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ORDEAL

Written by Dream Catcher's owner, Ben, and passed on by Crewmember, CSC's Gordon Palmer

It was with high spirits that I met John Molnar and Gordon Palmer at Houston's Hobby airport. They were coming to help me sail Dream Catcher (our Hunter Passage 42) from Galveston Bay to St. Petersburg, FL. A full moon and good weather were forecast for our planned November 2 departure, and Nancy and I had spent the past two weeks preparing the boat for the trip. An unexpected business trip to Nepal by our daughter had caused us to consider delaying the sail to Florida until mid-November to allow my wife, Nancy, to fly to Rhode Island and help tend the grandchildren (6 months and 38 months old) during her absence. However, late November cold fronts can make the Gulf of Mexico ugly and I was anxious to get Dream Catcher positioned in St. Petersburg before Thanksgiving. A quick exchange of emails and I had my substitute crew of John and Gordon who were now approaching me with their small luggage and big smiles.

John, Gordon, and I have known each other since Nancy and I bought our first Hunter and joined the Northern Star Hunter Sailing Association back in 1989. Gordon, Jo Ann, Nancy and I had sailed to New England on Rapid Transit and Huntress in 1993, and John, Kathy, Nancy and I had sailed down the ICW and across to Georgetown in the Bahamas in the fall of 1998 in Penury's Prize and Dream Catcher during the first year of our 8 year live-aboard adventure. Gordon and Jo Ann had also subsequently met us in the Virgin Islands and spent a week sailing with us on board Dream Catcher. All are experienced sailors, and the crossing of the Gulf of Mexico promised to be a lovely sail by three compatible friends with fair winds under a full moon.

We had a day and a half to finish preparing Dream Catcher for the sail, although there was no reason we could not delay departure should it be necessary. Our plan was that leaving Galveston Bay we would head approximately 125 degrees to the SE for the first 170 miles to follow the "freeway" through the offshore oil fields, then turn due east for the last 580 miles, arriving at Egmont Key in the entrance to Tampa Bay. We would fill the fuel tank and carry 15 gallons extra diesel in jerry cans in case we had to motor much of the 750 mile trip. This would give us a 500 mile range under power, but would also mean that we need to sail at least 250 miles. Based on Nancy's and my previous crossing in November 2005, I estimated five days and five nights of round the clock sailing or, if weather conditions deteriorated, 10-12 days across the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway (GCICW) to Pensacola followed by a 200 mile open water sail down to St. Petersburg. Because of heavy barge traffic on the GCICW and the many potential delays for locks in the waterways of Louisiana, I strongly favored the offshore route and had been studying the weather patterns daily the past two months. Winds off Galveston were generally light from the SE until a cold front would creep down from the NW bringing SW winds which would then clock around to the NW, then N, then NE, then become light and variable until the next front. The frontal passages generally took about two days and were recurring every 8-10 days.

Dream Catcher is well equipped for cruising in all types of weather. We have an inner forestay sail for heavy weather and she sails well with that and a double reefed main in conditions up to about 35 knots. The main and genoa were new in 2005, and we had just had a new dodger and bimini made and fitted with zippers to take our isinglass full cockpit enclosure. We can be comfortable in heat or cold, rain or shine. However, gentlemen never sail to weather unless the waves are small, so beating directly into high seas is not something we do.

The next morning, Wednesday, we installed a new cockpit vhf radio, hanked on the inner forestay sail, loaded the freezer full of precooked meals which Nancy had prepared for us, and pronounced ourselves ready to top off the fuel tank and go for a test sail. John and I watched the weatherman on TV, checked the NOAA weather, and were gratified to hear that Wednesday night the frontal passage would bring NE winds, increasing to 20-25 knots after midnight, then gradually diminishing Thursday and clocking around to the east and SE on Friday at 10 knots. Since we were ready, we discussed an early departure to try to get through the oil fields on a broad reach while the NE winds lasted, then we could motor east through the light easterly winds until it went far enough to the SE to permit sailing again. After a long lunch we loaded our gear and motored over to the fuel dock. Winds were out of the NNE at 15 knots and I, rather brashly, suggested that we should just go now -- we could sail under genoa alone the 25 miles south to the mouth of Galveston Bay, then decide whether to continue out into the gulf, or anchor for the night. I figured that if we took 30 hours to reach our waypoint 170 miles out, we could have NE winds for the entire first leg. Then, if it continued from the NE we would sail SSE until Friday morning when the wind would diminish and clock around towards the SE, when we would could sail on an ENE heading. I was overly concerned with being becalmed out in the gulf and having to detour 100-200 miles north for refueling, and did not consider what we would do if the winds increased and stayed out of the NE (we could end up in Key West or Cuba).

