Don't know if this is appropriate for this forum but below is the text of an article I wrote for GREAT LAKES SAILOR back in '92 detailing my misadventure. The moderator can delete it if it is too long.
GONE IN THREE MINUTES
LAKE MINNETONKA CLAIMS A YACHT
Three minutes. That's all it took. From the time the gust first hit until Chiquita was on her way to the bottom, less than three minutes had passed. Five of us--six, counting the dog--were left treading water well over a mile from shore with no other boats in sight. The water was rough, and cold. After all, it was only June. The lake had been covered with a layer of ice several feet thick just two months earlier. Now we were stranded in the cold water with only one flotation cushion to hold on to. How could it have happened? Especially on Lake Minnetonka? It's not as though we were sailing on the open ocean. Or even on the Great Lakes. After all, Chiquita had survived the rough watersof Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. She had once taken a knockdown so severe on Lake Superior that the mast was bent. She had taken us from Door County, Wisconsin to Escanaba, Michigan in water so rough both kids spent the crossing throwing up in the cockpit. Yet it was on a relatively small and comparatively safe inland lake that she went down.
Chiquita was the ideal boat for us. A fiberglass replica of an1890's pilot cutter, this 23 foot Venture of Newport had been a fixture on upper Lake Minnetonka (on the outskirts of Minneapolis, MN) since she was built in 1974. Marie and I had updated, improved, renovated, and generally customized every part of her during our 13 years of ownership. She was perfectly suited to our needs: daysailing on Minnetonka several times a week and cruising on the Great Lakes for several weeks each summer. She's a bit small for long distance cruising with our two pre-teen girls but is ideal for evening or weekend sails. A larger boat would have been more comfortable, of course. But then it would not be as easy to trailer. A newer boat would be faster, perhaps, but it would not have the charm and grace of this classic cutter. Chiquita turned heads wherever we went; even confirmed power boaters recognized her as a classic yacht.
It had been windy all day long that Friday, June 8. The weather service had issued a small craft advisory. Not a good day to be sailing. I had wanted to go right after work but it was just too rough. That was all right since I had some other commitments that afternoon anyway. By early evening, though, the wind had died down considerably. I got my chance to go sailing after all. My family had other things to do that evening so I asked one of my sailing buddies, Stan Wise, to accompany me. He brought along his three kids: 5 year old Stephanie, 10 year old P.J., and teenaged Kirk. My dog Coco also came along for the ride. Because it had been so windy just an hour earlier, I put a reef in the mainsail before we got under way. Since she is rigged as a cutter, Chiquita normally flies two headsails. I set the staysail but did not raise the jib. There was barely enough wind to move the boat away from the buoy. Priest's Bay is very sheltered, though, so I waited until we got out into the main Upper Lake before deciding to increase the sail area. The wind was a little stronger there, coming from the northwest at 12 to 15 knots. It was not what I would call heavy air by any means. I raised the jib but left the reef in the mainsail. We had a pleasant sail, with the boat heeled about fifteen degrees. Kirk went forward to sit on the bowsprit for a more exciting ride. P.J. sat on the cabin top and Stan stood near the mast checking things out. Little Stephanie stayed in the cockpit with Coco and me. The two younger children were wearing lifejackets but Kirk and the adults were not.
The boat started to heel a little more so I reached down to ease the mainsheet. Before I could grab it, however, we were hit by a sudden gust of wind more powerful than anything we'd ever experienced. I can only liken it to the downbursts that are sometimes responsible for airplane disasters. The boat was slammed down on her side so hard that the mast dipped several feet under water. It caught us by such surprise that everyone except Stephanie tumbled into the lake. The boat stopped moving forward as the sails scooped up lake water. The keel simply did not have enough weight to right the boat with the sails full of water. Even though we had been dumped into the lake we just could not believe Chiquita would capsize. We were all in shock. The boat just kept on going over, trapping Stephanie in the upside down cockpit. There was still a gap of several inches between the cockpit coaming and the lake when Stan and I both realized that Stephanie was trapped. Somehow, and we still don't know just how, Stan was able to reach into the cockpit and pull his daughter free.
It seemed that as soon as we were all clear the boat turtled completely. All that was visible above the water was the red bottom paint. She stayed upside down for about a minute. I climbed onto the overturned hull and futilely tried to get her to come back up by pulling on the keel as though she were a sailing dinghy. I fell back into the water without having accomplished anything. Slowly, however, Chiquita started to come back up on her own. She came back on to her side with the mast horizontal but it was already too late. She was low in the water, with Lake Minnetonka rushing into the cabin. We could see the stern settling so we swam a few feet away from the boat to be clear of any rigging. The stern settled farther and disappeared. The bow pointed upward as she went under. The last we saw of Chiquita was the tip of the bowsprit as she slid beneath the waves.
