A virtually new, $39 million megayacht sinks in 300 fathoms in the Aegean Sea. The crew is airlifted to safety, but questions remain—many of them.
She cleared the west end of the Dardanelles at 0730 on the evening of February 16th, 2012. The weather in northwestern Turkey at the time was cold, wintry. Canakkale, a seaport only a few nautical miles inside the strait, reported evening temperatures of 40 degrees F or thereabouts, with light winds coming out of the north. There were no charter guests onboard. Only crewmembers. Eight of them. All French nationals.
Captain Jean Louis Carrel contemplated the journey ahead—the vessel beneath his feet, Yogi, a 197-foot Proteksan Turquoise-built beauty less than one year old, with the serene style of a Balinese dancer, the accommodations of a world-class resort, and the technological sophistication of a luxury airliner, was headed south first, down the fabled wine-dark waters of the Aegean, then west around the headlands of Greece and Italy, and finally on up to Cannes, in the south of France. The weather worsened as the hours passed. At 1000, the Turkish meteorological service at Bozcaada, a small island at the very mouth of the Dardenelles, observed Force 7 conditions, a near gale, with wind speeds approaching 30-some knots and seas building to heights of 16 feet or more. When midnight came, Yogi continued south despite the storm’s ferocity. What happened thereafter—during the rest of that grim night—remains a great mystery today, perhaps one of the greatest mysteries to trouble the international yachting milieu in decades.
According to reports appearing in both the mainstream media and the yachting press over the following weeks, an engine-exhaust issue of some sort precipitated a succession of events onboard that culminated first in a Mayday call at 0330 and then in an unthinkable catastrophe. Yogi, adjudged the most innovative yacht of the year only a few months before at the Cannes International Boat Show, sank at 0845 on the gray morning of February 17th, just 19 nautical miles east-southeast of the island of Skíros, in approximately 300 fathoms, after at least five hours of taking on water while laying ignominiously awash. Shortly before she went down, her last crewmember was plucked to safety by a Hellenic Air Force Puma helicopter.
An official whirlwind ensued. Acting in accordance with the guidelines of the International Maritime Organization or IMO, the French International Registry initiated a formal investigation—Yogi was, after all, a French-flagged vessel, with an all-French crew, and owned by Stepháne Courbit, a wealthy Frenchman who’d made big news in previous months because of a controversial sum of €143 million he’d borrowed from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. French authorities had ruled the aging Ms. Bettencourt incapable of making such a major investment decision, a finding that had put Courbit under highly publicized pressure to give the money back.
And then there were other inquiries as well, originated by the American Bureau of Shipping (which had classed the yacht to A1 and AMS standards), the Maritime Casualties Investigation Council of Greece (since the country had responded to the sinking with military assets), and presumably (although the company would not comment or confirm at press time), Axa Corporate Solutions, the insurer of the $39 million vessel.
But as the weeks went by, it became increasingly clear that official findings and results would not be available or even partially available any time soon, a turn of events that particularly surprised and disconcerted Yogi’s builder Proteksan Turquoise. Not only did the company’s president Memet Karabeyoğlu and CEO Hayati Kamhi have business interests in the outcome of the whole tragic affair, they had deep emotions about it as well.
“Our yard worked to complete the Yogi project for three years,” Karabeyoğlu said during a Power & Motoryacht interview. “Imagine the man-hours that have gone into such a thing. Imagine! And then to see this all just disappear? Like that? It is a truly sad story, I tell you.”
Kamhi was the first of the two men to hear of the disaster. On the morning of the 17th, he received a call at home from the Proteksan Turquoise shipyard. The shipping agent for Yogi had just called—the crew was safe but the yacht had sunk in deep water. She was gone!
“I thought it must be an awful joke at first,” Kamhi said. “I mean, I couldn’t believe it. The boat had just left the shipyard in perfect condition a few days before. I was stunned.”
Not yet willing to totally credit the validity of the call, Kamhi said he immediately tried the cell phone of Yogi’s captain on the off chance he might reach him. Carrel answered, Kamhi said. He was still on Skíros, where he and his crew had been taken by the Greek Air Force helicopter after the rescue. “I then talked to him for a time,” Kamhi explained, “and at my request our project manager Mr. Nedim Sukas also talked to him after me.”
