I was standing with our skipper, Hank Schmitt, right behind the big forward-facing windows in the saloon when the wave hit. It seemed much larger than the others that had been punching periodically at our starboard forward quarter as we motorsailed on a close reach into the 40-knot gale. It also came in at a different angle, from directly ahead, and smashed straight into the windows in front of us.
There was a horrendous explosion, and water fire-hosed into the cabin all around the edges of the window frames. A large piece of trim was blown right off a central vertical frame, but the windows, thankfully, held up. The enormous impact stopped the boat, which had been moving forward at 4-5 knots, dead in its tracks and even seemed to back us up a bit. A counter-wave surged up our stern and (as we later noticed) blew a large teak step right off its mounting posts.
The boat, a brand new Alpha 42 catamaran named Be Good Too, spun around in a circle, first tacking then power-gybing uncontrollably in the 18-foot seas. She would not answer her helm. At the time, we assumed this was because we’d lost all forward momentum. We’d been motorsailing under reefed mainsail with just the starboard engine running, so now we also started the port engine, hoping its extra power would help us regain control, but it made no difference. Even with both engines running hard, we swung around again through another uncontrolled gybe. Once again the double-reefed main slammed over with tremendous force.
I had sailed with Hank many times, but this was the first time I’d ever seen him rattled.
“We can’t gybe like that again!” he shouted over the wind. “We have to get the main down and lie ahull, right?” He repeated the question, then made up his mind and made it an order.
I was pretty nervous, too. I had often sailed in conditions this strong, but I had never before just laid to the wind and let a boat drift broadside to big seas. I’d always believed this was a bad idea, that it’s better to adopt more active tactics if possible. Be Good Too, however, was perfectly happy. Even for a cat she was quite beamy, with a high bridgedeck, and proved remarkably stable lying beam-on to the seas. The rolling was not pronounced, and only rarely did waves slap the hull or land on deck. The wind increased that afternoon, blowing in the mid-40s with gusts over 50, and the seas were 20 feet and higher, but we lay comfortably to the gale all the rest of that day and on through the night.
A Sea of Troubles
Our passage had started three days earlier, on Wednesday, January 8, in an iced-in marina berth in New York Harbor. Owners Gunther and Doris Rodatz, who had just taken delivery of Be Good Too after a seven-month delay, had hired Hank to help them sail the boat straight to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Hank had asked me to come along as crew. The first two days were bitterly cold, but by Friday evening we were in the Gulf Stream, with water temperatures over 70 F, and were enjoying some fine sailing.
Conditions, however, started deteriorating early Saturday morning. When I came on deck at 0400 to relieve Hank, the wind was blowing over 30 knots from the south-southeast, and the seas were 15 feet and building. There were two reefs in the mainsail, and the self-tacking Solent jib was roller-reefed down to about half size.
Things started going pear-shaped a few hours later, shortly after 0700, when Gunther came up to relieve me. First an autopilot alarm sounded, indicating power was low. While we were dealing with that, the single-line jib sheet parted, having chafed through due to a bad lead. We rolled up the jib, started the starboard engine, and were soon motorsailing due east under main alone. A few hours later, at about 1130, we got slammed by the wave.
The next piece of bad news came shortly after midnight on Sunday, when we found we’d run out of electrical power. By now we’d been lying ahull for more than 12 hours. During that time the wind had fortunately shifted north and subsided to around 25 knots, so after sunrise we took stock of our situation. The engine compartments aft were much wetter than they should have been due to persistent leaks, and this evidently had taken its toll. Neither the generator nor the port engine would start, and though the starboard engine would start, it was not charging the boat’s batteries.
We did not waste much time worrying about this. We had a handheld GPS and two sat-phones aboard, so we could still navigate and communicate with the outside world if necessary. What we were most interested in was getting the boat sailing again.
We soon rigged a new sheeting system for the jib, with one fixed centerline sheet and barber-haulers on either side, but we were reluctant to raise the main again given the wind. The top two full battens had already broken free of their luff cars as the sail was flogging the day before, and we didn’t want things to get any worse. We tried all through Sunday and into the night to sail under jib alone, but couldn’t get the boat to sail in a straight line without it periodically spinning around in circles.
