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On an offshore delivery from New Zealand to Tahiti, one event leads to another…until the whole worlds upside down
By Nancy Manheimer
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the vessel Windsong." Dazed and bleeding, I couldn’t believe this was happening…
We were ready for that passage; in fact, we’d never been readier. Sitting in port for an extra five days waiting for a good weather window does wonders for slashing lists. My husband, Doug, and I were getting ready to deliver a Valiant 40 named Windsong from New Zealand to Hawaii, and possibly on to Seattle. Somehow it seems easier to get someone else’s boat ready for sea.
In recent years, we occasionally had supplemented our cruising kitty by doing deliveries aboard other sailors’ boats. When we got the job delivering Windsong, we were thrilled. It would give us a good excuse to visit our home waters of Puget Sound, and then return to New Zealand for another cruising season. To help with the watch schedule, we invited a New Zealand friend, Jim Shaw. He was ready for an adventure. He was going to find one.
Worrying: That’s my job before departure. I grow concerned about having enough food. I fret about the weather, the route, everything. Meals for the first few days out (when no one can eat anyway…except Doug) were already prepared. I had makings for an Easter party, an equator party, a generic party. I had books, light and heavy clothing, the works.
Windsong had been well taken care of and had a good assortment of gear onboard, including an emergency life raft, GPS, an all-band HF transceiver, and EPIRB, new sails and no less than 5 bilge pumps. Doug had examined all her vital systems and pronounced her fit for sea.
Our plan was to get our easting early by heading for Tahiti, where we would spend a week or so, and then reach up to Hawaii to rendezvous with the owner. The weather finally looked good, so we slipped out on the early morning tide of April 5. I had been to sea lots of times. I knew what to expect from an ocean passage. I had a good feeling about this one.
The sea was very kind to us those first few days. Light winds meant some motoring, but we had some wonderful sailing too. The seas were slight and Windsong was clearly enjoying her new sails. At night, the moon was full and the sea lovely. We all began to settle into our watch schedule, and each of us cracked a book.
By the sixth day, the wind was up to 25 knots. We were scooting right along in building seas, slipping a bit farther south than we wanted, but we made great way easting. An approaching cold front was forecast to give us a favorable wind shift. Then we’d be sitting pretty. We talked of Tahiti and the things we would show Jim there; of Hawaii and the hiking to be had on Hilo; of home.
Doug and I both are amateur radio operators. Each day we’d report our position and local conditions to various radio nets and listen to our friends and the other boats around us. We did radio phone patches to our family in Washington and to Jim’s folks in Whangarei, New Zealand. We copied the weather fax information each day and listened to the weather reports given on Tony’s net in New Zealand, and by Arnold in Rarotonga, shoreside hams who make it their hobby to keep ocean-going hams abreast of the weather. Aboard Windsong, it was still all systems go.
The Weather Thickens
On day seven, the wind was blowing 25 to 30 knots and the seas continued to build. The forecast still called for a cold front to pass over us, followed by a favorable wind shift. But by that evening the seas and wind – 45 knots with gusts to 50 – had elevated to storm force. The barometer was dropping at an alarming rate. This was more than a front line. We hove to and double reefed the main until the clew blew out, then we tried bare poles. The definition of the "domino effect" is a cumulative effect produced when one event initiates a succession of similar events." Was that busted clew line, which led us to drop all sail, the first domino to topple? We’ll never know, but events were about to unfurl at a fast and dangerous pace.
We continued to stand our watches. I felt for Jim, outside in his first storm at sea. When I relieved him at 0200, gusts up to 55 knots struck. At 0330, when I woke Doug, gusts had risen to 60. He decided there was no sense in continuing watches in the cockpit; with the wind and rain we couldn’t see much anyway.
Below, we chatted and watched the anemometer, which registered a high gust of 65.4 knots. Although the waves were huge, the boat was riding them well and we were confident we just had to wait it out. Every few minutes Doug would struggle to the companionway and survey our world – which now was limited to the wave we were on and, sometimes the next one coming. It was Easter morning now, so I dug out our Easter candy. So much for the party.
Then it happened: Doug and Jim heard, above the roar of the wind, a wave much bigger than all before. The boat rose and rose until, near the top, it was thrown over backwards and landed upside down with a horrific crash. Windsong remained upside down for what seemed like minutes. Doug and Jim stood on the cabin top. Streams of water squirted in from around the mast, port lights, and hatches, and poured in the dorades. Then, with an explosion, they felt the mast give way, and the boat slowly roll back upright.
