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Back to the USA: Good & Then Really Bad

To get a sense of the first two days of our voyage please watch this video:

It was our “watch activity” to record a little something about how everything was going.  To summarize the video: everything was going GREAT.  Beautiful weather, a fresh caught Snapper for dinner, doing a little sailing (only used 6 gallons fuel the whole way), boosted speed by the Gulf Stream.  It was so great, and the weather predictions continued to be so good (wind 10 knots, calm seas) that we decided to be ambitious and continue for St. Augustine.

P3300166

Then it all went downhill and ended very badly for us.  The boat is healthy and we are healthy.  But the whole ordeal was so traumatic we couldn’t bring ourselves to take any video or photos so we will just describe what happened.

At about 6 pm Amelia was preparing dinner and we changed watches.  Everything was great.  The weather was calling for calm wind and seas, with a slight chance of thunderstorms inland and south of our location, near Lake Okeechobee.  We were sailing along at 7 knots in the Gulf Stream 30 miles NE of Fort Pierce, FL, and we were going to push another day for St. Augustine.

After about 15 minutes on watch Grant spotted thunderstorms forming on the horizon.  Dinner was finished.  We immediately took down the main and reefing leaving a little genoa out for stability, got out our hatch boards to protect the main cabin, putting on our safety gear.  Boat check, cockpit check.

The first storm was south of us, and was going to miss us, but we turned the motor on to get closer to shore and closer to Fort Pierce.  Given the drastic change in weather our destination was now Fort Pierce.  We were north of the inlet, and the Gulf Stream and swell was continuing to push us north, but we motored through the swell.  It tossed Velocir every which way being so close to the wind and swell.  The wind picked up to 30-35 knots and the swell increased.  Amelia wedged herself in the v-berth while Grant steered.

Amelia closed her eyes to try and relax and let the time pass, knowing it was only hours before Velocir would be safely inland.  She looked up too see how Grant was doing and noticed smoke coming from the engine.  She immediately leapt up and started screaming to turn it off.  We turned the engine off.

The thunderstorms were all around us now, and one was approaching.  The weather reports had changed– now thunderstorms/squalls with winds reaching 55 mph were being predicted, with squalls continuing throughout the night and into the next day. Velocir calmed down immediately as we turned north again with the swell astern (behind us).  Waves, peaking at about 10 feet, still crashed over Velocir, soaking the cockpit, but the movement was not as violent.

A hard downpour and winds came with the storm, but it was only the edge of it and lasted about ten minutes.  Amelia sat in the cockpit steering and having a mild panic attack, while Grant tried to fix the engine.  A water intake hose was kinked, so he quickly replaced it.  Amelia never wanted to sail Velocir offshore again, wanted to stop cruising.  What was so bad about living in a house and turning up the volume on your TV when the thunder got loud? Closing a window when it rained?  What was wrong with us?  Grant fully agreed but told Amelia to get it together.

Amelia quickly composed herself and the rain stopped.  She started pumping the manual bilge pump.  There was A LOT of water in Velocir.  The engine cooled down and we started it up again, went a little ways and it overheated again.  Amelia pumped out Velocir again—more water.  We tried again to let the engine cool, thinking maybe the oil pressure was just having a hard time recovering.  More water came into Velocir.

Every time we turned the engine on not only was it overheating, but more water was coming into Velocir.  Was it pumping raw water or exhaust water into Velocir?  How could that be related to the overheating, if at all?  The only way to know for sure was to unscrew and remove the cockpit floor (a fair weather option only).  The water could be coming in from other places too:  the cockpit drains, a thru hull, the water tanks etc.  More storms were coming and it was now dark.

The moon was half-full, but we could see lightening nearby.  And without an engine we did not have enough speed to get 30 miles to Fort Pierce because the Gulf Stream continued to push us north.  We called the Coast Guard to keep them advised of our location and situation in case things deteriorated.  We asked for an updated detailed weather report.  She replied it was, and we quote: “nasty.”  A few minutes later Grant started to feel physically ill, exhausted and had to lay down.  Thirty hours of 3-hour watch rotations were catching up to him.

