While we were drifting at sea waiting to be rescued I started writing about our ordeal. Writing helped as a stress release valve at the time. We’re finally able to close the chapter on our rescue in the Gulf of Panama.
Bristol Rose at anchor off the rocky shoreline of Isla del Rey in the idyllic Pearl Islands (Las Perlas)
I never wanted to be rescued. I’ve gotten this far, hoping never to have to face my fear of a rescue at sea situation. A call to abandon ship on the open seas must be one of a sailor’s worst nightmares, along with the fear of a man overboard. My sailing aspirations really don’t go much beyond being comfortably tied to the dock and let out on occasion for a weekend sail on the bay. Nothing too strenuous.
Signing on with the World ARC Rally has provided us with a measure of assurance that should anything go wrong, the personnel and tracking systems of the organization will work to bring us to safety.
Conditions were perfect when we weighed anchor early in the morning to begin the long passage from the Las Perlas islands of Panama to the Galapagos islands. Tonight we are disabled and adrift in the Gulf of Panama and being carried by the current towards the Columbian coast.
Thousands of Pink shells are washed ashore at Mogo Mogo
Anchorages in Las Perlas vary from white sand beaches to black sand to rocky cliffs and shorelines.
Our week in the islands of Las Perlas was a dream. Elliot and Rex caught plenty of fish. Owen scoured deserted islands for materials that early inhabitants might have put to use for fire making and shelter building. He researched and located a pre-Columbian fish trap and a freshwater well from the time of Spanish occupation.
The bar at Esmeralda Village
We visited local villages and were charmed by the welcoming friendliness of the local people.
Captain Graham, S/V Eowyn
At the same time Captain Graham and crew Mike and John on our buddy boat S/V Eowyn, were also cruising the islands with a plan to rendezvous with Bristol Rose at Isla San Jose.
Mono Ahumado - it reminds us of a character from The Simpsons
The anchorage makes a perfect place to stage for our crossing with the added bonus of a visit ashore to Gerda’s home. She settled on her island paradise 30 years ago from Germany. Gerda welcomed us to her home on Isla San Jose with a glass of freshly squeezed fruit juice. We stocked up with delicious mandarins, grapefruit and oranges.
Elliot, Rex, Owen and Robert enjoy Gerda’s hospitality.
Our passage will take us through the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the doldrums, and south of the Equator. We went to sleep on Friday night feeling confident and pleased that all was ready for an early morning start on the 850 mile passage to the Galapagos; a passage that could take us 8 days. At 7:40am Saturday, February 13 we weighed anchor and said farewell to Las Perlas.
Dolphin Fish, also called Dorado or Mahi Mahi.
Keen fishermen Elliot and Rex start the day with a good sized Bonito which goes back in the water. There are better eating fish to catch. It seems that just having a lure in the water is enough to catch a fish in these waters and Elliot soon brings in back-to-back mahi mahi.
The big excitement of the day is a ten pound Yellowfin Tuna; at last, a tuna with a reputation for excellent eating. We’ve had sushi rice and nori on the boat so long in anticipation of a fine tuna catch. It’s sushi rolls for dinner. Robert is is in his element, “It doesn’t get much better than this”.
Captain has decided on three-hour watches during the night. With Owen and Elliot sharing the 6:00-9:00PM watch, me 9:00 to midnight, Robert midnight to 3:00AM and Rex 3:00-6:00AM, we should all settle into the routine and get sufficient rest. After the first four days the plan is to move forward in the schedule with Rex taking the 6:00-9:00PM watch, and so on.
Butterflies invaded our cockpit and nav station
During Elliot and Owen’s watch till 9:00PM conditions are perfect and I’m keeping them company. The only thing of note is the black and green butterflies hitching a ride with us. We’re doing about 4 knots of boat speed running with the wind in winds of less than 10 knots. Flying the spinnaker all day, the motion is comfortable and it’s a satisfying enough pace for us in light conditions. Eowyn left before us in the morning and Graham confirmed by radio that 15 miles south and west of us the winds are light.
