Red Sky at Night

Red Sky at Night
IP 380 in Old Bahama Channel

Friday, December 9, 2011

Lessons Learned & Gratitude

I am finally back at home after another month long delivery.  My current trip was a long one, but much less exciting than my last "Adventure."  I want to thank everyone for their kind feedback on my last blog.  I promised "Lessons Learned"  I have a had time to think about what happened.  Below are some examples of what I discovered.

Bilge Monitoring:  This was a BIG lesson in my book!  I have made it part of the hourly checks while underway offshore.  This means a PHYSICAL look into the bilges.  I know some Captains who disable the Auto-bilge so they can monitor the amount of water pumped out with the manual bilge pump.  This is a persoanl choice, but not a bad idea.  By counting the number of pumps it takes to empty the bilge each hour will let you know if there is an increase in the volume of water in the bilge.

Satellite Phone:  We lost satellite phones on the ship's system due to water in the bilges that came all the way to the floor boards and submerged the batteries in the bilge.  The antenna of the satellite system never got submerged.  It was mounted on a tower on the transom. There were drinks with grocery bags stowed in the bilge under the floor of the galley which came loose, got into the bilge pump and jammed it up.  We lost ALL DC power due to that issue.  NEVER stow bags in the bilges!
If you have a high water alarm... Test it regularly!
Portable Back-ups:  A portable satellite phone (Back up) is what saved us.  The portable GPS and Portable VHF radio... ALL served us well.  Portable systems are the obvious best back up when the ship's power systems are damaged or incapacitated.  we had battery banks with power, but with the fuses blown, we had no way to operate anything on the DC circuits.
With that said, one thing that would have been helpful is a 12VDC plug (Found at any Radio Shack) with extra wire to connect to the batteries to charge phones and radios.  A portable inverter would have been even more helpful.  (I now carry a small bag with these items as well as various connectors)
Canvas & Bimini:  Bimini and Weather Cloths should be furled when a forecast of 35 kts or more are forecast.  We took a partiularly large breaking wave on the starboard weather cloth. The weight of the wave in the canvas was so powerful, it caved in a stanchion at the cockpit on the Starboard side. So remove the weather cloths!
A windvane is a great item if there is a an autopilot failure... Even in the extreme conditions we were in, it held course well.  It was a "Monitor" brand wind vane.  If you do mount one be sure it is secured well and all the bolts are checked for security regularly.  One of the frame bolts came out on ours within an hour.. Luckily, no others came out.
SPOT LOCATOR SECURITY: My new SPOT II unit has a harness/holster and I keep it clipped with a carbiner clip on a stout line under the dodger now.  It will NOT go anywhere even if we are rolled.
Also... As soon as the wind hits over 35, I recommend turning the aft quarter to the wind and dropping all sails with the exception of just enough jib to keep headway.  I recommend to NEVER sail with large seas and wind on the beam EVER again!  If I have the sea room I intend to take a "passive" tactic and wait out the worst of the storm and not strain the boat or the rigging.
I already had to use the passive tactic on next trip... We hit gale force winds off of Long Island on an Island Packet 42.  We immediately rolled up the jibs, lashed the bimini with extra line, turned the starboard stern quarter to the waves and wind and locked the auto-pilot on the smoothest course possible.  We stood watch, strapped in the companionway and hunkered down for the 20 hours until things subsided and we continued on our way unscathed.  I didn't think I would need to apply my "lessons" so soon after the last incident... But it worked.
I noticed after reading my last blog that I didn't properly thank and ackowledge the contributions of the Coast Guard and the French Vessel that was part of the AMVER Program. I am would like to do so now...
Thank you to the crew of the CGC Elm, who endured a very rough ride  as I described in my last article.  They were indeed getting the worst of it out there!  We could see the Cutter getting rocked pretty hard in the heavy and confused seas.  (Especially when crossing the Gulf Stream.)  Through it all, they remained professional and vigilant.  I cannot describe the feeling of relief we felt when we knew we had the Coast Guard over our shoulder standing by with their vast resources.
Additionally, I want to thank the crew of the 47' Utility Boat from Station Oak Island, NC who arrived promptly on schedule and took us in tow outside of Cape Fear River.  They worked as a well oiled machine and passed us a tow line in turbulent waters with one toss of the heaving line and got us under tow quickly and efficiently.  Once in the harbor, they took us along side and deftly maneuvered us into our slip at Southport Marina.
Being a retired Coast Guardsman, it gives me a great feeling that the proud tradition of excellence is being continued within the service.  They give me great hope for our newest generation of "Coasties" who perform their duties proudly and professionally in the most difficult of conditions at sea.
I hope my writing here will possibly help anyone who would find themselves in a similar situation.  In closing, the biggest lesson I can impart is to NEVER give up your ship!  As long as it is floating, it beats the heck out of trying to transfer to another vessel either floating or flying.  Just the evolution of being hoisted to a helicopter, or transferring to a ship in heavy seas and high winds would place rescuer and rescuee in peril.  If you can ride it out on your vessel... DO SO!  Even if you get too tired to sail, you an always heave-to and rest until you can continue on.
I hope no one will ever have to experience what I did.  There is nothing wrong with being prepared in the event that it might happen!  At the very least, you will have the peace of mind that you have the tools to handle it.  Be safe out there!    Before you head offshore, be sure everything is lashed down tight.  Once you have done that.... Lash it down even TIGHTER!
Fair Winds!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Knocked Down!!! More Lessons Learned!

