Thursday November 29, 2012
With plans to get to the Bahamas ASAP, we almost made the three day journey outside straight from Cumberland Island to Lake Worth just so we’d be able to stock up the boat and leave as soon as the next weather window came. We knew that St. Augustine, which was a 50 mile jump from channel to channel, was supposed to be a very pretty and historic town complete with another boat exchange shop, so I was able to talk Matt into a one day stay there before booking it to Lake Worth. Basing our trips on daylight now, as we always have to do, we figured if we left with the sun in the morning we should have just enough time to get inside the inlet before it went down. Plus the weather was calling for 15 knots from the north with only three foot waves or less, so it would be a nice downwind sail, perfect for Georgie’s first time out on the water. Getting the anchor up thirty minutes before the sun rose, we fought a pretty nasty current going out the St. Mary’s Inlet which had us moving forward at a measly two knots, but as soon as we were free of the breakers and pointed south our speed shot back up and under headsail alone we were able to average 6-7 knots. The sun was shinning and it was a beautiful day. My mind was filled with thoughts of a hot shower and spaghetti dinner that night, and as we crossed into the Sunshine State my spirit lifted with the promise of soon to be warm weather and crystal clear seas.
Even though the waves were low it was not a flat ride, and since we’re not positive Georgie is 100% sure not to jump off the deck even in calm weather, we’ve already discussed that she’ll always be stowed away below while traveling. Having left our new kitty under the warm covers of bed that morning we constantly went down to check on her to see how she was handling the rocking motion of the boat. Each time we’d find her bundled under loads of blankets, either unaware that we were moving or so deep in sleep that she didn’t care. Since she wasn’t getting sick or freaking out I was considering this initial voyage with her a success. When we were only ten miles out from the St. Augustine Inlet we called the Municipal Marina and made reservations that night for a mooring ball, and with over an hour of sunlight left, I was thinking that we’d just quickly ease ourselves in through the inlet and be relaxing inside the cabin thirty minutes after.
Our charts of the inlet only showed one green buoy, which was strange since the past few inlets we’d gone in and out of have buoys going out for miles, red and green placed together each mile along the way. Something else strange on the chart was that it didn’t show the depth anywhere in or near the channel. Having Matt take a look he pulled out our resources and found that constant dredging and shifts are always changing the channel, so that’s why it’s not marked on charts, and entering it should be done visually by relying on the buoys in the water and using local knowledge. Keeping my eye peeled for the green buoy listed on the chart (even though I wasn’t supposed to follow it anymore) I did not see it, but did catch sight of a red one off our port bow. Changing course to take the red buoy on the port side, we finally spied a green next to it, Green 1 & Red 2, so I passed between them with no sight of other buoys in front of us towards the inlet. Following the straight line that we had made between the initial buoys I began to get a little apprehensive when I still couldn’t see any others buoys and the depth began to fall from 25 ft to 15, so I hailed Tow Boat US over the VHF for verbal instructions on how to navigate the channel.
Coming back on the radio and being very helpful, he kept telling me that Red 4 was missing and I needed to find Red buoy 6 and hug it…but I still could not see anything in front of me. Matt had even gone on the deck with binoculars without seeing any of the markers. The sun was setting right in front of our eyes, reflecting off the water and blinding us to anything ahead, and breaking waves surrounded us on each side. Both of us were getting very nervous and were about to about and turn around when we saw a red buoy ahead just off to starboard. Hooray!!, we were on the right track after all! Making a beeline for this new marker I still didn’t understand why the depths were not going up if we were supposedly getting closer to or in the channel. Then, in the few seconds it took for my heart to jump into my throat when I realized something about this wasn’t right, there was a sudden and hard thud as the depth-sounder abruptly went from 13 ft to 4. We had just hit bottom, and we hit it HARD. And this wasn’t a drifting forward from deep to shallow water, it was a quick drop on to it.
Quickly throwing the engine into reverse and throttling hard we could not even move before the next wall of water picked us up and threw us down on the hard bottom again. The stern swung to the side and now instead of running down with the waves, they were approaching us on our beam (bad news!). It was only a few seconds from breaker to breaker and the next one that came did not lift us up but instead crashed on our side sending hundreds of gallons of water over our deck and into our cockpit. It was here that the severity of the situation became real, as this is how boats are lost everyday at sea. We had both been holding on tightly knowing that initial wave was coming and before the next one reached us we both had our life jackets on and were tethered in. Matt took a hold of the wheel to point us into the waves and I jumped on the VHF to send out a distress call to the guy on Tow Boat US I had been talking to on 18, and yelled out that we’d run aground and needed immediate assistance. I let him know we were stuck in breaking waves and required him to come as soon as possible.
