The Fate of Poor Spadefoot

Justin here.  On dry land, happy to be with Chris.

So…  What happened out there?  There’s not so much to say, really.  After the first 3 days, Spadefoot was in contention, and we were feeling pretty positive about the trip.  We had a little over 200 nm to go when the expected changed from light westerlies to stronger southwesterlies arrived early Monday morning.  As the new breeze arrived, it was a little frustrating.  It was more southerly than forecast, but that wasn’t entirely unexpected.  There was also an east flowing current, both making it harder to lay Bermuda.  And so it was, a two day beat to the finish in 20 knots, forecast to build to 25 on Tuesday morning.  It didn’t take long for concerns to begin.  We were quickly down to a 3rd reef, the #4 jib and starting to pound through the waves.  Solarus, a J/130, and Concussion, an Olson 30, were nearby, and we were in regular contact via VHF and AIS.  I contacted both boats initially to just commiserate and express my concern about the forecast conditions.  My main concern being that the waves would get significantly bigger over the next two days.  The 3 of us agreed to stay close together and fall off to an ESE’ly course to ease the pounding.  Once we made the course change, I still wasn’t comfortable with the situation.  Each time the boat went over a wave, the boat would slam, and then the boat would wobble.  Every time.  It was clear the keel was moving and the lead bulb on the bottom was acting as a counterweight causing the whole boat to move the wrong way.  There was no way around Newton’s 3rd law on this trip.  Early Monday afternoon I switched down to the storm jib.  The goal was to slow the boat down and hopefully head closer to Bermuda without slamming as much.  That helped, but the keel movement persisted.  I started to consider the consequences of the keel moving every wave for the next 48 hours.  I considered the options, too.

For those that don’t know, Spadefoot has a lifting keel.  A keel blade inside and keel trunk.  A bolt runs through the keel trunk and the head of the keel.  In theory, it is secure and not going anywhere. Unfortunately, there were two issues with this design.  First, the bolt goes through the aft third of the keel blade.  That means the aft part the blade is held securely and squeezed tightly by the keel trunk. The front part of the blade isn’t held at all, and as the boat started to go through bigger waves the front of the head of the keel would slam back and forth between the side of the keel trunk.  You could see and feel the keel move as the keel pounded away on the inside.  There was also a second consequence of the design.  Being pinned in only one place the keel was prevented from rotating about the pin by the interface of the keel going through the bottom of the hull.  By necessity that interface wasn’t a super tight fit, otherwise you’d never get the keel up and down.  And so, there was some movement fore and aft as the keel ever so slightly rotated around the pin.  I think that contributed most to the wobble I could feel.

I called Chris on the satellite phone to let her know the situation and my concern about both the weather and the keel movement getting worse.  My main concern was that if the keel started to move more either the keel trunk might fail from the pounding or the keel blade might fail from constant shock loads where the blade exited the hull.  We talked about what could happen.  It’s pretty simple.  If the keel failed catastrophically, I would likely die.   The boat would capsize quickly, and it would be very unlikely I could deploy the liferaft once the boat was upside down.  That’s pretty much when I made the decision.  To me, just the fact that I was considering how to survive a keel failure, told me it was time to get off.  Keels do fall off, and people do die when it happens.  It happened not so long ago aboard on Cheeky Rafiki, not far away from where I was, and that incident was very much on my mind.

I did consider a few alternatives to abandoning ship.  I could slow down.  Heave to and wait.  There were two issues with that plan.  First the forecast was not expected to improve for days.  It’s now Friday, almost 4 days after I left Spadefoot, and the winds are still blowing strong from the southwest.  The second issue was that I was near other boats on Monday.  If I slowed way down, eventually all the race boats would pass by, and my options would be greatly reduced.  I also considered turning around and heading to Newport, but again I would quickly leave the proximity of other boats and couldn’t guarantee I could make it to Newport without going upwind.

So, while talking to Chris on the sat phone, the decision was made.  I called Noel on Solarus via VHF and let him know my full concerns.  Concussion was also still close by and following the conversation on the VHF.  Chris called the Coast Guard to let them know the situation and ask them if there was something specific I should do with the EPIRB or the boat.

The actual transfer was quite easy and low drama.  Solarus and Spadefoot sailed directly towards each other, greatly aided by the AIS transponders on both boats.  When Solarus arrived, I doused the sails, launched the liferaft, threw a few bags into the liferaft, closed up Spadefoot, and climbed into the liferaft and turned on the EPIRB.  Once I cut the rode to the liferaft, Spadefoot and I quickly separated.

Spadefoot remains afloat.  She is now drifting east, likely caught in the Gulf Stream.  The AIS transponder is on, and the tri-color is on.  There are two 70W solar panels, so it is unlikely she will run out of battery power unless there is damage to the solar panels.  It seems unlikely she will be hit and therefore will likely drift eastward across the Atlantic, carried by the Gulf Stream, eventually nearing the Azores, Ireland, or Portugal.  With the sails down and speed down, I doubt the loads on the keel will cause a failure now.

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Could Spadefoot be rescued?  Maybe.  Technically she could be towed, but it would require a significant vessel to tow over that kind of distance.  Not very promising.  I think the best case is that she drifts nearer to land, and then a tow could be a realistic option.

A huge thank you to Noel Starrett, the owner of Solarus, for taking me aboard and getting me safely to Bermuda.  I have to say, I probably had the most comfortable ride for the last two days, and it was completely miserable, so my sympathy and congratulations to the Bermuda 1-2 racers that made it to Bermuda this year.

A huge thank you to Jason Seibert, the owner of Concussion, for coordinating communications between the nearby vessels and shore side communications with Chris and the Coast Guard.  He had a Delorme InReach on board with texting capability.  At times that was a more effective way to communicate than the Satellite phone I had.  Sorry I’m not able to complete the adventure we started back in March with our qualifier.

And finally, a special thanks Spadefoot.  You are a good little boat.  Perfect in many ways.  I’m sorry I couldn’t bring you safely home.  Maybe the stars will align and we’ll see you again.

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