how it went down,

how it went down, part 2

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

With the Coast Guard aware of our situation, we felt a sense of relief that at least several people now knew where we were. Further adding to the sense of relief were hourly comms with the Guard, and the fact they were trying to track down some diesel for us.  I chatted then with the owner of the boat on the satphone, and what I thought would be a very awkward conversation turned out to be pretty straightforward, and we got back to getting our boat home.  Ed and I were pretty psyched that motorsailing with a jib gave us almost 5 knots over the ground, that we had slight seas, and very manageable breeze.  Our horrifying scenario was getting better, and the light at the end of an 800 mile tunnel was growing more distinct.

At our second or third hourly Coast Guard radio check, we were notified that a commercial vessel named “Horizon Hawk” had answered our call for diesel and that they would be inbound to our position. We maintained speed and course, notifying the Coast Guard every hour. Just 5 hours after our initial emergency transmission, “Horizon Hawk” was visible and closing rapidly. Once in VHF range, we communicated with them directly and notified the Coast Guard that the ship was in VHF and visible range of us. The “Hawk” explained to us how they wanted to conduct the operation and asked us exactly what we needed. We explained that we needed 50 gallons of diesel fuel and some motor oil. They informed us that they would make very large circles around us, dropping plastic jugs and jerry cans over the side, with poly-propylene line and orange markers on each one.

For the moment at least, Ed and I weren’t even that concerned with the keel. We became completely focused on our new mission; driving around the middle of the Pacific in a wounded little boat while a freight ship drops us diesel fuel. The ship made its first pass, dropping 3 jugs. Ed drove while I worked a boat hook off of the bow. Success! We picked up all 3 jugs, not requiring more than 2 attempts per jug. The next 3 didn’t go quite as well. We missed one and as it was drifting away, I just jumped in and swam to two jugs, bringing them back to the boat in one long struggle. We made yet another attempt at the third jug when semi-disaster struck. But before I get to that, there’s a few things you should know about poly-propylene line; first, the stuff floats. Secondly, it doesn’t hold a knot for shit. Having said that, the orange markers were becoming separated from most of the jugs, which is the reason I was having to go swimming for several of them. After Ed and I had more or less run over one of the jugs, the line became wrapped around the prop as I was grabbing the jug. Ed beat himself up over it a little bit, saying he should have avoided it, but given the circumstances, I’m surprised we only wrapped the prop once.

I had Ed shut off the motor so that I could cut the line out. Wow. It was wrapped up pretty badly. Not making matters easier was the width of the boat, combined with the extremely fast rate of drift, rolling motion and my favorite rigging knife being sacrificed to Neptune just a few days prior. After about 3 passes, I had the prop halfway cleared. Ed took the mask and fins and went in to finish the job. Success. After another 3 passes, he completely cleared the prop and we were back in business. The freight ship had patiently waited for us to clear the prop, although in the ordeal, two jugs had drifted very far away. They led us to the jugs via VHF and we eventually grabbed them. “Horizon Hawk” made one more circle, dropping 3 more jugs and we were on our way. The guys on the ship were absolute professionals in every sense of the word and I can’t say enough to thank them. In the end, we were 10 for 10, acquiring what we estimated to be 60-65 gallons of diesel and 5 gallons of Mobil 1 oil

Saying goodbye to the freight ship and thanking them, we were once again on our way to California. Ed and I briefly joked that we wished we were on the ship, but they were headed west, presumably to China. I’ve already done the whole “freight ship to China” thing before, and as fun as it was, I really wanted to get this boat back to Cali and it’s owner. Besides, we had already promised each other not to give up the ship unless it was our only option. Into a direct head wind and swell on the nose, we struggled to make 4 knots over ground. This was quite frustrating, and would be our slowest day after losing the keel.

With the security that a full cargo of diesel represented, we cancelled our hourly comms sched with the Coast Guard, though they asked us to notify them if we had any other problems – I can’t say enough about them, and we owe a huge thanks to CG stations in Kodiak, AK, Point Reyes, CA and Alameda, CA for helping orchestrate our fuel drop.

