Lost in the North Atlantic
At the time I write this I had planned to be in the Azores Islands, I am instead in South America grieving the loss of GRINGO, which I had to leave near the Bermuda Islands. Though the decision was a no-brainer for me, losing my home still hurts a lot…In a nutshell, after a fast 7-day passage from Miami we arrived at the Bermuda. GRINGO was battered up by the heavy weather that we had encountered but still in one piece. Though the storm damage would have been reparable in port, I was unable to get a tow into Bermuda.
Continuing on a several week passage to the Azores, across the roaring forties (Latitude 40 N), without the engine, mainsail, mizzen, electricity (navigation lights, autopilot, and electronics), life raft, dinghy and a contaminated water-supply was too much of a risk to take, there was a
chance I could have pulled it through, but it was more likely to turn into a survival ordeal. It was with a heavy heart -but with no doubt in my mind that I was making the right call- that I left GRINGO. For those of you interested in the details, here is the full-blown tale.
It was June 16 2009 at 6 AM local time (10:00 Zulu), when GRINGO and I left the port of Miami for the port of Horta on the Azores Islands. The first day was uneventful as I charted a course following the Average Axis of the Gulf Stream. This served the purpose of picking up the most current in our favor, but also as traffic separation from South-bound vessels as they all kept a good 4 to 6 miles away from the axis. It was very hot and the seas were calm; the wind was 5 MPH from the South. At barely 1500 RPM we were making turns for at 6 KTS, while picking up a 3 KTS current. GRINGO“s theoretical displacement hull speed is 8 KTS, which means that anything above 8KTS implies pushing water or surfing instead of “displacing water”; though on the water we were only making 6 KTS, over the ground we were at 9 KTS. Progress was swift and spirits were high.
At dawn on the second day, a nasty chop had developed after a night of fast –moving thunderstorms that left behind some very confused seas. The seas were only 3-4 FT but with a very short interval and coming from all directions, making the motion very uncomfortable.
The battery of 16 Jerry jugs full with Diesel and Drinking Water that I carried on the port-side of foredeck was lashed “spider web” style to the 15 FT aluminum boarding scaffold that doubled as a boarding board, but with the violent motion some managed to sneak out of the web and a Diesel jug spilled all its 6 GALS on deck, making for a VERY slippery deck. Two water Jerry jugs also managed to pop their caps and spill everything on deck. I re-lashed all the jerry jugs with more webbing thinking that this time they would stay put, but I was wrong, once the jugs get a little play, the constant motion keeps them tugging at their lashings and its only a matter a timer before they worked loose again. I had encountered the same problem before, and I chided myself for not building a crate or at least having a two by four to “sandwich” the jerry jugs together. By noon I had enough of the nasty washing-machine motion, and having already cleared the Bahamas, I changed course to the East so as to get out of that very uncomfortable windagainst-current situation. The change of course produced the desire result, s few hours later we had left the nasty chop behind and we were now making good progress towards Bermuda at 6 KTS.
A significant problem was discovered when I tried to refill the galley 2.5 gallon water dispenser on the galley: I found out that the water was over-chlorinated. When I refilled the jerry jugs at the marina fuel dock, I found that some of the water had turned green over the last two weeks, so instead of just adding a teaspoon of chlorine to each jerry jug, I added a dash. And a larger dash for the water tanks… as a result, the water was completely undrinkable. I figured that in time the chlorine would evaporate and that in the meantime I could accelerate the evaporation process by boiling it, but since I had a supply of bottled water for a few days in the fridge and a water-maker that I could rig, I was not too worried about it.
Considering the two-plus days of motoring with no wind, the spilled diesel and the water supply problem, that night I decided to call on the Bermuda Islands to top of the fuel tanks, so that I could motor through the Azores high, into the Azores. High pressure systems have little or no wind in them and are geo-stationary for long periods, a sailing vessel can get stuck in
them for couple weeks while making no progress… Topping the tanks would allow me to motor for a couple of days instead of drifting at 1 KT toward my destination, or even more demoralizing: drifting away from it!
