Viewing “ANGEL PONIES” from PALM COASTER
by David R. Appleton
You saw the article about PALM COASTER in Cruising World, May 2003, p.14
...well here's the rest of the story!
After fueling in Newport at about 1300 we headed out toward the mouth of Narragansett Bay and some 640 nautical miles of Atlantic Ocean between us and Bermuda. Just off Fort Adams we saw a fleet of cruisers assembling, hoisting sails and engaged in what looked like the ritual prestart dance of sailboats about to race. Given the large number of Swans, we surmised this would be the Narragansett to Caribbean (NARC) rally group, scheduled to start their voyage to Bermuda and then to the Caribbean this day, Sunday, November 3, 2002.
We had left Warren, RI at 0830 that bitter cold morning aboard PALM COASTER, a 41’ catamaran. Peter, her owner, had chucked it all ---selling business, house, car, and severing most of his land ties. He’d bought the boat and planned to start a new life in the Caribbean, exchanging autumn leaves, Blue Northers and snow flakes for the warm trade winds and palm tree-lined beaches of “Paradise.” Since his sailing skills had yet to blossom fully, Peter hired me to skipper the delivery of his dream boat to her new home. I brought along one of my best students, Daryl, to crew for the voyage. He sought an ocean passage on a cat since he was thinking of buying one himself. And I had one of my best mates, Jim, lined up to back me up. Unfortunately, business commitments got in Jim’s way and he could not go.
So we were just three aboard. Since I was confident in Daryl’s abilities after three coastwise trips with me as student crew, I promoted him to Mate. He would prove worthy. Peter seemed very game but inexperienced. So our “personnel experience inventory” was short of my minimum requirements for a voyage such as this. Still, I elected to proceed, realizing we were on the edge, but hoping for maximum performance from Daryl, Peter and myself. And this is what I got! I further hoped for kind treatment from Neptune and his cohorts. This was not to be.
Rounding Goat Island we hoisted sails and headed out past Fort Adams to join the NARC fleet in their dance, slowly making our way out of Narragansett Bay in the gentle northerly breeze. Since all the vessels around us seemed to insist on sailing in the light air, I resisted the urge to turn on the engine and begin motorsailing, though mindful of a low pressure system lurking in the central US; a low I hoped to outrun. We had noted this low viewing the Weather Channel on the restaurant TV while enjoying our last breakfast ashore.
At about 1600 the winds died almost altogether and we fired up the iron genny. The others in the NARC Fleet did the same. Through the evening the fleet dispersed over the ocean as the landfall of Rhode Island faded over our stern into a glowing loom in the gathering darkness.
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At 1800 I heard Hank Schmidt aboard s/v CARIBE establish contact with the NARC fleet on VHF 16 then 72 then HF (SSB) 4003.0. I knew Hank was running the well publicized NARC rally making the same voyage to Bermuda we intended, so we resolved to monitor their progress and glean their thoughts on weather and routing by listening in each day at 0900 and 1800. But we refrained from butting in with a call since we were not officially members of this fleet. Unfortunately we missed subsequent contacts in the excitement of the following 3 days.
Through Sunday night and Monday we proceeded motorsailing in the light NE winds using first the starboard engine then the port, hoping to make tracks SE ahead of the low. Monday the noon USCG November Mike November HF broadcast weather forecast on SSB spoke of this low in disturbing terms, calling it “strong” in the south central Midwest due to exit the Delmarva coast Wednesday morning and deepen. We copied the “Herb Show” between 1600 & 1800 that afternoon and Herb seemed to agree about the intensity of this low (in the 996-998 mb range) but predicted it to leave the coast centered at Cape May. That pleased me a little since it would be centered farther north.
I planned to make all possible speed SE, perpendicular to the NE track the low was expected to make. Since we found ourselves on the wrong or “dangerous” side of the low (the SE side of a NE tracking system) and far from any chance of making a safe anchorage, the only thing we could do was get as much real estate between us and the storm epicenter as possible. So we kicked the engine up to 3000 rpm and ran with full genoa and 1 reef in the mainsail on a course of 160 M which took us away from the predicted storm track. And through Monday night the winds built to the 18 to 22 knot range.
Tuesday the winds continued moderate to strong out of the W and SW to 28+ kts through noon when they clocked to the N and NNE and on around to ESE by late afternoon abating to the 12 to 20 kt range. By 1500, after listening to weather reports from USCG’s NMN and Herb speaking of this huge low and “serious gale warnings” and “serious storm warnings”, I took advantage of the daylight to put the third reef in PALM COASTER’s main, this requiring a trip to the end of the boom to reeve a line through the 3rd reef clew, which was not rigged for jiffy reefing, securing it firmly to the boom. This accomplished and thus configured we were able to continue making good progress SE away from the storm track, making 6.5 to 8.5 knots close-hauled motorsailing.
