It’s a STOP!

It’s a STOP!

First of all, at the moment EVERYONE IS SAFE.  Greg insisted the Coast Guard take Mel and the kids off the boat, and he is still on the boat trying to save it.

EVERYONE IS SAFE.

I don’t even know how to write about this.  Even if I had mentally prepared every scenario in my head before the crossing, I wouldn’t have thought of this happening to us.  It is too F*%KING IMPOSSIBLE.

It goes like this.  We got a late start out of Las Palmas after running numerous errands, leaving at 3:30 pm.  Before we could go directly on course, we had to go around the east side of Gran Canaria.  Mel was on watch at 7:30, after dark.  They just had been motoring, as shifty, lowish winds and some big waves made sailing a bit tricky as they were rounding the island known for its erratic local winds.  Finally, the wind picked up to a healthy 20 kts, and so Mel rolled out the jib to give the engines a rest.  As she was pulling it out, the wind picked up to 25 kts.  She killed the engines, and Marvin was making 9 kts with just a jib out.  She and Greg did a shift changeover as it was time to make dinner, and Mel went below.  Greg reefed the jib, checked the radar (nothing on it), looked about (as much as he could in the dark with the jib out), and went below to get some things for his watch, since it was obvious he needed to stay at the helm due to the changing winds.  Mel was noting that the winds sounded like they were increasing even more and then…

BANG!

Mel drops her hotdogs.  Greg charges up from the starboard hull.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Mel thinks “HOLY SHIT WE HIT A F*%KING WHALE!”  She had read about this around here.  It was one of her scenarios.

Marvin lurches to a halt.  The engines make a terrible noise, even though they weren’t on.  Greg gets to the helm first to assess.  The jib is flogging, as we are no longer at our original wind angle.  Soon they realize that Mel’s usual, “Start the engines” protocol whenever something goes wrong sailing isn’t going to work here.  Marvin is caught on something huge and his rudders are stuck.  With the foredeck light on, we finally see what were are dealing with.

Marvin sailed right into a GIANT F*%KING UNLIT FLOATING FISH TRAP.  A nearby boat later said it was likely a “mussel trap.”  There are some BIG F*%KING MUSSELS around here.

This thing is about 20 meters in diameter (Marvin is just 14.5 meters.)  It is hard to describe, but it is a ring of two thick rubber tubes 1 foot in diameter floating on the water, held together by giant metal clasps.  Around the ring is a black (?rubber) railing that comes out of the water 3-4 feet and holds a single, burnt-out light. DID I MENTION THE F*%KING UNLIT THING WAS BLACK???

We roll in the jib, and the autopilot reminds us to switch it off.  We inspect.  Marvin’s port engine is off its mounts and water is coming into the engine compartment.  The bilge pump keeps up with the spurt of water with every 6 foot wave just fine.  It’s not coming from a hole so much as a crack.  The port engine can’t be started, of course, and we leave the starboard engine off.  Later we see that the floating tubing is caught between Marvin’s port rudder and the saildrive, and we are jammed in between the tubing hard.  The starboard rudder passed over the tubing but seemed to be caught on something deeper in the water.

It’s hard enough to summarize something like this after it happens.  During it, the uncertainty about the future and the multitude of decisions, important decisions, one faces is overwhelming.  You are also dealing with a mixture of adrenaline and emotions.  In the next 15 minutes, we asked ourselves and answered about 1000 questions.  Such as, “WHAT THE F*$K?” and, “Is it okay to cry even though we are all safe?”  Some of the answers were easier than others.

We do a quick check and find to our surprise that our bows appear intact.  They just glided right over the obstruction. The other bilges are dry.  Greg gets on the VHF and says, “Mayday Mayday Mayday.”  That’s what he said.  The Coast Guard heard that but also Mel in the background muttering, “Mayday?  Oh, come on!  Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan!”  (To Greg’s credit, he’s a pilot.  There aren’t a lot of Pan-Pan-level problems with airplanes.  It’s “Mayday” or nothing.)

The Spanish Coast Guard replied and we had to wait an hour for a large rescue boat to arrive from a town on the south of Gran Canaria called Puerto Rico.  Communication was difficult given the noise and the limited English of our kind and noble rescuers (and our even-more-limited Spanish). 

