Editor’s note: Charles Doane, cruising editor of Sail magazine (one of Soundings’ sister magazines), was one of four people rescued from an Alpha 42 catamaran off Virginia after the boat was disabled in a gale. Doane, the delivery skipper and the yacht’s owners were en route to the BVI from New York. Here is Doane’s account.
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“I can say for certain that was the best helicopter ride of my life. It was also the best shower.” — statement by Gunther Rodatz to U.S. Coast Guard airbase personnel; Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Jan. 14.
THERE HAS ALREADY BEEN a lot of buzz about what happened Tuesday morning approximately 300 miles off the Virginia coast, when owners Gunther and Doris Rodatz, together with delivery skipper Hank Schmitt and myself, abandoned the 42-foot catamaran Be Good Too courtesy of a U.S. Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter crew. As is usually the case, much of it has been speculative, and some people have complained that we need not have left the boat. True facts have been a little hard to come by. Here on my own blog, at least, I can do what I can to correct that.
We departed Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City, bound for St. John, USVI, at about 1430 hours on Wednesday, January 8. It was bone cold outside, and the boat had been frozen into her berth by thin ice. The marina’s pump-out boat came around to act as an ice-breaker and helped bust us loose, and after a brief stop at the marina’s fuel dock, we headed down New York Harbor under power. We unrolled the solent jib after passing through the Verrazano Narrows, but Hank didn’t want anyone on deck handling the mainsail in the bitter cold. We motorsailed south all through the first night under the jib alone, staying inside the heated interior as much as possible, as the decks outside were soon coated in a skin of ice from the light freezing spray.
By the following morning after breakfast it was warm enough that the deck was clear of ice and Gunther and I raised the mainsail, taking care to stay clear of the big chunks of ice that came toppling out of the sail as it was hoisted. We shut down the engines briefly and tried proceeding under sail alone, but the wind was getting weaker and soon we started up one engine and started motorsailing again so as to keep our speed up.
We motorsailed all through the rest of Thursday, until very early Friday morning, when the wind increased enough to shut down the engine. By sunrise we were close-reaching at 6-plus knots in 17-20 knots of southeast breeze. Not long afterward, however, the wind decreased and shifted to due south, and we spent much of the day motorsailing again, tacking back and forth, to make progress southward. After sunset the wind started building and we were able to proceed to the southeast under sail alone.
This was our best sailing during the entire trip. During my evening watch I had the boat running at 8-9 knots with spikes over 10 in 22-26 knots of apparent wind. Shortly before handing over to Gunther at 2130 hours I took one reef in the main. It was also clear we had entered the Gulf Stream, as the water temperature had risen dramatically.
After midnight on Saturday, January 11, I noted from my berth that the boat’s motion had increased quite a bit. Coming on deck at 0400 hours to relieve Hank I found the wind was blowing over 30 knots. There were two reefs in the main, and the jib had been roller-reefed to about half size. Waves were now occasionally falling on the center and starboard-side forward windows and some minor leaks had appeared around the edges of the window frames.
Very shortly after Gunther came up to relieve me at 0700 hours an autopilot alarm sounded indicating power was low. Gunther started up the generator, but found it was not charging the batteries. We started up the starboard-side engine, but it also was not charging the batteries. In the middle of all this, the single-line sheet to the self-tacking jib suddenly parted. We knew the sheet lead for this sail was not ideal and probably should have already rolled it up by now, given the conditions. I now immediately furled the sail, while Gunther did something, I’m not sure what, that got the batteries receiving a charge from the engine. I woke up Hank at this point and informed him we were starting to have “adventures.”
We now set up the boat to motorsail itself in a fore-reaching configuration under just the double-reefed main (there was no third reef). We locked the helm off hard to port to keep her from rounding up and were making progress eastwards at 4-5 knots. This seemed stable, though we were still getting whacked occasionally by waves on the starboard bow.
