Life Aboard LULU

May 31, 2004 (Bottoming Out)
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Bottoming Out

Betcha thought we sunk.  Well, we almost did

Let's start with this happy news: LULU is back in the US. Exactly 4 years after we set sail from downtown Hampton, we schlepped into the Dry Tortugas.

Betcha thought we'd already lived through just about all of the recountable-at-the-bar sailing mishaps. So did we. We were wrong.

I only exaggerate slightly, pleading comic license for some comic relief.

We hit this entirely new maritime snag on the last leg of a three-day, 350-mile crossing from Isla Mujeres, Mexico to Key West, Florida. The fair-weather window and the balmy winds we were promised by our for-hire weatherman never materialized. Except, of course, on the first morning. True, we'd only paid him $20 for 36 emails and twice-daily radio contact. Did I mention he's an aspiring marine weather guy? Who's not going to make it.

Instead of his predicted south-westerlies (good), we got on-the-nose northerlies (not good), further agitating the habitually agitated Gulf Stream.

A "what else is new?" wasn't much consolation for the misbehaving wind, for the bashing, crashing and trashing we'd been getting for the better part of two days.

We last encountered the treacherous Gulf Stream 4 years ago, on one freezing, chaotic November night when the autopilot rams failed en route to Virgin Gorda. Let's see, was that 30-knot winds or 40-knot winds? Fortunately sailing is like childbirth-you forget the pain the day after.

We did have this consolation: at least the weather was warm as we motored forward into the canyon-sized bow waves which then galloped down the decks and over the cockpit canopies.

Around 3AM on the second-and supposedly last-night an alarm began blaring. Water Alert!

I was in the cockpit, eyes at half-mast, gratefully awaiting the end of my two-hour watch; Gary, sleeping on the salon sofa below, jolted awake, staggered to the steps and ripped up first the carpet, then the floorboards. He gaped; I gasped.

Below, we saw at least 18 inches of water-a maelstrom pouring over the rear bilge bulkhead into the forward bilge adjoining it-and the bilge pump was not keeping up with the inflow. We were taking on water at a startling rate

Gary almost always becomes nauseous below decks and turns a sickly shade of green. But now he took an even more bilious hue. Seesawing between this vivid chartreuse and the ghostly white of abject terror, he scurried forward and aft looking for the cause. But he could not, even after checking all the through-hulls, seacocks and run-of-the-mill leak suspects, find the source of such a mammoth (I'm avoiding the word titanic) intake.

"There's so much water the rats are surfing," he croaked, in a valiant effort to stay, well, I suppose, buoyant. It wasn't funny enough to laugh.

I ran for the life jackets, which-as on all overnight passages-we keep handy, although in this case handy meant wedged under the dining table, trapped behind the ditch bag and the large bureau drawer that had fallen out en route) It was a very rough night.

I donned my life jacket, discovering in the process I'd (quite unreassuringly) forgotten completely how to operate its various clips and clasps). And we both donned our regulation, standard-issue personalities in response to the emergency: me racing about madly-barefoot and side-stepping or simply jumping over open hatches-collecting wallets, computers, PDAs, boat documents and favorite earrings; Gary recommending calm, insisting he'd pull us through-Superman in jockey shorts. The water continued gushing uncontrollably. Fighting it, he diverted the heavier-duty engine bilge pump, which sucks at a faster rate.

Now Gary lives in the mantra there's no problem he can't solve, no machinery he can't eventually fix. So far, I admit he's been 100% right. On the other hand, this current situation wasn't like lolling at anchor and triumphing over a blank radar screen or a blocked hose or a stubborn pump. Time-and machinery's inherent dislike of salt water-was not on our side.

A half-hour of deadlock ensued, he insisting he'd find the problem; me screeching, "We should call the Coast Guard, we should call the Coast Guard. And the water continuing its uncontrolled rampage. In my less frenzied moments, I tried to convince him we might be in actual danger, that this was, in fact, a real, honest-to-God at-sea, emergency, the kind you read about in magazines, the kind you dread.

