A Problematic Rescue

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The author’s Catalina 270, Pneuma, safely at home in her slip

The author’s Catalina 270, Pneuma, safely at home in her slip

February 2, 2020 was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The temperature was in the upper 60’s, the wind from the southwest at a steady 8 knots—an ideal day to take my Catalina 270, Pneuma, out for the first sail of the year in my home waters of north Alabama.

After a few extra seconds of cranking, the engine came to life and the mainsail cover was taken off while the engine warmed up at around 1,500 rpm. After removing the shorepower cable and mooring lines, I shifted the transmission into reverse, and Pneuma slowly backed out of the slip.

Shifting into forward, Pneuma eased out of the marina, and when the depthsounder showed 10ft of water, I brought the bow into the wind and raised the mainsail. That done, it was bear away again and unfurl the genoa. With the engine shut down and the transmission in neutral, Pneuma glided along effortlessly. The sailing was simply perfect. With the radio turned on and classical music flowing from the speakers, Pneuma slipped along with a steady breeze on the starboard quarter.

Soon afterward I went below to take a quick look at the prop shaft spinning silently with the engine off—a source of fascination ever since I’d had the strut re-aligned as part of a transmission rebuild the previous fall. Watching the prop shaft spin without the roar of the engine was almost surreal. This time, though, upon arriving belowdecks I was horrified to find there was now about 4in of water on the cabin sole!

Immediately, I started the engine and dropped the main. Plan A was to motor back to the marina as quickly as possible. However, when I shifted the transmission into forward I received yet another heart-stopping surprise. It was like when the clutch wore out, only worse. The engine revved up, but there was no thrust at all. I tried reverse, but had no thrust in that direction either. So much for plan A.

Shutting the engine down I also closed the engine coolant seacock in case that was where the water was coming from and then went to make a mayday call. Turning the music off to make the call I noticed the sound of the bilge pump running. While waiting for a response to my call (which never came), I verified the other three seacocks were also closed.

With no engine and no help on the way, my only remaining option was to sail back to the marina, about mile and a half away. Raising the main, I trimmed sail for the beat back to the marina, engaged the autopilot and started bailing furiously. The rectangular bucket that I use to cover the binnacle made for a good bailer. I figured if I could keep the water level below that of the autopilot electronics I had a chance of getting back. Glancing at the depthsounder I noticed it showed about 20ft. I couldn’t get the image of the top 15ft of Pneuma’s mast sticking out the water out of my mind.

The “halyard pull” resulted in cracks to the boat’s internal structure

The “halyard pull” resulted in cracks to the boat’s internal structure

At first, the water I flung out the companionway collected at the forward end of the cockpit. Eventually, though, as I got more and more water out of the cabin, the water in the cockpit began to drain out the open transom, an encouraging sign. Taking a break from bailing, I used my cell phone to call the marina manager and request an emergency haulout. He told me to meet him at the dock. I told him I was taking on water, had no engine and would try my best to make it.

Still bailing furiously, it occurred to me I could maybe pull the hose off the now-closed engine intake, restart the engine and use it to help pump the water out of the bilge. It was then that I noticed the prop shaft was missing and water was now flowing in through the stuffing box! I rushed to get a tapered wooden bung to plug the hole, but it was much too long. Fortunately, by twisting together a couple of rags and then jamming them in the couple of inches between the packing nut and transmission coupling, I succeeded in plugging the hole. The rags didn’t stop the water completely, but it certainly slowed it down.

A little background: ever since that fall’s transmission rebuild and strut re-alignment, engine start had been preceded by turning the prop shaft before the engine coolant seacock (located a few inches from the prop shaft) was opened. Since the shaft was turned by hand prior to each startup, I also made the decision to temporarily leave the safety wire off the coupling sets crews to avoid being cut by the sharp end of the safety wire while turning the coupling. The idea was that I would also be sure and check the set screws prior to each startup. Unfortunately, as the weather grew colder and the trips became less frequent, the habit of turning the shaft and checking the set screws fell by the wayside. Shamefully, the safety wire was never installed. As a direct result of my own negligence, my boat was now in very real danger of sinking!

On the way back to the marina, I was struck by how steady the wind speed and direction was and how well Pneuma was sailing. I would bail a few minutes and then quickly climb back up into the cockpit to check heading and speed. I never had to touch the autopilot or adjust sail trim. Speed was rarely under 5 knots. Without the extra drag of her fixed, three-blade propeller Pneuma moved smartly to windward. Since she was now in need of a new prop anyway, it occurred to me perhaps a folding prop was in her future.

The two main docks at the marina are about 560ft long and run generally east-west. These join an access dock that is about 250ft long-running generally north-south. The crane dock is about 40ft long and runs roughly parallel to and about 50ft west of the access dock. I was able to fall off a few degrees and sail the length of the two main docks without a problem. Eventually, though, I had to tack in order to make for the crane. The challenge here became the fact that the wind was now blocked by the surrounding terrain, and depth was severely limited. I was able to tack, but lacked the wind or momentum to make it all the way to the crane dock. So I tossed a 30ft heaving line to my friend Mary, who happened to be standing on the north end of the access dock at the time to try and get the rest of the way in.

