That time the Coast Guard rescued us

coasties and crewSo therrre I wuzzz*,  unaware of what would soon begin as I stood my 4 a.m.- 8 a.m. watch aboard a 42’ catamaran that was 24’ wide. Two fellow crew, our skipper and I were charged to deliver the boat from St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands to the owners in Annapolis, Maryland.

Our last glimpse of land had been seven days before, when Puerto Rico became a smudge of light that faded off our stern as I completed my evening watch at 8 p.m. Since then, we had made it through one crew member’s day of serious seasickness, my own sudden and brief surprise bout with mal de mer, and adjusted to life at sea, including this boat’s unusually loud creaks and groans as it bucked and whomped through the ocean waves.

By then we had learned that the privately owned former charter boat had a number of minor and moderate issues–most of which were little more than annoyance–but we didn’t yet know it had some serious problems, too. Our crew of four had quickly discovered that the boat lacks sufficient handholds, because it was a trial to make it across her wide spaces, or to even stand in the galley as the boat bumped and twisted over the 5-to-8-foot ocean waves. Due to the lurching, I needed to time my effort with the movements of the boat to climb onto my bunk.

We had learned that the hatches and port light in my cabin leaked. I had stowed my sea bag in the shower and later found it had been soaked by the leaking hatch. My sleeping bag had become damp from the leaking hatch over the bunk. I noticed a smear of silicone along the aft edge, which means the owners had tried to fix it, which means they knew it leaks. The fan in my bunk also didn’t work, so I had to dry my bag in the saloon. I had begun to bunk there, too, on wet days and nights, to avoid dampening my bag and gear again. Also, we found out that for the giant “patio roof” on the boat, there is little protection from rain, and, that there was no place to hang wet foul weather gear, either, and we had four sets of them.

We also knew that three of the four the heads (toilets) had faulty valves that let the wastewater return to the bowls, from which it would sometimes slosh out. Some of their hose connections also leaked into the boat.

On Day 4, a block on the traveler broke. In the middle of the night. In the rain. This meant our skipper, Dave, had to go atop the boat, in the dark, in the rain, waaaay out in the ocean, on a boat that lacks handholds, to rig safety lines that would allow us to keep control of the boom even if the other traveler block also failed. The rain had intensified while Dave readied to go up. It became a torrent while he climbed across the cabin top and onto the rooftop. The danger was due mostly to the lack of handholds on the boat; there was nothing to tie into or even hold onto. If he fell, he could be badly injured before falling into that immense sea. Of course, we would execute the Man Overboard maneuver, but a sailor in the water is instantly at great risk from hypothermia and difficult visibility in high seas.

As Dave’s spotter, all I could see were the bottoms of his feet and a couple of reflective patches on his gear. It was almost as nerve wracking for me as it was for him. About the time our skipper came down off the rooftop the rain had suddenly stopped.

On Day 7, as we had alternately motored and sailed according to the wind’s dictation, I was doused by sea water while down below. In a cabin, where it is supposed to be dry. We were about 250 miles off Savannah, Georgia when I went to the fore starboard berth. Just then, a wave hit the bulkhead and came through the fixed window as if it were open. I was suddenly soaked from the hip down, and seawater crept across a wide swath of the cabin sole. I proclaimed, “This is one leaky-ass boat!”

The morning of the first big disaster, on Day 8, the boat was sailing at about 7 knots on a starboard beam reach, under mostly cloudy skies, with wind from the south southeast at 12 knots. I was alone at the helm while my three mateys slept as the sky began to lighten. Just after 6 a.m., when we were about 150 miles offshore, I heard a faint pop, then watched, incredulous and helpless, as the sail quickly flitted down, dousing itself mostly into the sail bag along the boom. The main halyard parted about two feet below the masthead. I ran below to tell skipper Dave and he told me to wake Beth and Bob. I got to open their cabin door and yell “All hands on deck! All hands on deck!” and then tell them that the main had come down. The surprised and uncomprehending expressions on their faces were hilarious. I wish I had thought to video that.

