Below my personal first hand view of what happened to me while sailing to Begg Rock a month ago.
I started writing this the day after while at a local laundromat in San Diego. I’ve gone quite a few times through it and almost every time I remember/change something. That will probably keep happening, so here it is.
It was a nice warm and cloudy day. A gale was forecasted for that same weekend, but we should have time enough to be able to make it to Begg Rock and back.
We had a nice breeze of 12-15 knots from W-WSW. As I was not sailing in local waters and we’re sailing to weather, I decided to put one reef on the main and a full (110%) jib. There was also 1 to 2 meter swell from NW, I was actually day dreaming about the way back, surfing the swell with the kite up…
We started going SW with the seas on the beam for about an hour. It was really fantastic sailing, and I like to think I manage to keep up with the rest of the fleet.
About an hour and a half later I tacked on a big shift (that I saw a few minutes ahead because all boats to weather of me tacked). Now we’re beating against the wind and the swell. I did my best to not to fall from the top of the waves, but a couple of times I could not avoid it. I’d say I felt from a wave 2 or 3 times in about 30 minutes.
OK, it was probably about 5:30pm when I put the autopilot on and went down below to check the GPS, the chart and the course to Begg Rock, trying to figure out when to tack again.
I remember the autopilot not playing one big wave and falling from the top. Not too bad. Just after that, though, there was a huge heel to leeward and I’m thrown to the ‘other side of the boat’. Well, minis are not too big, and I’m a big lucky guy… yeap, I found myself standing with one foot on the side of the boat and one hand on the cabin ceiling. I pushed my self up a bit just enough to get my upper body out through the companionway, reach the main sheet and uncleat it, letting it go about a couple of feet or so. At the same time the boat started to righten herself up I climbed to windward and that stabilized the whole thing.
Sit back and relax, I thought. And then is when I started hearing a weird noise. Of all noises she’s been teaching me to hear, this was a new one. It was like if you grab an empty plastic bottle and squeeze it with your hand. Weird!! There I was, looking everywhere for the source of that noise… but nothing was wrong.
Until, of course, I looked at my feet. Just there, on the aft joint of keel box with the hull, there was a long and narrow bluish-greenish strip. What the hell is this?!? It was, of course, the freaking Pacific Ocean smiling at me and trying (slowly but successfully) to get inside of the boat.
As water was starting to get inside, I remembered the comment when passing the PSSA’s safety check: ‘Those round plugs are useless, cracks don’t really have that shape, if something happens just get a towel or something in there!’. And that’s what I did. I got one towel and ‘covered’ the strip to slow down the flow of water. It did seem a successful move!
Then I called a ‘sécurité’ on the VHF with the objective to let the Coast Guard know that I was having problems. It was still quite shocked by the whole thing, but then, when still talking on the VHF, I realized that there was more water inside that the one it could have come through the towel-covered strip… I stopped talking and started bailing out!
I had no clue where the ‘other’ crack was, but when I moved my bags with food and autopilot backups that were covering part of the keel box (the other part was covered with the batteries), I saw the same type of crack all around the keel box! As an afterthought, I kind of remember seeing the ocean also through the holes where the keel bolts were supposed to be, and I was afraid of the keel falling down, but at that moment I did not internalized the keel may have gone already…
By then I had about half a foot of water inside, and I pressed the red button on the VHF (DSC button). Keep bailing out! A few seconds and no contact on the radio… oh, cool, there is a funny message on the vhf screen saying something like: ‘Are you sure you want to press that little red button?, if so, press it again and hold it for 5 seconds’. Hell no! I just lifted that little protection flap and press the button as an exercise to check if I could do it with just one hand! Of course I wanted to press the freaking button!!! OK, now I will hold it for 5 seconds….
And just a few seconds after I lifted my finger from the button I got the US Coast Guard on Channel 16.
They double checked I did not push the button by mistake, and then what was the reason of my emergency. I remember telling them that I was taking on water but everything seemed ‘stable’ (may be about a foot or so of water inside). They also asked about my life jacket (yes, I had it on and I was clipped on to the boat too).