According to the Pilot Charts, the Gulfstream is supposed to curve towards the East in the Sea of Sargasso, were I was, yet the direction of the current proved to be quite elusive: sometimes we were picking up 1.5 to 2 KTS and sometimes we had 1 to 1.5 KTS against us. I attributed this phenomena to the many eddies created as the Gulfstream flows like a river on the open ocean Northeast of the Bahamas.
The seas remained calm and there was a light breeze from the South-Southwest. The sails came out and we were making 5 KTS with Jib, Staysail, Mainsail and Mizzen. GRINGO looked great, the motion was mild and from one direction only, so life was good. Before noon, the wind died and we could not keep 3 KTS, so I fired up the engine again. After two days of sailing I was down to half a tank of diesel, so I loaded four 6 GALS jerry jugs into the tank. This Diesel was from Admiral Oil, as opposed to the one in the tank which was from the gas station at 22 nd Avenue and 22nd Street. At first, I wanted to conserve fuel in order to be able to motor across the Azores high pressure zone, but I did not want to dilly-dally West of the Bermuda Islands and risk having a surprise encounter with a Tropical Storm or -even worse- a full blown Hurricane. Once East of Bermuda, GRINGO and I would be out of the Hurricane Alley, more infamously known as the “Bermuda Triangle”.
Around noon I received a call on the VHF: “Sailing vessel 60 degrees from my starboard bow, this is United States Warship.” The warship was trawling a large sonar array. After arranging with their skipper for a passage with a 3NM separation, he asked me if I had seen a submarine in the vicinity... he explained that they were hunting for a (hostile?) submarine that had been
sighted earlier. We were 140 miles East of Cape Canaveral and there was a shuttle launch in progress which had been already delayed a couple of times. I wondered if the sub sighting had anything to do with the delay…
A couple of hours later, we approached NOAA Super-Buoy “41010” which I was very curious to inspect. The buoy is all painted in yellow and resembles a 30-FT trawler built in heavy steel with all sorts of equipment on deck and on the roof. Colliding with it would for sure ruin your day! There are two interesting facts about this “Super” buoy, the first is that it is located on
2700 feet of water (yep, that is half a mile deep, about 850 meters!) To anchor it with a 5 to 1 rode you would need to lay two and half miles of cable!!! The second fact is that it was located almost two nautical miles South East of its charted position; I couldn’t help to wonder
if this was its normal swinging radius… In any case it is a significant danger for short-handed small boats. There are a few of these buoys on the Eastern seaboard, but you would need detailed charts to find them.
After sighting “41010” and taking a few pictures, I change course to due North, impatiently looking for the Westerly wind that would carry us to Bermuda. Despite the calm weather that surrounded us, I knew that we wind would come and come it did.
The wind finally came in. It was blowing from the Southwest at a steady 15 to 20 MPH, and it picked up to 20 to 25 MPH in the afternoon. We were sailing as the saying goes: “three sheets to the wind” at 6 to 7 KTS under jib, mainsail and mizzen. GRINGO was comfortable with the wind, but the short, steep seas were a problem. As GRINGO rolled, the sails regularly collapsed and then filled up with an extremely violent tug on the sheets. I solved the problem on the mainsail and mizzen by rigging preventers downwind. These worked great and were really life-savers for the sails.
