|Ventura sinking April 5, 2014, approximately 7pm off of Haverstraw, NY.|
Wind gusts were reported up to about 40 mph.
The forecast that day was for strong winds, but nothing above levels I had been out in previously, on this boat, until later on in the day and then it was going to be very strong, 30 knots plus. But it was early in the day and the sun was out and warm. I figured I had enough time for a quick out and back, or in this case with wind from the west, a quick down river sail to the south end of the bay and back up, all a beam reach. Having only a week left on my contract with the marina, I suppose I was overly enthusiastic about getting out for a sail if I had the chance.
When I got to the marina I could see the wind was pretty strong but not so much that a small set of sail, or sails couldn't handle it. I think I hanked on the working jib and lashed it to the deck. That would mean that I still had a smaller sail to change down to, but more significant to the matter is that it would mean I thought the conditions were not so bad as to begin under the smallest rig. The truth is I don't remember for sure, but I do have some memory of changing down to the smaller jib later and it wouldn't have made sense that I started out with no capacity for reducing sail knowing that conditions were set to increase in strength.
The tide was coming in, but even so, we made great time down river. I figured that on the way back, the tide would give a bit of a boost, should I need to beat to windward at all, but with a westerly or even north westerly I might be able to get back in one tack.
The sail down was fast and fun and not at all worrying. I even shot two video clips, one with dialog, which I usually don't do. Because I made such good time I figured I could afford to go a little further south than I had planned (mistake #1). I ended up going about a mile further south. Because of the shape of the river, a bend to the east, and the land formations, 500 foot cliffs coming straight up out of the water, the wind took on a more northerly direction here. I noticed that the one other sailboat out was heading south under genny alone and making very good speed. On the eastern side of the river a few fishing boats were out and seemed to be having a lumpy time of it.
The character of the river in this particular area is quite a bit rougher, I think this is due to the bend in the direction of the channel. I have come to call this area "The Haverstraw Triangle" and have since found it to be known by the locals who use these waters as particularly rough when wind against tide conditions are present. It is kind of like our own little gulf stream. In northerly wind the fetch is about 8 miles, which is plenty enough to build up some of the waves that happen there. They can become almost standing , breaking waves with 4 feet between the tops and the trough, steep enough that boats just drop off them, pounding at the bottom of the wave. The SeaTow operator I talked to said he knew that area and has had waves coming over the top of his rescue boat there. He said it made him need to change his shorts!
Because of the shift of the wind, instead of just changing tacks from one beam reach to another, when I began my return I went from going off the wind, which reduces the apparent strength of the wind, to sailing to windward, which increases the apparent wind strength. Immediately the situation changed from being a fun little sail, to a serious concern, and a lot of work.
This is when I remember spending a bit of time changing down to the small jib, which is actually the staysail for the boat. But with just a jib up the boat couldn't make any distance to windward and the wind was now blowing directly from where I wanted to go.
I didn't want to raise the main sail as I knew there was too much wind for it, but the problem was, I needed to move the sail plan further aft in order to make any headway. I tried moving the staysail from the forestay back to the pad eye on the deck were it would have been flown if it was being used as a staysail. This was rather challenging in these conditions but by leaving the upper most hank on the forestay I was able to raise the sail under some kind of control but still move the sail aft. This actually worked, so to speak.
With the jib moved aft I found I could hold station, that is not loose ground, but I still couldn't make any headway to home. During all these maneuvers I had been drifting further and further south. Because I was west of Nyack state beach and east but also south of Sing Sing Prison, I figure I had lost about 3 more miles.
I used to sail close to Sing Sing prison, thinking that the sight of a sail boat might be something that could cheer the inmates. I could see them in the yard and hoped it didn't just make them sad wishing that they were out there. I remember reading Daniel Spurr's book, "Sheltered by the Falling Stars" back when I started sailing. There was a section in that book that spoke of a fellow prison inmate standing on chair, eyes closed, rocking back and forth imagining that he was sailing. It was a chance for him to feel some kind of freedom, a chance for him to cope with his incarceration.
As I sailed in sight of Sing Sing this time, unable to get away from it much, I was sure that if any body in there was seeing me, out here on the river today, he might not be so eager to trade places just then. They had there razor wire and armed guard towers, today I had the waves and head wind and felt a bit the prisoner too.
I decided I had to raise the mainsail if I was going to have enough power to make to windward. Oddly, the wind either died down a notch or I just got used to the constant screaming of it in the rigging. Either way, I got the main raised with it's one reef set. I had sewn in that reef after I got the boat, as it had none at all, which is akin to having a car that only goes full throttle or none.