Three minutes was all it took.
RESCUE We were over a mile from shore with almost no chance of swimming to safety. All we could do was tread water and wait for someone to find us. We didn't see any other boats out at all. Stephanie was crying and scared; we were all scared. There was only about an hour of daylight left. The only reminder of the boat was one flotation cushion that had been in the cockpit. Stan gave the cushion to Stephanie and was able to calm her down a bit. This and the life jackets worn by Stephanie and P.J. were the only flotation devices we had. Coco, our one year old Sheltie mix, was terrified and started to swim toward shore. I called her back, knowing she would not beable to swim that far. She came back and tried to get out of the water by climbing up on my head! This forced me under the water so I had to push her away. When I pushed her away, Coco headed for shore again so I called her back. Then she would try to climb over my head again; I had to pull her off. After several repetitions of this I was exhausted. I spotted a plastic three gallon gas can that had surfaced from the sunken boat and swam toward it. The cap had come off and itwas mostly full of water so it provided very little flotation. It was better than nothing, though. I held on to the can with one hand and Coco with the other. By this time I had drifted about fifty yards away from Stan and his family. They were exhausted too. We had been in the water for ten to fifteen minutes when a small power boat coming around Boy Scout Island spotted us. The boat came to a stop near Stan and the kids. The operator was new to boating and did not know what to do. It seemed to take forever for the survivors to climb aboard. At almost the same time another boat, driven by Bill Layton of Minnetrista, approached us from the west. He had been attending an outdoor party on shore when someone saw a sailboat off in the distance tip over and not come back up. Mr. Layton and a friend got his speedboat out and came over to investigate.
"Is everyoneall right?" he asked when he saw us in the water.
"I can use some help over here!" I shouted back. I was at about the limit of my endurance. Bill maneuvered his boat over to me and grabbed Coco. I was helped into the boat and then we yelled for the other boat to come alongside. Stan and the kids were transferred into the boat I was in. P.J. and Stephanie were wrapped in towels and put below in the cuddy cabin to warm up. Bill took us back to my mooring to pick up the dinghy and then to the docks. We staggered into my house through the garage, wet and shaking. I yelled up the stairs to Marie: "Take care of Stephanie! The boat sank!"
"No problem," she said. She thought I meant that the dinghy had capsized on our way back from the mooring. She couldn't believe that Chiquita had gone down. My oldest daughter Lacey couldn't believe it either; she started crying and wouldn't stop.
A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK I spent Saturday morning on the phone with the Sheriff's Department and with my insurance company. The Sheriff's Water Patrol sent out a boat to search for the wreck but was unsuccessful. I realized that if I was going to get Chiquita back I was going to have to find her myself. I thought I knew about where she had gone down but it was impossible to pin pointthe exact location. By that afternoon a number of my friends had found out about the accident and called to volunteer their help. Two of them, Glen Clark and Dick Brown, went up in Dick's airplane and flew over the area of the sinking, hoping to spot the boat from the air. They were unable to see through the choppy water and had to give up after making many passes over the area. Stan borrowed an aluminum fishing boat equipped with a flasher depth sounder and started searching the area. I went out with Steve Shockman in his bass boat. He had the type of fish finder that draws a picture of the bottom on a roll of paper. We searched in a grid pattern, in a spiral pattern, in every way we could think of, but the sounders showed nothing that looked like a sunken boat.
Stan had the presence of mind to check along the shores of BoyS cout Island and Crane Island for debris. He found two items from the boat: the cockpit floor grate and the lid to the lazarette locker. Both were undamaged. Our search for the boat itself proved to be fruitless. I had toconsider the possibility that we would never find her at all. Sunday found us searching the lake in earnest. Marie and I borrowed Steve's bass boat, Stan borrowed a small cabin cruiser, Glen went out in his son-in-law's ski boat, and another friend, Kurt Koerting, went out in the aluminum fishing boat. An acquaintance that had heard about the accident offered to weld upsome grappling hooks; we dragged these behind the boats that did not have depth sounders.
