Sep 07 2008

Skip Allan’s Decision to Scuttle Wildflower

I received this in an email from the Sailing Club–I think it is Skip Allan’s recounting of his decision to scuttle his beloved boat, Wildflower on the return trip (after winning the Single-handed division of the Transpac).  It is heart-wrenching . . . .

On Saturday, 8/23, 10 days after leaving Hanalei, we were halfway home to Santa Cruz with 1190 miles to go. We had passed the Pacific High, and were running in the Westerlies at latitude 38-38 x longitude 147 -17. So far, the passage had been going well, my sixth return passage from Hawaii aboard WILDFLOWER. But an ominous note on the thrice daily weather fax charts was the notation “GALE” between our position and the Pacific Coast.

I began to plan for this possible gale by increasing latitude, slowing down, and closely monitoring projected GRIB files out to 144 hours. It appeared from all forecasts that we needed to slow down at least 48 hours to let the gale ahead abate. However, it is against my instincts to try and slow a boat down, and so with difficulty I reefed the main and dropped the jib in 8 knots of wind, reducing speed to a sedate 3.5 knots in smooth seas.

On Wednesday, 8/27, the morning GRIB file showed the area of most wind ahead was between 124 and 128 degrees, with no weather abatement until at least Monday, 9/1 earliest. Dwight on NA NA, 450 miles ahead, had reported gusts of 42.5 knots from the north between latitude 127-128 and having to run off under storm jib 80 miles. NA NA reported 20 foot seas the previous night near 37 x 124-30. I hoped that WILDFLOWER, by being at the latitude 40 degrees, would allow us to run off 180 miles to the latitude of Santa Cruz, should conditions worsen.

On Friday, 8/29, at sunset near 40 x 130, conditions began to rapidly deteriorate. I changed to the #4 (75% short hoist) and storm staysail, dropping the main completely.

The following day, Saturday, 8/30, with Santa Cruz 365 miles on a bearing of 095 T, we were having to run off due south (180 T) in winds 30-35 knots. By 1530, the sail combination proved too much, and I dropped the #4, flying the storm staysail (39 sq.feet) and towing a 30” diameter metal hooped drogue. It was uncomfortable, windy, and rolly that night, with the cockpit filling about every five minutes, and the boat being knocked down to 70 degrees at least half a dozen times. WILDFLOWER’s shallow cockpit and oversize drains allowed full drainage in about 90 seconds, and this was not a problem.

The electric Auto Helm 1000+ tiller pilot was doing an amazing job steering, as it was being continuously drenched, even submerged. The Sail-O-Mat windvane was useless preventing or correcting breaking wave induced broaches and I retracted its oar to avoid fouling the drogue rode.

On Sunday, 8/31, the wind was 30-35 with a confused wave train from the NW, N, and NE. At 0915 I winched in the drogue to change from a hi-tech spinny sheet to stretchy nylon anchor line. Unfortunately, I found the drogue had split, and was no longer effective. I deployed my spare drogue, but without a metal hoop, it would periodically collapse astern in a breaking crest.

At noon, it looked like the gale was lessening. I left the safety of the cabin, and with two safety harnesses affixed to the windward rail, began to hand steer eastward on a reach with the #4. It was mogul sailing at its best, having to radically bear away to avoid hissing 8-12′ breaking crests on the top of 15-30 foot seas.

At sunset I again went below with the Auto Helm tiller pilot continuing to steer nicely under #4 jib. Not long after, the wind came on to blow from the NNW, and the seas began to build further. That night I stayed suited up below with full foulies, headlamp, and harness, ready to dash out the hatch and take the tiller if the autopilot failed, and we subsequently rounded up. In addition, I dropped the storm staysail, as we were running too fast at 6-9 knots. Under bare poles DDW, the speed was better at 5-7 knots.

What followed ultimately played into the following day’s events. During the long night, my third in this particular gale, breaking crests would poop the boat about every five minutes, filling the cockpit and surging against the companionway hatch boards. Even though I had gone to lengths for many years to insure fire hose watertight integrity of the companionway hatch, I found the power of the breaking wave crests slamming the boat would cause water to forcefully spray around the edges of the hatchboards and into the cabin.

