A Boat in Distress…and What to Do About It


So after another wonderful day, we heard on the radio that there was a norther coming on Saturday morning, with expected winds from the northwest at 10-15.  As we sat Friday night over the rum and oj, we remarked to ourselves that heck, 10-15 was nothing, we were on the south side of the cay, and we could handle it.  We snorkeled the anchorage, and found we were set in sand on top of a hill in about 30 feet of water. The anchor chain lay across the top of the hill and gently circled down to the bottom at 50 feet before tracking back up to the boat.  We thought we’d be fine, as we had out 175 feet of chain.

About two miles away, in an area the chart calls Bread and Butter Cays (but the cruising guide calls Stewart Cay), we spotted another trawler, tried to hail them on the radio, but they must have been otherwise occupied.

At 11:00 p.m. on Friday night, Jan was up on the computer and Ole had just gone to bed, when, out of nowhere, the wind started blowing 25 with gusts to 30, out of the northwest.  So much for weather forecasting.

Ole shot out of bed, looked at the plotter, and found we had slipped anchor and our adrenaline kicked in. 

This area is another of those where the plotter, the chart, and the cruising guide differ as to precise positions, so Ole started up the engines, and wisely watched the radar and the plotter for about an hour.  When he saw that the anchor had dug in and we were holding ground, he decided to stay up until the worst was over.  Jan cat-napped on the watch berth, periodically rising to confirm we were still okay.

At 6:00 in the morning, the light showed we had indeed traveled what we thought was sickeningly close to the reef, but were still holding.  The winds had abated during the night, but picked up again with daylight, producing quite a chop in our anchorage.  As we considered our options, we heard a call for “any vessel” from the boat we had spotted the night before.  They, too, had slipped anchor, but were not so fortunate, as they had been shoved up onto a sand bar and were hard aground.  They confirmed their boat was fine, the people were fine, and requested some help in the form of a tow.

We were not at all sure we could help.  Our dinghy was still in the water, the wind was blowing a steady 20 knots, and we were unsure about how to get out of the zigzag entrance to our lagoon.

Once we decided to give it a shot, we raised the dinghy, started the engines, and Jan went forward to heave up the anchor.  The switch for the anchor windlass chose that precise moment to become non-functional.  Ole ran down to the chain locker to examine the switch, and tried to jump-start it, to no avail.  After about 10 minutes, we found that by pressing on the switch with a thumb and wiggling as we pressed, we could get some response, and the chain crept up in fits and starts, allowing Ole to position the boat on the track line we left coming in, and get us safely out of Spruce Cay lagoon.

Once underway, we headed toward the vessel in distress, and formulated a plan.

We took out our 300-foot, 1-inch hurricane line, looped it through our two aft hawse cleats, and made a makeshift bridle with a trusty bowline, allowing the distressed vessel to send a party over by dinghy to pick it up.  He returned it to his boat, tied off to his two aft deck cleats, and we started pulling, thinking we could “back” him out of the sand bar.  Even though we revved up to a mighty 2000 rpm, we made no progress other than to rip out one of his cleats and a chunk of railing.

That having failed, he opted to shift the tow line forward, and asked us to maintain just a constant low-rpm pull, with us headed into the wind, hoping at best that the wave action would work his boat loose – at least that we could keep him from being washed further toward the mangrove until another boat enroute could help with the tow.

We found that each time we fell off the wind and had to reposition the boat , we were creeping into shallower and shallower water, until, when the depth sounder crept below 4 feet and quit returning a signal, we decided to add another 200 feet of line.  Just as we requested adding a third line, the other vessel showed up to help.

About 11:45, other boat added its heft to the effort.  Since the distressed vessel was losing cleats left and right, they were advised to wrap one of the tow lines around their house and send it to the other assisting vessel.  Once all lines were in place, we and the assisting vessel coordinated a mighty pull, which snapped the tow line attached around the house.  We decided that there was nothing more we could do, and to head for Placencia.