Still at the wheel, Matt was doing his best to move us forward and into deeper water. The waves coming at Serendipity were eight foot breakers and they were completely having their way with us. Every 10 seconds we’d be lifted up sixteen feet and then slammed down hard onto our keel. It was like an earthquake inside the boat, and with each slam the whole boat would shake and shudder inside and out. I was only used to running into soft sand but this felt like we were pounding down on cement. My mind kept racing with what was happening. Would we be able to make it out of this any moment basically unscathed? Would we make it out, but with lots of damage? Or worst of all, Are we going to have to abandon ship and leave Serendipity behind? Somehow in this I never feared at all for our safety. Maybe it was because we had on our life jackets and were only a few hundred feet from shore, but I was never worried that we wouldn’t make it out. Continually slamming up and down though without any sign that Serendipity was about to miraculously make it out, Matt gave me instructions to hit the Distress Signal on our VHF which sent out an alert to all boats in the area, and then after that he instructed me to put out a Mayday call to the Coast Guard.
Still trusting that Serendipity would get this through us I was calm and collected as I talked to the Coast Guard and explained what the situation was. We had run aground in the inlet and there were breaking waves coming over us. They took information as to: how many people were on board; did we have any medical conditions; were we taking on any water. “Two, no, no.” While responding I was still bracing myself at the navigation station below, knees giving out underneath me from the force of each slam down onto the hard ground. I had to wonder if they could hear it on their end as well, the sickening crash and shudder from the drop of each wave. The TV sitting on a swinging mount in the cabin had been wildly swinging back and forth this whole time, slamming into v-berth door and leaving indents. I flinched with each hit, knowing it would leave permanent damage to the door, and then getting disgusted with myself for worrying about something so trivial at a time like this. We were in danger and I was disturbed with the physical appearance of the boat.
While speaking with the Coast Guard I heard the engine shudder to a stop, but hadn’t even realized we weren’t crashing down on the keel any more. We had drifted out of the breakers and into deeper water between the channel’s shoal and shore which in itself was good news, but in all the chaos, the sliding genoa car that holds the line for our jib lines had broken loose and wrapped around our prop leaving us dead in the water. There was a strong current and smaller breaking waves still pushing us toward shore, and due to Matt’s quick thinking he dropped our anchor, a Rocna 25 Kg, which stuck immediately, kept us into place, and allowed us to face bow into the waves. This was very important because not only would we have drifted to shore and shallow water again, but the breaking waves would have also likely turned us on our side and rolled the boat over if we were not able to keep ourselves facing into them (Typically, you only need breaking waves half the width of your boat to roll it over… these were larger than the 5’6″ our boat would need). If we didn’t have that Rocna, and it didn’t hold right away like it did, we would not have even had a chance to save our boat while waiting for help to come. Getting back on the VHF with the Coast Guard I informed them our engine was not working due to a wrapped line around the prop and we were now adrift in deeper water. With the wind coming from right where we needed to go, sailing out wasn’t an option.
Not having anything to keep him preoccupied now, Matt let his nerves start to get the best of him as he stumbled down the stairs, still assured in his mind that we were going to lose the boat and have to be evacuated. Between short breaths he tore through the aft cabin pulling out our backpack and stuffed Georgie inside of it. Going into our hanging locker in the head he grabbed our dry bag and started throwing in our laptops, important papers, passports, and anything else small and of value. These were all smart things to do, but the look in his eyes was terrified as if to say ‘We’re not going to make it‘. Calming him down the best I could I assured him that the three of us would make it out of this and that’s what was important. Even if the boat was lost we’d still have each other. Even though the chance of losing the boat was not what he wanted to hear this seemed to work a little and his breathing slowed down as he started to gain control again but I could tell his mind was still full of what ifs?.
Not knowing who/when/if anyone was still coming to rescue us since the Coast Guard Station was all the way up in Jacksonville, I was relieved to hear the voice of Tow Boat US come back on the radio and say he was moments away. By now the sun had already set and pale pinks and blues were painting the coast of the Atlantic. When I looked over to see the bright flashing lights of Tow Boat US my heart lifted as I could now see help was on the way. Our Rocna was still holding us steady in ten feet of water, which is enough for our keel to clear the bottom, but now in the heavy breaking waves of the beach’s surf line, we figured that with this assistance we may still save our home. Communicating through VHF he said he was going to trail a line with a bridle at the end and when it drifted close enough to it, Matt who was at the bow with a boat hook, would grab it and attach it to our cleats up front. Once that was done we’d pull up the anchor and be on our way. It sounded so effortless and I began to let myself relax in just the slightest. We were going to be out of here in just a few minutes and leave this nightmare behind.
