Probably ought to relay this here for any of those that follow my sailing exploits. It’s been a while now and the news is fading, but my attempted sail from Bonaire to St Maarten didn’t quite go as planned.
Just 460nm against the weather in a cat notorious for its poor windward sailing. What could possibly go wrong. A lot it seems, as on 31st December 2020 I was picked up by the US Coast Guard about 100nm off Puerto Rico after being adrift for a day and a half.
Off to a rocky start
I had set off with 5 day weather window, but with the current and wind progress was slower than anticipated. I motored out of Bonaire, then motor sailed out into the Caribbean sea, before turning off the engine and enjoying a slow but steady sail. On the second day the clew of the Genoa sail tore off. With sunset approaching, I furled up the sail and tied it up for good measure. I was then forced to motor through the night.
The next morning I set about removing the sail and resewing the clew. Unfortunately my sewing awl broke, and my regular needles were either too larger to be pushed through all the layers of material, or too weak. Determined to get it reattached I resorted to a staple gun and some 200 staples.
Surprisingly that did the trick. As I hoisted the sail, it filled nicely with about 15 knts of wind, and the boat was back sailing. That lasted for about 4 hours, before the winds grew and the clew was ripped off again. There wasn’t anything more I do for the sail, and instead had to resort to motoring.
Bonaire to Saint Maarten is over 450nm. I was carrying a full tank of fuel at 100l, plus another 120l in a jerry cans. It wasn’t really possible to carry much more than that. I had a theoretical range of 88 hours, or 440nm at 5 knts. A little short of the intended destination, but of course it’s a sail boat the engine is auxilary only and you can’t always carry enough fuel for long passages.
The main problem was that beating into the wind, and against the current progress was slow and really sapping fuel. This was compounded by a slightly lower pitch prop than I had been running on previous journeys.
Recognising this, I made the decision to alter course slightly towards St Croix in the US Virgin Islands, some 100nm closer than St Maarten. I motored as far as dared ensuring there was just enough fuel left for any emergency manoeuvres. That got me within 88nm of St Croix.
To add to the problem, the initial 5 day whether window had become shorter, and the bad weather I was expecting to encounter once in port, was a full day and a half early. It started with 20knts and 1.5m waves building to over 35 knts and waves up to 3.5-4m at times.
Jade being a cutter rig has an aft-set mast, that makes sailing with the small 13m2 mainsail alone near impossible, but on some angles the stay sail can be used to balance this. Unfortunately in this case it wasn’t possible. Regardless of the sail combinations and rudder angle, the boat would round up into the wind.
After multiple attempts I decided to give up to trying to sail, and instead set a sea anchor drouge off the bow to limit drifting, and put out a pan pan. The sea anchor did little to help, and boat sat beam on the building seas. There weren’t any other boats in range to hear my pan pan either.
I sat like this for a day, regularly repeating the pan pan whilst contemplating my options. Perhaps it would be possible to sail downwind, albeit slowly and in a relatively uncontrolled manner, but the nearest downwind destination was 900nm away unless it I tried to pinch up to Dominican Republic. If I missed it, the next stop would be Honduras, or Mexico. Possibly two weeks of sailing with the boat in its current condition.
Could the stay sail be moved forward for better balance? Not really. The foil luff grooves were different sizes, and it would be near impossible to get enough tension on the resulting free flying sail. Perhaps I could just wait out the weather, but it was going to be set in for a week, and despite the drouge/sea anchor the boat was drifting 18-24knts west a day. I decided to bake a pizza and thing about it some more.
The next morning I woke to stronger winds and larger seas. I attempted to sail again but to no avail. More pan pans, but again there were no other vessels in range. As morning became afternoon, became evening, I decided to send a DSC alert believing the digital signal might travel a little further than the analogue voice message.
Eventually I got a response from CSCL Long Beach, asking how they could help. With more fuel perhaps I could slowly motor to Puerto Rico, now the closest landfall. Unfortunately CSCL Longbeach wasn’t able to assist due the sheer size of the vessel, but they agreed to relay my message to the US Coast Guard in Puerto Rico.
The USCG fresh from rescuing another yacht, was about 15 hours away, and said they would come to my position with fuel, try to refuel the boat, then escort me to Puerto Rico. There was nothing else for me to do that night other than get some sleep.
The day of the rescue
The next morning, I had my breakfast as usual, tried to sail again (still no use), and confirmed the USCG ETA for 14:00. CSCL Long Beach had departed handing over watch duty to another large vessel.