Since hurricane Katrina devastated port facilities in Louisiana and Mobile, ship traffic in Galveston Bay has doubled, and there is a steady stream of barges, tugs, tankers and cargo ships in and out of the bay and crossing the bay on the GCICW. With the genoa partially furled we averaged a little over 6 knots down the bay, hugging the western edge of the ship channel. With the wind off the port quarter it was a pleasant sail, although we were continually altering course to stay away from the big ships. When we reached the anchorage area at the mouth of the bay the wind had picked up a bit and we were making close to seven knots, so why stop? The seas were still calm, we had consumed a large lunch only 5 hours earlier, and I was passing out mugs of hot tea and cider, plus assorted snacks. GPS is wonderful, and we had a long string of way points delineating the big ship "fairway" through the oil fields for the next 170 miles. John and Gordon seemed comfortable handling Dream Catcher, and we had lots of lighted oil rigs and big ship traffic to entertain us. I took a nap and awakened in a couple of hours to find the wind continuing to build and our course paralleling increasingly large waves. The ride was now uncomfortable and, still under jib alone, we shortened sail. Spray from the tops of the breaking waves were now making it very wet in the cockpit. A little after midnight we clocked one gust at 37 knots! Thank goodness we were on a reach because the waves were now ugly 12' giants coming out of the darkness. My seasoned crew were each losing their supper, but we knew we had only to wait less than 24 hours for the wind and seas to diminish, and we were making excellent progress!

Dawn on Thursday, we rigged the isinglass enclosure around the windward side of the cockpit. We were out of vhf range for NOAA weather reports, but I was able to download a NOAA GRIB file over the SSB. Now the forecast called for 20-25 knots continuing from the NE Thursday night and into Friday morning, but diminishing Friday night. I was concerned for my crew, they were still very ill and everything was wet in the cockpit and below. Loose gear had been thrown around the cabin and was soaking up the salt water that came down the companionway from the spray and from water we brought below on our shoes and clothes. The crew were not interested in breakfast, but I never get seasick (at least not since one episode when I was 13 years old and cleaning fish on a deep-sea fishing trip) so I had a pear and assorted snack foods, then went below to read the manual for the newly installed cockpit vhf to determine how to program it to monitor multiple channels. I did not feel good reading down below, so went up to the cockpit (now littered with awful looking beef jerky) and promptly lost my breakfast. So, now we all had lost our nourishment, and nobody need feel embarrassed.

By Thursday night at 9 pm we reached our turning point and headed up hard on the wind to almost make our due east course. The wind was still blowing 25 knots and the seas periodically broke across the bow and swept the deck up to the dodger. We furled the genoa and raised the inner forestay sail and the mainsail (with a double reef). Sleep was anything but peaceful, but we rigged the spinnaker bag on the leeward side of the bed to make a good sea berth in the aft cabin and put cushions on the floor in the salon to make a second sea berth. We could endure another night, since the winds would diminish in 24 hours and we were making good progress. Friday morning came and the next GRIB file showed the winds continuing through Friday night at 20-25 knots, but dropping Saturday and turning to the east. We were taking a terrible pounding, all were dead tired from lack of sleep and what food the crew were able to consume was soon lost over the side, but only another 24 hours of these conditions, and we were making good progress! I pulled out the charts and thought about diverting to the Mississippi River mouth. However, this was now 150 miles NE of us, directly into the 12' seas and 25 knot winds. Going due north 100 miles would fetch us some shelter when we were within 10-15 miles of the coast, but would put us back into oil fields. Turning around would mean at least another 36 hours of reaching parallel to these big waves. Bearing off towards the south would carry us into the north flowing Yucatan current which can be exceedingly rough in a strong northeaster. Hanging in for another 24 hours till the winds diminish seemed the reasonable choice. In the meantime something had gotten into the toilet and the macerator to empty the holding tank jammed. I carry a spare, but the conditions were too rough to hang upside down in the bilge replacing the macerator. We would have to use a bucket for 24 hours until the wind dropped.

