January 19 &20, 2008
By John McKnight
The 2008 Tradewinds Regatta was held January 19 & 20, in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. It was a very windy affair on Saturday. No one even sailed on Sunday, because the winds were at least 20 to 30. Rick White was the PRO. He has also done a fine job of chronicling the regatta in words and pictures on CatSailor.com. http://catsailor.com/Stories_Temp/TradewindsStory08.html
I always help work on the race committee for this regatta and forgo sailing, so all our out of town sailing friends can have a well run regatta. On Saturday there were many occurrences of boats flipping over and crews getting separated from their boats. There were many war stories being told Saturday afternoon. I have a story for you from my perspective on a chase boat.
You have heard the expression of things going from bad to worse. Well, that was what kept happening on the race course at the 2008 Tradewinds Regatta. I was on one of the four chase boats for the day. It was very windy on the race course. The winds were 15 to 20 knots with higher gusts on Saturday. At one of the NOAA lighthouse weather stations, in the vicinity, they were reporting gusts up to 26.
Before the first races on Saturday even started, boats were flipping over. On the first downwind leg of the first race, the boats looked like bowling pins getting knocked down.
"There's one down over there! There's another one over!"
At any one time we would have 4 to 5 boats flipped over. Crews were regularly getting separated from their boats. The worst leg for bow stuffing flips was the B to C broad reaching leg of the first triangle. As the boats got further from the shore, they lost the relative protection of the lea of the land, and the blustery wind was taking its toll. The spinnaker boats, Inter 20s, F-18s, and F-16s, seemed to be suffering the most. The nuclear blasts would hit the fleet, and if you didn't head down deep enough over you went. One of the most difficult spots on the course was right at C mark. Here the boats had to transition from the downwind mode to the upwind mode. If you got hit with big air here, you were in trouble. You can't yet head up fast enough to dump air, and you can't bear off to shadow your spinnaker with the mainsail. Warren Green and I were on the C mark chase boat and many boats were dumping it right in front of us.
We watched a yellow and white Inter 20 go over at the C mark. The crew got separated from the boat. Chip Short, on his motor boat, picked the crew up and returned them to their boat. Warren and I took over monitoring the situation. We watched the crew struggle to right the boat. They got the mast to come up, but it continued over the top and flopped in the water on the opposite hull. The crew again slowly climbed on the slippery hull and pulled on the righting line to right the Inter 20. Again, the boat righted and continued over in another flip. We came along side, and I mentioned to the crew that it looked like the jib was still cleated causing their boat to flip each time they righted it. They assured me that they had uncleated the jib, but that it must have recleated itself. Now the fun began. The battens were coming out of the mainsail. Evidently the punishment on the sail was loosening the battens. So while the crew tried to gather their strength for another attempt at righting, Warren and I started circling around plucking foam battens out of the water. There were four loose battens, but we were only able to snag 3 of them.
We watched in vain as the skipper and crew crawled back onto the hull of the overturned boat. I could see that something was wrong. The crew was standing on the hull ready for the next attempt, but the skipper was still in the water catching his breath.
"This is not looking good," I said to Warren.
The skipper finally got on the hull, and they slowly maneuvered the boat into the power righting position. Finally, they successfully righted the boat. The weary crew dragged themselves up onto the tramp. Warren and I thought we were done with this saga. NOT! We watched the boat sail off on a close reach and after a few hundred yards it flipped again!
"What gives here?" We are thinking.
We motored over to check them out. As we approached the Inter 20, we saw the crew up on the hull and the skipper still in the water. The crew yelled to us that the skipper was injured and exhausted. He needed to come onboard our motor boat. We found out later that the skipper had fallen into the boom on their initial capsize, and he had hurt his ribs. So we tossed the skipper a line and dragged him over to our boat. We had to help pull the skipper into our boat. We put the motors in neutral and had him climb up between the two engines. He used the fins on the motors as steps. Warren and I helped drag him into the boat. He was spent. He also announced that he has lost his insulin pump in this fiasco. I wasn't sure if that would become yet another factor.
You remember me mentioning bad to worse. This is where they continued to get worse. We now had an injured skipper onboard and a capsized Inter 20 with only the crew onboard. I asked the skipper about the experience of the crew. The skipper said that the crew was an experienced sailor, but this was one of his first experiences on a catamaran.
"Oh Boy," I thought.
