Voice of Experience: Heading for the Rocks

We were halfway into a three-week summer cruise through the San Juan and Gulf islands in the Pacific Northwest. Aboard Hannah, our Hunter 356, were my wife Chantil, my 15-year-old daughter, Sierra, my 11-year-old son, Aaron, and our dog, Jack; also with us were my nephews Andrew and Zack, who are 13 and 12. Our vacation was going so well I jokingly considered calling work and asking for a one-year sabbatical so we could continue hopping from island to island all the way to Alaska.

The long days rolled one into the next as we acclimated to our vacation schedule: waking late in the morning, sailing through the afternoon to our next destination, anchoring or mooring before dinner, then exploring until sunset. On the day in question we left British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island in the late morning after buying groceries and topping off our fuel and water tanks. We had a wonderful afternoon sailing 13 miles before a steady 15-knot southerly wind that delivered us to our next anchorage. When we arrived we found a handful of boats anchored peacefully in the cove.

We decided to anchor about 200 yards to the west of the other boats in a little spot protected from the southerly wind. We dropped our 35-pound Delta in 25 feet of tranquil water and anchored on 100 feet of chain with 4:1 scope. Over the next few hours I used the chartplotter and GPS to monitor our position, and set the anchor alarm to alert us in case we started dragging.

Chantil and Sierra went ashore to walk Jack and explore the many trails around the cove. After feeling comfortable our anchor was holding, I went kayaking with one of my nephews while the other boys played games onboard. We returned from the kayak trip to find Hannah as peaceful as she had been before we left.

By now it was late in the evening, just before sunset, and my wife and I decided to go for a short walk by ourselves. To conserve the boat’s battery power, I switched off the breakers to the instruments. The boat hadn’t moved all afternoon, and I figured we didn’t need the anchor alarm anymore.

After a beautiful sunset walk, Chantil and I were returning to the dinghy dock when I noticed a man and woman were hovering near our dinghy in a large inflatable boat. Upon seeing us they immediately asked, “Are you the Gills?”

“Why, yes. Is there a problem?” I answered, wondering why and how they knew our last name.

“Your boat drifted into the rocks! Come with us!” they exclaimed.

I immediately hopped into their inflatable while my wife stayed behind to retrieve our dinghy and outboard. On the way over to where we had anchored Hannah, I noticed that her mast was no longer poking up over the trees where it had been before. My heart sank into my stomach as I imagined what kind of danger the kids and our boat were in. I wondered, too, how these people came to be involved. The woman looked over at me and said, “You should be real proud of your daughter. She was the one who called the coast guard.”

After we turned the corner into the cove, I spotted Hannah and noticed there was a Canadian coast guard auxiliary RIB floating along her starboard side. Both boats were well into the rocky cove, at least 200 feet south of Hannah’s original position. I quickly boarded and noticed a coastguardsman was on the bow working at retrieving the anchor with the windlass. As I went up to assist him, I noticed the steady 15-18 knot northerly now blowing directly into our faces. The wind had shifted 180 degrees while we were gone and was building.

Returning to the cockpit, I noticed the diesel engine was already running, the instruments were all energized and the kids were standing by to offer any assistance they could. By now the coast guard boat had pulled our vessel well away from the shore.

“What happened?” I asked the kids. “Did our boat hit the rocks?”

Sierra explained they had noticed the boat was drifting toward the rocky shore. They yelled for help, but no one responded, so she called the coast guard on channel 16 of the VHF radio. When the coast guard answered, she reported, “Our sailboat is drifting into the rocks. There are four kids without any adults on board!” She also reported Hannah’s GPS position after turning on the instruments.

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