Bump in the night sinks cruisers’ dreams

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A collision with a submerged object may have redamaged a repair in the keel area, sinking the 47-footer

The weather had not been kind to Paul and Helen Glavin as they cruised, and this night — April 1 — was no different. Fooled by a forecast of gentle northeasterlies, the retired British couple set off on a 120-mile night sail from the British Virgin Islands to St. Kitts on their 47-foot sailboat Helen Mary Gee.

The Soverign 470 Helen Mary Gee finds plenty of wind in the British Virgin Islands April 1, just hours before a collision sent the yacht to the bottom.

Leaving Virgin Gorda on a warm breeze under clear, moonlit skies, the Glavins soon encountered a string of squalls and steep-sided 6- to 8-foot seas. Buttoned up head-to-toe in foul-weather gear, Helen was at the helm and Paul asleep on a cockpit settee as the sturdy Sovereign 470 punched through lumpy seas at 6 knots under reefed sail. At 2:20 a.m., HMG came to a jarring stop, then caught the wind again and accelerated, hurtling Paul to the deck and throwing Helen against the stainless-steel wheel with such force she bent it.

They still don’t know what they hit. “We can’t guarantee it was a whale,” says Paul, from home in Weymouth. But he suspects it was. “It was something bloody hard. I hope it got an extreme headache, because it sank our boat.”

The Glavins had hoped this would be the start of their round-the-world cruise, but it was not to be. A retired automotive engineer and certified oceanmaster yachtsman, Glavin worked on HMG for two years preparing to cruise. The 1990 Sovereign, built in Spain with a solid Kevlar-reinforced fiberglass hull below the waterline, was a tough boat and one Glavin had confidence in — enough to feel secure sailing it around the world.

The yacht earned its chops on the first day of the November 2007 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia — the first leg of their cruise. The bluewater sailboat survived a knockdown and went on to show its mettle, making 6 knots under bare poles in 55-knot winds and 18-foot seas on the 2,700-mile Atlantic crossing.

The Glavins had yet to decide if they would buy another boat and get under way again.

It was a crossing that turned into a brutal experience for the 236-boat ARC fleet. A skipper was lost when a boom hit him in the head, a boat was abandoned, and several entries were damaged in a spate of foul Atlantic weather on the three-week passage.

The Glavins managed the crossing well. They had postponed their circumnavigation to be close to home after a son’s wife became pregnant, but they were back on track now and making plans to sail on to the Pacific.

Waves of water

The collision with something in the night banged the couple up. Helen broke two ribs when she hit the wheel and suffered an injury to her elbow that required surgery when she returned to England. Paul smashed his chin on the deck and suffered from nausea and a throbbing headache through most of the ordeal.

Still reeling from the blow, Paul slipped below to check for damage and found everything normal, so he returned to the cockpit to assist Helen at the helm. An hour later, the masthead wind instruments started acting up. Paul went below again and at the bottom of the companionway he stepped ankle deep into water. Flooding had shorted out cables in the bilge that ran up the keel-stepped mast to the wind instruments and VHF radio antenna. The VHF wasn’t working, either.

Making his way into the forward cabin, Paul saw water pouring in from under the floorboards at the foot of the double berth. The black-water tank blocked his way to the bilge compartment in the bow, where he thought the hole might have been, so he stuffed cushions in under the floorboards near the berth to try to staunch the flood. But the water kept pouring in.

HMG’s two electric bilge pumps were still operating, and Paul started working a hand pump, to little effect. “It was very much like the Dutch boy and the dike story,” he says.

He was glad he had screwed down the floorboards in the cabin. Otherwise they would have been afloat, and he would not have been able to move about the cabin with any alacrity once the water had risen above sole level.

He was struck by the physical dynamics of the flooding. He had expected the water to slowly rise and fill the cabin. Instead, tons of it sloshed back and forth in waves, tearing up the inside, and water from the bilge spewed like geysers out of 3-inch inspection hatches scattered about the sole as HMG lumbered heavily up and down the waves. “It was heart-rending,” he says. “This was our home.”

With the water level rising, Paul’s main concerns were raising help and getting Helen into the life raft, if it came to that, because she wasn’t in any condition to swim to it or even to climb into the raft from the water.

Paul figures HMG was about 24 miles from the island of Saba in the Netherlands Antilles. His hand-held VHF had a reach of about 15 miles. Earlier in the night, he had seen navigation lights from ships and boats all around. Now there was none.