Dave had no choice but to risk going forward and up to the patio roof again to pack the clew of the sail into the bag at the foot. Once safely back on deck, Dave also rigged an alternate lead from the jib clew which improved its trim and acted like a preventer. We sailed downwind on a run under the headsail only at about 5 knots in 12-knot wind on mild seas. Our course was 324, aiming us at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. During my off watch I devised a recipe for skillet granola bars, made up with the limited ingredients found in the galley: rolled oats, eggs, sugar, nuts, and the cinnamon I brought.

That night, just after my watch ended at 8 p.m., a huge wave broke over the boat and water poured in the latchless aft port hatch into the head. Bob used the last dry towel to clean it up. Shortly after this, I went to my bunk to sleep. About two hours later, I woke up as the bow plowed into a wave. I heard the sound of plastic Jerry cans zipping back and forth across the deck over my head, and water gushing into the shower in my berth. I thought I imagined a faint smell of diesel but I was wrong. One or more of the Jerry cans was leaking. The diesel fuel mixed with the seawater that poured into the port aft and forward heads. My berth smelled like diesel so I tried to sleep in the saloon. Even with the challenges we faced so far, I was unaware that on the following morning the scene would turn increasingly more urgent.

As I took my watch at 4 a.m. on day 9, we motored with the Genny in wind from the SSW at 25 knots while we bounced along at about 7.5 knots. I was wearing foul weather bibs and jacket because there was a lot of spray, and waves sometimes even crashed into the cockpit. The sky gradually lightened to reveal heavy clouds. The wind rose to 30-33 knots, so I called Dave up to help furl the jib.

Our little catamaran climbed waves higher than the boat as we motored against heavy seas, making little headway as we tried to cross the Gulf Stream. I was hungry when I came off watch, but conditions were too rough for cooking, so I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Beth and me, the other crew member who was awake and hungry.

Around 10:45 a.m. the skipper called a strategy meeting, because we were not making progress due to current, windage, or both. Our team agreed to partially unfurl jib and try higher RPMs. That made the boat bounce a bit more, but we were making headway and the autopilot was not blowing out like it had been. A couple of hours later, Bob was on watch when he pointed out several small black dolphins cavorting the big waves around our boat. It seemed to me they were a sign of hope in our deteriorating situation.

I took a decent nap before going back on watch. During that time the temperature dropped more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I put on my wool long johns and Gill base layer top on under my foulies. Wind speed had dropped and the waves were smaller, but we were still bouncing around. The Jerry cans were somewhat more secure since some of them had fallen into the trampoline between the two hulls. The improperly wired bilge pump alarm sounded off every 10 minutes or so with the volume of water we were taking on through the seriously leaky hatches.

So, therrre I wuzz, at the start of my evening watch, with wind from the South-Southeast at 21-23 knots. Big swells pushed on our port quarter. The boat speed was about 8 knots. All was well, despite loss of the mainsail. Less than 15 minutes later, the port engine suddenly quit and the engine alarm sounded.

I turned the engine off at the panel. Bob and Beth left their port aft berth and came topsides. They said the engine had made an awful grinding noise before it quit. Bob went in the engine hole to check it out and said it seemed the port sail drive failed.

With the wind SSW at 23 knots on relatively calm seas, we could motorsail at 7 knots on a beam reach under our single sail and single engine, but we could be in serious trouble when those ideal conditions changed, as they surely would.

Dinner was late that night, about 40 minutes after my night watch ended, so nearly 9 p.m. While we ate, the wind shifted to the nose (directly on the front of the boat). This caused the jib to flog, so Bob and I furled it. But without the jib’s stabilizing effect, the the autopilot couldn’t hold on. Instead, it let the boat spin around, so we had to hand steer, which takes a lot more energy. When I got off watch, we were about 35 miles from the mouth the Chesapeake Bay, moving at only 5 knots. I figured that meant we would get into the bay around dawn, and I expected to feel elated when the floating cocktail lounge of a boat was tied to a dock.

With waves breaking on the bow and leaking into my bunk, I tried to sleep in the saloon, but calls on the VHF radio intruded. I heard various bridge-to-bridge communication and the USCG weather advisory for thunderstorms. As I drifted to sleep I heard Dave quietly call a Pan-Pan, to notify the United States Coast Guard and vessels in the area of our state of urgency with no immediate danger. He gave them info about our boat, crew, and situation, so they would have it in advance in case our safety was in danger. Though I knew we were at risk, I figured there was nothing I could do about it by staying awake, and it was best that I try to rest when I could, so I would save energy for when the time came to rally.