On November 2, 2011, I arrived in Norfolk, VA. to accompany a couple, Tom and Barbara who purchased a Pacific Seacraft 40' named Kalani.  Our destination was St. Thomas, USVI.  We departed Norfolk at 1000 hrs and headed out of Chesapeake Bay.  By mid afternoon we were out of the bay and headed for our Gulfstream Crossing.  All weather forecasts showed promise of very good conditions for a fast crossing.

On November 5th, nearly 400nm down range, we encountered what was to become Tropical Storm Sean.  The GRIB files did ot show any sign of development other than some winds approaching 35 to 40 kts from the Northeast.  What we encountered on that day was winds sustained at 40 kts and gusting over 50 kts from the Northeast.  We adjusted course South to get the wind behind our beam, and had only a small sliver of jib unfurled to keep headway.

The waves quickly built over 30' and breaking with the tops blown off and sweeping our decks with green water and heavy rain.  We had our steaming light on to monitor the decks and rigging revealing the drama of the waves blowing over the bow and cabin. The only comfortable place to stand watch was behind the dodger in the companionway with the Auto-pilot remote.  Tom came on watch to relieve me at 0400 hrs and I lay below for some much needed rest.  I wedged myself into the settee seat on the starboard side of the boat.

At approximately 0730 hrs, I woke to an explosion and found myself buried beneath everything that was on the port side of the boat on top of me.  I looked up and saw that the whole boat was nearly, fully upside down.  As we came back to level, I climbed out from below the debris and checked on Tom.  He was in the companionway still sitting and replied he was okay when I shouted for everyone to check in.  Barbara was standing at the door of her aft cabin staring at the two feet of water pooled at the floor of the cabin, but okay physically.

Tom shouted that we have a problem and I came on deck to find the dodger and bimini had been virtually destroyed.  The main sail was flogging in the wind and out of its stack pack enclosure which broke open.  I was relieved to find the mast and jibs still intact.  The next hour was a flurry of removing debris and casting the tubing and canvas overboard before someone was impaled on the frames.  We got the mainsail furled and under control as well as the myriad of lines which had turned into a large ball of knots.

As we finished cleaning up, I noticed the SPOT locator I keep under the dodger was gone!  This was NOT good!  I knew there would be a lot of concerned family members and friends who were following along as we progressed.  I immediately assigned Barbara the roll of Comm's Officer.  Tom was to be my assistant troubleshooter and we went about finding what was working and what was not.  All the electronics seemed okay and we engaged our electric bilge pumps to be sure we bailed any water that entered the boat.

Barbara got on the portable Sat-phone and called my fiance' and my parents to let them know we lost the SPOT. Let them know we are okay, but we need to contact the Coast Guard and set up a Comm's Watch with them as we set a course back for the States.  After assessing our position and wind direction, we decided on Southport, NC. at the Cape Fear River.  I was familiar with that area as I had been there on several occasions.

We sailed as best we could toward Southport for the day in violent conditions.  Our electronic navigation was the first to flake... No Depth Finder, no Wind Speed Indicator, and most of all... NO AUTO-PILOT! The one item that would have been helpful in staving off our fatigue, having to hand steer in huge following seas was now gone. Things were looking bleak.  The wind did not abate... The seas continued to roar around us.  We were 400 nm from the nearest land. Very concerned!

Our boat was tossed like a rag doll as well as its crew.  After sunset, we were pretty exhausted and we decided it best we set the boat to a bare poles, heave-to with the helm lashed at one quarter turn to port.  This set our aft starboard quarter to the 40 knot winds and 40 to 50 ft seas.  The boat bucked heaved and yawed and we took several breaking waves into the cockpit, but we secured the boat and went below for rest. At 0400 hrs, our lights went out... All DC circuits were dead.  I started the GenSet and we once again had lights.

It never occured to us to physically check to see if the bilges were actually pumping out when we turned on our electric bilge pump.  I pulled up the floorboard and was horrified!  The water was filled to the floorboards in the bilge.  We had nearly 200 gallons of water in the bilge.  It flooded over our our batteries, our below deck wiring and every other system was awash. All systems were now down... Including our GenSet and Engine. We were now officially a "dead ship" in reference to power. I was furious at myself for not checking the bilges earlier.

