May 9 2011

Hobie 16 tipped, flipped, and de-masted by a Thunderstorm

Sailing beach cats on vacation, sailing a canoe, and sailing in a kayak.  Those three sets of experiences pretty much sum up my sailing track record as a whole.  I have been a mariner all my life, yet my experience with sailing vessels is minimal.  The latest attempt at sailing a canoe taught me a lot.  I know the concepts and terminology well, and the reflexes are there, but not at all that of a seasoned sailor.  Two weeks ago I accepted an invite to go sailing on a Hobie 18.  I was given the chance (as well as having no choice at one point) to sail it on my own, and it was an unforgettable experience.  Comparing to the only thing I could (my sailing canoe), there was a power at work with this vessel not experienced by a smaller one.  When you catch the wind just right, the subtlevibration on the main sail produces a low frequency felt throughout the boat, and if the conditions are right, the pontoon beneath you begins to lift.   This force not stopping until the sheet is let back a little, which de-powers the boat, therefore bringing the boat back down.  This was such an exhilarating experience I found myself looking for a Hobie for the next two weeks.  I was able to find and buy a Hobie 16 in the area after quite a bit of searching.  Now I had the boat in the yard, and the adventures was to begin.

Maiden Voyage
The first sail was a learning experience.  It was interesting to learn all of the rigging, and most of all, realize the weight of the mast.  After setting the boat up for about 45 mins, and organizing the rigging, we were off again.  In comparison to the Hobie 18, the 16 is a wild horse.  Weighing in close to 300lbs, it’s light as a feather and overpowered.  The Hobie 18 may very well be a faster boat, but it doesn’t feel like it.  The 16 is very sensitive to your actions.  It requires a faster reaction time, and is a lot of fun to sail.  What was supposed to be a 2 hour test run, turned into a day of fun-sailing and practice.  We purposely capsized and righted the vessel numerous times for practice, and I was confident in my ability to get out of a sticky situation.

First Warning
Sunday morning came, and I was to take my wife, Vanessa sailing for the first time.  This was a nerve-racking experience.  First impressions only happen once in lifetime.  If that was the case, this was my only chance of getting the wife into this both relaxing and exciting lifestyle that is sailing.  On a calm day, one could open up a bottle of wine, sail over to an island somewhere and have a romantic picnic.  On a “windier” day, and I’ll use this term loosely, sailing can be a challenging sport.  This day was a gloomy one, literally.  The morning was calm, there it was a bit cloudy, but the rain clouds were nowhere to be seen.  It took about 30 minutes to set up boat boats.  And as we began to take them towards the water, a far rumble of thunder was heard.  The sound came from West.  I quick look South (where the wind was blowing from) revealed clear skies.  The first warning had been issued, and we ignored it.  The wind had a slight breeze in it, and I remember thinking how a little shower may be beneficial to us, as long as the lightning kept its distance.  As we set sail, it started sprinkling a little bit, and went away after about 5 minutes.  The sky opened up to the South, and that’s where the wind was blowing from so we were free and clear.

Into the Wind
Sailing towards the wind, we were off and picked up speed in no time.  I remember having some issued locking one of the rudders into place, but other than that, we were free and clear.  I remember Vanessa saying, “wow we’re going fast!”.  I said, “I told you”.  But inside it was more like, “this is nothing, wait until we get this thing to stand up”.  My buddy with the 18 foot Hobie was sailing beside me and it was just a matter of time before we were flying over the water and I was out over the trapeze.  I made the trapeze ride look difficult due to my inexperience driving the boat by myself, while hanging, and when I asked, “Are you ready to get out here?”, Vanessa responded with, “I don’t think I’m ready for that yet”.  At this point we are about 1/4 the way from, Matheson Hammock marina to Stiltsville (near the Biscayne channel), and the wind was extremely gusty.  The seas were surprisingly choppy for the bay and everything started to pick up extremely fast.  My buddy was about a quarter mile away from me and began to turn around.   I decided to follow, but there was too much wind to Jive.  A jive is when you turn away from the wind in order to come about.  Coming about is when you turn your vessel resulting in a sail direction change.  So I decided to turn into the wind.  The first attemp failed.  By this point the waves were about 2-3ft and were right after each other.  It was extremely gusty, choppy, and in general the wrong conditions for a beach catamaran to be in.  I made a second attempt to turn around, and was put into irons, and back to a tack within seconds.  Not even getting a chance to try again, as I was getting out of irons, a wave swung us up, and a gust finished us off.  The boat had flipped sideways, and we were both waterborne.

