This story was written from the report filed with the Coast Guard after the sinking. It was a story that had to be told - it had everything a good story has: young women, old sailor, sailing, storms, disaster and rescue. It had to be told - it'll even leave you wondering - "Why did it sink??"
This was published in the spring of 1995 in Telltales Magazine,
Hope you enjoy it. Print it, share it with a friend, but please respect the copyright!
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com
In the past I have made two Atlantic crossings and one passage from San Francisco to Hawaii. In addition, I've done a lot of local sailing since I was a teenager. This passage I had planned from Clear Lake to the Bahamas should have been simple.
I'd been lucky in getting an early retirement while still in my 40's. I found the boat I'd wanted for sometime - "Calipso", a Catalina 42 with a good deal of equipment on it. It had things like radar, SSB radio, radar, an epirb and a life raft. There were also several extra sails and anchors in the inventory.
With a crew of two young women, Judy, 28, and Suzan, 27, I'd planned a trip across the Gulf to Florida to Pensacola for a short visit. From Pensacola, we would sail to Tampa and spend the holidays. From Tampa, we'd sail to the Bahamas and Island hop until we tired of it.
The morning of November 9th we departed Lafayette landing Marina in Kemah, Texas about 9;30 and worked our way down the Ship Channel to the Galveston Jetties. After clearing the jetties at about 1 PM, we set a course of 115 degrees. Later in the afternoon, with both of my crew members seasick, I decided to drop anchor and rest for the night. This was a busy traffic area and I wasn't sure I could remain alert all night. We dropped anchor well out of the safety fairway and settled in to rest. We were awakened sometime during the night when something floating in the current slammed into the side of the hull.
The next morning we raised anchor and set our course at 131 degrees. While we were on a port tack, I hung over the side and inspected the side of the hull as well as I could and saw no sign of damage from the collision the night before. About noon we discovered that our radar had quit. We didn't want to go without radar through this area. It is full of oil rigs, including some that are unlighted, so we set a more southerly course. On our new 171 degree course we would get to deeper water that wouldn't have many rigs. We sailed on a beat to the 27 latitude line, then turned east on a good beam reach.
By 10:30 on the 12th we had reached 27/12N, 90/35W when our Genoa Halyard line failed. While dropping the sail it flogged the deck light, shattering the glass. We were trying to get the Genoa re-furled on a spare halyard when we found that the luff tape of the Genoa had torn on the broken deck light. We canceled raising that sail and brought out the storm jib. While raising the storm jib, I suffered a deep cut on my left knee from a piece of the deck light. After attending to this wound, we went back and got the storm sail set. With this smaller sail our headway dropped from 8 knots to about 5 knots.
The next morning found us with about 10 knots of air and calm seas. Since we were far enough east that we'd passed most of the Louisiana oil rigs we set a new course heading of 330 degrees. This would take us to Pensacola. On this calm leg, we found time to make a number of repairs. We patched the ripped Genoa and put it back in place of the storm sail. I fixed the macerator pump on the forward head. We fixed the courtesy halyard, which had come loose in one of the blows. And, best of all, everybody got some rest.
About 0230 the next morning I was below decks when a sudden squall hit us from the northeast. Soon we had winds of 35 knots and seas of 12 to 15 feet. In the middle of this, a gust of wind caused an unplanned gibe. Both jib sheets passed in front of the forestay, came back around, and jammed on a cleat. As I came up from the cabin, another gust and a swell hit the boat and caused me to lose my footing. I slipped and dropped down, straddling the storm slat. The intense pain from this mistake caused me to pass out for a few minutes. After I came to, I found I couldn't roll up the Genoa because of the jammed sheets. We reefed the main to it's second reef. I went forward and cut the jib sheets, leaving about 8 feet of line trailing from the clew. But now I could get the sail rolled up. The crew deployed the sea anchor and we drifted on the anchor for the rest of the night. With 25 knots of wind and rough seas, I wasn't feeling well. I went below with an ice pack to try to reduce the swelling and pain that was developing from my "personal grounding".
At daylight we pulled in the sea anchor. We cut away the rest of the sheets from the Genoa. Using the sheets that came from the spinnaker, we were able to get the Genoa out again. We raised the main again and set a heading east along the 28 degree line.
About 1600 we monitored the short-wave weather broadcast and learned that the tropical depression "Gordon" was turning west near the Florida Keys. We also learned that one possible course for "Gordon" could cross our position. With this new information we wanted to get close in so we could make a port quickly if the worst happened. About 1800 we turned back to the northwest from about 21/08N, 87/55W on a course of 330 degrees. We were heading for the Mississippi river Approaches.
