We left Pensacola at approximately 8 am on October 31, Cuba -bound on Midnight Sun II. It was a fully sanctioned and approved regatta - The Pensacola a La Habana Rally/Race. This was a historic race given that entry to Cuba from the US has been severely restricted (at least legally) for some years. For more details of the race, please visit Cuba Race 2015. As we left the Pensacola pass, we were aware that winds were not favorable for our passage. In fact, it looked like we were going to be beating into the wind for the approximately 500 miles. Winds were at about 20-25 kts, with seas in the 4-6 ft. range. Seas at 4-6 ft does not sound very much, but in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, that translates to short period waves (about every 4 seconds) that just tend to beat you up.
Leaving Pensacola, the fleet of boats was quite tight - everyone was headed southwest. After several hours, a few boats tacked east back towards Cape San Blas. We could see most of the fleet on our AIS, So we had a pretty good idea where everyone was. As nightfall came, the winds picked up some - now in the 25+ range and we saw gusts at 30. We talked to the crew of another boat, close by to us, and they reported 35 with gusts to 40. Seas were now building at more like 6-8 ft. But I will admit that wave heights are hard to accurately estimate, particularly at night.
Our crew set up watches for the night hours - 3 shifts of 3 hours manned by each of the 3 couples on board. At midnight, I was off-watch, trying to get some rest, but the pounding waves, did not allow sleep. At midnight (yes on Halloween), there was a resounding "CRASH" bringing everyone to attention immediately. Julie and Ron (on watch), yelled, "you had better get up here". Already on the way, I could only imagine what I was going to find in the cockpit. My first thought was the dinghy davits had broken as the crash sounded to come from the rear of the boat.
Entering the companionway, I could see Ron and Julie - at least they were safe. The Bimini and dodger were crushed. Thankfully, the helm is located under a heavy arch and that was intact. In fact, as an aside, I am convinced that the arch was crucial in preventing serious injuries to the crew on watch. The crew was amazingly calm and now completely awake. A few words and a quick inspection revealed that the entire rig was down - we were dismasted and the mast was over the port side; the boom was still attached to the arch and over the bimini and dodger. Thankfully at that moment, the winds subsided some, and we were all on deck surveying the situation.
A quick check revealed no water in the boat - no need to pull out the life raft. "Bolt Cutters - get the bolt cutters.......and a sharp knife". Without delay, we decided that the rig had to be cut free and jettisoned before a spreader or something did damage to the hull. The adrenaline was high on all the crew, but I must stress and applaud everyone, nobody panicked and we worked quickly and efficiently as a team. Larry and I set about cutting the standing rigging with the bold cutters. Ron and the girls set about cutting all the sheets and lines and figuring out what was holding the rig to the boat. We were also curious as to what exactly failed. As we were cutting rigging we were working through what had happened, but our priority was to make the boat safe and ensure that we were not holed by any part of the rig. We had to cut every shroud, the backstay and the forestay. Looking at the way the mast had fallen (backwards and to leeward), it had to be the forestay that had failed. It was intact at the deck and under some tension, but that was likely just he sails in the water. After much thought and discussion recollecting the events of that night, I am confident that the forestay failed at or near the masthead. Whether it was cable fatigue, a fitting that failed or the cable in the foil/furler will remain a mystery as the rig is now in over 100 ft of water in mid gulf. I will discuss more thoughts on this later - so back to the story of the Halloween night.
With the standing rigging and all sheets and lines cut, the mast started to sink downward on the port side of the boat. We eased the boom off of what remained of the cockpit, hoping nothing would foul on the boat. remembering stories of a previous dismasting of a fellow member of PYC, Julie urged us not to start the motor until we were clear of the rigging to reduce the risk of anything becoming fouled in the prop. Sadly, we watched the entire rig sink into the dark waters of the gulf. Once we were sure it was free, we started the engine. During the latter stages of our recovery, we had attempted to contact fellow members of the fleet via VHF. Our primary radio was out of action - the antenna being on the masthead. We have a second VHF with antenna mounted on the stern rail. While this appeared to be working, we were unable to make contact. Once we had assessed our situation and started to motor back to Pensacola, we made contact with PYC Race Committee via Sat phone to report our situation. We also sent messages to our "ground followers" using our DeLorme tracker/2-way communicator. We were safe, no injuries, we were not taking on water. We secured a few remaining things, and motored back to PYC. Our navigation equipment was working fine, as was the auto-pilot.
The crew gathered in the cockpit. I think (and hope) we gave thanks for our safety. Whether we said this aloud, or all independently thought it, I know we were all immensely thankful for our safety, and the fact that nobody was injured. We started to figure out our shortest course back to Pensacola. Although we had been sailing all day and night, we had been tacking back and forth due to the wind direction. If I recall correctly, in terms of distance made, we were about 60 miles south of Pensacola inlet. We quickly figured that we could be back at PYC by 8 to 9 am. Now, wide awake, all the crew was huddled in the cockpit. We discussed the events of the night, piecing together what might have happened....what failed, could it have been avoided? A lot of second guessing, but we all agreed, the failure was at the masthead. Realization then set in........."Cr@p - we are not going to Cuba".
The conversation moved from "what happened" to "what should we do now"........six people on a boat with no mast, plenty of food and drink, and time set aside for a trip to Cuba. Maybe we could just hop on a plane and fly down and at least be there for the rest of the fleet? Once within cell range, we would Google flights. Each of the other couples on board had great boats - maybe we should just go somewhere - New Orleans, The Keys.........we couldn't go to Cuba as our USCG Permit was for Midnight Sun II. Cr@ap, all this preparation and we are not going to Cuba.
As we got close to land, we got cell service. Phones lit up with text messages from friends and family. Our friend Google reported that flights to Cuba were not really feasible - we had no visas, we would have to change planes twice, and it was $800 each. No we are not going to Cuba.
We returned to PYC. By now, news of our situation had made it out. We were greeted at the dock by great friends, Chuck and Peg, race committee members Murt and Larry, Commodore McMillan, and the club manager who brought the crew consolatory Bushwhackers. Hey - 8:30 am CST, its 5 o'clock somewhere. I'm not sure exactly where it was 5 o'clock, but who cares, the Bushwhackers hit the spot - Thank you Scott and Jim! We made our way up to the clubhouse. By now the local Coast Guard had arrived to check on us - thank you guys for keeping a watchful eye.
|Midnight Sun II return to Pensacola|
Its sad when all that's left of your rig fits in a small box :(
We talked to Zern Rigging and made arrangements to take the boat to Pensacola Ship Yard - hopefully our insurance will provide coverage. While at PYC, our plans for "what now" were discussed and a new plan formulated. "No point crying over spilled milk", if we stay home, Midnight Sun will not be fixed any quicker. I noticed Larry and Tracy step away from the bar and have a brief private discussion. I hope they are not too disappointed and planning to head home. But who could blame them. We were all tired and plans for the next 2 weeks had gone away.
"Hey Guys - Tracy and I have discussed it, let's take our boat TraSea and head for Cuba"......what??...what about our permit, insurance.....err...."Are you sure Larry?"...."Let's contact the Coast Guard and tell them our plans - transfer all the gear, let's get underway. Maybe we can be there in time for the party"
Why not - if you fall off a horse, you should get right back on and ride it - right?