Join Date: Dec 2009
Thanked 6 Times in 6 Posts
Rep Power: 6
This the closest near-death experience I've had sailing.
In 1992 we (my father and I) needed to bring our boat (a 1979 Cheoy Lee Offshore 41) back "up west" after she had spent a year and a half in Nova Scotia. For various reasons the trip got delayed until it became a "now or never" schedule. Obviously not necessarily a good way to do these things.
On the second day out from Cape Breton, bound for Nantucket, the wind turned against us as forecast. For the next 5 days we had winds straight out of Nantucket that probably averaged 30 knots. Some times it dropped into the low 20s, other times it was in the high 30s. This was the last week of September, so it wasn't exactly warm.
On the fourth day out, the engine died. Despite hours with our heads in the bilge and the whole boat reeking of diesel, we could not get it started (we later found out the fuel pump was shot). This made for a difficult situation, as with a crew of two, the autopilot was absolutely critical and the engine was our only way of charging the batteries. We shut off all electronics and ran completely dark -- no nav instruments, no lights (not even nav lights), in hopes of saving enough juice to make Nantucket with the autopilot still functioning. We turned on the Loran to take a fix a couple of times a day, and that was it. This was pre-GPS, and at the time we did not have radar.
About 36 hours after the engine died, I was on watch at about 2 a.m. At the time we were probably about 150 miles offshore, somewhere near the Georges Banks. The wind was howling at about 35 knots straight out of Nantucket. Suddenly, over the course of only a couple of minutes, the wind dropped from 35 knots to a dead calm. It was like being in the eye of the storm (of course, at 35 knots it was not nearly strong enough to form an eye). There was absolutely zero wind -- to the point where we actually lost steerage and were completely adrift in the middle of a still chaotic Atlantic.
Into this surreal scene appeared a large fishing trawler, arms spread wide and floodlights blazing, bearing directly for us. I woke my father up and we scrambled into action. The nav lights were flipped on. The vhf was powered up and we started waving a flashlight against our sails. We hailed repeatedly on the vhf to no avail. We frantically sounded a horn. Completely without steerage at this point, we were at the mercy of the trawler. I could not believe I was about to get run over in the middle of the Atlantic for lack of breeze, when we had been struggling through a gale for three days.
He swerved at what seemed like the last moment. In reality, it was probably 100 yards away, but it seemed like inches. Never answered the vhf and headed off into the night. For all we know, he never even saw us.
Fifteen minutes later, the wind came back. Amazingly, at about 30 knots straight out of Nantucket. It stayed that way for several more days. The entire passage (about 550 miles) ended up taking 7 days. The last night we both ended up staying up all night trying to fight our way though the shoals and around Great Point. The autopilot was done by now, so we hand steered the last twelve hours or so. Our exhaustion was so complete, that we did fifteen minute shifts for the last several hours, and I can assure you that each of us slept a full fourteen minutes during our "off" watch periods.