At 2321 hours on Friday, November 29, Sine Metu and I could see Punta Baja, and ghosted well past by Saturday, 0142 hours, at an impressive speed (for us) of 4 knots.
Keeping about two miles offshore to avoid any kelp beds and lobster traps (my rule was to sail in water no shallower than 80-feet). The wind started to die, but the seas had smoothed out, too, so we were still drifting along nicely at almost 2 knots by 0352 hours and abeam of Isla San Geronimo. I had slipped into my routine of camping and polyphasic sleeping in the cockpit, stretched out on the port cockpit seat on a full-length cushion and setting the alarm at 15-minute increments. I would close my eyes, maybe even drift off ever so slightly, then awake to check the horizon, trim the sails if needed, confirm course, and so forth. With the tiller pilot working beautifully, we could see the lights of the Sacramento Reef and kept about 2 miles away from its teeth.
By 0922, we were past Punta San Carlos, my last charted bail-out anchorage, if I needed one, and sailing great at 3.5 knots. This was the jumping-off point for the next 80-or-so miles of open ocean as we headed off for Isla de Cedros (Cedar Island) and crossed Sebastián Vizcaíno Bay. By 0950 hours, the usual morning routine of no wind kicked in, and I drifted more than sailed until about 1120 hours. During these times, I would drop sail, drop trou, and take a shower. Afterward, I’d prepare something for lunch (I can’t remember what it was that day, but I think it was a can of roast beef, black beans, and some of the pre-cooked rice and quinoa I made the night before which was still warm in the thermos). I remember it being savory and wishing that I had bought more cans of it. By 1132 hours, the wind was back, and we were on course at 3 knots and gaining speed running under full main and full, poled out jib.
Around noon the wind was building, so I put in a reef and rolled the jib to its first mark. The barometer had settled at 1016 Mb, winds were close to 15 knots under clear skies, and over long ocean swells, we glided. The sailing was fantastic!
Around 1400 hours, the winds kept increasing, the barometer rose to 1017 Mb, and the ocean swells were beginning to feel the effects of the open Pacific’s fetch and started showing white caps and a little spray. I decided to go to my second reef and clipped on to go forward. Five minutes later, everything was sorted out, and I was again cruising flat with just a dab of weather helm. Somewhere close to 1500 hours, I had to change course as trying to maintain a southerly heading was proving too hard and had to shift to a broad reach instead of a wing-on-wing downwind run. The seas were starting to grow beards by now, and the wind must have been close to 20 to 25 knots, but I didn’t note the exact number at that time. I rolled in the jib, went forward and dropped the whisker pole, and secured it to the boom brake’s starboard attachment point at the forward, lower shroud.
At 1713 hours under still-clear skies and a rising barometer of 1017 Mb, I decided to heave to at N 29º 19’17.63” by W 115º 44’ 6.98”. Winds must have been close to 30 knots at that time as the white caps were starting to foam, and the horizontal spray began to soak into my clothes. Trying to maintain a course through the wave trains was also getting too hard to maintain the desired compass bearing of 144º towards Isla de Cedros.
Now, Sine Metu normally heaves to like a dream – in fact, a few nights before I chose to heave to off Punta Colonet instead of anchoring. A cutaway full keel, I’ve hove to too many times in the past to count: for lunch, to sleep, and just for the pure joy if it. It was my number-1 go-to tactic for storms. But by 1745 hours, it was apparent that heaving to wasn’t going to be possible. While this was a tried and true technique for Sine Metu, she was having none of it today. So, after being almost continuously awake for nearly 72-hours except for a multitude of the 15-minute naps I consistently take while sailing (polyphasic sleeping: sleep for 15-minutes, wake up via alarm clock and trim sails, check horizon, eat, et cetera, then go back to sleep for another 15-minutes, repeat), I decided to continue on. I put in the third reef and rolled the jib down to the smallest of exposed sail possible and added a little tension to the lazy sheet so that what was exposed wouldn’t flog itself to death.
