For 15 days I pumped out hundreds of gallons of water every few hours to keep my home-built 40-footer, Protect Our Sealife, afloat during the Europe 1 Star Race. A collision with a commercial vessel in the mid-Atlantic suddenly thrust me into a new type of race: I had to keep ahead of the water that was invading my boat and threatening to sink her.
The race departed from Plymouth, England, on June 16 with a fleet of 58 yachts bound for Newport, R.I. It was to be my seventh single-handed transatlantic crossing.
For the first four days of the race, I dueled with the Belgian yacht, Lunaborg. We weathered two gales in sight of each other, but at the end of the first week visibility was reduced to between half a mile and a mile in fog, and I lost sight of Lunaborg.
At dawn on June 27 the winds freshened and the seas grew larger. By midday I had furled the headsail, hoisted the staysail and put the third reef in the mainsail as the winds screeched through the rigging. My Simrad wind instruments were pinned at 35 knots, gusting to 43 knots as I beat into the mountainous sea at less than five knots speed over the ground. More dense fog reduced visibility to 100 feet. My eight-mile LCD radar with guard zones kept squawking false alarms. The combination of wave crests and dense fog had created radar interference. Using a four-mile screen and less sensitive tuning helped reduce the interference.
In the late afternoon I went into the cockpit to check sail trim. I could barely look forward into the stinging spray that was coming over the bow. The motion of my boat was violent, with waves continuously breaking over the bow, filling the cockpit, and trying to wash me overboard. I was 1,200 miles from England, almost halfway to the finish line, and I was scared. Forty minutes later, at 2000 GMT, I made contact on the SSB radio with two yachts in the race. After swapping positions with each other, we discussed the severe weather. In mid-sentence I clearly remember saying, “Wow, a big wave just broke onto the boat!” Protect Our Sealife lurched violently and I held on. The next moment I felt a heavy thud and instantly looked up into the companionway hatch. I shouted at the mike of my radio to Phil Rubright sailing Shamwari: “Phil, Phil, I have been hit. . . I am in trouble. Stay on this frequency. I have been hit!”
I was looking up at the topside of a ship as the superstructure of a freighter slid by, revealing the name Novomir 3. Hell had just opened its welcoming arms as the fog swallowed the ship. I was lucky that my mast didn’t get caught on the topsides of the freighter as it steamed away in excess of 15 knots.
Monitoring channel 16 Since I always leave my VHF radio on channel 16, my immediate reaction was to call the ship. The watch officer heard my call and the ship stopped. Knowing that Sealife had suffered damage, I discovered the bow mangled with the pulpit pushed to the port side, resting hard against the Profurl furling system. The wooden bow and deck were splintered, with the chainplate distorted and barely hanging on. Water rushed into the forward compartment, but was contained by the first of three watertight bulkheads.
Between communications with the Russian ship and Shamwari, I manned the Whale manual bilge pump which was plumbed into the compartment already. Once I established that Sealife was not sinking, I asked the ship, which was engulfed by the fog, if they could see me on their radar. Silence followed. Then I was asked if I had radar. My radar was active and the ship was at the edge of the two-mile screen. On the four-mile screen, the ship was frequently lost in the clutter. Next I was asked to give a range and bearing, and still more time passed before the captain confirmed that they could see my echo.
Faced with the dilemma of what to do, I decided not to abandon my uninsured vessel. The Azores was the nearest land, but not a convenient location. St. John’s, Newfoundland, was the next-closest port, and 1,500 miles away was the finish line. I asked Novomir 3 to stand by until I could execute some form of a plan. As I was unable to attempt any repairs given the weather conditions, I proceeded sailing at four knots. I watched the watertight compartment fill. It took about 90 minutes for the water to reach chest height and bury the bow. Heaving to, I pumped continuously for 50 minutes. I decided each hour to pump the compartment dry, a process which took 35 minutes.
By dawn I had a plan. Before the ’94 BOC Challenge, Edson Corporation had give each entrant a heavy-duty emergency Edson pump mounted on a board with a long handle. I dug the pump out and bolted the board vertically to the bulkhead. It took 10 to 15 minutes and between 250 to 300 pump stokes to empty the compartment. I was later to learn from Edson Corporation that each pump stroke was one gallon of water. After having Novomir 3 stand by all night, I released the ship, assured that with the Edson pump I could get to port safely and unaided.
Each hour I dreaded going to my bow compartment to man the pump. It was hard work, awkward, and the lively motion in the bow required me to brace myself as I pumped. My arm and back muscles ached from the exertion, and, in no time and in spite of the cold temperatures, perspiration would soak my body. I made the journey to the pump between 12 and 18 times in each 24-hour period. It was demoralizing, but it was a routine that was essential to keep Sealife afloat. It was important to me to bail myself out of trouble, with no outside help. This increased the demands on my seamanship and stamina. Each day I could feel myself being robbed of my strength. The real race was not against the other competitors, but to get to shore before exhaustion and despondency beat me.