As if setting a trap for me, just after getting the main sail working and starting to make a tiny bit of progress north, sailing as close to the wind as I could, a gust and a shift to the west sent the boom right up against my head. It was hard enough to make me take a moment to check for blood, check to see if my vision was still what it should be and that the rest of what I questioningly call my senses, were still in order.
Deciding that I was well enough, I got the boat on a new heading pointing south of west, away from home, but, closer to the cliffs and that might provide some shelter from the wind. As I trimmed in the jib sheet for the new heading the port sheet winch failed. The plastic washers on the main bolt disintegrated after too many years of UV degradation. I quickly ran the line across the boat to the starboard winch, looking closely at it's cracked and aged washer and wondered how long it would last.
Upon getting close to the western shore and what I had hoped would be the shelter of the 500 foot cliffs I found that instead the cliffs pushed the wind around to the north and accelerated them. On the bright side, from here I could tack and make run up river with what might be a clear shot of the eastern shore, in the next bay north.
As it turned out I needed to make a few tacks to get past Croton Point, and I had to cross thru the commercial traffic channel in that area, "The Haverstraw Triangle" again.
The entire time sailing thru this area I was just waiting for something to break. The boat was dropping off the wave tops so hard that I could see the hull flexing inward thru the companionway. On the starboard side just forward of the shrouds where the boat lands each time it comes off a wave the hull had signs of a repair that was made before I acquired it. I had no real idea how good the work was and I was very concerned that this beating would let me know. To add to that worry was my concern that one of the wire stays supporting the mast would eventually give way under the shock of the thudding crashes at the bottom of the wave troughs. I would listen to the clang of the metal rigging pieces and the clanging of the sail slides in the track, and be glad not to hear the "thwang" sound of wire rope parting violently under strain. Wire rope can cut right thru a person when it gives way under strain, just like slicing a piece of cheese. I have heard of it happening to guys towing cars and riggers at construction sites.
After a few hours, I am not sure how many, but then again, I was only supposed to be out for a few hours total, I found that I had made my way north enough to be just about even with the marina, but 2 miles to the east of it on the Westchester shore. I figured I could tack and get close enough to the marina, before I lost too much northing, and be able to drop sail and motor in. I was very concerned that I shouldn't be out of range of the marina for the fuel I had onboard. The entrance to the marina was dead to windward from the river and with out the outboard I wouldn't be able to get in.
It was well into the afternoon now, I had planned to be finished sailing by noon. I began to bring the boat about and start my tack for home. As usual, before putting the helm over, I checked behind me then ahead, that is when I saw the tug pushing the barge down the river. OK, bummer, but no big deal I'll just hold this course a little longer until I run out of room and then I will short tack on this side of the channel until the tug is down river and clear of my path. He was still up the river a ways but there was no way I was going to put my boat in his path, especially in these conditions, especially when the boat was suffering and could break further and limit my control of steering.
When he got far enough along that I thought I could start my new heading I noticed that behind him was another barge and tug. They looked identical, twins. OK, shit, I'd have to wait a bit longer but now I was out of room and was starting to loose a little ground, I was making leeway south, and the wind had come back up a notch. I was beginning to worry that I'd lose most of my hard won distance north while waiting for these two tugs to pass. That's just about when I saw the third barge and tug right in line behind the second. Triplets, they all looked identical.
In novels you may have read of mariners who are being tossed about by the sea, beaten down by waves, headed by the wind, and swept up by the tides. They turn their sun and wind burned faces skyward and curse the gods. I don't really believe in deities who would toy with us in the same sadistic way a cat bats around a mouse, but I literally turned my face to the windward sky and swore at the deity, who I didn't believe was there. I even said, "I don't believe you are there or listening, but if you are then it is surely within your power to just bury me under this water or lie this boat flat. So this would all be proof that you are sadistic and from you I would not beg for mercy. Fuck you, I will not quit, I will not beg, I am just fine with this. So I guess we'll just keep doing it." Actually The only part of those words that were spoken out loud, intelligibly, were the "Fuck you ", the rest were spoken in my head.
By the time the tugs had cleared and I started my tack to the west it seemed that I could barely make west and by the time I got to the western shore I was 4 or 5 miles from the marina entrance which was dead to windward. The water seemed rougher over here, probably because of the long fetch. The light had changed enough to make me think about how much more time I had before sunset. The forecast this morning said that the wind would get stronger as the day ended. It was time to start thinking of how and where I might be able to tie up, anchor or even run aground and give up the idea of getting back today. (Mistake #2 was not deciding this hours earlier.)
