Here is the story from the crew of Heat Wave during a race around the Farrallon Islands (about 28 miles off the coast). They lost their keel whilst surfing down a wave about 8 miles out from the Golden Gate. It's an amazing story of luck and determination. Read it and share! This piece was featured on Sailing Anarchy over the last week.
Part 1: The Race: It was 5:30 in the morning on Saturday, March 28 2009. Dave (Wilhite) and I were both getting up, him from the bed and me from my folded over blanket on the floor.
We had time for Peter (the boat owner and our host) to make us some scrambled eggs and english muffins, then we set out for the boat, which was moored in Sausalito.
At about 6:45 we made it to the boat, the sun wasn’t up yet and there was a nip in the air; but the day promised to be a beautiful one, with clear skies and very little wind yet. We set about preparing the boat for the race, I installed the new spinnaker halyard, and put the remote release shackle on the tack line. Dave was busy securing our emergency gear inside a dry bag, and making sure the watertight compartments were dry and closed. Dave secured our half water bottle of Tequila, and two cigars (which was for our after the finish celebration) in a dry bag. I gave the waterline one last quick scrub with a deck brush, Dave started the motor and we were off.
We motored across the bay, Dave smartly set us on a course well to the left of the starting line, as there was much current and that direction would actually get us right to where we wanted to go. About half way to the starting area we stowed the motor and put up the main. We then unfurled the jib and began sailing in about 7 knots of wind to the starting area.
We got there a little late, but we were all ready to go. Dave said hi to his friends on the 1D35 Zsa Zsa, and then we tried to figure out when we were starting. We figured out it was in about two minutes, so we said ‘we’re racing now’ and began sailing upwind towards the starting line as fast as we could. We hit the starting line about 20 seconds late, but with good speed we were able to tack to port and start heading out into the middle of the bay where the best current, and the best wind were. The J-105 Roxanne was leading the fleet, with an olson 30 right behind her and then a few Express 27’s. The boat Bloom County was to the left of us by a ways, and we could easily see our advantage on them by being in better current.
We sailed mostly on port out of the bay, with a few quick tacks onto starboard to stay in the best current. We took one starboard tack too far and quickly fell back a few boats. We swore not to make that mistake again.
Once out of the bay the tide started to change. The last of the ebb we had been riding was reversing into a strong flood. Bloom County, which had been ahead of us, had gone into worse current and fallen back. As they came back to us we tacked right on them and footed a little to force them into a large catamaran’s bad air. They were forced to tack away, which proved a horrible move for them as we never saw them again that day.
We tried to play the middle, but we started getting sucked back into the bay. The wind was lighter now, maybe 4-5 knots of breeze. The swells were about 6-8 feet, and the current was against us by about 2 knots. This all meant that as fast as we were sailing, we really weren’t moving over the bottom. We were however moving backwards slower than most of our competition. We came across one of the boats from the fleet ahead, a J-90. We decided that we would concentrate on racing them, as they are a similar, yet bigger boat (and they are made of carbon). We like to set high expectations…
We were proving successful at racing them. Each tack we seemed to get inside on the shift on them and get ahead. Then their boat speed would get them past us, and then we would pass them again. At one point, we tried dropping the anchor to see if that would be a better strategy than trying to race against the current. While we weren’t really moving over the bottom, the anchor still drifted aft on the boat, so we quickly gave up the idea and pulled up the anchor. Unfortunately the anchor caught on the bottom of the keel. I thought I was going to have to go swimming but I was able to free it after a minute of trying and we got it in. We then put it away, deciding that it was too ballsy a move to try again.
While battling the current in center channel we noticed a few boats, primarily Moore 24’s sneaking up the beach on our right. They seemed to be in less current so we tacked to port and gave it a shot. Sure enough we were able to work our way a quarter mile upwind. Dave and I kept trading off the helm every 20 minutes or so, trying to stay fresh. At one point I even took a 15 minute cat nap on deck, which was very nice.
