Loss Of The Sailing Vessel J/World – Part 4

Part IV

Barry scrambled to get inside the liferaft so we helped push him in… and right into all the water inside it. He didn’t expect to be swimming inside the raft as well. I decided to get in, as I knew I was able to lift myself in. Slight moment of disorientation as you enter and go back underwater, but when my head popped up, I was good. It felt like the bottom was being pulled down (because of the weight of the water) so I asked everybody to check lines around and make sure we weren’t still attached to the boat. Barry said something like we needed to get the water out of the raft before anybody could come in and I said, no way, everybody comes in and then we bail. I told Judy to come in next and asked Mark to help push her in. I told her hold her breath, we are sitting in water. She came in and sat in the back. I saw a bottle of dish liquid soap float by so I asked Mark to grab it. I tossed it inside the raft. I asked again Mark and Ray to go around the liferaft and check to make sure nothing is pulling down but told them to not under any circumstances to let go of the raft. Mark came in first then Ray.

First was to get all the water out. Ray used his hat as I started bailing with my baseball hat. Barry emptied his bag and started using that. I made Judy make a mayday call. She was repeating the lat and lon and going from 16 to 69. I said to wait a bit for people to answer. Still Nothing! I heard the EPIRB beep, so Barry said to keep the antenna up and towards the opening, Judy grabbed it and did so as it was floating inside the raft. I took the piece of paper with lat and long for her to look at it, although I had made them memorize it in the cockpit when I came back up. (29’18.4N and 116’39.W) I explained to her what to say slowly articulate and wait before repeating or changing channels.

My hand was hurting but I kept on bailing, this time I took my shoe and used it as a cup. It seemed to work better. Barry did another VHF call from his radio. I said it would be best if we conserved the batteries and only do radio calls every ½ hr or so. I said that we were still far out and that eventually all the boats from the Baja Ha-Ha rally that had stopped at Sin Quintin would make it down and would be able to hear us. I took one of the paddles and turned the raft around as waves and wind were crashing inside. Barry and Ray were still bailing with the bag together. One had the bottom and one the top. The water was slowly coming down. I could now see part of the wall.

Now the wind was pushing the roof and the raft in the right direction. The waves were pushing us towards shore. Ray got tired, then Mark took over for Ray and Ray sat in the back and became silent. He said he had to remember to breathe. I kept trying to be uplifting and tell jokes and explain how things were going to be. I explained how the EPIRB worked, that the USCG was already on the phone with Wayne, and his parents were also on the contact list. I assured them that he would confirm our position, and that they were already probably on their way. I said that all the Ha-Ha boats were on their way down and that soon we’ll see some and/or have radio contact. I explained that the seas and the winds were in our favor and pushing towards land. I kept asking everyone one by one if they were ok. I told Judy that I would take care of her and bring her home; I told them I was the captain and I was going to take them all home safely. I was trying to keep the morale up. I told Judy to pray, to pray to god. She did another mayday call. I did one in Spanish again and in English and again on 69. I saw 2 things float by: my baby powder bottle, and my Sarachi hot sauce. Some waves were crashing on top of the raft and water was coming in thru the little fresh water collection drain tube. Barry and Ray got seasick.

After a good two hours of bailing water out, we were now sitting in little puddles. We could see what we had and I decided to inventory what we had and see what the next step was. The line from the sea anchor, the line from the EPIRB, the lines from the spare caps in the liferaft, the line that was used to pull the raft and inflate it, the line that’s attached to a doughnut that you throw over at someone and another white line were all tangled. Mark and I untangled the lines and put things away. Ray was quiet, but ok. I emptied the dish soap in the ocean and gave the bottle to Judy so she could continue bailing some water. I gave Ray my shoe so he could continue on his side. They would pass it to me and I would toss it over board. I had to pee, so I took my lifejacket and my top off. I took my foulies pants down, and while Barry and Mark were holding my legs I stuck my butt over board. I sat there very comfortably. I had to put everything back on. Wet and cold, we were all shivering.

