A dangerous beat to windward - Sail Magazine

A dangerous beat to windward

My partner, Hale, and I were tacking back and forth just beyond the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream aboard our Kelly Peterson 44, Cayuga, waiting for daylight so we could enter the Bahama Bank, when we heard a boat calling on the VHF, “Mayday, Mayday. We are taking on water and are in danger of sinking.” We waited and listened, hoping the U.S. Coast Guard might reply. But there was no
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0

My partner, Hale, and I were tacking back and forth just beyond the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream aboard our Kelly Peterson 44, Cayuga, waiting for daylight so we could enter the Bahama Bank, when we heard a boat calling on the VHF, “Mayday, Mayday. We are taking on water and are in danger of sinking.” We waited and listened, hoping the U.S. Coast Guard might reply. But there was no response so we answered the call and asked for the boat’s name and position. When they gave us their GPS coordinates, we saw they were only seven miles away.

We first tried to relay their Mayday call, hoping a powerboat would answer and could get to them quickly. We also thought the Coast Guard might hear us. But no one responded. We asked the boat whether they needed assistance and when they said “yes,” we knew it was up to us to start heading their way.

We had just enjoyed three perfect days of sailing along the Georgia and Florida coasts before heading across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. But with a cold front rolling in behind us, our weather window for getting into port was already tight. We had planned to be safely anchored before the wind kicked up, but now we were turning back west, into the Gulf Stream and a building southwesterly headwind, to reach the vessel in distress. We maintained intermittent radio contact with the boat on channel 16 and tried to get more details. Though the radio crackled with static, we could hear panic in their voices.

We learned the boat was a 38-foot ketch I’ll call Affliction with two men on board who were bailing with buckets and expected to have to abandon ship. In time the Coast Guard heard our side of the conversation and we acted as a relay for them. We decided Hale alone should operate the radio so no one would get confused hearing different voices from our boat. I monitored conversations from the helm via the remote mike in the cockpit while Hale remained below out of the wind. The Coast Guard offered to come and perform a rescue, but Affliction’s crew didn’t want to give up control of their ship to the Coast Guard. They preferred that we sail in company with them and bring them aboard if necessary.

But now we were having a few troubles of our own. Because this was our first long trip on our new boat we had not yet calibrated our autopilot. We figured hand steering the boat on this trip would familiarize us with its motion and that we would later calibrate the pilot on a calm day in the Bahamas.

Normally, hand steering would pose no problem because we could switch off at three-hour intervals. But after the distress call came in, I ended up on the helm for seven hours! My arms were on fire from the stress. And when we had to reef down because of the building wind, I was concentrating so hard on getting to Affliction that the jib ripped before I knew what was happening.

At this point, we thought again about whether we should continue sailing west into building seas. Our window for getting ourselves into a safe anchorage by nightfall was rapidly closing. And we had our own concerns. Because Affliction’s crew seemed so concerned about maintaining custody of their vessel, we wondered if perhaps the situation was not as serious as they indicated. We were definitely damaging our own boat trying to save them, but then we thought about how much we’d want help if we were frightened and our boat was sinking, so we carried on.

Hale continued to try calling other boats on channel 16. We saw several sport fishermen speeding by in the distance, but none answered our call. Finally, Hale did contact a Bahamian pump boat that offered to come pump out Affliction and tow her to shore. At first Affliction’s crew agreed to this. But after the pump boat got halfway to them they sent it back. We could not understand this decision, but I suspect they were concerned about getting involved in a dispute over salvage rights.

After beating to windward in heavy seas for three hours, we finally reached Affliction. We turned and followed them for four more hours as we sailed south together. The wind continued building and finally we were forced to drop all sail and motor the last few miles to a marina on Grand Bahama. It was now very late in the afternoon, the wind was blowing over 30 knots, and we were tired and battered. But we also knew the other boat was now safe.

That should have been the end of the story. We had upheld the law of the sea by helping another vessel in distress. But then we met the two sailors we had assisted in the marina. One of them never even said hello to me; the other did thank us, but was not enthusiastic in any way. I did learn they had set out without testing any of the gear aboard and that the boat’s bilge pump had been installed incorrectly so that it was siphoning water into the boat rather than pumping it out. There was no backup or manual pump aboard, and the only radio was a handheld VHF, which explains why the Coast Guard couldn’t hear them.

What bothered me wasn’t that Affliction’s crew were ungrateful, but rather that they seemed to be completely oblivious to the consequences of their Mayday call. They had left Florida, for a two-week cruise to the Abacos, but weren’t experienced enough to know their carelessness and lack of preparation had not only put them in danger, but had involved the Coast Guard, the Bahamian pump boat operator, and, of course, us.

Related

180615-01 Lead

A Dramatic Comeback in the Volvo

After winning three of the last four legs in the Volvo Ocean Race (and coming in second in the fourth), Dutch-flagged Brunel is now tied for first overall with Spanish-flagged Mapfre and Chinese-flagged Dongfeng following the completion of Leg 10 from Cardiff, Wales, to ...read more

MFS-5-2018-Propan-SP02

Tohatsu LPG-powered 5hp Propane Motor

Gassing it UpTired of ethanol-induced fuel issues? Say goodbye to gasoline. Japanese outboard maker Tohatsu has introduced an LPG-powered 5hp kicker that hooks up to a propane tank for hours of stress-free running. Available in short-, long- or ultra-long-shaft versions, the ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell.Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.comThink Deeply When chartering, I am always maddened to be told that the echo sounder is calibrated “to depth under the keel, plus a bit for safety.” Such operators seem to imagine that the instrument’s sole ...read more

180612-01 Landing lead

Painful Sailing in Volvo Leg 10

It’s looking to be a case of feast or famine for the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean fleet as it continues the epic struggle that has been Leg 10, with it having been all famine thus far. Painful is the only word to describe the light-air start in Cardiff, Wales, on June 10, as the 11-boat ...read more

01-13_07_180304_JRE_03695_4605

Tips From the Boatyard

Within the Volvo Ocean Race Boatyard sits a communal sail loft which provides service and repairs for all seven teams sailing in the 2017-18 edition of the race. The sail loft employs only five sailmakers who look after 56 sails in each stopover. If you’re thinking, “wow, these ...read more

sailCarwBasicsJuly18

Sail Care for Cruisers

Taking care of your canvas doesn’t just save you money, it’s central to good seamanship  Knowing how to take care of your sails and how to repair them while at sea is an important part of overall seamanship. The last thing any sailor needs is to get caught on a lee shore with ...read more

Ship-container-2048

The Danger of a Collision Offshore

This almost happened to me once. I was sailing singlehanded between Bermuda and St. Martin one fall, and one night happened to be on deck looking around at just the right time. The moon was out, the sky was clear and visibility was good. Still, when I thought I saw a large ...read more

New-MHS-Promo

Multihulls on the Horizon

Fountaine Pajot New 42The French cat powerhouse has been on a roll these last few years, cranking out new models that not only replace their older line but take a step forward in design and user-friendliness. The New 42’s “real” name had not been revealed as we went to press, but ...read more