Sailing with our big red spinnaker on route to The Pitons, St. Lucia in December
We’ve been enjoying our new spinnaker. The extra couple of knots of speed we get in light air is worth the financial expense. Our habit is to reef the main, and reduce sail for the night, bringing in the spinnaker before dark. Tonight we’re expecting more of the same light air and the spinnaker is easy to rig and bring down so we’ll just keep an eye on things for now.
At 10:00PM when Robert awakes to check on our progress my report is “perfect, we’re sailing beautifully”. Just at that moment the wind picks up from under 10 to 12 knots. Robert moves to bring in the spinnaker. In the next minute we’re hit with a front, no rain, just punishing gusts of wind at 30 knots.
We broach and I’m struggling to hold Bristol Rose. That dip of the gunnels brought enough water in through the hand basin in the aft head to dump water on the floor. Owen and Elliot tend to the seacock quickly before responding to the need for more muscle on deck. At some point the engine is turned on to help control the boat.
Robert, Owen and Elliot are in a struggle with the spinnaker. Now Rex is trying to
turn Bristol Rose to help get the sail in. With Robert’s call to ease the spinnaker sheet, the wind flings it free. At midships I foolishly try to grab hold of the clew and I have the sheet for a moment. Not surprisingly it is whipped out of my hands and all I can do is call “watch out for that sheet!”. As it goes with most disasters of this kind, things happen fast. The dreaded words fly from someone’s lips, “The sheet is caught around the propeller”. The sound is sickening.
The propeller is out of action. If we can cut the line away we’ll be ok. Rex says the rudder is also in doubt. What is restricting movement of the helm? The spinnaker is undamaged and is now safely bagged and secured on deck. Robert climbs over the stern and out onto the self-steering. The boat is bucking up and down in washing machine seas. With a flashlight he is able to see the sheet is held tight against the rudder, forcing it hard to port. Steerage even under sail will be impossible unless the rudder can be freed.
Let’s think this through first. Outwardly, all the crew remain calm while fears, questions and doubts compete for attention within each of us. Robert discusses how he might get into the water and what safety lines we should have in place before he does. How will we lift him back on board? What if he gets knocked out or injured by the boat bouncing up and down on top of him? We can use the Lifesling but will we be able to manage it? It’s now after 10:00PM. How will he see in this darkness without a diving light?
Bristol Rose is lurching, taking waves on the beam in nasty wind and sea conditions. I’m not usually prone to seasickness but as the reality of our situation sets in, I have a strong urge to throw up. We all agree conditions are too bad right now for anyone to risk diving on the propeller. We’re hoping wind and seas will calm down by daylight. Maybe then Robert can cut away the line to at least free the rudder so we might still be able to sail out of this mess.
After a while of drifting with the wind from the north-west and a two knot southerly current, we’re concerned that we could drift south and east onto the rocky coastline. With the rudder stuck hard, we have little control over our direction but we try to sail for about an hour before giving it up as a bad joke. We have to face the fact we can only drift. We try to contact our friends on Eowyn without success. They must be a long way ahead of us now. We’ll keep a watch as planned and hope any ships in the area will see us by AIS and radar and perhaps come to our aid.
At 9:00AM on Sunday morning we check in to the Pan Pacific Net on SSB 8143 kHz (our pre-arranged contact point with Eowyn) and advise Sue, the net controller of our situation. Robert reports he is hopeful we can get the rudder freed up once the weather calms down a little and he can safely get in the water. We’ve been drifting for almost 12 hours. Sue gives us the weather report and it looks like we can expect a slight decrease in wind, before it picks up again. She asks us to check in again with her on the 6:00PM net.
Through the net we’re able to speak with Captain Graham of Eowyn. Graham has a satellite phone and offers to be our communicator with the World ARC Rally Control. Graham’s suggestion to make contact again on the hour is much appreciated. We wonder if he knows how much we appreciate the sound of his calm and caring voice. We expect that our position is currently being tracked by World ARC Rally Control through the Yellow Brick device fitted in St. Lucia.
Conditions in the morning are slightly improved. Robert, Owen and Elliot inflate the dinghy on deck. It takes the three of them to stop the dinghy from flying around once it’s inflated but they get it over the side. From the relative safety of the dinghy, Robert sees the situation is much worse than he had thought last night. Between the cutlass bearing and the propellar the line is wrapped tight. The propellar shaft is dislodged (similar to how a corkscrew dislodges a cork from a bottle). It is jammed up against the rudder.