I decided to inventory and check out what we had in the life raft’s emergency bag. There was a list of everything in it. I made Ray open it and pass me everything one by one. I would read it, and then I would explain what everything was. We put the water emergency rations in the waterproof bag. I put all the flares, repair kit etc in the original plastic bag. The raft felt really unstable and we tried not to move too much. I took the flares and showed everybody which kinds and how they worked. I took the ‘how to survive in a liferaft guide’ and started reading. I asked everybody to pay attention. It said a bunch of stuff, but basically, first pump out water, second set sea anchor, third pump floor etc. etc. It explained how we should not eat or drink for the first 24hrs. We had no food, but I told everyone that we now had to start to mentally prepare ourselves for a 3-day stay. I said we weren’t going to drink anything, expect right now everybody could get a cap full of water with a Dramamine; I didn’t want anybody else seasick. Barry and Ray vomited theirs back out. Barry turned on his GPS and according to the new longitude I reassured everyone saying we were heading towards shore and in the right direction. I took the blue pump from the bag and asked Mark to pump the floor up. I had seen the valve on the left corner, and I asked everyone to check around themselves to see if there was not another. It was the only one. He unscrewed the top and as no air was coming out and attached the fitting and started pumping. I heard Ray say, “I hear something.” I heard this deep engine roar, like a big ship far away. I lifted my body out the opening and looked out; straight out west was a chopper.

I immediately recognized the US Coast Guard colors. It was orange with that white stripe. I yelled it’s the coast guard, it’s the US coat guard helicopter. They’re here for us. I don’t think they believed me because nobody said anything. I said flare, flare, lets send a flare. Judy didn’t want to waste one because it was daylight. They were abeam of us and if that flare didn’t go fast they would pass us. I grabbed it, Barry held me on to my waist and I unscrewed the bottom, held on the ridged part and pulled the string. It immediately shot out. I aimed it right at them, high up. It went straight up and as its making its way down it becomes red. The helicopter kept going, I couldn’t believe it. I then yelled radio, radio them. Barry got on and said something like helicopter or USCG this is JWorld. They immediately responded: “Vessel hailing USCG helicopter, come in.” I can’t remember what Barry said but they asked for our position so Barry checked on his GPS, and while he did so I got on with my VHF and said we are not in a boat we are in a liferaft, I repeat we are in a liferaft and you just passed us, you just passed us, please turn around. I really think it slowed down and I saw it make a big u-turn. They said something and I saw them come right at us. I said you are heading right for us; you are heading right for us. I heard him say affirmative we have a visual, we see you. I looked down at everybody in the raft and said we are saved, they are here and they see us.

I got on the radio and said that we had 5 people onboard, all in lifejackets and that we were all well. They said to stand by and they would assess the situation. It came right next to us, and I told everyone we were going to ok. I kneeled down and breathed a sigh of relief. They said they were going to send a diver down and that he would give us direction on how he would take us one by one into the basket. I saw the diver sit on the opening with his flippers on and as they were lowering him down I told everybody one by one to have a look.

Wayne here… so that is Eugenie’s account. At about that moment, USCG’s Kevin Sullivan, the Command Duty Officer in the USCG District Eleven Command Center, called me and told me that the helicopter was lifting five people out of a liferaft. Everyone was ok.

Small world: here’s a shot of our trusty blue boat in better days… this was in the 2008 Rolex Big Boat Series, on the way to a final position of third overall. See that guy up front, running the tack of the spinnaker out for a set? That is LT Kevin Sullivan up there.

Made the cover for a fine performance too:

Thank again, Kevin, and to the whole group at the USCG!

Anyhow, I’ll be back in a couple of days to follow up with some general comments and observations… we can all learn a lot from the misfortunes that befell our team, and from the gear, the actions, and the help that contributed to their speedy and safe return home..

