In the Wake of a Storm
Long-time cruisers recount anchoring and storm prep lessons-learned after being shipwrecked off of a Greek isle.
Sailing west from the Turkish port of Marmaris, we reached across the Aegean Sea with its notorious meltemi wind blowing hard from the north before rounding the southern end of the Greek Peloponnese. Working our way north through the Ionian Sea, we were headed for our winter destination near Rome, when a new forecast warned of an extensive frontal system approaching from the west. With gale-force winds and heavy rain predicted for several days, we needed a new plan.
The Greek mainland was close to leeward, so there was little sea room, and like most of the Med, the Ionian Sea is notorious for steep, dangerous seas in a blow. The narrow, sheltered Vliho Bay on the Greek island of Lefkas, seemed to be the ideal anchorage for us to wait for the front to pass. With a bit of a push, we arrived in Vliho Bay ahead of the weather. The terrain around the bay looked promising, although higher hills to the west meant we could expect heavy gusts as the front passed. We shared the large bay with several other boats, but there was room to spare, and our 60-pound CQR anchor set well with a bit more than 6:1 scope on the 3/8-inch chain.
We actually prefer to anchor out in heavy weather. Med-mooring with only a row of fenders between tightly packed boats endangers spars and stanchions as the boats heel, and we had many years of experience anchoring in heavy weather to fall back on.
Ahead of the Storm
With clouds already sliding in over the hills, we began our usual preparations for heavy weather at anchor. A 40-foot nylon line was secured to the anchor chain with a doubled rolling hitch, or camelís hitch, to serve as a snubber. Cleated at half its length, we kept the remainder in reserve, and a second line was secured on the bow to add to the snubberís length, if more scope was needed. (See PS, May 2007 for more on Southern Crossís ground tackle setup.)
Hatches and ports were secured, and everything on deck was lashed down, including the covered main on the boom. Anything that created unnecessary windage was stowed below, and the security of the genoa and staysail on their furlers was double checked. A roller-furled jib can be a bear to tame if it gets loose in heavy wind, and I have seen several start to unfurl at the top when the upper swivel turns, even though the furling drum is well secured. Jibs designed with a low clew seem to be more prone to this phenomenon, which can become a serious hazard in heavy weather. Our yankee-cut jib never has been a problem, but if there is any doubt, itís best to remove the sail or add extra lashings as high as possible.
With its drain plug removed to keep it from filling with a heavy load of water, the dinghy was streamed aft on two fairly short, but stout pennants with good chafing gear. The eight-foot RIB could have been deflated and lashed on deck, but streaming it aft had worked well many times in the past and time was growing short. Later, we would regret this.
An anchor alarm was set up on the chartplotter, and bearings were taken on landmarks and other yachts. Safe headings were carefully recorded for use if the anchor had to be reset. The radar was warmed up, tuned and left in standby while foul-weather gear and flashlights were laid out near the companionway. Navigation and deck lights were checked, and the handheld spotlight was tested and readied for quick use. Swim goggles were laid out to allow at least a limited look forward into the wind-driven rain, and as the wind strengthened, the engine was warmed up so it could be called on at short notice if required. † We gave some thought to laying out our second bow anchor, but as we prepared, several more boats had arrived, and space around the boat was shrinking to something less than desirable. Laying out a second anchor would prevent us from swinging in a full circle like other nearby boats lying to a single anchor, and might cause a conflict later when the storm-driven winds inevitably clocked around. Given more time and an alternative anchorage, I would have seriously considered moving, but with night approaching, we declared our preparations complete and settled in to wait it outóanother poor decision on my part.
Riding Out the Storm
Shortly after midnight, the wind began to gust, and soon a heavy squall line began its march across the area with driving rain and winds increasing to 45 knots with significantly stronger gusts rolling down from the hills. After a long night on watch, the wind eased a bit as the sun rose and all looked well onboard as conditions continued to settle. By early evening, the wind had subsided to an easy 10 to 15 knots with only light rain falling. The latest weather files indicated that the worst had passed over, but we would still need another 24 hours to be completely free from the effects of this depression. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.
As we were about to enjoy a well-earned hot meal, the wind suddenly picked up. In less than a minute, it reached what sources would later report as 115 knots. Down below at the time, we could do nothing but hold on as we charged back on our anchor, taking up the slack with a wrenching jolt as the bow turned into the wind. A thunderous rain added its voice to the calamitous shrieking of the wind, and for a minute or so, it looked like all would be well.
The big CQR was holding well, and all our earlier preparations were still in place, but visibility was nil in heavy rain and the noise was unbelievable as we tried to monitor the situation on deck. Suddenly, the boat lurched sideways with a loud bang echoing from forward and in a matter of seconds, we turned beam on to the wind and were immediately knocked down well past 90 degrees. As our much-anticipated hot meal flew over our heads, we tumbled to the boatís starboard side, which had become the cabin sole. The offset companionway submerged, and an instant later, the 5/8-inch Lexan washboard broke in half, allowing a massive flood to pour in through the lower companionway opening.