We need help. Robert puts out a pan-pan requesting towing assistance. There’s no response. As arranged, he talks with Graham by SSB radio. Graham contacts Nick at Rally Control by sat phone to advise we are disabled and adrift. Nick tries to communicate with us via SSB from his location in Ecuador but we can’t receive his transmission. The only direct voice communication we have is with Graham and we have an agreement to make contact once every half hour for updates on plans to help us.
During the following hours the crew of Eowyn have put their passage to the Galapagos on h
old and are hove-to while communicating between Nick and ourselves. Nick is working the situation from the World ARC office in Ecuador, with the rescue center in Falmouth and they in turn are also in contact with the American Coast Guard and the Panamanian Patrol. We wait for news. Those words “rescue center” bring the severity of our situation well and truly home to each of us aboard Bristol Rose.
After only a short calming of the winds, it picks up again and we continue to be bounced around by the waves on our beam. We’re thankful that nobody is injured although the crew are quietly suffering seasickness and anxiety. Dry crackers are all any of us can manage. Cooking is impossible in any case. An added danger below decks is that all the bouncing has strewn things around that normally would stay well in place. Moving about is difficult and Robert advises us all to try to rest.
By late afternoon on Sunday, after almost 20 hours adrift, we know that the Panamanians have taken responsibility for our rescue. They can have a boat to us within 24 hours. Graham suggests we should make tow lines ready. We pull out the lines we think are most suitable, our longest, strongest lines, and wait expectantly. Rescue could be as soon as three hours away depending on the rescue boat’s current position. Once Graham has confirmation that a boat is indeed coming for us, Eowyn continues on to the Galapagos wishing us good luck. Robert continues to put out pan-pan calls on the radio and to send position reports to Nick and the authorities co-ordinating rescue efforts.
Twenty-four hours after the incident, we have no voices calling us on the radio and no sign of a rescue boat. Earlier in the evening one commercial vessel answered our call but told us they cannot tow us. We sight just one vessel in all this time and we assume it to be our rescue vessel so we fire off some flares. We call on channel 16 but get no response. Our hopes of being found tonight seem to have faded with the light. All we can do is to continue sending position reports, putting out calls on the VHF and SSB radios, praying we don’t drift into Columbian waters and reassuring each other. We gave Owen a Spot personal tracking device as a birthday gift in January and he activates a call for help which results in a call to Robert’s brother in Sydney.
Around midnight we hear a voice, “Bristol Rose, Bristol Rose …and
lots of words in Spanish. We respond but get no confirmation that we are heard. We shoot off more flares. Nothing. Robert sends a hasty email to Nick that we think the rescue vessel is near but cannot hear us.
Finally, around 12:30AM, again, “Bristol Rose, Bristol Rose…”. We respond in the little Spanish we know, “No hablas Espanol” and are elated to hear a voice in return asking us to “slowly” give our position. The ship is the Panamanian Patrol boat Ligia Elena.
Half an hour later they are beside us. We ask if they can tow us back to Panama City but the language differences between us make communication difficult. It is obvious that any attempt to get a towline attached will be difficult in the current conditions and darkness. The Commander suddenly says he will not make an attempt because it would be too dangerous, however, he will stay with us until conditions are safer.
We’ve been adrift for about 27 hours. Robert is the only one not feeling seasick. We haven’t eaten anything resembling a meal since Saturday evening. Utterly exhausted, we all sleep on and off, waking to the loudest noises of our bowsprit dipping into the ocean and waves slamming our beam and washing into the cockpit. Not knowing whether our rescuers would need to come alongside, earlier we had put out fenders. Only now, in our half sleep we remember they are still in place. They’re adding to the chaos of noise, whacking against the hull with every wave.
We hold onto our trust that our rescuers will stay with us through the dark hours but wake to peek out through the portholes to check, just in case. The lights are still there. It’s hot in the cabin because it has to be closed up to keep out the waves and saltwater spray. We must continue to wait, disappointed but realizing that the safety of both boats and crew are at stake. Nick has stuck with us through the night, responding to our emails and helping us to keep up our spirits.
The sight of Ligia Elena brings tears to our eyes.