All the best,

Wayne Zittel and the J World Team

Loss Of The Sailing Vessel J/World – Part 3

Part III

I went down to make another mayday call for the fleet on 69 and on 16, in both Spanish and in English. I activated the distress button on the VHF. Barry came down and grabbed his bag and a few things. I took from the chart table the boat’s documents. Even though the water was now almost thigh high, Mark came down and grabbed his passport and money. I went up in the cockpit and Barry started sending tin cans, water bottles, bread, any food items he found up to the cockpit. I emptied one of my watertight bags (the one with the computer) and Judy told me I wouldn’t need it, so I threw it down into the cabin, and filled the bag with food. I put my papers and some the other items in my other water tight bag, sealed it and attached a fender to it. Barry came back up as the water was now mid-stair level. His floating pelican case with cell phone inside floated by, and he grabbed it.

I told everybody that I will take care of them, just to stay calm and wait to orders. I told everybody to grab onto a bag, and not to go overboard yet, we will all go into the liferaft together when its time. I explained the EPIRB had been activated and that the USCG was getting the signal as I spoke. I told them all that we were going to be OK. I took Ray forward to the liferaft in front of the dodger. I explained to him how it worked and what his job was going to be and how it was going to unfold. I made him read the instructions; there are little drawings on the top of the canister. He looked at me as if I was mad to make him read instructions in a time like this. So I just explained it. I took the line, made him check that it was attached to the frame to the boat. I told him we would pull this quite a ways for it to pop out and inflate on its own. His job was to hold on to the line so the liferaft wouldn’t fly away. I told him this wasn’t going to happen until I was certain the boat was going down because we had a much better chance of being spotted on the boat. I told him to stand-by and hold on to the railing. I went back to the cockpit to make sure everybody was ready and prepared. I don’t know how one can be ready, or how you know if you have everything, but when I saw the water now at the top of the stairs and the first wave rolling on the bow, I knew it was time.

I looked at Barry and said now is the time to deploy the liferaft. He agreed. I said come with me. The boat was now just bobbing on port tack, sails were mostly luffing water outside almost same level with water inside. I secretly hoped we could float like this for a while. Barry turned to me, said something like we’re going to make it fine and we are going to live this one out, so we shook hands saying let’s do this, this is it. Hug, kiss, and pat on the back. We pulled the line from the canister. I remembered the change in color from the line means you are almost there. When I saw the red part, I said wait, wait, let’s make sure this doesn’t get blown away. So I made a clove hitch on the railing. Ray was still holding to his end. I told him not to let go. The first real big wave came across the deck. I started pushing the canister down, so it would go overboard but it started to inflate on top of the boat with a part of the raft under the lifeline, inflating now on both sides. Moment of pure panic, now the lifeline is going to prevent it from inflating and the boat is going to take it down with it. I started pulling, and pushing from the other side; I told Barry and Ray to pull, to pull it hard so it would dislodge itself from under the lifeline. It was making really loud sounds, all different. It sounded like it was being popped more than inflated. I turned around and started to go towards the cockpit, I remembered the bolt cutters in the garage. The cockpit was under water, I was not going under water. I wanted to go to the end of the life line at stern pulpit to cut it off, but the next wave completely inundated the cockpit, crashing over us, now we are swimming. As the raft popped free of the lifeline, I heard a loud air suction out of the galley port hole, the last of the air trapped inside the boat. Then the whole deck was under water. Then I felt the backstay right behind me… as the boat sank, the backstay gets closer and closer up to the little triangle at top of the mast. I saw Ray almost under it, I shoved him away as I backed out the other side, and I saw the top of the mast, with the wind indicator arrow and Windex, disappear 20 cm from my face.

I looked around, and did a head count, asked if everybody was ok. We were all around the liferaft; we were all in the water. There was nothing else. It all seemed to so quiet, I felt really small and abandoned. We were alone. The boat was gone.

Read the final Part…

All the best,

Wayne Zittel and the J World Team….