Hence I became more dependent on my diet. A nutritionist calculated before the race that I needed 3,500 calories per day to maintain my body weight. She designed me a diet from my list of favorite foods. With the aid of a computer program designed by a computer science student at the College of Charleston, all the data was stored on computer. Chocolates, trail mix, nuts, and raisins were the high-energy foods I had in abundance. Within a few days I grew tired of it and looked forward to steak, fresh fruit, and ice cream, none of which were available aboard. In the cold temperatures and with all the exertion of pumping, I needed all the calories I could get. Cooking became a laborious chore. Each day I crossed off the miles traversed, recorded what was eaten, and hoped that there were sufficient provisions aboard to last the duration of the journey. Weather slowed my progress as gale after gale swept by. My half-hour to 55-minute naps became deep slumbers as fatigue beckoned me to sleep on.
Visit from a friend Lying in my bunk one day, I glanced toward the hatch. I saw my friend Harry Mitchell at the helm smiling his usual mischievous grin. I felt assured that we were on course and probably sailing faster because he was driving. It was a good few minutes before I recalled where I was, that Harry had been lost at sea in 1995 during the 1994-95 BOC Challenge, and that I was alone. I broke into a cold sweat. The hallucination was so vivid. It was not a dreamhe looked so real it scared me.
Crossing the Grand Banks, still in pea-soup fog, I continued to encounter head wind gales. Given the weather pattern, to get to St. John’s meant tacking through atrocious seas. My heart was firmly set on the race, and I was determined not to give up. I decided to continue to the finish line. It was a tough decision as it meant a week or more of pumping to keep my vessel afloat. The excessive demands I was placing on the Edson pump left me uneasythe pump was my only assurance of making landfall. To slow down the inflow of water and reduce the strain on the pump and on me, I used all my epoxy filler to seal what holes on the deck I could. It did work somewhat, but I was still taking on significant quantities.
Hidden by the fog on the Grand Banks were plenty of fishing boats and shipping. I had to use my radar to keep track of their presence. Often I was able to communicate with them on radio. To keep my morale high, four times a day I spoke to other competitors on my SSB radio. I also set myself little goals, such as passing certain locations, exceeding certain daily miles, or staying at the helm longer than two hours at a stretch. I would reward myself with a can of my favorite British soft drink.
Off Nova Scotia I was becalmed. On the last Monday of the race, Sealife got entangled with a fishing buoy, and I lost a few hours’ progress in getting free. On Tuesday I got fishing line and rope entangled in my rudder between the rudder and hull and was forced to dive overboard and cut it loose. That evening, Lunaborg came up on the VHF radio and we traded positions. He was 20 miles ahead. The next evening I sighted him on the horizon as we crossed the George’s Bank, 130 miles from the finish line. Having Lunaborg in sight increased my level of competitiveness, and I was determined that in spite of all my problems I was going to beat him. All of that Wednesday night I steered and pumped water, getting no sleep. Slowly I closed in the distance. I could feel that each time I went to man the Edson pump my energy level was decreasing, but there was a strong inner determination to finish ahead of Lunaborg. It was taking longer to pump the same number of strokes. I got into something of a tacking duel with Lunaborg, and trimming sails took more effort, but I persevered.
Finished third Finally, on July 11, after 25 daysthree days faster than my time in 1992I crossed the line in third place in my class and beat Lunaborg in. When the finishing horn sounded, a wave of excitement and a tremendous sense of accomplishment engulfed me. I had completed my ninth transatlantic crossing. In total, my vessel has given me more than 60,000 miles of enjoyment and adventure, including the 1992 Europe 1 Star race, the 1994 BOC Transatlantic Challenge, two legs of the 1994-95 BOC Challenge, the 1995 Bermuda 1-2 race, and numerous deliveries of my boat to and from races.
Without the Edson pump aboard I would not have finished the event, let alone achieved third place in the race. I regard myself to be fortunate to be alive after the collision. When my watchkeeping failed, why had the Novomir 3’s watchkeeper not seen me on radar earlier? Had I a crew on board, in the weather conditions experienced the day of the collision, I would not have had anyone on deck. In visibility where the bridge officers could not see their bow, with hardly any time for either vessel to respond, it was an unfortunate incident, which led to a test of my courage, stamina, and perseverance.
It is important to me to look at the entire experience in a positive light and to grow from it. I feel that I am a faster sailor and a better person because I set myself another goal and achieved it. Protect Our Sealife is not a fast, modern boat, but she has done me proud and served me with the opportunities to discover my mettle while pursuing my goals. I have learned to pace myself and to know when to push to my limits. I have learned discipline; for example, I cannot spend hours playing on the computer when racing, I must helm each day for several hours, immediately fix items that break, and pump water out each time it reaches a level that I specify as safe.
By staying in the race, I remained a sportsman, and I am proud of that. I maintained the same body weight at the end of the race, though was noticeably skinnier, just more muscular in my arms. I will race again, singlehanded, next time in a new 50-foot open-class yacht, and hopefully without having to use my emergency pump.
Neal Peterson is singlehanded sailor from South Africa who is currently based in Charleston.