At first light we’re relieved to see Ligia Elena beside us. How long was our rescue boat out here searching for us? They must also be tired and uncomfortable. The Commander hails us to say “we will begin the rescue operations”. We’re excited and nervous at the same time. It’s still rough out here. To our confusion, rather than coming closer, the boat moves away to the north. I’m pleading with Robert now to get on the radio to confirm that we haven’t misunderstood. The answer comes back they are pulling out the line they will use to connect with our towline.
A crewman throws a light line with a “monkey fist” attached to the much heavier tow line.
The sight of the Ligia Elena speeding back to us is overwhelming. We’re ready. The second throw of the monkey fist connected as Elliot took the catch. That training back in the Panama Canal as a line handler sure paid off! It takes time to feed out the towline and to make sure everything is ready aboard Bristol Rose. In preparation Robert had tied our lines in cradle fashion to distribute the stress of the load over 2 long lines, each one attached on both starboard and port side to cleats on the bow and midships. Now we are bound to the other boat. Our lines look puny compared to theirs and we hope they are strong enough to last the distance.
In the past 36 hours we’ve drifted many miles. We’re told we will be taken to the closest safe harbour, Bahia Pinas. We have no idea where that is and what, if anything, we will find there. The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus mentions the world class sportfishing resort, Tropic Star Lodge at Bahia Pinas in the isolated Darien region. There’ a small neighboring village, but nothing to do with cruising sailboats. We’re naturally concerned that we may find ourselves far from haul out facilities in Panama City, stuck in the jungle with no roads in or out.
Under tow, our troubles are not over. We begin taking on water and our bilge pump has stopped working. We remind the Commander to please slow down the tow to 7 knots. We have to use the manual bilge pump every fifteen minutes. After some searching Robert finds that due to the speed at which we are being towed the wave forming at our stern is forcing water through the vent in the propane locker. The water filling the locker is draining into the bilge. The back pressure on the bilge pump must have also destroyed the valve inside it. Keeping the tow speed below 7 knots helps keep things under control and we breath a collective sigh of relief.
Being towed through rough seas is not pleasant and Robert continues to keep an eye on everything. One of our tow lines looks to be fraying but is holding. Still one more knock is coming our way. Although our spinnaker remained intact, the sea seems determined to have it. We watch incredulously as our spinnaker, looking like a red bubble, floats for a while then disappears, a victim of the constant waves washing over the bow. Despite Ligia Elena turning around and the crew’s best efforts we could not locate it. The weight of the fiberglass at the bottom of the sock would be enough to pull it under. It’s a reminder to us of how difficult it would be to locate the bobbing head of a man overboard in these conditions. We remind ourselves also that we are all still onboard and there are no injuries.
After about 14 hours under tow, we reach Bahia Pinas in the dark. It’s Monday night, 48 hours after the start of our problems. As a small boat comes out to meet us, the crew of Ligia Elena release us and we stand on deck calling out our thanks to them. They stay back in deep water and we are guided to a depth in which we can anchor. We never got to shake their hands.
Safe Harbour, Bahia Pinas
We’re taken ashore to complete the necessary paperwork and are offered a welcoming meal of sandwiches. Our surroundings seem surreal. We find ourselves in a jungle paradise, on solid ground, ever grateful to all those who had a hand (and a voice) in our rescue.
Panama Patrol station in Taboga
Later we hear that our efforts to be rescued; the flares, pan-pan calls etc. are all tactics used by pirates and drug runners in the area to lure unsuspecting boats. Our experience shouts out the importance of cruising with a buddy boat and staying connected.
The crew of Bristol Rose convey our heartfelt thanks to Captain Graham and his crew Mike and John aboard Eowyn, Nick and everyone at World ARC, The US Coast Guard, the Rescue Center at Falmouth, Servicio Nacional Aeronaval, Panama Patrol, and the volunteer net controllers of the Pan Pacific Net. We’ll always remember the brave crew of Ligia Elena. Just a couple of days after our rescue a crew member of Ligia Elena was shot in the leg during a confrontation in the waters of the Gulf of Panama. We thank the owners and staff of Tropic Star Lodge for providing a safe harbour. Last but by no means least, many thanks to our cruising friends who helped us in Panama and to those who sent their best wishes.