Fatal disaster at sea
This is a heart wrenching story with a fatal ending.
The incident took place when we had one of those windy northeastern pop up weather situations in the early 1980s. I will never forget this as long as I live. I was anchored over the wreck named “Henry Bacon,” which is located at the L Buoy artificial reef This particular artificial reef is a located about 15 miles off the W2 Wassaw Sea buoy or about 18 miles off Wassaw Barrier Island.
Cutting the anchor line:
My customers were having a great day, catching large chopper blue fish. Everyone was very happy due to the fact that not only could they catch a fish they could see them take the bait. Back in the old days it was too easy to catch large chopper blue fish, especially when they were schooling over a wreck. All you had to do was anchor up current of the wreck that they were schooling, throw out sinkable fresh water catfish food, and the chopper blues would come.
Our party had caught about 25 blue fish with all weighing in at over 10 pounds each. Believe me when I say, “They were getting tired!” One by one each fisherman started taking a longer rest. I had noticed that the light westerly winds had switched a bit to the northeast. Upon wind direction change the boat moves accordingly, which it did. We were now facing at a dead northeast direction. Still didn’t think much of the wind change until it picked up.
Now I might add it was a great sunny day with not a ripple in the ocean. It’s amazing how things can change so quickly especially when the weather is in control. All of a sudden the wind started blowing a gale out of the northeast. (Blowing a gale means 34-47 knots better known as 39-54 mph) Then the wind picked up more speed pitching my 30 foot T-Craft boat around at unbelievable angles. I told Captain Ali Young (my first mate for over 25 years!) that we needed to pull the anchor as quick as possible so that we could start heading home. The seas were already up and I expected there was more to come. My instincts told me that I wasn’t wrong about this prediction.
As Ali tried to get the anchor up it became obvious that it was hung in the wreck. When the anchor line became tight it held my bow down, which in this situation was not a good thing. So I screamed, “Cut the anchor rope!” While Captain Ali grabbed her knife the anchor line tightened up like a banjo string. With my bow pinned down a large wave completely covered the bow and it broke right on the main section almost taking Captain Ali with it.
As soon as she was upright again, with knife in hand, all it took was one delivered sharp blow and we were free.
Once freed, waves quickly pushed us sideways in the wind and I waited to make my next move until a drenched Ali was safely in the cockpit.
Getting in step with the wave:
Now under way I quickly came around on to my compass heading home, which put the waves directly off my stern putting me into a following sea condition. Had the waves not been so high and breaking this normally would have been the preferred situation. However, taking it easy was not going to happen. I was going to have to get in step with these waves and quick!
The other vessel:
Little did I know that there were others having problems at the same time and they were located only a few miles south of my location. It was a large vessel approximately 60 feet long, which was trying to hold a northeast heading. It had been traveling north while keeping about 10 miles off the coast. On board was a crew of two and one visitor.
This big sport fisherman was fitted with state of the art equipment and was in mint condition. While still holding a northeast heading, the captain had cut his speed to accommodate the incredible wave height.
Somehow and from somewhere the vessel had taken on a great deal of water. We don’t know exactly what could have happened to cause this event. (Sea water finds a way to penetrate the smallest excess!) I believe it could have been anything from a failed bilge pump to a high water alarm failure. At any rate, it was rough and the northeast waves showed no mercy when they are at this stage, which is big and breaking.
Somehow the big boat got stern to the waves. I assumed that the boat was so heavy due to lots of water that it was forced around to the stern by the continuous breaking waves. The first waves probably flooded the cockpit and the second probably took the bridge off. Not only did it take the bridge off but also all the passengers. They got one MAYDAY call off before this happened. I didn’t hear it and there was a very good reason.
All of my customers were handling the weather situation pretty good with the exception of one. While in the panic mode this man of large stature starting flinging his arms making unrealistic moves compromising everyone on board. He started screaming that he wanted off of the boat, but at this point that request clearly had to be denied. I had turned my radio down because of all of the radio chatter about the weather.
I figured any more information about the weather would have been too much for this passenger. Captain Ali was doing her part trying to calm the man down, but nothing seemed to be working. However, every minute Captain Ali even held half the interest of this customer we got closer to calm water conditions.
