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(c) Norm Bazar

 

 

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Back in 1981 or so, my dad decided to make one last trip on the Subinal. The Subinal was, and may still be, what was best described as a “salty” old wooden ketch. How she came by the name is lost in time. We never knew, though the question was often the source of sometimes-wild speculation that occasionally revolved around the “Sub” part of the name.

Built in Nova Scotia sometime in the 40’s or 50’s, Subinal, with her two wooden masts, taller in the front and shorter in the back and her three simple triangular sails, was all of 32 feet long, including her bowsprit. Her cabin was small, too low to stand in, and the cabin top leaked, all of which resulted in a cramped, damp space that always had its own distinctive musty smell.

Her rigging was made of fat, gray, galvanized wire rope and bolt-on cable clamps, not like the sleek modern boats with their shiny, slender steel shrouds and crimped steel sleeves. She had a squat but tough look that earned her more respect in commercial fishing docks than in marinas. I have to say, though, that the fancy yachtsmen, who actually did cruising, when not holding cocktail parties by the dock, often came by to dream about taking more than a day cruise.

So there we were that hot spring day scraping the bottom, getting ready for a fresh coat of anti-fouling paint when we started to notice that the bottom was soft. So soft in fact that in places you could force a screwdriver through the hull. Well, there was no money for a new boat or even a major repair, so we patched and painted and into the water she went. The first few days the dockhands dared not let her out of the sling, she took on so much water, but the wood swelled, the seams closed, and she was finally declared ready to sail.

I admit I wanted to go on the trip. Visions of the Turks and Caicos Islands and an outside passage from New York to the islands were very appealing. But work got in the way. All I could get at best was three weeks. At that I was pushing it. My boss said no, I said I have to go, and I went. Twenty plus years later I still worked there; he didn’t.

Because of the limited time I was taking I decided to meet the boat and her crew, my dad, Earl and Stranger (a 120- pound German shepherd) at a point just up river from New York where we put up the mast. The trip from Lake Chaplain through the barge canal didn’t have enough clearance to let us leave the mast up, and Castelton-on-Hudson was the first place that had a crane.

The trip down the Hudson River from Castleton to New York was uneventful, an easy ride while I got my sea legs back. From New York on, the fun began.

Once we cleared Sandy Hook outside New York harbor, we had a beautiful day for a sail. The wind was brisk and “going our way”. That beautiful brisk wind gave us our first indication of problems to come. Not five hours out, one of the shrouds snapped and we had to make a quick repair to save the mast (we used the anchor chain.) The repairs, being temporary, required a hasty retreat to the closest port, and we found ourselves in Brielle, New Jersey, getting all the standing rigging replaced.

 

 
 

Two weeks later, we were back on the sea. We headed south, but soon found that the wind, no longer going our way, was now coming right up the coast. We tried tacking, but found that we were making poor time. So, since we could always run the trade winds back west once we got down south, we decided to take a course that would be more south-east. This took us out, away from the coast, but we were making good speed.

A few days out the wind began to pick up, nothing worrisome, but enough to bounce us around a bit. As we bounced we began to notice that the bilge pumps were running more and more. Along with the bilge pump running came a need to run the generator to recharge the batteries. This was fine and good, but further analysis said that if we got stuck somewhere, we could run out of fuel before we reached land. No fuel no bilge pump, no bilge pump--lots of water in the boat. We decided to head for shore.

In an attempt to find out where the water was coming from, I climbed under the cockpit. As I belly-crawled my way into the low space between the hull and the cockpit floor, I began to have visions of the leak suddenly bursting open and the Subinal going down like a stone, with me trapped in that tiny space...The mind does play tricks.

As my eyes became used to the dark, I found the problem. Between every plank in the hull I could see light, and water welling in through the cracks. All those seams that had been leaking when she first went into the water were leaking again, plenty! I could not see the whole hull, as most of it was hidden behind other structures, but I knew we had a problem.

Still, we made good progress; as long as the pump could keep up with the water, we were going to get to shore. Then the situation changed. Our generator, which had been doing extra duty to keep the batteries charged, picked that time to fracture its exhaust manifold and quit.

This was the point where decisions had to be made. We tried to use the manual cylinder pump, but it quickly proved to be ineffective. As the water got higher in the cabin, debris washed into the bilge and blocked the manual pump. Our last resort was the humble bucket. We had measured the time the pump ran and figured that we were taking on about 600 gallons per hour. With a 5-gallon bucket, this was only 120 buckets an hour or about two per minute. For three people, this seemed possible.

When the generator quit, Earl began to get worried. As my dad was just getting into his shift of bailing, Earl came to me and said he wasn’t feeling too good. His fingers were tingling, and he was feeling strange. At first he thought he was having a heart attack, but when I called my dad out he had a better explanation--shock / stress / hyperventilating. With an explanation in hand, the cycle of worry broke, and Earl went back to the bailing.

