A loud beeping sound from the cockpit arouses me from my rest. It is nearly one in the morning on my great adventure sail to the Dry Tortugas. The wind is steady at twenty knots as billions of brilliant starts light up the moon less night and the broad panorama of the Milky Way paints a swath of white across the inky sky. I’m a little over forty miles from my goal as Belle makes over six knots on a beam reach. What is all the noise about? Crazy autopilot! I clamber back to see what might be happening. I glance at the sails that are starting to luff. The boat symbol on my GPS Mapping unit is turned sideways. Something is not right.
Belle - My Sea Pearl 28, a 5000 lb cruiser 27'10" long and 8 feet wide.
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My journey to the Tortugas really started three years back. I had planned to make this dream-of-a-lifetime voyage accompanied by my friend Ron Hoddinott. Sailing with Ron would have been great as he is a consummate sailor-racer with many years of sailing experience who has also done this trip before. Frustrated by various equipment failures, I had given up before I even started. But, the dream never died, and I always planned to make another attempt.
This year after re-powering Belle with a new eighteen horse power Nissan engine and solving most if not all of Belles problems, I feel confident in my success. Unfortunately, I never could find crew. But having spent many hours plotting my course and studying the weather and current patterns, I am confident in my abilities to manage this voyage on my own. For the last three months I have been stocking and fine tuning Belle’s systems and now everything works well. I have enough food for a month and water for nearly as long.
I just missed closing time but was not worried. Dry camping on the trailer is no big deal.
Last night I reached Port of the Islands at around six in the evening. I just missed closing time but was not worried. Dry camping on the trailer is no big deal. As it turns out setup took way longer than I expected, but everything was ready and I was sacked out by midnight.
Morning comes with the sounds of a power boater setting up next to me for launch. It is six-thirty am. Perfect timing to launch at seven when the marina opens. With my fee paid, I am launched and tied up by seven thirty. The truck and trailer sit safely in a lot next door. I buy a breakfast burrito and heat it in the microwave. A Nestle’s chocolate drink provides my energy. I am ready to leave.
The low morning light highlights the beauty of Faka Union Canal. The canal water is dark and still except for an occasional leaping fish.
The low morning light highlights the beauty of Faka Union Canal. I see Ospreys, a little Blue Heron and many other birds I’m not familiar with. The canal water is dark and still except for an occasional leaping fish. I motor comfortably at six knots riding a falling tide which helps my speed over the ground, but worries me when I think about the shallows ahead. As it turns out, the water is plenty deep enough for Belle’s shallow draft.
A light breeze settles in as I approach marker number two. I try sailing but a speed around two knots is just not enough. Motor sailing satisfies my need to keep on schedule but drains precious gas from the port tank. At last the wind awakens and speeds me on my way. A pod of bottle nosed dolphins joins me, cavorting on both sides of my small ship. Speeds climb above five knots as I dowse the motor and enjoy the sounds of the wind and waves. I turn on the XM radio and Brahms piano concerto number one fills the air. I am at complete peace.
My trusty Garmin 198C guides my Autohelm 1000+ as it leads me down my route like a pro. Comforting messages about “distance to next” and on track within 100th of a nautical mile flash across the autopilots information screen.
Sunset is a magic but lonely time on the southern Gulf of Mexico. I haven’t seen one boat all day.
Sunset is a magic but lonely time on the southern Gulf of Mexico. I haven’t seen one boat all day. I know that I am over 40 miles from the nearest god forsaken land in the Everglades. ”I’ll be fine,” I reassure myself as the miles slowly tick off toward the Tortugas. As dark sets in, the wind picks up and falls back off the beam. I am sailing on course at over 6 knots. It is invigorating but I am tired. Knowing that the ocean is empty, I go below for 15 minute rest breaks in the Vee birth wedged against the lee hull. The water chuckles loudly in my ear as I drift in and out of REM sleep. Each check shows excellent progress and a climbing wind speed. At a quarter after twelve I do a final check. The ocean is empty. The moon has set. The milky way is so bright it is almost scary. I can’t remember seeing this many stars even in Northern Arizona where the skies are clear of all pollution both chemical and light sourced. To use a trivialized expression the stars look like diamonds on black velvet.
