Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Rescue

The cruising guides all cover it, but we apprehend what we already know, and we had overlooked the Pacific Swell.  Swell is a major player in the lives of those sailing off of Mexico’s west coast.  Swell, as distinct from local wind-waves originates hundreds, or even thousands of miles away – the product of strong storms and their resulting waves and currents having had time to organize and sort themselves into relatively regular patterns.  Mexico’s winter swell comes from Pacific storms off California and in the Gulf of Alaska.  It almost always comes from the northwest.  Swell can be experienced as gentle and undulating; a rising and falling elevator ride 10’ up, 10’ down in 15 second intervals (the period).  Or, particularly when it meets local current or high winds, swell can build higher – 15’ or more and, (worse) steeper (6 second periods for example).

As we left Tenacatita Bay on January 2, 1213 and entered the Pacific to head north, the morning off-shore breeze was building past 20 knots to the sort of wind that was going to persist all day.  Seas were rising, and we double reefed the main accordingly, reducing it to ¼ of its full size.  To balance the rig, we eased out about a third of our genoa – covering perhaps ½ the area between forestay and mast.  With this comfortable arrangement we set out to steer the waves, or steer around them more accurately.  We were a couple of miles off-shore when we noticed a 44’ sailboat laboring under full main with no headsail.  As they lurched and rolled, their rig seemed to be handling them, not the other way around.  Suddenly the distance between us began to close rapidly, and the other boat’s motion became truly wild; skating sideways down 8’ swells, and being slapped by 4’ cross-pattern waves, only to turn 90 degrees and dive dangerously into the next trough.  As green water rolled across their decks, their main began to come down and it was clear that something was very wrong.  As we came alongside to offer assistance a “securite” call came over the radio; the boat had snapped its rudder off and was in distress.  Securite is the universal (French originally) radio call to advise other mariners of important information.   It is one step short of the more commonly understood “mayday”.

Under the conditions “coming alongside” meant approaching to within about 50 yards, too far to make oneself heard over the wind.  The 17-ton boat in distress was careening down the face of the swells alarmingly rapidly, and could cut that 150’ separation to 50’ in five seconds.  Radio contact revealed that the man and woman aboard were staying calm, with only light cuts and bruises.  They requested that we stand-by in the event they should need to abandon their boat, as our boat has a swim-step (making climbing aboard from the water easier), but that they were cruising with a “buddy-boat”, and he would tow them in.  As we were preparing 200’ of ¾” rescue line to drag, a call came in that the buddy boat could not get his engine started.  

At this point fellow cruisers who had heard the call began to radio from the bay around the point and five miles distant. One with experience in rescues began to organize the effort. The rocky shoreline and reef, still several miles away but closing fast was of particular concern.  His admonition that all boats involved have all their sail down was well understood. We began to tighten our circle around the rudderless craft as our dragging line now became the intended tow rope.  We were concerned that our 45 horse-power engine might not have the power needed under the conditions to pull both boats, so we were relieved when the radio announced that the buddy had succeeded in starting his bigger diesel.  Still, circling the disabled boat waiting for the tow boat to arrive revealed the extreme difficultly with this sort of rescue.  Not only can it be dangerous to approach the boat close enough to throw a line, but it can be impossible for those aboard to snag a line being dragged.  It may be easier to rescue people who have jumped into the water and swum clear of their boat than to rescue another boat for a tow.  Imagine riding one of those mechanical bulls that were popular barroom amusements in the 80’s, but now imagine that the bull is also on a randomly spinning lazy-susan.  It is hard for those aboard to hold on, much less snag a line dragging in the water when they cannot predict which side of their boat will be presented with the line.  Many passes were taken, and none came close to succeeding.
Getting a line to the boat in distress proved nearly impossible.
 All were relieved when it was announced that the cruisers in the bay had pooled efforts and hired a brave Mexican panguero to make the seriously uncomfortable trip out to assist in the line transfer.  Even with the powerful and quick panga backing cautiously towards the bucking hull and then charging away when it charged them,  several attempts were required before the line was successfully transferred.   As the cruising buddy feathered his power keeping the tow-line taught, the rudderless boat careened helplessly left and right through 240 degrees putting incredible strain on the line.  The line eventually failed, but the flat water of the sheltered bay had been reached and the ease of resetting the line highlighted the complications of a successful rescue in disturbed seas.
 The computer screenshot is the record of our track steered that day – note the distance traveled and the average speed – 17 nautical miles in almost 6 hours! Needless to say, enough excitement for one day. We escorted the towing boats back in and anchored to try our departure again the next day.

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