A 40 foot concrete hull sailboat leaves Seattle Washington on a trip to San Francisco with a crew of three; The owners, a couple in their 40’s, and their uncle. Early spring in the Pacific Northwest is often beautiful, but the weather can quickly turn sour as these three soon found out.
Although fully rigged for sail, this new sailboat is still under construction and doesn’t have all the bugs worked out of the engine yet. However, the weather is nice and the first legs of the trip go smoothly as she sails south along the rugged coasts of Washington and Oregon. But as she approaches the California border the weather begins to turn. Quickly the seas, pushed by 30-knot winds, build into 10-foot walls of water. The moderately experienced crew starts their engine and dropped their sails with the intention of motoring around Point Saint George Reef and into Crescent City, CA.
Sailboats that are not under sail are subject to heavy rolls when in heavy weather, which is what the crew of this sailboat is experiencing. The uncle had been seasick for quite some time before they dropped their sails, and is now so sick he is waving in and out of consciousness. Additionally, now the owner and his wife are getting progressively seasick as the sun is setting over the ever-increasing swells of the Pacific.
And this, of course, is when Murphy’s Law rears his ugly head. The engine, which had not been adequately tested before the voyage dies. When the owner struggles below to find what was wrong, he finds water sloshing back and forth in the engine room. Frightened for his life, he calls for help.
Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay is in Eureka California and has the responsibility for Search and Rescue from the Oregon/California Border in the North, to Point Arena in the South. Usually the Coast Guard has Search and Rescue stations at nearly every coastal town around the country, but for many years there has been a gap in this coverage around Crescent City, CA. The nearest Search and Rescue station to Crescent City is Station Chetco River, in Brookings Oregon. In fair weather, it takes five hours for the 44 foot Motor Life Boats to come from Chetco River to Crescent City at their maximum speed of 12 knots. In heavy weather, you can easily double this time.
However, Crescent City has had a succession of small Coast Guard ships, called Patrol Boats, ranging from 82 to 110 feet, based there. In the spring of 1990 this was the 110-foot Island Class Patrol Boat, USCGC Edisto (WPB-1313). Fortunately for this sailing vessel, the Edisto is in port and in a recall status (the crew is required to be in town and the ship is ready to get underway at short notice). Coast Guard Group Humboldt Bay relays the distress call to the Officer of the Day aboard the Edisto, who informed the Edisto’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Gary Dahmen, and then recalls the ships crew of 17.
While the Edisto is recalling her crew and preparing to get underway, the sailing vessel finds another problem. The owner, thinking he has to get to shore quickly due to flooding of the engine room, tries hoisting sail in order to make Crescent City. As he begins hoisting the main sail the halyard becomes stuck, preventing the sail from being hoisted. So the sailboat, with three increasingly seasick people on board, is drifting towards the seas breaking on the Point Saint George Reef.
Getting underway on the Edisto for my first Search and Rescue (SAR) case was exciting. The wind was blowing a thick fog across the Crescent City harbor as I was working with the 6 man deck force in bringing in the mooring lines and manning the bow look-out. As the bow lookout you stand at the front of the ship looking and listening for anything out of the ordinary. As we left the harbor and came up to our top speed of 30 knots, the seas started tossing the ship, giving us a small taste of what the sailboat was experiencing.
A short time later we arrived alongside the stricken sailboat. From talking to the owner over the radio, we found that the flooding was not a major problem, but the crew of the sailboat was too sick to rig the towline or to operate the sailboat into Crescent City. The executive officer of the Edisto, LTJG John Murphy, and I were the only people on board with any sailing experience, so we were selected to go over to the sailboat to see if we could fix the halyard and get the sailboat underway.
Transferring people from ship to ship at sea usually consists of launching a small boat to ferry them across. The Island Class Patrol Boats carries a 5-meter Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) with a 45 horsepower outboard motor. This RHIB is launched from a small crane that lifts the RHIB from the deck of the ship and places it over the side, while crewmen hold frapping lines attached to the RHIB which, hopefully, prevent it from swinging out of control. During calm weather this is a fairly safe evolution if the crew is properly trained, but at night during heavy weather, it is easy for things to go wrong.
