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The boat went down ‘just like the Titanic’

Squalls blew in shortly after midnight May 16, eclipsing the starlit sky off Florida’s Gulf Coast. The finish line of the fourth annual Bone Island Regatta lay more than 100 miles to the south in Key West as Leila B, a 1982 42-foot Tartan, surged through the moderate chop with the lee rail under in the 25-knot wind.

Capt. Scott McWilliams had restored the 1982 42-foot Tartan and was planning to crusie to Mexico with his wife.

Capt. Scott McWilliams, his son James and crewman Patrick Smith were in the cockpit. The two other members of the crew were below trying to sleep. Suddenly, as James McWilliams was trimming the roller-furling genoa, the head of the sail tore free from the foil, making it impossible to properly tension the sail to maintain its shape. Not wanting to further damage the genoa, McWilliams had the crew roll it up. They continued the race under staysail and main.

McWilliams, 71, had lovingly restored Leila B, fitting it out for extended cruising. He and his wife were looking forward to a six-week adventure in Mexico. As a research biologist, he also had lined up a gig to do dive surveys to determine the health of reefs and to do fish counts. In addition to a new diesel with V-drive, transmission, running rigging, radar, electronics and many other upgrades, McWilliams had rigged the boat with heavy-duty compressors that were part of an “on-board dive system that could support two divers at 60 feet all day long,” he says.

The boat was his summer home and a means of earning income, McWilliams says. He holds a 50-ton master license with sail endorsement from the Coast Guard, and he’s an American Sailing Association instructor, as well. An avid racer, he was disappointed about the loss of boat speed, but the wind was still up and Leila B was performing as well as could be expected.

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“We were in it to win the race,” crewman Smith, 50, says. “We were sailing the boat hard, trying to coax all the speed we could out of her.”

The wind dropped as the sun rose. The boat slowed to about 3 knots, wallowing in the 3- to 4-foot chop. By 10 a.m. they were still about 80 nautical miles from Key West. The crew tried everything to increase boat speed, rolling out the genoa to the stays despite the tear, even setting the spinnaker. “We could fly the spinnaker, but we could only make good a course to the Dry Tortugas. That’s when we threw in the towel,” McWilliams says.

McWilliams suspects a series of events led to the failure of Leila B's stuffing box.

The crew took in the sails. McWilliams fired up the engine, put it into gear and immediately heard a loud “thunk.” The engine stalled. “It turns out we’d fouled the prop on the spinnaker tack line. James went down and was able to easily pull the six wraps off the shaft like thread on a spool,” McWilliams says.

They started the engine again, put it into gear and got under way. McWilliams went below to use the head. On his way back up the companionway, he noticed a little water in the bilge. “I told the crew to check to see if the bilge pumps were working, and as I was coming up the companionway stairs I heard a strange growling sound from the engine. I shouted, ‘Shut it down!’ ”

A torrent of water flooded into the bilge. For a second, McWilliams just stared in disbelief. Then the crew swung into action, checking through-hulls, hoses and the engine compartment. “The water was coming in fast,” Smith says. “We couldn’t see the stuffing box because of the water swishing around. The stuffing box and shaft were under the engine.”

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The boat was equipped with two electric pumps that could each pump 500 gallons an hour. The pumps weren’t able to keep up, even with two of the crew assisting with two beefy hand pumps. “I was in total disbelief that the boat was sinking,” McWilliams says. “She was too tough a boat for that. If a Tartan hits a whale, the whale swims off with a headache. One of the crew shouted, ‘Scott, this boat’s going down!’ ”

Two of the crewmembers rapidly pumped up the 10-foot inflatable. McWilliams put out a mayday over the VHF while Smith activated the EPIRB. Within 15 minutes the galley stove was under water. The bilge access hatches, cushions and other debris sloshed around inside the cabin. The boat began to go down by the bow. “There was so much water, I had trouble getting out of the cabin,” McWilliams recalls. “Big things were floating around down there.”

Up on deck, the crew fired flares and continued mayday calls on a handheld VHF. Then they launched the inflatable and loaded it with bottled water, food and the EPIRB. A sailboat passed within half a mile but didn’t stop; its crew evidently didn’t see the flares or hear the distress call. “I knew the Coast Guard knew where we were, and there were people in the area. We weren’t like, ‘Oh, my God! We’re all going to die!’ Smith says. “It wasn’t like that. I would’ve felt differently if we were in a desolate part of the ocean. The circumstances would’ve been much different.”

About a mile north, Capt. Roy Rogers aboard Santa Rita, a 50-foot Jeanneau that was also in the race, happened to be below and heard Leila B’s mayday. He responded but received no reply. “I tried raising the vessel a couple times. In a few minutes I realized they couldn’t hear us,” Rogers says.

Rogers, 63, holds a 50-ton master license from the Coast Guard and teaches at Sailing Florida Charters and Sailing School in St. Petersburg, Fla. He’s also a certified ASA instructor. When he came topside, he noticed a sailboat almost dead ahead without its sails up, which he thought was odd. He dropped sail and motored over to investigate, arriving a short time later to find the crew of Leila B in the dinghy, the bow of the Tartan awash.

Santa Rita maneuvered close to the dinghy, but Rogers was cautious. “I’d heard stories about Everglades drug smugglers. I wanted to know who these guys were before I let them aboard, so I casually asked, ‘So, what’s going on?’ When they said they were in the Bone Island Regatta, that made me feel more comfortable,” Rogers recalls. “Does anyone have any weapons?” I asked. “One guy said he had a pocketknife.”

The Santa Rita crew - (from left) Jeffrey Drews, Keith Ground, Roy Rogers and Dwayne Hill - received an award for seamanship and sportsmanship for rescuing the sailors aboard Leila B.

Just then, a Coast Guard C-130 screamed in overhead, banked low and circled. The plane’s pilot raised Santa Rita on the VHF, making sure everyone was safely off Leila B and that Rogers would take the crew to Key West. Dropping a dewatering pump was discussed, but it soon became clear it was too late. The plane departed as Santa Rita circled Leila B, witnessing the boat’s final minutes. “The boat went down just like the Titanic,” Smith says. “The bow went first and the stern rose up out of the water. Then the boat evened out and went straight down. The mast just disappeared. It was the last thing we saw. It was heartbreaking, really heartbreaking.”

Although no one knows exactly what happened, McWilliams’ best guess is that the stuffing box gave way, leaving a gaping hole in the hull. “I was building my future based on doing the scientific research and teaching sailing,” he says. “Not only did I lose my recreation and my summer home, but I also lost my job.”

August 2013 issue