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My Sail Through Hell

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Based on my experience sailing from St. Croix to Myrtle Beach at the same time last year, I knew I would have plenty of time to attend my father’s 90 th birthday celebration on the 23 rd of April if I departed St. Croix by the 5 th of April (last year it took me 12 days).

I departed early morning on the 4 th, and had a pleasant sail past St. Thomas and Culebra, and up towards the east coast of Puerto Rico. I had decided to follow the same route as last year, except that I would stay much closer to land in the event of any problems. My route was to go past Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas, staying within fifty miles of shore. After the Bahamas, I planned a straight offshore route direct to Myrtle Beach. The best laid plans…

I made decent progress on the 5 th and 6 th with both the main and headsail fully deployed in light airs. The same on the 7 th and 8 th, except the wind began to decrease, and my progress was slowed. When sailing, my normal practice is to run the generator two hours each morning and evening to keep the batteries charged, and the refrigeration systems cold. I was noticing that it was taking longer each time to start the generator, however I could find no reason for the problem. On the 9 th, the generator would not start at all (I later discovered that the main electric cable from the starter battery to the generator starter was broken). I didn’t have a real problem with this because I have a high output alternator on my engine, so I decided to use it instead of the generator. The first time I started the engine, the overheat alarm sounded. I could find no reason, and after restarting the engine, everything was OK.

On the 10 th the wind quit completely and it felt like I was going backwards. By then I realized that the conditions would not be the same as last year in that the winds, when there were some, were on the nose, not the stern as I expected. The autopilot was acting up; it kept turning itself off. On the 11 th, I actually went backwards and lost 30 miles during that 24 hours. The current was much stronger than I realized. On the 12 th the autopilot quit completely. After last year’s experience, I was prepared and I lashed the steering wheel to a bulkhead. This certainly is no substitute for the autopilot, but at least I wouldn’t have to steer all of the time, just make minor corrections every 20 or 30 minutes.

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I decided it was time to motorsail, so I did so on the 12 th and 13 th. On the 14 th, the wind picked up some, yet my forward progress was not that good. I added 20 gallons of diesel fuel from my extra containers on the 16th. I was glad that I did so then because the wind increased to 20 knots, and seas 10 to 12 ft, on the 17 th. At that point I was 34 miles from San Salvador ( Bahamas). The wind shifted and was on my nose, so I decided to motorsail to get there before dark. I was unable to enter because a surge had forced another boat on the rocks at the entrance (only one on San Salvador).

I thought it best to go northwest to Cat Island, which was within a day away. I needed fuel, and I was hopeful that I could have the autopilot fixed. At approximately 3am I was in the cockpit, semi-awake, when I heard a “snapping” noise. I looked up and saw a white flash crossing just in front of my bow. Using my night vision scope, I could see that the flash was another sailboat with no lights on, and no one in the cockpit to sail the boat and keep a lookout. I assumed that the snapping noise was my mainsail losing and then refilling with wind. As I approached Cat and into shallower water, I was suddenly and violently stopped and swung around. I was thrown forward and onto the cockpit floor, sustaining numerous scrapes and bruises. By then it was daybreak and I went forward to see what had happened. I discovered that my bow roller and both anchors were gone. Also a large section of my bow (fiberglass) was ripped off and my bow pulpit was destroyed. Apparently the “snapping” sound I heard occurred because the other boat had hit me and knocked my bow roller and anchors off. I tried to raise the anchors, to no avail. I realized that the anchors were probably still connected together through the bow roller. I went over the side and could see that my assumption was correct, however the water was too deep for me to dive to attempt to do anything. The CQR anchor was connected to the boat with nylon rope, so I cut it off, hoping I could raise the Danforth anchor with my windlass. The Danforth was connected to the boat with 200 ft of chain. No luck, I was unable to dislodge the remaining anchor. I then got on the VHF radio and called for help. I was told that no one would be available until late afternoon. I kept in contact with the marina and two divers showed up in the early evening. They attempted to raise the anchor, again it would not budge. Since I was secure (very much so) we decide that I should remain on the boat overnight and they would return the next morning with another diver who could “freedive” the depths necessary. They arrived late the next morning and decided to disconnect the chain from the boat, which they did. I then motored to the marina (Hawk’s Nest) and into a slip. About an hour later, the “rescue” team returned. They had recovered both anchors. The CQR was OK, but the shaft was bent 90 degrees (fixable). The stainless steel Danforth was totally destroyed, and they told me the chain was not recoverable. I spent the day relaxing and refueling. I was able to telephone my sister-in-law, Carol, to advise the family I would not make the 90 th celebration. I was unable to have the autopilot fixed.

