This just came out in our yacht clubs newsletter - Great story of endurance on an inland race. Tough storm and I'm amazed they where caught out in it like they where and survived with minimal loss. Great work Syd, and great write up.
DIRE STRAITS 2010!
So, the Race to the Straits... it was a round trip race to Port Townsend - up on Saturday, back to Seattle on Sunday, with a party in Port Townsend and an overnighter at the Point Hudson Marina. The forecast was for 20-25 knot winds in the afternoon both days, but only in the north part. Not frightening at all, especially since we have learned to tie in a reef. Lots of boats signed up - over ninety - and a good time was expected by all. So we left early Saturday (Mark, Birgit and me), did fairly well the first half, and then the wind died and the tide reversed. We couldn’t make any headway, so we started the engine and motor-sailed up toward Port Townsend.
By the time we got close, it was blowing about twenty out of the north, so we tied in a reef and slugged our way into Port Townsend, slopping through heavy chop when we were exposed to the Straits. Not one boat was able to finish the race within the allotted 11 hours. Dinner followed by a snooze on the boat, then up and at ‘em at 0700 for the Sunday race back. When we got out of the marina, we could see that there was very little wind, and a strong ebb, trying to push us out into the Pacific. We struggled just outside of Port Townsend for three hours, making no progress South, and finally threw in the towel, like many of the boats around us. We turned on the engine and started for Seattle.
It started blowing a little, maybe ten knots, out of the south. By the time we got halfway down it was blowing twenty, and we were forced to tack back and forth, using sails and engine, to keep going. By Kingston it was blowing thirty out of the south, whitecaps everywhere and large lumpy seas. The engine was making funny noises. We kept slugging along, but with diminishing hope of getting to Shilshole before dark. We considered ducking into Kingston, but then the engine quit. All of the wave bashing had disturbed junk in the fuel tank and plugged up the filters.
So, with Mark handing me tools and Birgit keeping the boat on a non-dangerous course, I stuck half my body below (through the hatch in the cockpit) and removed the first filter - the only option - and sloshed out the filter housing with clean diesel, getting slopped myself with diesel. The second filter was beyond reach in those conditions - besides, we had no spare. After my half-baked filter change, the engine would start and run for thirty seconds, then quit. We were screwed. So, as it continued to blow harder and harder, I put us on a course toward Everett, figuring to go north between Whidbey and Camano Islands and find a place to hide out until I could deal with the engine and the wind died down. So, off we went, in the pitch dark by now, flying downwind. By midnight Sunday we had gone past Clinton and Langley on Whidbey Island, and found a little tuck in the east Whidbey shore we could sail into.
We sailed almost up to the beach, dropped the anchor, and found ourselves in a pretty protected hole, with the wind still howling across the point but no waves where we were. Whew! Then I noticed we still seemed to be moving. Over the course of half an hour, it became clear that the pressure of the wind on the boat was dragging us toward deep water, and by 1:00am we were in 400 feet of water, with anchor and 200 feet of anchor line dangling down as a sea anchor. We were drifting north at a rate of one or sometimes two knots, but still in the middle of the deep channel. If we got close to any shore, I figured the anchor would catch and we should be ok. Sure enough, at 3:00am (now Monday) the anchor caught about 200 yards off the west side of Camano Island. I stayed up on anchor watch while Birgit and Mark slept. It seemed pretty good, somewhat protected, and the wind seemed to be dying. At 4:00 I woke Mark to take over the watch and fell asleep. At five I woke to sounds of waves crashing and wind howling. It had shifted around to the north, was blowing like hell, and was blowing us toward the beach. The anchor was dragging, but only a tiny bit. It started to blow harder and harder, until by 8:00am it was blowing 50 or 60 knots. Four to six foot waves were crashing down on us, soaking anyone who went outside, and the boat was being shaken like a rat. We had a good anchor, with twenty feet of chain and 200 feet of 5/8 diameter nylon line on it, yet I expected it to break at any minute. We called the Coast Guard for a tow, but both they and the private towing services said they’d have to be nuts to go out in this kind of weather - but not to worry, it would die down soon.
That was about 9:00am Monday. The Camano Island fire trucks showed up to haul us off the beach if the anchor line broke, but we told them to go home, since we didn’t know how long they would have to wait. Meanwhile, distress calls were flooding the VHF from all over – boats turned over in the Straits, dismasted about a mile from us, broken loose from moorings, etc. The Coast Guard did nothing, other than try to call us on our dying cell phones. Fortunately we could charge the VHF, even though the boat battery was getting low without an engine. It blew very hard all day. We tried to sit out in the cockpit to steer the boat a little into the wind, but mainly succeeded in getting soaked once more. We packed an “abandon ship” bag for when we hit the beach - matches, flashlights in ziplock bags, etc. I tried to go forward to bring in a little anchor line - to “freshen the nip” - that is to change the spots the line was chafing to keep it from wearing through. But the wind blew so hard I could not, using all my strength, bring in an inch of line. We were wet and cold, and didn’t dare sleep, since when the line parted we would have about sixty seconds to get ready before piling into the surf. At 7:30pm I decided I had to do something about the anchor line before it got dark. Amazingly, it had held all day in the worst of conditions, but I wanted to get some fresh line at the wear points before dark. When I went forward it was clear we were in deep shit. The line had worn through one of the strands, and it was only a matter of a short time before it broke. The wind was amazing.
