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Witnessing a Tragedy in the Making

Tricia and Jim Bowen

Falcon VII
Kelly-Peterson 46 center cockpit cutter
August 22nd, 2016

“Hello. This is Cordon (not the real boat name). We’ve gone aground.  We’ve lost our anchor and chain and our boat’s washed up on the beach”.

Those were the words from a shaken woman speaking on channel16 on the VHF radio at 0450h on Saturday, April 23. The drama unfolded over the next 3.5 hours as a very windy night became a gusty dawn, in our rolly anchorage at Bahia San Quentin on the Baja Peninsula. The 40’ sailboat was anchored a mile south of us and 110 miles south of Ensenada, Mexico.

Cordon arrived at San Quintin on Friday, April 22 seeking what little shelter the wide open, shallow bay afforded, since the building seas were making safe passages north or south questionable.  Sometime during the early hours of Saturday morning, Cordon lost its anchor and chain and drifted 2.5 miles east in 20 knot winds, while the owners slept below, only to awaken when they went aground on the lee shore to the east, during a falling tide.

We were also in San Quintin seeking shelter, having made the decision late Thursday afternoon that it was better to change course and motor sail northeast towards the exposed-to-the-wind but none-the-less safe anchorage of San Quintin, instead of pounding into heavy seas and continuing on towards Ensenada. We had plenty of food and water on-board and could stay at anchor for a number of days or even a week or two, if necessary, rather than risk damage to ourselves or Falcon VII.  Had we continued, we were faced with at least 24 more hours of constantly pounding into head seas to reach the safety and protection of Ensenada Harbour. For the last 26 years of cruising, whenever we’ve left an anchorage we’ve pre-determined a ‘bail out’ spot for just such a purpose.  Though we’ve rarely had to use it, this was one of those times.

When we arrived after dark on Thursday evening, April 21, we spotted one other boat called Fairy Tale anchored near the northern point of Bahia San Quintin.  Fairy Tale was a Catalina 30 and the female skipper was single handing her south from Ensenada to La Paz and also seeking shelter. We radioed back and forth with Fairy Tale on Friday as the winds built, both of us relieved to be safely at anchor.  We enjoyed reading and relaxing for the first time in a week while doing the Bash north to Ensenada, even though our boat was rolling from side to side fairly severely. Cordon arrived in the anchorage Friday morning, followed a few hours later by Ultegra, a Beneteau First 415 heading north to Ensenada from Cabo San Lucas.

BCA Vancouver sailboat Ultegra arrived near dusk Friday evening and the skipper had a quick dinner then headed to bed, exhausted.  We were loosely buddy boating with Ultegra’s skipper, Dennis Giraud, who lives in Vancouver, having both left Cabo San Lucas the previous weekend, anxious to finally start the passage to Ensenada.  When Ultegra’s engine developed overheating problems in Turtle Bay, he was forced to shut it down and sail, single handing nearly 200 miles to San Quentin, before continuing to Ensenada.

The rugged Ensenada coastline. (CC BY SA 3.0 Unported)

The rugged Ensenada coastline. (CC BY SA 3.0 Unported)

With San Diego’s proximity to the Baja Peninsula, the US Coast Guard often monitor Channel 16 transmissions in Mexican waters.  The Coast Guard radio operator picked up the transmission between Ultegra and Falcon VII when he alerted us of his situation.  The radio operator contacted Ultegra and established a radio schedule to stay in touch with Dennis during his three-day passage to Bahia San Quintin, to update his position and ensure he was safe. We have always been very impressed with the United States Coast Guard and this was one more example of their professionalism and great value to the boating community.   Jim and I were very relieved when Dennis sailed into sight from the south end of San Quintin’s expanse, just before dark on Friday, April 22, after a long but uneventful sail.  He was in excellent spirits but physically exhausted.  Fortunately he was able to run his diesel engine without overheating, just long enough to anchor beside us in the swelly, shallow bay.  By this time the seas and winds were building and he was concerned that his overheating engine might not start again if a problem arose during the night.  Since we had been in frequent VHF communication with him during his three-day passage, we assured him we would continue to monitor Channel 16 overnight in case he needed assistance.