I decided to motor to Abaco Island, where hopefully some repairs could be made. As I was leaving Cat Island I happened to look in the “rescue boat”, and I saw my 200 ft of chain. When I said something to the rescue captain, he said that it was their chain, but I know it was not in their boat when they came for me. I decided to keep my mouth shut and just absorb the loss, which by then was large. They charged me $1700.00 for the three hour “rescue”, plus I discovered later that my digital camera had disappeared. I had been taking pictures of the damage (and the unsalvageable chain). I left late morning for Abaco, motoring because one of the headsail connectors, and the gooseneck connector were bent. If either failed while sailing, I would have had serious problems. I knew I would have to conserve fuel, so I went slowly, depending on the current to help me along.

The next few days were uneventful. I had two days of high wind and seas. I knew I was getting north because the water temperature was now down to 72 degrees from the 84 on St. Croix. The night of the 23 rd was lousy. There were rolling seas all night. The next morning brought calm, no wind at all.

On the morning of the 25 th I finally made it to Abaco. As I was entering “Man of War” channel, my engine suddenly overheated. Man of War is a very narrow, tricky entrance. I immediately turned around to try to go back to sea until I could find out what was wrong. Fortunately the current was keeping me away from land. After the engine cooled, I was able to find the problem. The engine alternator was in the bottom of the engine compartment. I found that both of the bolts that held it to the engine had sheared off. No way I could fix it there. Although I have a spare alternator, who would think to have spare mounting bolts?

I called for a tow, and several hours later I was safely in a slip in Harbor View Marina. I stayed there until the 2 nd of May. While there I had the alternator repaired and reinstalled and the mechanic decided to replace the raw water impeller and the drive belt. I was also able to have the autopilot fixed by replacing the computer system (air expressed from New Hampshire). I was unable to have the headsail and gooseneck connectors fixed.

On the 5 th I refueled and set off for Myrtle Beach. Because of the bent fixtures I used very little sail, depending on the current to assist me. Friday the 6 th was not a good day. It was wild and wicked with early morning thunderstorms, winds at 35, gusting to 45 knots. In the early afternoon I decided to motor to maintain my course. After about fifteen minutes the engine overheated. When it cooled, I found that the mechanic had installed the impeller backwards. I replaced it and decided to just drift overnight. I started the engine the next morning and, within minutes, it overheated again. I discovered the new impeller was also destroyed. Something was really wrong; the engine was eating impellers like candy, and I only had two new ones remaining.

I decided to try to sail to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Very slow going with severely reduced sails, and very little wind. The batteries were getting weak. I turned the refrigerator and freezer off. The Gulf Stream was pushing me further north than I wanted to go, so I tacked in an attempt to make Canaveral. I removed the remains of the impeller, deciding to run the engine every few hours for ten minutes to keep the batteries up to run the electronics. It seemed to be working, but I had to be careful to not let the engine overheat. It was a gamble I felt I had to take, and those short bursts gave me some direction towards Florida.

On May 10 th, I was drifting, just floating 21 miles off of Daytona Beach. I could not get in so I finally contacted the Coast Guard with my single sideband radio, and they called Tow Boat US for me. They arrived three hours later and towed me to a marina just inside of the inlet. I arrived at 4 pm and found a mechanic who had the problem fixed by 8 pm. We found that the rubber vanes from the first impeller had broken into small pieces and they were blocking the cooling water flow through the heat exchanger. After removing and cleaning the exchanger, everything was fine. On the 12 th I moved to a marina closer to Daytona to see if I could have the fiberglass repairs done. No luck, so I decided to go to St. Augustine. I had planned to take the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), but soon discovered that it takes two people to do the “ditch”; one to watch and steer and one to read the charts and guides. After “bumping bottom” twice, I decided to turn around and go “outside” again, and I arrived in St. Augustine on the 15 th. Again no luck with repairs so I elected to push on to Myrtle Beach, leaving on the 17 th. On the afternoon of the 18 th, a US Navy submarine surfaced right off of my starboard bow. It wasn’t, but it looked like it was only 10 ft from me. I was asked several questions about who I was (it helps to be a retired military person), where I came from, where I was going, etc. Again, light winds kept me from making decent progress, so I stayed in the Gulf Stream, arriving off of Myrtle Beach before dawn on the 20 th of May. I circled until daylight to enable me to see my way in through Little River Inlet. Two hours later I was safe in a slip at Dock Holiday’s Marina in North Myrtle Beach. 47 days after I left St. Croix. A far cry from the 12 days it took me last year.

I have been asked if I would do it again. Repairs are underway. I am living on the boat and assisting with the repairs as best I can. Yes, when Shabeen is fully functional I will sail again. Probably not as far as Maine, as I did last year, but I will do another extended cruise.

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