The image I've always had of sinking involved storm-tossed seas, the dark of night, lightning, probably the failure of a portlight or a thru-hull connection, or a collision with an unseen floating object. In this scenario, highly motivated crew members wrestle the inflatable from the deck and launch it. But there I was all alone in broad daylight not far from land and Dream Weaver
was going down in the middle of the Intracoastal Waterway somewhere in the vast and desolate marshes of coastal Georgia. I wasn't ready for this; it didn't happen here, not now, and not to me.
I was alone aboard my 32-foot Endeavour early on a June afternoon. For four days my only company had been the occasional dolphin rising beside the boat and, along the shore, egrets, and wood storks. In the last few hours I had seen just one small fishing boat. The shoreline was a distant shadow rising above miles of marsh grass. I had been making such good time that at 1400 I passed my planned anchorage at Cattle Pen Creek and decided to press on across St. Catherine Sound. Then, three thunderstorms popped up within minutes, two passing off to the west, but the third one dead ahead, coming at me very black and very big, with a lot of cloud-to-ground lightning. The weather radio had warned of waterspouts offshore between St. Catherine Sound and Sapelo Sound, not far away.
I'd seen at least one of these storms every day for the last four days, and they often packed 40-mph winds. I didn't want to be caught in St. Catherine Sound by that one, and there was just one possible anchorage between us: Walburg Creek, with a four-foot shoal across the entrance. Dream Weaver draws only four and a half feet and we were one hour into a rising tide. One guide indicated that you could make it at low water by putting ICW mark 124 directly over the stern and heading parallel to the north shore.
|"I took a deep breath, put 124 directly behind, and slowly headed in, but soon felt the gentle nudge of the bottom."|
I took a deep breath, put 124 directly behind, and slowly headed in, but soon felt the gentle nudge of the bottom. I shifted the engine into reverse, and suddenly, clunk. No reverse. No forward. What was the problem? Must be the transmission linkage, I thought, because everything aft of that was brand new five days prior, when the prop shaft and coupling had been replaced by a reputable boatyard. So I tried the gears again. Nothing, although it felt like it was going into gear.
I headed forward to toss out an anchor, but then, on the foredeck, changed my mind and decided to look for what might have caused the clunk. Inside the cabin I was stunned at the sound of water pouring in—a lot of water. The depth sounder read 28 feet—I must have drifted off the mudbank—so I pulled open the engine compartment to find the bilge nearly full of water and everything below and behind already submerged. Through the adrenaline rush I hastily pondered my situation and options. The latter had narrowed considerably.
With the thunderstorm bearing down, going over the side to investigate in this murky water and strong flood tide didn't seem like much of an option. Certainly I could launch the inflatable, now partially deflated and turned upside down on the foredeck, and salvage whatever I grabbed, but the boat would sink and become a hazard to navigation, spilling its oil into the waterway in the process. What should I save? What should I leave behind after six months of cruising from Florida to the Bahamas and back? To abandon my fiberglass friend that had taken me from Vermont to Hemingway's haunts in Cuba and back to Florida seemed a traitorous thought.
Perhaps I could sail the boat onto the shore, radio another boat, and save as much as I could. But with the tidal range here spanning roughly eight feet, and just one hour into a rising tide, the success of a beaching would be marginal at best. I reached for the radio and called "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, any vessel, this is the sailboat Dream Weaver." I repeated the call.
The Mayday call elicited an instant response from the US Coast Guard. As the water rose in the cabin the Coast Guardsman directed me to put on my life jacket and go to Channel 22 Alpha. He gathered the essential information: location, number of people on board, latitude and longitude, description of the boat, flares, and signaling devices on board, along with a summary of the situation.
"Stand by on 22 Alpha," the voice from the Coast Guard directed me.
I realized that this was the time to dig out the cell phone and call the towing service that covers my boat. So after providing my location to the woman on the line, I learned that a boat was being dispatched, but was at least a half-hour away. I hastily began to pack an abandon-ship bag; not rescue gear, but personal items in a large, clear waterproof bag. I was not at risk, but everything on board was heading for the bottom unless I managed some miracle.
Then a new voice erupted on 22 Alpha. It was Rescue 1. A red Coast Guard helicopter banked overhead and I instinctively unfolded an orange distress flag on the bimini top. I'm sure he saw it because I could clearly see someone in a red jump suit standing in the open door looking at me. When I jumped back below to get on the radio, the flag blew away. The storm was arriving in earnest.
"I see your tow coming," crackled the voice from Rescue 1. A towboat pulled up, but it was not the one that covered me, it was a competitor. He happened to be 15 minutes away, he told me, and overheard the conversation. I explained that I was covered by his competitor and would opt to wait. (My cruising budget had already been blown by a series of repairs along the way.)
"He's 40 minutes to an hour away; he's near Savannah," said the operator. "I hear you're taking on water."
"Yes I am," I told him, because the water in the cabin was then well over my ankles, but not rising as fast because it was filling the wide spaces under the berths. I sealed the ditch bag and moved it into the cockpit.
