Voice of Experience: Heading for the Rocks Page 2

We were halfway into a three-week summer cruise through the San Juan and Gulf islands in the Pacific Northwest. Aboard Hannah, our Hunter 356, were my wife Chantil, my 15-year-old daughter, Sierra, my 11-year-old son, Aaron, and our dog, Jack; also with us were my nephews Andrew and Zack, who are 13 and 12. Our vacation was going so well I jokingly considered calling work and asking for
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My son proudly reported: “We never hit the rocks! The lowest the depthsounder showed was 13 feet below the keel.”

“Good,” I said. “Aaron and Zack, go check the bilges, make sure we haven’t taken on any water from leaks. Sierra, make sure our running and steaming lights are on. Also, nice job on the radio calls. Well done!”

Hannah was now well into the channel and feeling the full brunt of the chop kicked up by what was now a chilly 25-knot wind. “What are your intentions?” yelled the coastguardsman at the helm of the RIB. “Where are you staying for the night?”

I considered anchoring in another cove, but decided against it when I realized how concerned Sierra was about anchoring again.

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“Let’s dock at Port Sidney Marina,” I replied, wondering how on earth I would navigate five miles through the dark to a harbor and marina I had never seen before.

“OK! I’ll go back and get your wife and dinghy and escort you to the marina!” the coastguardsman yelled through the wind. “I’ll leave one of my men on your boat to help you navigate through the island passage. Keep your VHF radio on channel 16.”

I did my best to plot a course on the helm chartplotter to Sidney through the multitude of islands and ferry routes that blocked the way. It was nice having a coastguardsman with some local knowledge of the area on board to help me out. Then, I remembered the two kayaks still attached to our boat. “We had to cut them free,” explained the coastguardsman. “They were recovered on shore by some good Samaritans.”

Soon the coast guard auxiliary RIB returned with Chantil. She came aboard, gave me a relieved hug and went below to check on the kids. The coastguardsman, though, looked concerned. “We have another call, so we’ll have to let you go to Sidney on your own,” he said. “I’ll bring you back your dinghy later tonight.”

“Sounds good, I’ve got it from here. See you in Sidney,” I said, wondering how I was going to make it through the narrow island channels in the middle of the night.

Fortunately, the GPS and chart-plotter were working perfectly. I switched on the radar to make sure its image overlay matched the land I was seeing on the chart. The trip to Port Sidney Marina was stressful, especially one narrow passage between two small islands, but uneventful. Having the chartplotter right at the helm was a great help. After tying up in the marina, Chantil and I sat down and caught our breath. I couldn’t help but be grateful to all the people who helped us, especially the volunteers of the Canadian coast guard auxiliary.

“Well, at least the kids will have something exciting to write about in their journals tomorrow,” we joked.

Hindsight

What We Did Wrong

  • Leaving children on the boat alone could have had much worse consequences. We should have made sure there was some way for them to contact us if necessary. We only had one working cell phone and left our portable VHF radio on the boat.
  • We failed to notice the wind change during our hike. A prudent sailor must always be aware of any change in the weather.
  • If I had left the instruments on, the anchor alarm would have alerted the kids that the boat was dragging much sooner. The boat dragged more than 100 feet before the kids realized how close they were to shore.
  • Transiting the narrow, shallow passage en route to Sidney might not have been the best decision. It would have been safer to take the longer route around the island to the marina.

What We Did Right

  • Teaching our kids how to use a VHF radio, especially how to make a distress call, was crucial. Sierra made a proper call that included GPS information in order to get a quick response.
  • During the cruise everyone wore lifejackets while topside underway. Even our dog, Jack, has his own PFD.
  • I kept my composure and stayed focused on the important issues: the safety of my crew and my vessel. The other issues, my dinghy and kayaks, were secondary. The coast guard returned the dinghy that evening, and we recovered the kayaks the next morning.

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