While I fought to slow the torrent of seawater with a cushion, Lee managed to start our electric emergency bilge pump, rated for 4,000 gallons-per-hour, but we were flooding waist deep along the starboard side and the bilge pump wasnít going to be effective as long as we remained on beamís end. For a short time, it looked as though we would lose the boat, and even worse, our nearest exit was through the cascade of seawater pouring in through the companionway opening.
As suddenly as it had come up, the wind eased, and the boat righted far enough to empty a large portion of the water from the cabin into the bilge where the pump could clear it. I jammed a larger cushion into the companionway opening just as the wind howled back to life, and we rolled the mast under for a second time. The starboard chart table was almost completely submerged by the time the wind finally eased again, and we stabilized at about 45 degrees of heel.
The seas had built to several feet in the shallow bay, and we were dragging down fast on another anchored boat in 50 to 60 knots of wind. With both the electrical system and the engine flooded, we were out of options and out of control. With no time to deploy another anchor, I tried to raise the attention of the crew on the boat in our path. Before they could respond, we plowed stern first into their starboard bow. The impact pushed the two boats apart, but the wind sent us charging back for another collision, and then another.
The dinghy, trailing astern, was crushed and then launched into the air with each collision. A shout warned of a line snagged between the two boats, and scurrying between collisions, I was able to cut away the remaining dinghy pennant. As the battered and sinking dinghy disappeared to leeward, we finally slid past the other boat, headed straight for the nearby lee shore.
Miraculously, the wind picked that moment to die, and the anchor reset a few yards from shoal water. And it was all over.
In the eerie after light, under a ceiling of heavy clouds and rain, the aftermath was awesome and terrible. To windward, a large multihull lay capsized with no one in sight near it. To leeward, a jumble of tangled yachts lay in the shallows where the wind had driven them. All around us, others showed signs of heavy damage, and in the nearby local boat yard, which was filled with boats blocked up for the coming winter, it was even worse. Almost all had blown over, suffering heavy damage and causing several injuries. We later learned that two people lost their lives in what was most likely a microburst, and many more were injured. Stories of near disasters and narrow escapes haunted the survivors for months afterward.
With night approaching and the threat of more weather to come, assessing our own situation was a pressing concern. A trail of damage revealed what had started it all: A dragging boat had struck Southern Crossís starboard bow with enough force to ride up over the deck and come to rest, momentarily, against the starboard mast pulpit. A smashed bow pulpit and stanchions, along with several feet of missing teak toerail and a badly scraped shroud told the story, but we never learned the identity of the other vessel.
The force of the collision was too much for the anchor with its chain already bar tight, and when it lost its grip on the bottom, we were on our way to a full knockdown. The stern was in shambles. The dinghy, outboard, and windvane were missing entirely, and the stern pulpit was a mass of tangled steel and antennas interwoven with the bimini frame. The hull and transom were badly scarred but appeared structurally sound
Below decks was a complete disaster. The entire starboard side had been submerged, including the chart table area, our personal papers, and most of our clothing. Virtually everything electrical was inoperative. While we finally got the engine running again, the alternator and starter had been submerged, and we expected that the generator was still full of salt water and unusable. In the end, about the only functioning electrical device onboard was a cellphone that had survived the entire episode in my pocket. We used its camera to record the aftermath of the adventure.
During the following days of cleanup and repairs, the omissions in our planning and preparations became painfully obvious.
- The big Luke storm anchor, which remained below in its locker, could have been set along with the second anchor already on the bow, but we deployed neither. We will never know whether having set either would have made a difference, but they were available tools that we neglected to use.
We had several reasons for not setting the Luke or second bow anchors, and the fact we were pressed for time was the primary one. The heavy, two-piece Luke definitely has more holding power than our 60-pound CQR, but it takes considerable time to assemble.
We have to hand it down into the dinghy, one piece at a time, where it is assembled. Then, we have to lower the CQR into the dinghy, disconnect it from the chain, and connect the chain to the Luke. Because the Luke is too big for the anchor roller, itís left dangling from the bow while we maneuver into position to drop itóan unnerving situation in deteriorating weather.† Because we cannot deploy the Luke on short notice, we carry the biggest anchor we can accommodate on the bow. (We think the primary anchor on any cruising boat should be big enough to serve as a storm anchor in its own right.)
If we had set the big Luke, would it have held when we were struck by the boat that dragged down on us? Itís hard to say. With the snubber stretched to the maximum, the chain was likely bar tight, and no anchor can be counted on to hold when itís suddenly shock loaded by a collision and there is little or no give in the rode.
