Almost sunk

We had met many friends and had enjoyed the diving in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, but after almost a year, it was time to leave. At noon on Dec. 9, we headed west aboard our boat Namaste, a 1977 Heritage West Indies 46-foot cutter-rigged sloop, toward Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We expected a passage of about eight days. In addition to the two of us, we had on board a voyaging friend, Jamie, who has been sailing for more than 25 years.

The trade winds had begun to build nicely and were from slightly north of east. Since we had decided to pass just to the north of Jamaica, we had the wind on our starboard quarter. We made good 168 miles in the first 24 hours.

At about 1400 on December 10, the autopilot’s hydraulic pump motor stopped working. We had been pushing things a bit with full main, a yankee, and staysail, so maybe it was just working too hard; we took a tuck in the main and tried the autopilot again. That seemed to balance things a bit and to cure the problem.

We proceeded on until about 2300 when the autopilot once again malfunctioned. There seemed no point in trying to sort things out in the dark, so we hand-steered for a while. Since Namaste is not easy to hand-steer downwind, we decided to try one-hour tricks at the helm. After less than an hour, it was obvious that it was going to be a long night. As usual, no one had slept well on the first night out, and we were tired. We therefore decided to heave to, with one person on “anchor watch,” so that we could all get some sleep and approach the problem fresh in the morning.

At around 0200 on the morning of Dec. 11, Dan awoke and immediately sensed that something was wrong. The aft head sink had about four inches of water in it, and there was a very noticeable odor of diesel fuel everywhere. Hove to, we were heeled about 20° to starboard. Dan went forward and checked the bilges. They were almost full. Truly a distressing sight. Namaste’s bilges are about three feet deep, and extend about 35 feet from just aft of the forward cabin to well into the aft cabin. They can hold a lot of water. At 2200, they had been empty. By quick calculation, it seemed that we had therefore taken on at least 2,000 gallons of water in four hours. We could probably deal with a 500-gallon-per-hour leak, but as we got lower in the water, and the water pressure at the source increased, the rate of intrusion must have also be increasing, possibly up to 1,000 gallons per hour by now. Neither bilge pump seemed to be working, probably having got clogged and then shorted out when the water reached the electrical connections high in the bilges.

Dan alerted both Jeanie, in the cockpit on watch, and Jamie to the problem. We then checked all sea cocks; finding nothing amiss, we had to decide what to do. (We had, somewhere on board, a diagram of all through-hulls, which we had prepared when Namaste was on the hard. We could not find it and so could not be absolutely sure we had checked everything.) We could try to pump manually, but it seemed unlikely we could keep up with the leak. The engine was partially submerged, and probably would not start. We didn’t want to try. The genset, located about a foot and a half higher than the propulsion engine, seemed okay. It might help staunch the flow if we used its raw-water pump to suck some water out of the bilge. We considered the possibility of trying to heave to with the port side down, in case the water happened to be coming in through the starboard side. We rejected that idea because the house battery bank was located to port and we did not want to have the batteries submerged; that would make radio communications impossible. In any event, with no operative engine, it would have been difficult to accomplish.

None of the available options seemed more than a stopgap. If we were indeed taking on water at perhaps 1,000 gallons per hour and increasing, we would need help before long. We decided to call the Coast Guard on the SSB radio and at least alert them to our problem. Perhaps there might be a ship close by with a hefty pump on board. It was worth a try. Our situation was not yet critical, but could become so. We knew there was a Coast Guard drug-interdiction presence in the areaa Coast Guard aircraft had buzzed us the day before. While Dan was attempting to make contact on the SSB, Jeanie and Jamie activated our 406 MHz EPIRB. They also checked our abandon-ship bag and stuffed another waterproof overnight bag with passports, important documents, the camera, and the like. A friend, whose boat had sunk a few years ago, had prepared a list of things to take in that eventuality. We found it very useful.

