded the vessel and attended to me. Natalie asked one of the crew members, who like others, was documenting the proceedings on his phone, what was happening about the retrieval of our vessel. His reply was to talk with the commander the following day! My wife replied that the boat was drifting and that it was urgent we retrieve the boat as soon as possible as we were never informed to retrieve any personal items. He kept saying that she should speak to the Commander tomorrow and walked away.

Natalie then approached a more official looking man in white uniform with epaulettes and asked him if he was the commander and could they fetch our boat. He apparently spoke very little English and shrugged his shoulders, suggesting he could not either understand, or help.

At this point I was put in an ambulance and Natalie and children in another. Before entering the ambulance, the Guardia Costeria took the names and contact details of Natalie and the children on a piece of paper, and we assumed they were taking care of the matter of our drifting vessel and this was to inform us of the progress of the retrieval of our vessel.

We then departed for the hospital where the very kind staff arranged a ward for my family to sleep in and provided my children with some food. At this stage we did not even have a pair of shoes between us!

We were informed the following morning that the position of Shining Star was being tracked and that a merchant vessel had spotted her. A little later that morning we were informed that the position had been lost and that the Guardia Costiera was not responsible for salvaging our vessel and we needed to privately arrange our own salvage.

They were then helped by an organisation, Carista (who deal with refugees) and the Port Police who arranged clothing, accommodation, and food for us.

The next steps
They are now back in South Africa and have asked for well-wishers to respect their need for privacy for a while as they take stock of their traumatic experiences.

Before leaving Cagliari, Dale said: “I say we have nothing, but we also have everything that matters, our children are safe, we have a loving marriage, we have family and a community that deeply cares for us, and we have a call which has still not wavered. Please pray with us as we pick up the pieces.”

Dales’ family – through his sister, Laura Fisher – is coordinating an emergency help fund for them, inviting anyone to assist. She provides a comprehensive list of ideas from clothes to vitamins to toys to books to cash. They have bank account details as well as a PayPal account for international gifts.

If you’d like to help them in any way, please contact Laura (laura@sacap.edu.za) or Dave Fisher at davefishersa@gmail.com

4 Comments

  1. I read this story shortly after reading Acts 27, about another ship lost in a storm in the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout Luke’s detailed chronicle runs the thread of God’s will being accomplished in those weeks of peril. All the time Paul was sure he was in God’s will – even at that point when “we lost all hope that we would be saved.” God was there, as “the angel of the Lord stood beside him” enabling him to comfort others “Keep up your courage … have faith in God”. I can identify with Dale’s symptoms, though mine was a genuine heart attack, and I pass on God’s promise He gave me then: “Don’t be afraid, for you are deeply loved by God. Be at peace, take heart and be strong” Daniel 10:19. I am amazed that God’s call still burns brightly in your hearts, and pray God will keep you, provide for you and direct your future service. Of one thing I’m sure: You will be better missionaries because of this hardship, than you would have been without it. That’s how our wonderful Saviour alchemises Suffering!

  2. Great comment Hugh. I will pass this on to Dale and am sure it will be a great encouragement to him. Although right now he probably doesn’t fully understand it. John 13.7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will.”

  3. Dave and Joy skinner

    …. some thoughts …
    We don’t see the full picture – God does … So many of us in missions can attest to similar ” death of a vision” experiences where God resurrects the vision in his way and time It is an Isaac on the alter story – we are looking for God’s substitute.
    A Job story where all is lost- a test of a servant of God- in the end he received a double portion.
    We in OM also lost a ship ( Our first one-LOGOS ) the wreck is still on the rocks south of Argentina/Chile –all lives were saved… finance came in for new and double size ship MV LOGOS 11 that sailed for 20 years .
    We ourselves came to South Africa after death of our vision and work in Papua New Guinea –very tough but in hind sight we can thank the Lord today .
    The Yacht Shinning Star – named from Phil 2:15- Read the context of this letter from Paul – who in verse 2:17 speaks of being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service from the Philippian church . ( He was in Prison at the time- had also been shipwrecked on Malta right near where Shining star was found . A star shines brightest in the darkest night and only signaled out and noticed when it streaks across the sky in a burning ball of fire that destroys it . Lest continue to pray and uphold this family for God’s plan and vision . Dave and Joy Skinner