Once our decision was made, we agreed to lend the vessel our lines, and decided to let him haul them in from his end.  Trying to untie the bowline in our towing bridle proved impossible – given the strain of pulling a 10-ton boat with a 24-ton boat with saltwater-drenched line.  Out came the trusty knife.

Once the line was cut, Emma Jo drifted backward, and in spite of furious pulling on the line by the distressed vessel, we ended up with tow line wrapped around both our propellers – in 20 knot wind, in 7 feet of water, in 2 foot chop.  Jan rushed up to drop the anchor, which did not set.  Using the less-than-effective thumb-wiggling anchor retrieval technique, once the anchor came up we saw it had a huge rock wedged into it.

Since we had no other choice, we dropped the anchor yet again, and fortunately, the anchor hitting the bottom knocked the rock loose, and it held.  The distressed vessel helped cut the line off our shafts, Jan thumb-wiggled the anchor windlass switch and we were off.  The assisting vessel remained nearby in case they could be of service.

Once we got safely anchored in Placencia, we had a nap and a meal, and turned in early.

Sunday lunchtime we decided to meet some of the people who had been hovering on-site or coordinating radio communication from Placencia during Saturday’s efforts.  We took the dinghy over and met some wonderful people for lunch – and debriefed the situation.  When Ole heard that there was to be a commercial tugboat dispatched to help the distressed vessel, there was no question but that he would ride along with them.

There was quite the vicarious sense of adventure listening in on the radio, which for some reason, was louder and clearer than it had been the previous couple of days.  When it was announced just after high tide that the vessel was floating, had intact running gear, and could motor on her own, in spite of snapping a 2-inch tow line in the process of getting free, you could almost hear the cheers from 20 miles away.

So this adventure raises a few moral questions:

Should we put our own vessel at risk to help another?  When is it time to abandon an assistance effort?  When, in a third-world country whose Coast Guard doesn’t have any ships, is it appropriate to alert the authorities?  How much detail about another’s predicament should one provide on a public website?

In the first case, each boater must assess his own abilities, equipment, and resources.  There is, of course, a long tradition of Samaritanship at sea – and an international treaty which requires commercial ships to render assistance when possible – Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS.  While we seriously contemplated denying the request because of the conditions in which we found ourselves, each decision and consequence allowed us to rethink the situation and choose anew.  Several times during the 5 hours we stood by the distressed vessel, we thought to end the effort, but found that we could do more, take more than our fears would have us.  After all – it could just as easily have happened to us – and very nearly did.  The key seemed to be to stay present, stay rational, and adjust as necessary, avoiding the temptation to let panic or adrenaline decide.  Another factor is, of course, Ole’s profession and training, allowing him to take the emotional lead on our boat.

We felt thoroughly terrible saying goodbye and turning our back on the distressed vessel.  But we had tried for nearly 5 hours, through high and approaching low tide.  The addition of a second vessel with a similar power plant to ours seemed to make no difference to the result.  We had been up all night, and maneuvering in bad conditions for 6 hours from the time we left our anchorage to the time we left the site — and fatigue was setting in.  It sounds harsh to me – but taking care of oneself needs to be the prime directive when taking on helping another.

The third consideration is interesting.  As decent, law-abiding cruisers, we should make every effort to deal honestly with the governments of the waters we cruise.  We do not want to be ugly Americans (or otherwise) while guests in foreign waters.  But in a part of the world where a vessel blown aground onto a reef was recently faced with a fine of $30,000 and a jail term of 3 years, one has to determine individually whether honesty is in the best interest of captain, crew and vessel.

And finally, because of the previous moral consideration as well as the last, as the webmaster and diarist of this website, it falls to me to make the decision about how much detail to make publicly available.  I have attempted to include as much detail as is pertinent to us, the crew of Emma Jo, while eliminating any detail that would positively identify the vessel in distress or other parties who might have assisted in her rescue.

Moral questions aside, it has been an interesting few days, and has not only added to our cruising repertoire but also to our sense of community within the cruising world.

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