In the violent pitchpole, I had been thrown into the door frame of the cabin and knocked unconscious. My face was badly cut and bleeding. The boat had taken on a lot of water while upside down, and the spar, now busted into 3 pieces, slammed around with the boat’s vicious motion. The dominoes were falling. Now what?
The first job was to get the water out of the boat and determine no more was coming in. Doug sat me out of the way on the galley sole. Jim manned the manual bilge pump in the cockpit. Luckily, the nine motor mounts had held while the boat struggled to right herself. The engine jumped to life on Doug’s first try. He didn’t dare put the engine in gear with all the rigging in the water, but now he was able to charge the batteries, which allowed us to use the high-capacity electric bilge pump.
The next job was to secure the broken section of the mast on deck to keep it from damaging the hull. Working n deck was risky, even with safety harnesses on. Finally, Doug and Jim got enough lines around the mast and lashed it to the boat.
In the meantime I had regained consciousness and was attempting to clear the bilge of the debris that had settled there after the floorboards went flying. At that moment we couldn’t get to the bit first aid kit, so Doug grabbed a box of band-aids and taped my face lacerations together to stop the bleeding. I was then instructed to lie down and keep still.
Doug decided to try to get help. He activated the EPIRB and strapped it to the cockpit. We were more than 850 miles from New Zealand: the middle of nowhere.
First nothing. It was 0530, just two short hours after the dismasting, and time for one of the amateur radio nets that we usually joined. Doug tuned up the radio and issued a Mayday call. I thought to myself, "This cant’ be happening." Then a familiar voice came back and said, "Quiet everyone, I just heard Doug and he’s giving a Mayday. Go ahead Doug. What is your position and what is the trouble?"
Alaskans Harry and Marge on Whalesong, anchored in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, along with Aussie Don Hopper and a network of other concerned hams, notified the Rescue Coordination Center in Wellington, New Zealand, and explained our situation. Once we had made contact, we turned off the EPIRB. Don informed us that, in the short time it was on, it had been picked up in Australia. The hams set up an hourly schedule for us to log our position and conditions. They assured us that there would be someone on frequency in New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific islands, and the States, 24 hours a day. With ham radio, we weren’t alone anymore. Now I became the main concern. Concussion was possible. Because my cuts went into my mouth and nasal cavity, I was at risk of infection and possibly meningitis. My head was swollen and had turned some awful colors. But within minutes Doug was talking to Dr. John Rea, a physician and ham operator who prescribed antibiotics from the ship’s medical supplies (which has since been located). Doug’s wrist also had been hurt (we’d learn later that it was broken). He and Jim wrapped it well, which helped. They were both fatigued and had bruises on top of bruises. But we were alive.
Picking up the pieces
For the next three days, as help was organized and sent our way, Doug and Jim worked to secure the boat. Though the seas were still very rough, they had to jettison the broken sections of the mast overboard before they broke loose and caused more damage. With the rigging undone and the mast tentatively connected to the boat with the final internal halyard and a control line, timing was critical. As the boat rolled, the last lines were released and the broken sections slid over the side. It was a relief to have them gone, though difficult to watch a beautiful new roller furling jib sink out of sight.
A piece of line had wrapped around the ship’s propeller as the boat had rolled upright. The guys struggled for hours to free the line, but couldn’t get it from deck level. And the seas were too rough for someone to go over the side to slash it.
Much of the electrical system and electronics gear had been doused with saltwater. Three cans of spray solvent and a bit of our fresh water helped prevent further trouble. The main alternator was damaged beyond repair, but luckily there was a spare in line that we were able to keep operable to charge the batteries.
Jim now took over the cooking, no easy task when beam to the seas without a proper mast to dampen the roll. Both men found lots of surprises as they tried to put the cabin right (a dozen eggs under the chart table, passion fruit everywhere, a soggy mess of Easter candy..) All our bedding and most of our clothes were damp, but they still kept us warm.
Back in New Zealand, rescue operations were underway. The fist plan was to evacuate me by a helicopter that would be refueled at sea on a freighter that was due to leave Auckland. Eventually, this idea was given up in favor of sending out the New Zealand frigate Southland. This would allow them to bring a doctor and onboard facilities, and also to render assistance to Windsong.
