Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Mayday Mayday Mayday

Severn class lifeboat of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute - the same type that came to rescue us.

What probably happened is that we hit something hard as we fell off a big wave — maybe a length of stout timber or a log.  We soon realized there was more water in the boat than had come down the companionway and that it was still coming in.

We started bailing and looking for a broken hose or other source of the cold sea water. It was already night, the seas were big, the wind strong and the air cold. With four strong men bailing continuously with a bucket and a big saucepan we seemed to be keeping up with the water coming into the boat. But with the boat rolling as she was lifted on each wave, sea water soon flooded our batteries. At any moment we might lose all electrical power – lights, radio, navigation equipment and our ability to start the diesel engine. So we immediately started the engine –while we still could. Once running, diesel engines need no spark.

Skipper and RYA Yachtmaster instructor John Field decided to put out a Mayday call on the VHF radio — the vessel was not yet in “grave and imminent danger” but as we didn’t know the source of the leaking, which might become catastrophic at any moment, and had to prepare for anything else which might go wrong next, this was the most prudent course of action. It was John’s first Mayday call in more than 30 years of sailing in all weathers.

The Coastguard responded immediately and soon afterwards the RNLI lifeboat from Newhaven was on its way out to us in the darkness. This was a great comfort to us as we continued bailing.

Six students and our instructor had left Eastbourne, on the south coast of England, in the early afternoon in the dying hour or two of a Force 8 gale. Winds were expected to calm down by nightfall from what had been a Force 10 gale in the morning.  The waves were four metres (14 feet) high and the wind gusting up to 40 knots (45 mph) as we motorsailed out of the protected harbour. The ride was exhilerating, to say the least, and more than once I felt myself airborne as the 36-foot fibreglass sailboat fell off the back of some of the waves. (Of course we were all wearing life jackets and tethered with strong lines.)

Though a weekend sailor might not choose to go out in such weather, we were all students on the four month Royal Yachting Association fasttrack Yachtmaster Offshore course and needed to experience what bigger seas are like.  (The commercially-endorsed YM ticket allows a person to captain up to a 300 gross ton vessel up to 150 miles from a safe refuge.  Imagine doing that without the experience of ever having been in even a small gale!)

Our first mishap happened soon after leaving Eastbourne. The diesel engine quit; probably having taken a gulp of air instead of water (for cooling) in the heavy seas.  The next mishap happened almost immediately afterwards when we tried to unfurl a little of the genoa at the bow of the boat in order to be able to sail. We were not far off Beachy Head at the time and needed to get away from the dangerous lee shore.

Instead of showing a handkerchief of sail which would have allowed us to sail in the strong winds and rough sea, the roller-furler drum broke and the entire genoa sail unravelled.  Not good in 40 knots of wind!
Getting that sail down proved to be a hard and dangerous task.  We were fighting a raging monster. One brave man went forward onto the rolling, pitching foredeck to unclip the tack and attempt to haul down the sail. Another mishap and the entire sail was suddenly freed from the deck; it rushed back up the forestay and refused to come down. The clew began flogging very close to skipper John’s head as he commanded the helm. The possibility that our experienced skipper might be seriously injured was the scariest moment of the whole adventure.

It took four men two attempts to wrestle down that sail under the shelter of the boom and drag and push it down the companionway out of the wind. Only then did we notice the amount of sea water slopping about inside the boat and began bailing urgently. Soon afterwards, we put out our Mayday call.

Newhaven Lifeboat crew member Phil, who I met by chance at the London Boat Show in January 2009 and was able to thank in person.

The Newhaven lifeboat advised us to divert to Newhaven, the nearest harbour, but that we would have to slow down in order to allow the tide to rise.  Though the channel was dredged to six metres and our boat had a draught of less than two metres, there was a danger, in such rough waves, of striking the sea bed.

