Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Calstar: of events leading to the long tow home

Last Sunday’s forecast was typical Bristol Channel, F4 gusting 5, first in the west, then backing southwest. Our original plan had been to start the holiday off with a 42 mile dash from Cardiff to Ilfracombe, but with the wind on our nose, a 5 in the forecast and the reports showing the prospect of heavier weather coming in over the next few days, we tempered our ambitions; an easy hop to Watchet first, then a skip over to Ilfracombe on Monday, where we’d sit out the next few days of rough weather before carrying on towards our main objective Padstow, via a break in Lundy.

Meh. Best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

We cast off from Penarth at 0841. Intentionally about an hour later than I’ve previously left for Watchet, but we’ve always arrived with 2 hours to spare, so still with plenty of time. That said, I had been aiming for the 0830 lock out of the Barrage, but felt happy to settle for the 0900. The winds were light and the sea flat as we left the Wrach Channel and entered the Cardiff and Penarth Roads at 0920, no more than a Force 3 from the west, so we hauled up full sail and stilled the engine; closer-hauled at 3.7 knots over the ground, our course taking us past Ranie Point and laying west of Rudder Rock on distant Steep Holm, everything looked sweet.

The wind built as we pushed out past the headland. I pulled on some more outhaul to flatten the main, and cussed as the outer core around the control line frayed and shredded as it exited the boom through the cleat. Second bit of rope that’s chewed through in as many months. Obviously, a problem with the cleat, nothing to worry about. The core of the line would hold until Watchet.

An hour later, 5 nautical miles now behind us, the first of the squalls hit. Nothing unexpected, nothing too violent, wind building to F5, lots of white caps, but seas no more than a meter or so. Two rolls in the headsail, pulled the main down to the second reef, pulled on some more kicker. Strike two, the kicker broke free where the control lines attach to the mast step, the casting fractured.

Engine on. Furled the jib, dropped the main. Motored for ten minutes whilst I re-attached the kicker to another strong-point at the base of the mast. Re-hauled the main with both reefs, reset the genoa, engine off. The sailing was glorious. Lively seas, F4 south-westerly, gusting the occasional 5, broken sun warming our faces and drying out the occasional squally shower. Boat speed through the water touching 4 knots close-hauled. Around 1143 we let out the second roll of headsail. By 1215 we’d shook the second reef back out of the main.  Our progress towards Watchet was looking a little later on the tide than I usually allowed, but still within margins, and we were still waiting for the tide to turn in our favour.

At 1300 another squall hit, bigger than everything so far, the seas ahead stacking up in foam serried ranks, bang on the nose. An hour and a half to go before we missed the gate, and still six miles to cover, we dropped the sails and started the engine. With the tide in our favour, things were now on the margins but still okay. The seas thumping into our hull slowed us, but the engine, fairly recently serviced, had always been a stalwart friend up till now. I wasn’t unduly concerned, even running her at 3000 revs to push us into the heading seas we were well within its theoretical limits.

By 1344 Watchet was 4nm distant, our ETA 1423. Ten minutes clear of the sill lifting. Not ideal, but worth pushing on. The squall had passed, the wind was back down to a 4 gusting 5, our speed over ground about 6 knots.

About 1400 we noticed the water stopped coming out of the exhaust. We knocked the revs back to idle immediately and Dad went below to investigate, only to find a shade under a foot of water washing about in our bilges and over the floorboards and evidently rising. Assuming it to be something with the cooling system we cut the engine straight away. My immediate, possibly irrational fear was the seacock on the intake had failed. Running the engine so hard, everything was hot, and as Dad lifted the hatch to check the engine, fumes and steam below were eye-stinging.

Not knowing where the water was coming in, not sure if it was still incoming, or if cutting the engine had stopped it, and seeing fumes rising out of the companion way that, although later it was obvious was just steam I couldn’t right then be sure wasn’t smoke, I made the decision to call Mayday.

The response was immediate. Milford Haven Coastguard came straight back to me confirming my position, nature of the emergency, name and description of the vessel and number of people on board. They then asked if we had a pump; I’m embarrassed to admit that until they asked the question, the pump simply hadn’t crossed my mind. I don’t generally panic. I don’t think any of us did that day; but right there at that moment, when you’re trying to assess how bad, what to do and in full knowledge that the lives of my two companions could rest entirely on my call, I can’t pretend my decisions were entirely uninformed by stress and emotion. You train, you practice, you read, you rehearse. But nothing ever clears the adrenaline of that moment as the curtain first lifts and suddenly you’re on.

Hello spotlight.

I forgot the pump. Hell, I even forgot we had buckets and sponges or even tea-cups to bail.

I advised the Coastguard, said I’d set to it and let them know how we got on. I think I possibly even apologised for not thinking of it first, though I’m not sure. The man on the other side of the VHF was a calm, friendly voice. Asked me to set to pumping and to let him know how we got on.

