Running Aground on Johnsonís Reef, St. Johnís, USVI
Rather than looking port abeam at yet another Caribbean island as we sail steadily past their northern shores towards the Florida Keys, and beyond to Kemah, Texas, I am perched high on a hillside patio overlooking a beautiful harbor in St. Thomas. Six days prior, our great adventure changed course as our Captain under full power of the Lagoon 440’s two motors ran us straight through the bright yellow buoys clearly marking the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument’s gem right into the reef. Minutes earlier we had left a mooring ball at Trunk Bay that we had tied to for an hour or so for a safety test the captain insisted we must all pass prior to setting sail for Texas that afternoon. With no line off the stern the captain set a timer for 20 minutes and told the owners, their 7 and 11 year old, and my wife and me to jump in, and leaving no one onboard, he jumped in. Really. Later as I was down below changing out of my swim trunks and shaking my head and wondering how badly things may have gotten if the current or swells had increased while we were all in the water, I was thrown forward with the first collision. I ran up top in a flash to my wife who I had left sitting next to the captain on the starboard side of the bridge. The owner and his 11 year old were at the bow yelling that they could see the bottom, his wife came running up from below and yelled “how can you do this, we are surrounded by buoys!?”, and I held on for what seemed like forever. It was slow motion, from the first collision, to the next, the glancing blows from side to side, shudders, grinding, bangs, one after another, until we came to a hard stop, for a second, and the swells rocked us and banged us. The captain didn’t check on anyone or anything, he just revved the motors to full throttle, reverse, nothing, forward, no movement, reverse, full, forward full again and again, and then he just left them rumbling at full throttle. I ran below and pulled up the floor panels in the port hull - no water, not here. I was called up top, and ordered to pull out the jib, and then with more rocking and revving, we bounced and crashed our way out of the reef. As we all asked to stop and inspect for damage, the captain pointed to open water, not shore or safety and said it sounded worse than it was and that we would check for damage later. I scurried to the starboard side, and the water was pouring in along with daylight into the hull, filling it more quickly than the bilge pumps could handle. The owners wife exclaimed that it smelled like oil in the owners cabin, and it did, like burning rubber, burning belts on a burning up overheated engine. She told her children to pack a bag each, I told my wife to prepare a bag, and I asked the captain yet again why he had not made a distress call. I told the owners wife that the captain was crazy, that we should not be heading to sea, that we need to head towards shore. She agreed, and we finally convinced him to stop the boat, albeit with the motors running and no anchor, and the captain told the owner to spray expanding foam into the hole through the gushing water - it was futile to the point of almost laughing at the ongoing idiocy.
Edit Added: Please see list of questions below:
So here we are, stopped in the water, a hole in the starboard hull/keel, water and daylight pouring in, expanding foam, a captain who refuses to pick up the vhf and make a distress call of any sort. The wife said to me that she didn't know we were leaving the mooring, that we were supposed to have a meeting, go over the charts, review our course, standing orders, watch schedule. Yup, that had been the plan, the last word before leaving Red Hook. Well, now we have headed towards shore and we have pulled up the floor panels on the starboard side, and we have water and daylight pouring in. Now they are yelling at me to throw a line over the starboard side – the owner has jumped in and is attempting to inspect the damage from below, but the water is deep and dark here, the motors are idling, I find a random line, drop it overboard and tie it off to the lifeline. The owner comes up for air and says its too deep to see the damage, he's out of breath, his wife exclaims that he is not a strong enough swimmer to be doing this. He comes aft, I ask if we are in neutral, he climbs aboard. I ask the captain again “shouldn't you make a pan pan call.
The foam is ineffective when sprayed into the hole below the water, but the owner notices that pieces of dried foam can be forced into the hole, and it works a bit. He stands over the hole with his foot, I suggest adding a towel, and using a hand bilge pump, his wife in the bilge with him, we are alternating buckets as I run them out and empty them over the stern, one after another, all the way back to red hook. I'm exhausted, but keep bailing. I ask the captain to make a call, at least call ahead and ask for an emergency bilge pump. He says he doesn't have his phone! Phone! Phone!? Use the damn VHF! I ask where his phone is, he tells me, and I retrieve it from his cabin and hand it to him, and continue bailing.
What about all that we are taught to do in such a situation, I mean, if we ignore all that we are taught and practiced in order to safely navigate around islands known to be surrounded by rocks and reefs and end up plowing into a well marked and well charted reef on a calm and sunny afternoon, even after it had earlier been pointed out?
I ask the following, not to uneducated guessing, opinion or speculation, but to maritime law or US Federal, State, or Territorial law, or common sense and what should be done by the book?
1. Should we have stopped and inspected the boat and reef for damage before rocking and banging out of the reef. There was no review of the charts or chart plotter after the collision. Oh, wait, the captain said the chart was off, showed 40 feet. The captain turned off the chart plotter on the bridge shortly after the collision. The one below at the nav. station was flashing a warning until someone turned it off later. The owner and captain had ordered and purchased all new paper charts of our entire intended course prior to leaving Texas. We hadn't used them or looked at them, nor did we chart any positions or bearings from Antigua to St. Thomas.
2. Should the captain have ordered the inspected the bilges before leaving the reef.
3. Should we have even left the reef, without assistance and would that have prevented further damage to the reef?
4. Once it is determined that there is a hole in the boat and we are taking on water, should the captain have given any order to the crew and passengers?
5. Once it is determined that there is a hole in the boat and we are taking on water, should the captain have made a pan pan call or any sort of call?
6. Before entering the Federal Sanctuary waters, should the captain have reviewed the charts and planned a course? Isn't he required to purchase a permit for entering the National Park waters, and mooring, even just for a brief period?
Last edited by SVEM; 07-01-2018 at 02:40 PM.
Reason: Adding a list of questions.