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Sailing Mexico, day 3: the “night of terror” where we almost, could have, and should have died. But didn’t.

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Cabo San Lucas rocks, the southern most point of our 1,000 mile trip.

Part 1 | Part 2

Los Cabos Fault: Mother Nature does not take kindly to strangers.

“This first segment of our trip will be the longest. We’ll be out on sea for almost two full days, almost 200 miles before we reach our first stop: Magdalena Bay. This will also be the roughest part of our trip, as we’re going through the Los Cabos Fault. The weather conditions here are always rough.”

“At least one person must remain on the upper deck at all times. The radar and sonar may not always catch everything, so we need a pair of eyes on the lookout for any foreign debris, boats, or rocks.”

“We want to be at least 10 miles out from the coast. The last thing we want to do is hit land.”

“Feel free to play any music you’d like, or watch TV in the galley.”

Captain Graham debriefed us on everything, but I was just hungry. A cup of coffee can only do so much to get us through three hours of practice drills. I needed sustenance.

But the weather conditions were no joke. Winds were at 25 knots, or about 29 miles per hour. The boat rocked violently from side to side at about 15 degrees. The waves crashed into the bow (front) of the boat, and the misty salt water kept hitting the cockpit. We hid beneath the dodger, which soon became the only dry spot on the entire upper deck. The ride was uncomfortable.

I was afraid of getting seasick and only ate a banana. Alex ate an apple. Captain Graham read a book.

Captain Graham: “Don’t forget night watch duties. One of you needs to stay awake between 12-3am, the other from 3-6am.

Alex was assigned the 12-3am shift, while the 3-6am shift went to me.

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We sailed by the last of the hotels. Alex and I stayed on the upper deck, gazing into the distance. The further you look into the horizon, the less seasick you supposedly get. The tactic failed Alex, who soon threw up multiple times. I was unsure what he threw up, because coffee and one apple was absolutely nothing. Alex slipped into the crew’s quarters, where he slept the rest of day.

I myself was afraid of throwing up. Every time I went down to the lower deck, the rocking got me feeling woozy. I ended up napping or closing my eyes all day, waking only to drink water or eat saltine crackers. One banana, a few crackers, and water was my meal for the entire day.

But I never got sick. At 8pm, I found myself back inside the cockpit, lying down and looking at the sunset. Having traveled between 5.5-7 miles per hour, we were now 70 miles way from Cabo San Lucas — the nearest civilization. We were 14 miles off the the coast, far enough to not be able to see the land. Only water surrounded us — a quiet, somber feeling.

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These were the last images I took before “The Night of Terror.” The last image was timestamped 8:19pm on July 8, 2010.

Sailboat terminology.

Here are some sailboat terminology to help with the next section.

Boat top view
1.1. Top-down view.

Boat side view
1.2. Side view.

Binnacle
1.3. The binnacle.

Boom
1.4. Mainsheet system.

The Night of Terror: five hours in Hell.

At 8:30pm, I grabbed the star finder, a device you could point at the sky that would identify which stars you were looking at. I thought, “What a relaxing way to spend the night!” Right?

Wrong.

At 9:00pm, Captain Graham yelled from below, “Something’s wrong.” He opened the engine room hatch, and the entire galley immediately filled with white smoke. “Turn the engine off right now!” I turned the engine off.

So, began, the problems.

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With the engine running, the boat had enough momentum to keep it from swaying at a more dramatic angle. As soon as the engine was off, the boat began rocking with such force that seawater would enter the upper deck from both sides.

Captain Graham summoned Alex from his hibernation, and we rendezvoused in the cockpit. The violent swaying prevented him from being able to investigate and fix the issue. We needed to stabilize the boat via lowering the sails, followed by steering the boat directly into the wind. This would allow him to diagnose and fix the problem without having to expend all his energy trying to stay upright.

[Splash]

“What was that noise?”

[We look at the stern and notice something missing.]

“The 60-liter fuel can just fell off. What do we do?”

“There’s nothing we can do. It’s completely pitch black and we’re out of an engine. That thing is lost.”

Sure enough, the fuel can was nowhere in sight. Overcast had settled; the stars that I had just been looking at were all gone. The fog lights and three flashlights gave us enough visibility to see the boat itself, and anything two feet out. Nothing else.

See Images 1.2 and 1.3.  Captain Graham then loosened the mainsheet to release some tension in the sails, and the steel rod just snapped. The boom connects to the mast, and has a 180 degree range of motion. The mainsheet controls the sails, which controls the direction of the boat. And the steel rod just broke. Why would you do this to two completely novice sailors and a 72 year old captain?

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Photo captured the following day, obviously. If only GoPros existed back then.