Friday night we came up on one of the giant offshore floating oil rigs used to drill in 4000-6000' of water -- these are the size of a small city. We could see the security boat (about 125' crew boat) placing itself between us and the rig and figured we would have to honor a 1-2 mile exclusion zone. To avoid having to fall off and go 3-4 miles south we started the engine and motor sailed to keep to our due east course. After the first giant floating rig, another crept over the horizon, then another, each about 12 miles apart. As we drew up on the last, after about 8 hours of motor sailing the motor temperature alarm went off and we stopped the engine. We decided to let the engine cool off for the rest of the night before trying to fix the problem. Saturday morning I downloaded the NOAA GRIB file and was a bit depressed to find that the strong NE winds would continue until sometime during the day on Sunday (only another 24 hours, but we were making good progress). The winds were slowly clocking to the ENE and our best course was now 20 degrees south of the rhumbline. We spent a miserable Saturday beating into the undiminished waves and strong winds. Fearing dehydration I was pushing the crew to drink lots of water (no signs of starvation for John, but Gordon looked a bit peaked). My own appetite had returned so I was fixing some easily digestible light meals (cereal, pretzels, fruit, trail mix, and sandwiches) and trying to coax the crew to nibble a little and drink a lot. Saturday night continued the misery. Sunday's GRIB file showed the wind coming a bit more from the east, but continuing at 20-25 knots until Monday (only another 24 hours). By now we were about 80 miles south of the rhumb line and we discussed the possibility that the wind might not go SE and we might have to go into Key West, or we could tack now, anticipating the wind coming around to the east and hope to ride it into St. Petersburg as it continued to clock around to the SE.

Sunday night after four days and four nights on port tack, we put the helm over and tacked. The waves were still 12' and the winds at 25-30 knots. That night four crockery soup mugs were launched from their secure shelf where they had resided during eight years of cruising, when an unusually large wave knocked us down and a second large wave smacked the bottom while we were at a 45 degree angle of heel. Lots of broken crockery on the floor! Getting around below deck was difficult and we also now had a strong odor of diesel. Early Monday morning John grabbed the pole at the foot of the companion way ladder and it broke loose. Further, Gordon was using the bucket out in the cockpit and was launched into the underside of the dodger cutting his scalp on an unprotected bolt from the handrails on the outside of the dodger. He bled an awful lot, but we were able to clean and dress it (until he went to sleep and it opened up again). I made my way back to the lazarette on the swim platform where the three five gallon jerry cans of fuel were stored and found that the middle jerry can had somehow managed to turn upside down. Of course this was the only one of three cans with a leaky cap, and most of the five gallons were now in the lazarette. Although the lazarette has a watertight dam between it and the bilge, there are wires and other perforations through this wall near the top edge along the hull. Some diesel had leaked through and was now sloshing about floating on top of the water in the bilge. I bailed and cleaned, sucked off the surface layer and cleaned again. What a mess! By about 10 am Monday I checked the NOAA GRIB -- again 20-25 knot winds from the ENE would continue for only another 24 hours (but we were making good progress)! With the interior of Dream Catcher a shambles, unable to work on the engine to find the cause of the overheating, unable to replace the macerator for the holding tank, with slivers of broken pottery everywhere, blood from Gordon's head wound on most of the pillows, and now diesel sloshing in the bilge (not to mention the poor sleep and eating conditions), I emailed a rather depressed sounding message to our spouses. I spared them the details, but Nancy knew that I am usually overly optimistic and became concerned. She called the Coast Guard (CG) and told them that three old men were out in the Gulf, conditions had been terrible for four days, several were sick and one had sustained some injuries, and asked the CG to check on their condition.

Monday afternoon about 3 pm I was on watch out in the cockpit when over the vhf came a call from Coast Guard Air Sea Rescue unit 2719, "Dream Catcher, where are you?" I gave them our position and 10 minutes later a CG twin engine jet circled overhead while they collected lots of information from us about our condition and equipment (EPIRB, radios, life-raft, etc.). The CG then called Nancy and said they were in contact with us, that we reported that we were alright, and that future routine flights in the area would check on us until we got in. Nancy then called Jo Ann and Kathy and told them of the CG report so that they would not worry. Onboard Dream Catcher we had been getting a regular stream of emails from our spouses, so we knew about the football scores and events of the day, but we had tried not to worry them with details of our miserable conditions.

