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Adrift! A Not So Dramatic Tale of Survival in Almost Open Water

The day promised to be a fine day, but then most days when potential tragedy strikes start out that way for the unsuspecting sailor.  My lovely bride had invited her supervisor from work to accompany us for a Sunday sail and we were ripe with anticipation for the good times on the water.  041006_adrift1.gif Our guest Lori had grown up on the East coast and had some experience boating on the water, so sailing on our little MacGregor 21 would be just fine with her.  Besides, the rigors and stresses of work had her looking forward all through the week to a day out sailing on the water and the needed relaxation that came with it. Lori arrived right on time to join my wife at a local restaurant for a filling breakfast while I readied our boat. I cleaned and straightened up both inside and out and had our little boat sparkling by the time the ladies arrived at the marina. 

The winds were light to non-existent, but we were determined to make the best of a day of sailing anyway.  I checked our limited provisions, the weather and the outboard motor - everything was set.  Like any skipper worth his salt, I went over the emergency procedures and safety equipment with our guest, assuring her that the odds of actually having to deal with an emergency were pretty slim.  Of course I didn't know then what situation we were to find ourselves in before the day was out!

Our departure from the marina was about as routine as usual, our guest commenting on how nice the other boats were, the fine docks and the great location of the marina.  Within just a few minutes we were motoring out into open water, my wife Vicki and Lori sharing stories of boating and ways to have fun while we got further and further from land.  The weather was turning a bit cloudy, but the sun shone through enough to keep the day comfortable while the air moved just enough so that we didn't get hot. We motored out much farther than we usually do in search of the available wind and before long the marina was just a spot on the horizon behind us.  I had enough of the outboard noise and decided to finally raise the sails to see if we could at least get the boat moving even if only a little.  Since the winds were so light, I was able to hold an impromptu lesson about what line does what to which sail and held the interest of my sailing companions for almost 15 minutes.  We were sailing, to the complete enjoyment of all aboard.  Actually, a more accurate description for what we were doing might have been called a "controlled drift."

After almost an hour of this drifting, my sailing instincts took over and I had to try and find some wind.  041006_adrift2.gifEven if we had to make our own wind by motoring some more, that would be better than floating aimlessly and listening to the sails luff back and forth from the motion of the chop on the water.  I spotted what looked like some ripples that some breeze was apparently making about a mile further out so I decided to fire up our trusty outboard and make way for it.  This was unknowingly the start of our facing the harsh realities of survival. 

The motor had been running for no more than 5 minutes when it started to run rough.  When I looked back, I was startled to see some fine wisps of smoke coming from it.  Since I had sprayed cleaner in to it the day before, I initially thought that the smoke was the residue of that cleaning.  But then I looked for that stream of water that was supposed to be coming from underneath the engine cowling.  To my horror, there was no water stream - the water pump had failed!  I immediately closed the throttle and shut the motor off, understanding the significance of the lack of cooling water for the engine.  Had I ruined my trusty outboard?  My lovely bride inquired as to what the mater was and I explained that the motor would not run because the water pump had apparently failed.  When she asked what exactly that meant, I came to the chilling realization that we were basically adrift without motor or wind.

Outwardly, I was the perfect example of a calculating sailing expert, an emotional rock that the ladies could cling to in this emergency situation.  But inwardly, I felt the raw panic of isolation and dire circumstances rising in my throat, ready to burst forth.  I couldn't do that.  I couldn't scare the women on board.  I had to remain calm and use my knowledge ands skill to get us all out of this mess and somehow make it back to shore, safe and secure, but how?

