Rescue teaches safety lesson

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Earl and Cheryl Nordstrom of Woodbury, Minn., kicked off their vacation last summer by setting off on Lake Superior aboard Fringe Benefit III, their 38-foot 1985 Bayliner Explorer.

As prudent boaters, they say their primary concern in choosing a boat had always been the security of twin engines. “I just don’t feel safe out there without that extra motor,” Cheryl Nordstrom says.

They left Washburn Marina July 26, accompanied by friends Tom and Julie Rossini aboard their 1990 Avanti 4085 Express boat, 401-K, planning to visit favorite Canadian spots before circling back to Ontonagon, Mich. The Nordstroms certainly didn’t expect the trip to end separated by miles of wild Lake Superior seas, and wishing they had outfitted their boat with a vital piece of safety equipment.

No harm done

What follows is the Nordstroms’ account of the incident:

Trouble started Aug. 5, just after they left Ontario’s Red Rock Marina bound for the Slate Islands, slowly following 401-K through fog they say seemed dense enough to walk on. They monitored radar and GPS to keep track of other traffic, rocks and islands. Then they say they heard and felt “a hell of a thump,” then another, and saw a large log with a fresh 2-inch gash pass under the stern. They immediately checked everything as best they could and didn’t find any apparent damage, although Earl recalled a little vibration as they continued east on to the Slates. Not to worry, he recalls thinking at the time, since they had two engines.

After a few days enjoying the Slates, they cruised back to Rossport, Ontario, and then to CPR Slip. There, Earl dove under the boat to check out the props. He tightened the port one a little, but found nothing else wrong. They then left for Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, eight days after the impact with the log.

Just west of the upper entry to the harbor, Earl says his starboard engine suddenly faltered and died right outside the entrance. They made it in to the Hancock County Marina on the port engine. There a mechanic determined the injector pump had locked up, meaning that engine couldn’t be used for the trip home to Washburn.

Another injector pump was located in Washburn, so Cheryl got a ride there with the Rossinis aboard 401-K, picked up the part and drove it back to the boat in their van.

After it was installed, they could only get 2,000 rpm out of the starboard engine for some reason. Earl reasoned that they only needed to get the boat the 110-miles to Washburn, and it still had two engines.

The vessel was able to motor at 9 knots, a speed that would get it back to Washburn in time for supper. Earl started off alone at 9 a.m. in calm water Aug. 16, “[It’s] a day I’m certainly never going to forget, that’s for sure,” he says.

Cheryl left at the same time in their van. She took along their portable VHF to monitor her husband’s progress because she had a bad feeling about him going off alone.

Bad to worse

Earl says he was out about 10 miles when the oil pressure on the starboard engine began to drop. Concerned, he shut both engines down and checked the oil. He discovered the oil level on that engine was overfull, and was pretty sure diesel fuel was somehow getting into the crankcase — a bad situation for the engine that he couldn’t fix out there. But, it wasn’t a serious problem, he thought; he still had one engine, right?

Earl notified Cheryl and their Washburn friends of his status, fired up the port engine and continued west at 8 knots, still plenty fast enough to get home by dark, even if he might miss supper.

About 50 miles east of the Madeline Island buoy off LaPointe, Wis., the port engine began to vibrate severely, about 17 miles north of Black River Harbor and in 550 feet of water with seas starting to build out of the northeast. He slowed down and then heard what he describes as “a very loud bang.” He shut everything down, opened the hatch to the engine compartment and noticed the port shaft had disappeared. There was a lot of water coming in the stuffing box. The damage from hitting the log and the subsequent vibration had weakened and broken the propeller shaft, causing it to drop right out of the boat.

He crawled down into the bilge and began packing the hole with some gardener’s kneeling pads and anything else that was handy. This was hard to do alone with the boat rocking back and forth. He didn’t think he had time to call for help. Later, Earl admitted he should have had tapered wooden plugs lightly tied next to those through-hulls along with an appropriately sized mallet to pound it home.

He climbed out of the bilge to find that the seas had built from about 3 feet, to 4 to 5 feet. The flybridge cruiser had moved to a perfect broach position, sideways to the waves, as powerboats tend to do. With both engines down, this was now a serious problem.

He put on his PFD and deployed a 3-foot drift sock, but that made no difference in the boat’s drift angle or speed. Dropping anchor was not much of an option since he was short about 3,000 feet of rode to reach the bottom at a 6:1 scope, though the tactic might have slowed him a bit and turned him a little into the wind. He radioed his friends at Washburn and told them he was in trouble.

Waiting for a rescue

Cheryl had heard about the problems with the first engine on her VHF on the way to Washburn. When she got home and was told about the second engine, she was horrified, especially when they couldn’t raise Fringe Benefit from another boat’s VHF. (Earl later said he couldn’t answer because, “I really had more important things to do at the time.”)

They called in their concern about Earl’s status and gave his GPS coordinates to the Coast Guard at Bayfield, Wis.

At that point, Earl estimates the seas had built to between 6 and 8 feet. The gunwales dipped into the waves as the boat flopped from one side to the other. Earl thought about how he would deploy his dinghy if he had to, but Fringe Benefit was rolling so much he didn’t believe he could do it alone, and didn’t know how he and the smaller vessel would fare in the building seas anyway.

Books, dishes, food and everything else loose in the cabin pitched from one side of the boat to the other. Both antenna mounts were breaking. His mouth went dry. Was he really going to capsize miles from land and all alone in 550 feet of cold Lake Superior water? There was nothing he could do now but wait for help.

The Coast Guard was racing to his aid.

Coast Guard records back up Earl’s version of the incident, even his estimate of the wave heights. The Coast Guard received the call at 5:43 p.m., and immediately put out a Marine Area Request Broadcast and dispatched a 30-foot utility boat, which didn’t arrive until 8:22 p.m. due to the wild sea conditions.

“I was never so happy to see another boat in my life, especially that boat,” Earl recalls. “When I saw those blue flashing lights, it really was just like the cavalry had arrived.”

The crew assessed the situation, and because of the weather and disabled status of the boat decided to tow him all the way back to base. They didn’t get back to Bayfield until five hours later — finally ending a very long day.