As Mary and I worked Pneuma around Toodeloo, a 50ft steel motorsailer, a small crowd began to gather, anxious to help. A few of the guys took the heaving line from Mary and proceeded to pull Pneuma toward the shallows, apparently, believing they could get her in close to shore and then along the shoreline to the crane. Before Pneuma had even gotten within a few boatlengths of the shoreline, though, she was hard aground.

Eventually, another friend arrived with about 200ft of three-strand nylon anchor rode, which someone tied to the end of my heaving line. Now, all we needed was to pull Pneuma backward again, out of the shallows, and over to the crane dock. About that same time, the marina owner, came along and said, “Bill, lower either your main or jib and give me the end of the halyard. We’ll do a halyard pull and get you unstuck.” As he was doing so I considered telling him Pneuma has a wing keel, which meant a “halyard pull” would be of little if any benefit. Rather than argue the issue, though, I simply offered up my spare halyard and then went below to continue bailing, forgetting the manual bilge pump I had in the cockpit.

Suddenly, as I was belowdecks, Pneuma began listing to port, making bailing much more difficult, and climbing back out of the cabin to tell them to stop their “halyard pull” I saw to my horror that the far end of the anchor rode was now tied to a pickup truck! “No! [expletive deleted] Not a [expletive deleted] pickup truck!” I yelled. “Just pull me back out into deeper water!”

Somebody said, “Bill, get away from that line! If it breaks you could get hurt bad by the loose end!” Which was true enough. At the same time, though, what I really needed to do was cut that same line and get free. Unfortunately, if I were to do so the line would snap back in the other direction. What about the guys by the pickup truck? They were all my friends. They were all just trying to help rescue my boat as best they could.

There was also some damage to the keel

There was also some damage to the keel

Afterward, I explained to someone (I don’t remember who) that once the boat was aground, the emergency was over. It simply couldn’t sink any further. For now, though, there was nothing I could do but watch as the group on shore continued dragging my boat through the shallows. Looking on in shock, horror and disbelief, I watched as Pneuma’s bow slowly turned to starboard, toward the crane dock. More guilt and shame! After she had done her part by delivering me safely back to the marina, I had failed her again, this time from well-intentioned friends.

Eventually, we made it the rest of the way to the crane, the lifting slings were positioned and Pneuma was lifted clear. There seemed to be some problem getting the jack stands properly placed, but careful positioning of a 4-by-6 under the keel solved the problem.

As soon as the boat was securely on the hard, the keel was inspected. It looked OK. However, it was hard to be certain because of the algae buildup. A further inspection would have to be done after the bottom was pressure washed.

Monday morning the first order of business was to find a source for a replacement propeller shaft. Interestingly enough, the lead time for the shaft from a supplier in a neighboring state was longer than for a new Flexofold folding propeller from Denmark! At the shaft-supplier’s suggestion, the shaft was ordered a bit long with plans to have a local machine shop cut it to length and machine the key slot in the forward end. The shaft was ordered on February 4th, the prop on February 10th. Nonetheless, the prop arrived three days before the shaft was ready.

Once the shaft was on order, the next task was cabin interior cleanup. Unfortunately, removing the cabin sole immediately revealed some much feared (but expected) structural damage where the fiberglass tabbing connecting the hull and a part of the hull liner had torn loose. After the hull exterior was pressure washed, close inspection of the hull and keel joint also revealed a series of gelcoat cracks at the keel’s leading and trailing edges. Clearly, it was time to call a marine surveyor.

The surveyor took plenty of photographs and spent a good deal of time tapping on the hull near the hull and keel joint. His report noted the gelcoat cracks around the keel and also cracks near a limber hole in the traverse stiffener below the mast compression post (in addition to the broken tabbing on the second traverse stiffener aft of the mast).

The insurance company sent another surveyor who reached essentially the same conclusions as the first survey. There was agreement that the damage was repairable, but there were economic considerations. If the repair cost exceeded a certain fraction of the boat’s value, it would be declared a total loss. Pneuma’s fate depended on the estimated cost of repair and insurance company policy. A week or so later, though, after some back and forth, the repair cost was approved. Pneuma would sail again! 

What we did wrong:

• Failed to put safety wire on the prop shaft coupling set screws

• Forgot to try the manual bilge pump in the cockpit; if I had remained topside, I may have been able to prevent Pneuma being dragged through the shallows

• A “halyard pull” is, at best, useless with a wing keel, since the wings will only dig in that much deeper when the boat is heeled

• It’s never a good idea to pull a boat with a pickup truck—unless, of course, you’ve got a proper trailer

What we did right:

• Never gave up the ship! When it was clear motoring was not an option, sailing back to the marina proved workable

• Knew where all the seacocks were located

• Found and plugged the leak; even if you can’t stop a leak entirely, slowing it down makes a big difference

Photos by Bill Evans

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

March 2021

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