The jib problem was solved by rigging a spinnaker pole to windward, complete with topping lift, foreguy and aftguy. Handling the pole on a heavy pitching and rolling deck is no picnic, every few seconds I had to hang on with both hands in order to stay onboard! But all the effort that I put in rigging the pole system paid off now, as I was able to deploy the whole thing in small increments, never out of control. Once rigged, I trimmed it in a straight line with the mainsail boom, a similar arrangement to what a square rigged vessel does. The seas were on the beam at 8-12 feet with a short period, making for a very uncomfortable ride. Motion relief could have come from changing course a few points to North, but I had already decided to call on the Bermudas and did not want to be blown to the North, since it would had been very hard –if not impossible- to make any Southing later on. If we wanted to make landfall, I had no choice but to stay the course to Bermuda, and damn the seas on the beam. To complicate things, there was a second train of swells coming from the South and when the two swells synchronized and joined, it made for 15-20 feet seas. That means that when GRINGO was on the trough (-20 feet), the waves (+20 feet) were taller than the mizzen mast. I had encountered much larger waves in the South Pacific, but this time the period between waves was much shorted, resulting in extremely sharp wave faces, especially when waves from the two wave trains synchronized. Every few minutes, a very large wave would hit GRINGO rolling her on her side making me brace with both hands...
The ride was miserable, but all-in-all I was coping fairly well. All chores aboard became extremely difficult: forget about cooking, I ate the sandwich ingredients one at a time while bracing myself with the other hand and shifting all my weight to one leg. Taking a leak became an adventure on itself, as I had to brace myself hand-on-hand just to make it to the head.
When we were hit by one of the large steep waves, the roll was so violent that it threw me on the lee-lines that I had rigged in the starboard settee, in lieu of the lee-canvas. Staying in the cockpit was not comfortable, nor safe and I kept getting thrown out of the starboard berth was To my surprise the wide master cabin was much more comfortable, since I was laying in an athwarship position, I was able to read a book or sleep, though once in a while a deep roll would slide me down to port with mattress, featherbed, pillows and comforter. I would end up standing on the “foot of the bed” for a few seconds and having to rearrange al the bed items again and again... Nevertheless, sleeping athwart-ship vs. fore-and-aft was comfortable and I was very grateful that the aft cabin gave me that option.
Some of you may be wondering what happened with all the loose stuff that was on the shelves. Well, believe or not, all the stuff loose on the shelves -and also all the stuff loose on deck held somehow managed to hand in place! But the pantry doors manage to work loose of the lock and spilled the contents on the cabin sole… I spent two hours cursing like a drunken sailor, while crawling on the floor, cleaning broken glass, all this while fighting motion sickness.
Before sunset I lost the mainsail when the leech tape stitches gave in and the tape started flying like a pennant. The panel stitching was also breaking up as the sail luffed while I rolled it in, but since I had caught in time, I figured that I could re-stitch it in port and make it good again. Rolling the mainsail proved to be a major challenge, as this task required that GRINGO
be pointed into the wind while the sail was being rolled. This was made difficult enough by the high seas, but further complicated by the fact that the roller-furler took a loooong time to roll while the mainsail was luffing. Meantime, the jib and the staysail would also be taking a beating, so I had to roll the headsails in before rolling the mainsail. All this, while motoring to
keep the boat pointing into the wind. During one of these maneuvers the engine high temperature alarm came in, I shut it down and when I looked into the engine room it was full of smoke. I vented the compartment and waited until the engine cooled down. At first I thought that it had lost the coolant through a loose hose but no, the coolant level was fine. I tried to start the engine again and had to shut it down right away as it was exhausting inside the engine compartment. The gassing was very bad, I could not keep the engine running even for a few seconds to see where it was coming from, without getting sick right away. I suspected a blown head gasket, but then I found out that the hose from the exhaust riser (the manifold) to the muffler had melted down. Obviously this was the result of overheating due to the lack of raw water flow. I checked the hoses and they were all attached, so it could have been either a failure of the raw water pump (impeller?) or a clogged heat exchanger. I suspect that the problem was caused by barnacles in the lines dying and clogging the heat exchanger. In any case, a repair at sea was out of the question, unless were encountered a calm, but no calm seas were in store for us. Another challenge was to find a replacement for the 3” exhaust hose, or the means to mend it, not to mention that access to the engine compartment was tortuous, at best.