The operator of the towboat had pulled up a few yards away. "How about pumping?" he asked. "I have a pump on board."
"That sounds like a pretty good idea," I responded, so he brought the boat alongside as I finally dropped the anchor. "How much is this going to cost?"
"Just my hourly rate."
In a few minutes he was tied alongside, had handed the four-inch pump hose over, and I dropped the hose into the bilge. He fired up the portable pump generator and climbed aboard. "You have a lot of water in here and it's coming in fast," he observed.
"Yes, I packed a ditch bag." The storm was hitting hard with rain pouring down. The anchor dragged and we let out more scope. The water level in the boat dropped quickly as the generator roared.
|"The problem was obvious. A one-inch stream of water was pouring out of the stuffing box where the propeller shaft was supposed to be."|
I began to unpack the sail locker for access to the bilges and finally crawled under the cockpit. The problem was obvious. A one-inch stream of water was pouring out of the stuffing box where the propeller shaft was supposed to be. The shaft had backed out of the coupling. I remembered reading that a one-inch hole allows about 80 gallons of water to pour in each minute. In the three or so minutes it took for me to process my situation, go forward to anchor, and return to the cabin, 240 gallons of water had poured into Dream Weaver
. By now, 20 or 25 minutes must have passed. I crawled out to find something to plug the hole and the tow skipper crawled below to see for himself. "I have a plug on board," he said.
"I have some, too." They were kept on a shelf with the flares and smoke signals, always at hand, just two dollars worth of tapered wooden plugs that had lounged around for 10 years, waiting for today. I passed them down and he quickly found one that fit, hammering it into place with my pipe wrench. I got on the radio to the Coast Guard to inform them that the leak was plugged and the boat was pumped. The tow skipper returned to his boat to make a radio call and came back with an aluminum clipboard and "the paperwork," as well as a surprise.
"I called my base," he said, "and they tell me I have to charge you the salvage rate for pumping."
"How much is that?" I didn't want to argue much; I was glad to be afloat. If a boat is about to be lost, or if the skipper abandons it, my understanding is that the salvage laws apply.
"One hundred dollars a foot." Three thousand two hundred dollars.
"Your insurance should cover it, given the situation."
As we waited for my towing service I mentioned the directions from the guidebook for entering the creek directly off Marker 124.
"Oh, they moved Marker 124 when they added 124A. It's farther south than it used to be."
The Coast Guard helicopter called in to make sure things were all right on board and then returned to base. Then the Coast Guard station at Tybee Island directed me to stand by on 22A. "We'll call you every 15 minutes until you are on the dock somewhere." I love those guys.
Afterward, my towboat arrived at about 1600 with two men on board. "What's your displacement," they asked?
"About 14,000 pounds," I told them.
"Looks like we're going to Savannah. You'll have to steer or the boat will go crazy." The first tow boat skipper helped hook up the bridle, said goodbye and took off.
The storm had left behind a cold, windy drizzle and I was shivering in my thoroughly wet shirt under the foul weather jacket as I steered the boat through St. Catherine Sound and on through miles of marshland. It was a long ride to the boatyard, which gave me time to think about what had happened. Should I have called in a Mayday? I still don't know. It seems extreme, but if I had simply called my towboat service the boat would have gone to the bottom while waiting. Should I have argued about whether it was a salvage situation? If the towboat had not been nearby, Dream Weaver
would have sunk in about a half-hour or so.
Maybe I should have first crawled down under the water in the bilges, alone, to find the leak and see if I could stop it? Yes, I think now that the risk of getting trapped down there would have been worth saving the boat. Find the hole has become my new mantra.
Perhaps I should have realized right away that the prop shaft had backed out, but that was a first-time experience for me. At the time I assumed that I had backed into something and punctured the hull. I mean, a reputable yard had installed the shaft just five days earlier. So, later, after consulting an attorney, I asked the yard for my money back on the labor involved, and received it. Fortunately, the prop and shaft were not lost because the new zinc had stopped it at the strut that holds the cutlass bearing, which made for a noisy ride to Savannah.
The questions kept flowing through my mind. Should I have had an abandon-ship plan at the ready, along with a list of things to save? Absolutely. The log, GPS, handheld VHS, cell phone, passport, credit cards, wallet, camera, family photos, Pocketmail unit, and gifts with a sentimental value were all in the ditch bag, but I left behind the computer disks for the book I was writing and other essentials. I found other items in the bag that I planned to throw away, a sure sign that packing during an adrenaline rush is not a reasoned process.
It was after 2200 when we arrived at the dock and a half hour later the tow boat crew was on its way after completing the paperwork. Without insurance coverage I would have been out another $864. As it turned out, my insurance did cover the salvage pumping bill as well as the cost of hauling and inspecting the boat, which as it turned out had sustained no serious damage. In the end, all I lost was a lot of rusty canned goods that eventually landed in the dumpster.
That had been a very long day. I checked the wooden plug in the stuffing box to make sure it was tight and then fell into the V-berth. For the next two days I found myself saying out loud, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday," and shaking my head in disbelief.