Experience: Hard Aground

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The author’s tough Bristol 41 sustained surprisingly little damage during its ordeal ashore

The author’s tough Bristol 41 sustained surprisingly little damage during its ordeal ashore

This is a story of how mistakes are made and judgment is dulled to the point of catastrophe. It is also about how prudent planning, good equipment and a bit of luck can bring you back from the brink.

We departed Norfolk, Virginia, on December 15 bound for Jacksonville, Florida, aboard Averi, our Bristol 41. I was up at 0530, getting prepared, and in making my checks, I missed something-something that would turn out to be critical.

After motoring out of the Chesapeake and past Cape Henry, we raised sail as we turned south. That afternoon the wind became southerly, and soon we were again under engine after only four hours of sailing. It was then that my wife, Nicola, began to show flu symptoms—fever and chills that came on rapidly. In retrospect, I should have turned back at that point.

It was a long day that turned into an even longer, colder night. Twenty hours out, we started rounding Hatteras in rough and confused seas. Six hours later, when some odd noises from the drive train caused me to shut the engine down, I raised sail. At this point the wind was inconsistent, but remained mostly in the southwest, adding to my difficulties in rounding Cape Lookout. Nicola was now extremely sick and unable to help much, although she tried.

After a series of tacks in the face of contrary winds, I finally made it around the cape on the morning of December 17. By then I had been up for 50 cold hours, singlehanded and with a great deal of tacking involved. I had it in mind that the engine could not be used, so I decided to head for Beaufort and call for a tow to assist us into port.

For navigation, I was using NOAA chart 11520, with the depth marked in fathoms, as well as the Insight chart on my Simrad chartplotter, which was marked in feet. At some point—I’m unsure exactly when—I mistook Bogue Inlet for Beaufort inlet on my chartplotter. With a waypoint set for what I believed to be Beaufort, I then calculated my approach using the smaller-scale paper chart to take us to the east of the inlet so I could tack and carry a fair breeze into the channel.

This period is a blur to me, as I had now been awake for nearly 60 hours. Although I was able to contact Towboat US and arrange for them to meet us outside of Beaufort Inlet, when they suggested meeting at buoy R14, I started to see a problem. The mark I was heading for was N4 on the channel to Bogue inlet—not, as I’d thought, Beaufort inlet. I alerted the tow boat to this and checked my charts again. Unfortunately, while I’d finally realized my error in location, I still had in my mind that the depth was measured in fathoms—not feet.

We were now approaching from the southeast on a beam reach, running west along the beach in what I believed was 5 fathoms, or 30ft of water. Then we bumped—not too hard, but enough to get my attention. I finally noticed the depth on our instruments—less than 6ft! We draw 5ft with the centerboard up.

I immediately attempted to tack, but as we started to come about, the genoa hung up on the spreader and we were pushed back. After that, as we crossed the outer bar in the dark, with wind and tide against us, it was clear we could not escape. By now Nicola had managed to come up to the cockpit, where she furled the headsail and raised the partially lowered centerboard while I dropped and secured the main.

Finally, we grounded in the dark with a stiff southerly wind slamming the waves onto the shore. As a Coast Guardsman and others approached us, we could see the water at the rail was only about 2ft deep. I, therefore, helped Nicola off between waves; she jumped into the surf and I followed, after checking that Averi’s interior and the things stowed on deck were secure. It was about 2030, and I had now been awake for around 63 hours.

The stress, emotion and exertions hit me like a hammer. I was exhausted, utterly spent. After arriving ashore we were checked by paramedics and released to some newfound friends who lived close by. I fell asleep to the sound of the Atlantic pounding our home.

The next morning we discovered Averi had dug a trench in the sand thanks to the force of the waves and mostly righted herself. The towboat was offshore and at the morning high tide, on December 18, it was able to bring Averi’s bow toward the sea, although the tide was not yet high enough to dislodge her. Later, I was able to get on board at low tide and make sure all was secure. The lights were on, the freezer was running, and she was dry. Everything on deck was secure as well.

That evening Towboat US did not begin trying to tow Averi off again until well after the tide had begun to ebb. Unfortunately, the crew was still unable to move her more than a few feet, so we spent yet another night listening to the waves pound our boat. Finally, at high tide that following evening, Averi jumped up on a few waves as the Towboat US crew tried yet again, surged forward, jumped again with the surf and was free. Oh, how lovely it was to see her floating!

Afterward, I spent a lot of time thinking about what had just happened to us. Ultimately, I believe my attitude was the major factor, setting off a cascade of events. I am fortunate I can review what happened. Many don’t get that same opportunity.

Bottom line: what I had missed on my pre-departure check was my own mindset. I had a schedule. I had arranged to meet my daughter in Jacksonville to take her sailing with us. She was flying in, so it was a tight schedule. The result is I left when I shouldn’t have. As it happens, I know something about schedules. I was once a construction manager. I was driven to make my deadlines, pushing to meet scheduling goals—good in that world, not so much when going offshore.

The other mistakes I made all naturally followed from that first one. I also allowed my instincts to rule me. When Nicola became ill, for example, we should have returned to Norfolk. Rather than push on, I should have taken breaks. We had all the tools we needed. I could have hove-to. I could have anchored.

More than anything I needed sleep, and the farther I pushed on, the more irrational I became. I can now see where I stopped making log entries, where I made poor choices in sailing and, most of all, where I became confused while charting a simple course. You may think the difference between two inlets is too big an error to make, but after 50 or so hours of no sleep, you may as well have drunk a fifth of rum. My stubbornness nearly cost me my wife, my home, my life. I therefore now operate with a very different set of priorities.

1. Captain — am I focused on the voyage and not something else?

2. Crew — are they ready, healthy, rested and able to perform?

3. Boat — is she ready, is she safe?

4. Weather and sea state — will it be good enough, for long enough?

5. Route — have we familiarized ourselves with the whole route, possible diversions, currents and hazards? Where are emergency anchorages?

6. Retreat — where is the point of no return?

7. Avoiding schedules — schedules should always be a last priority: go long on days and short on distance.

These days we don’t move unless we can answer all these questions with reasonable answers. Some may say, “It won’t happen to me,” and they could be right. But denial is a bad approach to risky endeavors. Others will think me foolhardy, and I accept that: I was. Since then, however, I have been far more critical of myself than they might imagine. I only hope others can wisely learn from my mistakes. It’s so much easier than making your own. 

What went wrong

• I was determined to sail to a schedule and let myself get overtired. I should have turned back when Nicola became ill.

• Fatigue led to me making some basic mistakes, like not trying to start the engine to get us out of trouble.

• The electronic and paper charts used different depth measurements, which led to confusion.

What went right

• We ended up on a perfect beach. There was sufficient but not too much grade, with pure soft sand and the Coast Guard station a block away.

• Our boat, Averi, is exceptionally strong. She stood up to three days of pounding surf after being run aground. I can take some credit here, spending the better part of two years rebuilding her and making sure she was right and tight.

• There were people on the beach watching the full moon rise. On any other night, there may not have been anyone. Leo, our particular savior, called the Coast Guard before we hit the shoal offshore.

• Although down with the flu, my wife, Nicola, was up on deck when she had to be, thinking of things I could not!

• We were insured.

Marc Bodian learned to sail during summers spent in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and later part-owned a J/24 on Dillon Lake in Colorado. He and Nicola have been cruising for five years

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

March 2018


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