The wind picked up to 25 to 30 and the seas too. I was puzzled by the steep swell which I could not explain by the current wind we were encountering, so I started to suspect that there was some heavy weather to the South of my position. After all, my last weather report was three days old, and it doesn“t take long for tropical weather to form. I figured that the weather was still far away and that since we were travelling perpendicular to it, we should be able to get out of its way should it decide to track North. To confirm my suspicions, the barometer kept dipping at a slow but steady pace. We were now sailing under staysail and mizzen only. It was great sailing, GRINGO was making good time at 6 to 8 KTS, keeping a steady course thanks to the full keel, after all, this was what the boat was design to do.
Unfortunately, the waves were much larger than what the wind warranted and we were taking quite pounding, hour after hour. A major problem developed when the shackle holding the dinghy bow to the davit lifting bar parted. The dinghy was left hanging from the transom to one davit and both the dinghy and the lifting bar where banging wildly on the transom. The best course of action would have been to cut it loose and stop any further damage, but since I had no liferaft (the dinghy was my survival platform), I was reluctant to cut it loose. Instead, I decide to lash the good shackle tight to the transom, so as to reduce the movement, and to let it play out. There was always time to cut it loose if things got out of hand… like the dinghy showing up for a visit inside the aft cabin! Jumping in the dinghy to attach something to the bow lift-harness was out of the question, even after lashing the rear harness tight to the transom, the dinghy was bucking wildly and I would not have lasted two seconds in it. Never mind that it was difficult enough to get back on board GRINGO in a calm anchorage, it would have been easier to ride a mechanical bull with no hands than to climb back up the transom with the sea motion. Cutting the tender loose and bringing it along side GRINGO in order to lift it up was also impossible: imagine trying to pull the dinghy transom first, semi-logged with water was a sure ways to lose it on the first wave that passed...
Life on board came to stand still, I was able to do the basics, but every task became very difficult, mostly because of the need to maintain balance. Work on deck was particularly dangerous due to the seas hitting us abeam which caused the deck to buck widely up and down, while dangerously rolling deeply. Even laying down on the cockpit was not safe, because I kept been thrown out of the settee. But I was managing to move around with difficulty, lashing things that became loose, trimming sails and untangling lines on the foredeck. By the way, I never got around to building a canvas cover for the windlass and surely enough, just as I had feared, the leeward sheets kept tangling on the windlass brakes when I slacked them. By taking enough time to do each task and taking long breaks in between, I was able to thwart seasickness and fatigue. I felt proud of being able to overcome all the challenges and felt a deep sense of accomplishment.
Notwithstanding my positive frame of mind, some disturbing thoughts were brewing in my head. GRINGO“s hull was flexing and the deck was creaking a lot. Places that had been recently caulked and should not have been leaking were leaking like a sieve, for example the cabin portholes, the chainplates and the mast base. Having properly caulked them with abundant sealant, the only possible explanation left for the leaks was that the hull was flexing.
A very disturbing thought indeed... I inspected all the accessible bulkhead-hull joints and they look like they were moving. The confirmation came later in the day, when I felt the floor move. You could stand on certain spots and feel the floor boards bucking… As I replayed all these findings in my mind, I came to the conclusion that the bulkhead-hull joints were delaminated or flexing, which had previously caused GRINGO“s hull to flex, cracking the
external gelcoat. The telltales had been there, but I had mistaken attributed the multitude of hairline cracks to gelcoat aging instead of the real cause: hull flexing.
Though there was no immediate danger to the hull, it was clear that GRINGO was in no condition to go around the world. Regularly sailing in high latitudes while encountering strong-winds and high-seas, or even just going through a particularly nasty storm, would eventually tear GRINGO“s hull apart. The cure is very straightforward: remove all the bulkhead and floor joints from the hull and then reattach them with a proper resin lamination.
