Thursday, October 21, 2010

One hundred and twenty seconds

It's a cool and blustery October day on the Alligator-Pungo River portion of the ICW in North Carolina. Captain Ralph Robinson feels a bump, and a vibration that felt sort of like a grounding, but nothing serious. The boat tips to starboard, and then turns to port, just as the port engine goes to maximum rpms, and almost instantly all three bilge pump indicators light up on the dash, and the high water alarm starts to ring as well. He jumps up from the helm, runs to the aft of the bridge, looks down at the swim platform, and sees water just starting to come over it. The boat is already now 12” lower in the water, and he instantly realizes they are sinking.

He, and his mate Jay Huber run down the stairs to release the tender that is strapped down on the swim platform. They get one of the three straps released, and they are now standing in knee deep water on the platform. The tender is being dragged under by the swim platform, and the tension on the other straps is now too great to release them. Ralph asks Jay to go up to the bridge, and get the handheld VHF at the bridge station, and the latitude longitude position as well. Looking into the closed sliding glass doors leading to the main salon, he sees water rising up inside them, and a geyser of water boiling up in the center of the main salon some eighteen inches high. Ralph said of the moment, "Mental confusion abounds, and trying to make any sense out of this situation only slows our decision process".

Ralph deploys the emergency life raft right on the aft cockpit deck, just as the water starts to pour over the sides of the aft deck coamings, and scrambles into it. Hanging onto the bridge stair's railing as the yacht sinks, he maneuvers the life raft over to the port side, going from hand hold, to hand hold, using various parts of the boat, he keeps the raft  right next to the boat at about amidships. As he nears the bridge of the quickly sinking boat, he calls to Jay to give him the VHF, and the latitude longitude numbers. Jay hands Ralph the VHF, and advises him of the ships position. Ralph remembers his cell phone is on the console of the bridge, and asks Jay to retrieve it. Just as Jay grabs the cell phone, the sinking accelerates, as the boat loses all buoyancy. Water starts to pour over the bridge side coamings of the boat, which is sinking aft end first. Jay is now already nearly waist deep on the bridge, and desperately tries to reach the raft, but the force of the water rushing over the bridge is too much to overcome, and Jay is carried down with the boat. Jay tries to swim to the surface, but strikes the bimini top, over the bridge and is disoriented for a few seconds, before he gathered his wits, and swims out from underneath the bimini, through its support tubes to the surface.

Ralph had been fearfully searching around, sees a hat, and grabs it, but no hair is attached to it. About fifteen very long seconds later, Jay surfaces, and Ralph drags a very cold, and wet colleague into life raft, and out of the 58 degree river, partially filling the raft with water in the process.

In just 120 short, and adrenaline driven seconds, about the time to took you to read this far, Ralph, and Jay went from sitting comfortably on the bridge of a 59' Fairline Squadron yacht, to squatting cold, and wet in a life raft that was floating in a desolate portion of the ICW adjacent to the Dismal Swamp in North Carolina. They had no ID's, no money or credit cards, and only the very cold wet clothes on their back. The boat was now completely gone.

The VHF handheld radio was used to place a Mayday call to the Coast Guard. It was answered by the Norfolk USCG station, via repeater stations, located about 75 miles away. Ralph is very concerned about Jay's condition, who is now suffering from hypothermia, and is so cold he can't even speak, and requests that a helicopter be sent for Jay. The USCG radio operator starts to ask questions, some of which, Ralph cannot answer, such as what is the owner's address in London. The radio operator insists that no bird can be sent for Jay, until all of the blanks on the form are filled out. Ralph does not know some of the information the Coast Guard is asking for, and the radio operator will not dispatch the bird without it. Despite many requests, the radio operator will not let an increasingly frustrated Ralph talk to a supervisor.

The nearly twenty minute radio impasse is ended when the bow of a local crabber's boat nudges the tented life raft. The crabber had spotted them floating, picks them up, covers Jay with a coat, and takes them to Belhaven North Carolina. The last radio contact with the USCG, was the call Ralph made to advise them that a local boat had picked them up, and took them to Belhaven. The USCG radio operator just advised Ralph there would be an investigation about the accident.
The Pungo River

On a Sunday, just three days before the accident, a sailboat was traveling in the very same section of the ICW, noticed day marker 15 was missing, hailed the USCG on the VHF, and reported it. The USCG logged the call, but did nothing. No "Securite" announcement was made, and no further investigation was persued. The following Tuesday, Ralph was approaching the missing marker, and he was puzzled. The marker was showing on the Furuno chart plotter, well off to his starboard side, but there wasn't a marker visible.