The Glavins kept calling mayday over the hand-held while making their way toward Saba, hoping to raise a passing vessel. Paul secured the life raft painter to the stern rail, then deployed the canister off the stern in case they needed to abandon ship quickly. The raft inflated, but getting Helen into it still would be a problem.

Decision to ditch

As 6 a.m. approached — almost four hours after the collision — HMG wasn’t anywhere near landfall, and no one had answered the maydays. Water was up to the top of the battery box under the aft berth. Once the batteries were under water, the electric pumps would fail, and Paul feared the reaction of salt water with the battery acid could produce deadly chlorine gas in the cabin.

“We knew we were losing the battle at that stage,” says Paul. Helen collected their waterproof “grab bag” of essentials — money, passports, credit cards, change of clothes — and an emergency kit with hand-held VHF and GPS, two flare packs, EPIRB, a chart, water and biscuits.

By now, HMG’s bow was just a foot above the water, so instead of trying to climb off the stern and into the life raft — or swim for it — they launched their 9-foot inflatable dinghy off the bow with a topping lift and boom. They’d executed the maneuver many times before.

Paul got in first, took the grab bag and emergency gear aboard, and helped Helen in, but before she would abandon HMG she insisted she go back and get her deck sandals. The two still were wrapped in foul-weather gear. Looking ahead to their rescue and their return to port and normalcy, “She said there was no way she was going to walk down [the street] in her sailing boots and shorts,” says Paul. She asked if he wanted his deck sandals, as well. Biting his tongue, he answered, “Oh, OK.”

The rescue

The Glavins paddled around to HMG’s stern, picked up the life raft and took it in tow. The dinghy was powered by a 5-hp outboard, which would help them make way for Saba, but Paul had left the outboard’s safety lanyard in the chart table. He couldn’t start the outboard without it, so he unraveled a piece of painter line and wrapped a strand of it behind the shut-off button where the lanyard clip ordinarily would go, to keep the button in the “on” position. He activated the EPIRB, and a satellite picked up the signal at 5:50 a.m. and fixed their position 10 minutes later, Paul says.

With life raft in tow, they began to drift away from Saba, so they cut the raft loose and motored toward the island. En route, they passed HMG, which now was bow down and stern up, its mast bobbing deeper and deeper into the water with each passing wave.

“The back of the boat sat there like a duck’s butt up in the air when it’s feeding,” says Paul. Soon HMG slipped beneath the waves, its wind generator the last appendage to go under, the blades spinning until they dug into the water. “You could see her outline just below the surface,” Paul says. “Then bits and pieces began to pop up. You could see the reflected light on her as she sank deeper and deeper. It was very eerie.”

And sad. “It still brings tears to my eyes now,” he says.

The Glavins fired three flares during the next hour-and-a-half. They kept broadcasting maydays. About 7:30, the French sea rescue service in St. Martin answered one of their maydays and arranged for Dreamcatcher, another British sailboat that was just eight miles away, to come to their rescue. The Glavins fired off another flare and headed toward Dreamcatcher while Roger and Lucyna Culverwell on the other boat turned toward the Glavins. By 10:30, the shipwrecked couple were aboard Dreamcatcher. Sitting down with their rescuers for a cup of tea, the Glavins finally broke down and cried — sad but also so relieved. “I never accepted for a second that we weren’t going to survive,” says Paul. They were prepared, and they had the wherewithal to call for help.

Before returning to England, the Glavins would stand as official witnesses at the Culverwells’ wedding aboard Dreamcatcher. The couples had grown close.

The Glavins’ insurer came through with a check for the $250,000 loss and a possible explanation for the flooding. HMG had run hard aground in Saint Martin in January, causing cracking around the keel. The Glavins discovered a leak and took the sailboat to a shipyard for repair. The repair was sound enough, but the insurers suspect that the force of the collision off Saba reopened the crack and may well have extended it forward.

“Had this been the first strike, we probably would have survived it,” Paul says.

Another boat?

Bored with life ashore and with “cutting the grass with a pair of scissors,” Paul was ready to buy a new boat and get on with their cruising retirement. At last report, Helen was on the fence. “She didn’t think much of this trip,” Paul concedes. But he thinks if they can find a good buy on a bluewater cruiser in California, they can have their new boat; sail to the Galapagos, then across the Pacific to the Marquesas, New Zealand and Australia; and back home via the Suez Canal.

“The sea humbles you,” he says. “But you meet some very nice people. It really is great fun.” Sinkings aside.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.