12 Feb Day 4.5 | Dead in the Water 750nm Offshore
I (Don) was woken at 0100 by Celeste saying we have a problem.
The boat was stopped and the engine was in neutral. We were rolling 40+ degrees in the 20-knot breeze with 10-foot-at-10-second swells. Water washed over the side decks and unsecured items flew across the cabin. A check of the engine room confirmed that we had no water ingress and no apparent mechanical problems, other than whatever seemed to be wrapped around the prop.
I transferred control from Sam in the wheelhouse to the stern control station and then used the bow thruster to point into the seas. Following seas ran up over the swimstep and briefly flooded the aft cockpit. We tried putting the gearbox in reverse; the load on the wheel killed the engine. We tried slow forward and immediately went back to neutral because of a terrible thumping noise. We were dead in the water with six hours to daylight.
An underwater survey with a GoPro-on-a-boat-hook hinted that we were tangled in a net, but it wasn’t conclusive. We’d need to swim, and for that we wanted daylight.
Sam, Clay and I debated launching the sea anchor. Starr’s bow is high enough that the windage acts like a headsail; we thought that even with the sea anchor, we would be lying in the troughs. Deployed from the stern, we figured, the sea anchor had a better chance of providing a comfortable ride. Thankfully, though, we were in no immediate danger and we eventually decided to let just Starr do her thing, which was to wallow in the trough. It was a rolly night with little sleep.
Maretron pitch and roll graphs. Can you tell when we stopped?
Our predicament became clearer as dawn approached. Part of a fishing net flashed just beneath the surface on the port side. We pulled as much of it aboard as we could and were dismayed to find a thick mess of ¼” polypropylene.
There’s the problem, now how to remove it?
Sam with part of the net aboard. Once on deck, we found a breadknife cut the line fairly easily.
Fouling the prop is a relatively high-probability event for boats like ours, so we carry an array of equipment to free ourselves. In addition to SCUBA gear, we have two hookah rigs for breathing underwater. The hookah rigs are ideally suited to this type of work since they’re lightweight for the diver and give them as much time underwater as needed.
Hookah compressors the we carry
In addition to diving gear, we carry cutting gear. Hand tools include an assortment of knives, bolt cutters, hack saws, and utility saws. If those aren’t up to the job, we have a pneumatic angle grinder and sawzall that can be run from Starr’s air compressor. Because they’re powered by air instead of electricity, they work underwater.
Pneumatic angle grinder
Clay is the most experienced diver aboard. He first went in with snorkel gear to get a better sense of how tangled we were and what tools we might need. He determined that it “wasn’t that bad,” we passed him a serrated bread knife, and less than 20 minutes later he’d cut us free.
The important thing for the diver is to maintain position relative to the boat; he must heave in sync with the boat, or risk being pummeled from above. We considered stringing a line from the port to starboard side underneath the boat so Clay had something to hold onto, but he was able to wrap his legs and an arm around the blades of the 50” propeller and hang on well enough to make the cuts.
We tested forward and reverse, slowly at first, then faster. No vibration, no shaft seal problems, no transmission problems. We reset our course, engaged the autopilot, and took a deep, collective sigh of relief.
Celeste summed up the evening succinctly: “I haven’t had that kind of chaotic night since I worked the midnight trauma shift in Houston!”
She also took a good video during during the process:
We were reminded of a few lessons:
- Pull the throttle to neutral (but not reverse!) at the first sign of vibration or impact.
- Secure everything, all the time. Flying “stuff” creates hazards and distracts from problem solving.
- Line cutters are far from perfect (we have Spurs)
- FLIR isn’t useful for avoiding abandoned fishing nets at night
Moments after getting underway, a squall came through and we enjoyed this rainbow. A sign of good things to come!
–Don and Sam