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From 0100 Wednesday, Nov. 5, the barometer began to drop like the proverbial rock--from 1020 mb at 0100 to 1014 mb by 0700..... and through the day until it reached 0998 mb at 2100 Wednesday night.
As the pressure dropped the winds howled and the seas rose. Frankly I was bewildered. I thought we were well clear of the low leaving the NE coast at Cape May some 370 nautical miles NW of our 0800 position at N36°16’ x W67°47. I conjectured we were experiencing another low spawned by Cape Hatteras under the influence of the one off New Jersey.... or that one at NJ was really huge! Winds at our position were now going W to S at 35 to 40 knots. Whatever the case... we were certainly in a storm!
At 1400 Wednesday our barometer dropped 3 millibars in an hour in a persistent nose dive. I assessed the situation and our resources.. and planned tactics. We were not well-equipped for a storm...no storm canvas and no drogue or sea anchor. So we got what we had together. We amassed all our extra anchor line in the cockpit and prepared a bridle for dragging a warp if necessary, trailing whatever junk we could find off the stern to keep things under control if we had to run off.....
We then dropped the main altogether, and encased it in its “Stack Pack” lazy jack system. Thus stowed it looked like a makeshift storm trisail to me! Under this we might be able to heave to if conditions became in extremis. So we lashed all to the boom and secured the boom with topping lift, main sheet and preventer in such a way that this makeshift “storm trisail” was rigid as possible and would actually function as a proper storm trisail. We also roller reefed the genoa to about the size of a small kitchen table cloth and secured that as tightly as possible.
Thus configured we hunkered down, and the wind and seas continued to build as the day wore on!
At 1600 I called Bermuda Harbor Radio on the 4 meg. safety channel I knew they monitored, 4125.0 Khz, to check our SSB communication capabilities as conditions deteriorated. As fate would have it, Danny Little, who had been my mate for about 1800 nm on a couple of voyages over the last year, was duty Watch Officer. We had a nice chat and a bit of joking about our being “caught out” and being sped to Bermuda on the wings of a gale....but underneath was the tacit understanding that things could get really dicey. I told him I’d keep BHR advised of our situation and update our position and weather observations regularly.
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Things were not going well below either. We’d secured the engines after having used them to gain an extra knot or so as we fled SE away from the storm’s predicted track. I ordered engine checks to be sure they’d be ready if needed during the storm.
Daryl found the port engine swimming in sea water! He broke out the hand bilge pump and pumped about 8 gallons of water out of the engine bilge, then frantically searched for the leak. He found it shortly. Water was pouring in through a seam in the stern where the step unit is attached to the hull. We found later that this seam, where the bottom step or landing meets the first riser, located a mere 4 to 6 inches above the water line, was secured to the main hull with just 3 3/4” #8 screws and a bead of caulk! One of the screws, unwashered, had popped through the fiberglass and the caulk had let go leaving the sea easy access to the aft portion of the hull. Waves pounded on the lower platform, flexing it and opening the breach even further, allowing sea water to pour in mercilessly.
The obvious solution (plug the hole!) was too risky since it would be dangerous to descend the ladder to the leak and stuff something in it in these conditions. We’d have to pump and wait till things got a bit calmer to effect a repair.
Peter checked the starboard side and found a similar situation. But the engine was dry and the water was not coming in nearly as fast and was draining directly into the midship bilge where the electric bilge pump could handle it easily. Daryl rigged a manual bilge pumping arrangement in the port hull by cannibalizing our dock side hose and routing the pumped water to the cockpit and back overboard where it belonged.
Our plight was compounded by the failure of the electric bilge pump on the port side where the major leak was. And the water was not getting to the central bilge on this side anyway. So we had to pump out the after compartment by hand, and even though we discovered the source, there was just no way to plug the leak in these seas which were growing monstrous.
Things were going to Hell in a hurry! So at 1800 I called Bermuda Harbor Radio again and issued a “pan, pan” call for PALM COASTER. With winds now in the 40 to 50 kt range, seas to 15’ and more, water gushing in the stern of the port hull where the electric bilge pump was inoperative, we faced the very real danger of foundering, or worse.
The BHR Watch Officer responded with the characteristic cheerfully calm professional voice with which each greets all calls. Danny had passed the word that we might call in, so this Watch knew exactly who we were. He got right to the core of the problem: storm conditions, water gushing in, leak unpluggable, electric pump failure forcing manual pumping, three male crew in reasonably good shape.
“My concern is the fatigue factor,” he said calmly.
“Mine as well!” I replied. “We’ll see what we can do about the bilge pump.”
So we set up a six hour com schedule. I would next call to advise BHR of our position, weather and on board conditions a little after midnight when Danny would be on watch again.
