Trip Reports

Huston, We've Got A Problem (20-Dec-2002-10-00):
Warm greetings from the crew of Maverick.

We're in Carriacou, an entirely pleasant island belonging to the country of Grenada, just north of the main island. It's kind of a picture-postcard Caribbean place, that somehow has escaped the Club Meds and has a pretty sleepy vibe that may come between the crew of Maverick and a proper work ethic. The night before we made landfall, the wind had dropped to under ten knots so we had shaken the reefs out of the main and were wing and wing with the sails slatting in a bit of a sloppy sea. We were only making a little under five knots, but by my calculations that would put us near Sail Rock at dawn, and this was the first piece of land we had our hearts set on not hitting since Barbados, which we'd spotted and missed the day before. By the time I retired at one AM, we could faintly see the loom of land lights off to the northwest and I went to the bunk thinking of the satisfaction I'd get out of writing the story of our landfall. Which would go something like:

"After sailing 2940 miles across the Atlantic Ocean (the great circle route would have been 2654) in a few minutes shy of twenty-one days, every inch under sail, Maverick finally could rest placidly at anchor in a calm, sweet bay. We had had our mechanical problems of course had no ability to motor except in the harbors but after the Monitor died, the Navico Wheelpilot had, sensing its dramatic role, heroically steered for almost 1400 miles without a belt change, far more than we could normally expect. Despite these difficulties, we'd passed a lot of boats. Not that it's a race or anything. We averaged 140 miles a day, counting the slow ones, and that's 5.8 knots. It's not that fast for a race boat, but for a cruiser, quite respectable. A couple of boats had come to grief and another was out there somewhere with no motor or electricity, but for us the passage had been pretty easy, despite the mechanical glitches and a bit of rough weather at the start."
It's all true, except for the part about Maverick being at anchor. But it Didn't happen quite as I had envisioned. At about 0400 local time (0800 UTC) after three hours of sleep, I was awakened by Mr. Shrode, a highly unusual occurrence. We had a lot of water in the bilge, he said, almost up to the floorboards, and we needed to find where it was coming from. It took about one minute to check all the usual suspects: the through-hulls, packing gland, and rudder tube. The exhaust pipe, as the reader will remember, was bunged, so that wasn't it. I quickly started pulling up hatches in the cabin sole and just as quickly spotted a group of ten or so little fountains at the forward end of the keel, each about a pencil lead in diameter. The ocean was coming into the boat, right through the hull. I informed Mr. Shrode and we assumed our customary chores in dodgy situations, a product both of our different roles and our different personalities. It turns out, we cover for each other pretty well. Mr. Shrode attacked the direct problem with alacrity. He cut some pieces of plywood to use as pads, wedged in by other pieces of plywood. Under these he compressed a combination of rags and modeling clay. This did indeed appear to slow down the flow.

Meanwhile the Captain started to think about the worst possible scenario, which is the way he operates. A leak has opened up in the hull, without our having hit anything, at least as far as we know. I say as far as we know because, in the heavy cross-seas of the first week of the passage, the boat took so many violent hits from waves that one of them could possibly have been something else, like a whale. Who knows? But the force of the waves was serious enough. Anyway, the problem has finally shown itself, and we didn't know the nature of the breach in the outside of the hull, so therefore we didn't know whether it might not get larger. If somehow the seam in Maverick's hull, which was originally glassed together lengthwise from two halves because of its tumblehome, had started to separate, the hull could, with any particular roll of the boat, come apart swiftly, and the influx would be unstoppable. Unlikely, and it turned out, not correct, but it could happen. So I took a quick fix on the chart, noting that we were, at our current speed, about seven hours away from a boatyard. And I got the abandon ship gear ready. The crash bag is already packed with flares, a handheld VHF, water, and a variety of other emergency stuff, so attending to this only amounted to adding our essential papers and zipping it up. I ascertained that our life-vests were ready-to-hand, and made sure we both had knives to cut away the life raft.

With Mr. Shrode hard at work at the stoppage, we needed to gauge whether the leak was getting worse, so we set a timer at ten minutes and noted how high the water would get in the bilge in that time. I then began calling a "pan-pan" on the radio, first on VHF 16 and then on all the SSB emergency frequencies, the major one being 2182, which has it's own button on the transceiver. Although we were only about twenty miles from the closest land, we got no response for the first couple of hours. By 0500, local time, one of the morning high-frequency nets had come on, the early one with our circumnavigator buddies, all knowledgeable sailors. They volunteered to stand by on a six-meg frequency and call every half hour to check our situation. They had some good ideas. When we got in the lee of the island we could heave-to and dive under the boat to try to spot the leak and then perhaps apply some underwater epoxy, which we carry aboard. We could launch the dinghy and tow the boat in with the outboard if the shaft failed, etc. They didn't tell us anything we hadn't thought of but their concern gave us a big morale boost. Plus, sometimes you aren't thinking straight when things get weird, and a reminder is never a bad idea.

Finally, a man named Bob on "Figment," at anchor at a nearby island, responded to the "pan-pan" on VHF 16. We gave him our position and a description of the situation. We knew there was a travel-lift at Tyrrel Bay on Carriacou, and that would be our first opportunity to get Maverick out of the water. Bob was on the job in a hot second, attempting to relay our information to Tyrrel Bay Yacht Haulout, who were out of our VHF range on the other side of Carriacou. He kept calling until they showed up at the office about 0730 and gave them the story. He came back to us with the reassuring news that they'd be there waiting for us and we should just give them a call on 16 when we were in range. I told Bob we owed him a six-pack, but I haven't been able to reach him since.