At about 1130 hours we took a huge direct hit all across our front windows. The wave that hit us seemed much larger than the rest and was running at a different angle, such that it hit us from directly ahead instead of on the starboard quarter. Hank and I were in the saloon right behind the windows at the time. A fair amount of water squirted in all around the edges of the window panes and one large piece of trim was blown right off one vertical frame. The windows themselves, thankfully, held up fine. The wave stopped us dead in our tracks and even seemed to back us up a bit. A large amount of water surged up our stern and blew a large teak step right off its mounts.
Immediately after the hit we found we had trouble controlling the boat. It seemed at the time that our loss of forward momentum had made it hard to steer, and the boat started spinning in circles, tacking and then jibing. We started up the other engine, and even with both engines running hard we could not regain control. After our second uncontrolled jibe, Hank ordered that we should drop the mainsail and lie a-hull to the waves. The wind by now was blowing over 40 knots from the south and seas were running about 18-20 feet.
Frankly, this was the one point in our whole adventure where I was most nervous. I have sailed in 40 knots or more several times, but I had never before just laid to the wind and let a boat drift broadside to waves in conditions like this. I had always believed this was a bad idea and that it is best to adopt more active tactics. But the boat was very happy. The beam of the Alpha 42 (we were aboard hull no. 1, which had just been delivered to Gunther and Doris) is very wide for a cruising cat of this size, with an unusually high bridge deck, and we had remarked earlier that the hull was very stiff and its motion was remarkably comfortable. We now were amazed at how stable it seemed lying to these large seas. The rolling was not very pronounced and only rarely did waves slap the boat or land on deck.
That afternoon we contacted our weather-router, Ken McKinley, by sat-phone and he advised that we were now south of the Gulf Stream and that we could expect the wind to increase to 45 knots before switching to the west. We continued lying to the waves through the rest of the afternoon and all of the night, during which the wind did indeed increase into the mid-40s, with gusts to over 50. Gunther later insisted he saw one hit 60.The boat, however, was still quite comfortable, and we bided our time standing watches, reading, and sleeping.
On relieving Hank at 0430 hours early Sunday morning, he informed me we now had no electrical power. He had started the port-side engine shortly after midnight and found it was not charging the batteries. Meanwhile, the wind had also shifted west and was beginning to subside.
After sunrise we took stock of our situation. We first tried our engines: the port-side engine now would not start; the starboard engine would start, but wasn’t charging the batteries; the generator would not start. So we tried sailing, as the wind was now only blowing about 25 knots and seemed much more manageable. We rigged a new sheeting system for the jib, with one centerline sheet and barber-haulers on either side, and tried but failed to get the boat sailing off the wind to the southeast toward Bermuda, which now seemed like our best destination. The best we could do was effectively heave to, with the bow cocked toward the southwest as the boat drifted slowly southeast.
We did discuss raising the mainsail, but decided against it, as we had discovered that the top two full battens had become detached from their batt-cars when we dropped the sail earlier. There seemed to be no easy way to repair them, so we decided to wait for less wind before raising the sail again.
By 1100 hours the wind, however, was increasing again, blowing over 30 knots I estimated, and curiously as it increased we found we had a little more luck getting the boat to sail. We first found we could sail on a close reach to the south-southwest at 4-5 knots. Later we managed to run off for a while on a broad reach to the southeast at higher speeds. Still, the boat was hard to control. It would periodically bear off or round up uncontrollably, do a spin, settle into a straight-line course for a while, do a spin, etc.
Through the afternoon the wind started diminishing again, and as it did the boat started spinning more and more. By early Monday morning, before daybreak, it was doing nothing but spinning in circles, so we rolled up the jib and decided to wait for daylight to see if we could figure out exactly what was wrong with the steering system.
Through all of this, too, we were now having to pump out the moist sections of the boat by hand. Water had been coming aboard continually in certain compartments for some time and now with no electric bilge pumps we had to attend to the chore ourselves. We weren’t sure where the water was coming from, and though the rate of ingress wasn’t at all alarming, it was annoying, as we had to pump for several minutes every one-and-a-half hours or so.