I decided to first take an assessment of the situation.  The boat was floating with no apparent damage - good.   But the motor was dead, as was the wind - bad.  Float plan?  Well, sort of - I had waved "bye" to several at the marina as we departed and I recalled that told them that we'd be back in a couple hours.  Darn!  Why hadn't I filed a proper plan!  Hadn't the Minnow started on a little 3-hour tour before the crew got stuck on that island for countless episodes?!?  What had I been thinking?  Okay, I had to calm down.  We had been consuming water on the way out, but a quick check of the cooler showed that we still had more water, plus at least 6 unopened 16 oz beers, plenty of leftovers from last night cookout and a box of cheese-flavored crackers that Lori had brought to eat - great! 

The weather was really about perfect, except that there was no wind at all - fine.  We had sunscreen and hats and could soak our several changes of clothing brought on board in the water to keep ourselves cool if the temperature rose above 80, but how to get home? 

I then remembered that I had a hand-held VHF radio on board when my wife asked me what happened to that nice radio she gave to me as a present last Christmas.  Was salvation that close at hand?  I carefully held the radio as I turned it on and switched to channel 16.  Then I made the fateful call to the marina.  Would the radio signal make it?  Would anyone have a radio on to hear my plea for help?  Why wouldn't all those other people on the radio stop talking so I could hear an answer?

Finally!  After 3 calls one of the boat owners of a familiar named boat answered my call.  I carefully explained our predicament, to include stating that we were afloat and not taking on any water, there were 3 soles on board, but no, I didn't think that we would need emergency medical help or for a rescue copter to be scrambled just yet and that yes, we still had plenty of beer as long as help came within an hour or so.  The guy that answered then hailed a boat coming in to the marina and passed me off to him.  The guy underway assured me that we would be fine and to just hold on a while longer while he made his way back out and no, it was really no problem at all.  With no motor and no wind and the three of us huddling in the small cabin, rescue was finally on the way! I leapt in to action once again to ready to the boat for a tow.  I gathered some extra lines that were long enough for the tow, got a canoe paddle and the boat hook from the cabin and then explained in detail what each crew lady needed to do and what each one's job was during the tow and recovery.  I got a less-than receptive look from my bride when I handed her the paddle.  Then I lowered and secured both sails, knowing that the foredeck had to clear for action and so that the power boats going by thought that we meant to be floating aimlessly.

Thankfully, "Hurricane Katharine" only took about 15 minutes to cover the 2 mile distance from the marina to our powerless boat.  I got the tow line to her, which was promptly secured for the tow.  I assured the other skipper that we were all a bit rattled and yes, we might be running a little low on beer but we were otherwise fine and happy to be rescued.  Lori held the tiller and kept us behind the tow boat as Vicki held the paddle and I stood on the foredeck.  We made quite an entrance into our new marina, many of the other boat owners cheering the successful rescue effort and our return from our harrowing experience.  The tow boat crew cleared the tow line and let us drift in to the marina like survivors back from the brink of disaster.  There was even one of the club members with a camera to catch the images of my bride paddling from the cabin and I trying to do the same with the boat hook on the foredeck.  I ignored the banter in the background about why I hadn't just sailed back.

The passage to the slip was accomplished with relative ease.  Several members of the yacht club had come down to assist with a shove or two from each boat along our path.  I was quite relieved as the bow lines were secured and our little boat, broken outboard and all, was finally resting in her slip once again.  The whole affair had been a real test of my and my crew's skills and abilities and had only served to nourish my bride's desires to go out again, just as soon as the outboard was repaired.  Even Lori expressed her deep desire to go again as long as there was wind to sail in.  With those parting sentiments, the ladies left for the beach and then some shopping on the way home to try and salvage the rest of the day while I wrestled the motor off its mount for its trip to the shop.

Prologue:  In retrospect, I could have avoided the whole embarrassing incident if I had done the proper preventive maintenance on my motor.  I'll surely pay much more to have it repaired than if I had simply service it properly in the first place.  No person or animal was harmed for the creation of this article.  The only casualty is my learning skipper's ego - but only dented.  Besides, it will provide both entertainment and lessons learned for my fellow sailors and yacht club members for at least a few more weeks.


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