Cruising Crews Aid a Shipwrecked Sailor in the San Blas Islands

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Coming upon a boat hard on a reef is never a pleasant experience. Photos courtesy of Nate Niehuus

Coming upon a boat hard on a reef is never a pleasant experience.

The day started like any other: the sun shining through my hatch while I tried to ignore it. When I heard someone start the coffee, I couldn’t justify staying in bed anymore. We had to burn trash, finish cleaning our diesel tank and move through a few more islands in Panama’s San Blas archipelago before we headed to Cartagena, Colombia.

Being up relatively early allowed me to listen to the 0830 cruisers’ net. I hadn’t intended to check in. I was being lazy. But all of our other cruising buddies checked in—and then we heard the girls on One World request traffic with us, NOMAD. I stumbled below with my coffee and answered the call. There had been a shipwreck and help was needed to salvage what was left, including the boat’s engine and genset. It was going to be hard work, but I had three young and able bodies onboard, including myself.

The inside of Hank’s boat was not a pretty sight

The inside of Hank’s boat was not a pretty sight

This incident made eight sailboats lost in the previous 30 days—way, way too many. A wreck in the San Blas is different than other places; the local Kuna Indians have rights to salvage your vessel shortly after it hits the reef. Whatever you can’t get off the boat quickly belongs to them. The rules are a little hazy, but that’s the gist of it. San Blas is a very bad—and very easy—place to hit a reef. There are lots of them, and all the major charting systems are dramatically off. In many of the places I’ve dropped the hook, the electronic charts have shown my Lagoon 380 to be on the land. Thankfully I haven’t put her there—yet.
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Hank put his boat on the reef, though, and that’s what the call on the cruiser’s net had been about. Hank isn’t his real name, but he is a very real human being. He’d actually put his 2007 Beneteau Oceanis 523 over the reef. Hank has made many a voyage in his 43 years of sailing experience and never before had he hit a reef. It only takes once, though. Just one bad decision. Just a bit of bad luck at the wrong time.

On NOMAD, we quickly returned some tools and wrapped up our tank-polishing job. We raised the dinghy and got ready for sea. We needed to beat into the wind for a few miles, and though we were relatively protected, we were going to rock and roll a bit.

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Shortly before noon we were anchored. We didn’t eat, just grabbed water, a handheld VHF and a bag of tools. The sight of the Beneteau on the reef was heartbreaking, even at this distance. As we approached, we got a grasp of the size of the boat and the predicament we were now a part of. She was tilted at 45 degrees, and the waves were breaking just in front of her. The boom had been removed by the Kuna. This would make it difficult to salvage the 150hp Yanmar diesel and the giant Onan genset. Then there was the mile of reef we’d have to get across to get back to our vessels with the genset and engine in tow.

As if to intentionally complicate things, while the Kunas were salvaging what they wanted they had cut every hydraulic and diesel line in the boat. The result was a two-foot-deep cesspool inside the hull, and decks covered in a mixture of diesel and hydraulic fluid.
There was very little good news, except that Hank was all right. He had a few cuts and many bruises, but no broken bones, and he was climbing around the wreck like someone a quarter of his age. The other good news is that the girls on One World—Ariel and Rachele—were there with us. This was day three of their salvage work.

Everyone was happy to see my crew, Amanda and Luke, and me. More hands, more heads, more muscle, more help. I went below, where I found Hank. He introduced himself as “The idiot who wrecked his boat.” That’s a tough way to introduce oneself, especially considering he had, literally, 43 times the amount of sailing experience I did. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing, and started working on removing the engine mounts. I decided then and there I didn’t want to ask Hank how it had happened.
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Our first task was to find some way to lift the heavy engine out without a boom to rig a tackle from. Hank soon found a solution to our lifting predicament. The mast was climbed and we wove a spiderweb of ropes in the remaining rigging to create tension.