We headed to bed around 2300h and eventually drifted off to sleep in the constant motion of Falcon VII.   Northerly winds were blowing in the low 20’s by this time. When we heard Cordon’s urgent call on the VHF at 0450h, Jim jumped out of bed and headed to the VHF to respond.  We knew that it was unlikely anyone in authority outside the bay would have heard the call because of the geographic nature of our location, which included three volcanic peaks to the north, and prevented a VHF radio signal from travelling very far.  Jim radioed the skipper that we unfortunately didn’t feel we could physically assist, as we would go aground in anything less than 7’ of water and Cordon was already in 5’.  In addition to how shallow the water was where Cordon had gone aground, the tide was falling, making it impossible for us to approach them in Falcon VII.  We even contemplated launching our inflatable dinghy, but again felt it unsafe to traverse the open bay in the gusty conditions with the building and confused seas.  Fortunately, since we had cell coverage and a phone number for the US Coast Guard in San Diego, we immediately phoned them to apprise them of the situation and they relayed the information to the Mexican Navy.  We provided Cordon’s coordinates and relayed that the damaged vessel was being pushed further onto the shore in breaking waves.  To begin with, Cordon’s skipper was opposed to involving the Mexican Navy, preferring to find someone on shore who could help him once daylight arrived and businesses were open, as he couldn’t afford to pay for a tow from the Navy.  Jim radioed back and reassured him that the Navy would not charge him if he, his crew or his vessel were at risk, an idea which he eventually accepted.  As it turned out, an 80’ Mexican Navy cutter was relatively close and was able to make radio contact with Cordon’s skipper.  They maneuvered their ship so they were within site of the vessel in distress.

For the next hour, we monitored multiple transmissions between the Mexican Navy, the sailboat skipper and his distraught wife.  We could tell from the wife’s voice, often speaking in the background, that she was very shaky, panicky and extremely anxious, while the skipper seemed somewhat unconcerned in comparison, perhaps not coming to terms yet with the severity of their situation. We thought he might be physically and psychologically exhausted and unable to think clearly, since he repeatedly told the Mexican Navy cutter that he only needed his boat to be towed to a boat yard where it could be lifted out of the water and he could check for damages.

Little progress was made about a rescue plan over the next two hours between the Navy and the ill-fated sailboat being pounded onto shore.  Short transmissions and pleas from Cordon were interspersed with long periods of radio silence.  We tried to visualize what might be happening on the Navy cutter.  We tried to imagine ourselves as both the people in distress and the Navy personnel helping them.  We realized that all attempts to help needed to be well thought out before any action was taken.  One challenge appeared to be the difficulty in communicating between the English speaking boat owners and the Mexican Navy radio operator, whose second language was English.   At times we had trouble understanding him due to his strong Mexican accent.  Perhaps he wasn’t the usual radio operator but the only crew on board with passable English.

Over the next hour, he intermittently radioed a series of questions, which revealed the identities of the skipper and his wife and that Cordon had been on a non-stop passage from San Fransisco for 14 days. They had entered Bahia San Quintin because they were exhausted, everything was wet down below and their sails were torn.  The Navy then ascertained that the engine was still working while they were being pounded in the surf.  The operator repeatedly asked if they should wait while Cordon’s skipper contacted his insurance company and the skipper repeatedly responded that he didn’t have any boat insurance.  Around dawn the skipper radioed that there were locals yelling at them from the beach that wanted to help, but he couldn’t understand them; the noise of the wind howling  hindered  further attempts at communication with those on the beach.

Around 0630h Cordon’s skipper informed the Navy that his engine had finally failed and they now urgently needed a tow away from shore.  A moment later his sobbing wife came on Channel 16 and made another tearful plea to the Navy and to us to help them.  She thought they were leaving the scene and she begged them to stay. Her voice was full of emotion when she added that she didn’t even know if the skipper was still on-board, since he had gone out on deck and hadn’t returned.  We felt helpless just listening to her, but didn’t want to confuse communication by giving our emotional support over the radio.  The Navy’s response to the woman’s pleas was that they were not leaving.  We felt that the two people on board needed emotional encouragement over the radio to keep their morale up, but at that point decided not to butt into the conversation.   On several occasions, the operator asked if they wanted to be taken off the boat but the skipper kept refusing, repeatedly asking for a tow to a boat yard to assess damage.  It was clear to us that even a 20’ long boat with a powerful outboard engine would have trouble reaching them with the surf breaking as it was.  We felt great empathy for the skipper and his wife.  We listened and slowly ate our breakfast in the safety and protection of our sturdy, comfortable sailboat.  I had tears streaming down my face, envisioning how wet, cold, frightened and helpless they must have felt and knowing how helpless we felt sitting only a two short miles away.