Easier said than done! This implies removing EVERYTHING from the boat, including the bulkheads (walls, for you landlubbers) and cabin sole (floor), then tearing out the interior and grinding out the fiberglass surfaces before laying several fiberglass layers to reattach them. Cost, time and the logistics of not being able to live in the boat while doing this, precluded a
repair in my near future...
Incidentally, when I bought ALLEY CAT, my previous boat, a Catalina 38 (a Sparkman and Stephens design) it had a tinny Danforth anchor and the insurance company gave me 30 days to replace it. Before the 30 days were over, ALLEY CAT was anchored on a cove at Anacapa Island and when the wind veered she dragged anchor and ended up on the rocks. I was able to
get it out with a heavy commercial tow that was at a nearby oil platform, but only after halfhour of being lifted by the waves and then pounded on the rocks, it was not a pretty experience. As a result of the grounding, the fin keel became loose and there was damage to the bulkhead-hull joints. The later one was discovered after insurance company had authorized the work on the yard, and was repaired at GREAT cost: the insurance company
paid more than $60K to the yard, on a boat that I had just purchased for $40K... This was a blessing in disguise, as ALLEY CAT was late on able to withstand severe weather with no damage, while a friend on a much heavier boat saw its floor boards pop-up from hull flexing, while sailing hard on a fresh breeze in Australia.
One thing was for sure, my dream of globe-trotting on GRINGO was over. While the hull could hold its own forever on mild sailing conditions, it would come apart on the seams if stressed hour-after-hour, day-after-day, month-after-month, on high-seas and high-winds. After five years of effort, and a year dedicated to prepare the boat for cruising, my mind refused to
accept this obvious conclusion. It took me a while to process and accept this, but eventually I came to the accept it, there was no feasible alternative.
Sunrise came and I was in good spirits. Nights are always long and sometimes they feel like never-ending, sunrises never fail to lift me up. I had decided to enjoy the sailing time that I had and that nothing was going to keep me from it. After all GRINGO was still good for some local cruising and a great home to live in. Now and then, the Southerly wind went down to 20-
25 MPH and a couple of hours later it was back at a steady 30-35 MPH, occasionally gusting 50- 60 MPH. GRINGO was tracking nicely under Staysail alone doing 6-7 KTS, but holding a 94 degree magnetic course (90 degrees true) was a major challenge. Steering 115 degrees, we were able to gain some Southing a few feet at a time, but when we were hit by one of the
“synchronized” large waves we would lose several hundred feet of cross-track error (XTE). Steering more that 110-115 degrees caused the staysail to occasionally collapse, loosing even more ground. The course had to be kept, or we would blow by Bermuda without a chance of coming back.
Dealing with the Mizzen sail proved to be a major challenge. Though the Dutchman/StakPak system worked great, it requires the sail to be luffing. Pointing to the wind without the engine assistance was very difficult to do with the large seas. Most important of all, the mizzen boom
height required me to climb and stand in top of the aft deck table underneath the rapidly swinging mizzen boom in order to reach the canvas while lowering the sail. On a heavy pitching and rolling deck this was extremely hard to do as there was always the imminent risk of being thrown out clean out of the boat.
Another troubling discovery was that the generator was not getting any fuel. After much work tracing the clog, I was able to open the inspection lid on the fuel tank and pulled the intake tube out. To my dismay, I discovered that the Diesel had turned to syrup and that the pick-up tube was clogged with gravel… I reckon that the either the Diesel from Admiral Oil which “May
have ethanol.” or the constant violent motion from the storm, had caused the hard and soft deposits inside the tank to become loose, resulting in a gooey ¼ tank with loose gravel on the bottom… and all my fuel was in that tank. I cleaned it up and fired up the generator, but it soon died again. The Racor filter manometer read “-25 PSI” again, instead of the normal -5 PSI,
or even the 10-12 PSI when the filter elements need to be replaced. The tank would need to be emptied, the gravel removed, the insides scrubbed, re-filled with clean fuel and the lines purged. A few days project to do in port, but out of the question under gale-strength winds and seas.