With the Coast Guard offline, a new radio schedule found its way into our routine: Pac Cup roll call. We probably should have already been checking in with them, but hadn’t been. I received emails from the Hippy on “Horizon”, who stomped the fleet in this year’s race. He asked us how we were doing, and to come join them on frequency in the morning for a chat and at 2100 for official roll call. For the first few days, “Valis” from Sausalito led the roll call with “Nozomi” taking over duties after that.

Chatting with Pac Cup roll call was a happy time for Ed and I. It brought the morale up on the boat significantly, allowing us to chat with other yachts, hear advice, see who was near us, and know that we had several sailors out there monitoring our status. It reminded me of Singlehanded Transpac and took my mind off the constant worry of the boat capsizing. The Pac Cup guys were all great, so again, thank you to all who helped us out along the way.

Life on board during the ordeal was, let’s just say very difficult. Not necessarily physically difficult, but mentally so. A strict watch had to be adhered to, monitoring wind speed, angle of heel, the diesel engine, and the rest of the boat. Any sudden puffs of breeze, changes in sea state, or un-caught motor problems could spell disaster for us. Fortunately, I was with a sailor of Ed McCoy’s caliber and discipline. There is not a better person that I could have had on the boat in such a shitty situation. Working as a team, we overcame a number of challenges, while becoming better friends throughout.

The boat rolled excessively during that last week at sea, and there were no less than 3 full nights and 2 full days, that we really thought we were going to capsize. It was extremely an extremely stressful time, nursing this wounded boat back to port, just wondering when she was going to roll and potentially send us to a watery grave. And the closer we got to California, the colder and less inviting the water became. Hypothermia became a big concern if we had to abandon ship and get into the life raft. I slept in my foulies and PFD, with my hand on the ditch bag and the life raft lashed down in the cockpit. We each had rigging knives readily accessible to cut the life raft loose when the boat flipped. The stress and anxiety of the situation made me lose 10 pounds in one week.

But it never did flip. We had one of the best weather windows imaginable, and while we saw some big, rough seas, by the time the seas built, the wind died off, so nothing got too out of control.  But we were never under any illusions: This is about as humbling an experience as I’ve had – knowing that the sea could take us out any time it wanted with just a few hours of big wind and waves.  I certainly don’t recommend it!

After 7 very long, difficult, and mentally exhausting days at sea, we managed to limp under the Golden Gate Bridge at 4 AM to a small flotilla of close friends. The boat’s owner, Don Gray, had flown into town to see us in. He was joined by Ladonna from Latitude 38 and her husband Rob. My employer and co-workers, Drew Harper and Garrett Greenhalgh greeted us on the Santa Cruz 50 “Yukon Jack”, delivering beer, tequila and Thai food. 3 more boats, all owned by Singlehanded Transpac vets, showed up to greet us and follow us to the boat yard in Richmond. After a very difficult and trying experience, it was truly special to be greeted by my friends and SHTP community in the Bay.

But above all, it was my friend Ed McCoy who I have to thank the most. The guy is an absolute trooper. He flew out to Hawaii on his own dime to help me bring the boat back to California. He always told me “if you make it there, I’ll help you bring it back.” He is a man of his word. And even after the keel fell off, the guy stayed rock solid and exhibited a lot of character and inner strength in dealing with the situation. Any way you cut it, losing a keel 760 miles offshore is a bad time, but with Ed it ended up being a good experience, and something I’m proud of. Without him, I honestly don’t know how this story would have ended.

The boat has since been hauled out and trailered back to North Carolina. The owner is going to put a new keel on her and hopefully campaign her in next year’s Bermuda 1-2 and with any luck will hit the starting line as my friend and competitor in the 2012 Singlehanded Transpac. As for me, I’m working on acquiring a Mini Transat and racing the 2012 SHTP and 2013 Mini Transat. I’ve got some exciting magazine stuff coming up, and I’m hoping to work on a book to help fund a Mini campaign. Thanks to all of you Anarchists out there for following my Singlehanded Transpac campaign from start to finish, and supporting Ed and I when we were in a very difficult situation. And of course a big thanks to Don Gray for allowing me the opportunity to race to Hawaii this summer. The experience I have gained was invaluable, and hopefully will lead to bigger and better things in the future. And oh yeah, sorry about the keel…

-Ronnie Simpson

[Keep posted on Ronnie’s day-to-day musings on his site -Ed]