With all of our lights on, we saw that we were in a field of at least three similar, unlit traps.  One was just 20 meters off our stern, and there was a thick line connecting it to our trap, attaching to our trap right next to our starboard transom.  Greg could reach this rope while sitting on the transom, and so he rigged a bridle and attached it to that line and used our winches to try to haul us backwards, using the other trap as an anchor.  This was not easy, as the wind had picked up to 40 kts and the seas were sometimes 6 feet.  The boat was creaking and groaning.  Greg’s bridle did not free us, but it kept us from going completely into the trap and banging against a huge, 5 by 5 meter metal cage floating in the middle. 

After another hour a small dinghy arrived to assess the situation and they helped us tie another line from our port side to the other trap.  In the end, the Coast Guard decided that since we were not actively sinking, rescue efforts would continue once it was daylight.  They couldn’t get in between the traps.

Another decision: The Coast Guard wasn’t going to be able to stick around all night, and so they left it up to us to decide whether to stay with the boat or go.  They mentioned that a major hull breach would require a helicopter rescue.  After they said that, we decided we wanted the kids off of the boat, which means Mel had to go with them.  Greg (and rescue cat Gypsy) stayed on the boat to monitor the lines and watch the bilge pump overnight.  In retrospect in the morning hours, Mel wishes they had stayed with Greg on the boat so she could have shared watches with him.  It’s hard to sink a catamaran with an intact 10-person life-raft to “helicopter-level” quickly.

During the dinghy ride, Mel and the kids were swamped several times by a mixture of 4-6 ft waves in all directions.  Mel cursed herself for not packing her clothes in a dry bag, like her smart boat kids had done.  They all handled getting into a dinghy and onto a 105-ft Coast Guard vessel well in the waves, with no injury.  It was hard to hear the dinghy skipper, but along the way he told Mel in broken English, “Those traps are semi-abandoned.”

“Semi-abandoned?”  That is not a thing.

Mel and the kids were treated well by the nice Spaniards on the rescue boat.  At one point Mel even got to observe what they all do with the giant cured pig legs you see hanging in the shops. Mel put on her well-seasoned “delivering bad news” doctor-face so that no one would see her cry.  She asked the one that spoke some English, “Has this happened before?”  He said excitedly, “No!  This first time!”

Shame.  In the middle of the uncertainty, stress, loss, and fear, shame comes by to visit.  In the over 12,000 miles we’ve sailed, we’ve certainly had reminders that planning, knowledge, and skills still can’t stop Calamity from messing with things.  But we also know that many will not understand this, and they will look at our big, expensive, beautiful boat caught in a giant f*$king floating fish trap and laugh, feeling vindicated somehow, listing all of the reasons that would never happen to them.  While Mel knows that, if one listens closely enough to the sea, the waves and the wind are silently whispering, “Shit happens…shit happens…shit happens” to keep us humble, she can’t help feel that awful feeling.  Shame.

She clearly didn’t worry enough before this crossing. 

Well, we have boat insurance.  Yes, someone out there has enough balls to insure boats.  Let’s see your stuff, Pantaenius.  We’re all watching.

The Coast Guard was very gracious to us, and they got a taxi driver willing to spend an hour helping us find a hotel with a room in a Spanish-speaking country during high season. At 3 am Mel and the kids got into their beds so Mel could worry lying down.

The kids handled all of this amazing well, even distracting themselves by gaming at one point.  Tommy was wisecracking on the dinghy all the way to the rescue ship.  Tommy wants to name this post, “Damn You, Good Luck Star.”  Allie wants to name it, “A Trap, But Not For Mussels.”

This morning, the boat is stable.  The bilge pump is keeping up.  However, Marvin moved forward (many of our lines popped) and is now completely enclosed in the fish trap.  Rudders are gone.  Greg is on the boat, exhausted, waiting for divers to show up.  They are going to cut Marvin out of the trap (THEY BETTER HAVE A HUGE F*$KING KNIFE) and tow him, now rudderless apparently, (the tow should be interesting) to a yard here in Puerto Rico.  That’s right.  We sailed from the Canaries for four hours and ended up in Puerto Rico.

Mel is so thankful for many things.  Chiefly, her family is fine.  Really, she never felt much fear along those lines.  Marvin is tough.  It’s just our dreams that are destroyed.  Also, her friends that left the same day, in a much smarter way, left in the morning and likely saw the traps in broad daylight if they happened to get really close to see the partially submerged black blob.  So they should be fine. 