After another storm passed the wind shifted from SW to N.  It was freaky.  Now we could not sail.  We tried to sail West, closer to shore.  But with the swell and Gulf Stream we couldn’t make any progress.  The wind pushed against the prevailing swell, causing steeper chop.

It was time to call it quits, our safety is priority one.  We hailed a tow boat to come get us.  It was now 1930 and it would take them 2.5 hours to reach us—okay.  It felt like forever before they arrived.  The Captain kept hailing us, asking if we could see his blue flashing light.  He was ten miles out, could we see it?  No.  Six miles?  No.  Four? No.  Amelia tried to explain Velocir is only a few feet off the water and that we would probably not spot him for a while in this swell.

Finally he got near Velocir and threw us a tow line.  Grant went up on deck and wrapped it around our bollard that has a ridiculously reinforced backing plate.  Thank goodness for that!! ..because he was towing us almost directly into the swell.  Velocir was bucking and hammering, literally being pulled through the waves.  The tow boat slowed down a little in some parts because it was just too rough.

28 miles before we were inside the cut.  Amelia had been steering, still in warm weather clothes.  She was freezing in the night, so she went down to change while Grant took the helm.  He steered Velocir behind the Tow Boat for a long time while Amelia huddled under a blanket.

Then, Grant started not feeling well again, and Amelia came up to relieve him.  We sat in the cockpit together for a few moments while Grant realized the NAVIK did not look right.  The lower paddle that helps steer the boat (when in use) was horizontal in the water, not vertical as it should be.  Grant was able to grab it before it completely detached from the upper unit.  (The cast aluminum frame it is pinned into had shattered).  Due to the force of the waves and speed?  Not sure, we were not going faster than usual but we were getting thrown a bit.

Grant headed down below.  Amelia sat down on the starboard side of the cockpit and saw a jerry can full of diesel fuel perched, all alone, on the deck.  What?!?  She calmly yelled down below, “take the tiller for a minute,” then grabbed the can before it went overboard.  With a harness and life jacket on, she quickly went forward to put extra lashings on the other three jerry cans still on deck.  The amount of water pouring over Velocir was immense.

8.5 hours later, at 4 AM Velocir was at a marina in Fort Pierce.  It cost us $1400 to be towed in.  Quite a bit to swallow, but we would do it again.  In the long run, I think we got off easy.  He told us he didn’t charge us the full rate and we believe him.

We are now members of Tow Boat US, which we hadn’t joined before because we didn’t think we were coming back to the States so soon and then forgot. For us:  If Velocir runs aground we can get her off, and if Velocir has an engine problem inland we can anchor for a few hours and fix it.  But unfortunately this one unlikely situation where we would need a tow happened to us.

As soon as the Tow Boat left we called family, started the customs clearing-in process, and checked email .  Amelia read this blog comment aloud as Grant changed our water soaked sheets so that we could collapse in bed:

WOW!! So, my Hubby and I sat down last Sunday evening…. found your blog and enjoyed EVERY picture, video and comment. We’re just learning to sail and you have sparked a dream in us!!! You make it look like so much fun! I know we have MUCH to learn, but you have taken the fear out of it for me!! Thank you for sharing all that you have! It’s a lot of work!! We have a Flying Scot which we’re removing old paint and repainting ourselves!! It’s a blast!

Thanks again and have a safe and fun trip back to the US!!!

Amelia, exhausted, could not help but laugh.  We are still laughing at the comedic timing, it was so perfect.  This is one of the first comments we’ve ever gotten from someone that’s not close family or friends.  Thank you, we hope this experience does not dissuade you.  Despite this event, every bit of preparation we did has paid off and we have had almost zero problems overall.  It’s been extremely rewarding, all the time we’ve spent together and all the amazing experiences we’ve shared.  With the ups must come the downs.