We reviewed our abandon ship plan and assignments. Daryl would launch the life raft and make sure we were all wearing life jackets, Peter would take one ditch bottle with flares, GPS, hand held vhf etc., and I would take the pelican case with the rest of the essentials and my Pains Wessex GPS equipped 406 mhz EPIRB. We would only leave the boat on my command taking these essentials with us, tied to our wrists with lanyards. I would broadcast a MAY DAY to BHR on 4125 khz and in general on vhf 16.
Peter looked shocked saying, “We are NOT going to sink!!!” He seemed to be willing the boat to stay afloat as he was suddenly aware that all his worldly goods were contained in this leaking boat on a storm-tossed sea.
“Of course we are not going to sink,” I assured. “But we have to be prepared for the worst!” For the present, things were under control.
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In fact some things were working really well. The B&G auto pilot performed flawlessly. It seemed unfazed by the extreme conditions and steered us steadfastly through the briny foam and spindrift, keeping us on course, more or less on the rhumb line to Bermuda, or at least on the course we assigned it which was as close to the rhumb line as conditions permitted. Steering 90% of the time, this auto pilot enabled the three of us to devote our energies to keeping the boat afloat and any spare time to getting needed rest.
And the ICOM 700 Pro SSB radio worked extremely well. We were able to make first contact with Bermuda Harbor Radio better than 450 nm out. And through our ordeal we never failed to contact BHR on our com schedule. So they had a very good idea of our position throughout this gravely dangerous time. That was really comforting.
And the rig, with our tiny head sail and stack pack make-shift storm trisail was taking the storm force winds in stride and driving us through the boiling seas with firm determination. It seemed stout enough to take it.
As night fell Wednesday conditions worsened. By 1900 the barometer reached 1000 mb. Wind speeds built to a steady 45-50 kts (gusting to 60 or more!!!) out of the S to SSE forcing us to go more easterly than I would have liked on magnetic 110° which yielded a true course of about 097°. This would keep us in the influence of the storm longer as it tracked NE sucking us with it like a cosmic vacuum cleaner, but it was the best we could do and keep the seas about 40° off our bow. And I knew the winds would eventually clock to the SW to W then NW as the low moved off NE and the high filled in behind.
The pitch black new moon night mercifully spared us the sight of the mountainous waves hurtling toward us. Heaven only knows how high these monsters grew. But we often felt their impact as the occasional boarding breaker slapped our starboard side with foam and fury in what seemed a diabolically playful manner.
“Angel Ponies!” That’s what the crew on one of the NARC boats described seeing riding the waves at this point in the storm. We were comparing notes in the tranquility of the Dinghy Club in St. George the following Saturday night, hoisting a few Dark and Stormies after we all had come in safely. John Moore and his crew were sailing a Hunter Fifty, BREAKíN WIND, on which the two couple crew could only yield 2 folks capable of steering the boat in these conditions. On port and starboard 1 hour watches though a 30+ hour period, they began to see the “Angel Ponies” in fatigue-induced hallucinations as they hung on to the wheel like grim death through the blow.
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For our part on PALM COASTER, things began to improve Wednesday night even as the storm raged on with the winds steady in the 48 to 54 kts range out of the SW. We found the problem with the bilge pump, a loose connection, and fixed it. We then routed the manual bilge pump from the port stern compartment to the midship bilge on the port side. This meant we still had to pump from the stern bilge to midship to maintain trim. But once there the electric pumped it overboard making things a lot easier.
Daryl and I took turns sleeping in the port aft state room on our off watch. This pumping regime meant we could only sleep about one hour at a time (listening to the water gushing in through the stern breach as we tried to rest), then we’d have to give the manual bilge pump about 60 to 80 strokes to clear the water....take another nap...then repeat the cycle. Not a great rest, but it was better than sinking!
At midnight we could report to Bermuda Harbor Radio that things were really under control. At least we were able to match the sea water ingress with our ability to pump it out.
But there were other dangers. The waves, having had time to build in the fierce winds, were now 18 to 22 feet with caps occasionally breaking. The “Angel Ponies” looked to us like monstrous diabolical stallions sporting wildly tangled foamy white manes. They bucked and kicked and tossed us about like so much sage brush and dust.
One huge wave caught us sideways and struck broad on our starboard beam whipping us over on a roll of 75° or more to port. All the gear, books, boxes, computers, what-have-you that Peter had stored on the starboard shelves in the starboard hull were pitched to the deck in a daunting tangle.
“Everything I own is turned to cole slaw!” Peter said in despair as he gazed at the mess. I found this an apt description. I’ve often noted that ships’ cabins can bear a remarkable resemblance to the leavings of a kitchen blender when gear is not stowed securely. And this can become dangerous. Ours was fortunately just a mess and a bit of inconvenience.