To add to our crew problems, the poor dog needed to find a tree. Much to his dismay, there were none within sight. He somehow managed to convince himself that the foremast was a viable substitute, and he found some comfort by its towering form. Later when the sea became rougher, his attempt to find a patch of diggable dirt led him to attempt a foray onto the aft deck, where there was a convenient pile of rope. I am sure the sight of two grown men clinging to a squatting 120-pound German Shepherd on a pitching deck while he attempted to void without losing his balance would have made a great picture-- if only we could have taken it.

It was about 7 a.m. when we turned towards shore, and not much later when the generator quit. About noon, we were trying to get a fix on our position with a radio direction finder, and when the angle between Atlantic City and Norfolk seemed to be impossibly close and placed us 400 miles off shore, we assumed that we were making some kind of mistake. Transmission towers that were not where we thought they were had fooled us before, but as long as we headed west, we knew we could not miss the continent.

As evening began to fall, the weather began to worsen. Seas were getting rougher, and it began to rain hard. Flashes of lightning started getting closer, and soon we were in the middle of the storm. When the wind strengthened, we decided that we had to take down the main sail. Normally this is a simple chore, but the now violent thunderstorm was giving us a rough ride. Being out on the cabin top, taking down sail, with the deck pitching violently and the lightning striking all around us seemed like a poor place to be, but we didn’t feel there was much choice. Losing a mast would not have improved our chances of making it to shore. Nonetheless, with not a little trepidation, we furled the main sail and, much relieved, scrambled back to the relative safety of the cockpit.

By nightfall we had been bailing for about 14 hours, and the effort was beginning to tell on us. Worse, our food was getting ruined and our fresh water contaminated with salt. As the night wore on, we reluctantly decided that our situation was not looking good, and we issued our first distress call. There was no response. It seemed that the lightning was making any communications with the shore impossible (in fact, we were too far out to reach the shore by VHF anyway.) By about 10 p.m., we finally made contact with another boat. They said they were a US government research sailing vessel, but they had no way to find us. With no hope in sight, my dad gave them my mom's name and phone number and asked them to let her know if we drowned, so she could collect the insurance money. They promised they would, but in the meantime they would try to get the coast guard again on the short-wave radio once the lightning stopped.

As the night wore on, we became convinced that we could see the lights of cars on a highway and various other lights on shore. We then began to imagine we were seeing breakers on the barrier reef and were about to crash into it. All of this, of course, turned out to be illusions. The weather worsened, and we all took turns at the wheel. Steering was accomplished by sighting along the next wave trough during the brief flashes of lightning. Otherwise all was dark. About 3 a.m., Earl, exhausted, collapsed on the cabin top. My dad kept steering and I kept bailing. I did this by wedging myself into a corner of the cabin by the companionway and bailing 10 buckets at a time. I would then close my eyes, sleep for about five minutes, and then bail another 10 buckets. How long this went on, I do not know, but I discovered that I could sleep almost anywhere if I was tired enough.

 

C130

   

By dawn, we were finally out of the storm. The research vessel had, as promised, reached the Coast Guard, who finally set off by plane to find us about 7 a.m., just about exactly 24 hours after we first started bailing. Once they were in the air, we could talk to them directly. Greatly relieved, we felt that we would be saved. Unfortunately, it was not so simple. They asked us to hold down the mike key and count to 10. This would allow them to get a fix on our position. At least, that’s how the theory went. Unfortunately it didn’t work.

They tried a few times, and finally said they couldn’t understand it but they couldn’t get a fix. The water was rising again, and once again it seemed like there was no hope. Desperate, I looked around for some kind of “sign”. At last, I looked up. There, in the sky, was a long bank of clouds. It was the edge of the storm front. I said, “Do you see the long line of clouds?” “Yes," they said. “Well, I’m right under the edge.” Their reply should have given me a clue as to where we were. It was “what the heck are you doing all the way out there?” They headed our way and it took over an hour to get to us. At the speed of flight, they must have come a long, long way in that time, and we began to realize just how far out we were. The radio direction finder had not been wrong. We had been way, way out, at least 350 miles offshore from Norfolk.

When we saw them in the sky, we fired off a flare, as requested, and soon, to our great relief, they were circling overhead. Once they had arrived, we had to make some more decisions. They offered to drop a dinghy for us to get into, but we felt that with a working pump we could save the boat and the gear in it. Also, if we had abandoned her and got into a small dinghy, we would still be in an even smaller boat, a long way from shore. So, in the end, we decided that the best thing would be for them to drop a gasoline-powered pump.