The pump worked. The handle didn’t sit well in the housing and kept slipping out, but it drew and it spewed. Dad took over from me on the pump handle in the cockpit and I went below, throwing everything in the saloon into the forecabin and lifting the floorboards so I could directly access the bilge. I started bailing with a teacup into a bucket. Engine cover off, I couldn’t see any obvious ingress, and the fumes were still eye-stingingly choking, but within a few minutes it was obvious the water level was dropping back.

I advised the Coastguard. Through all this he’d spent his time routing the Minehead and Barry lifeboats out to us. Not wanting to over-talk, it was at times quite difficult to find a gap to call through to him. About this time the Coastguard helicopter made contact with us on the VHF, moments later swooping in over the horizon and then circling our position. He offered to put a winchman down on our decks with a salvage pump, but by now, with less than six inches of water left and it being very clear the levels weren’t rising I broke through the Coastguard and Lifeboat coordinating chatter and politely declined. He asked me to repeat that the winchman wasn’t needed, which I did.

Beneath the veneer of polished professional aviator, I’ll swear he sounded disappointed.

By this point I was merely embarrassed at all the attention. Grateful and relieved. But crushed and embarrassed. It was clear we weren’t going to sink, not straight away, and I was left questioning my failures.

On the heels of the Coastguard chopper, both of the Minehead RNLI RIBs found us; the B Class Inshore reaching us first, followed by their smaller D Class. They each put a guy aboard and attached a line to control our drift.

With water still sloshing around the bilges, Charlie from the B Class came below with me to try and identify the source of the leak. Both guys were friendly, cheerful, exuded confidence and reassurance. I was horrified at having had to call them out, embarrassed, afraid for my boat and crew, holding it all together but feeling pretty distraught. And Charlie remarked, with a big grin, “Don’t worry about it, I was only out shopping”.

A restart of the engine, with Charlie’s torch shining into the engine room, quickly confirmed the engine was pumping the water in to the hull. But neither of us could work out from where. By now the Trent Class All Weather Lifeboat from Barry had joined us as well. Happy no more water was coming in with the engine cut, I was prepared to sail back to Penarth, albeit looking at a ten-hour run back against a foul tide. The Lifeboat boys weren’t happy to let us go however, not being certain exactly where the water was coming in. There is a lot of space beneath the water and fuel tanks you simply can’t see behind the engine. I can’t say I didn’t share their concerns, so we accepted a tow back to Penarth from the Barry Lifeboat. Everything nearby on the south coast had now been closed off to us by the tide.

The Barry Lifeboat put their own man aboard and Charlie and his colleague left us back to their own boats. Mark, the guy from the Barry Lifeboat, made his own assessment of the situation, then attached the Lifeboat’s towline to our bow cleat using a spectra bridle. Mark, just like Charlie and his mate from Minehead, was brilliant. Confident, reassuring, friendly; an enthusiast and a volunteer. And a yachtsman. He and I took turns at Calstar’s helm keeping her behind the Barry boat as she hauled us back across the Bristol Channel to home. 2000hp of diesel engine is, it appears, what it takes to get a Westerly Griffon surfing down waves.

I exaggerate. I don’t think we actually got her surfing. But with a stiff wind over an outgoing, foul tide, the waves swelling in from astern got quite big and enthusiastic at times, and we did, through most of the tow home, clock 8.5 knots through the water, a number I never thought to see on any of poor old Calstar’s dials other than the depth meter.

A little after 1700 the Barry Lifeboat handed us over to the Penarth Lifeboat Station’s RIB and they pulled us in through the Cardiff Barrage, leaving us alongside the pontoon outside Penarth Quays Marina.

That was Sunday. It’s now Wednesday, and we’re repaired and ready to go again, but pinning down in Cardiff by the weather for the next day or two. The problem turned out to be a failed waterlock on the exhaust, unhelpfully sited beneath the water tank behind the engine compartment, completely invisible to inspection and inaccessible to repair. Our immediate worry was we’d have to lift the engine and water tank out to get to it, but Matt, a local engineer who works for Wigmore Wright Marine Services here in Penarth came up with the genius idea of re-routing the exhaust beneath the floor of the starboard rope locker. It took two days, and although we’ve not yet had the bill we’re not fooling ourselves it’s going to be cheap. But at least the entire inflow and outflow of water to and from the engine is now visible and accessible. We’ve ended up in better shape than when we started, albeit still with the shame and embarrassment of having had to call for help.

Three days on, with plenty of time to reflect, I’ve run over the whole situation countless times in my head.

Dad knew the tract of exhaust running under the water tank was old and needed replacing back in the spring and had mentioned it to me. He’d asked the local engineers to quote for the job at the last service but hadn’t chased them. We took the view that it had lasted till now, there were other priorities on our money, like new sails, to say the least, and it would probably be good for another season or two.

We could’ve left earlier on Sunday, given ourselves more time, but tide against us, I’m not sure it would’ve helped. We had plenty of wind, I wanted to sail, I wanted to use the ebb tide to get us there. I was, in hindsight, wrong. I overestimated the benefit of the tide and ability of the boat to make way to windward.

I could’ve realised my mistake and called it earlier. Had we opted to put the engine on an hour before tide turned, we’d not have had to have pushed so hard, and everything would probably have held together. That was a clear failure to reassess the situation on the water as it was developing.

