I’m writing this from son, Charley’s, apartment in Boston with warm Anneli at my sandaled feet. We landed in Boston last night from Columbia – a boatload of stuff pared down to some fishing gear, T-shirts, board shorts, one pair of sandals – and all my computer, ipad, iphone stuff – and my journal. The crew all made it to their respective homes last night.
Here’s a recap of the sinking and rescue as I gathered from the crew. By the way, it was a rent-a-crew. The captain had been provided by an “outfitter” whom I had used 4 times before. The captain had in turn enlisted 2 crew members to assist him with the delivery from Honduras to Turks and Caicos.
Rick Westlake was on watch at 11pm. The captain, Dale Cheek and other crew member, Len Thibodeau, were off watch, sleeping. They were 100 odd miles southwest of Jamiaca. The bilge pump light had come on indicating it was evacuating some water from the bilge. Normal stuff except Rick noticed that it has stayed on for a long time. The float switch sometimes get stuck in the “on” position just like your toilet bowl getting stuck in the flush position. After a few minutes, he awoke and notified the Captain. Dale immediately saw that the starboard hull was filling up with water. They started working the auxillary manual bilge pump but were not gaining on the inflow.
Dale donned mask and fins and dove overboard with a flash light and saw a 2-3 foot gash in the starboard hull. At this point they activated the two emergency devices that sent mayday messages to the coast guard and GEOS – an International Emergency Response Center. Dale turned on the satellite communication system and phoned me and his room-mate in Florida. My phone reception in Turks and Caicos was not receiving calls or signaling voice messages.
Next they removed the Genoa from the forestay/furler and tried wrapping it around the forward starboard hull in an attempt to put a giant bandage on the wound, but that was not successful. A US Navy P3 Orion aircraft had been diverted to the site by the coast guard. It spotted Palenque and made radio contact by VHF. Palenque also received a call over the satellite phone from the rescue center. The crew at this point knew their may-day had been heard and was being responded to. The helicopter offered to drop a life raft but Dale replied that Palenque had one. The helicopter alerted a nearby freighter (only about 12 miles away) to assist in the rescue and provided the freighter with Palenque’s coordinates.
Meanwhile, my friend, Will in San Francisco, had been alerted by the rescue operation and he was trying unsuccessfully to reach me. He re-read my most recent blog and determined that I was not on the boat. It was he who provided the rescue center with the satellite phone number for Palenque enabling them to assure the crew that a rescue was underway.
After about two hours of losing ground against the incoming sea, both hulls and all 4 cabins were filling up, floorboards and items were floating around in the cabins, Anneli had sought high ground on the roof and it was time to deploy the emergency inflatable life raft. One always looks at those suitcases with their rip-chord coming out of them and wonder if they will actually work. None of the crew with combined experience of over 40 years sailing had ever had to activate an EPIRB emergency device or a liferaft except in training situations. The life raft self inflated, right-side-up, beautifully. In it were seawater activated battery-powered lights, a sea-anchor & flares. They radioed the Cap Domingo that they needed to be picked up. Cap Domingo could not see them in the night and they fired off two of the flares. The second one was spotted.
Getting crew and dog from the life raft up over the 60 foot high freeboard of the freighter in rough seas was a challenge. The captain of the freighter had never made a rescue before. Leg holes were cut in the sea-anchor and Anneli was lifted in the makeshift tote bag. The crew used a rope ladder and gangplank and all got aboard without injury.
When last seen through the dark, only about 4 feet of Palenque’s starboard pontoon nose was still showing vertically out of the water.
The freighter was bound for Cartagena Columbia about 600 miles away. Palenque’s crew and Anneli were quartered in the infirmary and treated very well – Anneli was quite spoiled and apparently the crew of Cap Domingo wanted to keep her.
I awoke to a barage of texts and emails on my iphone. I set to making their arrivale in Columbia and transportation home as smooth as possible. Through all the support I had received by email and comments to my blog post, I had the ducks pretty well in a row for their arrival in Cartagena. The point person was Andrea Egel from The Nature Conservancy office in Cartagena. Nancy Mackinnon had made that connection for me. James Hathaway had alerted Senator Leahy’s office who had contacted consulates in Columbia. Kevin Phillips had contacted a Colonel in the Marines in Columbia. Simon and Dave at Orvis handled numerous offers of help. A firestorm of support was underway. My inbox still shows 110 emails on that first day (I don’t know how many I deleted) and there were over 75 comments on my blog.
I then flew to Columbia to meet and celebrate the crew’s rescue and valiant efforts; also to personally escort Anneli out of the country and back to the USA. I was able to secure her space in the cabin with me on the Avianca flight to Miami (great airline!) and she flew as baggage from Miami to Boston.
So what did they hit? Is there anything else that could have been done?
We don’t know what was hit. It was a submerged object as only the hull below waterline was damaged. The noise of the impact had been masked by the normal noise of the hull pounding through the waves. I really don’t think anything else could have been done to save Palenque. I’m awaiting the Coast Guard’s case report on the incident – the above anecdote is all stories told by the crew over a wine-rich diet at dinner.
I’ve got a good insurance plan on the boat and hope to recover a good part of the financial loss. I’ve got another month left in my sabbatical – I’ve been too busy to think of how I will spend that, but this incident had helped bring “closure” to that free-wheelin episode of my life. A hole has suddenly opened up and I can feel pieces in me, some unrecognized, converging to fill it. But this ship isn’t sinking :-)
Next post – at popular request – The Adventures of Anneli – Photojournal
PS – below in a moving letter that Captain Dale Cheek has sent to the Captain of the Cap Domingo
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