But they really should throw those f*$king “Good Luck Stars” away.

For our family, please know we are super busy but will contact you when we can with more updates.  EVERYONE IS SAFE.

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32 Responses

  1. Katie
    | Reply

    Oh my gosh, what a story. I’m so glad you’re all ok.

    I have just come across your blog, as I am currently looking for American Families for a new Animal Planet series that I am working on. I would love to have a chat with you and your family. We are looking for families, with children, who are living alongside animals, often off the grid and in remote places (or on a boat!). I’d love to chat you and the family, incase it’s something that you’re interested in. I hope to hear from you soon. Best wishes, Katie.

    • Mel
      | Reply

      Katie, That sounds interesting! I will email you our contact info.

  2. Diane Stephens
    | Reply

    Hi Mel,
    We are friends of the Gables. We are sailors from the Bay area. Wow, you have had some interesting adventures. I am sorry to hear about the January boat damages, it sounds like you have come thru with great stories. I look foward to hearing more. Enjoy and be safe!
    Diane S.

    • Mel
      | Reply

      Diane, Thanks for your well-wishes! Send Todd and Jen our good tidings! We are settling in to the Caribbean now, so hopefully there won’t be any more disasters for us. We have had our fill!

  3. Larry R
    | Reply

    I’m new to your blog, and still in the early stages of refining my sailing fantasy, but *wow*, what an eye-opener. When I think about the scary side of sailing, I think about weather, not abandoned fish traps – talk about the unexpected. VERY glad that the only harm done was to the boat (and possibly your pride?) and that all are safe and healthy. Hopefully repairs will be quick, and living the dream will continue.

    • Mel
      | Reply

      Larry, Thanks for your kind thoughts. The odd thing is, I am less scared of sailing now…

  4. Viki Moore
    | Reply

    Oh my goodness!
    I hope you get the boat back ok. What a terrible thing to happen.

  5. Edson Pfeiffelman
    | Reply

    Wow! What a horrible experience at sea while dark. Glad to read everyone is safe and the boat is in port. Can’t believe there were no reflectors or lights on the traps.

    Interested in seeing pics of the damage and end result of repairs.

  6. Steve patenaude
    | Reply

    Holy Sh** , the 4 dimensional problem (flying) is beginning to look a lot safer. Wishing you all speedy repair and safe jounrey.

    • Mel
      | Reply

      Thanks, Steve! Yes, we’ll get back on Marvin soon, we hope.

  7. Julie Shipman
    | Reply

    Ah… wow. You guys are amazing… I love the way you write. What happens next? Interesting ~ as I am reading this, we just decided THIS MORNNG to purchase a Leopard Cat 4800 in Tortola, and perhaps sail the world. That is, after we learn how to sail it? Working on our financing today. Wondering if this is an omen? A warning? But, like you said, shit happens. And Big Shit can happen on Boats. And, insurance? I sure hope Marvin gets some good plastic surgery? hhhhhmmmmm. Love and hugs to you guys. Julie

    • Mel
      | Reply

      Congrats on your purchase! No need not to be excited — this was really a freak thing — people sail for decades and not have this happen!

  8. Butch
    | Reply

    What an amazing event, I don’t even understand most of it but what I do get is how grateful I am that you guys are all safe (and maybe sound???)! You’re right, in the grand scheme of things this was just an inconvenience (although expensive and life threatening). Just fix it and move on. Happy sailing and I hope you never have to say “Mayday Mayday Mayday” again!

  9. Anhar
    | Reply

    Oh Mel- I just read your post. What an absolute bummer :(. Thank goodness you are all ok. Yes, shit happens despite the best preparation and skills. It was wrong time, wrong place. Can I do anything to help? Send you stuff??
    Anhar xx

    • Mel
      | Reply

      Thanks for the offer, Anhar! We have what we need for now — they even have IKEA’s on this island!!!

  10. Kristin Somers
    | Reply

    Still thinking if you guys and not praying for you! 😀😀😀😀

    We are glad you are safe!