24 hours of retrospect: everything is okay, we made the right decision, these things happen, thankfully it happened within the USA, cruising is fun, this is the only bad thing that has happened in one year of being on the boat and it turned out fine, we still like cruising and will continue for a while, a house one day will be nice.

The engine is now fine….we think.  It was a series of little mishaps that resulted in the overheating.  The hose kinked starving the engine of water.  This caused the coolant to overflow.  Without the coolant it wasn’t cooling down.  The exhaust hose had come loose and was gushing most of the exhaust water into the bilge.  After repair and test runs we think we are good now.

There was a Publix grocery store near the marina we were towed to.  Being around so many people and a large developed area, we just stared at everything.  Inside the grocery store we grinned like idiots at all the nice and inexpensive food.  Grant bought beer and ice and now he is happy.  Amelia bought strawberries and now she is happy.

UPDATE: THE GULF STREAM DILEMMA

We have had several people ask us about the squalls we ran into off the coast of Florida and why we made the decision we did; so we decided we would take a moment and review the situation, our potential options and the factors leading to our decision. These are excellent questions to ask and lessons can always be learned.

So, lets recap: “Nasty” squalls predicted for the next 36 hours, large (peaking 10ft) steep confused swell, shifty heavy breeze, no engine, taking on water from an unknown source.  Our position: 30 miles offshore in heavy shipping traffic unable to make ground, Gulf Stream pushing us NE 3+ knots

Options:

1. Heave-to:

We heard this a lot from people, the classic salty thing to do. Heave-to, lash down the tiller and strap in, go below and take a nap, let mother nature rage, the boat can handle it. When the weather lightens up try to fix the engine or sail on in to St. Augustine.

Why we didn’t: Well we did, for a little while. Vegas do heave to well; however, from that point on North, the Gulf Stream begins to head NE and the coast of Florida goes West a bit, so if problems worsened we would be a lot farther than 30 miles off the coast. (If you are 30+ miles offshore it is extremely unlikely a towboat will come to get you, the Coast Guard will come and rescue your person, not your boat).  Also, we could not in good conscience have no one on watch; many freighters use the Gulf Stream to save on fuel and bright lights or no, like the race boat heading down to Mexico last month, freighters do from time to time run things down.

Let’s not forget a big one, exhaustion. It is near impossible to sleep on Velocir when she is pitching every which way. We had been underway for over 36 hours and 3 on 3 off was beginning to wear on us physically and mentally. We would not have slept that night and if conditions had worsened we would have an even harder time with it.

2. Get Towed

While we were in touch with the Coast Guard we also got in touch with TowBoat US to find out if they would even come out to get us and what that might cost. There is a $150 insurance you can buy, but this is about the only scenario we could think of we wouldn’t just want to handle ourselves. So, to add on to all the reasons listed above not to continue on is the idea that the tow services are not as likely to come any farther than 30 miles out to get us, especially if conditions worsened. That assumed we would be even near a navigable inlet. We had our EPIRB and a life raft, but if had more problems we could lose the boat and that would cost us a LOT more than a tow.

So, all of these reasons and a few more combined to paint a pretty clear picture of the most reasonable thing to do. When reviewing all these options the #1 motivation was to keep us safe, while the tow was certainly expensive and not at all glamorous, it was the safest thing to do.

In the end it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. We broke our wind vane, got numerous cuts a bruises, and were really glad we put a huge backing plate on the bollard on our foredeck we were towed through that mess on. The engine problems and water coming in were what we suspected but could not confirm, a series of minor problems that took about 20 minutes to repair. The predicted 36 of squally Hell that was predicted never materialized.

Hindsight, we should have hove-to and continued for another pleasant day of sailing. However, with water coming in from an unknown source and an easy exit  quickly slipping from our grasp I would make the same decision a hundred times over.

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