Today marks the one-year anniversary of my BFS. Here is the story I wrote about it. This story and others can also be found in the link to my blog.
“Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan. Hello all stations. US Coast Guard Atlantic City has just received a report of an EPIRB signal located 100 miles east of Atlantic City. All vessels transiting the area are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible and report all sightings to the nearest Coast Guard unit.” I checked our own GPS position, 60 miles upwind of the reported location, and mentally calculated how long it would take us to reach them, at least 8 hours. But we were in survival conditions ourselves, hove to in a force 10 storm with wind gusting into the low 60s, an engine that wouldn’t start, and two crew members down with seasickness. An hour later I was relieved to hear on the radio that the Coast Guard had deployed a rescue helicopter to assist the vessel in distress.
Joy For All, a Farr 50 outfitted for offshore passage making, had left Mystic, CT the previous morning, motor-sailing in light wind from the southwest. Our destination was Hampton, VA, about 400 miles to the southwest where we would join the fleet gathering for the start of the Caribbean 1500 rally. The forecast was calling for a low producing northwest wind at 35 knots to arrive late Monday. We decided to head for the New Jersey coast where we would have a shorter fetch when the associated cold front arrived, and we could run down the coast on a reach. By Monday afternoon the forecast had changed. The low had slowed and was deepening, now producing winds of 45-55 knots with gusts to 60 knots. Tuesday morning at 0130 the front arrived, bringing a 90 degree wind shift immediately intensifying to 30 knots. We tacked, rolled up the genoa and reefed the main further. Engine on, we altered course to head for Atlantic City, 40 miles to windward.
The wind speed increased over the next several hours and the barometer dropped to 994 mb. By Tuesday afternoon our progress toward Atlantic City had slowed to about 2 knots. We were still 12 miles away, and it was apparent we would not reach safe harbor by nightfall. On the radio we heard Atlantic City turning vessels away. The west wind at 45 knots made it unsafe to enter the harbor.
All afternoon the waves breaking over the foredeck had been working on the dinghy lashings and by now the dinghy was lodged against the port stanchions. The lower lifeline had broken and the rigid bottom inflatable would soon be a danger to the boat. Someone would have to go forward. I turned the boat downwind while Gil hooked onto the jacklines with Joy acting as spotter. I tried to keep the boat as stable as possible, but the foredeck was still rolling quite a bit as we surfed down the backs of 12 foot waves at 11 knots. The apparent wind was reduced to 35-42 knots, we were no longer taking green water over the bow, but the foredeck work took longer than normal in those conditions and we held our breath until Gil returned to the safety of the cockpit.
The wind continued to build, now 50 knots sustained gusting to 60. Still motor-sailing with just a scrap of main to reduce the rolling, we idled the engine which caused it to stutter and then stall. All attempts to restart the engine were unsuccessful. Gil and I looked at teach other and I said, “Pull out some staysail.” We tried sailing southwest, then south, then southeast. As the sun was setting we made the decision to heave to. We pulled out enough main to balance the staysail and keep the bow about 70 degrees off the wind, locking the helm to windward. Immediately, the motion of the boat stabilized, heeling at 10 degrees and with a gentle roll as the waves passed under our hull. We were drifting toward the northeast at 3-4 knots, roughly parallel to the NJ shoreline but in the shipping lane. Shortly after we hove to, The Coast Guard hailed us on the radio to see if we were ok. Family had reported us missing when they couldn’t reach us on the sat phone. The cloud cover was so dense there was no satellite signal.
Gil and I took 3 hour watches to watch for ships, the other two crew still down with seasickness. No one felt like eating much, but we tried to stabilize the maelstrom in our stomachs with water and crackers. The wind was a constant howl, making it difficult to talk. I was very grateful for the cockpit enclosure as the temperature dropped into the low 30’s and the occasional wave broke over the cockpit, at times sending seawater down through the companionway hatch. I was cold in spite of three layers and practiced balancing against the motion of the boat to stay warm. We ran the generator to keep the cabin warm so we could ward off the chill between watches.
Dawn arrived on Wednesday morning, and the wind died down to gale force, 35 to 45 knots. During the 17 hours we were hove to we had drifted about 50 miles back the way we had come. We were only about halfway to Hampton and the engine still wouldn’t start after changing the fuel filter and bleeding the fuel line. It was time to start sailing again. Sails sheeted in tight, we jibed slowly to a course of 210, close reaching but still a bit east of the bearing to Hampton. Hot oatmeal for breakfast revived the crew, and we were back up to our full complement of four, each taking a three hour watch. I was able to catch up on some much needed sleep and life returned to somewhat more normal for an offshore passage. We followed the wind shift to the northwest and we were able to sail through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel as the sun was setting on Thursday afternoon. We were towed the final five miles to Blue Water Yachting Center in Hampton, VA, grateful to have arrived safely at our destination.
We were saddened to learn that the fate of the vessel and crew that had activated their EPIRB early Tuesday evening was not so positive. The vessel was a Swan 44 called Freefall that had been rolled and dismasted. The Coast Guard was able to rescue two people from the boat, but a third crew member lost his life. Phil Rubright from Detroit was a fellow member of the Great Lakes Singlehanded Society. We also heard of two additional vessels, a 67-footer and a 100-footer that remain missing. We agreed that we dealt with the situation as best we could. We monitored the forecast and were prepared for the approaching weather. We were uncomfortable, but never felt our lives were in danger, and we trusted our boat to keep us safe. We maintain a healthy respect for wind and water, but we will continue to head out to sea.
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