After 15 minutes or soit seemed like much longerwe reached the San Juan, Puerto Rico Coast Guard Station on 2,182 kHz and explained the problem. They decided to treat this as an emergency, and immediately got to work marshaling the necessary resources. With the concurrence of the Coast Guard, we kept our 406 MHz EPIRB activated. We also established a radio schedule and spoke with them every 15 minutes for the next couple of hours.

While we were in contact with the Coast Guard, we spotted a tanker a mile or so west of us. We tried to reach the crew on the VHF, to no avail. We also shot off a SOLAS flare. They either didn’t see it or didn’t care, and there was no response. It was very frustrating to see potential help so close and yet so far away.

We took turns using the genset to pump water out of the boat, holding a tea strainer over the end of the intake hose to try to keep it from clogging, which it nevertheless did in less than an hour. It was an unpleasant experience, sitting in a sloshing mixture of sea water and diesel fuel holding a hose in one hand and a tea strainer in the other, trying to keep the hose from ingesting air and losing suctiona surefire recipe to induce queasiness. Despite our best efforts, the water continued to rise.

At around 0400, a Curacao Coast Guard aircraft contacted us on VHF Channel 16 and reported that help was on the way. It remained with us for several hours. At 0430, a fixed-wing U.S. Coast Guard aircraft contacted us on VHF. We ignited one of our SOLAS red flares, and they found us immediately. At first light, they attempted to drop a canister containing a pump to us. Unfortunately, the winds and seas were such that the first attempt was unsuccessful. The canister’s long painter fell where we could not retrieve it, since our submerged engine would not work and we were unable to sail out of irons. We were all exhausted. Another attempt to drop a canister produced the same result.

There were no more pump canisters on board the aircraft, and there was really nothing more they could do for us. They nevertheless remained overhead for many hours, talking with us on the radio, keeping us informed of the additional efforts being made, and generally being supportive. They told us that the U.S. Navy warship Stephen W. Groves had been diverted to come to our assistance shortly after the Coast Guard had received our initial call. When diverted, she was just south of Puerto Rico, some 300 miles away. She was now steaming toward us at 25 knots. At about 1300, a helicopter from the Groves appeared overhead. They tried to drop a pump canister, but had no better luck than the fixed-wing aircraft.

Cabin sole awash

We had lowered Namaste’s sails at the helo pilot’s request. Without their stabilizing effect, Namaste was wallowing around through about 60° in eight-foot seas. The water was now well over the cabin sole, and the more than 20,000 pounds of unwanted ballast sloshing around in the cabin provided an additional level of instability. Despite many attempts over a period of more than an hour, the helicopter only managed to foul a messenger line in Namaste’s rigging. The helo crewmember who had been manipulating the messenger line lost a finger tip in the process, and the aircraft became low on fuel. They had to divert to Aruba to secure medical attention and to refuel.

A merchant ship also came to our assistance. She managed to retrieve one of the still floating pump canisters and attempted to get a messenger line attached to it to us using an air gun. No joy. Their aim was almost perfect. However, the messenger line wrapped around the very top of our mast, leaving the canister floating hundreds of feet behind us, unreachable. Due to the motion we were experiencing, nobody was interested in going to the top of the mast to recover the line. The Coast Guard aircraft overhead talked Dan out of jumping overboard to pick up the canister messenger line.

The freighter stood by for several hours, until about 1500, when Stephen W. Groves appeared on scene. The Groves dropped a rigid inflatable dingy in the water and, within minutes, the crew had secured the canister and got it aboard Namaste. Transferring a 70-pound canister and two men from a dingy to a wallowing sailboat in eight foot seas is a bit tricky, but they knew exactly what they were doing.

Once on board, the two Navy people fought difficult conditions made worse by sloshing water mixed with diesel fuel and debris (cushions from the settee, cans from the dry stores, and the like) thrown everywhere in the cabin. Bilge water was now more than four inches over the cabin sole, sloshing everywhere. Everything was drenched. Moving about was made even more treacherous by the absence of several bilge access covers, which had floated off and could not immediately be located. The cockpit was also littered with life jackets, harnesses, our abandon-ship bag, the pump equipment and the ditch bag filled with our valuables in case we were required to evacuate to the life raft. It was nearly as slippery as the cabin sole, since we had managed to track the mix of sea water and diesel fuel into the cockpit. By 1700 Namaste had been pumped out and the situation stabilized. She felt a whole lot better, and so did we. The worst was over, we hoped.