By about noon we looked back and realized that most of the fleet had retired. We were now in a group, with the J-90 (who by now was a little ways ahead of us), a few moore 24’s, a Beneteau 36.7 and us. We all got on starboard tack and started heading out to sea. We were about 20 degrees shy of laying the islands, which were about 20 miles away and still very much out of sight. The breeze started to increase, in to the 10-12 knot range – perfect for upwind sailing.
We were masterfully carving up the faces of waves, and down the back. Slowly as we got away from land the wind build and backed,. We were now laying the island in breeze in the steady teens. We started cracking our sheets and the boat powered up. We were now doing boat speeds in the mid 6 knot range. There were still a few Moore 24’s around us, which were keeping up to our dismay.
As the day went on the breeze continued to build. About 8 miles from the island we decided to reef the main. As Dave drove I slacked the halyard, pulled on the cunningham reef, and then the clew reef. The boat liked it and we went even faster with better control.
It was probably around this time that we started getting wet. First a little wave to the face, then a little bigger one. Throughout the beat we kept taking bigger and bigger douses of water over our heads. It was penetrating our foul weather gear a little, and it was definitely cold.
About 6 miles out I started being able to see the island. Dave had warned me that once you see it, you see it forever. He was right in that it seemed to take forever to actually get to the island once it was in sight. After another hour or so we were there, beam reaching in about 25 knots of wind, still with the jib and reefed main. The island was incredible looking, with the bright sun shining on it and the huge waves breaking all over the enormous cliffs. We tried to get as close around it as we felt comfortable, without risking getting into the beach breaks. There was a Moore 24 ahead, and one behind us, so we felt like we were at least in the company of others, who had undoubtedly done this race many times before.
As we bore off around the island I drove as Dave threw the main over. It was a textbook jibe, perfectly controlled as we surfed down the face of a wave. The wind was lighter as we were in the lee of the island, and prospecting a downwind run we shook the reef out of the main. I then gave Dave the helm as I had to take a leak and this seemed like a good time to do it.
As we came out from the lee of the island we were starting to see boat speeds as high as 12 knots. We were excited to go downwind, but as we looked at the GPS a realization that the wind was too far forward for that came over us. We were going to have to reach hard again, not what are cold, tired bodies wanted to do at 5:00PM with only our breakfast eggs in our stomachs.
The breeze was back up now that the island wasn’t in the way, so I went forward and put the reef back in the main. As we adjusted our course and sails Dave recommended the outboard lead. In my worn out laziness I suggested that I should drive while he set it up. He told me where the line was inside the boat and said to go to it. He rebutted my excuse of not knowing where the lead should go with the fact that he had never hooked it up either. I gave in and grabbed the line, went forward and started hooking it up. Of course he had to catch a good 2 wave combo right then and fire hosed me right in the face while I was tying the new sheet onto the clew of the jib. ‘Oh well’ I thought since I was pretty much drenched already.
The outboard lead worked phenomenally well, and we were easily hitting boat speeds into the low teens. Our strategy was to stay high until a wave came, then accelerate down it’s face and use our speed and stability to reach back as high as we could to try and make our mark, which was set in the GPS as the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge.
We continued this strategy for the rest of the evening as we watched the sun set behind us. We were about 17 miles away as the sun disappeared over the horizon. We still had two Moore 24’s ahead of us, and one closely behind, we just could’t shake those little buggers.
Soon after the sun went down the breeze increased even more, with steady puffs into the low 30’s. The waves were getting bigger as we approached land, and our boat speeds kept getting better. I chugged a weird green juice drink that Dave gave me, and then took the helm for the final hour of our voyage. When I took the helm we were probably 16 miles out and two hours away from finishing; or so we thought. Part two tomorrow....
Part two: The Crash
I had been tired since mid-day. I was lethargic, my body wouldn’t stop shaking and it was impossible to find a place on the boat where your muscles didn’t have to constantly work to keep you in place. It was miserable. After I took the helm, however, in the twilight, we started seeing some incredible boat speeds. The knot meter would top out in the high teens, and then it just wouldn’t read any more. The wheel was probably coming out of the water as the boat was hardly floating any more, it was flying. 10 wave combos were the norm, with white water flying everywhere you couldn’t see the waves you were riding, you just had to feel them.
