The Bitter End

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.

35 thoughts on “The Bitter End

  1. Thanks Rob for sharing this ,, I can imagine how hard it must have been when you came to the realization that you would not be able top save Echo and then to be watching her while you waited for the rescue ,,I bet you have relived the whole experience over and over many time since being rescued and I bet knowing you that in some deep dark place you still wonder “what if I had ?” There will be those who from the comfort of their armchairs with warm coffee in hand saying ,, “I would have” . ,,,,,, I am sure you know this already but you made the right decision to save yourself and as for Echo what better way for her to end her days ,, she was loved , admired & sailed not left to rot in a marina somewhere and felt sorry for ! .

    • Hey John, thanks for all of your help during that ordeal. I know you played a role in making sure I was safe. While Echo’s end is certainly more glorious than that of many rotten hulks out there, it is still not the one I would have chosen for her.

  2. you did good………You are safe & the world gaines with you above the water……….Your efforts were more that most could have acomplished & ECHO will be in your heart for ever…………..Travel well in your future ………….g~

  3. Rob, well done for sharing. I can only imagine and live through your words, a harrowing, surreal experience, every sailors worse nightmare. Over the past year spent together at various locations, sharing a meal or sundowner’s, I am truly proud to know you, and admire you, both for your overall knowledge and easy nature, truly older than your years. “Echo” was easy to admire and you could tell how much she was loved, but I am pleased you are here to tell this story. I know you have the strength to continue on, as much as this hurts, on many levels, enjoy your family. Positive thoughts to you and your next adventure.

  4. Rob, I am so sorry to hear of this. Obviously happy that you are ok, but my heart aches for your loss. I know how much Echo meant to you, maybe she just wanted to be close to the magical Fiji. I hope that in someway this experience turns out to be a positive. (As hard as it may seem now!) Thanks for sharing your story – you are a gifted writer that’s for sure. Take care, Kia kaha.

  5. Rob, cant imagine the pain you must have, i hope you bounce back quickly and soon are able to buy a new boat so you can do it all over again.
    If you have a postal address or kindle addr. send it to me and i will send some books as gifts.
    Hope to see u in Tonga next year some time on the next boat ;-)
    Your friend Kjell in vava’u

  6. Nothing Sad here!
    What a great Adventure!!!
    Brill!
    50 odd years sailing, been on a few sinking boats but I can’t even come close to that story.. live to tell about it… Helecopter and all!!! BRILL!
    Break out the Rum!
    The adventure is the journey….!

  7. Rob I don’t know you but I’m the steward of a companion vessel (of sorts) to Echo, named Chorus in Sausalito. I raced on Echo for a brief time and then raced against her later. I’m at B65 at Schoonmakers if you ever in the neighborhood.

  8. Hi Rob.
    Sorry to hear of the loss of Echo but pleased to hear that you are okay. Hope you can get back on the water soon. It was always our greatest concern on our circumnavigation that we would hit something but fortunatley we did not so can only image what you where going through.
    All the best from Terry and Elaine
    Virgos Child

  9. As an offshore sailor having nearly a hundred thousand miles in the sixty six years of life, I have learned ignorance is not bliss. As your story ends with a happy ending it was foolish of you to begin a journey of 2000 plus miles during cyclone season with weather predicted of 35-40 knots in your path. What mostly sank Echo was a rouge wave against a 57 year old wooden hull. As for your inflatable west marine dinghy acting as your life raft your lucky to be with us. Maybe look at your 10 most essential gear list and make changes as you have now looked deeper into the life of cruising. Writing for most of us who knew Echo well, she is already missed around the bay. May wisdom and humbleness come from your loss.

    • Well Gerd, I respect your right to voice your opinion but have to disagree.

      As a sailor of a claimed 100,000nm you should be able to read a chart and know that my chosen destination was not “2000 plus” nautical miles away. You would also, presumably, be able to read a weather chart and know that 35-40 knots of breeze was not predicted when I left. Furthermore, simple math would tell you that Echo was 56 years old, not 57. But I digress.

      What “mostly sank Echo” was not a rogue wave against my hull. I clearly laid out what happened out there. Of course, you seem to know better. That armchair you’re sitting in must provide plenty of wisdom to be able to argue facts without even being present.

      Quite frankly I find your comment rude and unnecessary. Stick to your old time sea stories Gerd, I’ll be out there making new ones.

      • Heckling. The truth to your madness, let it be spoken. Some facts here. As I am enjoying the armchair I do have to say, i’ve done your fiji to sydney trip twice all before the satphone days relying soley on sextant. Circumnavigated the globe three times, once backwards against the trades. As a crow flies fiji to sydney is 1,800 nm. As I do not know what your planned route was, I am safe to add another 200 miles to your voyage. It is cyclone season after all. So one would think of heading due south before turning west.
        Also the bit of 35-40 knots being just a breeze. I don’t know any sailors who would catergorize such as Just a breeze. Makes me question your experience.
        What is said in your description of no marks on the hull leads me to believe: rouge wave + wooden hull = outcome. Simple math.
        Having watched Echo sit for sale, I was relieved to learn someone with a passion bought her. Good on you for that.
        As my son just reminded me. Life is for the winners, keep trying.

