Mayday Wake-Up Call

March 5, 2010

On a windy morning in Canada’s northern Gulf Islands my wife and I heard a Mayday call from a 50-foot boat taking on water in the Strait of Georgia, about 10 miles north of our location. They reported a family of four and a dog aboard. We were glued to the radio as the Coast Guard rushed to their aid. Within minutes we heard that the boat had sunk, and the family had made it aboard the dinghy. The Coast Guard picked them up almost immediately.

We met the unfortunate skipper on the dock that evening. He told us his story.

They had been in Nanaimo for several days, waiting for calmer weather to cross the 25 miles of open water in the strait. The night before the accident, the skipper decided it would be safe if they left very early, before the winds were forecast to rise. They left the next morning at 5:00 a.m. The wind began soon after. Very quickly they found themselves in high, steep seas. Although they had not owned this boat long or had it out in similar conditions, the boat was brand new, and at 50 feet it was much larger than their previous boat. The skipper carried on, thinking they would be okay.

After a short time, however, he sensed the boat was handling sluggishly. He opened the engine hatch, and to his horror he saw water rising rapidly in the bilge. Not finding the cause, he decided to continue until the engines quit, while calling the Mayday and preparing to abandon ship.

Their dinghy was a 12-foot heavy RIB with a large outboard, suspended parallel to the water at the stern. When the skipper tried to launch the dinghy, he found he couldn’t get it off the transom. They were in heavy seas and the stern was awash, causing the buoyancy of the dinghy to bind the davit attaching gear. It took a herculean effort to get it clear. The family and dog got aboard just before the boat sank in 880 feet. Had the dinghy not got loose they would have been in 54-degree water.

They will never know why their boat sank so quickly. It cannot be recovered from that depth.

After hearing his story I checked the dinghy setup on our 42-foot Uniflite aft cabin cruiser. We have a heavy 11-foot hard bottom inflatable hung on the stern with a hydraulic lift. I had recently upgraded to this bigger “go fast” dinghy and loved the davit setup for its launch and recovery ease. It was obvious, however, that in rough water or a stern-down situation it would not be easy to get the dinghy off.

With all our careful consideration when upgrading the dinghy, we overlooked the fact that it would be our last semi-dry option if we were sinking. We are seasoned, careful boaters and would like to think we wouldn’t get ourselves in the same situation as that unfortunate family. But as careful as we have been, we have experienced unexpected rough water conditions.

We immediately bought a throwable, self-inflating high-quality life raft that we keep topside in case of emergency.

Facing the same situation, I might be able to get the dinghy off, but now our lives won’t depend upon it.

Bob Schneider
M/V Rock ‘N Roll

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