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26 May

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Tranquility : A Memoir of an American Sailor by Billy Sparrow

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tranquility
Excerpt from book:
Puget Sound may not look like much when you see it from the deck of a ferry moving along at a twenty-knot clip, but it’s a challenging and temperamental body of water to sail a small craft on. First and foremost, the skipper of a low-powered vessel like Tranquility must plan for the strong currents which go hand-in-hand with the fifteen-foot tides the region is known for. That’s a lot of water moving around. When the wind blows hard in the opposite direction of the current—which can run up to seven knots—a foul type of confused sea is kicked up which can delay a voyage or put a small boat at risk. Wind-against-tide they call it.

Puget Sound is nothing to play around with. It’s a vast expanse of water, more inland sea than sound in places and the surrounding terrain is generally unforgiving. Shoals extend far from shore in many places, while in others the water is too deep for a vessel to anchor a safe distance from shore.cThe mainland and islands are heavily wooded, there’s hundreds of bays and channels and inlets and passages that all look the same to the untrained eye, making it easy for a novice mariner to lose his bearings. To a beginner, Puget Sound waters can seem as listless or fearsome as the ocean. An anchorage that looks fine one day can turn into a dangerous blowhole the next, as the winds and weather move up and down the sound following the lay of the land. The forests come down to the shores of the sound, the hinterland rivers eat away at their banks, pick up dead trees and carry them to the sea, so there’s logs and stumps adrift to watch out for year-round. Several busy ports are in the region, so there’s a good deal of shipping traffic to steer clear of as well. You have storms in the fall and snows in the winter, gales in the spring and fogs in the summer. The pleasure-boating season is brief and uncertain, and, even in the middle of summer, the water is dangerously cold.

That is Puget Sound and a Puget Sound sailor is a very good sailor indeed.

And so, with nary a glance at the chart book and only a vague idea of what the tide was going to do to us, John and I motored Tranquility through the narrow sea lane, under the railroad bridge and headed her for the sublime and windless waters of Puget Sound. There were certainly no ill-omens to be read in the weather. It was shaping up to be a warm and lovely starlit evening. As soon as we were out of the shallows, we began steering a jolly old course that bent broad away from shore in a way that guaranteed we would be as far as possible, as fast as possible, from safety or assistance, for most of the night. We had no inkling of what was in store for us out there and, in a little while, we were much farther from shore than a minimum of caution would have allowed us to stray.

After a fairly aimless hour of motoring, John and I turned our attention to an enormous red and black freighter that appeared out of nowhere in the distance off our stern. She was coming up on us from out of the south and she was footing it fast. John, who was steering when we first saw her, was soon facing dead-aft watching her approach. We kept our eyes on the ship for a long time, transfixed by her steady progress, but it was impossible to say exactly where she was headed. One minute she seemed to be coming right for us and the next, she looked like she was going to pass far to the west. Yet all the while she drew nearer…or seemed to. It was pretty hard to tell, because the movements of the distant ship were soon influencing our own wandering course. When she veered a little to port, Tranquility veered a little to starboard to stay out of her way. And when she veered a little to starboard, Tranquility veered a little to port –all but guaranteeing a confrontation. As captain, I knew my job was to do nothing, act nonchalant at all times, and choose my words carefully. So it was John who spoke up first. He whistled through his teeth and said: “Just look at that thing! Do you think she even sees us?” Based on our relative speed and heading, I figured the freighter saw us and was going to pass a half-mile to the west and therefore posed absolutely no danger. I made up my mind that we were okay and I issued an authoritative, “Chill-out, bro” to John, who didn’t seem put at ease by it. Then I hopped below deck, where, from a concealed location, I watched the approach of the ship through a porthole with growing apprehension. Ten uneasy minutes later, there was absolutely no doubt about it. The freighter was bearing down on us! And I had to do something quick…but what?

More information on the book visit here.

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09 Mar

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Southern Cross Update #8 “Safe and Sound in Puerto Williams”

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Received one short call from Howard and he reported he had successfully recovered “Southern Cross.” The boat was found afloat on her side in excellent condition. As we spoke she was on the deck of the old wooden fishing boat that had carried her back to the safety of Puerto Williams. Apparently the recovery mission was an adventure as well, as Howard and crew had to race both an arriving storm and a possible rival salvage boat. And then of course there was trying to recover the boat itself in the treacherous location, with Howard having to go back into the water to manage recovery.

