We were on our way from Eureka, California to San Francisco when the wave hit us. It was a month into what was supposed to be a nine month cruise that would take us from Seattle to Mexico, Hawaii, and Alaska. A week earlier we had stopped in Eureka needing fuel and to do some boat projects, the most significant was to fix the recurring overheating problem with the Volvo diesel. After talking with a mechanic. it was my belief that the engine needed a new head gasket. We couldn’t rule out the raw water pump either so I removed that and the head for the mechanic to take back to his shop. We were going to be stuck in Eureka a while, so Greg (the boat’s owner) and I worked on other boat projects and got a chance to meet up with some fellow cruisers who were also heading down the coast for a winter in Mexico. However, by the time the weekend rolled around we hadn’t gotten the parts back from the mechanic so I could reassemble the engine. I had obligations to go see my fiancé, Heather, down in San Francisco, so I hopped a bus southbound for a few days.
After a lovely weekend of visiting with my sister and watching Heather run the Nike Women’s half marathon, I was back in Eureka, where there was still a lot of work to do before heading out. The parts were back from the mechanic, the head, which was discovered to be warped, had been ground flat. The water pump was rebuilt. We also had a bunch of new parts that had been ordered from the Bay Area Volvo distributor. It took me all day to reassemble the engine but finally around 2030 the engine lit off, full of new oil, running cool, and sounding great. We cleaned up the tools and checked the internet for the latest weather forecast. It called for Wednesday’s winds to be 20-25 from the Northwest, great downhill sailing for a Nauticat 35 we thought. The next day called for more of the same with Friday looking like we might want to duck into Bodega Bay. We cleaned up the tools and I looked forward to a great downwind sail past the dreaded Cape Mendocino and on to calmer seas southward. Another boat, Chemistry, was also taking off the next morning. Greg and I had gotten to know Sean, her skipper, during our stay in Eureka and it was nice to think of catching up with Sean and the other boats that we had met along the way, as we progressed south.
Wednesday morning looked just as forecast. It was grey, there was a slight northwest wind inside Humbolt Bay. Around 1100 we pushed Passing Wind II (I never liked that name) off the dock and took her over to get fuel. After leaving the fuel dock the temperature alarm sounded at the upper helm station, I checked it out and it was just a wiring issue, not an overheating engine. We continued on with the alarm malfunctioning. Had we stayed another day in Eureka to fix it, this would have been a whole different story.
The wind was blowing about 15 knots out of the northwest, outside the enterance to Humbolt Bay. Once we crossed the bar we set the full mainsail and genoa for a reach with the autopilot driving. The wind built as the day went on so gradually I tucked in a reef in the mainsail, then rolled in some genoa, then sailed with just the reefed main, and lastly before dark, struck the sails and let the boat sit under bare poles. I did not want to have to reef anymore sail in the dark if the wind built further so bare poles seemed like a good option to stay safe and rest. With the boat’s bimini and dinghy davits on the back, she behaved much like she was hove-too all night. A few breaking waves struck the boat and the wind gradually built further but generally looking back, it was not a bad position.
However, as the wind built and the boat rolled, the inflatable dinghy, on the davits, became loose and started rubbing on the davit platform. We had previously had many problems keeping the dinghy secured to the davits and had tried many different ways of tying it down. Each one had made the problem a little better but none were a complete success. Unfortunately, the davits where the only place we could store the nine-foot dinghy on a Nauticat 35. Overnight the dinghy had managed to move off of its pads on the davits and punctured itself on some exposed metal.
In the morning, Thursday, October 25, the dingy looked like a giant, blown-out whitewall that was precariously balanced on the transom. In addition, the salon table had torn off its floorboard hinge the day before. Greg was wondering what our options were and how long the weather would last. He was not really interested in damaging his boat further. Passing Wind II was now about 60 miles west and 20 miles south of Cape Mendocino. We listened to the NOAA weather and the conditions were expected to stay the same where we were for the next 24 hours. In towards shore, the conditions were expected to get light that afternoon, so we decided that we would work our way towards shore and discuss whether we would attempt going in to Fort Bragg or Bodega Bay.
I set the storm staysail to get us sailing. The sail was attached with hanks on an inner forestay and sheeted to a self tacking track on the deck. I was hand steering down in the pilothouse, because the autopilot could not drive the boat in the stormy conditions. The boat’s hydraulic steering, along with the bimini and the dinghy on the back, made her a horrible boat to drive. Greg was sitting across from me on the settee and we’d been sailing about a half hour when the next thing I knew I was underwater, inside the boat. When I got my head above water I saw the engine at what seemed to be a 45° angle upward. I’m not sure how long it took for the boat to right itself but when it did the three windows on the starboard side of the pilothouse had blown out, along with the fiberglass in between the first and second window. When I got on deck I discovered that the mast had snapped in the roll and the liferaft, which was stored on deck in a stainless steel cradle, had been washed overboard. The damaged dinghy had been torn off along with it’s davits and the bimini. The water that came in during the roll was about three feet deep and was enough to cover the main engine and batteries. The electronics no longer worked and the radio antennae array was on the masthead, 40’ under the surface. We thought about getting off the boat. We activated the EPIRB and I went about securing the boat, trying to keep it afloat and from rolling over again. Even though the batteries where underwater, the bilge pump actually worked for the first three or four hours but, judging by the stream it was producing, wasn’t going to do the job. The first item to take care of was getting the boat to behave better in the waves. Before I left, my future father in law “lent” me his sea anchor. It was time to set it.