By now, of course, we realized our steering had been damaged and wanted to reach shore ASAP. For a while, as the wind increased again to 30 knots, we had some luck getting the boat to head southeast on a port-tack broad reach, which put us on course for Bermuda. But we had so little control of the boat, we weren’t sure we could actually hit the island. We needed a much bigger target, the continent to our west, but could not sail in that direction.
Come sunrise Monday, conditions were calm, with the wind in the south again at less than 10 knots. We inspected the steering system closely and found that the port rudderstock was not secured to its tiller arm. Instead of being secured with a pin all the way through the stock, there was only a set-screw, the tip of which had broken off. Without the set-screw, the stock was slipping quite a bit in its collar as the tiller turned.
We assumed this must be the cause of our trouble and immediately set out to fix it. The top of the rudderstock did have a hole in it to receive a proper pin, and after much tiller-wrestling we at last managed to line up the hole in the stock with the corresponding hole in the tiller and hammer in an Allen key to secure it. Unfortunately, when we started up our one working engine to see if we could steer, the boat would only circle to port, no matter what we did with the wheel.
It was time to visually inspect the rudders.
Gunther insisted that he should be the one to take a swim, and he soon reported that our starboard rudder blade had broken loose from its stock and was spinning in place around it. As for the port rudder—the one we had just “repaired”—although the stock itself wasn’t bent, the blade was bent off its fore-and-aft axis and was toed inboard so far it could only steer to starboard, even with the wheel hard to port.
We wondered if we might still be able to steer the boat if we had both engines running. Starting from a standstill with just the starboard engine working, the boat presumably was immediately circling to port because the port rudder had no water flowing over it and couldn’t counteract the turning moment being created by the one engine. But if the port engine was also running, we could hopefully get the boat moving forward, then adjust engine speeds to overcome the starboard bias of the port rudder.
The port engine, however, emitted a strong burning odor whenever we switched on its ignition. We hoped just the starter solenoid had shorted out and tried jumping it, but this didn’t work, and we concluded the starter itself must have shorted out.
So it was back to the sails. It was now calm enough to raise the main, and we hoped that with both sails working we could get the boat moving forward and then use thrust from the starboard engine to counteract the port rudder’s starboard bias. Over the next few hours, however, despite trying every possible engine/sail combination we could think of, we could only get the boat to sail or motorsail in circles to starboard.
After this we didn’t spend too much more time trying to fix our problem. We did briefly discuss whether we should try to remove the tiller from the port rudder stock, but we had hammered so hard on the Allen key, we assumed we would never get it out again with the tools we had available. Gunther suggested we might remove the starter from the starboard engine while it was running and put it on the port engine to start it up, too. But none of us were diesel mechanics, and Hank and I thought the idea sounded crazy.
Instead we discussed whether we might somehow organize a tow. We were now 300 miles from anywhere, equidistant from Bermuda, the Chesapeake Bay and New York, and I thought it very unlikely anyone would want to come to us. Hank, however, was more optimistic and at his urging Gunther placed a call to the builder in New York to see if something could be arranged.
Thinking out how this might proceed, we realized first it would take days to rendezvous with a tow vessel. The tow would then have to proceed quite slowly, 3 knots at most, due to the bent rudder. Meanwhile, there would be a continuing barrage of routine winter gales—we figured one or two at least—and during these the tow would have to be dropped with both vessels lying ahull until conditions eased.
Two more calls to the builder over the next few hours in any event yielded no prospect of a tow vessel, and Gunther reluctantly decided it would be best to abandon the boat. He called the U.S. Coast Guard late that afternoon, an hour or so before sunset, to make arrangements. Afterward we broke our dry-ship rule, opened up a bottle of wine, and treated ourselves to a pre-abandonment party. Gunther and Doris were obviously disappointed at the prospect of losing the boat, which they’d waited two years for, but were also very philosophical. They were grateful no lives were at stake, and together we laughed a bit about the problems we’d confronted.