Capsized in the Storm
As the boat tipped over, the pontoons lifted us into the air, before sliding down the trampoline. I remember the boom staying parallel with the surface of the water, and my wife’s chin going straight for it.  With the speed of light I thought, broken teeth, blood, sharks, etc.  But she managed to dodge the Boom.  I expressed my plan, “Hold on to the boat!, I’m going to release the main sail, and flip this thing back over!”.  The thought of which seemed like a simple action we had accomplished the day before.  But these conditions were changing everything.  The trampoline became a sail and began to blow the boat East towards the Sea, the incoming tide was in full force, so we had a cross current dragging us in the opposite direction that the boat was traveling in.  I managed to pull myself to the top of the mast (which was sideways and on the surface), and couldn’t unhook the sail.  It was at this point that I realized that if I let go of the boat I was going to be in trouble.  So I held on to the sail for dear life.  I pulled myself back down, realizing that the tension in the boom was holding the sail down.  So I untied the boom and left all the rigging dangling.  This was an emergency situation as was no time to organize rigging.  I new that eventually the submerged pontoon would fill with water and make it difficult to right the vessel, let alone sail it.  So after loosening the sail and giving an initial tug to see that the sail was loose, I exerted the last bit of energy (I thought) to bring the sail in.  My wife got caught underneath the main sail, but I was able to pull her out of there.  “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the boat!”, I yelled.  At this point, the storm is fully on top of us.  We are rolling around in the white-capped waves, it’s raining, it’s gusty, it’s gray all around, it was cold, and there was no end in sight.  I used the last bit of energy I had to climb on top of the submerged pontoon and tied an old docking rope to the high shroud.  Keeping constant communication with Vanessa, kept her safe.  This means that me yelling at her and getting a response every minute or so let me know she was still with me.

Righting the boat
Seeing that she was just hanging on, I didn’t want to make her climb, so I tright righting the boat on my own.  I leaned back, and held it steady.  After about 10 seconds, it began to come back.  I yelled,”when it comes back, don’t let go of the boat!”.  It was the most exciting and hopeful part of the disaster.  As usual I let the pontoons surround me, but with more force than it came down, it flipped in the same direction.  The jib caught a gust of wind that lifted the entire Hobie out of the water, and it capsized again.  Feeling beaten, defeated, and tired, I decided to lower the jib, and try again.  After loosening the jib, I decided to reposition myself to right the boat again.  All of a sudden, and loud “SNAP!”…And the boat turtled.  Both pontoons were now on the surface of the water, upside down and the mast, was floating next to the boat.  At this point there was nothing to do but sit on top of the pontoon, and wait for the storm to pass.  Luckily, there was a sailing vessel sticking around us.

Can we come aboard?
At this point, realizing there was nothing else to do, I gave the distress signal.  Not a flair or a mayday call.  The international sign of distress, when you wave both arms in the air.  The sailing vessel came toppling beside us and I asked if we could throw a line.  So he came around the side, and I readied and threw the rope, it didn’t reach.  A few minutes later, the chance came again, and this time the captain’s wife grabbed onto the rope.  He yelled, “tie it quickly!”, and she tied the roped to a cleat.  I remember thinking the pull was going to be hard enough to tumble me off of the pontoon, so I went into the water.  I instructed my wife to walk accross not letting go of the rope.  She proceeded to do so, and made it to the side of the boat, but it was a about a 4 foot climb to get onboard.  I remember yelling, “is it in neutral?”, as I saw the boat, still movine, and pictured my wife losing her legs due to the prop.  She heard me and tucked in as well, and the captain then put the boat in neutral.  I pulled myself beside her and pushed her up.  And then proceeded to pull myself, but was completely out of strength.  The captain gave me a hand and after a couple tries, I was onboard.  I remember knowing that we were safe at this point, and asking to be towed to shore.  I remember liking the sailboat, which had a cabin, and was very cozy.  Definitely something I’d like to have in the future.  So after giving us towels to wrap ourselves and warm up, we chatted a little while the captain turned towards shore.  My wife was shivering and went into the cabin, and I stayed on deck with the captain, it just seemed right.  It looked like we were home free, then he says, “we’re not making any headway”.

At this point the storm was still kicking strong.  Wind, rain, and waves surrounded us and there were no longer any boats in sight.  Anyone in the area earlier had already fled.  We, however could not.  The wind was pushing us East, and dragging my boat, sideways was not allowing us to go anywhere.  I realized, that we had to change the placement of the rope on the catamarat.  It was tied to the shroud which is the best place for righting the boat, but not for towing.  I attempted about 4 times to convince the captain to let me in the water, and change the placement of the rope, to a towing position.  He wasn’t having it.  As much as I wanted to fix the situation, regardless of how nasty the water looked, I was in no position to argue with the captain of the vessel.  He made the call, to call the Coast Guard.