I decided to try and use the outboard to make a run for some safety because the only headings I could get under sail would take me south toward the rocky coast of the state park on the starboard tack, or back out across the river on the port tack. The rocky shore was a bad option, and I didn't think I had enough time to make more tacks to the east, and I wasn't sure my anchor would hold in these conditions. I might have enough fuel to get to the marina but running out of fuel while under way would be miserable and really limit my options.
Trying to get the boat to motor dead to windward in these big waves ran the risk of the outboard coming out of the water and then shearing the pin on the prop when it suddenly met with the resistance of the water again. Just getting the sails down while trying to motor was really tough but it was necessary as the wind shifts would fill the sails and pull the boat off coarse. Even with the sails down the wind was strong enough to push the boat off coarse in the gusts. I decided to winch up the centerboard in order to get the most fuel efficiency and to keep it form being an issue if we got into shallow water. (mistake #3)
Each time I got to a part of the shore line that might offer me some safety I reasoned that I still had fuel and could get to a haven that might be a bit better. I was worried over the marinas all being closed up or blocked up because it was still off season. I was also worried that in this weather I might have to come in a bit fast and with less control than I'd like, I was sure the boat would suffer, but thought that the docks might too. I really didn't want to piss anybody off, so, I kept going. (mistake #4)
I should have just tried for any shelter I could get. There were 4 or 5 marinas or landings that might have served and one or 2 bits of beach that I could just make a "hard landing" at. I kept going. I hadn't eaten or drank a thing since my morning coffee and toast. I hadn't the means to get to my thermos of coffee that was below. I had pissed twice right in the cockpit when I could hold it no longer. The waves that came over the lee side flushed it all away before I could close up my pants. I wanted to be done, off the boat.
This was supposed to be fun, and in another boat it might have been, but probably not. I thought to myself, I really don't need to go out when it is other than ideal anymore. I have sailed offshore, I have been thru storms I needed to prove nothing to myself, I am getting older and it is time I should just take it easy. I would when I get back, if I get back. I never assume, especially today.
When I got to the county park and ramp I thought to myself I should just put in there and then walk to the marina where there was a gallon of fuel in the back of my truck. I saw all the people along the shore and was concerned about what was sure to be an ugly landing, if not downright alarming. I didn't know if the ramp was even open and suspected it might not be so early in the year. Would the Ranger give me a hard time about using, possibly bashing into the docks? The marina was just over there, not far, a few thousand feet. Surely I wouldn't run out of fuel in that short distance, not on top of all the bad turns I had gone thru today, then I thought, but I might especially after all the bad turns I've had today. But I kept going.(mistake #5)
There is a restaurant right before the entrance to the marina. It is between this restaurant and the entrance that I usually start the outboard, lower sails, and make ready for docking. This is were the fuel ran out and the motor stopped. The marina entrance was a couple hundred feet away, directly to windward.
There isn't enough room to tack thru the marina entrance or in the marina. With the wind as strong as it was, by the time I jumped forward and pulled the gasket off the jib, jumped back to the cockpit and hauled up the sail and got steerage, I was out of range to make a tack in any way.
I was loosing ground. I decided to raise the main so I could get the best windward heading possible, but even so I was making leeway. Exasperated and dejected, I resolved to beach the boat. In thinking thru this choice and what I needed to do, I realized that the centerboard was still raised and that it had probably kept me from making to windward. It didn't matter as I couldn't get in the entrance under sail even if I could reach it. Besides I wanted it up if I was going to go for the shore and try and get the boat as close as possible or even on the beach. I made a pass at the shore just to check to see if I had a decent spot to ditch. When I came about and then tried to return to that spot I realized that I was making to much leeway to get back to the same spot. My concern was that a half a mile to leeward was the big Power plant dock. It was high enough out of the water that I couldn't reach anything to tie up to but not so high that my mast could pass under it. I needed to act fast or I might not get clear of it. The dock sticks out into the river about 800 feet maybe farther.
I took two more passes at the shore to try and pick the least worst place to run the boat aground. I decided that at this point it didn't matter any more, this pass was it or I would not be able to get clear the commercial dock should I need to. I took note of where my lines were and my anchor bag so that when I hit I could secure the boat quickly and not loose it completely to drift down river and possibly cause harm to somebody else. I look at the old broken pilings that are just visible above the water and thinking that this is probably going to destroy the boat, but was resigned to it.
