In June 2018, after 70,000 miles and 27 years of sailing experience, a cruising couple on board SV Kelaerin abandoned her 150 miles off the coast of Washington. They were almost home. The video footage above was taken four hours after the rescue.
It must have been a terrifying and heart-breaking experience for Joy and Jim Cary. Joy has written about it in detail, a harrowing and honest account of events that led up to the moment they jumped into the water. The text has been shared around the internet, and most readers have been sympathetic, wondering what they would have done in a similar situation.
We do not know how we would react and behave if the same thing happened to us, and it is not our place to judge if the couple might have done things differently. All the knowledge and preparation in the world cannot predict how any of us would handle a similar disaster. But by sharing their story, the owners have concentrated our minds on ways to improve some of Esper’s safety systems, for which we thank them.
Here are some edited highlights from the text, which brought home what we need to consider for our passage across the Pacific Ocean from SE Asia to Alaska. They are taken from what is a long and sobering read.
“We had left Oahu, Hawaii on May 26, 2018,” the author begins. “After weeks of watching the high develop in the north Pacific, we felt we could safely leave now and have reasonable weather for the 21-27 day trip to Bellingham, Washington.
[After setting off]
…suddenly the [weather] reports were different. The wind was 21 to 26 knots from the north/northwest… The conditions, although uncomfortable, were nothing that should stop us from making progress.
As we entered the night hours, we had winds well into the mid-30’s and seas were building. Still, Kelaerin was sailing fine. The seas continued to build to over 4 meters, then 5… Eventually we were sailing bare poles at almost 5 knots down steep waves, the largest waves I had ever seen while cruising. I estimated they were 30 feet.”
We have sailed in high winds in big swells, but have not seen waves like that. It’s not the wind that’s the problem when storm sailing, it’s the waves.
Knockdown below deck
“I awoke around 3:30 to a hard hit by a wave, so hard it felt as though we had been hit by a train while sitting on the tracks. I was suddenly on the ceiling and tons of water came in through the companionway hatch. The noise inside the boat was deafening. …when I put my feet on the floor I was standing in water up to my ankles. The water was sloshing violently back and forth and from bow to stern. The aft cabin companionway ladder was across the cabin and bashed into the louvred door of the hanging locker. One of the two scuba tanks was out of their snap holders behind the ladder.
Everything that was on the quarter berth was now on the floor. Stuff had been piled there and secured for years for passages, but now was a heap on the cabin sole… the second scuba tank was now in [a] bunk. We had a bag of laundry sitting in the shop that was behind the engine and all the clothes were sloshing around the cables and chains of the steering. The heavy, sliding doors to the engine room were bashed into the pass-through.
Almost every locker door was open or broken and the lockers were bare, with the contents sloshing back and forth on the cabin sole. The bilge hatches were gone – they weren’t always the easiest to get up with their pull rings — and the water tanks exposed to view. Locker lids either flat or on the cabin sides were askew and shelves were broken.”
When offshore we use nets to hold in place everything that sits on open shelves and open compartments. We are reinforcing the netting to ensure it is able to withstand bucking seas and a knockdown.
Each locker, draw and sole board on Esper is being fitted with an additional stainless steel bolt to be kept locked throughout the passage. She doesn’t look so pretty, but we need to minimise the amount of stuff which will inevitably fly around the boat if we are knocked down.
When the weather gets bad, we will continue to close the companionway hatch, even though we should be nice and dry with our new hard dodger and bimini.
🥫A can of beans can kill you. It has the force of a sledge hammer when the boat is bucking or knocked down. Someone we know was killed by one in the Atlantic.🥫
Knockdown on deck
“I got to the main cabin companionway and saw Jim at the wheel. He had blood covering half of his face. He looked shocked but was steering us down a huge wave. I was looking at clear sky where once there had been a full cockpit enclosure.
I asked, “Where is the dodger?” and he said, “It’s gone.”
I [took the wheel] while he went down below to check the damage and make sure we weren’t taking on water. I had to keep the stern to the waves. I concentrated on steering and at some point as I looked forward I could see that the dinghy was gone. The handrails it had been tied to were broken, snapped like twigs.
Then I realized something else was missing, the liferaft. It had been tied to a stainless steel luggage rack that we had constructed and bolted to the cabin top just forward of the dodger. The teak coaming that ran across the cabin top was broken off with a part of it in the cabin.
We are currently trying to decide the best position for our liferaft, and one thing we are considering is a holding cage made of s/s tube welded onto the guard rail towards the rear of Esper. Previously our liferaft was bolted to the deck, but it took up a lot of valuable space. Jury’s still out on that one.
As for the dinghy, it will be deflated and stored below, in the lazarette or lashed/bolted to the deck, it all depends on where we can find room. It will not be left swinging from the davits.
“…the SSB radio was dead. The two VHF radios were on but since no one answered our MAYDAYS we weren’t positive they were sending out our messages.