  10. I learnt ignorance is not bliss without sailing one mile, in a lot less time than sixty six years, I suppose we all learn at different paces. Foolish is to begin a journey of any length without expecting 35-40 knots. What mostly sank Echo was the fact that she filled up with water, stopped displacing it. If what you were trying to say is what most likely sank Echo was a rogue wave you are speculating beyond belief trying to prove your point saying it was natural causes and not a man made object that could have sunk anybody, super bitch move dude. I didn’t “know” Echo well, but I am pretty sure Rob knew her better than all you who are missing her around the bay did. I met Rob, didn’t really like him, but I’m cruising, he was cruising, west marine dinghy or a pair of water wings, it’s an adventure… Trolllalalal

  11. Hey Rob,

    Just heard yesterday that you lost ‘Echo’. Mercedes and I are truly sorry for your loss but are SO happy you are still here among the living. I sure hope I never have to pull the pin in Segue’s EPIRB!

    Your welcome onboard Segue anytime Mate!

  12. Rob,

    If I am stunned, I can’t imagine what you are feeling. I am very pleased that you are safe, and proud of you for having done the planning to stay that way, even in the face of the unthinkable.

    You are an inspiration to many of us, and I hope you look me up if you get back to the Bay area.

    Fair winds!

    Bruce

  13. GERD….. or…. JERK or whatever your name is….!
    I’m older than you, I’ve got a lot more sea miles than you and I’ve spent most of my life as a delivery skipper, that makes me OUT RANK you….
    All my sailing life I’ve had to listen to jumped up ‘wanna be’ Admirals like you… Experts!
    “EX” as in “HAS BEEN” an “SPIRT” as in a “DRIP OF WATER”….
    For once in your big mouth life just “SHUT IT” and give the kid some credit….
    How the hell would you know what happened out there, ‘effin EXPERT!
    Well done Rob!
    Sorry I’m not as eloquent as you but I think the message is the same.

  14. And now you’ve got me mad….. just remember those old time ‘REAL’ sailors,
    No GPS, No Charts, No weather forecasts’, No Epirbs, No life rafts, not even knowing where the next land was or if there was land at all.
    Did it stop them? NO!
    And you know why?
    Because they were REAL sailors, adventurers, not wanna be armchair experts!
    And I bet you’ve never dragged anchor or made any stupid mistakes either !!
    Try reading Kon Tiki, Columbus, Shakleton or Magellan before judging somebody who is out there living the adventure and not sitting on their ass in judgment of others.
    I’m sure you would have been able to tell them what they did wrong!

  15. I like Rob, sure he doesn’t remember me, but I really remember Echo,Tina and Rob, was in Nuku Hiva and I fall in love with the 3. What a best end for a lovely boat that rest in the Sea and not slowly in some garden. I really respect a man who loved so much and care so much and sail so much as Rob.

    • Of course I remember you Colin. I appreciated the tour and drinks on Segue, as well as the help from your friends to get a new camera!

      I hope we run into each other again Colin!

  16. So sorry for your loss, Rob. We once had to make the choice of whether to abandon ship or not (we didn’t) and it was a terribly emotional ordeal – one that those who haven’t gone through can’t imagine. It’s spooked us for some time, but we’re still out here on the water, lessons learned and repairs made.

    I always really appreciated all the comments from other sailors that listened well, accepted our (mis)judgements for our unique situation and helped us learn from our mistakes/circumstances.

    You are safe – that’s what’s important and can never be replaced. Good on you and your instincts.

    Laurie
    S/V Mother Jones

  17. Hey Rob, Tears for you and heartache for the beautiful Echo. I have a couple of pics I keep staring at trying to fathom your loss. She was pretty and you did a wonderful job restoring, sailing,sharing and loving her. We are sorry for your loss and on the other hand in awe of your story. I would not expect anything else form you, you always seemed a very competent and a knowledgeable sailor. We look forward to hearing of you out on the water again when your flashpast has eased. Love and best wishes and fondest memories of sailing beside Echo in the Pacific 2012.Mark and Jenny – Condesa

  18. That is probably the bravest and saddest story I have ever read. After my Sister Jenny and her husband Mark (whom I think you have met) shared your story. Your boat is gone but you are still here. Boats are replaceable even the very loved ones. Good for you. Welcome back to land fall though I know you will get another boat and be off again.

  19. Rob,

    I too, just heard through a mutual acquaintance of your nightmarish ordeal aboard your
    beloved ECHO. I feel so very sorry for your loss. I’m glad to hear that you and Tine are
    OK. It is most unfortunate that salt has been added to your still open wound by yet
    another Monday morning quarterback, who hasn’t a clue about what experience you
    have at such a young age. Anyway amigo, your friends here at Marina Coral wish you
    all the best, and look forward to seeing you back on Baja’s West Coast soon.

    Salud,
    Michael
    S/V Comanche

  20. Hello Rob, Sorry to hear of your loss but the most best part is that you are living to tell the tale. I know how it feels to experience water pouring into the boat, very frightening. I wish you all the good luck for the future. Best Regards. DaveC yacht Tara

  21. yeah, I never liked Rob either. bastard is now working for me, (AGAIN) crap sailor, pain in the ass character and always stealing my smokes and never buys a beer. cant even make tea properly. (not that any American can) I am paying him as much as I can in the hope he will soon bugger off and buy another boat and leave me in peace. maybe you have a spare armchair GERD and we can piss and moan together?!

      • Some people are talkers and some are doers, we can only but learn from and appreciate the doers such as yourself Rob. The important thing as has already been said is that you survived the ordeal, and if it weren’t for ordeals, we would not learn anything. Sorry for your loss and Fair sailing for your next Journey Rob,
        cheers,
        John

  22. Rob, if you get back to the Bay area, please let me know. My Bristol is still in the same place, and I can also often be found at West Marine in Sausalito.