Just after midnight I was awakened by the crew and told that we were in another sudden squall out of the northeast. This time winds were in excess of 45 knots. As I was heading for the cockpit, we had two heavy wind gusts from different directions. The boat made a tack from port to starboard and the Genoa flogged a bit as it came across. The leech line ripped from the sail and wrapped around the port shroud up high. With this problem, we couldn't roll up the sail, and soon, the spinnaker shackles failed. Now we had no control. We still were attempting to roll up the sail when the furling control line pulled out of the furler. We got a double reef back in the main and rode out the storm. About 0300 the wind had let up enough that we could fire up the motor, steer into the wind to bring what was left of the sail above the deck. The crew went forward and cut away as much of the remains as they could.
This left us with the double reefed main and making about 3 knots. With all these complications, we started planning out the rest of this leg. We had about 18 gallons of fuel in the tank and another 12 gallons stored in jerry cans on deck. We were about 130 miles from Pensacola. Because of the wind direction, we couldn't sail directly to Pensacola, but we'd sail generally east until we were within 100 miles of Pensacola. Then we'd turn to a direct route and motor on in. With the fuel we had that would get us there with plenty in reserve. The boat was in fine shape, just a little short on sails. We were in no immediate danger from "Gordon", but we would keep monitoring "Gordon's" position. If the storm came near, we'd remove the anchor, store it below, and deploy the sea anchor.
At 0530 on the 17th I relieved Suzan at the helm. I spent some time doing some normal maintenance. I checked the engine oil, the fresh water cooling systems and a general inspection. Everything looked fine. The bilge area had only the normal half inch or so of water.
Around 0730 there was a loud bang from somewhere below decks. I went down and inspected everything I could think of and found nothing suspicious.
I looked into every access and found nothing that could have caused that loud noise. I was still hurting quite a bit from my grounding, but Judy and I went forward and managed to get the last of the jib tied to the forestay. We retied the reefed main and retired to the cockpit. In these calm seas, we decided to reward ourselves with a steak and egg breakfast. We were relaxing in the cockpit enjoying this treat when Judy went below to discover the floorboards awash.
I ran below to find water over the cabin sole, the bilge pump light on, but no water being pumped. I pulled our spare gel cell battery out of it's storage and hooked up another small backup bilge pump and ran it's output to the galley sink. About then, all the instruments quit. Suzan went forward to make sure all the through hulls were shut. Wiggling the main bilge pump got it going again. I cut the intake from both of the shower pumps, jammed them into the bilge and turned them on. Judy was manning the manual bilge pump in the cockpit and with all this pump power we seemed to be winning the battle. As the batteries started to weaken from the drain of all the pumps, I started the motor.
Now it was beginning to seem serious. I was still below trying to find where the water was coming from. All the fittings seemed sound and I just couldn't find the leak. By 1100 hours, I decided it was serious enough that we'd better prepare for the worst. The swim platform was at least 6 inches below the water and we were still taking on more. I brought the life raft to the cockpit and removed the epirb from it's mount in the cabin. We got our abandon ship bag on deck and packed in as much extra food as we could We had a water maker in the bag so that wasn't a problem. We were afraid we might be out here for a while.
We sent out our first mayday and got no response. We gave out 4 maydays over the next hour. I put the crew and the abandon ship bag into the life raft and eased it off the stern. I remained on board. With the raft held to the rear of the boat with a lanyard, I stayed aboard to try again to find the cause of our leak. The water was at least knee deep in the cabin, but I didn't want to leave unless I just had to. I made another trip the length of the boat, trying to find the leak, but had no luck. I used a large bucket we had aboard to try to bail boat, but made no headway. I made one more "Mayday" call and reluctantly turned on the epirb and got into the raft.
As Calipso drifted away from us, she rode lower and lower in the water until she passed out of sight over the horizon. About 2 hours later a Coast Guard Falcon jet passed over. We fired an orange smoke flare to help him locate us. We were also able to contact him on our hand held VHF radio. He let us know that a rescue helicopter was going to be launched very soon, although there was going to be a short delay. When we asked what we could take aboard, he told us that whatever was in our pockets was all that would go in the helicopter. However, there was an ocean tug, "FrancisS.", about 6 miles away which would pick us up if we preferred. Since the seas were calm and we wanted to save as much of our gear as possible, we asked to have the tug get us. The pilot dropped a radio beacon buoy next to "Calipso" so it could be located and returned to his shore station.
We were then able to communicate with the tug on the handheld VHF to direct them to us. For a time, they were having a hard time spotting our raft in the open seas. After we fired two high altitude radar reflecting rockets and they were able to find us.
The captain drove the large barge within 150 feet of us and the mate threw a line. The mate helped us up the ladder on the side of the barge. We were checked for exposure and shock and given hot soup. The entire crew donated some clothing for us. The Chief Engineer gave up his personal quarters so that we could have a stateroom. And while we were being attended to, they even saved our life raft and emergency gear. This was the most professional group of seamen I have ever seen.
We stayed aboard the "Francis S." all the way to Tampa. As we entered Tampa Bay we received word that "Calipso" had sunk the evening of November 17, the same day we'd left her.
Author's note: The story is true and happened just as it was related. However, all the names have been changed. The captain feels it would jeopardize his chances to recruit new crew members if his identity was commonly known!
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