Tuesday morning the GRIB file showed a fairly violent front passing through our position that afternoon, followed by light and variable winds (would you believe it?). At 2 pm Tuesday, after almost 6 days of beating into mountainous seas with winds always over 20 knots, the front went by with wind gusts well over 30 knots, but only for half an hour, then calm! By then we were only 80 miles from Egmont Key. It took a half hour of checking the engine cooling raw water system to find it was fine, but that the fresh water reservoir was empty. Adding a liter of water solved the problem and gave us engine power. It was still pretty sloppy out, but under power and on a level keel we could sleep and eat. For five days the wind generator had powered our freezer, refrigerator, lights, radios, and instruments, but now we had real power and could run the microwave! We motor sailed 12 hours until at 2 am Wednesday morning we slipped into the lee of Egmont Key. We were just about to drop the anchor when the motor stopped. Probably all the bouncing around stirred up silt in the fuel tank and clogged the filters. We had extra fuel filters on board, so decided the engine could wait for morning. It was time to celebrate! Milk and cookies for all! Then a very very quiet night of blessed sleep.

Wednesday morning we discovered that the fuel tank was empty! Apparently the 10-35 degrees of heel on starboard tack with big waves slamming the hull caused the fuel tank vent line to siphon out much of the fuel! This had never happened before in our 11 years of sailing Dream Catcher. The lost fuel left us with just enough for 12 hours of motoring into Egmont Key. I emptied one of the two full jerry cans into the tank and, after a quick bleeding of the fuel line, we motored three hours to our marina. In the marina, we used the pool and Jacuzzi, went out to a smashing dinner (courtesy of Gordon and John for Ben), had my brother and his wife over for dinner aboard Dream Catcher (to help use up all the prepared meals which Nancy had frozen for us), and did a minimal repair and clean-up. I rented a car and took Gordon and John to the airport Friday am. I then went to work in earnest and had the boat in pretty good condition by the time my own plane left for Houston on Sunday.

Why this a "Deal or Ordeal?" Did we take an extraordinary gamble with our lives? Where did we go wrong? How could we have mitigated our risks? Upon reflection these questions suggest a multitude of answers. There are lessons to be learned. Clearly we had bad luck with the weather, but when I subsequently examined the wind rose for November in the NE Gulf of Mexico it showed 15-25 knots from the NE for nearly 50% of the time. In the NW Gulf and closer to shore the winds were light and SE most often. I should have checked the entire route, not just the starting location, and used the November wind rose, not annual data. During Nancy and my November crossing from east to west the previous year we had four days of 15-20 knot NW winds. Since the weather is fickle, why not have a contingency plan? Had we hugged the coast going east we could have avoided the big waves but not the worst winds. However, we would have substituted the risks of unlit oil rigs at night, of uncharted obstructions from hurricane Katrina in the shoals off the Missippi River delta, and of collisions with fast running crew boats tending the oil rigs. The boat can take the offshore conditions we encountered much better than could the sailors. We left at night into sporty conditions. It would have been wiser to start with a day or two of coastal sailing to get our sea legs, for better preparation of the boat, and to be able to duck into the GCICW if the hoped for whether conditions failed to materialize. Our salvation from the wind and waves lay to the north, but once we covered our first 170 miles we could not easily go north when the predicted wind reduction did not occur.

In January Nancy and I will sail from St. Petersburg, first to the Florida Keys, then to the Bahamas for several months of snorkeling, fishing, and sailing. This is our last winter afloat and we look forward to a repeat of some of the wonderful sails we have had over the past 11years. Hopefully, at least some of our children and grandchildren will join us for part of this winter. The hardest part of the cruising life style is leaving family and friends. We now have a lovely house on shore in Texas where we can both enjoy visits from our family and friends, and where we can easily travel to see others less likely to travel to visit us. Most importantly, Dream Catcher is seriously for sale. She is a remarkably good boat and is ready to take someone else through the Caribbean and beyond. Just be careful with the weather!

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