An engineering mate from the Groves helped us to find the apparent culprit: a 3/4-inch hose, which the surveyor who had examined Namaste when we had purchased her in 1995 had said drained the refrigerator into the bilge. He had been dead wrong. The hose had originally drained the refrigerator overboard, via a through-hull located just above the waterline. Disconnected from the refrigerator and lying free in the engine room, the hose instead tried to drain the ocean into the bilge whenever we were heeled, and the through-hull was below the waterline. Apparently, the bilge pumps had managed to keep up with the water intrusion in the past but had been overwhelmed this time. As a temporary fix, we shoved a tapered wood plug in the hose and secured it with a hose clamp.

What to do next? The rhumb line distance to Aruba, the closest port, was about 150 miles, and it was pretty much upwind and up-current. With tacking, the distance would be more than 300 miles. We did not feel like trying to make it under sail alone, at least until we had a better idea of Namaste’s condition and had gotten some sleep. We had had very little of that during the past 48 hours. Also, we were concerned about Namaste’s steering, which earlier had seemed a bit squishy. Probably the hydraulic lines just needed to be bled. However, we couldn’t rule out the possibility of a fracture hidden where we couldn’t find it until we reached port. Initially, the Groves offered to arrange a commercial tow. They contacted a towing operation in Aruba and reported that it would cost us a mere $17,000. That was a bit rich for our voyaging kitty to handle; after some discussion, the idea was abandoned.

It was getting dark and arrangements had to be made for the night. Perhaps things would seem less complicated in the morning. The Groves captain graciously invited us on board, where Jeanie was treated for a cut received when she had slipped into one of the uncovered bilge accesses. Then we had wonderful hot showers, a splendid meal in the wardroom, and a tour of the ship from engine room to bridge. All of the people we met were highly professional, competent, and, exceptionally kind and considerate.

At around 2200, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Gallatin arrived, having steamed all day from Aruba to help us. We were transferred to her for the nightdown the Jacob’s ladder on the Groves, a wet ride in the dinghy, and a climb up the Jacob’s ladder to Gallatin’s deck. Again, we were received with great courtesy and concern by the captain and his crew. Our primary interest at this point was in getting some badly needed sleep: we were really groggy and spaced out. Throughout the night, Gallatin kept Namaste under visual and radar surveillance.

Towing Namaste to Aruba was viewed as an undesirable last resort. A 150-mile tow into 20-knot or higher winds and up to 10-foot seas in occasional squalls would have been slow and might wind up causing a fair amount of damage. Also, Gallatin would be fully occupied with the process, and would be unable to conduct her routine training exercises, something she could readily accomplish if merely escorting us to port.

In the morning, it was decided to replace Jeanie and Jamie, who were exhausted, with three Coast Guard personnel and, if Namaste’s condition permitted, to try to sail her to Aruba. We had some concern that the hydraulic steeringwhich had seemed squishy earliermight fail and that it would be necessary to use the emergency tiller. That consists of a seven-foot-long metal pipe which attaches at one end to the rudder and via a “T” at the other end to another six-foot pipe. Tiller steering a 20-ton sailboat hard on the wind in potentially squally conditions with neither hydraulic nor mechanical leverage would have been very taxing.

At 0730 on Dec. 12, after a great breakfast, the three Coast Guard people accompanied Dan back to Namaste. One of them, a very accomplished offshore sailor, went to the top of the mast (Namaste was still rocking and rolling a lot) and disentangled the various messenger and drop lines from the rigging so that we could raise the mainsail. Understandably, he received many bruises and was completely exhausted by his efforts.

After determining that Namaste could probably make it to Aruba under sail, we proceeded as close to the wind in that direction as we could, under escort by Gallatin.