We had a boom on the loose. Imagine a thousand pound of metal swinging back and forth against the port and starboard sides, every seven seconds. Each pounding sounded like an explosion. Had any of us stood up straight in the cockpit, hitting the boom would have knocked our heads off.

Captain Graham assessed the situation and took charge.

“We need to lower the sails so that the boom will not be pounding as violently.”

“Alex, attach yourself to the jackline. You will head to the mast to lower the sails.”

“Andy, you too. You will crawl back to the fuel cans and open the compartment on the left. There are spare lines, grab the thickest one.”

“Once Alex has lowered the sails, we throw the line over the boom. We then lasso the boom [like cowboys] and tie it down down onto the wenches on both sides. This is our number one priority right now. The boom is hitting the shroud, which is a metal line that helps keep the mast upright. If that boom breaks either shroud, the mast goes done and we will sink.”

Thanks, Captain, very reassuring. Glad to know there’s no pressure.

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Alex tied himself to the jackline, which is a very thin line that goes around the perimeter of the upper deck. He then crawled over to the mast and lowered the sails. After he lowered the sails, he fainted right at the mast. Imagine a guy who drank a bunch of alcohol one night, ate nothing but an apple the following day, and spent all day throwing up and seasick. Yep, that guy just fainted.

Me: Alex just collapsed. Will he be okay? Will the jackline keep him in?

Captain Graham: you saw what happened to the fuel can. Even if he falls overboard, we won’t be able to see him. The jackline will keep him nearby, but if he’s not swimming, he’ll still drown. There’s not much we can do right now to help him. We need to lasso the boom now.

We were now one man down. All that remained was a clueless kid (me) and a 72 year old veteran. I took Captain’s orders as the word of God.

The line that I brought back to the cockpit was very thick and heavy. Despite lowered sails, the boat continued to rock violently, and I had trouble mustering enough momentum to swing the rope over the boom. Newfound respect for cowboys. Captain Graham tried as well, but we were both failing. Every seven seconds: BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. No pressure at all.

We eventually threw the line partially over; the line got stuck somehow and became a noose. With the boom swinging 180 degrees, there was such a small window to grab the line. When we were able to grab a hold of it, the force caused rope burns. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.

When we held onto the line, the force of the boom would cause us to body slam or headbutt each other. I soon saw blood dripping from Captain Graham’s face. He also bled from his shins. Both of our glasses got knocked off; his was nowhere to be found, while one of my lens popped out from the frame. We tried to turn on the flashlights; they stopped working, likely from being knocked around. Great, we were working blind.

Alex suddenly crawled into the cockpit. During this chaos, he had awoken from the dead and mustered enough strength to come back in. He was muttering incomprehensible words, was probably half unconscious, and tried to grab the noose. We both yelled at him to stop, fearing the noose would take his arm off. Captain Graham eventually yelled at him. “If you’re not able to help, then you’re just doing more harm than good. Get off the deck and go down below.” Alex fell down the stairs on the way down, and he disappeared once again.

With Alex gone, the boom and wild line was still a problem. I feared that the line would catch and break my arm or neck. Luckily (not really), the line shifted its attention away from Captain Graham and I, and towards our equipment. The line caught and completely destroyed the binnacle (see image 1.4). After a few yanks, the line completely destroyed our gear shift, throttle, compass, and table.

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The remains of the binnacle, the following day.

I remember thinking:

If we somehow get this boom under control, then fix the engine, how the fuck are we going to steer this boat? We can no longer accelerate/decelerate, reverse/drive, or do anything anymore.

Why isn’t Captain Graham panicking? What the fuck are we going to do?!

After what felt like an eternity, we were able to loosen the line and pull it towards the second wench. Captain Graham asked me to secure it.

Captain Graham: Wrap the line around the wench three times, counter clock wise, and use the wind channel to crank it tight.

[I stared at Captain Graham and blinked.]

Andy: What’s a wind channel?

Captain Graham: It’s the device beneath your feet.

The boom was still violent, but we had restricted its movement by over half. I did what was told, but could not tighten the damn line. Turns out the wench had broken. We had to use another.

Captain Graham secured himself to the jackline and re-directed the line over to the starboard boom vang (see image 1.1). He asked me to steer into the wind so he would not have to balance as much. I looked at the gauges below the dodger and saw the wind meter. I was supposed to keep the wind indicator in the middle. The indicator swung like a pendulum… I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.

Regardless of my steering efforts, Captain Graham secured the boom. Finally!

He then crawled back to the cockpit, took over the steering wheel, and asked me to connect the mainsheet to the secondary hook. It was supposed to take 15 seconds, but I spent nearly 10 minutes — had on idea it was simply a hook and had unscrewed a couple pieces of metal, thinking that it was part of an enclosed system. Finally, mainsheet secure. Time to fix the engine.