By 1853 hours, with winds over 30 knots blowing spray off the tops of waves, I could no longer maintain any sort of course and again decided to heave to a second time. At first, Sine Metu held it perfectly, maybe because she was on a different tack, I don’t know, but it was pleasant for about 10-minutes. I had thoughts of brewing some hot tea, then new wave trains started rolling us beam to beam. At 1903 hours, I made the decision to run bar-pole downwind with the wind as I had at least 60-miles of open water and no navigational worries. This was an active tactic I never liked as it could, theoretically, generate too much speed. So I unpacked and readied the Jordan Series Drogue and decided, if I hit 5 knots, I would deploy it.
So, contending with the two different wave trains and 30+ knots of wind, I ran bare pole as best as I could using the Mexican courtesy flag as a telltale while trying to keep the stern to the wind as my primary goal. But, at roughly 2100 hours, my stern got slapped hard by a wave, the boat gybed, and I was knocked down. The port spreader dipping into the trough of the wave as it rolled past — I remember looking at it as my safety harness jerked me to a stop in the cockpit. This was the third time in my life that has happened. The sailboat recovered herself surprisingly quick, and the cabin remained orderly as I always stored things for a 90º lifestyle when underway, and I sailed on at less than 2 knots.
The two preventers that I kept continuously rigged, which ran from the cockpit to pulleys at the bow via 3/8-inch, 8-brait line, and attached to boom-length sections of Dyneema, which were luggage-tagged around the boom’s aft end, worked perfectly as the boom never budged. I had centered it while hove to the second time, the dropped sail tied down, and the lazy jacks keeping everything bundled up nicely.
At roughly 2110 hours, N 29º 13’57.11” by W 115º 41’9.64” Sine Metu was violently knocked down a second time. That wave had caught us at the top of the crest, body-slammed us down on the port side, and crashed down on top of us. The hull was crushed inwards on both sides as evidenced by both port and starboard countertops being ripped free from their frames, the sink had popped out and only held in place by the double clamped drain hose to the seacock. Luckily, the plexiglass windows stayed intact.
Sine Metu righted once more, fighting for every vertical inch. Everything was silent. Everything moved in slow motion. My ribs hurt where the Spinlock Deck Pro harness clamped down on me as the short safety tether again yanked me to a stop, preventing me from being ejected from the cockpit. Then I remembered to breathe…
Down below, under red lights, everything looked okay, but now that the cabin was askew, I noticed charts and journals moving on the cabin floor. Going to normal lighting, I saw that the cabin sole was awash. I immediately checked the pumps (there are 2 electrics and 1 manual in the bilge), but none were going yet. It seemed to take about 8 minutes for the bilge to fill with 35-gallons of water, and the pumps kicked in. First, the 3/4” pump, then the 1.5” emergency pump with its alarm. I also started pumping from the cockpit’s 1.5” pump at that time.
I went below and surveyed the cabin. I couldn’t find where the water had come from, but it was above the cabin sole and not in the bilge area, that much was obvious. The cabin was a cluttered mess of everything I owned, and I threw the cushions, charts, and books into the forward v-berth area to not slip on them as the boat would roll from beam to beam like I was inside a giant washing machine not set to delicate! At that point, all I could tell was the water was coming from somewhere on the starboard side, so I checked the sink’s seacock, which was okay, and started emptying the starboard lockers – and found only a few inches of water.
My math was off. If the bilge took about 8-minutes to fill, and I knew the capacity of the bilge to be 35-gallons, the small, 3/4-inch pump (1,000 GPH) should have taken care of anything over 2-gallons if it wasn’t sloshing around, at 12-gallons, the big, 1.5-inch (3,700 GPH) emergency pump would have kicked in. My 1.5-inch Whale Titan was rated for 28-gallons per minute, and I pumped for about ten minutes. A lot more than 35-gallons of water came in! I knew no water had come in during the knockdown as the cockpit didn’t ship any water, and I had the companionway closed with two out of three hatch boards in place. There was a leak somewhere and I couldn’t find it…
Part of my damage control kit is Stay Afloat (a wax putty for plugging holes) and Splash Zone, and underwater, two-part epoxy I lovingly refer to as Hulk Snot. Along with foam, rubber, and wooden plugs and bungs, tools to cut away things (saws and a Dremel Tool), an ax, a mallet, and all sorts of other stuff at my fingertips, I could not find a hole to plug! Then more waves hit and rolled Sine Metu from beam to beam, and more water splashed over my feet and filled the bilge. The big pump’s alarm was going off almost immediately. With my 12-volt battery bank still at about 80%, I switched on the 48-volt to 12-volt relay and pulled juice from the sailboat’s electric drive to reinforce the pump’s battery draw. I also shut off the damn alarm.
