"Panpan, Panpan, Panpan. Hello all stations. Hello all stations."

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This is part-one of a two part story. To find out how we were rescued see Coat Guard, The Navy & Dolphins to the rescue

Boat Delivery Nightmare

Over our past five years and 35,000 miles of cruising our own boat, a Beneteau 390, occasionally delivering boats for friends has been a welcome respite.  It has allowed us to experience different systems and designs which, in some cases, we have incorporated on Sampatecho.  We have always been over-cautious when “surveying” the subject vessels before setting out.  Safety and survival have always been paramount in our cruising so we won’t be held to any artificial dead-lines.

This is the story of an experienced crew, a well-found, high-tech boat, a near-perfect forecast and a relatively short hop off-shore and how it went terribly awry.

We agreed to deliver a boat from Fort Pierce, FL to Norfolk, VA for friends who had to return home for medical attention.  Bradd and I had been working on our boat in a yard in Beaufort, NC for a week and Bradd’s arms were bruised and sore from fighting with plumbing hoses.  We were both ready for a sail boat ride and what a boat!  She is a 47’ custom built racer, de-tuned from an Open 50 design by Roger Martin.   She is a treat to sail with her self tacking jib, power winches and carbon fiber sails.  She really flies.  We considered it a compliment that the owners would allow us to take their boat north.

 

We spent a day with the owners learning the systems and reviewing the equipment above and below decks.  One of the last queries Captain Bradd had was ‘Where is your emergency tiller?’  The owner jinxed us by saying we would never need it – “this steering is a totally reliable fail-safe steering system. There’s no way you’ll ever need it!” – but he showed Bradd the emergency tiller just in case.

The plan

We left Fort Pierce at 06:30 Tuesday morning with a reasonable weather forecast for the rest of the week.  Bradd plotted a course that would curve with the coast line & not take us more than 50 – 60 miles offshore.  If we drew a straight line from Fort Pierce to Beaufort it would take us much further offshore and north winds were forecast for that area of the ocean for part of the week.  So he felt it would be more prudent to stay closer to shore to take advantage of better winds but be far enough off to get a little help from the Gulf Stream along the Florida coast.  We calculated that if we could maintain 7 knots, we would be in Beaufort before noon on Friday and be in Norfolk by Sunday or Monday at the latest.

The reality

Winds Tuesday were variable and we did some motor sailing to maintain speed.  After sunset the winds picked up & we flew along at 9 – 10 knots.  By midnight the wind was up to 20 knots and so we reefed the main.  The owner had told us that he doesn’t normally tuck a reef until the wind is close to 25.  Seas had been building and it was becoming a wet ride but she has a hard dodger and a second chart plotter mounted on the coach-roof by the companionway. So we let the autopilot drive the boat and stayed dry and comfortable under the dodger.

When the steering fails

By 05:30 the wind was gusting over 30 knots and Bradd decided to furl the jib and put a second reef in the main.  We had just sorted out the lines to furl the jib when the autopilot failed and she started to round up into the wind.  Bradd grabbed the wheel but before he could get us back on course, the steering “snapped” and failed completely and we were at the mercy of the wind and sails.  She started careening back and forth.  Bradd took hold of the main halyard and as she passed bow through the wind he managed to drop the main – thank goodness for lazy jacks!  He retrieved the emergency tiller, removed the cap in the cockpit sole, positioned it and we once again had control.

 

Bradd went below to see why the steering had failed and to determine whether he could repair it.  The boat was designed with small parallel arms on the steering post and the rudder post. Unfortunately, both the main steering wheel & auto helm steering arms had snapped off and were beyond his ability to repair.  We were just over 50 miles from shore in 130 feet of water and about half way between Jacksonville & Fernandina.  We checked the charts and decided to alter course for St Mary’s Inlet (Fernandina) where we knew we could anchor to sort out the steering problem.  We were resigned to our revised agenda and settled in for a day of tiller steering at 5 knots under 100% jib alone in sloppy seas.

 

The sun was beginning to rise and by the dawn’s early light, we watched with open mouth disbelief and horror as the emergency tiller arm separated!!  It looked as easy as peeling a banana!  The emergency tiller was made of aluminum no thicker than a boat hook – who ever manufactured it should go straight to jail!

 

Now we were once again without any steerage and the self tacking jib began tacking back and forth.  I realized that there was no way for us to readily ‘heave-to’ – so much for the ease of self tacking jibs – no thank you!  We furled the jib and began a search of the boat for something to jury-rig a new tiller.  We found that by putting the broken handle upside down in the rudder block and jamming tools around it, we could at least hold the rudder in one spot and try to keep the bow into the wind.  We couldn’t get bow to the wind, even with the tiller hard over, but it did keep us from turning and running further offshore with the wind and waves.  We were still drifting further from shore but not as quickly as we otherwise would have.

Hailing the Coast Guard - too far offshore!

While I held the rudder in place, Bradd tried to radio the Coast Guard on the VHF radio.  Neither the Coast Guard nor Tow Boat US answered our call – we were too far offshore.  Bradd transmitted a PanPan to any vessel in the area.  Danny on fishing vessel Misty answered our call at 07:30. He was about 20 miles closer to shore and was able to relay information to the Coast Guard. 

 

“Panpan, Panpan, Panpan...  

...Hello all stations.  Hello all stations.  This is United States Coast Guard Sector Mayport, United States Coast Guard Sector Mayport.  Time ….. universal coordinated time…...  The Coast Guard has received a report of a 47 foot sailboat adrift in approximately position Lat….. Long…..  All mariners are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and report all sightings to the United States Coast Guard.  Signed, United States Coast Guard Mayport, FL.  Out.” 

Their broadcast was strong enough for us to hear them but they couldn’t hear us.

and now we wait to be rescued

It was then a waiting game with plenty of time to contemplate our predicament and peruse hindsight.  We both felt sick about it.  We had done more damage in 24 hours to the owner’s boat than they had done since taking delivery – or could imagine doing!  What could we have done to prevent it?  Should we have reduced more sail sooner?  Should we have stayed closer to shore where the winds may have been lighter?

 

This is part-one of a two part story. To find out how we were rescued see Coat Guard, The Navy & Dolphins to the rescue

 

 

Over the years as live-aboards on our sailboat we’ve collected countless stories in our logbook. You may have read some of them in sailing magazines over the years. We are working hard to bring them to you on our blog “Pearls from our Ships Log.” More than stories, you can find hard earned tips and advice. We are happy to answer any questions you might have about cruising along the Eastern seaboard. Leave us a comment or email us from our contact link!

Fair winds, Maeve & Bradd (or Mad & Brave!) Wilson.

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