Back in my bunk I drift off again. Suddenly I am aroused by a loud beeping from the cockpit that I recognize as my autopilot warning me. I rush back noting that the boat is off course. Swearing at the Autohelm I snatch the control arm from its connection. The tiller falls limp in my hand. A horrible awareness falls upon me. “Houston, we have a problem here,” I mutter to myself. Peering over the stern the frightening spectacle of my broken rudder meets my gaze. The poor thing is splayed over sideways flapping helplessly on its pendant. Quickly, I sheet in the mizzen and drop the main. Oh god, I’m nauseated...make that throwing up. After gaining my composure, I get on channel 16 and call the coast guard. Mercifully the Saint Petersburg station responds to my call. I explain my situation and request a tow noting my TowBoat US membership number. As I slowly drift back to the northwest I loose radio contact. I already blew a fuse during my conversation. I scramble to replace it and finish my conversation but soon my calls are no longer answered.
Now commences a period of ghastly agony filled with nausea vomiting and extreme mal de mar. The little ship tracks the waves well with it’s mizzen correcting my drift, placing my nose nearly head on to the oncoming six to eight feet waves. It is the pitch, dip and yaw that slowly drives me insane as I marinate in a sea of sickness. Will it never end? Why didn’t I buy that Dramamine II I planned on? Will I every be rescued? Do I ever want to sail offshore again? These and many other thoughts rush randomly through my reeling head as the night slowly crawls on. I try to rescue the pounding rudder. But my strength is too diminished by the illness.
At six-thirty the VHF crackles to life. “Sailing Vessel Belle this is the Coast Guard Aircraft, do you read me?” Do I ever! They are in the vicinity and the signal is loud and clear. I respond and give my coordinates as I see the sleek jet fly by in the early dawn. “I can’t see you yet, can you fire a flair” “Sure”, and then I fumble through my flair kit and load a 12 gauge into the gun. It flies nearly strait up. “I see you,” crackles the radio. “ I am going to do a fly over and I want you to call mark when I am directly overhead.” I call my mark and the jet banks into a left turn. “Can you turn your epirb on?” “Yes, here it goes.? “I see you. Leave it on and the coast guard vessel, Miami will be here around twelve noon.” “Thank you sir.” “Are you OK, other than sea sickness? Do you have any medical conditions?” “I’m hanging in there and no, no significant medical conditions. I have an inflatable dingy and kayak. I’ll be all right until they come.” I force myself to be cheerful.
Noon comes and goes. Then around one PM the radio comes to life again. The coast guard is calling me. I answer over and over. I never get through. Clearly my radio is severely impaired. I hear TowBoat US talking to the Coast Guard. They say, they are at the coordinates and I am not there. Then they say they are going to follow my drift pattern. Finally around one thirty I hear TowBoat US calling and I answer. They finally hear me and I quickly give my coordinates.
A playful pod of spotted dolphins cavort in front of the TowBoat US towing boat. I am overwhelmed by there greeting. Capt. Chris Smith tells me they are looking for food. But I feel their warm welcome. Needless to say, I am happy to see Captain Chris as well. He tells me he is going to tow me with a three hundred foot towing bridle. It is going to take nearly NINE hours to get to Marco Island. Wow, will my sick stomach and dehydrated and tired body hold up to that?
I am eternally grateful to these fine captains of Southern Marine Towing, Inc. TowBoat US.
It’s eleven twenty when we arrive at my anchorage for the night. Captain Chis tells me that Capt. Gene will be picking me up in the morning to take me to my truck, then place my boat on my trailer. I am overwhelmed by their kindness and professionalism. I am eternally grateful to these fine captains of Southern Marine Towing, Inc. TowBoat US.
Epilogue: Now I have many questions about my experience Wednesday night May 7. I wonder why my epirb which is registered with COSPOS/SARSAT and is supposed to help the coast guard find me did no such thing? I wonder why the Coast guard never did find me or follow the obvious drift pattern? I wonder what would have happened if I had sailed just a few miles outside the range of VHF believing that my Epirb would save me?