Finally I garnered some grudging agreement to call for help. (Note 62-year-long need to gather agreement...)

In my honey's defense, I have to say calling the Coast Guard can mean being ordered by crew-cut teenagers in uniforms to abandon ship, possibly being subjected to rigorous equipment inspections, dealing with tow companies and even salvage issues-in short, annoying red tape and total loss of freedom, all be avoided if possible.

I raced to my radios, punched-fingers trembling-the appropriate buttons and blared, "Pan-Pan!" signifying imminent danger, as opposed to "Mayday, Mayday," which generally means "about to abandon ship."

No answer.

The Coast Guard didn't respond to VHF or-far scarier-the longer-range SSB emergency calls. Entirely unexpected and no panic reducer.

Fortunately, a small flotilla had gathered back in Isla Mujeres waiting for the same favorable weather window. About half were bound for the east coast of Florida, the rest for the west. FEISTY had already veered off, bound for hurricane digs in St Petersberg. Fortunately again, we were traveling within miles of two other sailboats. Though we hadn't met them (and in fact never did), we hailed both boats on the VHF. One, WINDSONG, eventually (note the "eventually") established Coast Guard contact. The Key West Coast CG station dispatched a cutter, with spare pumps, estimating they'd reach us in two hours.

WINDSONG insisted on following us when we reversed course and headed to the Dry Tortugas, which were (a mere?) 20 miles away, to Key West's 50.

Those miles did not exactly evaporate. Still, we watched as the bilge pumps not only remained operational but also began slowly making some headway on lowering the water level. We no longer had a raging river below and, at the same time, by changing direction, we'd stopped smashing into the seas and thus stopped taking on additional water.

WINDSONG resumed its course once we finally established our own VHF contact with the Coast Guard. Their cutter arrived near dawn and led us into the unfamiliar Dry Tortugas anchorage.

Finally anchored, exhausted but calm, we discovered the cause. It seems our limber holes (accoutrements we were only now introduced to), which are openings that link the two bilges, (and, I might add, are a lot too small) had become blocked, presumably with junk from seven years' cruising plus whatever debris floated in the inrushing water. This obstruction kept the gathering stern water from draining into the forward bilge to be cleared. Compounding the problem, we had not locked down the rear lazarette compartment; while it didn't pop open, a ton of seawater poured in, the ultimate source of our mystery intake.

Gary got on his belly, reached deep below, into the muck of the bilges to clear the offending and offensive blocked holes. Alas, he proved not sufficiently limber for the limber hole; he slid promptly, face first, into the bilge. The rescue team (me) had to yank him out by the ankles.

After nearly 48 hours awake, by no means did we bid a fond farewell to our problems and pop into bed. For one thing, we needed to find out what gave with our VHF radio. By tracing wires, Gary discovered a semi-melted cluster of wires-another love note from the San Andres lightning strike. For another, bed isn't very inviting without our beloved air conditioning and air conditioning isn't possible when the generator isn't running. Nor are water-making or battery charging and a few other crucial functions.

Gary discovered the genny wasn't operational when he went to open its seacock-a valve that allows small quantities of water in to cool the generator down. He'd closed that seacock during the emergency, assuming a most-likely-case scenario-massive generator intake leak. When he went to flip the handle back open, it broke off in his hand. Installed maybe just four month's back, it had corroded right through. Nothing he applied-not naval jelly, WD 40, Git Rust, screwdrivers, monkey wrenches or heavy, frustrated applications of brute-force, would budge the little schnibble of handle remaining. He chose a more or less risky solution, figuring our risk tolerance had recently swelled exponentially. He drilled a " hole though the through-hull. We'll have to be hauled to install a new seacock fitting in mid-June, when we-LULU, Gary and I-arrive back home in New Rochelle-1200 miles further north-for a hurricane season with the kids, the grandkiddies and all our friends.

I sincerely hope I won't be writing another installment of "Heebie Jeebies at Sea" before that happens.


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