Loss Of The Sailing Vessel J/World – Part 2

Part II

I immediately came up when Barry said he had lost steerage. I lifted the port aft lazarette hatch and saw the rudder post swaying back and forth; it was no longer attached at the top bearing. I could see the beautiful turquoise water next to it. It was tearing the fiberglass all around it as it was swaying in all directions. I immediately removed the two jerry cans from there hoping that with less weight it would lift the stern up and stop the water from coming in. The whole base was under water. I went to the starboard lazarette and grabbed the emergency tiller (while doing so, I saw that the auto pilot had been torn apart and was hanging). There were the Type III lifejackets that I threw into the cockpit. I tried to hold the rudder post straight up so to put the emergency tiller into it with my hands, but the opening on top was huge, there was no lever, and the force that kept taking the post back and forth was too much for me. That’s when my hand got crushed against the black cockpit drains pipes and the rudder post. I asked Barry to help, Ray was there. He said, let’s put a line around it to control it. I went into the garage and gave him 2 lines, and saw the water inside there already pooling. I grabbed the mainsail cover and gave it to them and said here stuff the hole with this. I gave them another sail bag I found. I reached down and grabbed the manual bilge pump. The handle was at the pump housing inside the locker, and I stepped into the garage to retrieve it. The amount of water was alarming.

Barry started pumping. Then later Mark pumped. They never stopped pumping. I went down below and went straight for the EPIRB. I took it out, and handed it to Judy. I did not activate it yet. I was hopeful. I told her this is the most important thing we have and not to loose it and to keep it with her at all times no matter what. I said if you go down, it goes down with you. Under no circumstance was she to let it go. She stuffed it in her jacket. The water was at the floor boards and started to lift them up. I went to the radio and made a mayday call on VHF 69, then on 16, then back for the ha-ha fleet on 69. The SSB would not turn on. Maybe the tuner back by the rudder had been smashed. I don’t know and didn’t have time to look.

I lifted the chart table and grabbed a piece of the J Notes waterproof paper and wrote down the latitude and longitude and stuffed it in my pocket. I grabbed my VHF, a knife and a Leatherman. I was wearing boots so I took them off – I didn’t want to sink if we went swimming. I saw one of my shoes float by (among other things), I grabbed it and found the other one stuck inside the bilge board upside down. I put my shoes on. I made another mayday call on 16 and on 69. I went into my cabin (the quarter berth) and threw two watertight bags I had into the cockpit. I saw Judy’s handbag under the stairs, threw that to her. I put on my lifejacket. I checked to make sure everybody else still had theirs on. I found my gloves and put them on.

I came back up, Mark was still pumping, Barry and Ray had paused to try to secure the rudder post. They admitted it was futile. I opened the garage and grabbed the ditch bag. It was very heavy because it was sitting in water and completely soaked, I thought they were supposed to float. I made Ray deploy the M.O.M. device which deployed into the water and blew away from the boat. I deployed the Lifesling. I made them toss the 2 diesel jerry cans over board. I told Judy and Ray to detach their tethers from the jack lines, telling them they wouldn’t want to be attached to the boat if we sank. I grabbed the EPIRB from Judy and switched it on. I unrolled the little yellow line from the back and attached a bowline to her lifejacket. She stuffed it back into her jacket. I told the crew I had some bad news. They all turned around to me. I said I will not sugar coat this one, so here it is: the boat is sinking; we cannot contain it, so we will probably have to abandon ship. Be prepared, we will not go into the liferaft until we have to.