This is when a gust pushes the boat onto it's port rail. I am releasing the mainsheet and trying to reach the jib sheet and thinking that it is about time that the boat should start to come up when instead the gust redoubles and the boat goes the rest of the way over.
I see the sails in the water. I see that the boat is floating with the companionway just above the new waterline. As I am trying to find something to hold on to in order not to go in the water I look aft and notice that the lazarette, the aft locker, is also floating just above the new waterline, and I wonder if the designer had worked this out.
At this point time becomes a bit weird. I spot my ditch bag/dry bag, while also reminding myself of the temperature of the water, while also noting that the sun is just at the horizon and I can't see detail on the shore, which is several hundred feet away. I think to myself that I can't depend on anybody having seen the boat go over. I look at the position and try to guess the drift of the boat. I remember that it might be better to stay with the boat but looking into the cabin I see the port side window leaking water. I realize I don't trust the boat to stay floating and if it doesn't I might just expire from the cold water before anybody gets to me, if any body comes for me, and it's going to be dark soon.
The decision to go in the water and try to make the shore came quickly but not with much relish. The wind and waves were moving us quickly south and east. I had no real idea how the cold water would affect me. I reached into the cabin and grabbed my dry bag I noticed a float cushion and grabbed that too.
Earlier that day, before things went sideways, I had pulled a yellow float cushion out of the river. The river is always swapping things from one owner to another. During a gust, not long after I scored the float cushion, a 30 foot docking line got washed overboard. It ended up being a good trade.
While looking around the boat to see what I was taking with me I thought to set the anchor to keep the boat from just going out into the channel. The anchor gear was all the way forward in the cabin. I looked at the water coming in the port side window the thought of the boat rolling or going down while I was inside and then getting trapped. The floatation of my pfd might keep me from being able to swim down and out of the boat, this made me decide not to risk it. I knew I didnt have much time.
I did try to let the centerboard out in hopes of standing on it and righting the boat, but I couldn't climb up over the hull to get to the centerboard. Even if I could it was now almost upside down and it weighs about 400 lbs., there would be little hope of moving it out of it's slot.
This is when I decided to get in the water. I swam around the stern to look at the centerboard once more to see if there was any hope of righting the boat. I simultaneously decided that there was no hope of this and noticed that the temperature of the water was going to be a very big factor in how long I had before my body started to fail.
On the swim back around to grab my dry bag and the float cushion my foot got slightly tangled in the back stay rigging and the main sheet. I had to force myself to slow down, get untangled and then carefully get my stuff and start swimming. The tangle could have been a very bad turn. I told myself that I had to be very smart about every choice, every move at this point.
As I swam away from the boat, on my back, cushion in my left arm, dry bag in my right, I focused on breathing while thinking what a strange thing to be doing, swimming away from a boat in water that is about 40'f as the sun goes down. I didn't feel the cold of the water in an emotional way but certainly was aware of how it was affecting my body. I noticed that my dry bag came right out of my arm even though I was trying to hold on to it. My body was already starting to shut down. I eventually got the bag further up my arm but was reluctant to make it to secure to me because it seemed heavier and I suspected it was filling with water. I didn't want it to pull me under.
With my back to the shore I just kicked and kicked and kicked trying to beat the current that was working against me. I dared a look toward shore and noted that the current seemed faster as I got closer. As I spun around a wave washed over me and I swallowed a big gulp of the Hudson. I felt the cold on my head as my watch cap became soaked. I realized it was entirely possible that before I reached the shore the current would carry me south and under the dock where the land then went away to the west and the current turned eastward. In that same instant I felt a level of fatigue set in. I thought I might make it if I really swam harder.
I thought that if I didn't make the shore before the dock then I would probably not make shore on my own at all, that it was getting dark, it was suppose to be around freezing tonight and that I was probably not going to be able to stay conscience for very long after that.
Still kicking, I thought to myself, I'm OK with this. No I didn't want to die right now, but then if I went while sailing while trying my hardest, then I was OK with it. I hoped my family would be. these thoughts relaxed me a bit and I found that I still had a bit fight left in me. I turned again to judge the distance and as I decided that my better chance might be to swim east, away from shore and try to land one of the pilings of the dock I saw the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle. Suddenly I noticed the sound of sirens, when before all I could hear before was my own labored breathing, it was what I was focused on. I now knew I had to try, other people were going to put themselves at risk to help me. I kept kicking.
