What is the difference between an interesting day and a stressful day when you are on a sailing vacation? I submit to you that it is this: TIME. When people are rushed for time, bad things happen. And then, when bad things happen, our stress level goes skyrocketing. When stress levels go up our pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that is responsible for our logical thinking and good decision making (our executive function), goes bye-bye. And then the fun really begins. Let’s repeat that for the visual learners among us:
Feeling pressed for time –> bad things happen –>loss of brain function–>whole shit ton of fun
Get it? The difference between a stressful day and an interesting learning experience where you feel really engaged with life on the water is having to be somewhere by a certain time and/or not taking the time to think things through. We know it, and yet we still have jobs to go home to, so each time we take our summer cruise, we know we are basically asking for trouble. And the universe complies willingly.
As is our usual way, Mike and I sailed across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at sunset. Really, we must just love to do this because we always find a way to sail across in the dark. No big deal. We had great wind and waves; really, really great as in 25-30 knots directly on the beam, and seas that crashed into the cockpit in a rather exciting way. We had a lot of practice steering the boat with the waves, keeping them from hitting us square on the beam. About every fourth one was a monster with lots of cresting and foaming at the mouth and delicious rumbling. Fabulous. It was not cold, and it was not raining. These are two good things and all I can really ask of the weather gods in this area. We were happy, even if going home. Moonrise was in her element.
We made record time, for us, in the crossing of the strait, making about 7 knots per hour overall. Terrific! We were feeling so good that once we pulled into Port Townsend, we decided we’d ride our wave of good luck and keep going to Port Ludlow to anchor for the night. I mean, what could possibly happen?
We always take the shortcut through the Port Townsend “ship” canal on these trips. It’s a very narrow channel and the water runs swiftly through it so the timing has to be right.
We entered the channel at around 10:00 pm at the tail end of the flood. We’ve been that way many times before, are aware of the channel markers, and the tide was getting close to flat. The night was clear and bright so we could see pretty well. We had just gone underneath the bridge when Mike said, ‘Melissa!! Is that a sailboat coming our way near the shore?’ Now it takes more than that to get my attention. But his voice sounded really alarmed when he raised it further and said, “Are they outside the channel markers? Melissa, that boat is too close to shore! What’s going on?? What are they doing??”. Then I understood his panic.
Here was a beautiful sailboat, clearly outside the channel markers and close to the rocky shore, coming in our direction. We began hailing them on the radio to warn them, but no one answered. I flashed our spotlight at them, and the flashlight as well, trying to get their attention.
And then they were on the rocks. Hard.
It’s actually a gut wrenching experience to watch a fellow sailor sail his boat right up onto the rocks. There is a sick feeling that is pretty hard to describe. The boat, a 1966 Kettenburg 41, was headed to the Port Townsend Wooden Boat festival. Now it was sitting perched on the very top of two rocks.
We turned Moonrise around, anchored on the edge of the deeper water close to the channel marker (which is unlit at night, by the way), and Mike rowed Puddler over with our extra anchor to try to help kedge them off the rocks. Because I’m a ‘girl’ and not as strong as Mike, I got to stay with Moonrise. I’m not complaining, but REALLY! I mean, it was dark! I could barely see the action. Have you ever tried to use binoculars in the dark? Well, it doesn’t work. Plus, as a genuine, card-carrying psychotherapist, I could have pulled out my fancy tricks for reducing trauma and maybe helped the guy save what was left of his executive function in this situation. But someone had to keep Moonrise safe and the current was about to shift.
It was their really good fortune that no one was hurt and the boat was not taking on water. The captain was on the boat with his 20 year old son, an inexperienced sailor. I think it may have been his first time on the boat, poor kid.
Mike set both our kedging anchor and one supplied by the vessel’s owner. The owner began hauling away on the winch and I saw the boat move a bit, but not enough. Still, there was hope and I found myself holding my breath and visualizing that boat just splashing off the rocks, free again. Meanwhile, the owner had already contacted the Coast Guard and they were sending a Vessel Assist boat. This is where it gets interesting, and not in a good way.
When Vessel Assist arrived, Mike and the owner had the two anchors deployed off the stern of the boat (which faced the shore), and the current was swift. The boat was still hard on the rocks, very close to shore. Between the two anchor lines stretching out into the water, the depth of the water around the vessel, and the swiftness of the current, I knew it would take a thoughtful approach to get the boat off the rocks without a lot of additional damage.
A thoughtful approach is just what did not happen, more’s the pity. The Vessel Assist boat approached the Kettenburg from the stern (the side closest to shore), attached a towing bridle to the boat, and jerked that boat off the rocks hard and fast. From where I was standing on Moonrise, it looked like the boat had literally jumped off the rocks. I guess if the only goal is to get a boat back in the water as fast as possible, they did a good job of that. But had it been my vessel I don’t know what would have been more upsetting: grounding the boat in the first place, or being further manhandled in that fashion. At least the boat was floating again.
Back in the water, the Kettenburg motored up to Moonrise and rafted on while Mike was working with the Vessel Assist boat to recover our anchor. The boat owner had released his own anchor and planned to return the next day to retrieve it. I had a chance to see his beautiful boat, lovingly kept for many years and to talk to him. He was from Seattle and while he had traveled that channel before, he didn’t see the channel marker in the dark. One minute he was in deep water, the next minute he saw us flashing lights at him and looked at his GPS just in time to hit the rocks. Poor guy. It could happen to any of us and I truly felt for him.
I wondered where Mike was and what was taking so long. He was very, very tired having sailed across the strait and then having spent some hours rowing Puddler against a nasty current, loaded with anchors. I was worried he was having trouble getting back to Moonrise. I looked for him and could see him struggling against the current.