And PALM COASTER’s companionway (if you can call it that) featured sliding patio doors, more than 30 square feet of glass presenting itself broadside to boarding waves if we were to be pooped in following seas!!! This is indubitably a wonderful feature in peaceful anchorages in “Paradise,” but in these hellacious seas the sliding doors became frighteningly vicious guillotines through which we had to dance every time we passed between saloon and cockpit. I myself was chopped several times while running this gauntlet, and was glad I’d ordered all to wear our type I PFDs for the duration of the storm. The thick kapok spared me from injury.
When closed these doors looked frighteningly vulnerable. Sure enough, even though prior to leaving Warren we had fashioned doorstops out of pieces of PVC pipe to limit the doors’ opening scope, one of them got broken in the storm.... Not the glass, which is very thick and probably able to withstand repeated hammer blows, but the frame. This allowed sea water to enter the saloon a few times once the winds clocked to the NW and we began to take following seas on a broad reach. This also proved more an inconvenience than a danger. But I’m certainly more comfortable with the traditional stout hatch boards of a monohull in seas such as these.
Her hull was taking a severe beating and beginning to yield under the strain. Aside from the breach in the stern where the sea continued to flow in unabated, the saloon sole was flexing ominously. We could feel waves under our feet slapping the bridge deck between the hulls. And the seat/cabinet fixed to the floor in the center of the saloon had been wrenched from its moorings. Screws had pulled out and it was walking about the cabin unfettered with each wave’s slap. So we continued to look for hull integrity compromises, but found none. PALM COASTER was holding together.
One further problem developed when we started the starboard engine to charge batteries and run the freezer compressor. After running for about 3 minutes it overheated and we had to shut it down. Apparently the impeller sucked air into the raw water system as the intake came out of the water on a wave. This was no real problem since we had our port engine. It would only make docking a bit more challenging when we reached Bermuda if we couldn’t reprime the raw water system and get it started. This was not a concern at the moment. We started “Mr. Port” to do the charging duties. He was now dry and ready to serve. Redundancy is wonderful.
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Midnight on Wednesday we turned the corner. The barometer bottomed at 998 mb (though I suspect calibration was low by at least 5 mb) and was starting to rise. The winds which had been SSE to S to SSW most of the day clocked to SW and WSW, enabling us to begin to reach our way out of this extra tropical cyclone. They were still strong, in the 45 to 55 range, but we were now on a comfortable broad reach with quartering seas. Since we were averaging more than 8 knots through the water, the huge seas were offered fewer opportunities to board our stern and enter the breach as we surfed away from them. So the pumping routine was somewhat relieved.
Through Thursday morning the winds abated to the 35 to 45 kt range and by 0800 winds were mostly in the high 30s and the barometer was at 1010 so we rolled out the genoa from 15% to about 60%. Now we were making good speed at 7.5 to 9+ kts on a course of 175° M on a broad reach heading bang on for Bermuda. We actually relaxed and found the 35 kt winds quite comfortable!
Friday the winds continued to abate and clock to N then NNE. At 0600 we jibed, unlashed the main and hoisted it to the first reef. We were able to reach off under one reef in the main and full genny averaging better than 8.5 kts in winds of 25 to 32 kts.
We sighted Bermuda at about 1100, past Kitchen Shoals at 1300, and were through Town Cut and rafted on to Captain Frank’s s/v WANDERLUST, a 50’ steel ketch, at the Customs Dock on Ordinance Island by just after 1400. Frank had been in the blow as well, having sailed from Mystic, CT a day before we left. We swapped horror stories. WANDERLUST had her 12’ aluminum dingy with a 25 hp engine wrested from her davits by the raging seas. We couldn’t top that one, I’m pleased to report.
By 1500 we were docked on the wharf across from customs right in down town in St. George in the berth my friend Danny had arranged for us. Once secured, we hoisted libations and thanked Neptune for sparing us once more. We met with Danny and other Bermuda friends and made contact with Commodore Hank and the NARC fleet, the ones that had continued through the storm (some had apparently diverted to Cape May where they weathered the storm in port).
We spent the weekend enjoying the pleasures of meals and drinks ashore spiced with the camaraderie of fellow sailors, and making the necessary repairs to make PALM COASTER ready for the next leg, the 850 nm sail to St. Thomas and her new home among the palm lined islands.
By Monday Noon we felt boat and crew were prepared to engage the sea again, so we fueled, cleared customs and departed, leaving Town Cut at about 1300 in 20 kt SE winds. Once more unto the breach!
This leg had its own challenges in store for us. But after the voyage of last week and the extreme conditions PALM COASTER, Daryl and Peter had met and mastered during their first major ocean passage and “baptism of fire,” I was confident we were ready for almost anything. Our collective “experience inventory” had been cubed. And they all proved very worthy indeed.
But that’s another story.
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