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Abandoning ship: gut-wrenching, perilous, sometimes right

I’ve never abandoned ship. I’ve never pulled myself into a life raft. I’m not expert on those subjects, but I do know there is a fair amount of disagreement over when or if to take those steps. About half of the gruesome toll of 15 deaths in the 1979 Fastnet Race was made up of sailors who perished in life rafts after abandoning sailboats that were later found floating and seaworthy enough to be towed to shore.

The decision of whether to abandon a boat that is in peril but not sinking is one of the most gut-wrenching a sailor can face—not because he or she loves their boat, though that can be a factor, but because the wrong choice can be fatal.

You won’t find a more compelling insight into the pain of making that choice than the story of a man who last August abandoned the boat he had built himself, had owned for more than 30 years and had just sailed to victory in the Singlehanded Transpac Race.

The man was Skip Allen, at 60 years old an elite offshore sailor who earned that distinction with tens of thousands of miles of ocean passaging, much of it in races, crewed and singlehanded. That’s important to the story because a number of abandon-ship dramas have involved sailors whose inexperience contributed to their plight. Skip, who is, in fact, a survivor of the tragic 1979 Fastnet race, was as well-prepared as anyone to deal with life-threatening ocean conditions. He knew exactly what he was doing when he stepped off of his boat 250 miles west of San Francisco.
Skip was returning from Hawaii following the Singlehanded Transpac alone on Wildflower, the modified Wylie 27 he built in 1975. If you think a 27-footer is a small boat to sail 2,500 miles to Hawaii, well, it is, but it’s an even smaller boat to sail back to the mainland in conditions that are nothing like the downwind sleigh ride to the islands. Wildflower had made the trip five times before.

Not only are the winds often contrary on the passage back to California, they can be nonexistent. Small boats like Wildflower don’t carry enough fuel to use engine power to get through the vast, windless Pacific high. The classic remedy is to point at Oregon, sail northeast far enough to get around the high, then bear right and scoot home in reaching breezes. The downside of this route is that it passes through one of the nastiest patches of the Pacific Ocean, an area frequented by gales and monstrous seas.

Skip Allen found himself in just those conditions less than 400 miles from his home port of Santa Cruz, sailing in 35 knots of wind with a 39-square-foot storm staysail, towing a 30-foot diameter metal-hooped drogue, and, according to his log, “the cockpit filling every five minutes.”
He described it as “mogul sailing at its best, having to radically bear away to avoid hissing 8- to 12-foot breaking crests on the top of 15- to 30-foot seas.”

Things went downhill from there. The gale strengthened. Under bare poles, Wildflower was assaulted by ever building seas. During the third night of the gale, Skip stayed below as “breaking crests would poop the boat about every five minutes, filling the cockpit and surging against the companionway hatch board. Even though I had gone to lengths for many years to ensure firehose watertight integrity of the companionway hatch, I found the power of the breaking wave crests slamming the boat would cause water to forcefully spray around the edges of the hatchboards and into the cabin.”

His biggest fear was that the exposed autopilot steering the boat with the tiller, “buffeted and drenched by every boarding wave,” would fail or be washed off its mount. The electronic tiller pilot had so far worked flawlessly. (Traditionalists take note: He found his backup wind vane autopilot to be utterly useless.) But anyone who has seen the demands on an electronic pilot steering in storm conditions, going through motions so extreme it would seem the machine has to wear out at some point, should be able to understand Skip’s fears.

“There was no doubt that if Wildflower’s tiller pilot was lost we would round up and be at the mercy of these breaking waves, some of which I estimated to be in the vicinity of 25 to 35 feet, as big as I had seen since the ‘79 Fastnet race storm on Imp.”

The confident mariner who had seen just about everything in sailing adventures that began in childhood (he sailed his first Transpac at 16) started to wonder if he would survive. “The anxiety and stress of this night with the whine of the wind in the rigging, the wave crests slamming into the hatch boards and the 70-degree knockdowns that would launch me across the cabin created serious doubts that we could continue this for another night, much less the three to four days the conditions were expected to continue.”

He confided to his log: “I reminded myself I was responsible for not only my own life, but also a family caregiver at home.”

The next morning Skip used his satellite phone to call an old sailing friend in Redondo Beach named Joe Buck, described by Skip as a ham radio operator, ocean sailing router, navigator and weatherman. In the conversation, “Joe helped me to understand if the boat were lost, I would likely be lost also. But if I left Wildflower in advance, only the boat would be lost.”

He spent the next hour debating with himself about whether to leave the boat he described as “my home, consort and magic carpet that I had built 34 years ago. I cried, pounded my fist, looked out through the hatch numerous times at the wave mountains, remembered all the good times I had shared with Wildflower, and came to a decision.”

Joe Buck had learned that no Coast Guard or military ships or helicopters were within range of Wildflower, but a freighter was heading in the general direction of the boat. At Skip’s request, Joe asked San Francisco Coast Guard Search and Rescue to arrange for assistance from the 1,065-foot containership Toronto.

Six or seven hours later, in a display of sterling seamanship, the Toronto, in waves so extreme her massive bow bulb rose 20 feet out of the sea, maneuvered alongside of Wildflower, creating a lee that allowed Skip to jump from the deck of his boat to a jacob’s ladder hanging down the ship’s hull. Safe on board, Skip watched Wildflower “bang and scrape her way down the aft quarter of the ship and disappear under the stern. I watched, but could barely see through my tears.”

The tears are understandable, but this is not a sad story. A boat was lost, but a sailor survived. And unlike so many rescues of yachtsmen in distress, this one put no rescuers’ lives at risk and spent no taxpayers’ money. Nor will Wildflower exact any costs as a derelict menace to shipping. As his final act before leaving her, Skip disconnected the hose from the engine seawater intake, allowing the boat to sink.

If there is such a thing as a class act in abandoning ship, this was it.
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The author of this article is Bill Schanen.


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