As the lifeboat neared us, our skipper was asked to count  up to 10 so that they could get a radio fix on our direction. And then we had to light a handheld red flare. We’d completed an RYA Sea Survival course only the week before but had not been allowed to set off any flares (strictly controlled in the UK).  Far from an exercise, we were now doing everything for real!

It was reassuring to have the lifeboat escorting us and keeping a spotlight on us as we made our way slowly towards harbour while we kept bailing and bailing. I was too focused on what we needed to be doing and the welfare of the other crew members (I was skipper of the day) to feel frightened. Instead I worried about being seasick and a few times felt lunch coming up.

One hour later, our boat was safely tied up in Newhaven harbour.  The lifeboat crew kindly invited us for tea (though we were too busy still bailing to be able to go) and two Coastguard officials came aboard to check our safety equipment and to fill out a report. By eight o’clock the wind had completely died, as had been forecast. Two of us stayed with John on the boat all night.

We now discovered why our electric Rule bilge pump had been completely useless and, I believe, is a danger to anyone who trusts one. Bilge pumps are rated without any load, ie. the amount of water leaving the pump per minute. This information has absolutely no practical application whatsoever. What matters is how much water the pump can pump OUT of the boat – and that depends on the pump’s power and the rise and the distance (run) of the discharge hose. After several experiments, we discovered this Rule pump, though working properly and with shore power now providing full voltage, could not even lift up water to a height of 70 cms.!  Though correctly installed and working at full power, the pump could not push a single drop of water out of the boat, though it was being sold for exactly that purpose. We managed to rig it up to pump a dribble into the discharge hose of the galley sink. Quite an eye opener; I’ll certainly be testing the bilge pump on “Kuan Yin” under load.

Next morning when the boat was lifted out of the water, we discovered a metre-long crack in the hull just beneath the waterline on the starboard side. All the anti-foul paint had been scraped off; evidence we’d hit something hard in the water.

The incident was dramatic at the time and we were all very grateful to the RNLI volunteers who came out so quickly to our assistance.  Thankfully it all ended happily – the boat came in under her own power and no-one was injured.

No-one knows – until something like this occurs – exactly how they might react.  No-one panicked (though one man got off swearing never ever to step foot in a boat again!).  For me personally, it was a great learning experience.  I hope I never have to go through a Mayday again but it was reassuring that I stayed calm and was able to think clearly and to do what was necessary. My personal thanks to our skipper John Field and the rest of the crew for a great experience and a happy ending!

Having clamboured aboard a liferaft in a heated swimming pool during the Sea Survival course the week before and therefore knowing first hand how difficult it is, what might have happened does not bear thinking about. If there had been less people able to keep bailing the heavy buckets or if we’d been farther out in the English Channel, the outcome might have been very different. Thinking about “what ifs” can be a useful part of good seamanship and essential preparation.

The rest of the Yachtmaster course has been much less dramatic but also a great learning experience and sometimes a sheer delight.  We were visited by 15 dolphins for more than an hour earlier in the Channel (alas my camera and photos were ruined in the flooded boat). A week of navigation theory, a week of learning “competent crew” and two weeks of sailing in the English Channel from Ostend (in Belgium) to Falmouth (near Land’s End in England) has taught me a lot and raised my confident considerably. Sailing in rough seas, in cold winter weather (wearing six layers and still not particularly warm) is what I came to the UK to experience as a training exercise for summer sailing in Labrador. I confess I’ve been apprehensive many times. But the only way to get up the learning curve and become more competent and more comfortable is to get on and do it. Thankfully, the instructors are great — pushing us all the time but ready to step in if things get out of hand. Three months of training to go!

Read the report of the Newhaven RNLI on this incident

(originally posted December 2008)
© Dennison Berwick 2008. This article may be republished for noncommercial purposes, with full copyright attribution and notification to the author. Any other use is a violation of copyright.

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This entry was posted on January 3, 2010 by in Sailboats, Sailing and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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