My second wind had definitely begun. I was happy again, I wasn’t thinking about my worn body or the cold, I was grinning ear to ear trying to get the boat going as fast as I could. At one point I offered the helm to Dave, not wanting to be a hog. He declined, stating his plan was to take it right before the bridge. That sounded fine to me, I was on a good roll and having fun.
We got surfing one set of waves and I got a little too ballsy. We were still headed, and trying hard to get up to the bridge. I went up a little too high and I slowly lost my helm. I warned Dave that I was losing it, the main sheet was already out and we went into a gentle roundup. As soon as the boat de-powered I was able to regain control and we were off again like nothing had happened. I had learned where the edge was though, and I didn’t intend to go beyond it again. About ten minutes later, or a little after 8:00pm, we got on a really big wave. We had seen about five this big that day, so it was nothing new, but it promised to be a good ride. I set up on the face of it, with a good puff we quickly accelerated down the face of the breaking wave. I could hear the water foaming above me as we flew down the face. All of a sudden we felt a jolt in the boat, the kind you feel if something heavy shifts downstairs. Immediately the boat rounded up, with no warning and no fight on the helm; it took about a half a second and we were sideways on the face of the huge wave.
As the wave broke over the side of the boat we rolled and the sound was that of a tree falling down; loud cracking and splintering. The boat went fully upside down, and we were washed off it, but attached with our tethers to leeward of the boat. We both expected the boat to immediately right itself, and we were concerned that we were going to do what I-14 sailors call a California Roll, which is where you get dragged under the boat as it rolls in your direction.
While that seemed scary at the time, it was nothing compared to the reality of the situation. As we realized the boat wasn’t coming back up we saw where the keel should be, shattered fiberglass and a bilge pump hose sticking out of the bottom of the boat. Part three monday.
Part three: The Realization
As Dave and I looked at each other a horrifying idea was coming over both of us. The keel was gone, the boat wasn’t coming back up, and even worse, it might be sinking!
We were both still tethered on, to what was now the underside of the boat. Fortunately I was on my long tether, which is about 10 feet. Dave was on his short one and was getting pulled under with every wave.
He pulled a knife out of his pocket and cut his tether away. He then handed me the knife.
I almost cut my tether right away, but as I saw that the boat seemed to be floating, and that I had enough length to still get on it, I decided it was probably safer to stay attached and risk getting dragged under if the boat went down, then to cut away and risk getting washed away from the boat. I carefully folded the knife and put it in my pocket for safe keeping.
I climbed onto the bottom of the boat, and I was managing to stay on it pretty well. Dave tried to climb up, and I helped him. We got him on but he quickly got washed off by a wave. He decided that it would be easier to just stay in the water, and hang onto the boat, then repeatedly try to get on the boat, and share the small space with me. I had no protest, as I kept getting washed off too, and both of us trying to climb on over and over again would get pretty cramped.
We started discussing the situation. We were about 8 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. “The wind and waves are pushing us towards land” I said, perhaps we would ride the overturned boat to the beach? Dave, who knows San Francisco waters much better than me wasn’t so positive about it. He noted that the tide was ebbing again, and we were being taken out to sea. Not what I wanted to hear.
As I looked around I saw the clear, black, starry sky above us. There was a sliver of a moon directly to windward, which had a kind of spooky look to it above the frothing waves that kept rolling down on us. Looking the other way I could see right up the lighted streets of the city. I could see the flashing lights of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I could see Alcatraz lighted up below it. It all looked so close, but it seemed a lifetime away.
I thought about my beautiful fiance, my dog, and all the fun things we were planning to do with our lives. I thought about how I would never go camping with them again,.
