A Chilling Reminder to Remain Prepared and Alert at All Times While Cruising

2023.06.08  Two Wayfarer sailors narrowly escaped with their lives in Chesapeake Bay off Crisfield, Maryland on Thursday 8 June 2023 when a nasty squall capsized them. The relatively hale and hearty crew, Mike Codd and Annelies Groen of Toronto, Ontario, were surprisingly unable to self-rescue and ended up in the cold water for over 40 minutes before a fishing boat captain saw something in the distance. His binoculars quickly brought the distressed mariners into focus, and a rapid rescue was effected and the watermen hauled Annelies and Mike to warmth and safety.

Do as I say, not as I do!!! Before I continue my story: I know, I know!! The following will read like a list of what you must never do. And this is my main reason for sharing this cautionary tale of my cruising carelessness with you all for your educational benefit. So where were Uncle Al and Hans Gottschling, the cruise partners during all this, I hear you ask. Alas, they were out of touch in every conceivable way. Dead VHF radio, no phone, no visual contact: all unpardonable sins. The four cruise partners had tentatively decided to go around the north end of Smith Island to avoid a likely beat down the very narrow deep channel of the Big Thorofore (above).

After a few glimpses of W6090 far astern we lost sight of our partners' boat, and I assumed - which, yes, makes an ASS out of U and ME - that they had opted to sail the shorter route down the Big Thorofare (chart above) instead of following me and Hans. Therefore Hans and I pressed on as quickly as we were able to and once around the tip of Smith, started a long close reach on starboard towards Crisfield as shown in green on the chart above. Distracted as I was, trying to decipher the tiny print on Susie the Floozie II, our boat GPS, while steering close-hauled in a breeze that had veered to southerly, I only once took a real look around. "Wow! That looks nasty!" I commented to Hans regarding the pitch-black sky behind us which looked like a downpour coming but absent any of the white wind clouds of all other violent squalls (example below) I have experienced, seemed to be nothing to fear, and I forgot about it.

Hans (88) and I (nearly 82, any excuse will do) had started past the south end of Janes Island off the entrance to Crisfield's Somers Cove a half-hour later, blissfully unaware, when suddenly  the wind veered to the north-west and increased to well over 30 knots (image above) of much colder and heavier air. The one thing that I did perfectly that day was to immediately raise the board full up, luff up and totally ease the sheets as explained at http://wayfarer-canada.org/2023.02.20_KISS5_NA_print-ready.pdf on page 78 of the PDF. Intermittent flurries of rain pellets accompanied this squall which unlike the much shorter durations that I am used to, also lasted the better part of an hour. Respect tinged with fear, you might say, as we beam-reached to the entrance to Somers Cove and were soon inside the Cove where we expected to see Mike and Annelies, with camera ready we hoped. But we were stunned to find the launch area totally empty and SHADES blew past any hope of docking there before we had digested the significance of that. We were finally brought to a halt by the SE corner of the marina next to an empty berth where Hans at last was able to get the genoa down in winds still blowing around 30 knots.

Now we had one last hope, namely that Mike and Annelies had already hauled out and returned to their marina parking space - which as Arlo Guthrie says in Alice's Restaurant "didn't seem likely and we didn't expect it". So we walked as briskly as age allowed to the place we had left the cars and trailers and confirmed our worst fears. Since we were without phones, we headed straight across the parking lot to the Marina Office to ask the two youngsters manning the desk to call the Coast Guard which was diagonally across the cove but apparently not accessible by land for ordinary humans in distress. Our information was duly passed on to the relevant parties who swung into action with admirable speed.

In fact, by the time I had dropped Hans off at Captain Tyler's Motel to check in, emergency vehicles were wailing past on their way to the town dock. I quickly followed and got there just in time to see Mike on stretcher,  a forced smile on his face, grabbing his blankets which the continuing 30-knot winds were trying to wrest from him.  Annelies, Mike reported, was already in the ambulance with a body temperature of 91ºF after over 40 minutes in the 70º waters of the Bay after a capsize from which they were unable to self-rescue - even two capable sailors such as these. A very helpful paramedic gave me directions to the Edward McCready Memorial Hospital and a lovely location it is (below).

To give the hospital time to get Mike and Annelies settled in, we went about retrieving SHADES with Hans driving car and trailer to the fine Maryland-managed ramps while Al sailed W3854 there in somewhat diminished winds. At the ramps we found Annelies' boat nicely moored alongside a harbour wall where the salvage company apparently on call to the Coast Guard.

Haul-out and pack-up of SHADES were completed in relatively short order and we soon had her nicely tucked away (below) in front of our motel before we began a series of shuttle runs between the hospital where early reports had both Annelies and Mike recovering nicely from body temps of 91ºF and expecting to join Hans and me for dinner after answering Coasties' and deputies' extensive questions. The two fishermen first responders faded into obscurity by their own choice, but if they should ever happen to read this, they should know that they have our undying gratitude and respect. You two were heroes in the truest sense of the word.

Several shuttle runs later and about six hours after the 1 p.m. squall hit us, we gratefully departed the hospital and were on our way to one more fine supper at the Fishermans Grill. Recovery of W6090 a.k.a. 4601 (below) was left until the following morning, leaving us in somewhat shell-shocked contemplation of how lucky we had needed to be to avoid unthinkable consequences.

So what do we hope that we learned?
What mistakes must we never make again after being given an unearned free pass this time around?

Squall Damage Prevention Tactics in Order of Efficacy:
1. Head on a swivel at all times so that nothing, especially weather, can approach as a shocking surprise. Both Mike and I let ourselves be surprised by this squall. Err on the side of caution: Down sails and roll/stow if at all possible before the wind hits.

2. If caught with sails up, let sheets run/sails luff and immediately raise board completely to let the boat stabilize albeit well heeled to leeward while sails remain raised.
Then down sails as needed - usually both sails down.

Hans and I sailed on under jib alone since the squall was relatively mild as these things go and our destination - the haul-out in Somers Cove - was largely downwind and the unappealing alternative was to let the boat drift straight onto a windward shore in a squall wind that showed no signs of abating any time soon.
(Mike did not do this. When his squall hit, Mike and Annelies were sitting in sunshine and nearly becalmed and Mike tried to sail through the squall with the dire consequences of a "buried" bow and an immediate capsize, followed by an as yet unexplained inability to ever get the mast back to upright even after the tip had been brought well out of the water by Mike standing on the board.)

Al's further thoughts on the "unexplained": If the boat refuses to come upright due to mast in mud or other mast-related issues, fear of death would make the following options increasingly attractive
1. remove forestay - and jib tack, if necessary - to let mast come closer to parallel to the deck. If that still does not let you right the boat,  
2. completely remove mast and sails from any attachment to the hull. This must surely enable you to right the hull, but do guard against loss of spars and sails.


What needs to be done differently on future cruises?
1.  Asking for help: Functional flares and VHF with fresh batteries – cell phone may not have service.
2.   Stay within hailing/helping distance above all else – Al take note and curb the impatience – no assumptions that “buddy” is sure to be OK. By being near by, Al could at the very least have taken Annelies and Mike aboard before hypothermia set in.

On Mon, Jun 12, 2023 at 11:33 PM Hans Gottschling <hansg@gottschlingboatcovers.com> wrote:

Leave together! This is not a race. Stay together! Everybody wears their flotation! No exception!

Crew rigs and derigs the boat in practice run - hands on  for  the  crew! Intolerance does not make things go quicker.