17. Oct, 2008

Shipwrecked on St Croix

Waking up around 6am, it was a beautiful day! About an hour later we left the mangroves and headed back to Marina de Salinas. Once we got out into the open sea, the weather was incredible. One of the nicest days I have ever seen. Since the conditions were so favorable, we decide to head towards St Croix instead of going back to Marina de Salinas in Puerto Rico.

There was very little wind, the sky was clear, and the sea was glassy at times. Swells were a constant 8 feet, with 10-12 foot sets. But the distance between swells was 60-100 feet, which made it a very comfortable ride.

After passing Vieques island, we could see St Thomas on the horizon to the North, and eventually we could also see St John and Tortola. The trip was slow and it was becoming apparent that it would be dark upon our arrival. We decided to head towards Christiansted, St Croix, and find an anchorage there for the night.

As in life, nothing goes as planned. We lost our steering around 6pm that night while passing St Croix off our port side. It felt like the hydraulics failed, because the wheel would just spin freely, and the rudders never moved! Luckily for us, the rudders were locked straight ahead. From now on, we steer with our engines.

A couple miles before Christiansted, we found a place called Salt River that looked like a pleasant place to anchor. It was also less crowed than Christiansted which made sense. We didn’t want to enter a crowded marina with no steering. We headed into Salt River using the port and starboard engines for steering. By now, it was dark, and I was on the bow, doing the best I could to be on a lookout for buoy’s and other obstacles that we may encounter.

With very limited visibility I could hear waves, and soon I started to see the white froth from waves all around us! This is definitely not a place that you want to be in a boat. So Julian, the capitan, put the engines in reverse to avoid what could be a devastating situation. The next thing I know, Julian is yelling that he had lost the starboard engine, which of course, also meant that we had no steering.

The engine compartment was filling up with water fast, since there was now a 2 inch hole where the propeller shaft used to be. Instinctively, I jumped in the ocean and went under the boat and found the propeller shaft, completely aft and jammed up against the rudder. It’s pitch black, we are bobbing around like a cork at sea, and there are waves crashing all around us. I go back under the boat, trying with all my strength, I still could not get the shaft back into it’s hole.

I jumped back on the boat and started pumping and bailing the water out of the engine compartment. With no steering, our boat was drifting, and now the waves were breaking directly over our stern. For every 5 gallons I would bail out, a wave would break over the stern flooding us with yet another 500 gallons! This was fruitless, we were going down.

We managed to get off two Mayday calls on channel 16 before before the batteries were underwater and the entire electrical system failed. Within a period of about 5-10 minutes, we went from no problems to an eminent catastrophe.

About the same time, you could hear the hull of the boat hitting the top of the reef! We sank, and lucky for us, we were on the edge of a reef. (Later we were to learn, that 50 feet behind us, the water was over 100 feet deep.) We were safe, but the boat was not. And we were still taking on lots and lots of water. There was nothing else anyone could do. We weren’t in any immediate danger of life or limb, so I attempted to get some rest.

The port berth was already flooded, but the starboard berth was still relatively dry. So I decided to try and get some sleep there. Knowing that the water would eventually start to rise, I hung my foot over the edge of the bed, hoping it would wake me if the water came up to that level.

And the water did come in!

For the next hour, I kept raising my foot over and over again. The water kept rising and rising until I was about waist deep in water. Eventually, if I didn’t do something soon, I would become trapped in the hull and drown. Now, I figured, would be a good time for me to leave.

The water in the hull was a mixture of both salt water and diesel. The fumes were noxious, and to say the least, it was very uncomfortable having that stuff on your skin. I cleaned up the best I could, and I went upstairs to the bridge. The bridge was still out of the water. But there was no protections from the elements. Being covered with diesel, I was uncomfortable, wet, and cold. But at least I could breath, and I was still alive. I may have got 1/2 hour sleep that night.