It had been almost two hours since the wave had tossed us… and we were both showing signs of hypothermia. We were in very dangerous shape now, with no communications and no way to get a weather report… the reality of our situation seemed to be clear to both of us.
I said, “I think we should activate the EPIRB,” and he agreed.
We had a 406 Mhz EPIRB… he went to get it out of its holder and brought it up to our binocular box (the binoculars were gone) and… pushed the button.”
We have upgraded our 10 yr old EPIRB, and intend to buy personal locating beacons, which will be secured to our life jackets. We are also upgrading our old sat phone with an Iridium Go plus other tracking and positioning devices. We don’t own an SSB radio.
“We had 4 electric bilge pumps, one was a large capacity pump. All 4 clogged with debris. The debris was from all the soft back books we had on board. The cheaper paper turned to mush with all the sloshing and went right through the screens into the pumps. There was no way we could operate the manual pump in these conditions and to get that much water out.”
We are in the process of beefing up our bilge pumps right now, and will be adding another one, as well as carrying spares. The hope is that the bolted lockers and netted open lockers/shelves will stop our belongings from tumbling about.
One great suggestion from a friend is to put ALL our paperback books on the Kindle, thereby saving space and avoiding the problem SV Kelaerin had with clogged screens.
“…the water tanks were probably fouled through the vents… The engine itself may have worked but the starter motor was surely dead as it was now underwater. The engine wouldn’t have helped anyway, not unless we could get closer to shore and now we were getting farther away every minute.
While behind the wheel I had to keep the stern to the waves… I was doing o.k. with steering but every once in a while a bigger wave broke near me and we would begin to broach. I had to hold on to the wheel with everything I had to keep it stern to. I screamed now and then. I know this because my voice was getting hoarse.”
There is a school of thought which says you should heave-to in this kind of weather, with a drogue anchor. Others say you are more likely to broach that way. Running with the wind/waves means hand-steering in very tough conditions and keeping the vessel from nose-diving into the troughs. And how can you see what’s coming at night?
The conditions you find yourself in will probably dictate what you end up doing, but being armed with as much information and knowledge beforehand will make the decision-making easier.
“We had set off the EPIRB around 0538.
Almost 4 hours later… I heard the Coast Guard call us on the old VHF radio in the aft cabin. They were coming from the Warrenton, Oregon base. They said they were 20 minutes away from us… incredibly the chart plotter was still functioning and I could give them our exact position. They informed me that when they arrived they would have only a few minutes with us and we needed to make the decision: they could give us a de-watering pump and we would be on our own, or they could extract us from the vessel.
I looked at Jim and asked, “which?” and he answered, “the de-watering pump”.
They informed me that they would drop a swimmer in, so I told them we would lower the stern ladder and Jim would stream a heavy line so the swimmer could grab it.
The helicopter dropped low on the starboard side, and the swimmer jumped in… I was waiting for the pump, and then looked over to see the Coast Guard swimmer coming towards the cockpit… informing me that we were getting off the boat.
“No,” I said. “We are staying on the boat, we just need the pump.” Then Jim was behind him and said, “Joy, we are getting off.”
He told us to inflate our SOSpenders and jump. What!!!!! Of course this was the only thing to do…
I hesitated for a second and looked at the giant wave coming at us and said, “I’m not jumping in that”… he said “GO NOW!” Jim said JUMP, and I was in the water.”
Have you sailed in heavy weather, or a hurricane/typhoon? What did you do? We are interested in hearing from anyone who has experienced similar conditions. Put your comments below…
“Our biggest mistake… was putting all our important personal items in a ditch bag. The lifesaving ditch bag had been on a shelf with the handle facing outwards so that we could grab it, but it was of no use if we had to jump in the ocean from a sinking boat and no liferaft. In any case, it wasn’t there after we flipped over and I have no idea as to where it went. I’ll be kicking myself forever for not having the IDs, passports, cash, hard drives and even the little bits of jewelry in a bag ready to go.”
This is interesting. We have three waterproof grab bags, one of which floats. But they are full of life-saving equipment. We had not considered keeping all our treasures in an easily separate and quickly accessible ditch bag. This is something we have to think about.
A few weeks later Kelaerin, which had not been scuppered at the time of the rescue, was found. The Coast Guard Eleventh District said that the USCG cutter Barracuda had found her while on patrol about 440 miles SSE from where she was abandoned. The Barracuda crew inspected the vessel’s seaworthiness and took it in tow toward the coast, where a Coast Guard Station Fort Bragg 47-foot Motor Lifeboat crew relieved the tow and moored the vessel in Fort Bragg.
“The vessel was not under power and was completely at the mercy of the sea,” said Chief Warrant Officer Chris Ramp, the command center chief.
“The owners probably never thought they’d see it again. Thankfully, the Barracuda crew kept a vigilant eye on the water and spotted the vessel so they could bring it back to shore.”
Once again, we would like to say thank you to Joy and Jim of SV Kelaerin for sharing this valuable account of their predicament. There are lots of lessons to be learned from it.
You can read the full story on Steadman Uhlich’s FB page here.
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