Next, I had to get the mast cut away. It is pretty amazing how easily stainless rigging can be cut by a person jacked up on adrenalin. It still took a while to get the rig away. I thought I had cut all the rigging loose, but after about an hour I knew something more must still be connected to the mast. But, with the boat rolling a lot from all the water inside, sticking my head over the leeward side did not seem very bright.
After about three and a half hours the boat “tacked” on her sea anchor. With the other side of the boat now to windward and exposed, I discovered there was one shroud still fastened to the mast. When the boat tacked I first thought it was a cruel joke because it placed the exposed side of the pilothouse into the waves. I was in the pilothouse catching my a breath when it happened and thought, “Now what?” It turned out to be a good thing because we could now get that last shroud clipped and then the boat would ist of the sea anchor much better. With all the water in the boat, she was sitting at about a 20 degree heel.
Sometime after we got the mast fully away, Greg discovered that the EPIRP antenna was not fully screwed into the EPIRP. Later, in talking with the Coast Guard guys in the helicopter, I’m sure it had an effect on how long it took them to find us. We had rolled about five hours earlier, but once he screwed the antenae all the way in, it was only half an hour before we were found. They said the signal looked like the EPIRP was bobbing in the water, however, it never was.
Man, I was happy when the helicopter arrived. I finally felt like I would live through the day. Before that I was convinced that no matter how much we got the boat “safer,” I was still going to die. First the helicopter lowered a case with a handheld VHF radio and some flares. I turned it on and it was already set to the chopper’s radio. They asked if we were hoping to abandon ship. The boat had no ability to sail or power, and was half full of water and we were over 60 miles off the coast in rough weather. Greg and I quickly decided that it was definitely a good time to leave the boat.
The next step was to jump in the water one at a time. I told Greg he should go first. He had been more injured in the rollover than I and was less mobile. He had a sprained forearm and looked like he’d been in a bar fight. He didn’t want to go and later explained he wasn’t thrilled about going swimming in the cold water. I told him I was happy to go first but that he needed to go first, he agreed. Our rescue swimmer came up and Greg got off the boat via the swim ladder on the stern. I took one last look around, tied the EPIRB to the companionway sliding hatch and set it in the cockpit with the signal still going. Next it was my turn to get in the water. The swimmer’s instructions were simple, “Jump in, lie on your back, and don’t try to swim.” Any flailing and stuff only slows the swimmer down. In my best waterski form I jumped in, took a leak in my foulies, and had a warm tow over to the basket. I got in and had some quick instructions from the swimmer and “zoom,” I was in the air. I’m not real big on heights but the basket ride beat the option of being on the boat. It also had a kind of Disneyland ride effect being a sunny day with a spectacular view. I had to enjoy life a little now that I was going to continue living it.
The next 25 minutes was my first helicopter ride ever. We landed on a helicopter pad on Point Arena. The pad was set up by the Coast Guard and is maintained by the USCG auxiliary in the area. I found out later that the crew had about 19 minutes of fuel before their turnaround time and that their flight time was greatly extended by there being a fuel depot on Point Arena.
We were put into an ambulance and taken to for Bragg Hosital, where Greg was admitted for X-rays. Other than being very wet with some banged up knuckles, I was okay and glad to be alive. After the checkup the ambulance drivers, who were getting off shift, gave us a ride into town and we got a motel room.
We were pretty hungry so we went out and had a great meal. The food was awful but we really enjoyed every bite.
The next day we went to Enterprise to rent a car to drive to Oakland where we could catch a flight to Seattle. However, I had no wallet, no ID, no nothing. Just then the news came on the radio about these two guys who were rescued off a sinking sailboat. “That’s us!” I said. “Got a car for a stranded sailor?” We drove to Oakland and caught a flight back to Seattle. Greg continued on to Alaska where he was going back to work. When his wife and he are both retired, he says he’s going to buy a Bayfield 25 and keep it in their driveway.
It truly was amazing that all this had happened in such a short time, and here was back in Seattle. The next evening my friends were having a Halloween party. So, what kind of costume did I wear? A castaway, of course, complete with genuine Coast Guard issued blanket.
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