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Illywhacker - Loss of the Seabird

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SEA BIRD

Author Peter Aston
Date Feb 2001
Map Ref Prince William Sound, Gulf of Alaska
Summary The name of the boat and crew have been changed but this story is true.

 

This is the story of the loss of a cruising yacht in the Gulf of Alaska. I have changed the names to avoid identifying our friends in deference to their wishes. It was never published.

The Gulf of Alaska can be a treacherous ocean for yachts, especially in winter. From the comfort of the saloon of his yacht illywhacker, Peter Aston tells of the story of friends John and Maree who lost their yacht Seabird in February 2001.

For the first time ever, there were 6 yachts this year with liveaboard owners braving winter conditions in the Small Boat Harbour of Cordova. The slips are constructed to ensure all vessels face the prevailing icy blasts funnelling in from the Copper River Delta. There can be no firmer reminder of the severity of the weather in the North Pacific than spending a dark winter at 600N hunkered below decks listening to the tearing rain and feeling the yacht stretching her lines as she heels to winds frequently over 100 knots. Peering through illywhacker’s portholes in such conditions at the shadowed forms of snow encrusted fishing boats and the few other yachts tied up nearby gives visiting tropical cruisers such as my wife Lyndall and I a warm sense of security knowing that we are securely fastened to land and among friends.

These same fishermen who winterise their boats in October each year and head south or to warm houses in town are very clear in their advice to sailors who venture out on to the Gulf of Alaska – don’t even think of it before April and be in harbour by the Fall equinox. Pilot Charts of the North Pacific show even the summer months as subject to intense Lows which can generate fierce storms, but these are fewer and interspersed with calmer periods making fishing and cruising in the long hours of daylight the world’s best.

John is a New Zealander who sailed Seabird to Alaska 2 years ago taking a direct route via Wake Island to Dutch Harbour, the most western US Port of Entry. He has owned 32 yachts in his life, 5 without engines, has sailed many of the world’s oceans including a passage around Cape Horn and has been in rough weather at sea many times. In recent years of cruising he has deployed a sea anchor 3 times. He is a fascinating character and a very experienced cruiser and during the winter months we were harbour-bound he and his Canadian partner Maree became good friends to us and great company. They were a cruising couple on the move and, keen to move south, they watched the weather patterns for the first sign of a break.

From Cordova the safest route south is via the Inside Passage from Sitka to Seattle down the SE Alaskan panhandle. Getting to Sitka involves a 400nm sail from the protection of Prince William Sound across the Gulf with maybe a midway stop at Yakutat if things go wrong. Around 20th February the weather fax showed a 4-5 day window ahead with possible fine weather and westerly winds. After the usual pre-passage preparations Seabird left Cordova on 2nd February.

It was a great sail and Seabird continued for 36 hours under a quartering breeze. Although the faxes regularly showed fine weather ahead, an intense front appeared to the east when the yacht was some 90nm SW of Yakutat and 250nm west of Sitka. The wind shifted to an easterly so John chose to hove-to to assess the change. After 8 hours and a revised forecast it became apparent that conditions were worsening and would stay that way for quite some time. There was sea room for deployment of a sea anchor but for how long that would be needed was uncertain. This was also Maree’s first storm at sea and increasing winds, zero visibility and below freezing temperatures were making life at sea less than attractive for her. Shelter seemed the best option.

It took 20 hours under bare poles to reach Cape Hinchinbrook. It was midnight when they arrived and the seas had built considerably under the 50 knot winds. Tossed by freezing winds and steepening seas it became apparent that currents were taking them to the NE into the shallowing waters to the SE of the island. In no time at all the relatively easy run to the Cape became a fight to windward to clear Hinchinbrook Island: it was necessary to hoist a small staysail and eventually to start the motor. The eventual rounding ended an extremely hazardous operation and it was a great relief for them to reach the lee of the island and feel the winds ease to around 30 kts. It was a relative picnic to then motor into Port Etches and drop the anchor at 0700 hrs at the head of the bay on 26th February.

Seabird was in good company, the Tug ATTENTIVE was at station in readiness to escort inbound tanker traffic through Prince William Sound to the oil terminal at Valdez. ATTENTIVE is the newest, most powerful and most manoeuvrable of the worlds’ Tugs. She has no trouble "hovering" in position in all weathers. Many fishing boats also use Port Etches as a haven from Gulf storms and in severe weather tie to rocks at the head of the bay. The place has a fearsome reputation however and winds hurtling down the pass have turned over more than one fishing boat anchored or moored this way.

With the anchor holding in an increasing 35-40 knots, the Seabird crew fed and rested in relative comfort and John took the opportunity to pump up more fuel to the heater header tank. It was 1100 hrs when the GPS alarm indicated the anchor was dragging. The bottom of Port Etches like many in the North Pacific is of volcanic rocks covered in bull kelp and holding is often difficult to achieve. Once dragging starts, a ball of kelp forms on the anchor and it must be cleared and reset. Peering out the saloon portholes John and Maree were alarmed to see dark shapes slipping by and after shutting down the fuel pump John was soon struggling once again into his wet-gear. As he later related, the situation offered 3 options:

  1. Reset the anchor – not much going for it as the full 250’ of chain was already out
  2. Get permission from ATTENTIVE to use the VERY large buoy on the northern side of the bay
  3. Motor further into Prince William Sound and find a quieter anchorage

The anchor chain HAD to come in if options 2 and 3 were to succeed. The engine was started and John crawled forward against the freezing blast. But before Maree had begun to inch the yacht forward under power, the engine stopped. John had been distracted when Seabird began her backward slide and the fuel changeover sequence had been interrupted; the pump had been turned off but the Y-valve to the engine had been left in the heater tank position, shutting off fuel to the engine.