More later…

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06 Mar

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Southern Cross Update #7: Against All Odds

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Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 9.10.04 AM

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 9.10.04 AMReceived a couple of slightly cryptic texts from Howard’s inReach two-way satellite communicator. They seem to suggest Howard has recovered Southern Cross and is trying to move quickly along to avoid incoming weather. More as we hear from him. Here are the messages:

“SC rescued epic to all who helped i am grateful at georgiana 150Miles to go to pt williams weather. coming race to safety”

“SC on board racing for safety against all odds sc survived against all odds we rescued joy gratitude to sailing friends.”

See track or map here: https://share.garmin.com/HowardRice

02 Mar

49 Comments

Southern Cross Update #6 “So this is how it ends”

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aboard

Update: I received a phone call from Howard. It was good to hear his voice. He sounded utterly exhausted and, frankly, not entirely lucid. In short, he sounded like someone who had just survived a harrowing mental and physical ordeal.

He took me through the events of the previous several days while I scribbled notes. As I stated in my previous post, the description of events I detailed in that first post were based on information relayed to me through someone else (in fact it was third-hand information that also included some English-to-Spanish-to-English translation). So it didn’t surprise me to learn we’d gotten some of the story wrong, but what did surprise me was just how bad it had been for Howard and “Southern Cross”—far worse than the incomplete version I described in my last post.

I’d like to tell you the story verbatim, but as I say I was only scribbling notes and Howard was jumping around from event to event and struggling some to focus. I don’t know that I can do it justice, but I’ll tell you most of what I remember. Again, I’m sure there will be additional clarification once the fog lifts.

Kelp was a huge problem. Howard says the voyage became more dangerous after he got past the Strait of Magellan into the remote southern islands, largely because of the kelp. It might not sound like a big deal, but he spent days fighting to get through the kelp to safe anchorages—cutting it away with his knife, playing his centerboard and rudder to negotiate, and trying to set and raise anchors in it. It was both exhausting and dangerous. Howard was well-prepared for this voyage and had considered almost every contingency, but he says the constant, thick kelp beds were his biggest miscalculation. Imagine sailing in the most remote of places and arriving at what GPS and charts appear to suggest is a perfect anchorage only to find it utterly unusable, forcing you to push on regardless of weather or time of day.

He described being stuck out in horrible weather one day—getting blasted by williwaws—and unable to get to a proper anchorage for all of the kelp. Luckily he came across some sort of a big rope that was strung across from one point or outcropping to another. He said these things are found down there occasionally as passing boats supposedly tie-off to them, sometimes with their engines still running while they ride out williwaws and weather. Howard tied there but ended up stuck in that spot for several days as the wind never abated, frequently trying to knock Southern Cross down. As a result he lay on the cockpit sole in his drysuit, knife open at the ready, unable to set his boom tent, eat, or sleep.

He says eventually he realized he needed to move or he was likely to die there. The boat was close to a rocky shore and being tossed about viciously. Somehow he managed to sail off in conditions he says “you just don’t sail in,” and headed for what was to be his last ditch hope for a safe anchorage.

He’d by now conceded he might have to ditch the boat or run it onto a rocky shore if the anchorage didn’t pan out, so he prepared his series of ditch bags. I guess when he rounded the point near his potential harbor it proved to be another wind-strewn, kelp-clogged cove with rocks all around. But given the circumstances he felt he had little choice at this point but to try to push through the kelp for shore. Playing his mizzen and centerboard he made it some distance, and then he took to the oars, only to have an oar catch in the kelp, the boat spin around and rip the oar away, and nearly throw him into the water.

I’m a little unclear about the sequence of events from here, but I think he said he somehow came across another one of those communal mooring lines and was able to tie-off to it. Unfortunately the winds were only getting worse now and it was clear he was in trouble. It was about this time he first heard the screaming. Not a voice, or noise in the rigging, but a sound, he says, emanating entirely from some sort of a rotating wind phenomena he described as “cyclonic.” These visible wind formations were suddenly swirling wildly around him—dozens of them—lifting kelp off the beach and ripping rivers of white froth across the sea.