We reached a point approximately eight miles off Aruba at dusk on Dec. 14, after a sail of approximately 60 hours. We were then taken in tow by one of Gallatin’s boats and, upon the arrival of an Aruban rescue boat, the tow was transferred. We arrived at the commercial dock at approximately 1900. Jeanie and Jamie, after one last trip down the Jacob’s ladder and a long dinghy ride, were transferred from Gallatin to Namaste, and the Coast Guard people returned to Gallatin. All we wanted to do next was to sleep. Immigration and Customs took just a few minutes. The next morning, a local fishing boat towed us to the Aruba Nautical Club where, after several nights of good sleep, we spent almost three months making repairs before sailing back to Bonaire.

What did we do right, what did we do wrong, and what did we learn from this experience? First, the Navy and the Coast Guard have some really great people. They are dedicated professionals, extremely competent, and very compassionate. When needed, they’re there to help and will go far out of their way to do so.

Second, we had done at least a few things right. We had bought a 406 MHz EPIRB, SSB radio, and six-person life raft. We had offshore-type PFDs, good harnesses, and an abandon-ship bag ready to go. We thought to put our various documents and other important items into a watertight ditch bag, using a reference list we kept with our legal documents. We even had a collection of dive wet suits, which found their way to the cockpit for the extra warmth they could provide, just in case we had to ditch. We also had an ample assortment of current SOLAS flares. They are very bright; accept no substitutes. We had a through-hull diagram, but since it was not laminated and conspicuously posted, we could not find it. Nobody at any time came even close to panic.

Nevertheless, Namaste was not adequately equipped. We had sailed from Annapolis to the U.S. Virgins in late 1996, down the Leeward and Windward Islands to Trinidad and Venezuela and thence to Bonaire without mishap. No major problems after more than two years: we were in great shape.

Wrong. We needed a lot more in the way of bilge pumps and a way to monitor their activity. We now have two 2,000-gph pumps, a high-water alarm, and indicators that light whenever a bilge pump is working. We also have check valves on each pump. Their absence probably led to the continued water intrusion even after we had plugged the “refrigerator drain hose.” We should have had them long ago. And, after considering other options, including a gasoline-fired trash pump (which needs to be exercised monthly or it might not work when needed) and an engine-driven pump (great as long as the engine works), we also have a heavy-duty manual pump, just in case. We have also had a copy of our through-hull diagram laminated, and it is posted, conspicuously, next to the engine room.

Any boat requires continuous maintenance. In Bonaire, we had become seriously involved in diving and had neglected the boat. Of particular importance, we had not noticed that the starboard cockpit drain had developed a leak, dripping right onto the autopilot hydraulic pump. Over time, water had come through and damaged the electric motor that drives the pump. That’s why the autopilot gave up the ghost. Not only that, but the bilges had become full of debris (sawdust, etc.) from our earlier efforts to improve Namaste, which is probably why the bilge pumps failed to keep up with the water intrusion. The old saying about boats and sailors rotting in port is true.

Fourth, it is advisable to keep in mind that no matter how good a surveyor might be it is not his boat; his life is not going to be on the line when you go offshore. A little piece of hose that, to the surveyor, might seem insignificant can threaten your boat and you. Never go offshore without making sure that you, personally, have thoroughly checked every damn hose and sea cock on board. One of them, like one of Namaste’s, might be waiting for the opportunity to drain the ocean into your boat.

Finally, like many voyaging couples, we had come to a pragmatic division of labor that, in retrospect, was inappropriate. Each had assumed, incorrectly, that the other knew certain things. For example, Dan was surprised to learn, well after the fact, that Jeanie was unaware that our SSB has two buttons which, when pushed together, blast an emergency signal to the Coast Guard on 2,182 kHz. We were lucky this time, in that no one was seriously injured. Both of us must be fully capable of dealing, unassisted if necessary, with whatever might go wrong on board. We are working hard on that.

Dan and Jeanie Miller left Annapolis aboard Namaste in late October, 1996, and headed for the Caribbean.

By Ocean Navigator