I could’ve called a Pan Pan rather than a Mayday, at least until I’d established whether we could control the water ingress. This is probably the fairest self-critisism I’ve come up with, though I can’t help think it’s just being driven by pride and machismo; I really hate the fact I called for rescue. Or, rather, felt I had to. But there was a foot of water where there hadn’t been ten minutes before; even once the ingress appeared to have been controlled, I couldn’t work out how or where it had got in. And I wasn’t alone on the boat. I’d put Dad and my wife Nikki in this position with me.

Engine on and pushing for the gate at Watchet, I could’ve accepted we were not going to make it and made the call to wait out the tide in Blue Anchor Bay. It would’ve been an unpopular call, but it was my call to make, and we were not pushing the engine past it’s certified limits. Six hours at anchor in a bit of a bumpy sea and not getting into harbour until the pubs shut would’ve been preferable to all the bother we caused by pushing our engine beyond what turned out to be its actual limits. That said, those limits were not what we thought they were, so we might have discovered them much further out to sea and correspondingly further from help, later in the week.

So we pushed it, like we have before and will again, and this time it bit us.

Even as I made the distress call, I was horrified at what I found myself doing, but felt I had no other choice given the situation I’d put myself in and, perhaps more to the point, the people I’d put there with me. The Coastguard were consummate professionals, advising us in the stress of the moment and routing the help needed out to us quickly and efficiently. The Lifeboat crews were an absolute pleasure to deal with. By far most of them (I think with the exception of the cox of the All Weather Lifeboat, who was full time) were volunteers, all rudely interrupted on their Sunday afternoon. But none of them were begrudging, all of them hugely enthusiastic for the work they were doing. If anything, they were enjoying our misery far too much to be decent.

I jest; all of them were sympathetic and understanding of what I can only consider my own stupidity for putting myself in a position to need their help.

It’s perhaps more than I deserve, but I’m grateful.


Thomas Gregory said...

Nothing wrong with asking for help, imagine starting to pump and the water level doesn't change/gets worse. Wasted half an hour and and still no men in yellow wellies.

Glad it wasn't anything major and you got it under control. I'm out this Sunday, potter down to Barry and back up to Newport, fingers crossed I won't have to give them a shout!


tatali0n said...

Thanks Tom. You are absolutely right. To not reflect and assess my decisions last Sunday would be both a wasted opportunity and a disservice to everybody that put themselves out to help us. But the more I sit and think on the events, the more I conclude that although far from ideal to have ended up in that situation, all the appropriate choices were made at the right time and for the right reasons.

Have a great trip Sunday, looks like the weather will be lovely. We're going to make another attempt to get down channel this weekend; Watchet or Ilfracombe via Barry I haven't decided yet.

Thomas Gregory said...

I can see what you mean about getting into the situation but until you're in it nobody can judge how you react to it. I'm sure if you had a few minutes to let the panic pass you would have thought about the pump and knowing the exhaust pipe was a bit iffy put two and two together, but having other people on board and taking on water I can totally understand why you made the call.

I'm feeling confident enough to take Sundance out solo and the weather looks good for it. I'm thinking out on the morning tide, through the islands and tack to Barry, poke my nose in (never been before) and watch the red arrows at 12. Reach accross towards Watchet and head back up to Newport when the tide turns. If I see you I'll give you a wave, if not enjoy the sail.

MarkyMark_cy said...

Thomas Gregory was bang on .. Glad it's all behind you and thanks for the updates !

Anonymous said...

Hey Bill, just got back from a week with Karisma and saw this. Rotten luck but as others say don't beat yourself up about it. Looking back on the five years we spent in the inner BC, my feeling is that everything is always on much more of a knife-edge than you want to think about it being. Ports are far away from each other and the tidal gates mean every passage is made to a tight window. When crappy weather kicks up those requirements don't change so we all have to put the strain on our gear to make a passage happen. You can't know that a waterlock is about to fail. Karisma's is accessible via a lid beneath the stern bunk and I haven't looked at it for ages so I'd have no excuse if it went.

As far as the call goes, the lifeboat guys I know all prefer to downgrade a mayday than up a pan-pan. And the sea state is the real decider. I've lost count of the number of times I've ended up motoring into (or out of) something hideous, hunkered down and thinking quietly to myself, "if something- anything- breaks now then we are straight away in the sh*t" while keeping that opinion quiet. An hour motoring into the clevedon race a couple of years ago was the worst sailing experience ever and I remember that "we will be in the sh*t" was ALL I was thinking. Had anything actually broken on days like that I'd have done exactly the same as you. We both might have reacted differently to engine problems in a flat calm.

Hope you are out now getting a cruise in. Try to change your dad's view of Milford Haven! We have just had the best holiday ever on Karisma becuase of the move there- we have walked ashore from blue water and straight into the pub at loads of places and it's a completely different change of pace, stress-free sailing. Even in a gale it is flat and blue. Appreciate it is a long way from home to base the boat there but for a family cruise it is seriously worth considering.

Cheers and catch up soon