Worse Things Happen At Sea
18 November 2023
You’ve probably heard the high speed gibberish that radio and TV advertisers put at the end of their commercials to caution those able to understand it, that their once-in-a-lifetime offer or new wonder drug maybe isn’t exactly that great. This garbled, high speed message presumably absolves them of all responsibilities should something, readily foreseeable to them, but not to you, happen.
Well, I’ve this theory that the US Coast Guard send their radio operators on the course where these advertising folk learn to speak ultra fast. And unintelligibly. Over this last summer we’ve all but tuned out the US coastguard VHF announcements as, to us and many people we’ve spoken to, their messages are, as I say, unintelligible.
On the twelfth of November, the day before we left Norfolk bound for Bermuda, one of these messages came on air, “PAN, PAN - PAN, PAN” then the usual gobbledegook. We did catch the essence of the message, that there was a boat overdue en route Bermuda and it was white with a blue stripe. Other than that, nothing else understood. We should have paid more attention, indeed, as I’ve been threatening to do all summer, I should have called up and asked for a repeat of the message - but we didn’t.
The following day, we had our own challenges, specifically, how long should we plod along at three knots off the Virginia coast waiting on the strong north wind blowing against the opposing Gulf Stream to ease down to ten knots. These counter forces of nature create not just uncomfortable seas, but, from what I’ve read over the years, (try, “Overboard” for example) conditions that are, quite simply, dangerous. The other side of the coin was that we couldn’t wait too long as we had to get into Bermuda by midday Thursday to avoid a south easterly gale, forecast to be gusting fifty to sixty knots - a decidedly scary force ten to eleven in Beaufort speak. We continued our slow speed, frustrating, delaying tactics as long as we dared but even so, once into the Stream, got a heavy duty wash and rinse cycle, when the forecasted diminishing winds failed to, well, diminish. Faced with the fact we were in a hole, we kept digging and had a noisy, windy, but fast crossing. A hundred and thirty miles or so east of the US coast, we finally eased out the current and turned east south east for Bermuda, pedal to the metal, surfing all day at fifteen knots plus. (19.2kn top speed).
When it’s all a bit wild we tend to sail the boat from the “lounge”, patio doors firmly closed with some relaxing tunes on the stereo. We even ran the heating for a few hours. It doesn’t half beat monohull sailing when in the past we’d be sitting outside in the cockpit, boat rolling like a pig, taking waves and spray in the face. Catamaran sailing is just so much more comfortable. Fortunately, wind and waves have their own soundtrack so, even while tucked up indoors, you know exactly what it’s like outside. Assuming you’re awake.
Around ten o’clock the next morning I stepped into the patio to look at shaking out one of the reefs. As I turned to go back inside, I did my usual 360 degree scan around the horizon. To my surprise, I saw another yacht in the distance going our way. “Company at last” I thought, wishing again that more USA boats would make the minor investment in AIS. Closer inspection through the binoculars however showed the yacht was clearly in trouble, sails blowing in tatters in the wind. “Oh oh” I thought. “This looks like it could be the overdue “PAN PAN” yacht”. Poor Anne was hauled out of bed and we gybed and headed south west on a course to intercept.
As we approached I was looking for signs of life through the binoculars but, ominously, nothing. As we got closer it wasn’t looking good as there was absolutely no sign of life. We fired up the engines, dropped the main and made an approach at a speed that would allow us to get close but still have the steerage to get out of the way as the boat(s) lurched and yawed in the three to four metre seas.
As we closed, Anne suddenly said, “There’s someone in the cockpit.” Closer yet, sure enough, the skipper was at the wheel, apparently steering, but worryingly, gave no response at all as we passed within a boat length, not even a wave. We made several passes but couldn’t communicate. Given the state of the boat and it’s skipper, our guess is he’d suffers a knockdown. The genoa was in tatters. His anchor had come adrift and was dragging from the bow. The main boom and mainsail had been torn off and was now being towed astern as an extremely effective drogue. One of the saloon windows was smashed as was a deck hatch. Things weren’t looking good.
