An emergency test

The voyage started out as a straightforward trip southeast across the Caribbean basin from Île à Vache in Haiti to Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles. While a relatively short hop by ocean-sailing standards, the rhumb line distance is 500 miles, and the trip turned into a saga that could well have cost us our boat. Our emergency skills and self-sufficiency were tested like never before. We battled to save Joss, our 48-foot Perry-designed Cheoy Lee ketch.

After departing Île à Vache, we checked the weather three times a day. Unfortunately, the predictions changed and worsened within the first 24 hours. Wind arrows on the weather charts shifted from east to southeast, and the barbs increased from 15 to 25 knots. Seas, forecasted for 3 to 6 feet, increased to 6 to 9 feet. Those were only the predictions. As anyone who sails the Caribbean knows, the predictions always underestimate the actual conditions.

We had steady 27- to 30-knot winds and 8- to 10-foot seas as two tropical waves passed over us within 48 hours. Squalls seemed to pursue us day and night. Winds gusting at 40 knots knocked the white caps right off the tops of waves and threw them into our faces, under our hatches and all over our cockpit.

The seas worsened throughout the trip, so that by the third day we were falling off the top of 15-footers and then being sideswiped by 8-footers. The Caribbean Sea was true to form, turning into a confused washing machine bouncing between Central America, Venezuela and the eastern island chain. Our sail plan for the first two days was a small 80 percent jib, a
double-reefed main and the full mizzen. The mizzen and main were about the same size, and the mizzen allowed us to point high into the wind. As you would expect, going to windward, the sails were sheeted in, flat, and the travelers were high. We kept our Perkins main engine running at just 12 rpm, using minimal fuel but providing enough lift to keep us 30� off the wind.

The first 24 hours put us 20 miles west of our rhumb line. We had made 110 miles, and if we continued in this pattern we would hit Cartegena, Columbia, not Kralendijk, Bonaire. Our course over the ground was 150� to 160� magnetic, and the bearing to Bonaire was 120� to 130� magnetic, and it was impossible to get another 20� to 30�. We hoped for a wind shift to the east as we moved out of the shadow of Hispaniola.

Uncomfortable tack

Life aboard was mighty uncomfortable. We had to hold with all our strength to stand in the cockpit and to stay seated on the head. We ate out of plastic bowls with our legs braced against the cockpit combing. Drinking out of anything but a water bottle was impossible. The engine’s heat dissipated into the water tanks, making the water hot, and then into the cabin sole, making the galley and main saloon a sauna. Not a breath of air made its way through the closed overhead hatches, but plenty of salt water squeezed past the new rubber gaskets, making the floors slippery and the cushions sticky.

On the second evening the wind shifted 15� to the east. If we had been on our rhumb line we could have used the opportunity to crack off, increase our speed and make up some sorely needed miles. However, we were just happy to stay tight on the wind and make miles back to our rhumb line. We crossed over the rhumb line around 0200 and continued hard to windward, putting a few east miles in the bank.

Tanker traffic was frequent as we crossed the lane between the Windward Channel and the Panama Canal. We kept close watch and saw many tanker lights approach and recede.

With the sunrise, the wind shifted 15� back southeast. We had to fall off, and within six hours we had lost all the east miles we’d fought for through the night. We were just holding Aruba; the bright side is it is better than Cartegena.

Tired, we agreed to head for Aruba. We couldn’t make Bonaire without a 150-mile hitch to the northeast, extending the trip by two to three days. Predictions for the next three days showed winds and seas increasing, and another tropical wave on the way. No question, we decided to clear into Aruba and wait for a break in the weather before continuing to Bonaire.

On the third night we gulped down ham-and-cheese sandwiches as the wind veered 10�, to the east. This shift was in our favor, and we held a course for Aruba that was actually 35� off the wind. Joss accelerated, too fast for the seas, so we took down the mizzen. We were moving 5 to 7 knots through the sea, but the conditions were miserable. Even the cockpit seemed dangerous, and we agreed to maintain watch belowdecks, checking topsides every 10 minutes for tanker traffic. The night felt menacing; it was black as coal, no moon, only squall clouds scudding across the cold stars.

We were on schedule to arrive in Aruba at midday. We stood our watches, every 10 minutes sliding back the hatch and climbing halfway up the ladder. From behind the dodger we scanned the horizon for five minutes.