Initially the Coast Guard told us they would divert a commercial vessel to retrieve us, which was what we expected, but at some point during the night, for reasons that were never made clear, they changed their minds. During a scheduled follow-up call at 0200 we were not only told that a helicopter would come for us, but that it would have to stop to refuel, both outbound and inbound, on a U.S. Navy warship. Looking back, I now can’t help but wonder if the reason they decided to use a chopper was so they could practice doing this.
In any event, a few hours after sunrise, our sixth at sea, we spotted a Coast Guard C-130 search plane and then a Jayhawk helicopter streaking toward us from the west. Soon afterward a rescue swimmer cheerfully greeted us as he swarmed up our transom swim ladder. The only really unpleasant thing about the evacuation was that we had to jump into the water to get hoisted up into the chopper, which meant sitting in soaking wet clothes during the three-hour flight to shore.
On our arrival at the Coast Guard airbase in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, we were greeted by a swarm of people, including some Red Cross workers, who were eager to take care of us. To them we must have seemed like very disappointing survivors. We were perfectly healthy, entirely untraumatized, and in rather good spirits. All we really wanted was a hot shower and some dry clothes.
Charles J. Doane, SAIL’s Cruising Editor, is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat
(International Marine, 2010).
You can follow his blog at SAILfeed.com
Battle of the Armchair Admirals
Following our rescue many Armchair Admirals (AAs) online announced we were incompetent and told us what we should have done instead.
Most insisted we should have “dropped” the damaged rudder and jury-rigged an alternative steering system. Suggested rudder-removal techniques included: (a) getting in the water and cutting it free; (b) cutting a hole in the deck over the rudder so we could push the stock out the bearing tube from above; (c) destroying the bearing tube so we could do same; (d) attaching our anchor and rode to the rudder so as to pull it out of the tube. Most, however, assumed the rudder would just sink once we released its stock from inside the boat.
As to the jury-steering system, some suggested we could steer with a cabinet door lashed to the end of a spinnaker pole, but most urged that towing a drogue with a bridle would do the trick.
Several AAs, like Gunther, thought of swapping engine starters with the engine running, and many, of course, thought we were idiots for taking a brand new boat straight offshore in winter.
In retrospect, I do think there are things we might have done differently. First, if we had laid ahull to the gale much earlier and hadn’t kept sailing into it, we perhaps would never have damaged our rudders. Of course, we can never know for sure what would have happened if that one big wave had hit us beam on.
Second, we should have inspected the rudders before attempting any repair. If we had noticed the port rudder blade was bent, we might then have removed the tiller instead of securing it, after which the rudder could have rotated freely, like the starboard one, without inhibiting other methods of steering the boat. Unfortunately, after having secured the tiller to the rudderstock, there was no way we could either remove the rudder or let it spin freely without undoing our repair.
Might we have rigged some jury steering, assuming we’d negated the problem of the bent rudder? We had no spinnaker or whisker poles, as is usual on catamarans, nor did we have any purpose-built drogue. We might, perhaps, have created a drogue, but like most new boats ours had relatively little gear aboard to work with.
I should also point out that I only later realized that all we had to do to neutralize the port rudder was let it spin freely. At the time, like the AAs, we assumed we had to lose the rudder to do this. This seemed impossible, because the rudder was obviously buoyant—it popped right up off its retaining ring as soon as we removed the crossbar to the other rudder’s tiller. Of course, we had no way to cut it off, and I hope most will agree that destroying a floating boat to remove a rudder is a bad idea.
As to swapping starters, one AA actually claimed to have done this, though with much larger stationary engines onshore. This is intriguing, but I’m not sure I’d want to try it in a confined engine bay at sea, where the risk of catching body parts in moving belts would be much greater. At any rate, I don’t believe the extra engine would have enabled us to overcome the starboard steering bias of the bent rudder.
Finally, it is reasonable to question what we were doing out there in the first place. While sitting in a cozy armchair, it seems sensible to insist that all yachts should be superbly equipped and well shaken down before going offshore, and that you should never go anywhere in the off-season. In the real world, however, delivery skippers often throw their sea-bags aboard untested, lightly equipped production boats and sail off into atrocious weather. If they weren’t willing to do this, they wouldn’t get much work. Ultimately, I suppose, the question is whether voyages of this sort should be prohibited, but I, for one, don’t know if I’d really want to live in a world where they were.