Voice of Experience: "Daddy, We're on the Rocks!"

I woke from a deep sleep to the sound of my 8-year-old daughter, Asha, exclaiming: “Daddy, we are really close to the rocks! I can step out onto them!” That was enough to get me out of my groggy, dreamlike state, and I leapt out of bed and headed for the companionway with my shorts in my hand.
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Illustration by Michael Penick

Illustration by Michael Penick

I woke from a deep sleep to the sound of my 8-year-old daughter, Asha, exclaiming: “Daddy, we are really close to the rocks! I can step out onto them!” That was enough to get me out of my groggy, dreamlike state, and I leapt out of bed and headed for the companionway with my shorts in my hand.

The previous evening we had taken one of the mooring buoys in Cala Coticcio, a small, beautiful bay in the Maddalena Archipelago just north of Sardinia. My wife, Amanda, and our daughters, Lucy and Asha, and I had been cruising the Mediterranean on Faem, our 2001 Beneteau First 47.7, between Corsica and Sardinia. Also on board were our friends from back home in Vancouver, Canada—Gary, Meg and their son Oscar.

We had anchored in the little bay’s aquamarine water the previous afternoon and taken a line ashore to limit our swinging. The bay is a popular destination for day-trippers and was crowded with boats.

As the sun dipped behind Ile de Caprera, the bay began to empty, and we looked forward to having this little piece of paradise all to ourselves. Eventually, we retrieved the line we had tied ashore, hoisted our anchor and moved to one of the now vacant mooring buoys. After that it was time to fire up the barbeque and settle down for dinner.

By nightfall, though, the wind was howling down from the surrounding hills in great gusts, so that with each puff, Faem would careen to the end of the mooring line and come to a jolting stop. The wind would then vanish, and as the mooring chain sank we would over-sail the mooring just in time for the next powerful gust to start the process all over again.

We considered bugging out to a different anchorage, but I didn’t like the prospect of trying to find a safe haven in unfamiliar waters in the dark, so we hunkered down for the night. The words of the park attendant, “Yes, this is a strong enough mooring for your boat,” were repeating over and over in my head. Finally, the wind ceased, and I fell into a blissful sleep—until I was abruptly woken by Asha.

Now, as I came up into the cockpit I could see that the bow of the boat was, indeed, mere feet from the line of rocks on the east side of the swimming area off the beach. (I would later discover the rope, which was still secured to our bow, had parted from its anchor.) Immediately going into survival mode, I fired up the engine and put the boat in reverse to back off the rocks, only to have the engine just as immediately shudder to a stop, as the propeller caught the line of floats marking the boundary of the swimming area.

Still, in survival mode, I donned my snorkel, mask and fins, and jumped over the side with a knife in my teeth to free the line from the prop. Easy peasy, I thought as I cut the float line away on either side of the prop. But trying to free it from the shaft? Not so much, as it had been wound tight by the 67 horsepower turbo-diesel, and I was just one man with a single lungful of air. To make matters worse, the float line that had been holding us off the rocks was now cut, and a slight onshore breeze was pushing us onto the rocks again. Next thing I knew, the keel was firmly stuck on top of one big round boulder, and the rudder was hooked behind another. What’s that old saying about the frying pan and the fire?

The anchorage in Cala Coticcio, Sardinia left little room for error

The anchorage in Cala Coticcio, Sardinia left little room for error

The first rule of first aid is to try to stop the bleeding. We had to do something to prevent further damage, so I hopped into the dinghy to try to pull Faem backward. No luck. After that, Amanda prepared the kedge anchor, a 30lb CQR with 20 feet of chain and 150 feet of line, which I ran out to its full length in the dinghy and dropped into the bay.

While this was going on, Gary and Meg were on the radio asking the coast guard for assistance. Their response was to say they would send someone by when they had a chance and that we should maybe call the local salvage company. The fact that there was no cellphone service in the bay didn’t seem to be any cause for concern—for them. Clearly, we were on our own.

Back on deck, I took the kedge anchor rode to a primary winch and cranked on it hard. After that I went back in the water to try to clear the prop. It is amazing how long you can hold your breath sitting on a couch compared to how quickly it runs out when you are underwater battling a half-inch line wound tightly around a propeller shaft. After about 5,000 trips back to the surface for air, I finally managed to free the line. Hooray for small victories!

By this time the first boat of the day was approaching, one of the big tour boats that make a round of all the bays in the park, pausing to give their customers a 20-minute swim at each stop. Hooray for the Tour Boat! We smiled and waved, and tried to let them know we were stuck and had a stern anchor out. They smiled and waved back. We smiled and made gestures to ask them to give us a tow off the rocks. They smiled, waved and said, “No.” Curse the Tour Boat!

Luckily, it had come into the bay at such a high speed that its wake gently lifted up Faem, enough to free the keel, after which the kedge did its job and we thump-thumped off the rocks. Hooray for the Tour Boat!

After that I fired up the engine again, we reversed slowly as we retrieved the kedge, and with that we were free, with only minor damage to keel, rudder and ego.

Sometimes in emergency situations, it is important to act quickly and decisively. The burst of adrenaline that comes with fear or excitement is helpful when the task is well defined. It is that energy that gives mothers the strength to lift crumpled cars off their children, and lets linebackers smash through and sack the quarterback. But it doesn’t promote clear thinking and assessment of a situation, and I had fallen victim to it. In hindsight, if I had not gone into action mode, but instead sat back and evaluated the situation, everything likely would have been fine. We would have been held in place by the float line. I could have had my morning coffee, fired up the dinghy, pulled the boat into deeper water and re-anchored. OK—maybe save the coffee till later.

There is often more than just one way to deal with a situation. When possible you should stop, take a breath, and consider your options.

What we did right

We asked the park staff if the mooring was suitable for our vessel.

We took steps to stabilize the situation. We set a stern anchor to keep the boat from going farther onto the rocks, and took tension on that line. It was the kedge that ultimately got us off.

We called for assistance when it became apparent that we were well and truly stuck and had exhausted our options.

What we did wrong

We stayed on a mooring we were not certain of. I questioned the park staff about it because I had doubts. I should have listened to that inside voice when the wind came up.

I put the engine in gear before ensuring the propeller was clear of obstacles.

I should have pulled the boat off the submerged line with the dinghy before starting the engine.

I reacted to the situation rather than formulating a response to it. The reaction made the situation worse. We went from being afloat and in no danger, to being stuck on the rocks with no engine.

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