A close shipwreck call by Denis Dextraze
In early June of 2000, I decided to sail out of Cuba and go back to Canada.
After being away sailing for ten years and out of Canada most of the time, I had to take care of business and rearrange my portfolio. I wanted to sell Villa Bellevue, my “Canadian” design three levels stone house overlooking the Saint-Lawrence River, surrounded by gardens with its own piers, boats and a badminton court. It had been rented for the last two years. My original plan was to spend the summer promoting the sale and come back south before winter.
I had no problem getting a six-month Canadian tourist visa for Jenny, my Cuban girlfriend, who was well known by the Embassy personnel. The plan to spend six months quickly went overboard when I realized that the house had been destroyed and the beautiful garden abandoned by the trashy tenant who had disappeared to Toronto. We spent the whole summer fixing the house and making it attractive again for prospective buyers. At that time, the real estate market had taken a dive and we had to spend two winters, which Jenny had never experienced and I had not endured in ten years, before I could find a buyer with a decent offer.
After witnessing for two years all the robberies happening in Marina Hemingway (See Chapter 12) and the Marina officers turning their heads and ignoring the situation, I had no intention of abandoning Aventura in their care in Cuba. Indeed, none of the 21 robberies on board foreign boats which happened in just one year had ever been resolved. However, Sepsa, the security company, had 3 guards deployed on each side of each channel for a total of 18 guards on duty 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. During the previous 16 years, Aventura had visited 35 countries and been abandoned at anchor or in dry dock without any robbery incidents.
The Marina offered a “service contract” for which they guaranteed that someone would come on board and check your boat every day. We had watched a small boat slowly sink to the bottom in front of the authorities who did not lift a finger to save it. We were powerless because none of us had any portable pump. After that, I purchase a high volume electrical pump to save my boat or any neighbor’s from sinking in front of our eyes. To us neighboring sailors, this type of behavior from so called nautical professionals was an aberration. I considered the “service contract” offered to us exactly the same as the “protection” offered by the Mafia to protect you from their own thugs.
Generally, my philosophy was to put Aventura in dry dock if I left her for more than a month. The only safe and dry places to leave a boat were across the straight in one of the Keys marinas. I had already done the 90 nautical miles crossing to Key West many times (See Chapter 5) and felt confident that I could singly handle Aventura for this fifteen-hour crossing. In the two years that I had passed in the harbour, Aventura had never moved from its original spot. Therefore, the defective cutlass bearing had never been changed and I still had very limited motoring capability. I could have changed that part in Hemingway’s yard but it did not have a travel lift and it used a construction crane which I did not trust. Also, I felt that I was wasting my money taking it out in Cuba since she was going out of the water anyway just one day`s sail away. In retrospective, my decision to sail alone without engine propulsion and save money was foolish. I had already stretched my luck by sailing without incident in and out of harbours from the East end of the Cuban island. I was arrogantly challenging Neptune!
So, on a nice windy morning, I paid my bill, untied the mooring lines and exceptionally started the engine and put her in gear for the first time in two years. I slowly made my way to the Coast Guards pier where I completed the exit formalities. By noon, I had slowly motored passed the tricky coral lined entrance into the open sea where I stopped the engine and I raised all the canvas to take advantage of the nice easterly breeze. Since I was going at a good clip, regardless of the fact that I had left the transmission in gear to prevent the propeller from free wheeling, I could hear the noise of the axel vibrating in its loose housing.
Past midnight, the bilge pump which until then had been running occasionally was now running continuously. To make sure that I could hear the pump when it ran, I had installed a very loud alarm, the kind used by truckers when they put the transmission in reverse. The loud Birp, Birp, Birp noise finally got on my nerves to a point that I disconnected it. Instead, to be able to hear the more discrete pumping noise, I opened the floorboard over the part of the bilge where the pump was mounted. I was not worried about draining the service battery bank with the pump running continuously. In that breeze, the wind generator was producing enough electricity to keep both the running lights on and the bilge pump going. When the pump started running continuously, I realize that the whole cutlass bearing and packing nut system had been compromised probably by the stress caused by using motor propulsion to get out of the harbour and the vibrations of the axel. By then, I had passed the mid-point of the crossing. The shortest landfall was ahead. If the wind kept up, I would be in Key West in a few hours. It did not!
Indeed, at dawn as the sun slowly came out of the sea, the wind started weakening. It continued weakening throughout the morning until it completely died by mid-morning. Without rudder, Aventura went sideway, her genoa fell on the deck and the mainsail and mizzen sails completely lost their wind. I was in the doldrums, the same type that you can encounter in the middle of the Atlantic at the Equator latitude.
Fifteen years before, I had encountered this phenomenon during the Transat des Alizés race across the Atlantic. We had to wait for thirty-six hours while drifting with the current before we encountered wind again. We took turns at swimming around the boat making sure that one of us always stayed on board in case the wind picked up again.
That day, although Aventura seemed motionless on this sea of ink, I knew that I was drifting north at four or five knots with the Gulf Stream current.
