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Emergency on Board and Rescue by Mexican Navy (Part II)

Thea and Jonathan Avis

Zwerver II
Van de Meer Ketch
June 2nd, 2015

Part II begins with the skipper’s recap of the incident aboard Zwerver II that lead to Thea being rescued by the Mexican Navy and continues with Jon’s misadventures with the same rescue vessel.

My Wife is Rescued… But my Boat is Holed

There was only 12 knots of wind and we were going down wind with the Genoa poled out to port. I really wanted to try wing-on-wing with the main so I placed a block tied to the starboard bow bollard and ran a line from the end of the boom forward as a preventer, through the block and back to the starboard Genoa winch so we could be safely in the cockpit and use a winch to control lines.

I asked Thea to start winching to take up the slack on the 3/8 double braid preventer, but the line must have caught a side vent and it snapped. Hard to believe, but she wasn’t sensing tension and just cranking. The boom was at midships, no sail raised at this point, but the angle of pull against a tight-centred main sheet made it impossible for the main to move easily. I had explained the process of easing the main as she took up the slack, but Thea proceeded, thinking she was taking up slack when in fact she was sheering the line against a vent edge and causing the line to slowly tear apart.

By this time, the main sheet had some play in it and needed to be tied off with the preventer. I then suggested Thea go forward and tie off the preventer as I eased the main, which meant pulling on the sheered line, which fed to the pulley sufficiently to position the boom one foot from the starboard rear main stay. For some reason she started feeding the preventer line through a fairlead and at that very moment the boom slowly swung to port and caught two of her fingers as the line tightened. She ended up losing the two ends to two fingers at the first joint on each. Thank God it was her left hand, as she is right handed!

I feel very badly about what happened, but it happened so fast and I had no idea she was threading line where it didn’t need to go. In hindsight I should have done it, as she didn’t realize the consequences of the line tightening. At the time we were both feeling so accomplished after three days at sea from Ensenada, with everything going so well; the boat, sleep, shifts and cooking. As Thea states to people, we were “on a roll” and knew we could continue to La Paz non-stop, which was scheduled for eight days.

When Thea was successfully transferred aboard the Mexican Navy vessel that came to our rescue at the south end of Isla Santa Margarita on March 25, two navy personnel were transferred to assist me take Zwerver to a suitable anchorage about 3 miles from Port Magdalena.  At approximately 1:00AM March 26, 2013, we arrived at the entrance to Bahia Magdalena and Zwerver was escorted by the same navy vessel to the anchorage at Punta Belcher.

For some reason, the navy vessel went on ahead of the anchorage, at least a half mile or so, and by radio instructed their personnel on board Zwerver to tell me where to steer to find the desired anchoring location, which was in towards shore.  Zwerver arrived at the spot and put its engine into neutral, awaiting the return of the navy vessel whose running lights we could see in the distance.  The navy vessel approached us virtually head on, slightly to port of Zwerver. It was obvious to me and the two navy assistants on board, that the navy boat had to either go to their port or starboard to avoid a collision. The three of us could not believe what was happening as we were stopped and had no steerage to avoid collision.

The navy boat started to turn to their port, which was across Zwerver’s bow. This action was too late.  Zwerver’s bow made contact approximately mid-ships and with its protruding anchor ripped off the navy vessel’s railings going aft, as well as a life ring.  As the navy boat accelerated to try to avoid the collision, it put more pressure on Zwerver’s bow, probably pushing part of the railings through our bow on the port side approximately 2′ above the water line.  And so a very long day came to an end with the rescue boat holing us!

Temporary, but effective, bow repair

Temporary, but effective, bow repair

I woke up the next day early, having not slept well, realizing that I couldn’t visit Thea until I fixed the hole and I couldn’t fix the hole before I inflated and launched the dinghy. And then I realized that a two hour boat ride in Zwerver across the bay to San Carlos was necessary to connect with a bus/ taxi for the one hour ride to Ciudad Constitucion. The current was running 3 knots, so balancing tools and applying the patch while steadying the dinghy, took all my wits. I was able to secure a ready rod from inside and bolt it to the outside, before attempting to thread on the patch materials. I then drilled, tapped and bolted an extra bolt from the outside to prevent the patch from turning. If you can believe it, we travelled to La Paz  (180nm) and not a drop of water came in!  I always keep materials on board for these kinds of emergencies; I used 1/2″ star board with three layers of neoprene from Thea’s old 1/4″ diving suit.

After waiting a week for Thea’s release, I was prepared to wait a few more days in Mag Bay to ensure Thea’s fingers didn’t become infected, but her extended stay under clean conditions paid off.  From Mag Bay the sailing went very smoothly, knowing the 15 knot winds were forecast from the NW for at least 3 days.  We made Los Muertos ( north of Cabo San Lucas on the Sea of Cortez) for a two-day anchorage before a day’s run to La Paz.  We would have stayed the one night except I got very sick from cooking and eating clam chowder, made from fresh clams traded just before leaving Mag Bay. Thank God I ate them at the anchorage. Lesson learned, don’t eat any shellfish under passage. I now don’t eat any shellfish, period.

Thea receives treatment for her hand

Thea receives treatment for her hand

We made contact with the La Paz navy base and were very well treated by the number two in command for the Navy section. It’s quite a garrison now with Army, Air Force and Navy working out of this location. New docks, boats and maintenance facilities.  They helped us contact the Duty Captain from the accident, via Sat phone, and arranged for a face-to-face meeting in La Paz the next Saturday. The Duty Captain (head of the naval garrison who happened to be on board that night) brought the ship’s captain and three other ratings for the meeting.

I believe that the correct procedure to transfer personnel from one vessel to another is for the arriving vessel to approach from behind the stationary vessel and did not feel that Zwerver had any liability in our unfortunate mishap. And, by written report, I had requested that the Navy cover the cost of Zwerver’s repairs.

During our meeting, it was revealed that the ship’s captain had worked from 6am that morning of the accident to 1am the following day without sleep. Also he had only been in this position for 6 months. He was actually steering the Navy boat with a navigator at the time. The previous night he had had only 5 hours of sleep.

It became obvious that we were not going to be able to get any financial support without a long drawn-out process and even if we won, they could levy a much higher cost for the rescue, ambulance and full hospital charges (reduced by Navy request).  Seeing that we could likely recover the small hospital charges from Alberta Health, we spent most of the meeting confirming their excellent handling of Thea, from the speed of response, to the qualified personnel on call, the expedient ambulance service and the hospital care, for which we will be eternally grateful. Their doctor and Duty Captain even travelled with Thea to the hospital in Cuidad Constitucion (an hour inland by car), then had to find their own way back to San Carlos and travel another hour by boat to the remote naval base on Isla Margarita.

Good times again! A game of bocce ball in 2014: Jon, Jennifer, Thea, Donna and Dennis (S/V Ez Does It)

Good times again! A game of bocce ball in 2015: Jon, Jennifer, Thea, Donna and Dennis (S/V Ez Does It)

I hope this account gives some sense of the ordeal and how quickly things can change when you least expect them.  In the two years since the accident, we have worked hard to return to a normal daily cruising routine and good times, which I must say, have got better every day.  And we are still enjoying the Sea of Cortez.

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  1. Adam says:

    Wow what a crazy experience. Thanks for sharing and food for thought for new sailors like ourselves

  2. Don says:

    Echo “Adam’s ” comment.
    Things happen so quickly !!!

  3. Bob S.V. Tarves says:

    Harsh lesson but never dampened the spirit… Thea, lots of love. Bob