Today, we would make landfall on Bermuda. Calm waters, a good meal, several hours of sleep, many projects to tack and a new and exciting port environment, full with new sights and unusual characters. Conditions were as miserable as the day before, but despite all the issues that had popped, I felt confident and I was in control, though a bit anxious about the Bermuda landfall. Since I did not plan to call in here, I had no detailed charts to guide me in, so I would have to depend on their tow in service. Because the islands have claimed countless ships over the years, Bermuda has a very developed maritime system, reaching to all vessels within 30 NM of the island. Buoys are not reliable, but they do have a radar station, a traffic control radio, and a towing service to bring vessels in. The Sailing Directions stated that the towing service was strongly recommended for all vessels without detailed current charts, as the reef pass is very dangerous and more so in heavy weather.
Bermuda is an old island, much smaller than when it was born. The reef, which grows an inch a year, marks the perimeter of the original volcano island. This reef goes up to 12 NM out. The only vessel entrance is in the East end. I was coming from the West, so I had to cross the island in order to get in. I had planned to take the island to Port, so as to have the wind behind when approaching the entrance, but the Sailing Directions were very specific about recommending against it, favoring an approach from the North. With the strong Southerly wind, it made sense not to have the island on the leeside and sailing to lee of the island should also provide some protection from the Southerly swells, so I changed my approach plan. It later proved to be a critical mistake.
The wind was unchanged, but the seas somehow were bigger. Progress became slow. I was concerned about making landfall late on the day and having to enter the harbor at night, so I trimmed the staysail for comfort instead of speed, and resigned myself to making landfall on the next morning. The boat interior was a mess and there were water leaks were they should have been none, but we were about to make landfall, and there would be time to fix things in port. My bottled water supply was almost exhausted, so I started hitting the OJ. I sighted a couple of ships, one of which was a huge Japanese container carrier that crossed in front of me. It was quite a sight to see the waves crashing on the side of this monster hull and the spray and
foam jettison deck high. The night was busier than previous, as I needed to keep an eye on traffic since we were approaching land and as vessels converge to a point, the risk of collision increases exponentially. Also, we were pinching, which meant that I needed to adjust course often in order to make landfall. We were tracking true, but it required constant attention and
effort to get all the Southing that we could and not get blown up North, out of reach of Bermuda.
The wind remained unchanged. Though I could not see the island, I knew that we were slightly North of the West end reef. The VHF chatter had increased, which told me that there were several vessels in the vicinity. I was able to establish radio contact with Bermuda Radio and I requested a tow from the NE corner of the island. A few hours later they could see us on their radar screen, and I was asked to report every hour. The lee of the island provided little or no protection from the seas, so I still had hard time keeping the course. I spotted a sloop (a sailboat with a single mast) a few miles South of our position, hugging the reef making way on a Westerly course under deeply reefed mainsail and a tiny storm jib. They were probably heading for a tight pass on the NorthWest side of the reef, but I could not confirm
this. Rain kept coming and going, making for poor visibility.
When I was closing on the rendezvous position with the tow, I got on the VHF and requested confirmation that the tow vessel was on its way. Bermuda Radio surprised me with another rendezvous point several miles South of the first position. Since this was straight upwind, over the next several hours I tried every I could to get them to meet me a bit North, but due to the heavy weather, they commercial towing company refused to go out… they said that they did not wanted to risk their lives. Towing a 25 ton vessel in heavy seas is no picnic, when a large wave hits the tow, it displaces is with the inevitable tug on the towing cable. In mild conditions, a long towing cable with its deep catenary can absorb this motion, but in heavy weather the load can make the towing vessel to go backwards and founder. Large commercial tows use a wire spool with a clutch, so that when the tow pulls hard there is no danger to the towing vessel. And there is also the risk of the cable parting and slicing through the crew bodies… I can’t blame the guys for refusing to go out.