I climbed back into the cockpit, tried to heave to under bare poles (more like try and keep my beam from the oncoming waves) and took several deep breaths and thought about what was going on. This was when I noticed that the boom was flopping around strangely. The gooseneck had parted and somehow jumped out of its slot in the mast. The preventers I had rigged pulled it forward of the mast. Now, it was simply held up by Boomkicker and lazy jacks and mainsail slides in the Tides Marine track, with the boom brake, cascade vang and mainsheet dangling underneath. The easiest thing at that moment was to lash it to the mast, crank down on the lazy jacks on their mast cleats and pull the whole thing, mainsail and all, forward to stabilize the boom like a broken arm.
At roughly 2110 hours, I put out a Pan Pan call on channel 16 on the VHF without a reply. I tried several more times, but with pumps now running continuously and the water in the cabin now close to three inches in depth, at roughly 2113 hours, I put out a Mayday call, again without reply. Thinking the VHF was either out of range (me being 25 miles West and 60 miles North of any port) or damaged due to either of the knockdowns, I used the Garmin InReach Explorer’s SOS emergency feature. I had already activated both DSC alerts from both onboard VHF radios.
By 2117 hours, Sine Metu was sinking. All I was able to text to InReach’s SAR services was “Sink hull damage.” Water was coming in from somewhere on the starboard side, somewhere under the fiberglass tabbing close to the sink’s cabinet. At this point, I began to question the 58-year old sailboat’s fiberglass integrity.
I spent the next five or so hours battling to keep the stern into the waves while I continued my bare pole run downwind. The tiller pilot was useless at this point, so I wasn’t able to leave the cockpit for a long time, but I kept the normal lighting on in the cabin so that I could keep an eye on things down below. I was still taking on water, but I noticed that water only flowed in when the sailboat rolled. Now, anyone who ever sailed a monohull knows rolling is not something you can readily control unless you have canvas up and can heel the boat to one side or the other. If I could have done it, I would have. Trust me. Somehow, somewhere down there was a hole or holes…holes that were responding to movement.
Trying to text with InReach was problematic and very frustrating because every time I looked down to type a letter, the boat would start to broach in the black night. Fearing that I would be knocked down a third time, or worse, rolled, more and more adrenaline pumped through my cold and cramped hands. Yes, being able to text is a two-edge benefit.
Abandoning ship was the hardest decision I have had to make. This little sailboat has been my home since October 2010. I’ve spent days agonizing over every simple ‘upgrade,’ from bronze parts above deck, G10 backing plates, deck paint colors, the size of the new rigging, the features I wanted in the new sails, the electric drive’s batteries, the custom, over-pitched propeller… Sailing Sine Metu to The Sea of Cortez had been a dream since 2012, and just about every penny I earned the last 7 years had either been spent on her or saved towards the dream. To say I knew every inch of her would have been an understatement. I had either replaced, rebuilt, or McGyvered just about everything on her, except the hull, which I bought for $800. Now, $32,000 later, with too many upgrades to mention, I was starting to realize that I was losing her, and the dream’s end was growing closer.
One of my favorite quotes came to mind during these violent, rolling moments as I tried to brace myself in the cockpit, Robert Frost’s, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” The ending of Sine Metu was being played out, but it didn’t have to be mine, too. And it actually shocked me when I decided that it was time to choose a different path than my beloved little sailboat’s. With no life raft and my Porta Bote broken-down and lashed to the rails, how to go about not going down with the ship was a new dilemma to deal with.