For a minute, as I looked up at the moon, I thought to myself ‘I must be dreaming, I’m going to wake up from this and everything will be normal’. I quickly realized that this was far from the truth.
Then I saw a Moore 24 coming at us. Dave had handed me a flashlight a few minutes before so I quickly started holding it over my head trying to signal them. When I looked at the beam it was very dim, but I kept it up anyway, and started yelling. They must have come within 200 yard of us, but they sailed right by in the night. As they sailed away my hope faded as I didn’t know of any more boats behind them. I looked at the dying flashlight and turned it off to save the last of the batteries. As I hit the power button it came on bright as day. Apparently it was actually off, and for some reason it was powering up slightly. I kicked myself thinking they would have seen it had it been turned on fully.
We were now probably five or ten minutes into our ordeal. Dave was still in the water, and for some reason his life jacket wasn’t inflated. I asked him about that, and as I did I remembered him telling me to put the VHF radio in my pocket a few hours before. It hadn’t fit, and so I had put it in a sheet bag (rather than the cup holder it was in) so that it wouldn’t fall off the boat if we wiped out. I looked at Dave and said “Dave, you should go get the radio.” I don’t know why I said it, as I didn’t really expect him to do it. The boat was moving all over, there were lines all in the water and waves constantly breaking over us. He looked up at me for a second, didn’t’ say a word, and just disappeared. About ten seconds later he reappeared and seemingly out of nowhere he handed me an already turned on VHF radio.
I quickly switched the radio from channel 69 to 16. I started yelling every distress word I knew, Mayday, SOS, Help, I wasn’t really sure which was appropriate but they all got my message across. Immediately a woman's voice came over the radio, stating that she was the US Coast Guard and what was my situation. I explained that we were the vessel “Heat Wave” and that we had lost our keel. Our boat was upside down and sinking. We were about 8 miles out from the Golden Gate Bridge in the center of the channel.
The coast guard informed me that they were sending boats out, and a helicopter. I asked for an ETA on the helicopter and I was told they didn’t know. I repeated the question and said could you give me a rough guess? I was given a guess of fifteen minutes.
I relayed the information to Dave, who was sitting pretty still in the water, in his now inflated life jacket clinging to the stern pulpit under water.
It was amazing to me how that radio changed things. It was like a light bulb going off in my head saying “ok, you’re not going to die, you just have to hang in long enough and you’ll be fine.”
About ten minutes after first radioing the Coast Guard the gal informed me that a Pilot boat was nearby and it was looking for us. She asked if I could see them. I looked, and probably a mile away, to the north/north east of us were lights of a boat, with a search light scanning the water. I answered “yes” that I could see the boat. It then became a game of trying to figure out how to tell them how to get to us. The final chapter tomorrow.
Part four: Survival
When we had been sailing I knew our course to the south tower was something like 60 degrees. They appeared to be twenty degrees left of the bridge, so they were at maybe 40 degrees. The reciprocal of that would be 220? Yes, that’s it. I got on the radio and instructed the Pilot boat to steer a course of 220 degrees and go about one miles. The captain of the Pilot boat got on the radio and started talking to me. I couldn’t figure out what he was saying as I kept getting wiped off the boat by the waves, and having to climb back on.
I told Dave they knew where we were (which was sort of a lie), and I told him we would be on their boat soon. He asked about the status of our boat which seemed to be sinking. I lied again and said it was fine. Then I got on the radio and told the Coast Guard to hurry up because our boat was sinking and we were going to die soon. In truth, our boat really was sinking, It probably had about an hour left by my guesses. I thought again about cutting my tether, but I still felt safer with it on.
As time went on the Pilot boat slowly got closer. I asked again where the helicopter was, but I didn’t get a definite answer. I then went back to trying to guide the Pilot boat captain to our location. Giving him a course and distance didn’t seem to be working, I tried telling him to go 90 degrees to the wind and waves, I also noted on the radio that we were 90 degrees to the moon from him (the moon was directly upwind). Whether any of this was helping or not I didn’t know, I just knew he was still a long ways away and not coming at me nearly as fast as I would have liked.