We kept a two hour comms watch via portable sat-phone with the Coast Guard 5th District Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in Norfolk, VA. A French freighter was diverted to our location and arrived at dawn on November 6th.  They offered fuel, food water or evacuation if we chose, but we opted to stay aboard.  We continued to stay in touch with RCC and at 0700, I went on deck and unfurled our jib by 50% and set a course for Southport once again.  The winds were still over 40kts, but the seas were not breaking as much any longer.  We were making 7 to 10kts!  We bade Adieu to the French freighter and thanked them for their assistance.

Kalini was going to make it back and I was damned determined that we would do just that.  I will not go into the details of decision process and conversations between my clients and myself other than to say, we all had to dig deep to find our own strength to sail nearly 400nm in a boat that was quickly losing all systems.  There were discussions of abandoning ship, helicopter rescues and other thoughts. Both Tom Barbara were still suffering from sea sickness.  We pressed on.

Our only hope to not be completely exhausted was the Monitor Wind Vane we had on board. Tom had never used it and I had no experience with the unit.  I instructed Tom that it was his duty to make that thing work even if it took all day!  After an hour or so of trial and error, we found some success and Kalani was now under control with a wind vane auto-pilot.  We were relieved.  tom and I gave each other a "high five" morale was improving!

The rest of the day was Tom and I swapping off watches every two hours.  Barbara was still too sick and weak to do anything besides handle our comm's.  The wind vane busted a bracket bolt on the starboard side and Tom Cobbled up a fix for it using a piece of yacht braid line, he torqued it back in place with a wind and pulley.  We were back in business.  At dark, Tom and I switched to four hour watches to afford longer sleep times for each of us.  We stayed on four hour watches for the remainder of the trip.

Early morning, November 7th around 0300 hrs, USCGC Elm arrived on scene and contacted us by VHF-FM.  We had no navigation lights and in the monstrous seas, we were invisible by radar.  I periodically signaled them with a flashlight.  They stayed with us from 100nm out all the way in to Cape Fear outer marker.  They actually had the worst of it out there... Where we were a small sailboat, a large cutter built for servicing Aids to Navigation in 30' to 40' following seas made for a horrible ride for them, especially when we crossed the Gulf Stream with Northeast opposing winds to the stream.

We both bucked and yawed across the stream and by days end we finally made it across and the seas abated some.  The winds were still at 30kts. We were on the home stretch. Less than one day to go and we would be in port by early morning on Tuesday the 8th.  We arrived at "FP 2" marker (Frying Pan Shoal) at midnight and right on schedule, the CG Utility Boat 47287 arrived on cue to pick up our escort in to Cape Fear River Channel.   we bade CGC Elm good bye and thanked them for their assistance.  CG 47287 took us in tow at 0200 hrs and brought us in to Southport Marina by 0400 hrs.

Our ordeal was over.  We had overcome our situation.  We dug deep inside ourselves to make it.  We staved off panic and fear and willed ourselves to the finish.  I had so many emotions and so much adrenaline running through my system, I did not go to sleep until that evening.  Tom and Barbara headed for a hotel to get some sleep and a hot shower.  I stayed behind, made some phone calls to loved ones thanked them for their prayers and support.  I went ashore for a hot shower and a change into dry clothes, I packed my bags to fly home later that day.  I found out our storm had a name now... Tropical Storm Sean!  She was expected to strengthen and packed winds over 60 kts already.

I went above decks and looked over Kalani. She had been capsized by a rogue wave, all her electrical systems smothered and she still brought us safely home.  I coiled up all her lines, straightened up her decks, re-furled her stays'l, put the covers on her instruments, flaked her mains'l on the boom and re-packed her in her stack pack, untangled her sheets. I gathered my belongings, stepped on the dock.  I looked over Kalani from stem to stern... She was bent and battered, but not broken.  She will sail again for many years to come.  I layed my hand on her shrouds and said, "Thank you". I met my cab and headed for the airport with lots of lessons learned (Which is the subject of my next blog.)  In the meantime, my Lovely Lady of the Skies, Linda, awaits my company.

God Bless and Godspeed!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Growing Pains! (Looking for Captain's & Crew)

As I write this, I have come to the conclusion that we at On Watch Yacht Delivery are ready to expand. 
I have spent the past couple of months trying to juggle all of the requests we have been receiving for yacht deliveries.  I believe this flood of business is the result of years of hard work and dedication to building a solid performance reputation.

In the past three years we have been successfully completing our goals and coming in with our deliveries on time and on budget.  We are now at a point where I can no longer sustain the pace of requests on our own.  I am in search of responsible, non-smoking, captains and crew with a solid work ethic and will to do things the right way the first time and every time.  We want to share in our success with like-minded responsible captains and crew to sustain our momentum and good reputation.