An eerie silence

At 0100 on
‘s watch, Joss threw itself off a very big wave. The boat came to a standstill with an eerie silence. We slowly regained speed, but within a few minutes the automatic bilge pump started to cycle. It ran until the water level in the bilge was below the electronic sensing device and then automatically shut itself off. This automatic cycle does not fully pump the bilge, and we always throw the switch to manual and pump the bilge dry.

ran the pump and then lifted the engine hatch to inspect the bilge. Occasionally the electric pump activates if splashed, rather than because of a high water level in the bilge. Not this time;
could see water with a flashlight, and he watched to be sure the bilge was pumped out. Joss’ bilge is very deep, and you actually cannot see the bottom.

We shouldn’t have had this much water in the bilge, and the pump cycled back on in a matter of minutes.
threw the switch to manual and pumped the bilge dry again. The pump is low in the bilge and we could take on a lot more water before threatening the engine and floorboards, but this was a clear sign we were taking on water.

Before waking me,
checked the obvious. First he inspected the stuffing box. It looked fine. Then he checked the rear floorboards to see if the water was coming in from the cockpit, where the most likely culprit would be the rudder stuffing box. The aft bilge was dry. He quickly checked both heads. Were the intake shutoff valves in their closed positions? They were, and there was no water coming in through the heads.

determined that the water was coming from the front of the boat, forward of the Perkins and the galley. At this point he woke me. He explained quickly that we were taking on water and needed to lift the floorboards to find the source.

First we lifted the floorboards over the through-hull of the forward-looking depth sounder. This was suspect because of the small tennis-ball-size transducer suspended from the outside of the hull. The through-hull was intact, but we saw a babbling brook streaming aft. The screw gun whirred, and the next set of floorboards came up. needed to pry one up; I handed him the long screwdriver. In our long history with Joss (13 years) we have lifted every floorboard many times. We know the drill and even know which ones are sticky!

A crack in the hull

We now had all the floorboards up from the middle of the main saloon to the V-berth. The water was coming in 6 inches aft of the V-berth. It was not spouting like a fountain, but was a raised ridge of water 24 inches long. It was “good joss” (good luck), that we found it, and it was accessible. It could have been under the V-berth or the adjacent shower pan.

We had to slow the boat down, so I went to the cockpit and put the Perkins in neutral.
pulled in the 80 percent jib while I released the jib sheet. The double-reefed main was the only sail up. We were now moving about 2 knots, enough for the autopilot to maintain steerage and remain close to course.

I joined
down below. The leak has subsided somewhat; it had become more of a welling of water. For just 10 seconds I got a heartsick feeling, but before it could take hold,
spoke quietly, “What are the things we need to do?”

The bilge pump was on 100 percent of the time, and we were both worried it would fail soon.

We prioritized and came up with the following list:

1. Establish emergency radio contact with an emergency marine station.

2. Set up a high-volume bilge pump on which we can monitor the outflow.

3. Patch the crack and stop the water ingress.

4. Evaluate our fuel supply and our ability to motor slowly to Aruba.

Our ditch bag, 401 EPIRB and harnesses with self-inflating floatation were within arm’s reach, and we were prepared to move the life raft to the cockpit if we could not keep up with the incoming water.

We started making calls on the SSB and VHF. We put out pan-pan calls on SSB 2182 kHz, 4125 kHz and VHF channel 16. SSB 2182 and 4125 kHz are listening stations for the U.S. Coast Guard and other international marine safety agencies. After several calls on 4125 kHz, Bermuda Harbour Radio replied.

Most important to us was to get our position to an agency that could send out rescue teams. Bermuda took our position, moved us to a better frequency and began contacting U.S. Coast Guard Puerto Rico by landline.

Radio communication established

The first priority completed,
left me operating the radios. He began working on a high-volume bilge pump. Bermuda Harbour determined there was a marine rescue unit in Cura�ao (130 miles away) and notified them of our condition and location by landline. We stated we were not declaring a mayday and we were not requesting rescue at sea. On Joss we believe in the saying “Never abandon your boat unless you have to step up into the life raft.” Bermuda Harbour Radio tried to help establish radio contact between the Cura�ao Rescue Team and Joss, but no matter what frequencies we all changed to, Cura�ao and Joss could not copy each other.

We remained in contact with Bermuda Harbour Radio while we made repairs. I continued calling a pan-pan on Channel 16, and to my surprise, I got a call back from a yacht within 30 miles, also heading to Aruba. The yacht’s name was Asylum, and they decided to alter course to Joss’ position. The plan was for Asylum to get within 10 miles, establish Joss on radar, and parallel our course and speed to Aruba. Every half hour we contacted Asylum via VHF, giving them our position and an update on our condition.