Now, it was still very rough, and with us quite full of water and the waves quite high, it was hard to move up wind. We asked them to make sure that the pump was dropped down wind of us so we could get to it, but our luck was still holding (bad), and sure enough, the pump was dropped up wind. We tacked back and forth for about an hour, but could not get to the pump. We were afraid to make too wide a tack for fear we would lose sight of the pump. Earl offered to go swimming for it, but we were afraid he would be lost if we could not get back to him, and insisted that he be tied to the boat. Unfortunately (or perhaps, as it turns out, fortunately), the lines were a mess, and we could not get one free to tie to him, and we insisted that he not “go swimming”.

Once again, the water was getting very high, and we were back to bailing. About that time, another voice came on the radio. It seems that the ocean-going tug, Atlantic Majesty, had been following our conversation with the Coast Guard for some time. They offered to help get the pump, and we accepted. Soon they were in sight (unlike the research vessel, they had radar and a good engine), and they captured and brought us the pump. Saved again! With our hearty thanks, the Atlantic Majesty headed out of sight. I got the pump out of the barrel it was dropped in, and got it working. It quickly sucked the water down below the floor boards. Then we had time to make some plans. I asked the Coast Guard how long the gas was good for, and they replied that we had plenty of time. The gas was good for at least 10 hours. Then I asked them where we were. It seems that at that point, after traveling west all day and all night, we were still 250 miles east of Norfolk, Virgina, a good two-and-a-half days' travel under the best of conditions. And we only had 10 hours of gas for the pump.

So, once again, we were worried. The fastest Coast Guard ship would take more than 10 hours to get to us. It would be dark again before they reached us, and we would again be hard to find. Even then, we could start taking on more water, and being alone again did not seem like a good option. To make matters worse, the Coast Guard plane lost power on one engine. “Don’t worry,” they said, “we can fly just fine on three, but if we lost another one, we could have a problem.” They could not stay around. As we were debating the best course of action, Atlantic Majesty called back on the radio. It seems they had not gone very far, and they once again offered to help. With the Coast Guard as witnesses, and with the radio-telephoned permission from their head office, they agreed to take us in tow, and we agreed not to sue them if something went wrong. Once again we were saved.

We were to meet the Coast Guard from the Montauk, New York station, who would head south to meet us as we headed north. So lines were exchanged, and off we went in tow.

With the tremendous power of the Atlantic Majesty, the towline was rigid as a bar of steel between us. Our bow plowed through the waves, and we had to ask them to slow down so we would not be swamped.

Through the day and into the evening, we traveled north through the warm Gulf Stream current. By this time, it was getting foggy, and by the time we reached our rendezvous with the Coast Guard, the fog was almost too thick to see the bow of our boat. Around 10 p.m., the Coast Guard called on the radio, and said they had us on radar, but that they were afraid to come any closer, for fear of sinking us in the fog. With mixed feelings, we cast the lines off from the Atlantic Majesty, and in a final act of good will, they came alongside and threw us a large garbage bag full of sandwiches and drinks.

   
   

After the Atlantic Majesty pulled away into the fog, the Coast Guard called on the radio and said we should light a flare – which we did – and slowly they emerged from the black mist. In standard Coast Guard procedure, they launched a Zodiac (motorized inflatable dinghy) and boarded us. Now, Stranger (the 120-pound German Shepherd) had been through a lot. From the precariously-balanced attempts to do what dogs do on the “poop” deck to the strange sound of the pump and soaking wet conditions everywhere, he had been stoic, but being under “attack” by “hostile boarders” was the last straw for him. When the lead Coast Guard guy stumbled on the slippery, tossing deck and fell with an outstretched arm towards the dog, the dog finally had enough. With a yelp, the lead Coast Guard screamed “He bit me!” and clutched his hand. Fortunately no real damage was done. The dog had just provided a warning nip, and there was no blood. Finally we were in tow again, and would soon be on our way to land. Earl had gotten onboard the Zodiac and was transferred to the Coast Guard ship, where he got dry clothes and a hot meal. We stayed on board and worked the pump and wheel.

We were underway again. The Coast Guard had provided another small canister of gas, but again, not enough to last more than the next 10 hours. We had about 20 to go. Through the night they towed us, and in the early dawn we were again running out of gas for the pump. Unfortunately, the fog had not lifted, and when they sent out another C130 plane to drop us some more gas they could not see the ocean from 100 feet up and had to abort the mission. Once again, we were getting worried. The gas was almost gone, and though we would not die, it looked again like we might lose the boat. But the Coast Guard was not deterred.