That’s when the loud cursing began. I won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say that the old adage about ‘cursing like a sailor’ is very true. And it was not Mike. He doesn’t know all those words, much less use them. No, the vessel assist guy was yelling and cursing a blue streak.
Because he had wrapped our anchor rode around his own prop!
He was well and truly stuck with no engine and no steerage. And to add insult to injury, Mike had to go back and hand him his own knife to cut our anchor line free from his boat. He used Mike’s knife, then accidentally dropped it in the water. He gave Mike a knife from the Vessel Assist boat, but it’s not a pocket knife like Mike always carries. Oh well. Goodbye, Mike’s knife. Goodbye extra anchor and rode.
Guess who pulled the Vessel Assist boat out of danger? Moonrise. Mike rowed their towing bridle to our boat, we hooked them up to our stern cleats, Mike hauled up our anchor, and I put Moonrise into gear. Mindful of not ramming them into the unlit channel marker, we pulled them into deep water and we handed them off to the Kettenburg to tow back to Port Townsend. We were more than ready to be finished for the evening, get anchored in a safe harbor, and get a good night’s sleep before the 12 hour motor boat ride back to Tacoma the next day. We were exhausted. We anchored right there in Oak Bay; not exactly protected, but safe and available. I never really felt the rolling from ship traffic.
We hope the Kettenburg’s owner was able to work a deal with Vessel Assist so he won’t be out too much money for this misadventure. You know: ‘You saved my behind and in return I saved yours. Now we’re even.’ That would be good.
If we look at this situation in light of my original theme, that time is what makes the difference between an interesting and challenging situation, and a stressful situation where things go badly, I think you can see my point. This vessel, while high and dry on the rocks, was in no danger. No one was injured, and the boat was not taking on water. If the stress of ramming up onto the rocks had not stolen the pre-frontal cortex of the boat owner (and believe me, I can’t even imagine how horrible he felt) he might have decided to simply spend the night on the boat and wait until the next day to assess the situation in the light of day. No one, including us, bothered to check the tide tables to see if the tide would be higher the following day. A higher tide would have helped float the boat off. Of course, with a boat on the rocks, I imagine one’s first thought must be ‘get it OFF!’.
Furthermore, I believe that had we had a longer time to work on the problem, Mike and the owner may have eventually been able to get that boat back in the water and with less damage than they sustained getting off the quick way. After the boat was pulled off the rocks, I could see how the rocks were situated under the hull, something that would have been apparent by the light of day. I think that by using anchors and Moonrise, after the current had abated a bit, we may have been able to accomplish the task.
Finally, why was the Vessel Assist dude in such a hurry? I mean, it’s his job, not mine, and I am not qualified to ‘Monday morning quarterback’ his technique, but I cannot for the life of me understand why he didn’t make sure the kedging anchors were put away rather than get between them. That just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m willing to accept the possibility that pulling the Kettenburg off the rocks the way he did was the only possible way to do it. I fully realize that Vessel Assist is an emergency service and that many times their job is extraordinarily difficult, if not downright dangerous. In this case, however, a little more time in assessing the situation might not have come amiss. Perhaps if he had viewed the situation in broad daylight this would have been clear to him, another reason to wait before calling for help. We might also have retained ownership of our anchor, which is now gone. We could have taken the time to buoy the anchor and retrieved it the next day if we’d had the time to think before cutting the line. At that point, however, what with all the cursing and general yelling taking place and Mike’s level of tiredness, I think Mike just wanted to be as far away from Vessel Assist as possible. (Come to think of it’s probably a good policy to keep a buoy on that anchor line at all times, just in case.)
This situation also begs a discussion on self-sufficiency. Given enough time to deal with the situation, would the captain of that boat have been able to resolve his own problem without involving the Coast Guard or the Vessel Assist folk? It certainly would have cost him less in the long run if it worked out that way, not to mention giving him a certain amount of self-satisfaction. It is a very heavy boat, so that compromised the situation (and also probably made the difference between a boat that was taking on water and a boat that was still sound because that heaviness comes from really good heavy hull construction). I imagine that had we waited until the next day, the captain would have had several sailors and their boats and anchors to help rather than just Mike. Few sailors would have kept going seeing the boat on the rocks like that. Sailors like to help other sailors get their boats back in the water. Take a look at this post on Zero to Cruising.
Someone is sure to mention traveling at night. This situation clearly shows the risks we take when we travel at night, even in waters we know well. Mike and I are guilty of traveling at night and it is always the time factor that forces that decision. We know the risks and remain extraordinarily cautious during those times. For instance, when sailing through Port Townsend’s waters, someone stands on the bow looking for boats anchoring with no anchor light, far out from shore. (It happens more than I can believe.) So far, we’ve been lucky. This captain was local and was experienced. He’d owned this vessel for many years. Apparently he let his guard down just long enough to get in trouble. Also, his son, while 20 years old, was not experienced, meaning the captain was basically single-handing the boat. I don’t know what his day had been like up until then, but there’s usually a reason why people are traveling at night and I’d be willing to bet it almost always has something to do with a time schedule.
I am hopeful that should Mike and I ever find ourselves in a similar situation, we would be able to ascertain whether we, indeed, have an emergency that threatens life or vessel, or whether we have what amounts to an inconvenience, even if costly. If everyone is safe and sound, and the vessel is safe for awhile, then perhaps we can take the luxury of time to be able to think clearly about what to do next. I can only hope we are able to hang onto our brains long enough to make that assessment.
Post script: We are hoping the owner of the vessel will email us some photos of the damage. If he is willing, we’ll post them so we can all learn from them. We are not publishing his name or the name of his vessel to protect his privacy. We sincerely hope he gets his boat repaired quickly and easily so it can grace the waters around here once more.