With the coastguard in range we discussed the best way to proceed. The initial plan was for them to throw a line to which I’d tie my jerry cans to. They would then retrieve and refill them, before floating them down back to me. The problem with that plan was the sea state. The first two attempts to get close enough to throw a line failed. An hour or more of re-positioning ensued.
Unable to get a line to me, the captain of the USCG vessel asked me what conditions I’d feel comfortable continuing in, as the weather was set to deteriorate further. I responded that this was getting close to the limit. Another concern of his was the speed of the vessel. Jade would only be able to crawl along at 2-3knts. The costguard vessel couldn’t go slower than 5-6knts. At my speed, and now 120nm off the coast of Puerto Rico, it would take us nearly two days to make landfall.
Regardless, I said I was keen to give it a go, and the captain said he’d prepare to launch the small boat to pick up the jerry cans. A moment later a large wave hit the boat square on the beam with so much force I thought the galley windows had broken. It wasn’t that bad. Rather than broken glass, the energy of the impact had completely ripped the entire galley from the hull. The oven was dangling precariously, and the left over pizza had shot out and was lying face down on the floor, along with some flour and other ingredients.
That wasn’t the only damage. With the boat lying beam on the waves still, the starboard rudder which was skeg hung but came all the way up to the transom, had also borne the brunt of the breaking waves. It was linked with a mechanical tie-bar to the port rudder, that was now bent enough to compromise the steering. Not enough to cause a problem in calmer weather, but enough to be troublesome sailing beam on to weather to Puerto Rico.
After relaying this information to the captain of the coastguard cutter, we decided that the most sensible course of action now was to leave the ship. The coastguard ship had been pushing for this for a while, but I’d resisted initially. Now it was time to just get on with it. I was given time to pack my bags, whilst the small boat crew would launch and pick me up.
A leap of faith
I already had a ditch bag, but given there were no restrictions on what I could bring, I supplemented it with another bag carrying various other possessions including a bottle of rhum.
Knowing I’d need to get into the water I put on my wetsuit and prepared my bags. It would have been nice to deploy the anchor, but it was too rough to get to the bow. I turned off all the electronics except the nav lights and AIS. this should avoid the vessel being a major hazard, and the AIS would allow me to track it via satellite from shore.
As the small boat pulled up there was only one other thing to do. The crew threw me a can of spray paint, and I painted large “OK” signs on the side of the boat. This was to let others know that the crew of the boat was fine, in event the vessel is seen drifting.
The small boat positioned itself for an approach, and gave me the signal. On which I jumped from the swim platform into the ocean, sinking a meter or more before my life vest exploded into action. Back on the surface I noticed I’d lost my water shoes that I was wearing, but oddly still had my cap on. I did a gentle back stroke to the small boat, and was then pulled aboard.
The small boat raced off towards the mothership, slowing only not jump over now huge waves. Once aboard the main coastguard vessel, I gave one final look back towards an abandoned Jade bobbing around in the ocean, before heading below decks for a warm shower.
Once I was back on land I fired up Marine traffic, and tuned on the satellite tracking feature. I was able to see Jade was drifting westwards at up to 1.7knts. I informed my insurance company (3rd party cover), and gave some thought about how I might get the vessel back. Being well over 100nm off shore and moving relatively quickly would make it extremely difficult. My plan was see wait the state of play was once the weather had settle. More immediately though I had to get San Juan, as I couldn’t afford to keep paying the $200 a night at the Marriot in Aguadilla.
In San Jaun I booked into a small hotel/slash apartment, and met a girl who had contacts for a pilot that would be able to fly out and confirm the position of the boat. That seemed like a reasonable idea, but at the time due to the weather it still wouldn’t have been possible to get a boat to go off shore and drop off me and supplies. In the meantime I continued tracking Jade via satellite usually I’d get one or two position updates a day. Then on 4 January nothing, I logged in to check the position, only find there were no more updates. Something had happened. Perhaps the solar panels were damaged. Perhaps the batteries had run out of juice or something tripped the battery protect switch. Perhaps the waves had gotten the better of her, or pirates or fishermen had found her and were now wearing my blazers, drinking my beer, and busy stripping the boat of anything valuable. I suppose I’ll never know.
UPDATE: A non-update of an update really, as it’s been 6 months since the incident and there’s been no sign of the boat. Presumably if it had crashed ashore in Honduras or similar it would have been reported. I’m going to assume that Jade is stuck in Gulf Stream, endlessly circling The Atlantic.