SPIRIT HEALER ON THE ROCKS

I met Robert and Leslie who owned Spirit Healer, a Pacific Seacraft 37, while in Zihuatanejo last January and cruised the 1200 mile northwesterly path from there to Puerto Refugio with them. Robert and Leslie are also close friends with Jim and Christine aboard Kula, a Tartan 41 from Seattle, who shared a dock with Spirit Healer at Shilshoe Marina in Seattle. We were all hanging out in the Puerto Refugio area when it came time to make a decision about where to go if Hurricane Marty continued north up the Sea of Cortez. After considerable discussion we all decided to stay in Puerto Refugio because we thought that Marty would go ashore near San Carlos/Guymas in Sonora on the Mexican mainland. That would have made Marty's closest approach to us at least 70 miles at which time he would be only a Tropical Depression and would have been over the dry Sonoran desert for several hours. We expected to see less than 30 knots of wind for less than three hours. You can read all about this decision and how we came to make it on my WEB site at SEPTEMBER_27_2003 or you can read my article in the December 2003 issue of Cruising World magazine.

Marty did not behave as predicted. Instead of going ashore 150 miles SE of us he curved northwest directly toward us; something done by no hurricane in the last 50 years once that far north in the Sea of Cortez. His forward motion then slowed from 20 knots to less than five knots and he sat within 20 miles of us for eight hours while pushing 60+ knot winds and 10 foot breaking waves directly on shore where we were anchored.

We were experiencing NE 45 to 50 knot winds and six foot breaking seas in our anchorage by 2 AM September 22. At that time the four boats anchored in the West Bight of the East Bay on Isla Angel de la Guarda thought that Spirit Healer had made the best possible choice when, earlier in the afternoon, they chose to move to the West Bay, about 1/2 mile west of the West Bight.

They were anchored in 18 feet of water over a sand bottom between Isla Mejia and the 200 foot high point that forms the western edge of our anchorage. That meant that Spirit Healer was completely protected from the swell and wind waves sweeping in from the NE.

The picture to the left shows the anchorage with Waking Dream anchored about 100 yards to the right of where Spirit Healer was anchored during the storm. This picture is looking NNE. Spirit Healer would have been on a line between the cactus at the lower left of the picture and the cactus on top of the hill.

At about 2 AM Robert contacted us on the VHF and said they were experiencing almost no waves or swells but the wind was swirling around and gusting to 45 from multiple directions.

The four boats in the West Bight were busy trying to keep chafing gear in place on their anchor rodes and snubber lines so didn't pay much attention to Robert's radio call other than to wish they were in an anchorage with less wave action.

Sometime around 2:30 AM we received a VHF call from Spirit Healer saying they had gone on the rocks somewhere on Isla Mejia. By that time all the boats were fighting for their lives and had to concentrate on motoring into the rapidly building waves and wind. By 3 AM eight to ten foot waves were coming thru the West Bight anchorage accompanied by 55 knot wind gusts that were often at 45 to the waves. We could offer no assistance to Spirit Healer and hardly had time to talk to them on the radio. The rain was so heavy that it was impossible to see 10 feet with a spotlight so Robert did not know how close to shore they were, or even what rock they had hit. They had to stay on the boat until the rain let up enough for them to see which way they needed to go to find dry land.

For those of you with GPSs and computerized navigation software. Don't even think of trying to get an accurate location using the GPS and any chart in the Sea of Cortez. My 12 channel ICOM GP-270ML, with a reported accuracy of 11 feet, showed Mirador to be 1500 feet inland, i.e. SSW, of her actual position when she was still anchored in the West Bight. Almost all charts for the Sea of Cortez are mis-registered by anything from a 1/4 to 3/4 mile. The relative positions of topographical features are correct but the latitude/longitude for any given feature is way off the mark. All navigation near land, rocks, reefs, or any other hazard is done by eyeball and traditional compass, dividers, and triangulation. Radar navigation using range/bearing or triangulation also works very well.

Robert tried to keep us informed about their status but the roar of the wind and the crashing of the waves made it very difficult to hear and understand the VHF. All we knew was that Robert and Leslie were still in the boat, the boat was hard aground, the furniture and bulkheads were breaking loose from the hull, and water was rising above the sole.

