In celebrating the 20th anniversary of we take a glimpse into how the business began. But how could co-founders Mandy and Neil Chapman ever have imagined that their dramatic air-sea rescue in a Force 10 storm would become such a pivotal moment in creating their new venture?

August 1998. It seemed like the perfect plan. A 10-month sabbatical from work: Neil from his family-owned business in hospitality and for Mandy, a break from her role as a graphic designer with Marks and Spencer.

A once in a lifetime opportunity to indulge in their passion for sailing and adventure on board their Van de Stadt Rebel 41 ketch ‘Supertaff’ that they had purchased two years previously…on the 20th anniversary of her construction.

Joined by Neil’s cousin, Deni, as extra crew member – the trio set sail from Kinsale, Ireland on a cruise that would take in Madeira, the Canary Islands and the Caribbean before the return leg to the UK.

Fair-weather sailing turns foul

Mid-October 1998 – and with a good three-day forecast ahead of them – ‘Supertaff’ set sail for Madeira. On the fourth day, the weather deteriorated as wind speeds of up to 60 knots gathered as they passed the Bay of Biscay. The voyage to Madeira was not going to be the piece of cake they’d anticipated.

The following day, with reports of a Storm Force 10 coming through on the shipping forecast, the decision was made to beat a retreat and head back for the south coast of Ireland.

What happened next was to be both a life-changing and a life-saving experience.

‘I remember it vividly,’ recalls Neil Chapman, ‘It was 17.15 on October 24. There was a tremendous bang as ‘Supertaff’ was caught by a wave and rolled 360º. Upright again, we could see the windows on the starboard side were gone. Inside the cabin, there was chaos.

‘We were knee-deep in water, the floorboards had fallen out and there was a crate of wine – stored previously in the bilges – sitting on the cooker. Mandy had been hurled across the cabin and was temporarily submerged under water; Deni had a gash to his face – but we were lucky. It could have been much worse’.

Dismasted and facing distress

Above decks, the life raft had inflated itself during the capsize and was flying like a frenzied kite in the wind. Both masts had come down and the aerials on top of the masts were under water. Neil managed to haul in the life raft in case it should be needed for ‘abandon ship’.

Neil activated the 121 EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon).

‘Just our luck,’ mused Neil. ‘We learned later that the signal was detected but deemed to be a false alarm given the unlikelihood of anyone being out there in that sort of weather.’

With the engine coming adrift from its mountings during the rollover, ‘Supertaff’ was powerless and completely at the mercy of the storm. But help was on the horizon. It was the gas supply ship ‘Cervantes’. Neil fired off two flares then hailed the ship via the handheld VHF radio:

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…

This is sailing yacht Supertaff…

We have three people on-board…

The ship responded: first by relaying the Mayday Call to Cork Radio and second by changing course to help shelter ‘Supertaff’ from the wind. A 12-metre rise and fall of the waves made any attempt to transfer to ‘Cervantes’ untenable.

A few hours later, the RNLI Courtmacsherry lifeboat arrived with overhead support from the Shannon-based Irish Coast Guard helicopter. But with wind speeds approaching 70 knots and, with 12-14 metre-high waves, it was deemed too dangerous to airlift anyone from ‘Supertaff’.

In a well-rehearsed drill, under the floodlights of the helicopter, the lifeboat crew rocketed a heaving line across to ‘Supertaff’. Once attached to the life raft, evacuation could begin.

The RNLI Frederick Storey Cockburn from CourtMacSherry, Ireland

“Get into the life raft, Neil!”

Mandy and Deni were first into the life raft. But, last minute, Neil decided to take some preventative measures to stop more water from getting into ‘Supertaff’, the lifeboat crew was shouting at Neil who then jumped into the life raft, untied from ‘Supertaff’ and watched helplessly as they were hauled to the safety of the lifeboat. Two hours later they were on dry land at Courtmacsherry.

Mandy Chapman remembers the night of October 24 only too well

‘Undoubtedly, it was a life-changing experience. Not only in how you come to truly respect the fragility of life and the power of nature but also in reaffirming our passion to have a change of direction in our careers where boats would be at the heart of everything we do.’

Added Mandy: ‘Putting everything into perspective, we are indebted to and humbled by the professionalism of all those who took part in our rescue, particularly the RNLI Courtmacsherry lifeboat crew, which took place in the most appalling conditions.’

A new adventure begins

Recovered by local Irish fishermen, ‘Supertaff’ was towed back to Ireland and in April 1999 underwent extensive repairs and a refit in Dungarven. Undeterred by the rollover experience – and determined to get some sailing into their sabbatical – Mandy and Neil enjoyed trouble-free cruising that took in visits to Portugal and Denmark before returning to the UK in July 1999.

While the sabbatical may have drawn to a close a new adventure was about to begin with the takeover of Milford Yacht Brokerage. In September 1999, opened its first office at Milford Haven Marina.

20 years on, and has more than 70 offices worldwide with more than 20,000 boat sales to its name. Happy Birthday, Boatshed!