Fortunately, the crew was well trained and RHIB was safely put over the side. Seaman Bill Swanson was the Coxswain (the boat driver and person in charge) of the RHIB and did a great job navigating the swells and getting us to the sailboat. As we came alongside the sailboat, we realized that it was going to be difficult to get on board. The deck of the sailboat was about eight feet above the waterline and the only ladder to get up were concave steps indented into the concrete up the transom of the sailboat. In addition to the high freeboard of the sailboat, the rough seas were making both boats bounce around lively. Bill brought the RHIB alongside and yelled for the executive officer to jump. Mr. Murphy made a good jump and safely pulled himself up to the deck of the sailboat. Then it was my turn. Bill again brought the RHIB alongside and yelled for me to jump. It looked good, but as I jumped, a wave lifted the back of the sailboat up and the only thing I caught was the deck with my right hand, wrenching my shoulder and soaking me to the waist. As the wave progressed, the back of the sailboat came down and the wave pushed me upwards, allowing me to scramble to the deck. My adrenaline was pumping so high I didn’t yet realized the damage that had been done to my shoulder.
I look around and realize that I am aboard a sailboat that is taking on water, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and I’m getting severely bounced by every wave the ocean can throw at us. Up to this point in my life, my only sailing experience was aboard very small sailboats on very small lakes in Kansas. I look towards the Edisto and, through the dense fog, can only make out her deck lights. The RHIB, who had unceremoniously dropped us off just seconds before, was nowhere to be seen in the large swells and thick fog. This was my first eerie taste of the lonely, surreal feeling you can get aboard a ship when you have nothing in sight but big waves.
My feet still unsure on the wildly pitching deck, I stumble after Mr. Murphy as he heads to the pilothouse to check on the occupants. The uncle is unconscious and seriously dehydrated, he hasn’t drank or eaten anything in days. The owners’ wife was better, but is also severely seasick and has the sallow, dehydrated look. The owner, also seasick and exhausted, can barely move about his boat. After doing what we can for the crew, we look at the engine room to find how much water is in the bilge. Although there is some water, Mr. Murphy was not too concerned.
Our next task is to see if we can get some sail up to stabilize the sailboat. We talk to the owner about what had happened, tugged on the halyard for a minute, and came to the conclusion that the halyard had come off of the track at the top of the mast. The Mr. Murphy turns to me and asks if I wanted to use the jib halyard to climb to the top of the mast and get the main halyard back on track. I look up at the mast, swinging wildly from the seas 30 feet or so above our head, and promptly chicken out. This meant we will have to rig the sailboat to be towed in by the Edisto.
This particular sailboat has about a 6-foot bowsprit, which is a pointy thing that extends from the front of a ship and hangs out over the water. In the weather we are in, the bowsprit seemed to be underwater more than it is above the water. Mr. Murphy and I stand on the bow of the sailboat waiting while the Edisto maneuvers around, preparing to take us into tow. I hear a “heads up” call from the deck of the Edisto and see a glowing green stick flying towards us, and over our heads. BM1 Ronald Mills, the first lieutenant on the Edisto, has tied green chemical light to the heaving line and has thrown it across the gap between the vessels. Mr. Murphy and I pull the heaving line in, and attached to it is the Edisto’s five-inch towing hawser. I have to climb way out on the bowsprit to hook up the towline to the sailboat, every wave that comes by washes over me. Although I tie myself securely to the bowsprit so I will not fall, every time the bow falls downward into the water I fear that I will not be on it when it comes back up. It seems like it takes me forever to pull in the bridle and weave it through all of the obstructions before I can attach the eyes of the lines to the bitts.
Somehow I get the towline rigged and soon we are moving farther away from the surf pounding onto the Point Saint George reef and towards “home” at Crescent City, CA. As the first hint of daylight comes over the mountains, we finally sit down in the cabin of the sailboat and take our first break of the night. This is when the fatigue really hits. Although we have both been awake for 24 hours, our job isn’t done yet. For the next few hours we trade off doing rounds about the sailboat, checking on the horribly seasick crewmen and on the slowly increasing water in the bilge.
Although I am glad to see the Crescent City harbor getting closer, I am nowhere near as ecstatic as the crewmen of this sailboat. When we finally reach the sheltered waters of the harbor, the three crewmen are beginning to recover from their seasickness and are trying to tell us how thankful they are that we went out and got them. Their words can’t say it enough, but their eyes say it all.