The Mayday that Wasn't
This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue
We were 450 miles south of Bermuda and three days into a passage from Bermuda to St. Martin on Dream Weaver, our 50-foot cutter, when Dawn, my wife, asked me, “Why is the sink filled with water?”. With moderate northerly winds we’d made good progress for two days, but then the wind had died and turned southerly. We’d been motorsailing since late morning and had just restarted the engine after shutting it down to improve SSB radio reception during Herb Hilgenberg’s South Bound II weather net broadcast. That’s when Dawn noticed the sink. This was not good news, because the sink’s drain is teed into the discharge line from one of the electric bilge pumps. Water in the sink usually means the bilge pump is working overtime.
We’d left Norfolk, Virginia, for Bermuda in early November. Even though Dream Weaver can easily be sailed by two, we always have extra hands aboard for any offshore passage longer than two days. This time we had three friends: Andy, who had sailed with us years before on our first trip to Bermuda; Bruce, who was on his first extended offshore passage; and Keith, a neighbor who had done some daysailing with us. We’d planned to take eight days on the Bermuda-St. Martin leg, but hoped we could do it in six and have a two-day cushion. If we were somehow delayed we’d have problems. Andy would miss Thanksgiving at home and Keith’s girlfriend, who was coming down to stay with us for a week, would be somewhere on St. Martin waiting for us to arrive.
I suspected the water in the sink was probably the result of a broken cooling line on the engine draining into the bilge, because I’d had hoses break before. But I also knew it might be coming from another source that could be much harder to fix. Although we had two EPIRBs, I knew that having a solid radio contact was a bird in the hand. Because Hilgenberg’s net was still active, I made a Mayday call on Herb’s frequency. Herb responded right away and told me that he had notified the Coast Guard.
Once Herb had acknowledged the call I began to look for the leak; it wasn’t hard to find. The soldered joint on the end cap of the engine’s main heat exchanger had failed and the cap was now pushed out to one side. Water would pour into the bilge whenever the engine was running. Although I could stop the leak by closing the raw-water intake valve, I couldn’t repair the cap at sea, which meant we were without an engine for the next 600 miles.
I canceled the Mayday call and asked Herb to let the Coast Guard know our situation was secure and we were concentrating on sailing south. There was no point in returning to Bermuda—it was closed in by weather and we were well south of it anyway. But without the engine our schedule was becoming uncertain. With unfavorable winds and squally conditions ahead it didn’t look like we were going to make a six-day passage, and eight days was beginning to look optimistic unless the wind direction changed.
That night found us beating into southeasterly 20-knot winds. Then we saw a powerful squall line on the horizon—big dark clouds with lots of lightning. Although we had already been hit twice by lightning, both times we were in a slip. The second strike had ruined all our electronics, including the autopilot. A lightning strike at sea would not be a good thing. The best-case scenario is you having to get out the sextant and the Nautical Almanac. The worst case, although fortunately it is rare, is an injury or possibly a blown-out through-hull.
Whenever there’s a chance of a lightning strike, our routine is to get the sails down, get everyone below and away from the mast and rigging, and run under power. But now with the engine out of commission, someone would have to stay on deck to sail the boat.
The first squalls hit us early in the evening and continued pretty steadily until midnight. We’d sailed through lots of squalls and prepared for these by heavily reefing the main and flying just a scrap of the roller-furling jib. But the last squall that hit us was one for the record books. The anemometer briefly touched 60 knots and the rain was so heavy at times it was impossible to see beyond the compass in the cockpit. There was so much lightning all around us it was as though someone was rapidly flicking a light switch on and off. At the height of the squalls lightning was flashing and striking the water with explosive cracks about every 30 seconds. Bruce and I watched the fireworks in awe as we sat clipped on in the cockpit.
But with our reduced sails and the seas blown flat by the swirling winds, I knew we were in no danger of a knockdown. Our goal was just to keep heading south. Though I was sure we would be hit by lightning, for some reason we escaped unscathed. Finally, the last squall moved away around midnight and we sat becalmed for over an hour. Amazingly, we suffered no damage at all, except for some very frayed nerves.
The next morning winds were back to 15-20 knots from the southeast and it was looking like we were in for a long beat to St. Martin. By noon of our fifth day out we were only about a 100 more miles further south, although we had also made a lot of easting. Finally, the weather began to change for the better and not long after we were on deck enjoying a bit of warm sunshine. But suddenly the head of the jib let go and the sail started to flog. There was nothing we could do but pull the sail down and put up a new headsail.
Our normal sail plan features a 90 percent yankee with a staysail set behind it. This is efficient, particularly when we are sailing upwind in higher winds. If the wind is light or behind us, we set a 120 percent genoa and lower the staysail. When we’re running the genoa works well with our in-mast furling mainsail, which has a hollow leech that reduces its area.
We had to go up the 60-foot mast to retrieve the jib halyard before we could change to the new headsail. It took us several hours to complete the job, but the time wasn’t wasted. Once the new genoa was set and pulling, the wind swung around into the northwest and that made for perfect reaching. The low-pressure system that had been over us had finally moved on, the high pressure was building and finally we were starting to have some luck. That evening we were enjoying 15-20 knot breezes from the northeast and were sailing at over seven knots for the eastern end of St. Martin.
The breeze filled in even more before slowly easing and veering more into the east. We were now in our seventh day at sea and once again signed in with Herb Hilgenberg for the daily briefing. He had checked on us every day and this time his parting words to us were, “Glad to have been aboard.” We were glad he’d been there, too.
That evening we rounded the east end of Anguilla at about midnight. Although we could see the lights of both islands, once again we were running out of wind. We were heading for Marigot Bay on the French side of St. Martin because its sandy bottom would make anchoring easy. We wouldn’t have to use the engine to enter the anchorage or to set the anchor. But now the question was: Would there be enough wind to get us there?
When we were about three miles from the anchorage the wind dropped completely. We launched the inflatable dinghy and spent an hour trying to lash it to Dream Weaver’s quarter so we could use it to work into the anchorage. Our soft-bottomed boat didn’t have any good attachment points and that made it hard to lash in place. We were still trying to make it work when suddenly I felt a puff of air. Not long afterward a light breeze began to fill in. Although it wasn’t much more than 5 knots, it was enough to let Dream Weaver ghost into the bay. As the sun came up we finally dropped anchor in 25 feet of water. Finally our eventful passage was over. Andy would make his plane, Bruce had time to go sightseeing, and Keith’s girlfriend would have a place to stay. And Dawn and I had the whole Eastern Caribbean to explore.