Even from four miles inland, I knew the Gulf Stream was angry. The treetops were leaning toward Miami as if it were Mecca. Slashing rain was trying to wash away any signs of the tropics. Were it not for the sight of dancing palms, this could have been Cleveland. If ever there was a time to wait for a weather window, this blustery January day was a good candidate.
Why not wait? Cold fronts pass, but then I would miss the norther, which I needed in order to make precious easting. To delivery skippers headed down island, easting is more than a word, it is a mantra. The biting north-northwest wind, which was certain to produce miserable conditions for the first 12 hours, was, in fact, a blessing. And besides, when you deliver boats for the charter trade, waiting for weather is usually not an option.
I was delivering a brand-new Hylas 49 from Ft. Lauderdale,FL, to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Those steady easterly trades, which make chartering in the islands such a delight, conspire to almost guarantee headwinds and sloppy going for the 1,000-mile jaunt from the mainland. The passage from Florida to the Eastern Caribbean is primarily a west-to-east affair. For every one degree of latitude sailed, you need to knock off two degrees of longitude.
My crew consisted of the beaming husband and wife, who were the new owners, and two prospective buyers who had signed on for a sea trial. The delivery time was scheduled to take a week. It had to follow this plan because the boat was already booked for a charter nine days from then. Even though it's fraught with weather vagaries, the delivery business I run has to operate like a well-oiled cruise line. We needed to make 144 miles a day under a six-knot average come hell or high water.
I don't mean to sound cavalier, but deliveries require confidence established from experience. At the time of this delivery, I was sailing two weeks out of four and I had made at least two dozen down-island passages. More importantly, I figured I knew the Hylas 49 very well.
As we motored down the New River, I launched into my drill on watch-keeping, safety, and comfort. I established three three-hour watches (six hours off) for the owners, the prospective buyers (Jim and Bill), and myself. I recommended that the crew wear safety harnesses while on watch. I am not a tyrant and I am not responsible for the choices the crew makes. Blue-water sailing is all about personal discoveries, but we all depend on each other. It's simple: The off watch needs to trust the deck watch.
|"We needed to make 144 miles a day come hell or high water."|
I went over the emergency plan. Jim would be responsible for preparing the life raft. Bill's job would be to bring up the go-bag. The husband's job would be to note our GPS position and put out a Mayday on the VHF. The wife's job would be to gather anything that might be useful in the raft. My job would be to do everything possible to avoid getting into the life raft. I certainly had no plans to ever have to do that.
We cleared Port Everglades at 1100. The Gulf Stream greeted us with a fierce chop and winds at a steady 30 knots. The ride was rough and wet as sheets of spray swept the cockpit. Bareboats don't usually come with options like dodgers and weather cloths, so in a short time everybody was soaked. Two hours out, I saw three pasty complexions, betraying imminent mal de mer. Jim was the only one who had a taste for the chicken noodle soup I heated up in the galley.
Halfway across the Stream, the owners and Bill, with buckets in hands, retreated to their bunks. I told Jim that I would stay at the helm until we were past Great Isaac Light, then he could spell me. I knew that once past the light and cleared of the Stream, there would be some lee behind Grand Bahama Island.
But two hours later, about 10 miles from the light, Jim poked his head out of the companionway. "We have a lot of water in the bilge and the pumps don't seem to be working."
"I'm not surprised," I said, "can you pump it out manually and when I come below I'll check the pumps."
Jim slammed the hatch just as another wave crashed into the cockpit. A dirty secret about center cockpit boats is that they are wet. Twenty minutes later, Jim poked his head out again. "I can't keep up with the water; it's above the floorboards."
Great Isaac Light had just loomed into view and I was disturbed that it was off the port bow. There are several shoals and rocky islets near the light and I had hoped to leave it to starboard by a few miles. I had no choice but to harden up and bring the boat onto the preferred course.
"Jim, I'd like to get us clear of the light. Is the manual pump still working?"
Jim shook his head. "John, you need to take a look at this."
Once I dropped below I realized Jim was right. The water was well above the floorboards and sloshed from side to side as the boat pounded through steep seas. The electric pumps were useless and the manual wasn't much better. The pumps were clogged with wood shavings and other bits of construction debris, a common new-boat problem. As fast as I cleared the strainers, they clogged again and the belt-driven pumps lost their primes. Then, suddenly, the water began to rise noticeably. Within minutes it was over my ankles.
|"Then suddenly the water began to rise noticeably.... My brain was racing with possibilities. Was it time for a Mayday?"|
While trying to maintain a calm demeanor, I roused the crew and told them to put on their wet gear and a life jacket and standby in the cockpit. It was just getting dark. I started to scour the boat for the leak. Most leaks seem to turn up in the engine room, but the stuffing box and stern tube were intact. Now the water was a foot above the cabin sole. My brain ached. Where was it coming from? I had already checked the seacocks and through-hull fittings. Was it time for a Mayday?
My brain was racing with possibilities. I told the husband to note our position carefully, to write it down, then put out a clear, distinct Mayday three times on channel 16 and return to the cockpit with the hand-held VHF. I was confident that the powerful US Coast Guard receivers would pick us up, or that someone in Bimini would. The island was less than 20 miles away. I told Jim to fire up the diesel and to aim for the lighthouse at full throttle.
"It is a rocky island but at least it's an island. If we do sink, I'd rather do it in 20 feet and be able to swim ashore. Bill, you secure the life raft in the cockpit, tie the painter to something strong, and then get the go-bag. Don't do anything else until I tell you."
Shortly, a fishing boat anchored in the lee of the light answered our mayday. The captain said he would stand by to come to our assistance. The water down below was rising; the tiny island was about a mile away. A few minutes later the engine sputtered to a stop. The lights failed. Jim and Bill trimmed the sails and steered toward the light, but the boat, full of the sea, was sluggish and barely moved.
I wondered at what point the boat would start to go down—would I be trapped below? I was frightened, furious, and shaking with fear as I sloshed through the boat with flashlight in hand in search of the leak. Then, stumbling amid mattress and drawers adrift in the quarter cabin, I detected a stream of water near the berth. I reached up under it. There seemed to be a hole. I plunged under to take a look. There it was: a two-inch hole where an extra transducer had mistakenly been mounted at the extreme turn of the bilge. The transducer was nowhere in sight but a plug luckily had been strapped to the fitting. I grabbed it and shoved it down hard into the cavity.
We anchored in the lee of Great Isaac Light and spent the rest of the night bailing with pots and pans. The next day we sailed back to Ft. Lauderdale where the boat was completely refit.
The overriding lesson is that experience can be dangerous. I knew the Hylas 49 so well, or so I thought, that I did not do a thorough enough job of inspecting the boat before the delivery began. I was lucky. Some skipper you are, I thought, but for a flick of a flashlight you would have sent this boat to the bottom, all because you didn't know about a through-hull transducer. But then, as I said, blue-water sailing is about personal discoveries. For me, it was discovering my bad judgment created out of overconfidence.