When we next checked our timing on the water in the bilge, we discovered it was now coming up to our mark in five minutes, so the hole was opening up and the water was flowing in twice as fast as when we first measured it. Mr. Shrode redoubled his efforts and I concentrated on sailing the boat. I'm really not much of a racer, notwithstanding my wish that the reader might think I am, but nevertheless those hours on the race course are invaluable training when you really have to get somewhere. How's the sail trim? Will the wind accelerate between the islands? When will we be in the lee and lose our wind? Should we sail a wider arc around the island to avoid sailing into a hole? Where's the current and what is it doing? And of course there was navigation to be done. I wanted to minimize the prop shaft use so we continued to sail, and in the back of my mind was reader Chris Harry's warning that things could pile up on us. Checking the rate of influx again, we noted that it had increased another thirty percent or so. We began to run the bilge pump more often, and for longer periods. We tried to calculate how long we could keep going before the pump was overwhelmed, but the fact is, as mentioned above, this really could happen in an instant so far as we knew. It was now only another hour or so to get to the lift at our present pace. Since the wind held, the decision was to keep sailing and not heave to and go overboard to check the leak, and knowing what we know now, that was the right call. First off, it would have been pretty unnerving to see what the damage really was. Second, the underwater epoxy would have been no help. It could not have prevented the hull, which was opening up, from opening further. (A collision mat, or a sail stretched under the boat in the area of the leak, might have worked, however. At the time, though, we didn't know that where the water was entering the bilge was the same place where it was entering the outside of the hull. Maverick has an encapsulated keel, and water could be coming in anywhere in the keel and then migrating to where we saw it. In addition, the sail would have slowed us down. Had we been further out to sea, however, that would have definitely been the way to go.) And third, all these options take time, and we felt we should use every moment to get to the lift.

We called Tyrrel Bay Yacht Haulout and as promised they were standing right by the radio. They talked us through finding the marks to follow to get to their dock. As we rounded the point just north of the bay we could not yet see any of the marks, but we headed up and sheeted in and were moving well. Soon the marks came into view in the binoculars and we called the yard guys to ask which side to put the docklines and fenders on. Mr. Shrode was down below tending to his water control project, so I set the autopilot and set up the fenders and docklines. What I didn't know at the time was that there was now a river coming into the boat and he was just barely able to keep up with the flow with the pump. Heading up and sheeting in, putting additional stress on the hull, had opened up the hole.

Mind you, we weren't out of options. We have another electric pump ready to put in the bilge with a cigarette-lighter plug and twenty feet of hose already attached. We've got two hand-operated whale pumps. We would have gone over the side to take a look, if things got any worse, or put a sail around the hull. But since Mr. Shrode had not informed me of our peril, I was blissfully just enjoying a nice sail in the Caribbean.

When we got closer in we doused and powered up. As we approached the dock Terry was preoccupied with the pump so I tossed lines to the four or five guys ready to help. We were still running the pump as the travel lift hoisted Maverick out of the water.

When we got off the boat and could take a look, what we saw was a pretty bad piece of business. There was a lateral tear, rising athwartships twelve to eighteen inches on both port and starboard just forward of the keel, right through the boat, about 3/8 of an inch wide. There wasn't just a hole in the boat. Maverick had been literally breaking in two.

We became the focus of attention around the yard, as no one had seen anything quite like it. Many folks said we were very lucky to have made it alive and to have gotten the boat out of the water before she sank. I wasn't feeling very lucky, to be honest. We've had a lot of tough luck on this trip, but this one made the rest look minor. And this time, it's not clear that Maverick can be saved.

But here's a way to look at it. It is most likely that, whatever the cause, Maverick suffered a catastrophic stress of some kind back in the heavy weather the first week out, as none of the seas since then would have much bothered a Catalina 25. Had the hull opened up in those seas, some of which got up to twenty feet, it would have opened up real fast. It's unlikely we would have been able to stop it. Had we been able to launch the raft and get in it, a very risky business in those conditions, we would have been rolled and flipped and tossed about in the huge seas. It would have been close to a perfect impossibility for another cruiser to find us, and SAR from the Canaries may have not had the range. If they did, a rescue would have been dodgy, to say the least, even if they could have located us.

There were a couple of other scenarios less pleasant than what happened. Had we been even one hour further away, not to mention a thousand miles, with the flow of water increasing seemingly every second, and the hole opening up, I don't think we would have made it. Or, had we been one day later, when the wind finally died after bringing us all the way across, we would have had that prop shaft issue. We had sailed a little yellow brick road of wind to a safe harbor. Maverick, as wounded and crippled as if her back had been broken, had held it together and carried on. She distinguished herself by sailing as well and as fast as we know she can, and got her crew, who were unaware of her miseries, across two thousand miles of ocean. Not until land was in sight and it was clear we would make it safely did she deign to give us an indication of her condition and say, "Guys, you need to get me to the hospital." Now it's our turn to see if we can save her.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to the many people who've written in and Dan Feller for his grammar correction.

Next report from this location: Parrot Talk

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