During the long wait for daylight, I had more than enough time to ponder what might happen if the autopilot was damaged or was washed off its mount. I had two spare tiller pilots. But it would take several minutes, exposed in the cockpit, on my knees, to hook up a replacement in the cockpit, on a dark night, when the boat was being periodically knocked down and the cockpit swept.

In addition, I pondered the fate of the DAISY that was lost in the spring’s Lightship Race, when presumably a large breaking wave crushed and sank DAISY. I also reminded myself I was responsible for not only my own life, but was also a family care giver at home.

There was no doubt that if WILDFLOWER’s tiller pilot was lost that we would round up and be at the mercy of these breaking waves, some of which I estimate to be in the vicinity of 25-35 feet, and as big as I hadn’t seen since the ’79 Fastnet Race storm on IMP.

The anxiety and stress of this night, with the whine of the wind in the rigging, the wave crests slamming into the hatch boards, and the 70 degree knockdowns that would launch me across the cabin, created serious doubts that we could continue this for another night, much less the 3-4 days the conditions were expected to continue.

The boat was fine, and had suffered no serious damage yet. My physical health was OK, but I could see with minimum sleep that my decision making could be beginning to be compromised

At 0715 the following morning, Monday, 9/1, I Sat phoned my long time sailing friend, ham radio contact, router, navigator and weatherman, Joe Buck in Redondo Beach. Joe and I had maintained 2x/day ham radio schedule since leaving Hanalei, and he had instant internet access to all forecast weather and wave charts. I explained the current situation to Joe: that I’d had a difficult night, and wasn’t sure I could safely continue. Joe’s weather info had the highest wind and wave on my current drift southward continuing for at least another three days, with continuing gale force winds and 18-22′ significant wave height.

I asked Joe for help in some difficult decision making I had to do. First, would he phone San Francisco Coast Guard Search and Rescue (SAR), and query what the protocol is for asking for assistance, all the while making sure the CG understood I was not in trouble and was not asking for help at this time. (Coast Guard NMC Pt. Reyes, Kodiak, and Hono were not answering my radio calls on their published safety and working 4, 6, 8, and 12 mg frequencies, both simplex and duplex.)

Joe called back an hour later (0830) on ham radio 40 meters and said that Lt. Saxon at SAR reported no military assets within 200 miles or 20 hours, that WILDFLOWER was 200 miles beyond helo range, but that there was an inbound container ship TORONTO coming in my direction at an undetermined distance.

Joe helped me to understand if the boat were lost, I would likely be lost also. But that if I left WILDFLOWER proactively, that only the boat would be lost. I told Joe of my hesitation of putting my life in the hands of a possibly foreign crew on a big commercial ship during a transfer off WILDFLOWER in these conditions, especially at night. We agreed that a decision had to be arrived at soon, before 1130, and before TORONTO passed by.

I spent the next hour, sitting on the cabin sole on my life raft, debating whether to ask for assistance in leaving my beloved WILDFLOWER. “FLEUR” was my home, consort, and magic carpet that I had built 34 years ago. I cried, pounded my fist, looked out through the hatch numerous times at the passing wave mountains, remembered all the good times I had shared with WILDFLOWER. And came to a decision.

At 1115 I called Joe back and told him to again call Lt. Saxon at SAR and inform her that I was asking for assistance. Joe called back and informed me that TORONTO was 5-6 hours away, and that SAR needed to hear from me directly as to my request.

At 1200, like a gopher popping out of its hole, I slid the hatch open to get a clear Satphone signal, and called SAR. Lt. Saxon already knew my details and position, and only asked “what are you requesting?” I replied, “I am asking for assistance to be removed from my boat.”

We kept the conversation short and to the point, due to my exposure topsides with the Satphone. She said the MSC TORONTO would be requested to divert, that I was not to trigger the EPIRB, but that I was to take the EPIRB with me when I left WILDFLOWER. Contrary to published reports, at no time did I call “PAN PAN,” and no com schedule was kept with the Coast Guard, although I did check in with Joe every 30 minutes on ham radio.