Two scuba divers from the local dive shop offered to help. They each made two long dives but found nothing. The bottom was so soft that it was difficult to tell where the water ended and the bottom began. Visibility was only about three feet. Imagine trying to search an area a half mile square while wearing a blindfold and you'll have some idea of the difficulty they faced: it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Marie and I drove the bass boat back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. We stayed out all afternoon and into the evening. We were out in the sun so long that we both got very sunburned; so did everyone else. One by one the other boats had to drop out.
Marie and I were still out when Jerry Winter came alongside in his fishing boat, which had a video depth sounder. He had just heard about our search and wanted to help. We searched together for a while but then Marie and I finally had to give up. Jerry stayed out for a while longer. We were just finishing the supper that Glen's wife Kareen had thoughtfully prepared for us when the phone rang. It was Jerry.
"Your boat is in 38 feet of water," he said. He had keptsearching for a little while after we left but found nothing. He had given up and was heading back when his video sounder picked up the outline of the sunken boat!
SALVAGE Jerry had marked the location with a plastic float attached to a five pound downrigger weight. I asked the divers if they would go down to verify that it was really Chiquita he had found. Stan and I went out on the boat with them. They followed the line from Jerry's float down to the bottom but couldn't find anything right away. Jerry had dropped the marker about fifteen feet away from the boat to avoid causing any more damage. The visibility was so poor that the divers had to search for several minutes before they found her. Chiquita was on her side on the bottom with the mast pointing up at about a thirty degree angle. She looked as though she was still sailing even though she was thirty-eight feet under. Oneof the divers stuck his head inside the cabin and saw an eerie sight: the microphone for the VHF was floating weightlessly at the end of its cord and looked like a surrealistic snake.
Once we were sure we knew exactly where she was, I called Minnetonka Portable Dredging to get her up. Several days of windy weather kept them from attempting the salvage operation until Friday, exactly one week from the day Chiquita went down. I rode out to the site of the sinking with the salvage people. Stan and Jerry met us there in another boat. The dredging company sent a diver down to tie a line to the mast just below the spreaders. He had to lower the mainsail to do this. The other end of the line was connected to the crane on their barge. The winch on the crane was engaged and Chiquita was lifted straight up to the surface. The intake hose of a high capacity pump was dropped into her cabin when her deck broke the surfaceand in less than half an hour she was floating on her own!
When the pump began sucking air, I bailed out the remaining water with a bucket and a sponge. I found several small fish that had been trapped in the cabin; what an expensive way to go fishing! Chiquita was towed to the Spring Park launching ramp. I went home to get her trailer and we pulled her out of the water that same evening. Our nightmare was finally ending.
DAMAGE ASSESSMENT Except for badly blistered varnish on her wood work, there was no apparent damage to the boat's exterior. In fact, she looked cleaner after her "bath". The interior, however, was a shambles. The bulkheads had warped, the carpet lining the hull was peeling, the cushions were ruined, and there was a thin coating of mud on the cabin sides. Kurt Koerting and his sons Jason and Doug came over to help me sort out the mess. We took everything off the boat and spread it out in my yard to dry. I couldn't believe how much stuff I had had on board: working sails, light weather sails, foul weathergear, tools, navigation gear, barometer, thermometer, anchors, flashlights, pumps, clothes, life jackets, flares, fire extinguisher, cushions, spare blocks, battery, dinghy oars, papertowels, toilet paper, etc. We were able to dry out and salvage the sails and quite a few other items. Even so, we had to throwout a lot of things. Tools were rusted, flashlights corroded, and everything else was waterlogged. With the boat completely emptied out, I was able to assess her actual condition. The hull came through almost totally unscathed. I found a couple of minor scratches; these apparentlyhappened when the boat bumped against the barge during the salvage operation. (I had just painted the topsides beforelaunching that spring.) The varnish on the planked sliding hatch sported a number of water blisters the size of my fist and an inch deep. The plywood hatch boards and lazarette locker had delaminated. The cast aluminum masthead was covered with white corrosion apparently caused by the electrical currents from the discharging battery. The damage below was much more extensive. All of the electronics(VHF, knotmeter, depth sounder, stereo) were ruined. Several ofthe 18 switches on the electrical control panel were corroded beyond use. The bearings in the solar ventilator were shot. The Diehard battery was destroyed. The settee cushions were muddy and torn. The two main bulkheads were warped. Surprisingly, the port-a-potti head was still operational; it was not damaged bythe pressure of 38 feet of water.
