how it went down

how it went down

Ronnie Simpson tells the tale of losing the keel on the Jutson 30 Warrior’s Wish…

So it’s been 11 days since Ed and I came under the Gate and i’m finally just now catching my breath since coming back home. Everyone keeps asking for a write up of exactly what happened out there, so here goes:

After a successful Singlehanded Transpac and 2 weeks in Kauai, I took off for Oahu, stopping at Waikiki Yacht Club in Ala Wai Yacht Harbor. It was 125 miles of bumpy, wet, upwind sailing from Kauai to Oahu. Waikiki Yacht Club donated a guest slip to me for 10 days so that I could prep the boat, wait on my crew, and most importantly, spend 3 days racing on the 1D35 "2 Guys on the Edge". Thanks to Dan Doyle and Waikiki Yacht Club for the slip and hospitality.. You guys are all world class sailors and human beings, your yacht club kicks ass, and the Oahu sailing scene, while being small in size, had some great boats, great people and a great venue.

After the weekend, Ed and I provisioned the boat and took off for California. The Pacific High looked like it was beginning to re-organize, and conditions looked good for leaving the islands. Leaving Hawaii, we had 18-25 knots of breeze on a close reach, allowing us to move straight north at 7-8 knots over the ground. Within 5 days, we had made it to roughly 35 North and 155 West. We were stoked on our progress, but it was now becoming decision time. The high had become really massive and moved north. With enough fuel for maybe 36 hours of motoring, and 2 hours per day of charging the batteries in neutral, we had to sail like 90% of the way to California. Because of this, we decided to beat straight to weather for roughly 1,000 miles and head south of the high. Heading straight east, we were essentially short tacking across the Pacific which was not exactly what we had hoped for when leaving Oahu, but whatever. The miles became extremely slow and
tedious, and our daily VMG runs were pathetic, but we kept in good spirits. The breeze looked like it would eventually clock north, allowing us to beat to weather on a port tack headed straight for San Francisco. After that we would be able to crack off onto a close reach and eventually beam reach, knocking out some serious miles and making it home.

On the 13th day of the passage, the breeze finally clocked north, as we had been anticipating. Morale on the boat was great. We were still hard to weather, but we were now pointed directly for the Golden Gate. We both spent time watching the GPS, reveling at the fact that every slow mile was a mile made good. Boat speed was about 6 knots, and with the breeze scheduled to clock left and allow us a reach (Mount Gay 30s reach very well), we were anticipating a 19 day passage. If things went really well, it might even be 18 days. We started talking more and more about eating at my favorite $8 Thai place in Alameda, hitting the Irish pub next door and sleeping on dry land after a long passage. Things were beginning to look great and we were anticipating reaching land after a difficult passage involving lots of upwind work in a somewhat brutal 30 foot sportboat.

And then it happened. Ed and I were both lazily laying in our bunks reading. I was reading "Adrift", about the guy who spent 76 days in a life raft after his 21 foot boat broke up in the Atlantic. How appropriate. We both heard a loud pop and immediately jumped into the cockpit to see what was going on. Ed took the helm and evaluated how the boat was driving. I began checking all shrouds, turnbuckles, chainplates, etc. After thoroughly looking the boat over, we could not find anything wrong, so we both went back down below. Right on cue, it was now getting dark. With Murphy’s Law in full effect, some really fucked up stuff was going to happen in the middle of the night. Daytime would have been way too easy. We were both down below, laying in our bunks. Or maybe sitting. I don’t remember, but neither one of us was sleeping when it happened again. Pop! I shot on deck and again began checking everything rigging related, but all appeared in order. Ed again
took to the cockpit, grabbing the helm, de-powering, and evaluating how the boat drove. Everything appeared in order, the boat felt solid, and our speed was unaffected. So we are 800 miles from land and have now heard two very very very bad sounding pops. Nothing appears to be wrong, and we’re still on a rhumb line for San Fran.

Approximately two hours later i’m at the base of the mast with a head lamp on in the rain, inspecting all of the rigging when I hear a "Pop Pop". My right knee was on the cabin top, and I felt some type of thud through the deck. I yelled "Did you hear that? I felt some type of movement through the boat!" Ed was down below; this time not bothering to come to the cockpit. He was now looking low, moving gear around and pulling up floorboards. His focus was on the stringers surrounding the keel. There were cracks at several of the spots where the stringers intersect. The worst one was on the port side next to the "ice box" where we stored our food. It was completely cracked, and as the boat moved up and over each individual swell, you could feel hull flex through the stringer.