With the anchor, boom, mainsail and its assorted cordage dragging in the water and the boat rolling wildly, it made it somewhat challenging to get close enough to communicate. We really did not need our props getting fouled or getting so close that we’d get whacked thus compounding the problem. Altogether, with pretty much zero response it seemed to us he was well past the point of being able to manage or even help with the situation.
Twenty miles away a tanker was showing on AIS and we called him to A) turn around and give assistance and B) get a message to the coastguard. At the time he was switching fuel tanks or something and couldn’t turn around but he did call the coastguard. The tanker gave us the coastguard phone number but when we called, we got put on hold. Lovely. Not even some musac. After five minutes of silence, feeling we might need our limited airtime later, we gave up and called up our Ocean Cruising Club buddies back in the Chesapeake. They got in touch with the coast guard giving us an essential communications link and kept us updated with what was happening on the rescue front.
For a while we talked about launching our dinghy and going across to try and take him off but the seas were so rough the chances of executing that without one of us ending up in the drink were slim. We also considered floating down our life raft and getting him to climb in but in the conditions, the chances of making a bad situation much worse seemed highly likely as all the signs, or absence of them from the skipper, suggested he wouldn’t have the strength to do what was needed. In addition, a day or so before we left I was doing my all round, offshore checks to make sure something embarrassing, like the mast falling down, didn’t happen when we were offshore, when I found traces of sea water in one of the sail drive legs - the bit that turns the propeller. I replaced the oil and we stopped using the engine. We normally only use one engine anyway so no big deal. Right up until the moment you need two for close quarter manoeuvres in big seas.
On more than one occasion in the four hours we were “on scene” we sat back, put on our thinking hats and tried to work out how to get the guy off his boat and onto ours. Unfortunately, all the options presented an unacceptable degree of risk, after all, at the time, even though there was a communication problem, everyone was still alive and safe onboard - not floundering about in the ocean in a valiant but failed rescue attempt. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he seemed to ignore my yelled suggestions to launch his dinghy or liferaft and we’d pick him up. “What? Get off my still floating boat, climb over the side into a tiny rubber raft and drift off in these seas. You think I’m nuts?”
By this time the cavalry had arrived in the form of a four engined, fixed wing Hercules. The coast guard overhead asked if we could get a VHF to him. We therefore got things organised then made another few passes to windward trying to throw the radio in a dry bag on the end of a floating line. Not a chance. We then tried floating it downwind while I worked the engines to keep us a safe distance off, Anne hanging off the guardrails trying to encourage it along. Unfortunately this also failed as the casualty and the bag were drifting at the same rate. We tried again tying it to our largest fender hoping the wind would blow it down but that also failed miserably for much the same reason. Only later, with time to reflect, did we think the option with the most chance of success would have been to tie a small lead weight to one end of our fishing line, the radio bag to the other. If we’d thrown it hard into the casualty’s cockpit, we might have succeeded. We might also possibly have injured the recipient proving my mothers oft repeated claim that “you could put someone’s eye out with that”, but at least, after he’d hauled the VHF onboard, he could have called us to complain. And that would have been a good sign.
We also knew the coast guard cutter was on the way so, in the end, after a discussion with the coast guard about the incoming weather system, on their suggestion, we turned, left the scene and hot footed it to Bermuda to beat the incoming storm. We left the scene with an intense feeling of guilt, like I hope climbers on Everest feel after they’ve walked past a fellow climber lying in the snow, asking for help.
When we got to Bermuda we asked Bermuda radio if they knew if the rescue had been made. But they new nothing. We also wrote to the US coast guard asking if the guy was safe but again heard nothing. It was only last night that our consciences cleared when our daughter found a report online saying that the following day he’d been taken off by the cutter and safely reunited with his family.
According to the report he was reported overdue on the 6th although we can only remember Pan Pan’s on 11th and maybe 12th. We found him on the 14th. Whatever the dates, he did well to hang in for as long as he did. The conditions were pretty awful.
All in all, an exciting trip south. Now, the next bit. Only another thousand miles to go.
Where’s a P&O cruise when you need it?