I was now standing on the boat, with my back to the rudder, one hand over my head with the flashlight, and the radio in the other hand. I can’t even count how many times I got knocked off the boat, but each time I climbed back up and kept trying.
At one point the Pilot boat captain explained that he was going to scan his search light around, and for me to tell him when it was pointed at me. As he did it he scanned what seemed like everything in about two seconds. I had no way of telling him where to stop. A few tries later he slowed the scan down. I pressed the send button on my radio and as his light came over us I started screaming that he was shining it right at us. The light stopped, aimed at us from maybe a half mile away. I kept yelling that it was shining right at us, RIGHT AT US! I yelled. The light stayed steady and kept moving closer. I could see his red and green lights.
Dave was getting pretty quiet at this time. I told him they saw us and were almost here. I had said this before, so I don’t know if he believed me. Every time I looked at him his eyes were closed. In hind sight this may have been because I was shining a light in his face, then again they may really have been closed. He would respond to direct questions and was still coherent, but he wasn’t doing good.
As the pilot boat was approaching I got wiped off the boat by a wave. The radio got knocked out of my hand and I saw it go about two feet under water and then disappear. I got back up and kept shining the flashlight towards the Pilot boat, which was now probably a quarter mile away. Almost instantly I got knocked off the boat again and this time I lost the flashlight. The inside of the boat was lit up for about fifteen seconds. I jumped into the water reaching my hand down towards the lighted area, but it was no use. The light disappeared into the depths.
The pilot boat seemed to have turned off their search light, but I could still see red and green bow lights. As they approached Dave said something about a helicopter. I never saw it, but according to Dave the helicopter came from the opposite direction, and he watched it come straight towards us, low over the water with it’s search lights scanning side to side. As soon as the Pilot boat showed up next to us a bright light appeared, not from them but from above. It was the helicopter, lighting us up bright as day. The Pilot boat put their lights on us, and seemingly from nowhere there were two coast guard boats there too. We were surrounded by three boats and a helicopter above. My heart lifted and I knew we would be safe.
The Pilot boat, who was positioned to leeward of us, threw me a life sling with a line attached. It was a perfect shot, it landed right across our bow and slid back to me. I handed the line to Dave, who left our boat on his way to the Pilot boat. Half way there he lost his grip on the line. The Pilot boat, which had a largely overhung bow, drifted over him. I saw a crew run to their bow looking down. He yelled at me “where did he go?” I yelled back “he’s under your port bow!” They turned on a bow thruster, which shot Dave out from under them. I then saw him drifting back towards the side of their boat. It was amazing how quickly they drifted away from me.
I then started focusing on my own rescue. I pulled the knife out of my pocket and it took me about five slashes to cut my tether. At this time the J-80 started to roll a bit. I was now sitting on the chine of the boat, and I was able to hold onto the top of the gunwale to keep my balance. The starboard lifelines were starting to come out of the water. The two coast guard boats were to either beam of me. They seemed about the same distance away. I was tempted to jump and swim for it, but I held back to make sure I didn’t do something stupid.
I kept motioning for them to come closer. After a few minutes one came upwind of me and yelled for me to swim for it. I dove off the boat and swam about twenty feet over to them. They threw me a life sling, but I was practically already there. I grabbed onto their boat and they helped me in. I got up and walked, with their help, around the boat and inside.
I was brought to a room inside the boat, where I laid down on the rubber grated floor and threw up everywhere. I was happy not to taste any sea water, just the weird green drink that Dave had given me on the boat a few hours before. They wrapped me in blankets and we were on our way.
They kept worrying about me, asking if I was ok, or needed anything. I kept explaining that I had never felt better, I was alive and anything else at this point was just a luxury. Of course my body was still shaking violently trying to get warm. They had me take off most of my clothes, down to shorts and a shirt, and they put about five or six blankets on me.