Staying afloat was obviously a priority, but the bilge pumps were keeping up with the inflow of water, and only after a few of the more rough rolls did I have to help out and operate the cockpit pump. So I pumped about 3 out of every 5 minutes. Then came communicating with those who could extract me from 20-plus miles offshore (and that was the distance to land, not a port per se. Well, texting via InReach was the only game in town as no one was answering the VHF, or the antenna was damaged in one of the knockdowns.
Somewhere between the hours of 2130 and 2330 hours, InReach informed me that a rescue was being organized, but it would take 6 hours to reach me…then a few hours later that the rescue ship had to turn back due to the storm, then that another SAR asset was being tasked with the rescue, but that it would be another 11 hours… It was around this time, when the winds were at their worst, at what I would guess would be just 35 knots, squid were also being flung at me in the foamy spray. During one of the more violent rolls, my Maretron WSO100 ultrasonic wind instruments recorded a gust of 168-mph! Now I am positive that the wind wasn’t blowing in the Cat 5 hurricane range as I am still here to write this, but it would take a math savant to divine what the actual speed was as the sensor was at the top of a 30-foot mast being whipped from side to side like a chew toy in an over-excited dog’s mouth.
Sunday, December 1, 2019, Part 2, Survival. Day 25.
With the calmer wave action, I was able to go below with more confidence and started tearing apart everything I could to find a hole. Well, I found one, but it wasn’t a hole, it was a crack in the fiberglass skin of the hull where it met the internal wooden framework; under the edge of the Lonseal flooring and under where the sink’s cabinet tabbing had been fiberglassed down in 1963. It was a long-axis crack along the starboard fiberglass hull’s internal framing. About three to ten inches in length, it disappeared under flooring, so I don’t know it’s actual length. But while down there on all fours, staring at it dumbfounded, I watched as wave action would open and close this crack like heart valve pumping ocean instead of blood. About ten gallons of water would pump in on each violent roll – letting in just enough to match my pumps combined capacities — if I, too, kept pumping.
Another quote came to mind, Nietzsche’s “if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”
Every time the boat rolled? All it was doing was rolling! This crack (the one I could find) was flexing! And while I am not 100% positive due to the adrenaline-fueled moments afterward, I am sure this crack was growing, too.
From my experience with Hulk Snot (Splash Zone), that much flowing water wouldn’t be stopped in the time it would have taken it to cure. Yes, I could have gone over the side and put something on the outside of the hull to negate the flow of water. I contemplated it and had a length of Sunbrella cloth ready to go – complete with grommets and ropes (a collision mat) – the fact that this hull fracture was flexing and growing started to freak me out.
With what I saw and knew of this robust, stable boat, the flexing of the keel’s framing is what settled the matter for me. Sine Metu’s back was broken. She wouldn’t survive another storm, nor do I think she would have survived anything more than a gentle sail on a calm day. Hope sucks by the way. Relying on Hope, like its cousin Luck, has never worked out for me. Active and passive tactics, bail-out plans and relying on my own wits is what I placed stock in, not Luck and Hope. But now, those were the two things I wanted on my side. I wasn’t sure Sine Metu would survive this storm! Thoughts that the sailboat might break up and sink without any further ado, being able to abandon ship became the overriding, sole objective of my overactive mind. Also, this couldn’t have been the only hull breach: too much water kept flowing in for this one crack to account for. Thoughts of a cracked-egg hull, with a spider web of even more hidden cracks, breaking up and immediately going down made me decide that I had better stay in the cockpit and prepare as best I could to abandon ship without a raft nor operational dinghy.
At this point I was pretty sure I had torn a tendon in my right elbow and both hands were almost too cramped to even text let alone lash a raft together. Still, by 0200 on December 1, I had accomplished something of a floating reprieve and texted the folks at InReach that if my signal went dark, that’s where I’d be floating. I had lashed together four empty water jugs to two closed-cell cushions; along with SOS strobe lights, flares, my ditch bag and handheld VHF radio.