I slept fitfully from about 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. and woke to cold and rain. Since I was wide awake, and Bob was cold, I relieved him early so he could go to bed. Dave and I had to douse the Genny as we turned to head toward the entrance to the bay, because the wind was then too far forward. Again, I had to steer by hand since the autopilot couldn’t handle the pressure without the Genny. Steering was difficult as we motored through the blackness at about 3 knots in winds around 30 knots and gusts up to 40 knots, blowing almost on the nose. Any time the wind caught the starboard fore quarter, she swung left almost uncontrollably. We were closer to the Bay and Little Creek, but progress was slow. I hoped we could make it.

The rigorous conditions required that we shift from regular watches to relieving each other from the cold. I became chilled by about 4 a.m., so skipper Dave roused Bob and Beth. I nestled in my sleeping bag with hot tea in the saloon. The tipping point came about an hour later. The wind continued to howl and throw up spray. Bob was trying to steer, but with one engine out and no sail, we were only going in circles. Our options were to call for aid or blow southeast to Bermuda. Skipper Dave called Towboat US. They took about 40 minutes to decide whether they were coming. Around 5:30 a.m. they informed our skipper that the wind was too much for them and they could not help us. Dave called the United States Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads, which he had previously informed of our situation, and soon they were on the way. I got out of my sleeping bag, slipped into my foulies and PFD, and went to my cabin. There I considered what few things I most needed to keep in case we had to abandon ship, and tucked into the pockets of my foul weather gear.

The pre-dawn sky lightened to a strange color green as we saw the lights from the USCG 45’ cutter coming toward us in the distance. I felt a mix of apprehension and relief, as I did not know what would happen, but felt I could trust our Coasties to keep us safe, even though a rescue is also humiliating to a sailor. Using a heaving line, the young Coasties sent over a bridle, which Bob attached to the two forward most cleats on our boat, one on the bow of each hull, to keep the boat pointed ahead for the tow. The Coasties let out the tow line a long way before cleating it off. Their boat was hardly more than a dot in the water ahead.

Unfortunately, the combination of howling wind, rough sea, and the 42’ catamaran’s great windage were almost too much for the 45’ USCG cutter, which was towing us at about 3.5 knots. The voyage to safe harbor was arduous and frigid. Our crew had to hand steer, which was chilling and exhausting in those conditions. The helmsman had to wrestle with the wheel to keep the boat in line with the tow rope, and deal with constant cold salt spray hitting him or her in the face so hard that it stung the cheeks and sent chilled fingers of water down the necks of our foul weather gear. Therefore, Bob, Beth and I took short turns at the helm, each relieving another when the helmsman was chilled.

When I went off watch, I hung up my foulies and warmed up by making a second batch of the skillet granola bars. This time I left out the milk for a less cake-like product, and with Bob’s encouragement, increased the sugar. Okay, I doubled the sugar.

Once inside Little Creek, the Coasties had us shift lines so they could tie along side us to bring us to the dock at Cobb’s Marina, where skipper Dave had called ahead to make arrangements. The USCG had sent two additional crew to meet us at the dock, with fenders to loan us overnight. The Coasties also conducted a safety inspection and completed the paperwork. Their BM2 (Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class) asked skipper Dave when he had retired from the Coast Guard, a complimentary assumption the Coastie made, based on Dave’s crisp radio procedure, how well he had organized his crew, and that we were always right where they needed us to be.

I brought out the skillet granola bars, still warm, and shared them with the Coasties, who gave their approval and quickly ate them up with pleasure. The catamaran travail continued the following day, but that is for another story.

* "So therrre I wuzzz" is the proper way to begin a true sea story. 

 

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4 Responses to That time the Coast Guard rescued us

  1. jevvv says:

    Wow! Now I’m cold and shivery, even though it’s too hot here. The wind in the chimney has been adding to the atmosphere. So glad you guys made it through ok, pity about the boat being a slacker 😉 And thank goodness for the Coastguard!

  2. Laura says:

    Yikes. All this, and Shay still feeds the crew!

  3. Bruce and Joan says:

    Whew. What an ordeal. Glad you all made it into Hampton Roads safely.

  4. Joe Cirone says:

    Very well done!

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