What had happened was the day marker number 15 post was made of large welded pipe sections 12” in diameter, and a barge, or some other vessel had struck the marker sometime before the accident. With the top portion of the marker broken off, the remaining open pipe post, lay hidden just a couple of feet underwater. The marker post was actually located over five hundred feet away from its charted location, and this was verified by the insurance carrier. The 50,000 lb Fairline yacht impacted the mis-charted submerged post at 22kts.

When the yacht hit the top of the pipe at amidships on the port side under the Master Stateroom, it cut away a 12" wide, by 10' foot long strip of the hull like a potato peeler, and forced it down into the pipe.

Along the way, the pipe struck the oil pan of the port engine, ripping it free of the engine mounts, and propeller shaft, forced it upright, and drove the engine through the floor into the main salon.  Free of the shaft loads, the now holed motor spun up to its maximum rpms, and then quickly, and traumatically failed. Within seconds, the gaping hole had flooded, the engine room, and the boat was now rapidly sinking.

Belhaven North Carolina is a small town located near the mouth of the Pungo River, and is eight miles from Pamlico Sound. Another 15 miles carries you to North Carolina's Outer banks. A soggy, and cold Ralph, and Jay were dumped off at the River Forest Manor, and Marina Shipyard, and looking like a couple of homeless guys, told their story to Axson Smith the owner.

Axson immediately dug cash out of his till, and had an employee drive Ralph, and Jay to a local store, where they were able to buy some new dry, and warm clothes, and provided rooms for them at the River Forest Manor, which is also owned by Axson.

There is a round of many phone calls made to inform the owner in London, and to arrange for replacement ID's, credit cards, and cash. Getting new plastic for the now non existing wallets would take several days in this remote area, and much to both Jay, and Ralph’s pleasure, and surprise, three of the local restaurants offered to feed them on the house. The hospitality provided by the residents of Belhaven, to a couple of shipwrecked visitors, was amazing and heartwarming.

The boat was salvaged, albeit with some struggle. Divers attached lines to the bow of submerged boat, and towed it about a mile, leaving the bow out of the water on a sand bar. Working in the shallower water, and using plywood to close the large rent in the bottom, the boat was raised on the following Saturday, and towed afloat to River Forest Shipyard, where it was hauled for investigation by USCG, NC Wildlife officers, and Lloyds of London. 

The initial suspicion by the investigating groups was that the vessel must have run over a standing marker, and the captain was negligent. This notion was quickly dispelled, and Ralph was completely exonerated, when everyone could see the condition of the bow, which was without a scratch, the location of the actual hole in the bottom of the boat, and the fact that the day marker was not located in its charted location. At the time of the salvage, a strip of the boats hull was still visible stuck inside the underwater marker's pipe.

The insurance company requested, and received a copy of the USCG VHF transmission recordings. The recordings included the call by the sailboat reporting the marker missing at least three days prior to the accident, and also included Ralph's unsuccessful twenty minute VHF Mayday call requesting help. The insurance company filed a request to sue the USCG, and very shortly all matters were promptly resolved. Two senior USCG officers, in full dress whites, drove down from Norfolk, and personally apologized to Ralph, for the now removed VHF radio operator's actions, and averred that this is not the way they normally do business. The owner was given a check for the full replacement value of the boat by his insurance company.

Ralph has made a small change to his equipment inventory when he travels now. This consists of a waterproof "Jump Bag" he bought from West Marine. His original jump bag was not waterproof, and was in the main salon. In the new bag is a handheld VHF radio, Raymarine RC400 GPS chart plotter, cash, credit cards, and a Spot satellite GPS messenger. The bag is always close at hand now. Relying on the kindness of strangers is nice, but being even more prepared, is priceless.

I have known Ralph, for many years, and of all of the captains I have dealt with, Ralph is the most competent, and professional of the lot. His story is remarkable. A sinking ship, refusal by the USCG to provide aid, warm hospitality, and assistance to total strangers from the residents of Belhaven NC, and most of all, how your life can be dramatically changed, in just 120 short seconds.

Maybe all boaters owners should take a couple of minutes to inventory their safety gear, and mentally run through what you would do, if this happened to you.

If you need the services of a high quality captain, you can contact Captain Ralph Robinson at his e-mail address

The photographs of the salvaged vessel were graciously provided by Axson Smith, the owner of the River Forest Manor and Marina. This is a good place to stop on your travels down the intercoastal waterway.

The photo of the Pongo river is from the blog Scooters Voyage.

You can learn more about picturesque Belhaven NC here.

You can find out more about the Great Dismal Swamp here

If you came here on a direct link to this article, you can find my other articles in the archives to your right, or you can see the current articles here on my home page, thanks, Bill Bishop