Most of us have done it, and all of us have seen it done - trawlers, yachts and sailboats towing a tender or a dinghy. But except for a short hop on calm water, I'll never even think about doing it again, and here's why.
My crew - Paul Rodriguez and Ken Quillen - and I were a little less than 40 miles off Cuba and 210 miles from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where we intended to meet our wives. I had spent a year totally restoring and making our home out of a 1982 38-foot Marine Trader aft cabin trawler, and it had performed perfectly for the 40 continuous hours from Fort Myers, Fla., to about 30 miles west of the Dry Tortugas and then toward Cuba.
We watched the lights of Havana through much of the calm night and picked up a weather forecast in Spanish from the island that didn't sound bad, although we were purposely shadowing the coast just in case it was wrong. I was confident I'd prepared for most problems and had a spare for every pump, belt and filter, as well as the tools and knowledge to install them.
All three radios and both chart plotters were wired independently, and I had hand-held backups for each. I was making continuous dead-reckoning fixes on paper charts and had 1,000 miles of fuel range left. If needed, I could evacuate 4,000 gallons of bilge water an hour, and I had an EPIRB and every signal device available, so I was good to go ... or so I thought.
It was beautiful when the sun came up, but the winds quickly increased and within 90 minutes were blowing at an unpredicted 50 mph, creating large swells and beam seas. My wife, Sabine, and I had been in 70-plus-mph winds on Wasafiri and knew she could take them, so I wasn't worried. However, I am prudent, so I changed course and aimed for the small port of Cayo Jutias, Cuba, now about 25 miles downwind. We were surfing along at 1-1/2 times our maximum hull speed, and if the weather didn't improve, I would simply tuck in there, wait it out and deal with the U.S. government later.
Although it was windy, the day was beautiful. Wasafiri was equipped with a heavy-duty autopilot that easily kept our heading, so we spent much of the morning on the bow, almost enjoying the thrilling ride down the wave faces as the tender surfed along behind us. And then we heard it - something like a pistol shot that got us scrambling to learn we had accelerated so fast down a large wave that the towing eye of my 13-foot tender had been yanked out of its fiberglass hull, leaving a basketball-size hole. The rope, tow-eye and fiberglass flew at Wasafiri, and when the wave passed we apparently settled down on top of it. It wrapped around our prop, severely limiting its use.
Thinking that an unsinkable tender might be handy soon, but perhaps not so prudently, I grabbed a line and took it to the drifting tender and, after half an hour's struggle, managed to run the line through the deck plate and the gaping hole. After I was almost thrown back aboard Wasafiri I tried to dive under the boat to clear the rope, but because of the severity of the rapidly deteriorating conditions my crew would not allow it, which I now appreciate.
The rope around the prop eventually fouled the rudder, too, and Wasafiri turned her beam to the waves and rolled dramatically, often as much as 45 or 50 degrees. I accepted that the boat might roll over at any time, especially when the twin 800-pound water tanks came loose and slammed around in the bilge and the refrigerator broke free of its mounts, joining a growing number of loose items shifting around in the cabins.
After several unsuccessful attempts to raise a Cuban tow vessel on the radio, even in Spanish, I got a radio response from the Carnival cruise ship Valor, which offered its assistance. With my vessel coming apart, no hope of making port and no tow vessels responding, I reluctantly requested that they take us aboard as we abandoned ship.
Masterful seamanship by Capt. Luigi De Angelis had us aboard quickly, and I want to sincerely thank him and his wonderful crew for showing true human kindness for us as mariners and, well, just people. They also took good care of Smudge the Sea Cat, whom I managed to get off board, along with my American flag, which I'll proudly fly again one day soon on another vessel.
We all know that weather is always an issue on the open water, but you can get the best weather forecast from all known sources and still be wrong, as anyone who has spent much time on the water has learned the hard way. Even the cruise ship's executive officer said they, too, were completely surprised by the severity of the winds. So although I wish I'd had a single sideband and weatherfax, I'm not sure they would have alerted me in time to get my 6-1/2-knot boat to safety.
However, I could have prevented this tragedy by not towing my tender. What's sad is that I'd actually started out six months earlier with a small dinghy that I hoisted aboard. If I hadn't upgraded to a speedy Whaler-type tender I would be in Isla Mujeres right now, drinking umbrella drinks, instead of being homeless and pondering my future, writing this account so that you might learn from my mistake.
I've had a boat almost continuously since I was a kid growing up on Chesapeake Bay. I've crossed thousands and thousands of miles, have lots of confidence and courage, and pretty much thought I knew what to expect from men and boats in most situations. So I truly hope you'll believe how surprised I was to learn that the length of tow rope connecting my tender to Wasafiri turned out to be the costliest piece of gear I've ever owned.
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This story originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.