Throughout all this radio communication,
climbed under the aft cabin bunk and pulled out spools of electrical wire, white sanitation hose, and two spare 12-volt feed pumps for the watermaker. He got 12-volt power from the watermaker breaker, stuck the intake hose into the bilge by lifting and leaving ajar one of the galley floorboards, and ran the output hose to the galley sink. He placed a switch in electrical connection in the wiring from the 12-volt power source to the pump. We turned the pump on and off with the switch. With the water being pumped to the galley sink, we could see the volume of water and knew that the intake was not clogged with bilge debris. The pump was high volume, and we pumped the bilge dry in five minutes. We ran the pump every 15 minutes.

Priorities one and two established

We remained on course for Aruba and made 10 miles to our destination. We had about 90 miles to go, and at 2 knots that was 45 hours!

In between radio contacts I was soaking up the water with a towel and then watched where the welling filled back. I was able to make out the shape and length of the crack. I showed this to
, and we turned to the third priority, stopping the leak.

searched under the aft bunk cushion and handed me two pieces of plywood. I grabbed three tubes of 5200 marine sealant from a locker. Two of the tubes had kicked off and were useless. Luckily the third tube was new. Meanwhile,
set up the 12-volt jigsaw, the 12-volt screw gun, the drill bits, the screw bits, the screws and the caulking gun. Every toolbox was out, the aft bunk strewn with spare parts.

I gasped when I saw the assembled tools.
‘s plan was clear; he was going to screw the plywood to the hull. He would predrill holes through the hull for the screws, which would then hold the plywood smeared with 5200 marine sealant to the crack. I understood the concept, but drilling holes through the hull was a bit daunting.

He carefully measured the crack and drew out the template on the plywood. He cut and predrilled the plywood over a garbage barrel, keeping the sawdust off the cabin floor. I marvel at this tidy behavior under such stressful circumstances.

held the plywood while I applied 5200, covering the whole board. He then smeared more 5200 over the crack. Placing the board on the hull, he drilled the first hole. As the drill bit backed out, water squirted past his head. I handed him a screw slathered in 5200, and he stanched the geyser by holding the screw in with his hand. With the screw gun, he drove the screw in with gusto. We started on the next one. During the next 45 minutes we put in 20 screws with the efficiency of a top-notch orthopedic surgical team. We smeared more 5200 around the edge of the plywood and observed. The patch decreased the water flow by 80 percent.

It was 0600 when we stopped and looked around. We brought the boat back to some order so we could sleep, eat and use the head. Slowly, I cleaned up the drill with kerosene;
stacked most of the tools away in the cupboard in the aft head, and together we put the aft bunk back into sleeping condition. We continued to turn on the high-volume pump every 15 minutes, happily, the water volume had decreased by more than half.

I engaged the engine and tried bringing the boat up to 4 knots.
was below watching the patch while I throttled up. With the patch in place and the increase in speed,
could see he needed to apply another patch. About 6 inches of crack were still open and seeping water. The patch was not only to staunch the water ingress but also to add strength so the crack didn’t lengthen with the motion of the sea.

Another patch

We reassembled all the necessary tools and ingredients, and applied another patch. I touched base with Bermuda Harbour Radio and Asylum, and gave them an updated condition report. Asylum was within 10 miles, and Bermuda Harbour agreed to stand by while we made the last repair.

Forty minutes later the newest patch was on and the crack sealed. An hour later the boat was back in order, and we had a place to lie down, the galley was useable, and the head was clear of toolboxes.

We had been managing this disaster since 0100, and it was 1000. We cleared off with Bermuda Harbour Radio and planned to contact Asylum every hour for condition updates. We brought Joss up to 4 knots and estimated our arrival in Aruba at 2200 &mdash dark. We both got some much needed sleep but took turns using a 10-minute beeper to get up, scan the horizon, pump the bilge and inspect the patch.

About 20 miles off Aruba, Asylum went on ahead and anchored with the last vestiges of light. They hailed us on VHF, gave us accurate GPS waypoints, and hung a small strobe light off their stern. At 2200 we made the anchorage. We were able to identify the strobe light from five miles out. The anchor dragged for a short time but eventually it held, and we slept.

With all the activity and stress, the trip seemed like an eternity; but it was only three days!

Joss was hauled and fully repaired in Aruba. Upon close inspection it was determined that during that fateful three-day trip our forward bulkhead tabbing broke away from the hull, resulting in oil-canning of the hull and a fracture in the fiberglass. The boatworkers of Aruba told us that many vessels heading east arrive in Aruba with shattered and broken bulkhead tabbing. We spent hurricane season in Aruba and made Bonaire in early November with the seasonal wind shift to the northeast.

Maryellen Kinhan and
Cox have sailed and lived aboard Joss since 1990. They spent 10 years extensively refitting Joss for voyaging. They recently returned to their home port Portsmouth, N.H., after a wide-ranging voyage in the tropics.

By Ocean Navigator