We now had a boat on its side that could not be righted. About this time we noticed that we were rapidly drifting toward a sand bar. If the I-20 drifted onto the sand bar, we would not be able to get close enough to help. I considered jumping in and helping right the boat and sailing it in. But I decided not to do that. Despite 34 years of catamaran experience, I had never been on an Inter 20. I didn't have all my sailing gear and that move might make things worse. So, instead we tossed the crew a line and decided to tow the crippled boat away from the sandbar. He tied the tow line to the dolphin striker. Unfortunately, the tow line was lying across the spinnaker pole and when we started to pull, the pole snapped in two.
"Can anything else go wrong here?" I am thinking.
The answer of course was, yes!
Initially, we had things under control. At least I thought we had them under control. We were towing the I-20 on its side slowly toward shore. We had about a two mile tow back to the beach. The crew was standing on the hull at the rear cross beam to try and keep the bow out of the waves. We were making progress. When we stopped to reroute the tow line after the spinnaker pole broke, we got into more trouble. We were drifting through an area of lobster traps. Attached to each lobster trap is a line and a round Styrofoam float. The floats are called lobster pots. The pots are painted in unique designs so that each lobsterman can identify his traps. Well, while we were drifting downwind, the I-20 became entangled in one of these lobster pots. The pot wedged between the mast and the shroud at the mast hound. The strong current was jamming the line and pot in the rigging. We thought briefly about cutting the line to the pot, but that is highly frowned upon in the Keys. We had the crew jump back in the water and try to free the pot from the rigging. After much tugging, we got it free. We continued the tow. We were thinking that the towing was going to ruin the mainsail, which was still on the mast. We did not think the crew could get it down by himself, so we continued on. About this time, the Inter 20 decided it was going to right itself. The wind got under the sail and tramp, and it just popped upright by itself. We stopped our tow to allow the crew to climb onto the tramp. He had no more flopped on the tramp when the sails caught air, and the boat started sailing. It was sailing right at the transom of our boat. It gained speed very rapidly and it was coming straight at us.
"We are going to get rammed." I am thinking.
The crew was sitting on the windward hull and his eyes were as big as saucers. Sure enough, the I-20 smashed into the back of our port engine at full force. "Crack," something had broken big time. I thought it was the engine cover. The Inter-20 bounced off the engine, and its windward hull was now flying. About the time it reached the end of the tow line, it flipped over once again. The crew was tossed into the water one more time. Things were not going well at this point. It was beginning to look like an episode of the Keystone Cops. We inspected the motor housing, and it just has a little bit of yellow paint on it. The crew inspected the port hull of the I-20 and found the bow had been split wide open from top to bottom. There was about an inch wide gap all the way down the bow. We now cannot right the boat, because the port hull would fill with water and sink and cause even more problems.
We decide that the mainsail has to come down to prevent another inadvertent righting. So we stopped the tow, and the crew went to work taking the mainsail off the mast. He painstakingly untied the main from the boat. This is a very difficult task for one person while a cat is bouncing around on its side in the choppy sea. The crew was doing a marvelous job. He was very strong and very agile as he scampered and swam about the boat gathering up sails and line. He got the mainsail wrapped up and secured. The spinnaker halyard was still loose, so he cut that away. Finally we were ready to tow again. When Warren put the motors in gear, an alarm went off on the starboard engine. Warren pulled the engines out of gear and I inspected the prop. Sure enough, some loose line had wrapped around the prop. I tried to unwrap the line and cut it away. I couldn't do it from onboard. The crew had to jump in the water and swim over to our boat and unwrap the line from the prop. We then notice that the I-20 had again become entangled in another lobster pot. We had to tow the boat upwind to relieve the pressure on the rigging so the pot would come loose. I think we had four entanglements with lobster pot during the tow. We finally got underway again creeping towards shore.
After 15 minutes more the crew signals that he is getting exhausted. He said he needs to come onboard the motor boat with the rest of us. We stop and he swims over and climbs onboard. We thought we needed him on the back of the I-20 to keep the bow out of the water, but the boat rode just fine without him. We slowly finish the arduous tow back to the beach. This ended the successful rescue of the I-20 crew. Murphy's Law comes to mind when I think back on this ordeal. One thing after another kept going wrong for us. Fortunately, the only injury was the badly bruised ribs.
I won't even begin to tell you about the demasted Taipan F-16 that we also towed in later that day. That is a whole other story. If you want some real excitement, volunteer for a chase boat duty at your next regatta. It is usually very interesting.
Commodore, Catamaran Association of Biscayne Bay (CABB)
CABB Forum: http://www.catsailor.com/forums/postlist.php?Cat=&Board=CABB