A man in uniform ran out to the eastern end of the dock. He was trying get a life ring free from it's bindings. The eastern part of the dock was the only place that I might be able to climb out of the water or where they might be able to reach down to me. I decided to try to get there. It was hard to make myself change direction and swim away from shore, but all the help was out there. The officer had got the life ring free by the time I swam under the dock and he dropped it down to me. I forced my arms to hug it and was able to rest for a moment. I grabbed onto some ropes hanging down from the dock tested them to hold me then let go the life ring so they could move it to the other side of the dock where they could get close to water level. I looked north and saw a rescue swimmer, in a red dry suit, drop into the water. As they dropped the ring back into the water the rescue diver approached me. Just a round circle of his face was exposed from his dry suit. We both put our arms thru the life ring as it was dropped down to us, then we drifted and swam down to the dock.
The diver led me around to the eastern side where we both stood on a ledge. Now only about thigh down was in the water. I was no longer adrift, no longer at the mercy of the wind and tide. I felt exhausted. My foulies and my boots were filled with water but even if they weren't I doubt I could have lifted my self up and off that ledge. I think three guys up top and the diver from below got me up on to the dock. Not only could I not move my legs very well but I could barely talk. While in the water I was able to muster an answer to the officer with the life ring and told him I was alone, nobody else on the boat, but now I could not say much of anything.
At some point I looked out and noticed that the boat was south of the dock and further away from shore, and that now it was almost under water. Just the starboard side was visible. As the rescue people started trying to get the heavy wet gear off of me I noticed that I was shaking violently and uncontrollably. I had the strongest desire to walk the length of the dock to the ambulance to move my muscles to warm up, but they put me into a gurney and under blankets. The hot packs that they placed in my hands, under my arms and on my crotch and chest felt unbelievably hot.
The boat sank that night as the SeaTow boat tried to recover it. It was looked for the next day but didn't turn up for two days, about 12 miles down river, south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, off of Ardsley. The mast was broken, the bow pulpit ripped from the deck but when they found it it was floating by the stern. The only thing that I can say is missing from the cabin is a ski glove that I wear on cold days and a sponge. Even the hatch board was in place, I had slid it in place hoping it would slow the water coming in.
I spent the ambulance ride to the hospital focused on breathing and shivering. It was like long distance running but without a choice. At the hospital my temperature was so low that the oral thermometer wouldn't register. Two female nurses that looked fresh out of high school, were charged with getting my temperature reading from my back side. One told me to relax, which was funny considering that I had no control over my muscles at the time. They got their reading and never returned. I was at 93'f, but that was after being out of the water for a while and being heated up by the paramedics on the way over. I was in the ER for about 4 hours. Everything else was OK. We just made it to the pizza shop before it closed and my wife got me a pie. The pizza felt almost as good warming up my lap as it did going down my throat on the ride home.
After I rested most of the next day we went to the marina to get my truck. It was a beautiful day out, but I was worried how I'd feel about seeing the river again. I was worried about a sort of PTSD reaction. Across the river close to the eastern shore, I could see a small white triangle. Somebody was out having a nice sail. I felt calm and wanted to sit by the water and watch the little boat. It was a beautiful evening, warm air, a light wind, the calm after the storm. I thought about how different things would have been had I stayed home yesterday and then gone out today instead.
I'd be lying if I said that I don't think that this has changed my attitude. I'd be stupid of it didn't at least make me think about what happened and what I might have done differently. But this is not the first time in my life that thru adventuring I have had to consider possibly not finishing the day alive. I'd love to think it is my las time of having to consider this, but none of us can know what is in our future.
I will get the boat home and see what to do next. As soon as that is done and my few slight wounds heal, when the boat was recovered the winch for the centerboard let go and tried to slice off my finger, I will try and get out in the skiff. Maybe that will be enough, but I suspect that if I choose not to continue on with this boat, I will find something a little bit easier to launch from a trailer and that I won't be so easily tempted to be out in during strong weather. Maybe I'll just get WANEESHEE back in the water. She would have handled all this much better and I probably would have been content to just drop the hook and ride out a rough night. But I am sure that I will be happily back out on the water soon.
I must say thanks to all those people who helped me. I am not proud or happy about having to put these people who risk their lives on our behalf, further into harms way, especially just while trying to have a little fun. They were all very helpful and comforting. Even if I had gotten to shore I don't know how great the affects of hypothermia would have incapacitated me, greatly I suspect and I may not have been able to get to help. So those people did save me and I am grateful. I hope to never cause them to flip on their flashing lights and sound their sirens, to dodge thru traffic in order to come to my aid. Thank you, and again, Thank you.