As I described in my September 27 WEB posting; Mirador broke her anchor rode around 4 AM and was on the beach sometime after 5 AM. I was able to copy only a few of the VHF calls from Spirit Healer. The genoa on Aries, a Catalina 42 from San Francisco, had partially unfurled and was tearing itself apart. The snubber lines on Pure Chance, a Brewer 37 from Long Beach, and on Kula kept breaking. By 5 AM the waves in the West Bight were large enough that they were breaking over the bows of the still anchored boats and pushing solid water as far aft as the dodgers Sometime before Mirador lost her anchor rode she was hit by at least one wave that bent the bow pulpit down and to the right far enough that it broke the lifelines where they attach to the bow pulpit. I later found the red/green Aqua Signal Series 40 navigation light torn loose from its mount, six feet above the water. The force of the waves tore the heads of the mounting bolts out thru the back of the light.

Conditions were extreme and there was nothing we could do to help Spirit Healer.

Sometime before daylight; the tide had gone out far enough to allow Robert and Leslie to climb off Spirit Healer and to wade ashore, carrying Thor, their 25 pound Maine Coon cat. They had to abandon ship because the boat was filling with water. And just to make it special; the first two items to be punctured inside Spirit Healer were a pair of one-gallon plastic jugs of USED diesel crankcase oil. Everything in the boat, including the crew, was soaked with oily water as the water level rose.

Isla Mejia is a nature preserve and there is nothing on it. The Puerto Refugio area is quite remote. The closest road is 40 some miles away at either the Puebla de Bahia de Los Angeles or in Bahia Willard. The Puebla has no power or telephone services brought in on cables. They generate electricity using diesel generators and have only satellite telephones to connect them to the rest of Mexico. Bahia Willard is even smaller. Refugio is on the north end of Isla Angel de la Guarda which has no residents, no roads, no water, no nothing.

This entire area is a desert and receives rainfall only during tropical storms and Chubascos (thunderstorms). It is not uncommon for the islands to receive no rainfall for several years in succession. Robert and Leslie were alone on the proverbial desert island, miles from any help, in a tropical storm with driving rain and no shelter. Or so they thought...

They knew there was a small concrete religious shrine the local fisherman had built on top of a low hill overlooking the bay where Spirit Healer had been anchored. After stumbling around in the dark, carrying their cat, Roberts wonderful guitar, and a small bag containing Roberts insulin they finally found the shrine. There was a piece of metal propped up over the low entrance to the shrine so they pulled that off and tried to crawl inside.

To their amazement they found two Mexican pescadors (fisherman)huddled inside!

Can you imagine the shock the fisherman must have felt? Here they were, huddled for the last ten hours in a 3' x 4' concrete shelter while a hurricane rageed outside. They were on a deserted island in the remote Sea of Cortez. And; sometime just prior to daylight the makeshift door falls over and two big gingos, holding what looks like a Bobcat and guitar case step in. That must have been the strangest moment of their life!

And, the fisherman had been smoking funny grass all night so they were stoned!

In the picture to the right is Leslie on the far left and Robert in the blue baseball cap. The two fisherman had been left on the island by their brothers who planned to return for them and their catch in a few days.

Cruising is all about meeting the locals and Spirit Healers crew had plenty of opportunity to get to know the fisherman. We were not able to launch a dinghy to rescue them until 8 AM on Wednesday, 30 hours after Spirit Healer went on the rocks and 26 hours after they found shelter with the pescadors.

The rain continued almost unabated until 4 AM Wednesday and the wind blew between 15 and 45 knots non-stop until mid-morning Thursday. Robert and Leslie had no dry clothes and no rain gear because Spirit Healer was underwater prior to the first high tide which occurred around 2 PM Tuesday. Every item inside the boat was coated with oil after that first tide.

Now the situation gets really strange!!

Robert had saved only his guitar which he brought to the shelter. The pescadors asked Robert to play for them so Robert launched into "Hey Jude" because the only sheet music that Robert had in his guitar case was a Beatles song book. The fisherman went crazy!

The pescadors turned out to be avid Beatles fans and knew most of the their songs by heart. Both of their fathers had grown up on Beatles music and so had the kids. They spoke no English but they did know all the songs and sang them for hours as Robert played the guitar.

Robert has an unlimited capacity and desire to play the guitar and the fisherman had an unlimited supply of grass and desire to sing. The songfest continued for most of a day. Who, when they leave San Diego for a cruise in the Sea of Cortez, could have imagined sitting out a hurricane in a small shrine, singing Beatles tunes while your boat tears itself apart a hundred yards away? Cruising is never what you expect it to be.

