A steering failure turns a routine passage into an endurance test
Together with my trusty crew—a retired restaurant owner named Big John and a retired submarine officer named just plain John—I had waited four days for the right conditions to leave Nassau, Bahamas, for our delivery to Titusville, Florida. Finally the strong southeasterly winds started to abate and at 0700 one Friday in March we picked up our CQR and motorsailed out toward Northwest passage aboard Salonikios, my Beneteau 50. The seas were steep, but the wind had dropped to about 14 knots, and by the time we reached the Grand Banks there was hardly enough breeze to keep our 150 percent genoa full. The night was serene, lit by a luminous moon.
By the early morning hours we had entered the Gulf Stream in a light southeasterly. The seas were slight and conditions generally calm. Thirty hours after departure we entered West Palm Beach inlet. The first leg of our passage had gone smoothly with just one problem: our Autohelm 7000 autopilot was making some disturbing noises, so we had steered by hand. A technician had examined it in Ft. Lauderdale earlier that year and diagnosed a problem with the power unit, but reassured me that it would be OK. During the passage, I had also briefly tested the pilot a few times to ensure it was still working, but the ticking noise it was making was enough to make me avoid using it.
The next morning we set off on the 44-mile leg to Ft. Pierce under a cloudless sky in an 8-10 knot southeasterly that, according to the weather forecasts, would hold. I thought about going inside up the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), but then I thought about the good forecast, the chance to catch fish and the two ICW bridges that open only every half hour, and decided to go outside.
We left the inlet with some trepidation, noting there were fewer small boats out than usual on a Sunday morning. Nonetheless, I knew my boat and I could handle rough weather, given that in the course of 37 years of sailing I have crossed the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and had made numerous passages from Maine to Bermuda and the Bahamas.
Once clear of the land, we settled on a northerly course with the wind on our beam, motorsailing at about 8 knots over the ground. North of West Palm Beach the coast trends west, which allowed us to change course a bit to put the wind and swells a little aft of the beam. It was now blowing 12 to 15 knots from the east, so I furled some of the headsail. As we surged forward we noticed that the depth was decreasing and, with the current against the wind, the waves were getting steeper. North of Jupiter Inlet, shoals reach more than five miles out to sea and around the Saint Lucie shoal depths are as little as 16 feet. We headed offshore looking for deeper water, but the waves were becoming steeper and some broke into the cockpit. A careful inspection of the chart revealed that up to 5 miles off the coast, and 2.5 miles west of the Saint Lucie shoal, depths are as shallow as 38 to 40 feet. By now the sky ahead of us was also darkening and the wind was increasing. I took another couple of rolls in the genoa and evaluated the situation. I was concerned, but not worried.
About a mile east of the Saint Lucie shoal and about 15 miles from the entrance to Ft. Pierce, as John was negotiating a steep wave, we heard a sudden loud noise under our feet. John screamed “Take it, take it!” as the boat headed into the wave. The reefed genoa backed, and the boat came about and started heading in the opposite direction with the wind and waves on our port side. I grabbed one of the wheels, but to no avail—yes, we had lost steerage.
My first thought was to engage the autopilot. The pilot immediately took charge of the boat, and I asked John to head out to deeper water and then resume our original course. I called the Ft. Pierce Coast Guard, who said they would send a boat to escort us to the outer entrance buoy and have a commercial tow operator meet us there. It was now blowing a steady 25 knots and gusting higher, but Salonikios was holding her course well, and I felt more at ease. The Coast Guard asked us to report our position and our heading every 15 minutes, and that added to our sense of security.
We were motorsailing at about 5 knots, and I took the con. John kept up the radio schedule with the Coast Guard, and Big John was on standby. The seas were steep and angry, but the boat and autopilot were handling them well. My focus at this point centered on the approach. I could not head directly northwest to the Ft. Pierce channel in these shallow waters with the wind and waves on the beam, because the boat would broach. Instead, I chose to make a long final approach from the east, with the wind and the waves behind me.
About 5 1/2 miles east of the entrance, I turned the boat west toward the entrance buoy. My autopilot control can be adjusted in 1-degree or 10-degree increments, and I used the latter exclusively. The boat did what was asked and directional control was good. Still, I wondered how well would it behave in shallow water with steeper waves.
Finally, I saw the buoy, but there was nobody waiting for us there. It appeared we were on our own. We immediately checked in with the Coast Guard, and they informed us that they had stopped all traffic from entering and exiting the channel, and that their boat and the tow boat were waiting inside. Apparently, the tide was ebbing, against the wind, making the passage especially difficult.
The boat was now heading directly for the buoy, and I hit the 10-degree button twice to turn to port; the boat, however, did not respond for five seconds, which seemed like an eternity to me, so I increased my engine rpms to help the rudder to respond more effectively. The engine roared and the boat turned, heading for the middle of the channel. We had already passed between the first set of buoys and were headed for the second pair when the Coast Guard called to say that if we could wait for an hour the tide would change and the seas would ease. I was worried about the lives of my crew, so I took their advice.
As the next wave passed, I pumped the left button, and the boat surged to port and met the following wave at 45 degrees. It then turned directly into the wind and the waves, where Salonikios was immediately subjected to a tremendous pounding. Worse yet, the RIB hanging on its davits seemed to want to take everything with it into the sea, potentially fouling my prop. Waiting an hour meant dusk and low visibility, and I felt I had control of the boat as long as the engine and the autopilot worked. I told the crew we were going for it, and they agreed, so I turned the boat outside the channel and again headed down the fairway. I was totally focused on the bow of the boat and the borders of the channel. Each passing second felt like a minute. I did not see the waves that my crew told me were towering over us from astern. My focus was forward. The boat held its course with a few adjustments and we passed dead center between the pairs of buoys. Finally, we reached the peace of the inner harbor and the tow boat pulled us to a marina.
Later, the captain of the Coast Guard boat told us his boat almost capsized four times as he tried to exit the harbor. Although I had not understood earlier why they were not at the outer marker, I did understand once I saw the conditions at the entrance.
The owner of the tow company and the marina staff who followed the situation on the radio came to congratulate me. But I felt I had put my crew and boat in harm’s way. The steering problem—a pin that had come adrift, letting the wheels spin freely—was resolved the following day by the marina mechanic. The trusty autopilot steered the boat the rest of the way home to Titusville, where it received a well-deserved overhaul.
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WHAT I DID WRONG
I did not study the weather forecast as thoroughly as I should have.
I did not think about the emergency tiller. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where it was located! From now on, at the beginning of every season, I will install the emergency tiller and test it.
I did not study the charts carefully beforehand. Although I knew about the shoal water, I did not know how far out it extended.
I had no experience running inlets in strong easterly winds and failed to appreciate what was involved. Anything above 12 knots from the east can make passage to the inlets dangerous.
WHAT I DID RIGHT
I had in my favor extensive experience, a helpful crew, and a strong, good and sizable boat.
I made the right decision to approach the channel from the west, with wind and waves behind us.
After initially taking the Coast Guard’s advice to turn back from the channel and wait for the tide to change, I went with my gut instinct.
Based in Maine, Dr. Lambros Karris has sailed extensively
on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean on
a variety of boats.
He currently sails a Beneteau 445 in the Greek islands