The waves were big, but then it would start gusting and blow the tops right off the waves. The water hit us like bullets. Get a mental picture of me, sprawled on the foredeck in my Helly Hansens, keeping my center of gravity low and getting buckets of water thrown over me as I rode up and down on the plunging deck. Having no choice, I pulled on the line as hard as I could, trying to get the damaged portion on deck, and it parted in my hands. “Shit, we’ve lost the anchor,” I yelled, and took off for the cockpit, as the boat took off for the beach. I had thought earlier in the day that, blowing as hard as it was, if the anchor line parted we would rapidly put on speed. I told Mark and Birgit to be prepared for the impact with the beach to be like a car crash. I was also thinking that if we were going that fast that we might be able to steer, and maybe even sail (with no sails up) at least parallel to the beach, if not off it.
There was a point about a mile away, and if we could get around it we could sail directly downwind for quite a while (toward Everett) without hitting land. The wind was actually blowing at about a 45 degree angle toward the beach, and by the time I got a hold of the tiller, we were already going five knots or so. I pulled on the tiller and the boat responded quickly, turning away from the beach! We were able to sail along (remember, no sails) slightly angled away from the beach. I didn’t want to try to clear the point and then fail, because then when we started swimming, we would be swept away from land. The options were: either clear the point with plenty of room, or deliberately run the boat on the beach. After an anxious couple minutes, it became clear we could miss the point with sufficient margin to be safe. Once it was clear that we could make it, I handed the tiller to Birgit and went up to put up the headsail, on the theory that we would have more control with a bit of sail. The main was too hard to raise in that wind, and would have been dangerous as hell if we did an involuntary jibe.
We turned at the point and headed toward Everett, and did over ten knots, surfing down big waves in the growing darkness. We called the Coast Guard and updated them on our situation, and asked if a boat could come out from Everett to get us under tow. They said it was still too rough to send anyone out to meet us, but that if we could continue on down to Seattle we could be met at Shilshole, where it was much calmer, with lighter northerly winds. By then we were exhausted, wet and cold, and it was full dark. We sailed all night, finding that when we turned the corner at Mukilteo to head down to Seattle that it was blowing about 20 knots out of the southeast! The wind seemed to be coming right out of Shilshole. We tacked back and forth, after putting up the mainsail to get a better angle on the wind. We updated the Coast Guard every half hour on our position, and finally arrived at Shilshole about 5:00 Tuesday morning, just as the sky was lightening. The Coast Guard wasn’t there, but they informed us by radio that they weren’t sure when they would be. We were so tired by then that we couldn’t see (or think) straight. We hove to, took down the main, and sailed back and forth by the “hamburger” bouy outside of Shilshole for about 45 minutes, when finally the Coast Guard boat showed up. They refused to tow us to our slip, but took us to a visitor dock with a twenty minute time limit.
Then they came on board and gave us a “Courtesy Marine Inspection,” taking about an hour to go over all the boat’s papers, fire extinguishers, lifejackets, etc. (Editor’s note: this must have been very reassuring!) We had a rum and all went home, leaving the boat on the guest dock. I slept for a couple hours, went in to work, then picked up Birgit and we went back to figure out how to move the boat to our slip. We had called the Shilshole Marina to make sure it was ok to leave the boat at the guest for a few hours, and they told us they had no way to tow it to our slip.
No problem, I thought. I’ll go get the dinghy and tow it by rowing! Fun! So, in pursuit of my bright idea of towing Araminta with the dinghy, we showed up at Shilshole around 4:00pm (Wednesday) just six hours before I had to fly to China. I launched our dinghy, and rowed the 300 yards or so to Araminta. Birgit was on board and took a towing line from me. She cast off the lines, and I pulled Araminta off the dock. It was easy! Then I realized it was so easy because the current was running very strong. Seconds later Araminta was being pushed towards the rocks of the breakwater, and all I could do was row like hell to keep her turned into the current. In a matter of a minute we were back outside the marina, being blown toward the beach. Scramble time! I jumped on board, tied the dinghy behind Araminta and Birgit raised the sails. A few minutes later we were back out by the “hamburger” buoy where the Coast Guard had picked us up ten hours before... Hmmm. . . I thought. It won’t do to call them again. So, we decided to sail into our slip. It worked perfectly!! We dropped the main as we were coming into the south end of the marina, sailed down to our “alley” with only the headsail, made the turn and dropped the headsail about a hundred feet before we arrived at our dock. We coasted in without the slightest fuss, and realized that we could have done the same thing in the morning if we hadn’t been stupidly exhausted. It was good to have the trip end with a little victory. All I have to do when I get back home is change the two fuel filters, and everything should be fine.
Mark is fuel filter shopping while I am on the road, so when I get back on May 29 the boat should be ready for Sarah’s birthday sail.Anyway, long story about a VERY educational experience. Lasting images from the race: Tuesday morning as we arrived at Shilshole, a bright half moon, low in the eastern sky, shrouded, then revealed by racing clouds. The sky was a dark, deep blue, a few stars visible before dawn. The air was fresh and cool and smelled of the sea. Sunday night as we drifted with the anchor hanging in the deep water as the front came through, for a brief moment there was a cloudless night sky, lit by thousands of stars seeming to blow about in the violent wind. Monday, wet and chilled to shivers, a warm cup of tea with sugar and a dash of rum. A piece of bread Monday night, with a chunk of fragrant cheese. Syd Stapleton
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