    K, p, g, and j

  11. Dori Troutman
    | Reply

    I just recently found your blog through the Sailing Totem blog and I’ve really enjoyed reading all the past posts. Just this week I had caught up and was “current” and then THIS!!! I could hardly believe I was reading it. I don’t you, but my thoughts are with y’all and with your boat. I’m following you on FB now so hopefully I’ll see an update that the boat is towed in and hopefully can be repaired. Hope you are keeping your sense of humor somehow! 🙂 “A Trap… But Not for Mussels”! She’s awesome! 🙂

    – Dori –

    • Mel
      | Reply

      Thanks, Dori! Things move so quickly during something like that and so slowly afterwards! We are all keeping up our spirits, though!

  12. Jen N.
    | Reply

    I have never commented on your blog before and don’t know you at all in real life. After one of my retired colleagues emailed me one of your recently published articles, I have been following your blog closely trying to live vicariously through your family’s adventures (as I sit behind my computer screen, diligently battling with insurance companies and EMR hassles while trying to finish chart notes between kids sports and music lessons). So much of your early writing rings true with the pain I am feeling with my chosen career in medicine – it is so refreshing to see someone willing to pull up and make a positive change for their life. So, I spent hours catching up on all of the past blog posts to start the adventure from the beginning. Through your witty writing style and beautiful pictures, I often felt like I was a part of your crew while dreaming about taking my family on our own adventure of a lifetime.

    I know there are no words that can change your situation, but I felt pulled to reach out and let you know that I am literally heartbroken for your family. It’s odd feeling so empathetic for someone I’ve never truly met, but reading the first few lines of this post literally took my breath away. First and foremost, I am so thankful that you all are safe – and it appears through your location tracker that the boat has been pulled to shore. I really hope that Marvin is salvageable but I know nothing of sailboats (other than what I have learned in the past few months on this blog) so I don’t even know if that is realistic. Please know that there are likely many other blog followers out there who are really pulling for you guys as well and very hopeful that the Atlantic crossing will again be a go at some point in the future. Hold onto your dreams.

    • Mel
      | Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jen! I’ll tell you, this is the first time during this whole adventure that I have come close to feeling the dread I felt at 5 pm everyday at work when I looked at the pile of phone calls and paperwork I had to take care of…

  13. Diane Goethel
    | Reply

    This is much easier to read in post tense! So relieved to know you are all safe. How harrowing this must have been. Wishing you capable repairmen and a speedy return to your adventures!

  14. David
    | Reply

    Good night I’m David , the diver , I already sent you an e-mail but I don’t know if it came to you properly , my email address is (Mel removed so he would not get spammed…contact her if you would like it.)

    • Mel
      | Reply

      David, Great to hear from you! Things are finally calming down a bit for us. I’ll send you some pics!

  15. Kristin Somers
    | Reply

    We are thinking of you and are are very relieved you are safe! We eagerly await your next posts.

  16. Ash Jasper
    | Reply

    Sorry to hear. Glad you are all safe. Hang tough.

  17. Eric Abraham
    | Reply

    What an unfortunate event. While I was initially relieved to hear everyone is save, my sadness for Marvin and your journey is now kicking in. I feel awful for you guys. Let us know what happens next. Having a link to the Cerberus tracker is very helpful. Bringing Marvin “to a yard here in Puerto Rico” didn’t make sense to me at first, but I got it now. 🙁

  18. Eric Abraham
    | Reply

    Holy crap! Glad to hear everyone is fine, and that the kids took it in good humor. That seems to be a functional definition of children: small human beings capable of flipping out over the most minor inconvenience but truly resilient against catastrophic emergencies.

  19. Serena
    | Reply

    Mel and Greg, I’m sure you are swamped with your friends and family and logistics right now. I’m so glad everyone is safe. You’re right, shit happens. Fish traps, floating logs (which appear black at night), rogue waves. Please let us know if you we can do anything for you guys when you come up for air.

  20. Owen
    | Reply

    So sorry to hear this. Glad you are all safe.

  21. Eric
    | Reply

    I’m so sorry!
    I’m glad everyone is safe.
    This hits home because we did the same trip in 2012 (sans mussel traps), this could have been us.

  22. Kelley - Sailing Chance
    | Reply

    Goodness, so glad you guys are safe! I have never read of such a story – whales, containers, yes but never a mussel trap! Hoping the repair process goes smoothly

  23. Bethany Hagberg
    | Reply

    So glad you guys are safe! Let us know if we can help in any way.

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