I took over the wheel again and “steered” into the wind. In other words, I was cluelessly turning the wheel every few seconds, adjusting to the never-calming pendulum. In the meantime, Captain Graham went down below to investigate the engine. After about 30 minutes, he yelled from below.

Captain Graham: Turn on the engine!

[I turned the engine on.]

Captain Graham: We’re not moving at all.

[I tried not to think about death and taxes. Mostly death.]

Captain Graham went back up to the cockpit to investigate the damages. He concluded that the boat could not be controlled from the cockpit, and that he would have to control the boat from below. But how?

Captain Graham: You’re going to have to raise the sails again, on your own. Tie yourself to the jackline again. I’ll stay here and sail into the wind. Once you raise the sails, I’ll see how we can control our speed and direction using the autopilot.

Out of the cockpit I went. I went from starboard side and found the boom vang blocking my path — Captain Graham had done some great work tying the boom down. I detached from the jackline, climbed over the boom vang, and re-attached myself. One slip, and I would have gone overboard.

Raising the sails was not fun. I used the wind channel to crank 80 feet of linen while hanging on for dear life. Fog lights did not reach this section of the boat. Everything was dark. I wondered how Alex did not fall overboard when he had fainted here earlier. I wondered whether the wind meter swung like a pendulum under Captain Graham’s direction. I thought about mom, and home.

With the sails raised, we begun rocking more violently again. I worried that the secondary hook would not hold up. We would be the unluckiest crew if that happened.

Captain Graham asked me to come down below with him. Food, metal, and many broken things were everywhere — all the chaos had caused cabinets to open and things to fall off counters and walls. I held a flashlight for him while he looked at the engine.

The engine was fixed, but the binnacle issue remained; we were unable to control the boat from above. Captain Graham looked over the mechanical and electrical components in the control room, while I laid down on the couch, exhausted.

The engine noise got louder. Captain Graham exclaimed:

We’re moving at 3 knots now!

3.5 now!

4.5!

5.5! We’re moving again!

Now I’ll just use the autopilot to set course. Done!

I checked the clock. 2am. Five hours in Hell, and we were finally out. Bloodied, bruised, exhausted, but unbroken. We survived.

I burst out laughing and we gave each other a high five. We did it.

Debrief: what happened?

IMG_6602The remnants of Captain Graham’s blood on my sweatpants.

The fan belt broke, causing the radiator to become extremely hot. The radiator water evaporated quickly, which was the source of the white smoke.

This alone would not have been a bad issue. Losing the 60-liter fuel can wasn’t so bad either, just an annoyance. It was the damn steel rod that caused all the trouble.

Me: How did you know how to fix everything? How were you able to get us up and running without using the cockpit?

Captain Graham: I studied mechanical engineering at Stanford. I’ve owned a few sailboats, and there is always something broken on board. Every captain essentially needs to know how to fix everything on his own, or else hire an engineer for every trip. As for the engine, I just tweaked some things from below and used the autopilot instead.

Me: Why didn’t you tell me this? I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it out of here.

Captain Graham: It’s also important to have some things on a need-to-know basis. I felt the less you knew about the overall picture, the better, so that we could focus on tackling problems one at a time.

In all honesty, I never panicked simply because Captain Graham gave such clear and precise orders. He was the brains, and I was merely his hands. He kept me calm and focused to the point where I really didn’t get distracted from fear of dying. He kept us alive.

Game of Sailing: The Night’s Watch must go on.

I was absolutely exhausted, and I can’t imagine how Captain Graham must have felt. He offered to stay awake for one more hour to make sure that nothing broke, while I took a nap. He then woke me up at 3am to take over night watch duties. My plan was to stay up until 6am, then awake Alex to take control until 9am.

I could hardly keep my eyes open. At 4:00am, I woke Alex up from the crew’s quarters. Told him that we were fine and moving again. Told him that Captain Graham and I were dead exhausted and needed him to take over the watch. He muttered a confirmation and got up, seemingly fine. I went to sleep.

At 4:30am, I woke up to Captain Graham’s loud voice in the galley. I feared another issue and waited to be summoned. It never happened, and I drifted asleep again.

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Sailing Mexico, day 4 & 5: barren marshlands, remote beaches, and giant sand dollars. | Andy Cheng

  2. Pingback: Sailing Mexico, day 6, 7, & 8: remote Mexican towns of Turtle Bay and Cedros Island | Andy Cheng

  3. Pingback: Sailing Mexico, day 9 & 10: The Sea of Vizcaina & Ensenada. | Andy Cheng

  4. Pingback: Sailing Mexico, day 11 & 12: home sweet home in San Diego and Long Beach. | Andy Cheng

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