Come 0700 hours conditions had become quite calm, with the wind from the south now at less than 10 knots, and at last we were able to embark on a deliberate examination of our problem. Inspecting all the steering gear, we found the port-side rudder stock was no longer connected to its tiller arm. Instead of being secured with a pin all the way through the stock, there was only one small set screw, the tip of which had broken off. There was, however, a hole through the stock for a proper pin, and after a long bit of head scratching, jury-rigging, and tiller-arm wrestling, we finally managed to pull the tiller arm up off the retaining ring on to which it had collapsed, line up the tiller’s hole with the rudder stock’s hole, and drive in an Allen wrench with a hammer.
We had to remove the angle sensor and the connecting rod between the two tillers to do our thing. Afterwards, of course, we reinstalled the rod. With the tiller arm swinging back and forth in the swell with some force, this all took some care and patience
As you can imagine, we felt pretty proud of ourselves at this point and were confident we had solved our most important problem. Unfortunately, after we started up our one engine to see if we could steer, the boat still would only drive in circles, to port, no matter what we did with the wheel.
So now it was time to visually inspect the rudders to see what the hell was really going on down there. Gunther insisted he should be the one to go into the water to do this and soon reported that the starboard rudder blade was just spinning in place around its stock and that the port rudder blade was bent inward toward the boat’s centerline at a very large angle.
In retrospect, it is hard to imagine how all this might have happened. I think it is likely that most cats would have suffered some sort of steering or rudder damage from the hit we took, but our damage seemed bizarre. Securing the tiller arms to the rudder stocks with small set screws may not be a good practice, but in this case those screws should have acted as sacrificial fuses. Confronted with the huge force of the wave stopping the boat and thrusting it backwards, you’d think the screws would break off, leaving the stocks to rotate freely so the rudder blades would be saved. Instead the starboard set screw held and the welds securing the frame armature inside the rudder to the stock had apparently failed. Meanwhile, the port set screw had failed, yet the frame somehow bent anyway.
Thinking we might still be able to steer the boat with its engines if we had both of them running, we next spent some time examining the port engine to see if we could get it started. This emitted a burning odor whenever we lit up the ignition, and we soon figured out that the starter had shorted out.
Unwilling to admit defeat, we thought we might have better luck sailing the boat now that we understood exactly what was wrong with the rudders. We were also now willing to raise the mainsail again in the much calmer conditions. So up went the main, and we tried every possible combination we could think of, playing the sails against each other and the bent rudder, playing the engine against the rudder in both forward and reverse, but no matter what we tried the essential dynamic remained the same: with no sails up the starboard engine ruled, and the boat just turned to port; with sails up and drawing, in whatever configuration, the bent rudder ruled and the boat would only turn to starboard.
We were now about 300 miles from anywhere, equidistant from Bermuda, the Chesapeake, and New York, and reluctantly concluded that we weren’t going to be able to get the boat to shore without outside assistance. We discussed the prospect of organizing a tow at some length and called Alpha Yachts by sat-phone to see if they could arrange something. Hank, an eternal optimist, thought this was a real possibility, but I was more skeptical. Thinking out how it might proceed, we realized that, even if we could get an appropriate vessel to come to us, it would take days before we could rendezvous. The tow would then have to proceed quite slowly, at say 3 knots at most, due to the bent rudder. Meanwhile, there would be a continuing barrage of routine winter gales, and during each of these–we figured one or two at least–the tow would have to be dropped and the boats would have to lie a-hull separately, waiting for the wind and seas to subside again before proceeding onward.
Finally, after listening to us bat this around for a while, Gunther reluctantly decided the only really viable option was to abandon the boat. He placed a sat-phone call to the Coast Guard in the late afternoon, and the evacuation wheels started grinding.