Jim and I talked at length about whether it was appropriate for us to intervene and contact Cordon’s skipper on Channel 16 to let him know that the closest haul out facility was not nearby in the village of San Quintin, but rather in the Port of Ensenada, 110 miles to the north and impossible to reach due to the current severe weather conditions.  We agreed that the skipper needed to know that information and transmitted accordingly.  Cordon’s skipper was unaware that there was a weather system brewing outside the Bay, perhaps because he was so fatigued.  Jim then respectfully suggested that the skipper should start thinking about what his other options might be.  He said that he felt that it was time for the skipper to put the safety of his crew and himself above that of his boat, even if it meant abandoning his boat. Eventually Cordon’s skipper acknowledged the severity of his situation and said he would give thought to abandoning ship.  A moment later he radioed back that the Navy personnel had just arrived on-board and he had to go. He then radioed again to say that they were going to abandon ship after all. He thanked us for our help and we wished them well as they started gathering the few documents and belongings they could in preparation for leaving their sailboat to the ravages of the pounding surf.

For the rest of the day Jim and I felt crushed, like we had a huge weight on our shoulders having witnessed such an unfortunate tragedy.  Hearing the skipper say they were going to abandon ship saddened us incredibly.  We didn’t know the couple on Cordon, but as cruisers we have communicated with hundreds of fellow cruisers over the VHF radio, and even though we may not actually meet in person, a bond is formed.  Since we had obtained Cordon’s skipper’s cell phone number, we contacted them a few days later and found out that local missionaries were putting them up in San Quintin and would provide transportation to the Mexican border.  They were not doing well and he sounded very disheartened with their situation.

Knowing what terrible circumstances the crew of Cordon faced became an opportunity for us to discuss how we could improve our own safety procedures on Falcon VII.  These now include:

  • Monitoring Channel 16 24/7 while cruising and at anchor.  This is a decision each skipper must make themselves; we are not suggesting every cruiser should do this, but if we hadn’t monitored Channel 16 that night, no one would have heard Cordon’s cry for help and notified the US Coast Guard and subsequently the Mexican Navy.  The two single handers in the anchorage didn’t have their radios on (completely their choice) and slept through the wind-swept night, unaware of what was happening until after dawn when we filled them in on the VHF radio.
  • We have also now decided to do hourly anchor checks anytime we are concerned that winds and weather warrant, to ensure that our anchor is holding and that the bridle hasn’t chaffed.  Those checks are done together, with one of us staying in the cockpit, keeping an eye on the other on deck.  Imagine if one of us fell overboard during an anchor check and the other didn’t realize it for a few minutes because they were below!
  • Life jackets are always worn on deck, while doing anchor checks and while underway.
  • We have downloaded an anchor alarm App onto our iPhone.  We set up the parameters according to the length of our anchor rode and the distance we could travel before the alarm sounds.  It is a loud annoying sound that will wake us up to deal with the situation.

We hope the above will help other cruisers open a dialogue about safety procedures on their own boat; encourage skippers to check their anchors for weak links, frayed rode or rusty chains and to consider increasing the level of awareness of what can happen to them on a dark and stormy night.

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  1. Christopher K. says:

    Super good article! Thank you indeed. We can learn so much from what has gone wrong with others, that these articles on urgency or distress situations are the best, most informative education possible.

  2. Jean Baillargeon says:

    Great piece! A suggestion for monitoring anchor drift. Most chart plotters offer that option as well as phone and IPad apps. Why buy an app if you already have the capability with your current gear. I’ve tested ours a few times in rolling, windy anchorages and its works great.

    A spelling mistake, Dennis’ family name is Giraud… not Geraud. We’re neighbours at Spruce Harbour.

    Fair winds.

    1. Jennifer Handley says:

      Thanks for catching the spelling error, Jean!

  3. JD says:

    activecaptian.com anchor alarm article

    https://activecaptain.com/articles/misc/anchorAlarms.php

    >>> Anchor Alarms >>>

    One of the most controversial newsletters we ever released happened
    over 3 years ago – it was about the mathematics of anchor alarms. It was
    so popular that we’re running it again because there are so many new
    ActiveCaptain members who missed it.

