I am writing to you about a recent experience in the Caribbean in the hope that it might make people more aware of the necessity of keeping a good lookout when at sea. By way of explaining my background, I have sailed 30,000 sea miles, including five Atlantic passages, and have been living on my boat with my husband since June 1997 when we left Chicago.
My sailing partner on this trip was Lesley, who has her Ocean Yachtmaster certificate and has been sailing for the past 22 years. Between living on her own boat with her husband, she has skippered many boats ranging in size, so we both like to think that we are fairly experienced. On Sunday, April 23, we flew from Antigua, where both of our boats, Quartet and Mystic, were anchored, to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, where we boarded a Jeanneau 424, which we were to deliver back to Antigua for a well-known yacht charter company.
We checked the boat against the inventory to make sure we had everything, made sure all equipment was working, and filled the fuel tank and the aft water tank. We didn’t need the forward tank filled as the trip is only 180 miles, but there may already have been water in it. We estimated that we would arrive on the evening of Tuesday, April 25. The boat, called Sicie, was due out on charter on April 26, so we didn’t waste any time. At about 1630 we headed out of the harbor. The wind was easterly at around 20 knots, so we knew we would be beating into it for the two days.
The first night went smoothly. A couple of ships passed to the starboard side and in front of us. By 0500 on Monday, April 24, the autopilot had stopped working and, despite numerous attempts by Lesley to get it going again, it remained recalcitrant. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we were hand-steering from there until we reached Antigua. By the morning of the 25th we were fairly tired from beating to weather and decided to steer in towards the island of Statia so we could give ourselves a break. We would motor down the coast of St. Kitts and Nevis before beating once more. We were sheltered from the wind once we reached the coast and spent a nice day motoring along in the sunshine. We had an early meal of chicken and pasta at around 1530 before getting out of the shelter of Nevis. We rolled in the jib and reefed the main and proceeded to motorsail on a course directly for English Harbour in Antigua.
We knew by this time that we wouldn’t arrive before 0100 on Wednesday the 26th, but were still in high spirits as the biggest part was over and we were nearly home. We had already covered 200 miles by the time we passed the island of Redonda. It had been dark since approximately 1830, which is normal in the Caribbean. I had been on watch since 1700. Most of the time we had been riding up and down the waves with an occasional falling off and the inevitable crash that goes with it. The wind had died down to about 15 knots by 1950, and I was looking forward to supper and bed at 2000 when it was Lesley’s turn on the wheel.
Almost as soon as I had thought this, Lesley shouted to me that the boat was taking on water. She had been lying in bed reading and noticed the dividing wall to the aft head was shaking. When she looked on the floor she saw that water was pushing up the floor board, which in turn was banging on the wall. The water was just above the boards, but no water was coming in through the stop cocks, and the engine compartment was also dry. Lesley sent out four Maydays on the VHF while I opened up the locker in the cockpit to find the liferaft.
It took us a few minutes to remove the liferaft from the locker, get it to the stern, and up onto the seat, which was the most difficult as it was an eight-man size and we kept dropping it back down between the seat and the wheel. When we did eventually get it into the water it refused to inflate, and we had to give up as it was obvious that no amount of pulling was going to inflate it. We then untied the 10-foot semi-rigid inflatable dinghy, which was inflated and tied onto the foredeck, and lowered it into the water, attaching two lines to it. We then went back inside to get life jackets, drinking water, biscuits, flares, flashlights, and Lesley’s bag, which contained our passports and Lesley’s purse.
The water was up to our knees by now and I just had time to send two more Maydays before we lost all power. This was only a matter of 15 minutes from first finding the water inside, so we knew the boat was sinking fast. With the boat now in darkness there was nothing more we could do inside, so returned to the cockpit. We collected the MOB light, oars, extra rope, the dinghy bailer, and cockpit cushions and sat and had a drink of water as our mouths were so dry we could hardly speak to each other. We worked out how we were going to get everything into the dinghy, since it was crashing against the side of the boat and then jerking back on the end of the lines. All the time we could hear the terrible sound of the insides of Sicie crashing across the boat with the movement of the waves.
I climbed over the lifelines and, after the dinghy had come into the side and jerked back again, and after a few deep breaths and a quick prayer, I jumped. Every time the inflatable crashed into the side of the boat, Lesley would pass me another item of our supplies; then she jumped. By this time it was 2100 and we wanted to stay with the boat in the hope that someone would see it the next morning. We have both read stories of boats being found still afloat but nobody nearby, so we thought this would be our best chance. Unfortunately, one of the lines holding the dinghy had got caught under the boat, so we cut this free and tied our extra piece of rope onto the remaining line to make it longer.
It was now 2200. We were having the occasional wave wash into the dinghy but were still hanging onto the boat and believed we would be found the next morning, still attached to the boat, without a doubt. We had been using the MOB light to watch Sicie every few minutes and thought that she had sunk as much as she was going to and had now settled down, but the bow started to go farther under the water. The rudder came up out of the water and we were being pulled in underneath it, so we decided the safest thing would be to cut the remaining line and, within seconds of doing this, the mast started to creak and strain and she slipped under the water.
Lesley and I just looked at each other; neither of us could believe what we had just seen, neither of us wanted to believe it. We were about 15 miles east of Nevis, in a rubber dinghy on a dark, cloudy night. We knew the moon was up there somewhere, but it was blanketed by the clouds. We kept the dinghy pointed into the waves by using the oars so that we didn’t get too much water inside, but occasionally the waves won and we ended up wet. We were both bare-legged, and after the warm water washed over us the wind made us feel very cold. We still succeeded in making each other laugh, and kept each other awake all through the night. Throughout the night we saw no fewer than eight vessels, and, although we used the MOB light to send the SOS signal and used parachute and handheld flares, not one boat came to our rescue.
We find this the hardest part of all to believe as the flares were so bright they lit up the whole sky. Some of the vessels were so close to us that we could see their individual lights, but they didn’t see the flares. Afterwards we thought that maybe they did see the flares but thought somebody else would do something.
We drifted along all night toward Nevis but didn’t try to row to get us there more quickly as the coast along that side is full of rocks and big breaking waves.
By first light we were probably a mile or so from land, so we took an oar each and paddled in toward the rocks. When we got closer we could see some small fishing boats pulled up on a beach and realized that with a bit of luck we should be able to get ashore. We paddled hard and were doing well until a huge wave tipped the dinghy sideways and Lesley was tossed out; luckily we were both hooked on, so after getting her leg untangled from my lanyard, I was able to pull her back aboard. I grabbed the oar that was trying to float away with a few of the other things and we started to paddle again.
At this point we saw two men on the beach and waved to attract their attention. They didn’t see us, and we realized that the sun was coming up directly behind us. Lesley waved frantically and this time they saw us.
They directed us through a gap in the rocks, and when we were close enough they waded into the water to help us get onto the beach. After they had loaded us and our dinghy onto the back of their truck, they took us to the police station where all the questioning and paperwork started. We will always be grateful to those two nice young men, Samuel and Ellison, from Nevis, who saved us having to walk miles to civilization.
I hope that people reading this will take extra special care when on watch, especially at night, and remember that there may be someone in a dinghy or life raft that needs some help. If the people that passed us on that night were not on watch, they could just have easily run into us. We will both be carrying on with our sailing, we hope, but this has certainly made us more aware of what can happen even on a relatively short trip.