Continued in Part III…

Loss Of The Sailing Vessel J/World – Part 1

As the spray settles on the events surrounding the sinking of our J/120 off the coast of Baja, we have had time to start sorting thru the details and piece together what led to the loss of the boat, the abandoning of the vessel, and the swift rescue of her crew. There have been a tremendous amount of rumors and speculation which range from insightful to nutty, and there has been some mis-information…

I am guilty of a bit of the latter in that I initially reported that the boat sank in about 7 minutes. This came from a phone conversation with the skipper who was at the USCG base in San Diego after their helicopter rice, and she was still pretty amped. Anyone who knows Eugenie knows that she can fire off sentences like a gatling gun, and when she said the boat sank in seven minutes, what she meant and clarified later was that from the time they determined that there was no chance that they could save the vessel and that the water ingress was not to be diminished (essentially EPIRB on) until the time she saw the Windex slide by a couple of feet from her face, it was 5-7 minutes. The entire ordeal was more in the neighborhood of 45 minutes. So I stand corrected…

But now I am going to let Eugenie tell the incredible story:

Part I

At 10am we spotted as pod of whales. At first they appeared as action on the surface, bubble feeding or mating or other atypical activity. There was a weird feeling about their presence. Barry was driving, he was about to get off his shift (we all drove for an hour at a time). Winds 15 to 20knots, gusting 25 to 30, white caps top of the waves breaking, some pretty big. We were sailing on a broad reach, with a reefed main and small 90% jib. Seas 15 to 20 feet, with large swells, and we were surfing down the waves fast, at about 9-10 knots. I think Ray first said whale, as he spotted the initial one about 200 feet to port. We could see one, then down in the trough, and not and on top of wave, we saw another on our starboard.

Barry suddenly saw another in front of him, so he tried to head up, but because of the conditions and speed, he rounded-up. He said, “I am hard over, I have no steerage,” with the sails luffing momentarily. He recovered the boat, bore away and accelerated on course again, and as he surfed down the next wave, we all saw two whales about fifty feet away, and coming towards us. They were crossing on the port bow, and they dove down. Barry screamed something and I heard a big BANG, felt the boat stop and shake, like the keel had run aground. Another BANG and the boat rose up out of the water and shook sideways. The next blow was at the stern, lifting it, but I heard a crack and a tearing sound of fiberglass coming apart.

The wheel turned completely under Barry’s hands and I saw the engine control panel face plate (mounted on the bulkhead behind the wheel at knee level, just in front of the rudder post) hanging inside the cockpit. The cockpit shower compartment (underneath the engine panel) had been blown out towards the wheel as well. I could see the rudder shaft moving back and forth. The plastic inspection port cover for access to the upper rudder bearing had been literally blown off, and hit Barry in the back. I could see all of this from where I was standing in the companionway. I saw the whale’s fin or tail behind Barry, and somebody said, “Oh no, there’s blood in the water.”

Continued in Part II…

All of you out there have a safe watch, will you?

Wayne Zittel and the J World Team

Thank you all!

Hey everyone… just a quick note to say thank you to all the friends, alumni, and even strangers who have expressed their support. The whole crew very much appreciated it! And I have been overwhelmed by what a great sailing community we have, and how we really do have each-others backs. Very comforting to know…

I am proud of our whole team… and especially of our lead instructor on the cruise. The US Coast Guard Investigating Officer reported: “As I said on Wednesday night, your safe arrival to shore was a direct result of the quality of your master, Ms. Eugenie, who is the real hero. She quickly determined that the vessel was in trouble, made sound decisions concerning your safety, and directed all aboard with life saving instructions. On top of that, Ms. Eugenie, before departing safe harbor on your journey, insured that the vessel’s equipment was operating properly. In short, a calm and decisive master and good reliable equipment saved your lives.”

Well the helicopter didn’t hurt either, but we appreciate his comments!

Anyway, the crew is recovering from the ordeal quite well, and we’ll start posting some of the accounts of the accident here in the next couple of days. There was some mis-information disseminated initially (and yes, I got some of the facts wrong too!) but we’ll make up for it with some in-depth details. In the J World spirit, we hope that our misfortune can benefit others, and we feel that there are some real lessons to be learned from this.

So stay tuned… I’ll start posting details this weekend…


Wayne Zittel & the J World Team