Here is Spirit Healer on the rocks. In the far distance you can see Mirador anchored in the West Bight.

Robert is the right most person in the group talking. He has his arms crossed and no hat on his grey hair.

This was on Thursday evening, the first day of the salvage operation, when we were still trying to decide if we could refloat the boat and tow her to San Carlos for repair or sale.

The hole in Spirit Healers hull was three feet high, from the turn of the bilge upward, and five feet long, from the mast forward. There was no fiberglass left and any patch we put over that area would have to have been supported from inside. We had several skilled engineers and boat repair people available who thought it MIGHT be possible to refloat her.

The negative side of refloating her was the 180 mile trip across the Sea of Cortez to the closest marina or yard (San Carlos) for a haulout. Once there the cost of repairing Spirit Healer would have been astronomical. All the bulkheads were loose, all the furniture was torn free and the diesel and all the electronics had been underwater and then out of the water at least six times. The entire interior was thickly coated in used diesel oil.

Robert and Leslie eventually decided that Spirit Healer could not be saved and that we should strip her of all valuables. I will post another WEB update about that six day effort.

I've strung you along far enough - I am sure you are asking, over and over, "HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?"

There is a very simple answer:

- not enough anchor scope and no anchor watch

 

The reasons there was not enough scope are more complicated.

Earlier on Monday, the day before the storm hit, Jim from Kula and I had sounded and charted all the anchorages in the West Bay on Isla Mejia. We had planned to move all the boats in there if the storm threatened us with sustained NE wind and waves.

The picture on the right shows the West Bight anchorage at 7 PM the night of the storm. At that point Marty was still forecast to head northeast into the desert, making landfall 170 miles SE of us.

The weather was so benign and the forecast continued just as it had for the previous 24 hours so we decided to stay in the West Bight.

Robert had moved to the West Bay about 5 PM that afternoon. He anchored in what Jim and I had designated the best anchorage with the most protection from the possible NE waves. However, Robert still thought one or more of us might want to move to the West Bay so rather than anchor in the middle of what I thought was a one boat anchorage with lots of scope he anchored more to the NE of center and kept his scope at 5:1 with a 20 pound kellet to add more effective scope.

Jim had told Robert it was possible for two boats to anchor there but none of us had any intention of moving over to the West Bay. Unfortunately, Robert never got that message.

When the heavy rain and winds started blowing about 10 or 11 PM Robert and Leslie retreated into the cabin. There were no waves in their anchorage and the wind was swirling around due to the proximity of an 825 foot hill to the west and the 200 foot hill to the east. The next thing anyone knows is that Spirit Healer hit the rocks at sometime around 2 AM.

The picture above shows the sad lack of luck suffered by Spirit Healer. They dragged their anchor for 400 hundred yards parallel to the beach going from the left to the right in the picture. If they had come ashore 10 yards more to the left or had been 10 yards further off the beach they would have hit sand or stayed in 20 feet of water. Any one in the cockpit would have noticed their movement and they could have started the engine to move them into deeper water.

One of the salvage crew said he had spent a lot of time diving for scallops and clams in the area where Spirit Healer dropped anchor. He said that the bottom was 8" of hard sand on top of very hard rock. Mirador dragged her anchor for a 1/4 mile in similar anchoring conditions. We were lucky because the wind was blowing straight offshore. You can read about this at February 9 2002. We did a lot of testing after that dragging episode and found that the Bruce 44 does not hold very well in sand over rock.

During those tests I sat on the bottom and watched the Bruce anchor as Arlene slowly increased the engine speed in reverse. I could see the Bruce dig deeper and deeper into the sand until it eventually hit the hard rock under the sand. At that point the Bruce would skip upward and then scallop slowly along the bottom, repeatedly digging in, hitting the hard undersurface, and then skipping out again. The process generates no noise and no indication in the boat that the anchor is dragging. If this is what happened to Spirit Healer it is easy to understand why they didn't hear or feel the anchor dragging.

Finally, here is a picture of Leslie and Robert coming back to Spirit Healer to say good bye for the last time. That is the shrine that sheltered them on top of the hill in the background.

They did not have insurance on the boat and lost pretty much everything they owned. They are now back in Seattle where Robert will try to return to practice as a psychologist and Leslie will try to find work as an event manager.

They do own a home in the Seattle area but it is leased so they will have to rent something for a while.