Hardy older hull handles storm grounding

To the editor: We’d gotten the call in the middle of the night that every boat owner dreads: our boat had come free of the mooring in a raging nor’easter and had come ashore at Handy Boat in Falmouth, Maine. Arriving at the marina parking lot on Monday night, May 23, my wife, Katie, and I beheld a scene that was at once surreal, confused and threatening. I could see Chase, our Swan 40, clearly: It was hard against one of the Travelift piers on its starboard side and stern-to against the rip-rap rocks on shore. As we got closer, it was obvious Chase wouldn’t last long there. The tide was high, and when it went out, the boat would be grounded on the rocks, and then battered to death by the pier.

Of a more immediate concern was my partner John. His truck was there – headlights on and engine running – but there was no sign of him. Leaving my own car running, Katie and I jumped out and heard a cry nearly shredded by the wind: “Help!” And again: “Peter – help!” Moving away from the boat and toward the Travelift bay, we could see John in the water, unable to climb out due to the steep embankment. He was holding desperately on a mast’s shroud that was on the pier awaiting stepping. My lasting impression is that he looked like a person caught in a washing machine.

We managed to reach John and haul him out of the water in one clean-and-jerk move. Semicoherent, he told us he had been knocked into the 45° F water by the boat as it pounded against the pilings. After about 10 minutes in the water, hypothermia was close and we helped him into his truck. I asked Katie to call 911 or to take him to the hospital.

Because it was high tide, Chase’s deck was almost at the same level as the pier. Without going back to the car, I jumped onto the boat, timing my leap with its gyrations against the rocks and the pier.

Oops! No key for the companionway – John had taken those overboard with him. One kick to the companionway slide opened it up for me. I fumbled with the straps and got myself into a big orange PFD. I didn’t want to repeat John’s situation.

A quick check under one of the floorboards told me the boat was not taking on water. Listening to it bash against the pilings, I blessed again the immense strength of this 1970s solid ‘glass boat that had always given me confidence offshore and seen me safely across the Atlantic twice.

Having built in a switch that would override the ignition key, I was encouraged to hear the fuel pump tick over and the glow plug solenoid click when I pushed the button. A few tense seconds and the engine came alive, just as it always did.

Alex, our third partner, could not have timed his arrival at the pier with better precision. The next thing I knew he was in the cockpit in his street clothes (no PFD), helping tame a piece of the genny that had come unfurled, while I slipped the transmission into forward.

One thing was sure: with 8- to 10-foot waves in the anchorage and with gale-force northeasterly winds gusting at more than 60 knots, there was no way we were going to pick up a mooring safely in the Falmouth anchorage. Besides the size of the waves, there was the fact that Chase had lost its pulpit and most of its lifelines. Going forward on the pitching, slippery deck to grab a mooring line was out of the question – we even had to ignore our 35-lb CQR that was hanging over the side, slamming against the hull.

But the more immediate concern was that we were experiencing only minimal steering. It was obvious the rudder was damaged; Chase was having a hard time simply avoiding other boats. I finally got the hang of steering in large, looping turns.

We decided to try the western side of nearby Clapboard Island first and see if it provided a suitable lee.

Unbelievably, it took us almost 1 1/2 hours to get to Clapboard – only a mile from where Chase had grounded. But, the good news was that the island did indeed provide a lee from the storm. Plus, we found an empty mooring that we managed to grab on our first try.

It was 1330 on Tuesday, but Chase needed attention, so we set chafing gear on the mooring lines and cleaned up the foredeck. The reason for the anchor hanging overboard was immediately clear: The bow roller, which was integral to the stem plate, had been ripped off – perhaps on a passing boat. That it had sheared its bolts – and not taken off the plate that holds the forestay on instead – was a minor miracle.

Since we were cold and wet, we kept the engine running and turned on all the burners on the stove. That helped, but it was still cold and raw.

After communicating with the Coast Guard to tell them we were safe, we had our final challenge of the night. Preparing to start an anchor watch, the engine stopped suddenly.

That it happened so suddenly, I guessed it was electrical – our Westerbeke has an electric fuel pump. We discovered quickly that the main circuit breaker on the engine had been thrown – permanently. Since it could not be convinced to close the circuit, we jury-rigged a 20-amp glass fuse and fuse holder. Hearing the auxiliary come back to life was a very welcome sound.

The next morning we left at first light and motored 10 miles up the Royal River to have Chase hauled. The boatyard had the boat out in minutes. The rudder, which had been redesigned and rebuilt only two years before, was now nonexistent below the gudgeon. We had steered Chase with a rudder about the size of an average kitchen cabinet door. The keel was chewed up on the forefoot, but the bottom and aft sections were very well protected by stainless plates – only the fairing was missing.

Above the waterline, of course, was a different matter. The lifelines, stanchions and pulpit were trashed. Both toe rails forward of amidships were splintered, and the topsides were gouged and scratched. The transom had a hole in it from rubbing on the rocks.

So, given Chase’s travels that night, it was obvious the boat’s great structural strength enabled it to take on almost anything that was thrown in its way. If you believe boats have personalities, you’d be hard pressed not to think Chase wanted to survive, and that the sloop’s final act was to deliver itself to us at the only place we could have mounted an effective rescue.

Peter Stoops runs a software company and is a delivery skipper in Portland, Maine.

By Ocean Navigator