Rescue at Sea
Watch 2400 to 0200 hrs., Ed and John
Conditions continued as above.
01:10 hrs. John is at the helm and he observes sudden turn, with bow going up into the wind. With autopilot on standby, John attempts to gain control of steerage at wheel. No response to helm. Summons Capt. Ed for assistance. Capt. Ed attempts to re-gain steerage at helm with no success.
01:15hrs. All crew alerted to emergency situation and scramble to assist, life jackets donned.
01:25 hrs. After discovering that the rudder has fallen off of the vessel (both John and Ed report seeing part of the rudder floating away), Capt. Ed orders crew to initiate Mayday calls on VHF and to turn on the EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon]. Harry begins regular pattern of Mayday calls on Channel 16. The EPIRB bag is located immediately in the portside quarter berth, but appeared to be empty. A boat-wide search of the unit began. Meanwhile, Capt. Ed and John were above and inspected the rudderpost top, affirming that the rudder was essentially gone, but that the vessel hull was not compromised. The drogue was employed and immediately provided vessel stability in rolling seas. The drogue deployed to the east, abeam of the vessel, apparently responding to the current that came from the west. The vessel proceeded at .1 to .4 knots southerly along the rhomb line.
01:35 hrs. While Harry and Mitch continued to search for the EPIRB, Gary initiated a call on the SAT PHONE to Deb. He reached her and explained our circumstance, gave her our LAT LONG position and sea/wind conditions and asked her to call USCG Station Gloucester (MA), to utilize their resources to alert USCG in St. Thomas or San Juan, PR to initiate a rescue operation. I reminded her that she had a copy of our Float Plan and to call 911 to provide an immediate connection to Station Gloucester rather than either of us trying to locate the base telephone number at this time.
01:45 hrs. Gary located the Gloucester Station phone number on the Float Plan and called the base. Learned that they had been called by Deb and had begun reaching out to USCG in our area. Gloucester Station asked Gary a few more questions, making sure we had life jackets on, updating our position and inquiring about sea and wind conditions as well as boat integrity. Gloucester gave us a USCG phone number to call apparently in our local area. Meanwhile, Harry continued with regular intervals of Mayday calls over VHF. The EPIRB was located (right where it was supposed to be, but it was smaller than expected and had been overlooked), and it was activated.
0200 hrs. onward, All Hands
0200 to 0400 hrs. Calls were made to USCG via Sat Phone by Capt. Ed. The initial response from CG was that they were deploying a vessel to our scene, some 180 kt miles north of St. Thomas. CG told us that they would contact us every 30 minutes to update our Lat Long position and apprise us of rescue efforts. Subsequently, we learned from CG that they had sought assistance from any nearby vessel and contacted the LLV Atlantic Prosperity, which was eastbound from Galveston, TX. headed for Nigeria. AP agreed to change course for our location and stand by until CG arrived on scene. ETA of AP was approx. 0700 hrs.
Meanwhile, Gary and Ed worked on a plan to create an emergency rudder by bringing the boom aft to the cockpit, assessing its potential to have some plywood crafted to it, and then having the improvised rig attached to the emergency tiller. Unfortunately, with sea conditions so violent, to try an implement such a plan at this time would be extremely risky to the crew. Such efforts were postponed to a time when sea and wind conditions could allow. The boom was returned to its port rail, forward position.
Gary, Ed and John discussed the idea of implementing a sail plan with engine propulsion that would allow for controlled forward progress (deploying a small area of the jib and back wind it, a small exposure of the mainsail with slight pressure applied, and use of a few rpms on the engine to accomplish forward movement and stability). However, once again, it was determined that present conditions, with port beam rollers of 15’, some cresting and slamming the port quarter, and winds increasing to steady plus 30 kts, with gusts to 35+ kts, it was agreed by all crew members that such a plan also must be postponed until conditions allowed for a safe implementation.
Ed brought out the 100 ft of 5/8” towline and affixed it to the two bow cleats. The remaining 300 ft. of drogue line was coiled and readied for use. The sea anchor stood ready for deployment at the bow as needed. The mainsail’s remaining 1/6 deployment was struck and secured.
0400 to 0700 hrs. Regular calls from the CG were now extended from every 30 minutes to a 2-hour interval. We were becoming confused with the intentions of the USCG. Were they coming? Would they come at all?
Attempts were made to contact the LLV Atlantic Prosperity by VHF, channel 16. By approximately 05:30 we were beginning to pick up radio contact from the AP. We estimated they were some 20 to 25 miles away.
Over the course of the next hour, we remained confused as to the intentions of the USCG. Another call to USCG left us with the impression that they might not be coming after all – or, if they were coming, it would take at least 10 hours before their arrival on scene as they would be coming from San Juan PR. A helicopter intercept to our present location was not expected due to the distance away from shore. Crew moral sank at the prospect of many more hours (or days) at sea in these conditions.
Though cloud cover and instances of cells with high wind gusts decreased, steady winds from the east increased to an average of 35 kts and sea heights continued to increase, as did the frequency and steepness of the waves. This caused physical chaos on the boat below decks and increasing concern over the longer term integrity of the vessel. Getting off the boat was becoming a greater and greater priority.
At approximately 06:45 hrs. we had good VHF radio contact with the AP. Harry conducted all of the voice contact and was getting encouraging news that the AP might take us on board, though it might also mean going to Nigeria with them. We began to discuss how we would abandon the Epiphany by making use of the inflatable, and where to position the inflatable in relation to the Epiphany and the AP. Regular radio contact with AP was maintained. However, nearing 0700 hours we discovered that our signal strength to AP was weakening. We learned that one of our Lat Long coordinates had been either issued by us incorrectly, or heard by AP and transcribed incorrectly, resulting in AP steaming by us to the south. The error was corrected and AP turned back from the East toward our correct position. We maintained a constant visual watch for AP while continuing discussion as to how to disembark Epiphany safely.
It was becoming clear that the USCG was not coming at all.