With the boat lurching backwards, John quickly found the problem and bled the diesel. Anyone owning a Perkins 4108 will know how difficult this is under ideal conditions and all would be impressed to learn that it started on the second try. Seabird had covered quite some distance but was still safe as John again struggled forward to operate the electric anchor windlass. By this time the wind had increased to 60 kts and temperatures on the foredeck were well below freezing. This had the effect of solidifying the tropical grease in the windlass which sat unmoving. John was further dismayed to find that his normally tough hands could not raise the chain either, conditions on the foredeck in February in Alaska at that moment were beyond endurance.

Back in the saloon over the VHF, the welcome voice of Captain Stevenson of the ATTENTIVE told the Seabird crew that for the first time in 18 months, due to bad weather, Prince William Sound had been closed to tanker traffic and the buoy was available for their use. Furthermore the ATTENTIVE would remain on standby if needed by Seabird. Good news indeed and with some difficulty Seabird motored with 250’ of chain and anchor bouncing across the bottom toward the buoy. A circuit round the buoy’s anchor chain and Seabird was safe. Once more John battled his way forward this time to pick up the floating 3" line from the buoy losing the boathook in the process. At the second attempt he plucked the heavy rope by hand from the freezing water and tied it securely to the windlass; nothing will shift that he thought.

Over the next 3 hours the wind increased to over 100kts and Seabird was really jumping. John noticed that the chain was now hanging loose at the bow but the buoy mooring line was holding despite the boat’s gyrations. At this point darkness had fallen and while life on deck was impossible, life below was hopeful for although the noise and motion was unbearable, all that was needed was to hang on until the storm passed. At that point Seabird did not deserve any more…. but fate dealt another cruel blow.

With a BANG, the headsail unfurled. Although several turns had been wrapped around the headsail, the windage provided by the sheets parted the lighter furling line … then Hell broke loose. Seabird heeled and bucked savagely, alternatively tearing at her mooring and threatening to charge into the buoy. Within seconds John had the sheets free which allowed the headsail to rip itself in half against the inner forestay but not before the flogging sheets quickly demolished the canvas dodger.

It was pitch dark with the winds and sleet unrelenting but they appeared to be safe though shaken and uncomfortable. John then figured it was wise to advise the ATTENTIVE that the flapping sail may bring down the mast and render the VHF unserviceable. The Tug Captain quickly responded with the information that their radar image showed them to be moving. A frantic check of the Seabird’s GPS confirmed a speed of 4 knots, in the dark it was impossible to see any land for reference but it didn’t take much imagination to know they were headed for the western shore.

Somehow the line to the buoy had parted or perhaps the windlass and bow fittings had sheared away but they were now in 30’ of water and shallowing – for the first time in his life John found himself in a situation at sea where the safety of he and his crew were critical. Just a few minutes in the water would be fatal even the yacht finished up in a position that allowed them to miraculously reach the shore. It was time to refocus their efforts toward a rescue attempt. Both were close to exhaustion, but Maree later related having every confidence in Johns’ ability to try and to keep on trying and she was overcome with a sense of peace and able to accept any outcome.

The voice of the ATTENTIVE Captain over the VHF provided the comforting thought that warmth and safety were somewhere in this Bay but the words were urgent; …"we cannot reach you unless you move into deeper water". Seabird at this point was surrounded by trailing lines and debris though strangely not including the anchor chain which appeared to have parted company with the yacht. John started the Perkins and broke through the throttle safety gates as he rammed the smoking engine into reverse. Miraculously, they were making way out into deeper water near the entrance to the bay. ATTENTIVE loomed out of the dark and with searchlights blazing approached Seabird. The crew were lying on the deck, it being impossible to stand and attempting to throw a life-ring to Seabird. After several unsuccessful throws the water was again shallowing and the Tug withdrew into the darkness. John scrambled below once more and sensing a fruitless situation, called the Captain and to express his gratitude and that he understood a rescue was out of the question. The response was a firm; "hang on there, we’re coming to get you! Just get into your survival suits and we’ll come in from a different angle"

Not many Kiwi sailors used to tropical cruising own survival suits and John and Maree were no exception. There was a slight pause when they informed the Captain before they were told; "2 are coming over, get them on … fast". At the next pass ATTENTIVE was only a boat length away, backing toward them. The superhuman throw by the crewman was matched only by John’ catch and buoyancy and warmth in the form of 2 immersion suits landed on deck. John fastened the line to Seabird, they struggled into their survival suits and hauled over a life-ring. Maree had prepared an abandon ship bag but it was clear they’d need every ounce of strength to hold on the the life-ring let alone another bag, so in typical optimism, John said "leave it on the saloon berth, we’ll get it in the morning". Before John left the saloon for what was to be the last time he flipped the position-reporting switch on the Inmarsat C unit, more in hope than confidence as the yacht was mostly landlocked and heeling heavily. The opportunity to tie a heavier line to Seabird just never was an option. The bow of the yacht was invisible and dangerous with a still flogging sail and the ATTENTIVE was already stretched in a lifesaving rescue to consider the implications of salvage.

Alaskan fishermen know the value of a survival/immersion suit. It is a life or death aid and both John and Maree were quickly converted as they were hauled across to the Tug floating on their backs. Looking back to Seabird they were dismayed to watch the staysail furler suddenly open and to see their cruising home lunge away into the darkness and out to sea. It was never found.

 

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