Now I am going to pursue those questions for full and satisfying answers. I am sending the epirb back to the ACR for analysis. If it is found to be functional, I am pursuing this with the Coast Guard. Further, I am never going to rely on one form of communication. I am going to have to back up antennas and I probably will have a Globlestar Satellite phone.
This trip ended in a way in disappointment. But I have learned many lessons about myself and my boat. Belle is a very seaworthy boat if properly prepared. I need to take nausea medicine before I leave. All in all, I think this dramatic but short sail enriched my sailing experience and further educated me, preparing me better for future offshore sailing attempts. I think the boat did well. I also think I handled it pretty well. I’ll let the reader be the judge of that, though.
Sailing offshore is serious business. Being well prepared with backup plans for the possible failures of equipment and personnel is vital.
Sailing offshore is serious business. Being well prepared with backup plans for the possible failures of equipment and personnel is vital. I feel like I know what to do to make this trip successful in the future. I hope to make the trip to the Dry Tortugas again and successfully in the near future.
As I wait for any word from ACR (and any E-mail confirming the receipt of the unit for which I have requested) I continue to flesh out the weakness of my rescue plan. It is clear that I was relying on Coast Guard rescue and also on the epirb to do its job. Because the epirb has no way to test its functionality, it strikes me now as absurd that I would rely on an electrical crap shoot for my rescue plan. This experience has very much broadened my perspective on safety at sea.
First, one should rely on good maintenance, spare supplies and excellent training for safety at sea. The calling devices should have backups: e.g. the radio, antenna and coaxial cable should be redundant. In reality, a testable and verifiable rescue emergency device is the only one that can be counted on in an emergency. Murphy’s Law is in full force at sea and doubly in an emergency.
Enter: a testable verifiable rescue device. SPOT, a new private service device is a satellite tracking device that works on land and water and is also a tracking device through which messages can be sent. Its international rescue service is depended on by thousands of individuals and many commercial operations around the world. The Orion service network gets paid to do the job right. Their business model requires effective and reliable service. And, most of all, it is verifiable.
These are some of my thoughts as I review the events of May 6-7 2008 and my adventure on the high seas.
Update from ACR. I have received word from ACR that they have completed a review of both my experience with the Coast Guard and a review of the epirb itself. As for the unit, it checks out completely with all beacons and the GPS working. They have installed a new battery and switch, certifying the unit for another 5 years. The Coast Guard review shows that they did receive the epirb signal and included that in the rescue scenario. No calls were made to my contacts as a rescue was already underway. Apparently some confictions occurred due to the initial rescue request being made as a tow request via VHF. Mr. Buckle of ACR suggests that in the future when an all out emergency is underway that the epirb be deployed on its own without attempts to use the VHF initially. This will activate the system as a true emergency and avoid all conflicting priorities. I have to doff my hat to the professional staff at ACR regarding the timely and complete way they handled this episode, going beyond the call of duty in renewing my unit at no cost to me. It is also nice to know that the coding is correctly assigned to me and Belle and that the system DOES WORK!
As for the VHF, I am replacing the antenna and coax. Additionally I have a second run of cable up the mizzen mast previously used for 2 meter ham radio. I will install a second antenna which I have already purchased as a back up. I am also planning to have a backup vhf unit in place as well.
Good news also on the rudder stock. The weld has been pronounced severely faulty by the welding shop. An additional contributor to failure was a severe electrolysis due to stray currents in the slip at Aqualand Marina. Also the stainless had been painted with anti fouling paint which is copper based adding to the dissimilar metals problem. A new more robust installation is being fabricated at the request of Jim Leet of Marine Concepts. His instructions are “make it bullet proof.” So a large, well burned in weld with an extra strap for secure fastening will be included. The rudder and hull repairs are finished and I am looking forward to reinstalling the new rudder stock which will bring Belle back to new.
As for the VHF radio, I have replaced it with a West Marine 650. This is a great VHF radio with full submersion capability, DSC-c capability with all international channels. It has a three year warranty. I have two VHF antennas available, one on each masts. Changing antennas is a simple mater of unscrewing one coaxial cable an screwing on another.