    It should be simple. Pick the spot to anchor; come to a stop; drop the
    anchor and set the anchor alarm. Then pull back until the anchor sets.
    Now if you pull away further from the anchor set point than the distance
    you specified, alarms should go off, right?

    Well, not exactly. The mathematics are surprisingly a lot more complex.
    We know. It seems easy and obvious. We’ve been involved in many debates
    until the pencil and paper come out and then, “oh yeah” is heard.

    Here’s the missing magical point. You’ve got to notice that the point
    where the anchor position is set in the alarm is the position of the GPS
    and not the position of the bow/anchor. That one small point ends up
    bringing a whole bunch of trigonometry into the calculation. When the
    boat swings 180 degrees, the error created by that offset equals twice
    the distance from the bow to the GPS.

    Let’s take an example for a typical 42′ sailboat with a GPS on the stern
    rail. This is the worst case problem but is very typical and
    demonstrates what happens very well.

    So we’re anchoring in 10′ of water with a bow that’s 5′ off the water’s
    surface. A good scope for a night without much weather expected would be
    5:1. This means 75′ of rode will be let out and pulled back to set hard
    (we call that power setting). The anchor alarm is set at 125′, way more
    than the 75 put out. And since we power set the anchor, we couldn’t
    possibly move 50′, right?

    At 3 am, because these things always happen at 3 am, the anchor alarm
    goes off. You’re 127′ back. You remember that you way over added to the
    75′ and start planning what you’re going to do in the total black of
    night with the moderate wind that’s now blowing.

    What really happened is that the tide changed at 1 am. During the next 2
    hours you slowly swung around moving back. Not realizing this new math
    for anchor alarms you didn’t realize that the GPS displacement caused 84′
    of position error in the anchor alarm. Your alarm went off after moving
    back only 52′. In reality, your anchor alarm should watch you move back
    another 32′ without your anchor moving 1 inch on the sea floor. The
    anchor alarm should have probably been set at about 75 + 84 + 10 + 10 =
    179 feet. The two 10’s are for GPS accuracy error and slop since the
    anchor doesn’t set immediately. Can you imagine setting an anchor alarm
    at almost 200′ with only 75′ of rode out? And yet, that’s the right
    number.

    We haven’t found an anchor alarm that compensates for this GPS
    positional error. It’s one of the reasons we wrote DragQueen (available
    for free in the Apple app store and Google Play). Since the anchor alarm
    is on a phone, the GPS position is the phone itself. When deploying the
    anchor, we stand with the iPhone at the bow to eliminate one half the
    GPS position error. There’s still another position error based on where
    the GPS is located while we sleep at night (25′ back in our stateroom).

    Remember too that this positional error happens at all angles. Swing
    about 90 degrees to the side and the error is about 1 times the GPS
    displacement distance. Even that can be significant.

    Given a heading/fluxgate sensor and a few configuration settings, 100%
    of this GPS positional error could be eliminated. How come not a single
    marine electronics manufacturer has done it?

    If you’re still saying, “wait a second – there’s not a 2x error in the
    position” – check out this graphic proof of what happens. We’ll wait to
    hear the “oh yeah”:
    https://activecaptain.com/articles/misc/anchorAlarms.php

    Happy anchoring!

    One recent note: Since running this original newsletter item, we found
    that Vesper now has this swing calculation built into their anchor alarm
    on their products.

  4. Dennis Giraud says:

    Hey everyone, I heard a rumour the boat was recovered off the beach. Have not been able to confirm though. I have not seen it here in Ensenada.

  5. Ken Wright says:

    well written, and sobering !
    very hard to put ourselves in the shoes of that couple…..but we must try .
    A number of mistakes were made…. for a long time I have mumbled that you can make one mistake,
    and recover. But a 2nd compounds the situation enormously. a third proves fatal.
    Why no anchor watch…or alarm ?
    did the motion of the boat not change when the chain broke ?
    do we not sleep much lighter in such a situation ?
    was a second anchor ready to deploy ?
    could a dinghy not carry the 2nd anchor out to deeper water ? think “Fortress ”
    Stoicism may have its place in a man’s character…….not that night
    Could the wife not slap some reality into the blinded skipper ?
    could the Mexican navy vessel have sent a very long line to the “at this time” disabled boat ?
    Thanks for the article, read at anchor off Isolo Ponza, West coast of Italy.