The next visit was from a large twin rotor helicopter. As it hovered overhead, the Coast Guard guys put on hard hats and sent Earl below out of harm’s way. The helicopter crew lowered a large metal jerry can of gas to the Coast Guard ship, and then headed back to shore. Once the helicopter was gone, the next adventure was to get the gas to us. It was now too rough to launch the Zodiac, so a simple 100-yard trip was problematic. It was also too rough for the Coast Guard ship to approach us. They were afraid they would sink us in a collision. It was decided to rig a rope sling on the gas can and send it back along the towline attached to a large (six-foot diameter) “destroyer fender”. The first attempt was a failure. There was no way to get the heavy gas can into our boat. I only had one hand to hold on with, and the float was attached to the gas can, which was attached to the rope leading back to the Coast Guard ship. To bring the gas on board, I would have had to lift the large fender and the gas with one hand. The second attempt was successful. They tied the sling to the gas can and the lead rope to the fender, so I was able to remove my life line, tie it to the gas can and then cut the gas can free of the fender – all with one hand – since the other hand was needed to hold on with.

At last we had all the gas we needed! But our bad luck was still holding; the gas can was so tightly closed that we, at first, could not get it open. Finally the right tool was found, the tank opened and the pump shut down for filling. But how to get that wide-mouthed gas can to fill that tiny fill-hole in the pump?

With everything wet and in a shambles, with us having had little or no sleep, even simple tasks were daunting, but finally we made a funnel out of a chart cover, and managed to fill one of our smaller gas tanks. In the process, of course, we managed to get gas all over the cockpit, and since we were very reluctant to start a fire, we had to wash down the cockpit before starting the pump. That chore done, the pump started, and with plenty of gas, we were once again on our way.

I even managed to get a bit of sleep as the pump sucked away at the still leaky bilges.
Several hours later we received a call on the radio that we were going to change course. We had finally come close to our destination, Montauk, New York, and we were going to head in. At last we would be dry and be able to get some sleep! But we were not out of the woods yet. As soon as we changed course, the spray started to come over the bow and into the cockpit. This was now not only cold, since we were out of the Gulf Stream, but it threatened to drown the pump, and that was exactly what happened.

The ever-resourceful Coast Guard came back to help start the pump, but it was not to be. After a long struggle and countless pulls on the starting rope, they decided to try another pump. This, too, refused to cooperate, and eventually it was decided that since the water was rising fast, they would have to bring the big fire hose pump alongside and pump us out with that. The fire hose pump was a large rigid hose that ran from the Coast Guard ship into our boat and down into our bilges. The only problem with this was that they could not tow us and pump us out at the same time. The solution? Send out another ship. Sure enough, along came a second Coast Guard ship. It took on the tow and away we went again in Siamese twin fashion, connected by a 9-inch pump hose. Now this sounds just fine, but matching the speed of the three vessels was not so easy. I was sitting on the fire hose, and every time the two ships got going slightly different speeds, I started to ride up the companionway on a bucking fire hose. With many expletives (none deleted), the strange convoy finally managed to reach the mouth of the harbor.

It was time for one final maneuver. The towing ship was too big to bring us in, so the pumping ship had to change places with the towing ship for the final entry into the harbor. That done, and with a final parting tug, we were guided into a slip with a waiting sling. The Subinal was hoisted in the air, and with water streaming from countless now-empty nail holes and seams like some crazy Italian fountain, we were deposited in a cradle on dry land.

Sadly, in the end, Subinal was found to be rotten. The wood was soft, and the cost of repair was well over her repaired value of $6,000. Rather than pay to scrap her, we sold her to one of the Coast Guard guys for a dollar and the promise to fix her.

To get us home, Earl took a bus to Montreal to pick up my dad’s car and a trailer. We loaded everything salvageable into the trailer and headed north. It was a fine, hot sunny day when we arrived at the Canada customs border point, and we went in and told our story. The Customs officers came out to inspect the contents of the trailer, but when they opened the wide double doors, the wave of hot steamy mildew that assaulted them quickly convinced them that they need not investigate further.

Afterword:
It seems that the Coast Guard guy did fix her up over the following few years, because we eventually got a letter from someone who had bought her and wanted to know some of her history.

We later learned that in that same fog off New York another sailboat sailed between a large tug and a barge in tow and became tangled in the towline. Two crewmembers were lost.

You may wonder if I have been sailing since. Yes, my dad bought several other boats, and I have been with him on all of them.

The Coast Guard has subsequently changed the rules of rescue engagement. Our exercise didn’t cost us a thing, but if this happened today we would receive a very big bill…

Notes:
This story was originally written simply because I was beginning to forget the details. It was reviewed by all the crew (except the dog) for accuracy.

The photos were not taken at the time of the story (we were too busy.)

If you have any comments please email me at nbazar@normbazar.com

   

All works on this site are copyright Norman Bazar unless otherwise noted.