While still trying to get the tow guys to meet me, I tried everything I could to make some way upwind, but it was useless, the GPS showed little or no upwind progress while tacking and coming about was an ordeal, as the waves prevented GRINGO’s from crossing the wind. Each tack I lost ground… I also tried to start the engine and let it fill the cabin with fumes, but it
soon died from fuel starvation. Now I had a cabin full with smoke! With a pounding headache from the fumes, I opened some hatches so as to get some cross ventilation while I sat on the cockpit going over and over my options.
The weather forecast was for 30-35 KTS and rain to continue for several days. Sailing back west ward to make another approach was a dicey proposition. With the increased seas after several days blowing I may not be able to make landfall on the Island after turning and coming
back East. I tacked back and forth in the lee of the island, but I was unable to make any Southing. I even tried to ride the current eddies on the edge of the island, to no avail. I tried with and without the mizzen, it made no difference, the heavy seas were pushing us downwind faster than any tiny upwind progress that we could make. The GPS “crumbs” showed the track history, which told the whole story: no progress. The result of all that
exhausting sailing effort was just to prevent us from drifting downwind… and I could not sustain it throughout the night, much less over several days. It reminded me of the accounts of old ships unsuccessfully trying to “claw” their way out of a lee shore in the middle of a storm hour after hour, only to lose the battle in the end. On one of the tacks, the bailer for the mizzen sheet blew clean out of the boom. With the boom swinging widely, I painfully rigged a preventer to the rigid, but fragile rigid boom vang attachment to stop the swinging that threatened to “bat” me out of the boat. It worked, but a much better attachment point was needed for the sheet if the sail was to be deployed. Lashing a line to the end of the boom was an option, but this would require me to climb on top of the table, put one foot on top of the aft railing and another on top of one of the davits in order to attach the lashing behind the sail. Not an easy task to do with the vessel at anchor, but on a rolling and pitching deck, where I could barely keep my balance crouching, this was out of the question. Now the mizzen was out of commission until we got some respite from the heavy weather and I could do a proper repair.
Heaving-to would take me further North, making a Bermuda land fall impossible unless the wind shifted to the West, which was not bound to happen any time soon. The most likely scenario was that tacking or heaved-to, GRINGO would drift further North, scrapping any chance of a landfall within a week.
By sun down I was physically exhausted from tacking without success, attempting everything I could think of to make some upwind progress towards the rendezvous point, now 15 miles upwind. My brain was also tired from jugging all the options, weighting the probabilities and possible outcomes without coming up with any good answers. The only possible course of action was to continue unto to the Azores and with all the problems I had onboard, that was a very dicey proposition. I needed some rest, so I heaved-to, ate something and went to sleep while GRINGO kept drifting downwind at 1 KT.
At midnight I woke up and reviewed all my options, which I already had analyzed time and time again. I contacted Radio Bermuda and ask them whether they had found any vessel willing to tow GRINGO, now virtually disabled, but nobody wanted to deal with a tow in heavy weather.
Looking at the GPS, we were approaching the 25 NM mark, so by dawn I would lose VHF contact with Bermuda. The HF radio was not working. The 406 MHZ EPIRB would be my only outside contact, and it had a 5 year old battery… life support –even without the comfort of electricity- was dicey because of the tainted water supply, the dinghy could not last a few weeks if left hanging on one tackle (I was surprised it had lasted three days), I had limited propulsion to make a very slow passage to the Azores, a good chance of getting stuck for days or weeks on the nearby high, and without electricity no autopilot, no chartplotter and no radar. If someone offered me a million bucks, I would not have jumped on board for this passage. It was time I got out and try to find someone to tow GRINGO into port. I called Bermuda Radio and told them that I was declaring an emergency, and that I was requesting a salvage tow, which meant that the vessel would now have to be sold to pay for the salvage and hopefully I could have all my personal items shipped somewhere. They arranged for a rendezvous with the closest vessel, the cruiseship NORWAY DAWN, carrying 2800 passengers and 1000 crew.