As they approached, we kept in contact with the Southland’s Commander Collier via radio. Our ham mates continued the watch in case we needed relaying. Southland is the oldest warship in the New Zealand navy, and Windsong was on the outer limits of her fuel range. Providing them with an hourly GPS update allowed them to calculate our drift and steam right to our position.
Southland arrived in the wee hours of the morning. After an examination by the ship’s doctor, I was removed to the Southland where I was given 24-hour care. Before heading back with me, they transferred jugs of fuel and lashed them to Windsong’s deck. The also provided some cable and equipment for a jury rig. Navy divers freed the line on the prop and inspected the hull for damage. Southland sent over bread, milk, cookies, warm clothes and dry blankets. Doug joked with the sailors, many of whom became seasick shortly after boarding Windsong’s rolling hull!
Jim also boarded the Southland for a hot shower and a big meal. Much to his credit, he then left the rock-stable 300-foot vessel and got back aboard the pitching 40 foot one that was still rolling in beam seas. It wasn’t long before Windsong was underway again, this time back to New Zealand. Also aboard was a navy man Craig Kennedy, who had volunteered to help pilot her home.
With me in safe hands and Windsong making way once more Doug could relax for the first time in several days. But not for long. A jury rig still needed to be fashioned using the cable from Southland, various shackles and some chain. From the spreaders down – including the lower stays and the boom – the mast was intact. The crew rigged a chain harness with a forestay and a backstay shackled to it, along with blocks and halyards. Though seasick, Craig climbed to the top of the stump to install the harness. They ran the forestay to the forward chainplate and used the anchor windlass to tension it. They shackled the backstay to the hydraulic backstay adjuster that had been salvaged from the rig. With these stays and the remaining lower shrouds, the stump was able to fly the storm staysail as a jib and a portion of the mainsail. Motorsailing, they continued for Auckland.
After two days the Southland arrived in Auckland. I was feeling much better. After running a gauntlet of reporters, I was taken to Auckland Hospital, examined and released. Mike and Ardeth of the sailboat Sanctuary, who are amateur radio operators, cruisers and great friends, brought me home, where I joined the many people listening to Windsong’s saga on the radio as the crew struggled to get her back. But the dominoes were still tumbling. Soon the wind turned against them and they began to take water over the deck…and below. The automatic bilge pump failed. They hove to and discovered that the cockpit drains had been blown out during the initial impact and the cockpit was draining into the engine room. After the drains were plugged and the bilge pump serviced, they were under way again.
The next obstacle was more benign: the wind died, they were becalmed, and the fresh-water pump on the engine gave out. They were dead in the water for 28 hours while they worked to bypass the freshwater cooling system, thus making the engine saltwater cooled, and then plug the broken pump with epoxy to keep it from leaking. The new system worked fine and they were on the road again.
The breeze returned, right on the nose. Then a fuel line burst, necessitating what they called a hydraulic band-aid. They cleaned the fuel line, wrapped it in duct tape, covered it with a section of split plastic hose and secured it with hose clamps. It worked.
Nine days after the dismasting, they finally sighted land. The ham operators were still on frequency, though now down to a four-hour schedule. Late that evening Doug came on to report his position – safely tied to a dock in Auckland.
We had felt we were ready for that passage. We had a good sound boat, fine equipment, a reliable crew, and plenty of food and supplies, - all coupled with years of sailing experience. But you just never know what to expect from an ocean passage.
Windsong carried insurance through a New Zealand insurance company, and after undergoing an extensive wash-up and repairs (including replacement and/or repair of much of the wiring and electronics) in New Zealand, she is now back in the waters of Puget Sound. No serious damage was sustained to the hull; she was re-rigged, fitted with a new set of sails and has many more miles ahead of her. As for me, I’m fine. No permanent damage, just a couple of "character lines". The dominoes have come to rest.
Resilient cruisers Doug and Nancy Manheimer have lived aboard their True North 34 cutter Halcyon since 1984. After extensive cruising through Puget Sound and the Canadian Gulf Islands, they headed south for Mexico and then carried on to New Zealand, working along the way at "everything from delivering boats for other sailors to canvas work for a liter of rum an hour!" Now home again in Port Orchard, Washington, after completing their "Pacific circle," they’re back at work (Doug’s an electrician, Nancy a computer systems operator) raising funds for the next big cruise.