My plans were to drop off my customers at the first marina, which was Landing Harbor Marina. Upon finally arriving at the marina all asked if I had heard the MAYDAY, which as you already know I did not.
The next morning as I was going out fishing and right in my offshore track was a black life raft floating on the surface.
I immediately slowed down so to see if the raft had any occupants onboard. As I pulled close to the empty raft I noticed it looked as though it was anchored. It was at that time I realized the raft was tethered to the boat sitting on the ocean floor about 40 feet down.
The water was very clear on this morning, the day after the sinking of this vessel.
As I looked down into the water I thought I could see an antenna or maybe an outrigger sticking up through the water column.
As I became more aware of my surroundings I noticed a colorful sheen of fuel on the surface, which was being continuously fed by the leaking fuel tanks below.
And then just like someone poured a bucket of cold water over me chills started as thoughts happen. What was running through my mind wasn’t a comfortable feeling. As I put the information I obtained as to what I think I knew had happened, I felt myself sinking into my helm seat.
And since I also was out on the ocean the same time I had to wonder did I run right past the captain floating free in his life jacket?
The other vessel: I was told when the boat lost power it became stern into the wind and waves. As I processed that I could see how it was possible since the boat had taken on so much water most likely the engines had stalled. I can only assume it didn’t take too many of these waves to completely fill the cockpit and salon area weighing the boat down deeper into the water. It was at this time ikely a large wave ripped the entire bridge off along with it occupants. Through stories told, I heard that the captain was thrown into the water putting too much distance between him and two others hanging on to the half submerged detached bridge. According to stories, the two kicked the windows out of the bridge, which barely kept it floating on the surface. After the storm subsided the captain was found drowned floating in his life jacket. The occupants were picked up by the coast guard unharmed.
Back to storm day:
While I was heading home on storm day winds were sustained at around 40 knots plus. The waves quickly reached an 8 foot plus status. While surfing these size waves in some cases I was traveling at about 30 knots. As I was trying to hold a 290 degree heading I found myself perpendicular to very large breaking waves. There were times I had to turn to the north placing me sideways to the curl of the breaking wave. Once I felt comfortable I then had to turn to the northeast putting my bow in the wave. This process kept me from losing control of my boat when it went into full surfing mode. I know my customers had to think I was crazy making these apparent sharp U turns. And I forgot to mention there was a complete white out. This means that I could only see what was directly around me, less than 30 feet. It was raining sideways and this was way before I had radar on the old Miss Judy. All I had for navigation was a Compass and a Loran that sometimes was one mile to 300 feet off!
“U” Turns at sea:
The art of making sharp “U” turns in following sea conditions, at least for us, came about during the wooden boat era. Quite often our slow, heavy, full of water most of the time wooden boats were very hard to navigate in a following sea conditions. Following sea conditions also is identified by the term staying ahead of the sea! So therefore in the not so rough to the very rough sea conditions, sharp “ocean U turns” were very necessary to keep from yawing. What is yawing? It is what you do when you get sideways to a wave and don’t have enough power to pull up and over it. My father always taught me in situations like this that after every 6th to 9th wave there was normally a larger one following.
Getting in step with the waves was particularly essential due to the serious sea conditions prevailing on this day. Taking into consideration Daddy’s wave sequence equation enabled me to basically think ahead. Knowing about the possible conditions between the regular and bigger waves also gave me more hope as well as confidence. With this knowledge I was able to gauge my surfing time on the wave. I also was able to know exactly when it was time to cut away from the wave I was surfing on.
Once again my father’s knowledge paid forward provided me with some unbelievable “wave know how!”
Making it back to calm waters:
I was never so happy to see the W2 Wassaw Sea buoy even if it was lying almost sideways every time a wave hit it. Once passing the sea buoy I still had to deal with rough conditions, but rain had eased up and the storm was clearly at my stern. I looked at my watch and it took us a little over an hour to make what was normally a 40 minute run.
Doing a little calculation in my head I figured that I had spent about 20 minute going in the wrong direction, but it certainly did seem like it was a lot longer than that.
How long ago did this happen?
A little over 35 years ago. I do believe had my father not taught me about all of his perils at sea I would have not been here and able to pass this story on to you! Capt. Judy.