The boat was breaking up on us and we were close to 800 miles offshore. Ed and I decided that we would limp the boat home, reducing sail area and altering point of sail/ destination if need be. Anything to keep the boat from slamming in any way. I planned to call Don the next morning on the sat phone and tell him of the situation. With our new plan formed, we headed to the cockpit to reef down. Ed went to grab the helm and point us into the wind, so that I could reef down, as had become our normal routine of reefing. So Ed grabs the helm and says "Ronnie, look at this. I’ve got 30 degrees of leeward helm". Holding us in a straight line, Ed remained at the helm, while I dropped the jib, as it was easier than putting in a reef.

With just a main sail up, Ed attempted to put us into the wind, when the boat tacked itself. With the main unexpectedly coming over, it landed on the tight running backstay, meaning that we effectively could not sheet out until one of us jumped down to blow the runner. This is when we should have flipped in the middle of the night and probably died. The boat heeled over to a very extreme angle, burying the port side of the boat underwater nearly to the cockpit. I jumped down to the leeward side and blew the clutch for the runner just in time, before jumping back to the high side as quickly as possible. I trimmed main while Ed drove. Ed attempted to tack the boat, but it wouldn’t tack. In hindsight, this was one of the scariest moments of my life. We were extremely far from land, our boat was having some very serious problems, it was dark, and no one knew of our situation. The really shitty part was that we both had not yet figured out what was wrong.

After multiple attempts of building speed and tacking, the boat finally pulled through a tack and flopped over. Immediately de-powering, we kept the boat as flat as possible while I put in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd reefs. With 3 reefs in the main, we hoisted the #4 jib and attempted to sail this way throughout the night, hoping to evaluate what was wrong with the boat at first light. One of the first things that we noticed when sailing was that our wake was sideways, in addition to the whole leeward helm thing. We talked about the possibilities of rudder damage, missing keel bulbs, "bent" or canted keels, etc, but came to no immediate conclusions. All we knew was that something was EXTREMELY wrong with the boat and that the structure itself was beginning to break apart. Our plan remained the same: limp the boat through the night.

Driving throughout the night, we noticed that if we got the boat going fast enough, the helm became much more neutral and the boat began to track. The Mount Gay 30’s rudder is so massive that with enough boat speed it begins to create lift. That’s my theory anyway. I believe we actually hit 7.7 knots over ground that night with the boat being so light, and with the lack of wetted surface, it hauled ass even under very reduced sail. The boat was still heeled over excessively though. At one point I remember setting the pilot and hiking out off the windward side, trying to shine a flashlight down at the keel. Ed went to leeward and the boat heeled another 5 degrees. I told him to quickly come to windward and he did. The boat went flat. We both looked at each other, and without speaking, seemed to say to one another "Yep, the keel’s gone." In writing this article, I almost feel stupid for taking so long to really confirm the keel is gone, but it was just
such an unexpected failure that we both never immediately suspected that the keel had fallen off. And if it had fallen off, why the hell didn’t we flip?

At first light the next morning, I jumped over the stern to check out what was going on underneath. I saw the rudder and the sail drive, but not the keel. My brain wasn’t wanting to believe what my eyes were telling me, so I asked Ed to retrieve the snorkel mask. Donning a mask, I confirmed my worst fear: the keel was completely, 100% gone. No stub, no strut, no nothing. Instead of seeing that the keel was missing, it was as if I had seen a hungry great white shark. I was so scared at the sight that I hopped back on the boat as soon as possible. The sight made me lose my breath, so with much difficulty, I just said. "Dude. Dude. It’s gone. It’s fucking gone. The whole thing." Ed calmly replied, "Yeah, I thought so."

We immediately dropped the main and sailed under jib alone. Close-hauled, we were drifting so bad that our GPS had us on a rhumb line for Central America. We talked about our options and quickly agreed to not give up the boat unless it capsized and we couldn’t right it. Next we decided to call the Coast Guard and ask them how we could obtain more diesel fuel. Ed took the helm while I started making sat phone calls and SSB transmissions, communicating with the Coast Guard in Kodiak, Alaska. They quickly brought someone from Point Reyes CG station onto the net, taking down our information. They put out a notice to mariners asking for a diesel fuel drop at our position. To be continued.