Had we had a second anchor set, we might have fared better, but itís impossible to know. Crowded by other boats lying on single anchors, we decided it wasnít our best option. We have used two anchors successfully on several occasions, but only when the circumstances were right. A second anchor can be a big plus, but itís harder to estimate the swinging pattern with two anchors, and hurried recovery can be a bear if the rodes wrap around each other.†
- Leaving a crowded anchorage with heavy weather approaching is always going to be a tough call, especially in a strange area, but we should have researched at least one other location that could have been considered at the last minute. It would have made all the difference with a localized wind like a microburst, but no one could have known this. We might, however, have found a less crowded area and greatly reduced the risk of being struck by another boat. †
- The hazards associated with an offset companionway are well known, and we thought we were well prepared, having replaced the original, lightweight washboards with ďbullet proofĒ Lexan. Now, it seems that this may have been an inappropriate material to use where only three sides are supported by a frame. The surviving section of the Lexan washboard shows several new cracks radiating vertically down from the unsupported upper edge. Along with the complete vertical fracture of the washboard, these cracks appear to have been caused by the pressure of the water. We have since replaced the Lexan with a heavy aluminum panel fitted with a laminated glass port, but a lighter, laminated foam version with an even smaller view port is on the drawing board.
Some preparations did pay off: - The high-capacity, 12-volt Rule 4000 emergency pump, with its 4,000 GPH capacity and 2Ĺ-inch exhaust hose, handled the flood of water in a matter of minutes as the boat rolled upright. With the engine submerged in the bilge, it would have been impossible to use an engine-driven emergency pump. †
The pump is controlled by a single-lever Blue Seas circuit breaker mounted near the companionway. The pump design does not incorporate a check valve, and consequently, it must exhaust well above the waterline to avoid back siphoning. We still donít trust it and keep the pumpís seacock closed when not in use. Itís possible to install a check valve in the line, but weíve found that most are not reliable enough for this critical task.
- We were also more than repaid for all our efforts to secure the cabin sole access panels, drawers, and locker openings when we came back up with most of the interior still in place.
- Unfortunately, we didnít score well in the electrical department. Modern cruising boats depend rather heavily on electricity, and a lot of thought had gone into protecting at least one source of electricity in the event of a disaster. Dual alternators mounted on the engine were controlled by a remote regulator mounted well away on a bulkhead with a plug-in backup beside it. Two shorepower chargers could be independently or simultaneously powered by the generator, or 225 watts of solar panels could be used to top up the house bank and dual start batteries. Any battery bank could be paralleled to another or charged from any source, but in the end, none of these preparations prevented the impending loss of all power as the batteries discharged over the next several days.
Flooding destroyed everything in this system except the batteries and one engine alternator, but it had no usable regulator to control it. Although one solar panel survived intact, its wiring was ripped away and the solar panel regulator was also destroyed by the flooding. Even the main circuit breakers were failing, and essential ones had to be bypassed with inline fuses.
Drinking water from the tanks was available by foot and hand pump, but the 12-volt refrigeration system couldnít be run without quickly depleting the batteries, and most of its contents went bad in a matter of days. Other provisions, stored in lockers that were submerged, were not adequately protected from flooding, and only those stored in waterproof packaging or tins remained usable.
In the end, we remounted and rewired the remaining solar panel directly to the house bank and contemplated placing two or three 12-volt light bulbs in series with a wire from the battery to the engine alternator field to serve as a crude regulator. Fortunately, by minimizing our power usage as much as possible, the large battery bank and the single remaining solar panel kept us going for the 10 days we needed to make required repairs before moving to a marina a few miles away. In retrospect, a spare alternator and regulator stored in reliable waterproof packing would have been a better strategy along with more spares and a better overall plan for all storage in the face of extensive flooding. Had this occurred mid-Atlantic, it could easily have ended much worse.
- Twelve years ago, following the conventional wisdom of the time, we purchased insurance that would, in theory, provide the coverage we needed while cruising far from home. At least that was the plan, but now the nagging realization that little thought had been given to our insurance situation was adding to our growing mountain of concerns. Through the years, we had sent annual renewal payments to a broker in the U.S., not the internationally based insurance company. Now, when we needed help, we had no idea how to go about contacting the company providing the coverage.
With no other resources at hand, we phoned the U.S. broker, International Marine Insurance Services (IMIS), and they, in turn, contacted Pantaenius UKís London office. The folks at Pantaenius deserve two thumbs up for all the experience and expertise they quickly brought to bear on our predicament. While we werenít adrift in a remote ocean, a small bay on an island in the Mediterranean isnít exactly next door either, but the next day, a Pantaenius claims agent and a surveyor came alongside in a rented tender as we swung at anchor without a dinghy, still struggling to restore a bit of order to the chaos.
After the agent inspected the boat thoroughly and photographed the damage, it came down to a question of what next? A great deal still had to be done before we could begin to think about getting underway. Fabrication of new stainless-steel pulpits, stanchions, and other fittings would be needed, along with extensive repairs to the teak toerail plus cosmetic hull repairs, repainting, and much more. Electrically, we would need a lot of rewiring and numerous replacements.
Fortunately, our Pantaenius surveyor was familiar with most nearby facilities and assured us that all repairs could be handled at a marina located about a dayís sail away. We didnít know it at the time, but once there, the surveyor would be providing many hours of invaluable assistance, arranging, supervising, and inspecting the repair process for almost a year to come.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Minicksí storm-recovery story in an upcoming issue, including their insights into choosing marine insurance and tips on getting repairs made far from home.