 Lowering the boat’s engine into the dinghy using a spider’s web of rigging was difficult, but worked

Lowering the boat’s engine into the dinghy using a spider’s web of rigging was difficult, but worked

With this spiderweb woven and rewoven and tensioned and retensioned enough to support the weight, we began the delicate process of first lifting the engine out through the hatch and then swinging it over into a dinghy so we could get it across a mile of reef. It stuck on a variety of things, but eventually we got it out. We celebrated with a few jokes, a few hugs and a round of applause. You have to celebrate every win—no matter how tiny—when you’re in a situation like this.

After that Ariel and I decided we would take the dinghy and engine back to One World by ourselves, but it soon became clear that this was a mistake. After about 15ft, we were confronted with ankle-deep water for hundreds of yards in every direction. We had to lift and drag the engine and the dinghy through the shallows a few feet at a time. Lift, drag a few feet, stop, rest, repeat. Eventually we made it to deeper water and managed to float the dinghy back to One World. We weren’t done, though—now we had to get the engine aboard. Finally, at dusk, we had lifted the engine onto One World’s deck. We were beat, but not beaten. Dinner and drinks were had. We told sailing lies, laughed a bit, and everyone cheered up.

When we headed back out to the wreck next morning, Hank was already there. We’d heard a request for sleeping aids on the cruisers’ net that morning—for Hank. We knew this was taking its toll, but we watched him push through what was probably the most traumatic event of his life. He was a prime example of what humans are capable of when they are determined.

We were sure the genset was lighter and smaller than the engine—until we measured it and realized it was actually a good deal larger. That news brought on a very select series of words from everyone. We had to reweave the spiderweb, because we couldn’t leave the ropes and block and tackle up overnight—the Kuna would surely wander away with it.[advertisement]

By midday we had the spiderweb rewoven and most of the genset unhooked. Right about the time we began to lift it, we realized it was much heavier than we’d thought. But after many more hours of working in the sun on diesel-covered decks tilted at 45 degrees just feet from the pounding surf, we got it out. Then we got it into the dinghy, after which Ariel and I, having learned from our last attempt, recruited some help to get it across the shallow reef—learning, again, how much heavier it was than the engine.

The salvage party weaves the web of lines it used to haul out the engine and genset

The salvage party weaves the web of lines it used to haul out the engine and genset

Eventually both genset and engine were safely aboard One World. We were all tired and hungry and beat and bleeding, but we cracked a couple of jokes and gave out some hugs. A celebration was called for, so we ate and drank and caught the end of a birthday party on a nearby island. Then we brought the party back to NOMAD where I cooked for our group of misfit salvage hands.

On our final day, Hank and my crew were the only ones at the wreck. By midday we were making mistakes. A large piece of the tiller assembly fell and caught me a glancing blow in the face. Luckily, I kept my teeth and escaped with only a bloody lip. But that was the end of the salvage operation for my crew. My tools were covered in saltwater and already beginning to rust, I was beat and bleeding, and we were exhausted. Getting people hurt wouldn’t help anything, and we needed to get to Colombia. I called an end to the salvage operation for the NOMAD crew, and we went back to our mothership, where we spent the rest of the day cleaning tools and reorganizing our lives.

Next morning, I found four name-brand block and tackle sets in the floor of my dinghy. Hank didn’t have much to give anymore, but he did have those. I seriously considered giving them back, but after you’ve worked and bled beside someone in those conditions, you find that these kinds of gifts mean the most.

Getting the  genset back to One World

Getting the genset back to One World

Postscript: Later, I learned what I hadn’t asked Hank—how it happened. He was 15 miles offshore, sailing parallel to the coastline, when he set his alarm and took a nap. It was dark and he was singlehanding—meaning he was tired and uninsured and alone. The current was flowing strongly toward shore and set the boat into the breaking surf, which then pushed it onto the reef. There it fell on its starboard side and the waves turned it, leaving it facing the ocean again.

Hank spent the night in his yacht, wedging himself in a corner so he could sit upright as the boat was tilted 45 degrees. In the morning he got his dinghy free and was able to look for help. He was, by and large, treated the way we would all hope to be by our fellow sailors. Hank later refloated his boat and had it towed to a marina in Panama.

Photos courtesy of Nate Niehuus

August 2015

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