InReach kept in contact through the night. They had also contacted my Emergency Contacts, so I was even texting with my girlfriend, K, in San Diego and my little sister, T, in Indiana. So I would like to say sorry to them for putting them through such a crazy night of emergency phone calls, texts, and long periods of hearing nothing from me as my phone died and got lost for a length of time in the middle of the storm. One really nice thing about the InReach service is that they could see where I was online every ten minutes or so (I think they could also ping me, too, but I’m not sure about that). So, in-between pumping up and down on the cockpit bilge pump’s handle almost continually for ten hours I waited (as I write this, 12-days later, four of my left hand’s fingers are still numb, my right elbow still feels as if it is tearing when I lift a cup of coffee, and I still can’t close either hand completely – but every bruise, scrape, and cut are healing so there’s that).
So, for the rest of the night, I did all I could to keep the boat pumped out while trying to hold onto something during the continuous beam-to-beam rolls whenever the sailboat turned up and showed its beam to the waves – which was way too often. By sunrise, Sunday, December 1, 2019, the winds had subsided, and the waves were moderating. Still, in contact with InReach’s SAR department, I relayed weather reports as I tried to stay warm as everything I owned was soaking wet by this point. Clear skies, moderate waves, or, in other words, perfect sailing weather if one wasn’t envisioning one’s keel dangling like a loose tooth under the boat.
Around 0800 hours, the storm had subsided, the electric bilge pumps were almost keeping up with the ingress of water as the boat would roll, but I was too exhausted to do much of anything. Again more adrift than hove to, shivering in the sunlight, I collapsed in the cockpit and tried to close my eyes for a few minutes, but sleep never came. I decided to pack another ditch bag and cherry-picked things I thought I could get away with: clothing, toiletries, my favorite knife, et cetera. The day slipped by with a monotonous routine of shivering, pumping, trying to text, and not to worry. “Fear comes later” was an old maximum from my military days working with explosives, as I continued to wonder if there would be a later.
By 1401 hours, the Mexican Navy’s ship, the Revolution PO-164, came over the horizon. When their launch arrived, I had time to grab a third bag of junk before abandoning Sine Metu to her fate. By this time, the batteries that powered the electric bilge pumps were below 11-volts, and low-voltage alarms were going when I turned the B&G chart plotter and VHF off. Even with two solar panels feeding them, the amps the pumps were drawing was too much for the five brand new, Battle Born lithium batteries.
Two hours after being taken off Sine Metu, after the sun had set and the darkening twilight was removing all color from my sight, she slipped below the waves. Bow first, she sailed down to her fate in 130 fathoms of water, 60 nautical miles north of Isla de Cedros, December 1, 2019.
Holy cow! Good job staying alive and impressive write-up. Thank you for sharing what is a very personal struggle.
Bill Inch said:
Great story. Sorry about the loss of your boat. I’ve done 5 Baja Bashes, and that stretch of ocean is always tough. And I just had a friend die in the stretch of ocean south of Turtle Bay. He was doing a delivery of a small powerboat south to Mazatlan. He was a highly experienced delivery skipper who’d cruised the South Pacific on his own boat. He too had In Reach, but the boat went down before help could come.
I had a Pearson Triton, with a similar hull and keel configuration as the Columbia. I sailed to Mexico in 1993 and below Ensenada, about 60 miles offshore, we had a powerful Santa Ana wind. They recorded 58 knots in Turtle Bay and 45 knots in La Paz, and everyone out sailing knew exactly where there were on those days. The Triton never would hove-to well with a backed jib. But we were able to hove-to under just a tightly sheeted, double reefed main and an unsecured tiller. I would routinely sail on and off anchor and the boat always seemed to hove-to under just the main, but this was the first time I’d tried it in any kind of weather. It just laid their peacefully all night. At one point a wave came along and tacked us, but then it just hove to on the other tack. I had crew too, which really helps with the sleep issues. Hope you get another boat and get back out there. I based out of La Paz for 10 years and they were the best years of my life!