Want experience but don't want the hassle of paperwork and advertising?  I am open to meeting and cooperating with other established yacht delivery services for referral work and seek Captains and crew who would like to do occasional deliveries.

If you are the owner of a yacht delivery service, a crew-person who wants some occasional work or needs sea time/offshore experience with an established yacht delivery company, please contact me at

On Watch Yacht Delivery is a growing company with a solid reputation.  We want to partner up with people who are motivated and seeking to grow professionally and personally.  Get in touch now and let's build something bigger!

Captain Jeff Lewis
On Watch Yacht Delivery & Management

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

FATIGUE!!! A Crew's Worst Enemy

Before I get started with my first blog, I want to clarify that while I have been a sailor for 40+ years of my life, I do not profess to be an expert or the greatest sailor on the planet.  I know there are a lot more experienced sailors out there who could probably sail rings around me.  All I hope to do is pass on some of my experiences.

A short background of my history, I started sailing when I was 9 years old with my Father who over the years built a very solid foundation of basic seamanship and practical knowledge which has allowed me to be somewhat successful in building my new business (3 Years) On Watch Yacht Delivery & Management.  After retiring from the Coast Guard after 20 years of service, I tried the corporate world, real estate sales and yacht brokerage.  I had good success in all of these fields, but never found them to be very rewarding until I started delivering yachts.

Admittedly, I deliver smaller yachts (Under 60') so far, however, the rewards of completing a delivery are never small to me.  In just the past three years I have logged over 10,000 nm throughout the Gulf of Mexico, Eastern and Western Caribbean, Atlantic Coast and Bahamas.

As I mentioned before, my Father instilled a lot of basic wisdom into me at a very young age.  He taught me to always respect the sea.  Not to FEAR it, but RESPECT it.  His best lesson to me was to always be aware of your limitations and stay vigilant to the onset of FATIGUE!  This is often easier said than done as most of us overachievers think we are superhuman and capable of anything!  My Father always said, "Eat when your not hungry, drink when your not thirsty and sleep every minute you can!"  This is great advice and I have been accused of insisting my crew get rest to the point of being annoying.

So far, my crew and I have (fortunately) been able to identify when we are becoming tired and a bit "loopy". I believe this comes from years of experience on the water.  The first signs of fatigue are more than just being sleepy or lethargic.  It begins when you can no longer complete simple tasks such as donning your foul weather gear properly, forgetting details, and of course edginess or loss of your temper with your crew mates.

Sea-sickness can really wreak havoc on a crew as I have heard countless stories of mishaps at sea beginning with crews who were all or in part suffering from "Mal de Mer".  Once you begin heaving your lunch over the rail, the next problem is (quickly) dehydration, then lack of nutrition needed.  This is when fatigue starts in sneak in and slowly, bit by bit, fog your judgement.

Examples of fatigue becoming deadly is in plenty of cases, but recently in the 2010 Caribbean 1500, the annual run from Chesapeake Bay to Tortola, one crew became ill while crossing the Gulf stream in gale force winds and rough seas.  They reported back by radio, that the whole crew was suffering from sea-sickness and even the hired Captain aboard was not feeling well.  Unfortunately it appears the fatigue set in a fogged their judgement.  They decided to abort the trip and divert for Marsh Harbour, Bahamas. it appears from their track, they originally opted for Bermuda, but did a 180 degree turn and headed South.

The fact that they diverted was not a bad decision, although if they had continued  Southeast for another day or so, the winds and seas would have moderated to much better conditions. I know this because I was delivering a Pacific Seacraft 40' just a few hundred miles north of them at the same time.  Their (Final) fatal decision was to attempt to go into the channel at night with 15' to 20' following seas and no moon.  In short, they hit the reef outside Marsh Harbour and abandoned ship to their raft which was overturned by the seas and they lost their Captain and her body was never recovered.

I was not on this boat.  I do not know all the facts.  I only see the results of what must have been a series of bad decisions.  First, to abort when weather would have improved further South.  Second, to choose Marsh Harbour and attempt to enter an unlit, unmarked channel at night.  Third, to abandon ship as badly as it was being battered, the boat was still there and intact the next day.

One can only assume this crew wanted desperately to get out of the situation they were in.  They were no doubt, sick, tired, cold, wet and miserable.  I am sure laying off the Northern Bahama Coast for 10 more hours in rough conditions was not an appealing thought.  I am sure they believed they could follow their GPS and all would be fine. (Total trust in one's GPS is a whole other subject!)

In summary, something clouded their judgement.  Something made them perceive that they had to get out of the ocean and duck into the "Safety" of the harbor. In reality, the safest place to be was offshore.  I wonder if there would have had a different outcome if they had at least ONE person on board who was rested and thinking straight?  Stay vigilant!  Stay RESTED!!!