On June 24, at 3 AM local time (0600 Zulu), the NORWAY DAWN maneuvered to the windward of GRINGO and launched a tender. By 3:15, I had unleashed the dinghy, walked it alongside, tied it to starboard and boarded it with a small bundle of personal effects (the giant cruise ship
was acting as a breakwater, there was huge surge, but no; transferred to their tender with three people, and we were hoisted out of the water and into one of the upper decks via a crane cable. From there I saw GRINGO disappear into the dark rainy night…
The ship crew was extremely helpful. After a trip to the hi-tech bridge -where I made a last unsuccessful plea for a tow- I took a shower, was given a medical, and I was shown to passenger cabin. My mind was numb, but eventually I got some sleep… at 8 AM the ship was at an alternate dock on the West end of the island. There was a custom official on board
checking in the ship passengers so that they could go ashore, but he refused to check me in, instead directing me to go downtown, which ended up being a two hour drive in the traffic and rain. Fortunately, once ashore I was able to persuade a K-9 customer official into giving me a ride to downtown. After the formalities of checking in myself and GRINGO (don’t ask me why…), I went about to find a tow. GRINGO was only 25 NM out there and I just needed a vessel that could go and fetch it. By now I was set on salvage, so cost was not a problem. I was told that the only tows that might go out were the government ones, which charged an exorbitant amount (something like $150K for the whole thing) and that even then it would take a long time to complete the formalities an get them moving. I spoke with the harbormaster who promised to look into the fishing fleet (I had already exhausted all the maybe’s that customs gave me).
Back on the NORWAY DAWN, I was told by the hotel people that I could stay until Friday, when the ship had to leave, but later on they told me that security required me to leave the next day. Bermuda is extremely expensive and my funds were limited, so I had already reserved an AM flight on Thursday and Friday. I booked the Thursday flight and was lucky to get an
upgrade with my miles.
As I sat on the plane, waiting for take-off I was thinking that I had being privileged to been able to pursue my dream, even if the dream didn’t pan out as I hoped.
What will happen to GRINGO? The vessel has an extensive battery bank and two solar panels. Before leaving, I turned everything off, except for the strobe light and the bilge pumps. Problem is that the propeller shaft uses water as a lubricant, so there is a constant drip of sea water coming into the bilge which would accumulate overtime. If the solar panels are able to keep up with the strobe light consumption, the bilge pumps will have enough power to cycle ON now and then, keeping the bilge dry. If not, the bilge water will slowly accumulate and eventually encumber the vessel until she is low in the water and a wave swamps it and she founders. There is a strong possibility however, that the solar panels will produce enough power to keep up with the strobe light (or that the strobe light bulb will burn out) and that there is enough power to keep the bilge pumps, which only run occasionally for few seconds. If the bilge stays dry, GRINGO will stay afloat drifting due East with the prevailing wind and currents, either heaved-to or with the staysail pinching at about 1 KT (waves and wind could cause her to come out of the heave-to). This would put GRINGO near the European coast in about 3 months, by the end of September. Depending on the currents and local winds at the time, GRINGO could be blown off ashore, making landfall anywhere, or, following the Southern the current South turn, it may end off the North coast of Africa in a few more months. If the vessel is found, it is more likely than not it would be sacked… but there is a very slim hope that a government vessel could tow it back into port for investigation. Time will tell.
Losing one’s home is a very emotional experience; I am still recovering from it. I have replayed the scenario in my head a thousand times and I am still convinced that I made the right decision. But rationale aside, the loss still hurts. They say that time heals all wounds… Well, if there is something I have plenty of right now, that’s time.
Until the next time we meet!