There were some questions that I never thought I had to answer on the VHF in an emergency: Full name and date of birth… I’m sure having a strong spanish accent doesn’t help much when you’re on an emergency but they dealt with it really well. And, of course, they wanted to check who I was. They also asked for the CF number and my GPS position. Well, I have pretty bad memory and the CF numbers were on the outside of the cabin… but they really wanted to know, so I went outside try to memorize them and went down below again to tell them (in my next boat I’ll put a sticker with the CF numbers on the VHF). About my position… I had my GPS connected to the VHF, and the GPS position was displayed on the VHF screen. I had also entered my fully-registered MMSI number on the VHF… but still they didn’t get my position. Weird!!!!
I have to confess that, while all this happened, I never thought the keel could have gone to the bottom already and I could turtle at any moment… but every time I was getting in and out I carefully put my feet on the side walls and away from the hull, as I was scared to death that the whole thing could break under my weight taking my leg with it.
After short contact on the radio, sailboat Tenacity appeared on my port bow. It definitely felt better to have somebody around. Thank you!!!!
After checking that the stern was almost underwater (including the pump nozzle) and that there was almost two feet of water inside (it got in way too fast) is when I decided that I could not win against the laws of physics, the weight of the boat and the big hole on the bottom. Minis should have positive flotation. Meaning that they float when full of water. So I was not going to sink to the bottom but every gallon I pump out was going to be replaced by a new fresh one. No reason to get tired… so I stopped pumping.
After all this is when I tried to lower the sails… jib first (yes, I know, the main was getting me more at risk of capsizing). Then I saw the Coast Guard helicopter flying over me (later they told me the helicopter was in the air when I called in, and in those cases they fly to the position to have a visual assessment of what’s going on).
One thing I did was to get the flares container and my bag with all my personal stuff out. Just in case I had to use them or the she went down. Also tried to plan on my mind how to take the life raft out if really needed… I’m so glad that’s pretty easy on Minis! But still I was not as fresh as when doing it at the marina…
But after all all that was not really needed. Not too long after, and only about 20 minutes after I 5-second-pressed the red button, the LA Lifeguards (2 or 3 boats) and the Coast Guard Cutter had arrived. I believe I was about 7 miles offshore by then. Thank you!!!!
The first thing we tried to do when they arrived was to try to pump the water out. They brought a diesel pump on board, but we couldn’t even start it. Every time we moved around, the boat heeled a bit towards us, and then all the water inside went in our direction and then she kept heeling over… so, after a couple of failed intents, they called us on board the Lifeguard’s boat.
New plan: We’re going to try to tow her upwind, lower the main and then tow her back to Marina del Rey. Well, that didn’t happen either. Just after we tied the tow line and started towing she decided that she’d hold in there enough and capsized. All the way. And it was there when I saw her bottom… with no keel! No freaking keel!!!!!!
I’d like to thank the Lifeguards for being there so fast, and for all the efforts they did to cover the hole and try to right her up (but she just didn’t want to collaborate, though), and for cutting the rig off so the mast (facing down) would not break the whole deck when getting close to shallow waters. One of them broke a rib helping me… Sorry man!!
I’d like to thank also Tenacity for staying there with me and recovering my bag (it floated away!) and for all the support I’ve received from members of the PSSA and Singlehanded Sailing Society. Also to Jerome from OpenSailing for helping me to get into the start and with all the mess after that. And, of course, to all my friends, fellow sailors and ministas that have provide with lots of support through those days. And, with a warm memory in my heart, to the people of South Coast Corinthian Yacht Club, that, when the Lifeguards drop me at their docks, they provide me all the support I needed. And food and drinks! Thank you all!!!
There are few thing I have not solved yet. For example, how come I could still talk on the VHF with two feet of water inside (and most probably the batteries under water)? Or, why didn’t she capsize until I stepped out into the Lifeguard’s boat? How come I had not hurt myself? No idea. But, in any case, sometimes is just good to be lucky.