RESTORATION I definitely had my work cut out for me. My plan of action was to do whatever was necessary to get the boat back in the water assoon as possible and let the rest go until the winter. The carpet and the bulkheads needed to be replaced but I knew I could get by with them as they were for the rest of this season. I hoped I would get enough of the really essential jobs done in time to take the boat on vacation in August. With the boat empty, I borrowed a pressure washer and hosed down the interior with a mild bleach solution to wash the mud out and kill any mildew. I raised the pop-top and opened all the hatches to let her air out. When the boat finally dried out, I glued the carpet back in place temporarily and straightened the warped bulkheads as best I could. I replaced switches and lights in the electrical system and ordered all new electronics. I had to run new coaxial cable through the mast for the VHF antenna. The berth cushions were taken to an upholsterer for replacement. If ound a new (used) outboard motor to replace the ancient one that went down with the boat. I cut new hatch boards from solid mahogany because the old plywood ones had delaminated and warped. I also had to replace the front of the lazarette locker for the same reason. The varnish on the planked sliding hatch and on the frame for the solar panel was badly blistered but could wait for a complete refinishing this winter.
Venture sailboats originally came from the factory with foam flotation blocks under the cockpit and in all of the lockers. The previous owner had removed most of the flotation to increase the storage space. I had not replaced it since I needed the space, too. The accident certainly changed my mind on that score. I filled every nook and cranny that was not absolutely essential for storage with flotation. I used blocks of extruded foam rather than the messy beadboard used by the manufacturer. It took over a month of hard work, but by the end of July Chiquita was back in Lake Minnetonka. This was primarily to test and calibrate her new electronics and to see that the transducer thru-hulls did not leak. I also had to have her back in the water to complete a cockpit tent I had been working on before the accident.
Two weeks after putting Chiquita back in the lake I hauled her back out. I knew that she was seaworthy once again. My family and I trailered her across the state of Wisconsin to Menominee, Michigan on Lake Michigan's Green Bay. The four of us spent three weeks of a well deserved vacation cruising Green Bay and the Door Peninsula. We logged several hundred miles on thewater, a fitting shake down cruise. Chiquita performed better than ever, and, with the new cushions, electronics, and other gear, looked like a new boat. We were just glad to have herback.
[sidebar]LESSONS LEARNED Chiquita's sinking taught us a number of valuable lessons:
PFDs--We had always carried plenty of life preservers on board. They were kept in the cockpit locker, accessible by just lifting the lid. Obviously, this was not good enough. Chiquita capsized so quickly that we did not have a chance to grab even one. In the future, we will wear our PFDs whenever the weather is the least bit unsettled. If not being worn, the PFD will be out so that it can be grabbed instantly. Children will wear them at all times. Our dog Coco has her own life jacket now and wears it whenever she is on the boat.
FLOTATION--I added as much flotation to the boat as possible without sacrificing her cruising ability. Is it enough to keep her afloat with all of our cruising gear aboard? Mathematically, not quite. But I have run out of room for more flotation. Much of the gear and many of the fittings (such as the wood bulkheads and hatches) are heavy in air but would have positive buoyancy if submerged. I believe that if the boat were swamped again she would remain afloat, although just barely.
HATCHES--The foredeck hatch will be kept closed and latched if the weather gets bad. Likewise, the lid to the cockpit locker will be kept latched. I will also keep at least one of the hatch boards in place in the companionway to keep water out of the cabin in case of a knockdown.
HARNESSES--While we don't wear safety harnesses when sailing on Lake Minnetonka we do have them on board and use them when cruising on the Great Lakes. I have made sure that there is a quick release snap shackle at the harness end of each tether. Our boat capsized and sank so quickly that I am convinced that several of us would have gone down with the ship if we had been wearing safety harnesses that could not be disconnected from the boat at the harness end. We would not have been able to unhook the tethers from their attachment points on the boat since these were under water when the boat capsized.
MAN OVERBOARD--I have added a homemade MOB recovery system similar to the Lifesling. It is attached to the boat with 150 feet of floating line. In addition to its obvious purpose of recovering a man overboard, the system can provide another important benefit: If I had had this on board when Chiquita sank we would not have had to spend several fruitless days trying to find her. The sling would have floated to the surface and marked her position.
GENERAL--We will keep an eye on the weather, of course. We sail a little more conservatively now. I no longer keep the rail under just for the thrill of it. I also shorten sail sooner than I would have previously. The adage "better safe than sorry" has taken on a new meaning for us
Last edited by heinzir; 10-04-2007 at 04:42 PM.