The Party
After attempting to anchor, keeping the cat away from his boat, and a few other unexpected mishaps, the Coast Guard shows up.  At this point we are dragging the anchor, and both vessels are heading towards the StiltsVille flats.  Sailboats have a very deep keel, and shallow water means trouble for them.  The Coast Guard shows up in their fireboat, which is suprisingly rocking back and forth pretty bad.  The shallow waters were creating 3-4 foot waves in conjunction with the storm, and a very heavy chop.  They asked if everyone was OK.  I mentioned my wife was cold a feeling a little bit seasick.  She was ready to go with the Coast Guard, so I know she was in bad shape.  The time she spent in the cabin, took her over, and she was clearly pale and feeling sick.  For about 15 minutes a dance ensued, the Coast Guard was there, Coast Guard Auxilary was there, SeaTow, and Boat U.S. were on the scene, but nobody was doing anything.  Meanwhile, we had drifted a few feet by one of the Biscayne Channel markers and were headed for Stiltville.  At this point I realized that if we didn’t do anything quick, this ship, who pulled me out of the water, was going to run aground.  So I decided to untie my boat, and figured worst case, I’d jump in and stick with it, while he left.  As soon as I left my boat go, the sailboat’s anchor who we had been dragging for about 20 mins, grabbed, and we were anchored.  My catamaran, on the other hand, drifted away.  So I helped the captain pull the anchor, and we were off to shore.

Are you a Boat U.S. member?
What happened after that was by far, the most frustrating event of the story.  First, Boat U.S. didn’t wan’t to touch my boat, until they verified I was a member.  Then, becuase it was upside-down, they wanted to charge me $300 an hour to right it.  I agreed, thinking it would only take an hour.   So we boarded their boat and the Coast Guard forced them to take us to shore, since my wife was cold. She was willing to go get my catamaran (what a trooper!).  So after taking me to shore they basically hit me with a $1500 quote to go pickup my boat.  I said I’d settle for $300 since they took us to shore.   After trying to charge me $600, willing to take me to court for it, and two days later, they finally settled on the reasonable price of $300.  I wonder what SeaTow’s service would have been like?

What about the Hobie?
So here I was, back at shore, with no boat.  And my keys were wet, so there was no way of disarming my alarm.  My friend was nowhere to be found, his trailer was there, but his Hobie 18 wasn’t anywhere on the horizon.  I had a cop send a radio call to look for him, and I called….no answer.   Finally, he called back, and had a heck of a story of his own.  Apparently, the storm pitchpoled him forward (this is where the boat does a front flip), and he had his own issues in the storm.  A fishing vessel came by and help him right his boat, and his story is also a good one.   So back on shore, I called my old man, who came with my mom and took us home.  I called my cousin, who had a truck, told him I needed a hand, and he came over to pickup my powerboat.  We all went back to the marina, launched the Chris Craft, and were off to Stiltsville,  to try to recover my Hobie.   By that time, the tide had changed and was coming back in, so I was screwed.  The closer I got to Stiltsville, the worse I felt when I didn’t see a thing in the water.

Floating Bananas
All of a sudden, close to one of the houses, I spot a couple of floating white bananas.  Could it be?!, could my boat actually still be here.   It was.  It was floating right next to one of the houses.  So we docked, and the current was incredible.  I put on a snorkel and went in the water with a rope, in case the current was too strong.  As a swam under the Hobie, I realized why it was still there.  Somebody, maybe the Coast Guard, maybe Fish and Game, but nonetheless, somebody, had tied my boat to a piling!  And while the current was trying to have its way with it, it was hanging on.  I dove to the center of the trampoline where I had strapped a dive knife.  This was just in case of an emergency.  So I tied a rope between boats, and cut it loose from the piling.  Then, using some geometry, leverage, and patience, I swam around organizing the ropes in key places of the cat.  Two people pulled from on top of the house’s platform, and I sat on one of the pontoons.  Together, we managed to flip it over, and it was mostly intact.  After about an hour of organizing rigging, sails, and fighting with the current, we were ready to tow.  Good thing, because the sun was going down, we had no anchor lights, or deck lights on the Chris Craft.

Tangled up
As I carfeully back tracked away from the house, someone forgot to pick up slack on the rope, and it got tangled up with the prop.  Then I hit the throttle instead of putting into neutral.  And the engine shut off.  So now both boats are disabled, and drifting into the flats, and the sun is going down.  After about 45 mins of diving and rope cutting, I finally cut it free, and we were off again.  Towards shore.  The bay was choppy so we had to go slow, about 7-8 mph slow.  Eventually it got dark, and if it weren’t for the final marker blinking red, we would have had to search the shore for the marina entrance.  But it blinked, and I made it back.

Lessons Learned
All in all, I made it home, with all persons, vessels, and trucks by 11:30PM.  I was bruised, beaten, salted, and tired, but relieved.  A few slices of pizza for everyone that helped, and the day was over.  I hugged my wife, who was happy to be alive.  The sea had humbled me, but she didn’t take anything of mine away, so all in all, it was a good day.   So what did I learn from this experience?  There were numerous lessons that I took from it, but here are a few that I can share, and hopefully others can learn the easy way:

1. If it’s stormy, stay close to land.
2. If you flip in bad weather, lower the main, lower the jib, and evaluate the situation.  If it is too windy, wait for the storm to pass, it will always pass.  And when righting the boat, be ready to hold the submerged end down by hanging on to one side, in the case she wants to continue to roll over.


Some of the damages…