Important note: I mentioned in the previous post that Howard had endured 40+ knot winds. That was a gross error based on some confusion with the translation. What was mistakenly described to me as 83 kilometer-per-hour winds (44 knots) were in fact 83 mile-per-hour or 70-knot winds. These figures and many other details are apparently corroborated by the Chilean Navy’s report. In fact, winds were so bad during this day and night that the Chilean Navy had shut down all shipping traffic in the region.

Howard says he was mesmerized. Transfixed. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Soon after hearing the devil wind shrieking he was hit by one of these blasts. Moored on the rope with all sails down he was capsized immediately. He went to work righting the boat and was able to get her back on her feet and re-board, but he was hit again and Southern Cross was knocked over for a second time. Again he righted the boat and re-boarded.

Finally he was hit by a third blast and, in an instant, Southern Cross was completely upside down. He said there was no increasing heel or motion indicating what was about to happen—this time he just found himself suddenly underwater beneath the boat. He managed to swim out from under her and just as he was pulling himself up on the skeg to attempt another righting, another blast came through and tore him away from the boat.

He choked up a bit talking about this. I’ll leave it to him to tell, or not, what exactly went through his mind, but I remember he said he was thinking So this is how it ends.

Fortunately one of his ditch bags and a cockpit cushion washed past him and he was able to grab them. At this point he started swimming toward shore, using only his legs while he held on to the bag and cushion, not at all sure he’d make it. Somehow, after something like an hour and fifteen minutes in the frigid water he made it to the shallows and crawled ashore. (His drysuit was not, as previously reported, damaged, and it undoubtedly saved his life).

Eventually he was able to make contact with the navy who, fortuitously, happened to have a gunboat in the area. After barely surviving the night ashore, he was rescued. He was hypothermic (core temperature of 90º) his hands, feet, and muscles in bad shape, but he was alive.

There is obviously a lot more to tell, but we’ll wait for Howard to do that in his own voice. When we spoke, he was working with locals to find a fishing boat owner or someone else willing to take him back to retrieve “Southern Cross”, which he is almost certain is right where he left her. Contrary to the early reports, the boat never went on the rocks or was particularly damaged, she is, he says, likely still sitting on her side, tied-off where he last saw her. He says he can’t afford a formal salvage fee, so he’s trying to find someone who will help bring her back for less money.

Some of you have asked if there is anything you can do to help. Howard conceded recovering the boat might be prohibitively expensive. I told him we’d be willing to put up a PayPal donation button for him and transfer any funds received. He said he would appreciate our doing that and he would refund any money that doesn’t end up being required. If you’d like to pitch in to his “Southern Cross” recovery fund, you can do so at the bottom of this page.

For those of you wondering, Howard says he did have the waterproof cameras onboard recording (as part of the Below 40 South film project) during some of the extreme weather. He’s hopeful the memory cards and cameras can be retrieved when he gets back to the boat.

Stay tuned. More information as it becomes available. There is also an update posted at below40south.com/blog

—Josh Colvin

All funds donated here will be forwarded to Howard Rice directly. We are acting in good faith and are not responsible for what happens after these funds are forwarded on to Howard, how they are used, what may or may not be refunded, etc. Please do not donate if you’re not 100% comfortable sending funds without these specific details spelled out. Small Craft Advisor is simply helping to quickly facilitate the donation process.

Donation button removed. 3/5/17
Howard thanks you for the many generous donations.

aboard

Howard Rice (left) aboard Southern Cross during happier times. Photo Debra Colvin

***Additional update: Howard asked me to include the following:

“I have never in my sailing life called for assistance and would not have done so unless I felt my life was in jeopardy. I also wish to note that in doing so that no other person was put in harms way.

The Armada part; boat was not sent out to rescue me, it happened to be an hour away headed for Punta Arenas so the pick up was easy and non eventful. The Captain did the right thing and waited until conditions allowed their inflatable to come to shore in safety.

I understand the responsibility of sailing in the region as dangerous as it is having done it before. The conditions I encountered were extraordinary even for Tierra del Fuego. No boat or sailor could have survived intact that day with the cyclonic winds. I feel I had a very fulfilling and successful voyage down the Strait of Magellan and through some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen. I consider my voyage a success, just wish I hadn’t run into the cyclones, a new experience.

Thanks Josh
Howard”

More news: Howard indicated he’s lined up a possible ride down to his boat and, to my surprise, he says he intends to resume sailing if the boat is reasonably intact. More soon. —Eds

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