We assumed, of course, that we would be taken off by an AMVER vessel, as normally happens during evacuations far from shore. Hank had the audacity to suggest that we request a westbound vessel, so that we would arrive somewhere in the U.S. rather than in Europe, and the Coast Guard, to my surprise, readily assented to this, telling us that we could have a westbound ship pick us up at 0800 hours the following morning. They also gave us a weather forecast: the wind that night would increase to 25 knots, hold at that strength through daylight hours on Tuesday, then increase to 35 knots with gusts to over 40 during Tuesday night.
Having made our arrangements, we treated ourselves to a little pre-abandonment party shortly after sunset, broke our dry-ship rule, and opened up some fine red wine. The mood was subdued, but upbeat. Gunther and Doris, in spite of the bitter disappointment of having to give up this boat they’d been looking forward to taking possession of for two years, were very philosophical about their situation, were very grateful no lives were at stake, and together we all laughed about the problems we’d confronted during our passage.
Also, at one point in the evening, a ship came to us from the west and announced via VHF radio that they were ready to bring us aboard and take us to Israel. We politely declined, insisting we had a ride west in the morning, and they went on their way. Later it occurred to us that the Coast Guard, who had seemed more worried about Tuesday’s weather than we were, had sent this ship to us hoping to get us out of there sooner rather than later. We had arranged to maintain a sat-phone call schedule with them, but initially asked for a longer interval than they wanted–eight hours instead of four–to save our phone’s battery. It may be that if we had been in contact more regularly they might have insisted, or have strongly urged, that we join the ship bound for Israel.
In any event, during our scheduled call at 0200 hours they informed us they would be taking us off by helicopter at 0900 hrs. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from North Carolina would rendezvous with a U.S. Navy warship en route to us to refuel, and then again on the way back. We would be allowed to bring with us one small bag each.
Promptly at 0900 hours the next morning we spotted a USCG C-130 search plane heading straight toward us at low altitude, followed five minutes later by the helicopter. I can’t speak to how Gunther and Doris were feeling at this point, but Hank and I were both looking forward to finding out how this would go. Hank has thrashed his way through an awful lot of trouble on the water–two dismastings and five different loss-of-steering incidents–but had always managed to get his boats home and had never before abandoned one. As for me, I had once before abandoned a boat, but in much more sanguine circumstances, in a river in Spain to a nearby dock.
You’ll have seen the video the Coasties have posted. If not, you can watch it here:
Hank asked me to be the guinea pig and go first, so Gunther and Doris could see what would be happening to them. This turned out to be fortunate for me, as I got to go up in the basket, all dignified and comfortable. After that first hoist, the helo crew decided to speed things up by bringing the others up in a sling, which to me looked decidedly inferior. Hank, as skipper, originally planned to go up last, but Gunther in the end insisted that he should go last instead. That cooler you see him carrying up in the video is not filled with beer, as some have suggested, but with personal possessions. I was very surprised the Coasties let him bring it along.
Really the worst part of the experience was having to sit through the three-hour long helo ride to shore in soaking wet clothes. This was broken by the fuel stop aboard the U.S. Navy missile destroyer Ross, during which someone threw a garbage bag full of beef-and-onion hoagies into the back of the chopper for us to eat. They looked disgusting, but in fact were very tasty.
On arrival at the airbase in Elizabeth City we were greeted by a swarm of people, including two Red Cross workers, who were eager to take care of us. From their perspective we must have seemed like disappointing survivors, as we were perfectly healthy, entirely untraumatized, and in generally good spirits. All we really wanted was a hot shower and some dry clothes.
Like Gunther, I can honestly say it was the best shower of my life. He really is an amazing guy. Shortly after he finished his shower he got a call from someone at home in Bloomington, Indiana, telling him the water pipes in his house had frozen and burst. And both he and Doris were just as chilled out about that as they were about losing the boat.
SPECIAL THANKS: Words cannot express how grateful we are to our helicopter flight crew. At a minimum, we can recognize them individually:
Lt. David Birky, pilot
Lt. John Poley, pilot
AST2 John Knight, aviation survival technician 2nd class, rescue swimmer
AMT2 Brian Light, aviation maintenance technician 2nd class, hoist operator
Thanks, guys! You were great!