Lt. Saxon also said that if I left my boat, she would be considered “derelict” and broadcast as a hazard to navigation. I assured her I would not leave my boat floating.

An hour later, at 1300, WILDFLOWER’s AIS alarm rang. MSC TORONTO was showing 30 miles away, and closing at 23.4 knots from the south west. I had to do some fast planning.

But with no idea how the transfer would be made (jump, swim, climb, hoist?) I didn’t know what I could pack into my bag, bags, or backpack. I decided on my documents, wallet and and passport, laptop, camera, cellphone and sat phone, logbook, EPIRB and a change of clothes and shoes. All this I bagged into waterproof bags. And in a moment of whimsy, decided to try and offload the two Single Handed Transpac perpetual trophies, as they had 30 year historical and sentimental value to our Race.

At eight miles, the captain of the MSC TORONTO rang on the VHF. He spoke perfect English, and as I had a visual, directed him to alter 20 degrees to starboard to intercept. He explained his ship was over 1,000 feet long, that he would lay her parallel to the waves and make a lee at a forward speed of Slow Ahead (6 knots).

The captain also explained that I would board his ship from a rope ladder that led to the pilot’s door, on the aft starboard side. I asked if he could slow to a speed between 3-4 knots, and he willingly agreed to try. At five miles, a sharp eyed lookout on MSC TORONTO sighted WILDFLOWER ahead. But MSC TORONTO’s radar and the rest of her bridge crew did not sight WILDFLOWER until 2.5 miles under these conditions.

At 1415 hours, one of the world’s biggest container ships was bearing down on WILDFLOWER, less than five boat lengths (125 feet) dead ahead, the huge bulb bow scending 20 feet and making a five foot breaking wave. With my heart in my throat, I motored down the starboard side of a gigantic black wall, made a U turn, and pulled alongside the pilot’s door and rope ladder.

The crew threw a heaving line, and in the next five minutes we transferred three bags. Knowing I was next, I jumped below decks, said a final quick goodbye, and pulled the already unclamped hose off the engine salt water intake thru hull.

Back on deck, I reached for the bottom rung of the Jacob’s Ladder, which was alternately at head height, and 10 feet out of reach, depending on the ship’s roll. I grabbed hold, jumped, and did a pull up onto the ladder, and climbed up, wearing a 15 pound backpack with my most valuable positions and EPIRB.

At 1429 hours, on Monday, 9/1, 2008, at position 35-17 x 126-38, the MSC TORONTO resumed its voyage to Long Beach, leaving WILDFLOWER alone to bang and scrape her way down the aft quarter of the ship and disappear under the stern. I watched, but could barely see through my tears.

Four hours and 100 miles SE of where I left WILDFLOWER I was on the bridge of MSC TORONTO watching the anemometer True Wind Speed graph continuing to register 32-35 knots. From 140 feet off the water, the swells below still looked impressive, and the ship was rolling enough to send spray above the top containers on the foreward part of the ship

For the next 24 hours aboard MSC TORONTO (1065′ LOA, too wide for Panama) I was treated with the utmost kindness and compassion by Capt. Ivo Hruza and his 24 man crew. We stood watch together, ate together, told stories, viewed family photo albums, discussed the world situation, toured the ship and engine room (12 cylinder, 93,360 horsepower diesel). By the time we came down the Santa Barbara Channel and docked at Long Beach, I felt a part of this happy crew of 6 nationalities. I could not have been assisted by a better or more professionally manned ship.

On Tuesday afternoon, after clearing customs and immigration aboard, I shook hands with each and every crew member. And descended the gangway alone, to meet Joe, sister Marilee, and begin New Beginnings.

I will never forget WILDFLOWER. She took a beating in this gale. She never let me down, and took me to amazing places, where we met wonderful people and made new friends. In this time of loss, a most wonderful thing is happening: many loved ones, friends, interested parties, and people I’ve never met are closing a circle of love around the mourning and celebration of WILDFLOWER.

Time will heal a broken heart. I look forward to seeing everyone at Carla and Mark’s. I apologize in advance if at times I have to look away and wipe my tears.

Treasure Each Day,


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