As the tow boat made it’s first pass we kept our eyes on the water for the yellow bridle that was to be our savior, but it was nowhere in sight. When he called back on the VHF I replied that it hadn’t come by yet, but then I spotted it. 100 feet off our starboard side and not drifting any closer to us. Calling this information back to him he said he’d make another pass. Swinging around once more his boat passed a few hundred feet in front of us and as soon as he was even with our bow he shot back out into the deeper water. Once more we watched the bridle pass this time 50 feet to our starboard side with no indication it would come any closer. I didn’t get why he couldn’t pass any nearer to us or why he wouldn’t continue past our bow before heading back out as in my mind that would seem to put the lines within reach. Then it occurred to me that he couldn’t do either of those because those large breakers we were stuck in, and by coming closer, he would be putting himself and his boat in danger which would be a lose/lose situation for everyone. The optimism of getting pulled off was diminishing and for the first time I let myself get scared. It was getting dark out, the tow boat couldn’t successfully get to us, and we might lose everything after all. A lump formed in my throat as I tried to hold back tears. All the confidence and repose was draining out of me and I was moments away from breaking down.
Just at the moment I was about to succumb to the fears building up inside of me, there was another voice on the radio. Local search and rescue had been listening to the distress call and our interaction with the tow boat on how he was unable to get the line close enough to reach. They were sending out one of their jet skis that could grab the line from the tow boat and bring it directly to us. We were thrilled to hear this, but the waiting began again. Matt was still stationed at the bow and I was in the cockpit. Both of us would have to brace ourselves as the waves that were starting to grow again would throw our side up before coming back down. We were now at a 50-60 degree angle to the waves and although they weren’t sending water in the cockpit it was a very uncomfortable ride. As the sky turned the color of a blueberry I looked back to shore to see a Coast Guard search and rescue truck stationed on the beach 300 feet away with lights flashing, reflecting off the sand and water. The waves built a higher, and as I’d start to get small rushes of water over the gunnel and into the cockpit, my heart began to beat faster. I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to take this.
As my mind started to go into the darkest places of what might become of us we got a call on the radio that search and rescue had us in their sights. Looking over our port side we saw their bright flashing lights and hopes lifted again. Coming up to our boat to check on our physical (and probably mental) well being, they advised that instead of bringing the bridle to us they’d instead have us cleat off our own line that they would bring over to the tow line. Knowing that time was a factor I started grabbing lines from the cockpit floor and unknowingly began to start handing out our reef line thinking it wasn’t attached to anything. Having come back to the cockpit to feed the line to search and rescue, Matt caught my mistake and dove into the back lazarette for our double braided drogue line and handed it to me to untie. Although it had been tied and stowed properly, it became a mess as it fell onto the cockpit floor while trying to get all 200 feet ready to hand out. Using all my strength I heaved and pulled at the now wet line trying to work out kinks and knots. When we had 3/4 of it straight Matt took the line to the bow to cleat off and search and rescue made a pass to pick up the other end. After two attempts the line was secured by them and they made their way back to Tow Boat US who was sitting safely off in the distance.
Keeping in contact through the VHF we discussed the next steps with Tow Boat US. Once he had the lines secured, he would notify us when we were to take our anchor up, and once we were free, we’d call back to him and he’d tighten the line and begin the tow. Everything went smoothly on his part and after working our windlass hard to pull ourselves to the anchor and get the Rocna up, which had dug itself in pretty deep, I was given the signal by Matt which I excitedly relayed on the radio and the towing process started. Being walked through step by step from the tow boat I had the wheel cranked hard to starboard to get us facing the tow boat, and once we were pointed at the stern, I was told to keep it there. We were now in pitch black and all I had to go by were the yellow and while lights shinning on the top of his boat. Letting my eyes sneak to the chart several times I kept an eye on the depth, fearful of being pulled back into the shoals we had passed through earlier. The tow boat captain was knowledgeable of the area though and brought us far to the south of the breakers before rounding to head back into the channel. Every time we were about to make a turn he’d call it back to me on the radio and pass through very slowly so I’d constantly be able to position myself behind him.