By then, the sound of the pump had changed and the flow had considerably slowed down. Both the screen at the bottom and the pump’s membrane were getting plugged by debris and the water level was slowly rising. Since I was alone, I could not get in and out of the bottom of the four-foot-deep bilge. Ten years before, I had encountered a similar emergency riding a bad storm in the Golfe du Lion, near Marseille, in the Mediterranean Sea. The transmission had fallen to the bottom of the boat causing the packing nut to become ineffective and letting enormous quantities of sea water into the bilge. With the help of my two shipmates, I was able to slide into the deep bilge and plug the leak using a rubber innertube, a large steel collar and a whole tube of silicone.
However, I remembered a trick I had learned years ago when I was self-teaching on off-shore boating, sailing, navigation, meteorology, boat maintenance, emergency procedure and so on. I closed the engine sea water cooling intake valve, disconnected the flex hose and immersed it in the bilge water. I was going to use the engine impeller pump to flush out the water. When I tried to turn on the engine, I heard the click of the solenoid but the starter motor did not turn. Salt water had reached the bottom of the starter and shorted it. I should have thought about this trick sooner because after it was started the diesel engine could run even if it was partially submerged. That was it! Without help, I could attempt to plug the leak at the bottom of the bilge as I had done 10 years before in the Mediterranean Sea.
Here I was, more or less ten nautical miles from my ultimate destination, the U.S. mainland. After ten years of surviving violent storms at sea, crossing the Atlantic, going up and down the Caribbean islands, surviving six hurricanes and an earthquake while in dry dock, Aventura might sink in forty feet of water on a very calm sunny day in plain sight of the Key West buildings which seemed to sinking on the horizon just like my boat was.
No! After ten years of good service with me at the helm, I would not abandon this solid ketch to the depth. Since there was no more wind and I could not motor into the harbour, I decided to make a Pan call to the U.S. Coast Guard on emergency VHF channel 16. Originally from the French “panne” meaning “breakdown”, this international known distress signal means that you have a problem which, unlike a Mayday, for “m’aider” in French, is not life threatening. I asked then to send me a tow boat with a pump.
I did not take more than 15 minutes before a coast guard boat patrolling the area showed up. We first communicated by VHF for identification purposes. Once the U.S. registration of Aventura was confirmed and my Canadian identity noted, as the lone passenger, a mechanic was sent to assess the situation. He brought a small generator driven high debit pump on board and cleared most of the water from the bilge. A tow boat company based in Key West was called in. By coincidence, the call was answered by Robbie’s Marina, my port of destination. As soon as he saw the tow’s bow on the horizon, the coast guard mechanic picked up his pump and left for another call. And I was abandoned alone with my sinking boat.
I then had no other choice but the ultimate and very inefficient alternative, the hand pump. Every French seagoing boat above a certain size needed to have a high debit hand pump permanently installed for safety by the ship builder. The tow boat did not have any independent pumping system. So, I started pumping and I pumped and I pumped for the nearly two hours it took to be towed to my planned destination, the travel lift’s slip in Robbie’s Marina at the entrance of Safe harbour.
I was a day early on my planning to get into Robbie’s Marina but needless to say that I was in a hurry to get Aventura out of the water now!. She was still sinking and I did not want the sea water to reach the top of the battery bank and short the whole electrical system. Robbie, the aging owner with a thick southern accent, was in bad humor for being awoken from his Sunday siesta. He had to handle the travel lift himself since the crane operator did not work on Sundays.
During the two years that Aventura was dry docked in his yard, I got to know him better and observed that being grumpy was the main trait of his character. I could not believe that his wife, a polite, proper and charming old lady from Georgia, had endured him for all these years. To better describe the phenomena, he used a loaded 45 caliber six shooter as a paper weight on his desk to keep the pile of documents from flying away in the draft. I guess that you would not dare give him a bum check! He was probably a millionaire whether he knew it or not. Regardless, he still wore his washed-out blue jean overalls and lived in his old mobile home at the end of boatyard which should be better named a scrap yard. Amongst his collection of scraps was a very old ferry that he had bought from Prince Edward Island when the Canadian province was connected to the mainland by the longest bridge over frozen sea water in the world. His original plan when he bought this wreck fifteen years before was to start a ferry service between Key West and Havana. Today, twenty-five years later, this miracle has not yet materialized.
Late in the afternoon once Aventura was safely braced on land, I met my neighbours, a young Dutch family with kids. Their boat was out of the water for the annual anti-fouling job. They had witnessed my predicament and could see Aventura peeing off the sea water she had taken on board. She went on peeing most of the night! Actually, this constant dripping made me feel good. Sea water was going out of the bilge not in. The steady cascading noise quickly hypnotized me into a deep sleep full of happy sailor’s dreams. The shipwreck nightmare was over.
As good Samaritans, my new neighbours took pity on me and invited me for dinner. I ate copiously, not having any food in the last 30 hours of adrenaline rush. After dinner, we sat in the cockpit twelve feet above ground and watched the sun sink at sea while finishing the French bottle of wine I had bought in the duty free store of Marina Hemingway. Since they had never made Cuba a port-of-call yet, they were curious to find out what is going on in this restrictive and mysterious island. So, I started telling one story after another. I could feel from their expressions and from their comments that they did not believe all of them. Then, I heard for the first time this famous quote which came out of so many lips so many times afterward: “You should write a book!”. I told them that I would one day and when I did, I would call the book “Once upon a time in Cuba”. I waited another 22 years before I finally got to it.
Aventura in dry dock at Robbie’s Marina, Key West