About twenty minutes later we were at the dock, I walked off their boat, and got in an ambulance. I got some more blankets, they took my pulse and blood pressure. I borrowed a phone to call my fiance. A few minutes later they brought Dave in, on a stretcher. Apparently they had used some sort of hoist to get him out of the water, and once on their deck he couldn’t move on his own.
As we rode to the hospital the paramedic talked to both Dave and I. Dave seemed coherent, he could answer all the questions and he was happy. We were both just happy to be alive
Part 5: Afterthoughts and Clarifications
First off it’s important to note the preparation that went into this race. It was something like three or four months before that Dave had asked me to go with him. He had subsequently made many trips to San Francisco to work on the boat, take it out sailing, tuning etc. We even made a smaller spinnaker for the boat expecting to reach back in (though not quite as tight and in as much wind as we saw). Dave went as far as sailing with the spinnaker and doing multiple re-cuts, each of which he would video-tape and then send to me for my input.
The boat had been hauled, the bottom faired, the boat had a current survey and the boat yard had been given a pretty much blank check to make sure the boat was in tip-top condition. This was by no means a low budget, half ass affair. We had all the proper safety equipment, we did extensive study on the wind reports and current predictions before the race. We also had a small, waterproof video camera which was mounted on a pole on the transom, as well as a strap to mount it on our heads. If the boat ever washes up, the camera is probably gone – but if it’s there, it’ll have some awesome footage of the final hour, including the final wipe-out.
I have no idea how the keel failed. We never hit anything, and the only wipe out we had was the one I described, which was as I described it, gentle and slow. The boat didn’t roll, it just rounded up.
When I was on the bottom of the boat it looked like a pretty big hole where the keel should be. It was the shape of the keel, but it was probably 6-8 inches wide, and there was lots of shattered fiberglass. There was also that bilge pump hose sticking out of the bottom of the boat.
Some thoughts on the safety gear.
We definitely were not prepared for a keel failure. We had a good ditch bag in the boat, but obviously we couldn’t get to that. It was sheer luck that Dave had gotten spooked about the VHF being in a cup holder and had me move it just a few hours before our wipe-out. I think in the future I would attach the ditch bag to the push-pit on the back of the boat, that way you could get to it no matter how the boat was positioned. Also a GPS would have been good so as to give a better position to the Coast Guard. One of the GPS/Radio things would have been even better. A hand bearing compass, which we had, but not at the time, would have been very useful in telling the Pilot boat exactly which direction to go, rather than just my guess of a course. Being tethered in was definitely a good thing, but I will definitely add a quick-release shackle to my tether. The latest design, which I have , just hitches on to your harness, and there is no way to disconnect it without a knife. That was very scary when I thought the boat was sinking.
Also I was wearing the latest Spinlock inflatable life jacket. It worked great in that it took water all day and never deployed, but the second I hit the water it went right off. It floated me perfectly and didn’t get in my way when I was trying to move around. However the built in strobe light, which is supposed to be water activated, never came on. Upon later inspection I found nothing immediately wrong with it. There is an off switch that you can use to save batteries, but you have to pull a pin (sort of like the kind that kills a jet-ski when you fall off) and that was still in. I have no idea why the light didn’t work but it probably would have cut a lot of time off our rescue, and the Moore 24 may have seen us in that first 5 minutes should the light have worked. Finally I’m thinking having some equipment on your person is a good idea. Maybe one flair and a VHF radio and a flashlight. They should be tethered to you somehow as well. Maybe even a personal Epirb, but I don’t know enough about those yet to make a decision. A boat Epirb would have been good too.
Coming out of this whole thing I am scared by it, but at the same time it’s a pretty incredible experience to have had. I have a whole new appreciation for life, the people I know and love, and the amazing things I get to do. They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, well I almost lost it all and I definitely know what I’ve got now. The support and encouragement I have received from our sailing community just in the past day and a half, has been incredible. People I’ve known, and people I don’t know, have all been contacting me, making sure I’m alright and offering assistance if I need it. It’s really a great sport we have and my thanks go out to you all.