Kamhi’s recollection of his conversation with Carrel via e-mail: The captain said they were navigating at 14 knots. There were strong winds and 3-meter waves. Suddenly the starboard engine exhaust bellows punctured due to heat and he stopped the engine. He told me that he thought the engine got overheated because they were going in and out of the waves and there must be air that blocked the cooling water to the engine. Then the port engine overheated and he stopped that engine too. The yacht turned aft to the waves while they were busy with the engines. He told me the aft starboard side watertight beach club door blew open and a lot of water entered where he told Nedim that the portside watertight hatch blew open. (We are not sure which one he meant exactly.) Then they took off the filter [sic] for the second engine and restarted it and began navigating with one engine but the rudder didn’t respond (water in the steering compartment). He said they couldn’t go to the emergency rudder compartment (on the port side of the beach club above the rudder compartment) since it was also full of water. Then the storm got stronger and big waves started. Water invaded the lower beach club and even the main deck. Since he no longer had control he sent the Mayday call.
Kamhi called Karabeyoğlu after talking with the captain. His friend and partner was flabbergasted. He also thought the news must be a joke, a horrible joke. The two men soon decided they must thoroughly interview Yogi’s captain as quickly as possible, along with her chief engineer Laurent Clement. Big, industry-wide questions would perhaps arise as news spread, among them: How could a properly dogged watertight hatch or door blow open? Why was the yacht allowed to present her stern to the seas? Why was Yogi travelling at near top speed in Force 7 conditions? What about the redundant pumping system onboard? Why couldn’t it be used to empty the emergency rudder compartment? And how could such a technologically sophisticated, compartmentalized vessel (with a total of eight watertight compartments and a host of watertight doors inspected, tested and approved by ABS), continue to downflood literally for hours given the time and resources at hand?
The desired interview never occurred, according to Kamhi. After the crew was flown from Skíros to Athens, he said, they stayed in a hotel there for a few days and then departed for France. “I tried to call them to set up a meeting,” Kamhi added, “but my calls were never returned.”
An interview of a very different sort took place about three weeks later at the offices of the insurer in Paris, according to Kahmi. When he, his lawyer, and others representing Proteksan Turquoise arrived in response to an invitation, they were surprised to discover, in addition to crew members, a formidable group of lawyers present, some representing the crew, others representing the insurer, and still others representing the owner. Moreover, Kamhi said he was told that in order to ask questions of the crewmembers present he’d have to sign an agreement stipulating that everything said would be held in strictest confidence.
“I have been told there were 18 people in the room that day—many lawyers,” Karabeyoğlu said. “Our people wanted to ask questions of the captain and chief engineer. So what could we do—we signed. But tell me! How do you have a confidential conversation with 18 people in the room!”
An official silence descended upon the affair. At press time, literally months after the tragedy, there were virtually no new details available officially. Indeed, Power & Motoryacht’s attempts to get information concerning ongoing developments from the French International Registry (which promised a report “in a few months” but nothing more), the American Bureau of Shipping, the International Maritime Organization, Axa Corporate Solutions, and Yogi’s owner all proved fruitless. And the crew was quiet as well. In an e-mail, Captain Carrel explained that he was not authorized to speak publicly of the event. He would be in touch as soon as it was permissible. Chief engineer Clement did not respond at all.
One interesting thing happened, however. A few days prior to press time, Power & Motoryacht received a package with no return address by regular post. It contained Curriculum Vitae or CVs (seafaring resumes of a sort) for Captain Carrel and chief engineer Clement. A brief cover letter said the sender knew the magazine was trying to obtain CVs for Yogi’s crew and might find the “attached interesting.” There was no signature or other identifying information on the letter.
The documents certainly appeared authentic. And what stood out was this. First, chief engineer Clement had served onboard Yogi for at most one and a half months prior to the tragedy, most of the time while the vessel was in the shipyard—Yogi’s fateful voyage was his first significant time at sea onboard the yacht. And second, Clement’s career, particularly in more recent years, had featured skipper’s jobs mostly, although prior to joining Yogi in January of 2011, he’d spent a year as a chief engineer onboard a much smaller vessel, Namaste, a 40-meter Tamsen, devoting much of his time aboard to a refit.
Not that any of this is particularly unusual. Or so says a technical superintendent for the U.S. branch of a major international megayacht management firm. At Power & Motoryacht’s behest, the gentleman, a U.S. Merchant Marine Unlimited Chief Engineer with a strong background in maritime education and safety training, perused the anonymously dispatched CVs and a copy of the conversation Yogi’s captain had with Proteksan Turquoise the day of the tragedy. He sent the following statement from a South Seas island where he was overseeing engineering projects on a large charter yacht:
“The story of Yogi must be told and it should be used as an example of how badly things can go wrong when training and familiarization fail and self-imposed operational demands combine with otherwise benign, albeit officially sanctioned, design deficiencies. Withholding information related to the loss of Yogi contravenes the very foundation of maritime safety training and regulation. The superyacht industry, and the charter guests who help to fund it, should be asking why they are denied information that is so critical to prevent a recurrence of such an incident, one with far more tragic results.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.