Word has spread of the sinking of Yacht Echo. The rumors are true, my voyage from Fiji to Australia ended mid-ocean when the vessel sank and I was airlifted from my life raft. It has taken me some time to get my thoughts together and recover some of my life after losing everything, but I am now ready to tell the story of the sinking of Echo.
On the 26th of January, 2013 Echo was sailing along on her route from Lautoka, Fiji to Sydney, Australia. While the seas were large, the weather was fair and Echo was making 7 knots towards her destination. I was awake in the cockpit at 3am, doing my usual checks for traffic, position, course, speed, and sail trim when all of a sudden I was thrown from my seat as a large “thud” noise rung throughout the vessel. Immediately I felt my heart start to race as the adrenaline took hold. I knew that this collision had the potential to be very bad.
I sprung to my feet and snatched up my spotlight as I clipped on my safety harness and made my way on deck. Nothing. I could see nothing in the water. There was no trace of what I had collided with. It could have been a whale, a shipping container, or some huge debris. I’ll never know, but what it was is far less important than what it had done.
After a thorough check of all the rigging on deck, as well as an inspection for scratches in my newly varnished hull revealed absolutely no damage, I went below. I immediately noticed Echo’s bilge pump was running full time, and water was rushing in near the base of the mast. I ripped out the floor hatch boards to find what was wrong. Water was gushing in each and every seam. She had always had a few slow leaks at the seams, but this was extreme.
Water was pouring into the boat. There was now ankle deep saltwater inside the cabin as I rushed around to diagnose the problem. Soon I found that an interior support stay had broken. Echo, as with most old wooden boats, tended to leak at her seams when she was beating upwind. To help remedy this problem she had strengthening stays that ran from the base of the mast up to the chainplates. Her port side stay was broken, and I needed to fix it before I sank in the middle of the night. Over the next 4 hours (from 3am to 7am) a switched back and forth between pumping and mending the stay before I had it cinched up tight. Echo was barely leaking any more, and I went to sleep with the cabin sole dry and the bilge pump barely running.
I set a course for New Caledonia, roughly 300nm away, to be able to inspect the damage below the waterline. The winds were fair, and I was able to steer downwind, minimizing the stress on Echo’s hull. I would make it to New Caledonia in less than 3 days, and the leaking was well under control.
However, the leaks began to get worse. Echo, as with most traditional wood boats, was caulked with cotton and oakum. The caulking had gotten loose while the planking was separated, and was breaking free of the seams bit by bit. Slowly my “ under control” leaking was spinning out of control.
Not only was the leaking getting out of control, but the bilge pump needed constant maintenance. Bits of loose cotton were constantly clogging the impeller. My satellite phone, which was one of my distress signals, had failed when it splashed down into what was usually a dry floor. My tiller pilot had also failed, causing me to have to rig up a sheet-to-tiller steering system. It seemed that everything was against me.
Over the next 2 nights I got almost no sleep at all. Keeping Echo afloat was a constant struggle. I had come up with a variety of unique ways to keep the boat afloat during this time. I tried to put a tarpaulin over the hull to slow the leaking. That worked for about 30 minutes before one big wave got underneath an edge and ripped it off. I used the engine’s seawater intake to help pump the bilge. I took the bronze bug screens off the port holes and used them as bilge strainers to filter out the cotton. I was shaving wooden wedges off of things on the boat so that I could pound them in to the seams. I was doing everything I could, but the leaks were getting worse, the wedges were getting forced out, the water was coming in fast, and I was sailing slowly due to a constantly full bilge.
On the night of the 28th of January I knew that I would not be able to get the boat to New Caledonia. It was a horribly difficult decision to make, but I knew that I needed to start worrying about my life and stop caring for the boat. That night I re-packed my ditch bag and tried to come to terms with what was happening to me. At 6:30am I set off my EPIRB, and managed to repair my satellite phone enough to make one scratchy call. Before I stopped pumping and prepared my raft.
At 9:00 I abandoned ship. The water was over my knees in the cabin, and free surface effect was causing the vessel to become unstable. I tied a 100 meter line on to Echo and got in my life raft with my ditch bag along with extra water and food. It was almost surreal. It was a bright sunny day, and nothing like the frantic and hurried abandoning that one would imagine. I executed each task calmly and solemnly, already mourning my loss.
A spotting aircraft had found me by 9:30 and was circling overhead. The pilots informed me via VHF radio that a rescue helicopter was en route, and before I knew it I was clipped in to a harness and lifted into the rescue chopper as I watched Echo listing heavily, never to sail again.
I am sure that many of you have questions, as I tried to keep the article brief and not expound upon every single little detail. Please feel free to leave a comment with your question, and I will get back to you ASAP.