Lightening ship gets personal after grounding

From Ocean Navigator #132
September/October 2003
Running aground is a sailor’s nightmare. The grinding of the keel on a rock, the piercing of the hull against a coral head, the face of a steep breaker flooding the cockpit. However it happens, it’s a misfortune. Yet most sailors will face a disastrous grounding at least once in their lives. On a solo passage to an obscure island called Gaua, part of the Vanuatu archipelago, I faced mine.

The author takes a sight while single-handing in the Pacific.
   Image Credit: Zoltan Istvan

My voyage began years ago when I set sail solo from Los Angeles, bound for the South Pacific on my 25-foot Pearson Commander sloop, The Way. My dream was to sail around the world, taking my time to carefully explore the cultures I came across. After cruising through Kiribati, Western Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu, I began heading toward the Solomon Islands.

At 0558, I awoke to surf swamping my transom and The Way’s keel grinding through coral. My chart was seven miles off, and the current was much heavier than anticipated. There were only a few minutes before I would be slamming against the sharp cliffs of Gaua, destroying and flooding my yacht.

I jumped in the cockpit and tried to steer the boat through the surf. When I made it to the inside where the breakers were smaller, the water became deeper again but not enough for me to stop grinding. My keel drew 4 feet, but the depth was only 3 feet. With every new wave, my boat lurched atop the coral, sounding the worst crashing noises a sailor could imagine. I raced to the bow and pulled down the jib. Next came the mainsail. That dropped the waterline a few inches. Now I needed to get my boat pointed toward the surf. I deployed my 25-lb CQR. When it caught, it whipped the nose around. It was too shallow for me to motor out, so I waited for a few minutes, thinking, trying to gather myself, needing to figure out a sensible plan. With every wave, The Way rose then slammed back onto the reef. The colliding and cracking sound of the fiberglass was unnerving.

Finally an idea struck me – a very natural one under the circumstances. I began unloading more than 100 lbs of canned food from my bilge. Next went three portable five-gallon water tanks. Finally my dive belt, 35 feet of 5/16-inch chain, a 22-lb fisherman-style anchor, and my Suzuki dinghy engine went overboard. On a 25-foot boat, 400 lbs does make a difference, but it still wasn’t enough. There was still too much weight to make a run for it, even with the engine at full throttle. More weight had to go.

Inevitably, my own 200 lbs was next. I quickly jumped in the ocean. Since I had an outboard, I could steer the boat from the water, just by maneuvering the engine’s body with my hand. But I had to be careful a sharp swell didn’t throw me into the spinning propeller. I waited for a few minutes, scanning the horizon for a set of waves. When they came, I jammed the throttle to full speed. The Way took off, grinding, bulldozing through the shallow sections but moving fast whenever a breaker raised it above the reef. My idea was working; the set of waves was adding temporary depth underneath the keel, and the 600 lbs of lost weight was helping lower the waterline of The Way. It was just enough to get my boat past the impact zone and into the open ocean.

After I pulled myself onboard and made sure I was far from the breakers, I retrieved my mask to examine the damage. Amazingly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought – a testament to the respected Pearson Yachts name. The keel held up remarkably well, lots of huge gouges but no leaks. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said about the rudder, which took the brunt of the 6,000 lbs of continuous slamming. The Way’s rudder was cracked, bent out of shape, stuck to starboard and unusable. It required being completely rebuilt with new wood with a strong outside layer of epoxy. I had a Hydrovane self-steering system with an auxiliary fin, so I was still able to steer my boat. But at the next major port, I’d be forced to make the repairs, replace the gear I’d thrown overboard, and restock the canned food I lost.

When all was completed and my boat was ready for the high seas again, I continued my journey. But sleeping was never the same again. For many years after, I awoke in the middle of the night, panicking, running out to the cockpit, ready to steer the boat through surf. Luckily, I never went aground again. The memory of almost sinking my circumnavigation dream on an obscure island in the middle of the South Pacific still makes me cringe.

Zoltan Istvan is sailing a 25-foot sloop around the world. He writes regularly for the New York Times Syndicate and

By Ocean Navigator