Before I knew it we were through the channel and into the Matanzas Bay. I let out a huge sigh and my tense body was finally able to relax. We had made it through this. Looking up into the town of St. Augustine the waterfront was covered in Christmas lights and it looked like something out of a fairy tale. Letting myself get distracted by something other than the boat I took a few minutes to appreciate all the beauty around us. As I sat there admiring the lights I heard movement in the water next to our stern and puffs of air escaping the blowholes of a pod of dolphins that came to surface next to us. I couldn’t see them but they stayed there for a few minutes, as if they were surveying the situation and making sure we were ok. Unhooking the tow lines our guide boat came up beside us to ‘hip tow’ us the rest of the way to the mooring ball we had made a reservation on for the night. Secured in we began the paperwork and got the chance to chat with the guy who saved Serendipity. Captain Justin Daily is the one who heard our initial questions about navigating the inlet and had already been on his way out to help guide us in before our distress call went out. Through the whole ordeal he was calm, confident, polite and made it very easy to put our minds to rest of the whole situation. Back at the mooring ball he was insistent on making sure we were alright and worked with us to make the bill as manageable as possible since we were not yet Tow Boat US members. We could not have asked for a better person to help us out that night.
When all the paperwork was finished and the tow boat was gone we immediately had visitors from Hideaway who were at the mooring ball next to us and heard the whole thing go down on their radio. Changing out of our soaking we clothes we jumped in their dinghy and after all of us checked in to the office we took advantage of the hot showers and walked across the street to get some food. We relayed the whole story to them over drinks and a hot meal. They assured us it probably wasn’t as bad as we anticipated and boats are much sturdier than we think they are. Asking what our plans were next we could only tell them that we’d have to haul out to inspect the damage. As far as what was after that, neither of us had a clue and agreed not to make any decisions that night. If we had that night, we probably would have been two one-way tickets back to Michigan on our credit card. It was a trying night and we were so thankful to have friends there waiting with open arms, give outside perspective, and remind us what we have to be thankful for.
In the end we made it out mostly in one piece. We’re safe and although Serendipity will have permanent damage, hopefully it will be minor repairs that will have us back on our way in a matter of days. She took a very bad pounding but through it all we never had any water coming in, steering was moving freely and besides some cosmetic issues to the interior plus all of our belongings scattered around her, she looks to be holding up pretty well. Probably better than us at the moment.
Some very big thanks need to go out to all that got us and our home back to safety that night. Thank you Justin Daily for coming to our rescue, before you even knew we needed you. You braved breaking waves yourself and held our hand through the whole situation. Your calmness and awareness let us know we were in good hands and and all of us (boat included) would be taken care of. The community is lucky to have you around. Thank you to the local search and rescue team. Without your assistance we may have never received the tow lines that pulled our boat to safety. You were out to help us without a moments notice and without even being asked. We appreciate it more than you know. And lastly, thank you to Rocna Anchors. Without your reliable anchor that we have trusted since the beginning of this trip, we surely would have lost our boat to the smashing waves of the inlet before rescue could make it out to us. You make a remarkable product that all boaters would be wise to take advantage of.
If there was any lesson learned today, it’s to always follow your gut. Both of us had a bad feeling about our entrance into the inlet but didn’t react in time to save ourselves a night full of heartache. We should have circled back out right away and either re-evaluated the situation, waited for another boat to follow in, or just kept going down the coast until we found an inlet we were more comfortable with, even if that meant skipping St. Augustine all together. So many people put themselves in bad situations and just get lucky that they come out of it fine. ‘It won’t happen to me‘ is a common phrase in people’s minds and always floated through ours as well. From now on I have a feeling we’ll be over-cautious in many situations and we’ll be living by the adage ‘Better safe than sorry’. Because now we know what ‘sorry’ feels like and it isn’t very good. In fact, ‘sorry’ downright sucks. Taking a look around though the bright holiday decorations, historic buildings, and friendly people will all help us get through this. I’ve only seen a little bit of it, but St. Augustine really does look like the cutest little town you could almost shipwreck your boat in.
He’s a map showing where it all went wrong.
After talking to local Fire & Rescue I was sent a clip of a sailboat that ran aground in the same exact spot we did, just one year earlier. They were not as lucky, the keel of their boat fell off causing them to capsize and sending two people into the water, both of whom were rescued. Click here if you’d like to see it. The water conditions were the same for both them and us, but we had clear skies and a pretty sunset. A sunset that partially caused our demise, but it was pretty nontheless.