Editor’s note: Long-time Salt Spring resident Lorne Close passed away in January. An off-shore sailor, he logged almost 100,000 miles under his keel. Using stories heard from Lorne, his log book entries and memories shared by his wife Jennifer, islander Jim Dickinson compiled the following story about the couple being hit by a freighter while sailing in the North Pacific Ocean in 1999. This is the first of two parts
By JIM DICKINSON
Special to the Driftwood
June 26, 1999. 3:01 a.m., hove-to in a gale south of the Aleutian Islands.
The violent crash threw Lorne and Jennifer Close against the lee-sheet of their central bunk. Their 36-foot sloop Acatez spun 180 degrees and heeled over violently, throwing the newlyweds about.
Groping in the dark for orientation, Lorne’s first thought was that they must have been hit by a rogue wave. Grabbing a light he made for the companionway, where he was lashed by gale-driven spray. There was a moment of confusion as he stared at where the tiller should have been lashed; only a stub remained. Fragments were scattered about, glistening in the wet. As he turned to go back for his foul weather gear, he noticed the backstay was unnaturally loose.
Jennifer called to him, “Hon, I see a light!”
Turning, he saw the stern light of a freighter slipping into the gloom.
“That’s the bastard that hit us!” he said.
Fighting down a growing sense of panic, Lorne went below to don his foul-weather gear and safety harness. Taking care, he worked his way forward on the heaving, slippery deck.
The force of the gale must have peaked, for the wind did not seem as strong. The towering waves tossed the rudderless sloop about sickeningly. The storm jib flapped uselessly to leeward while the Sitka spruce mast whipped about overhead.
With a sinking feeling, Lorne crept towards the slick bow. He muttered seldom-used words as he discovered three feet of the bow missing. The ferro-cement hull and short bowsprit were sheared off completely, taking with it most of the anchor locker and the attachment point for the forestay. With the supporting cable gone from the bow, the 40-foot vertical member was in danger of snapping off.
Knowing his boat as he did, quick action was needed or they were going to die in the cold North Pacific Ocean. Ducking below he flipped the VHF radio to Channel 16 and keyed the mic, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the sailing vessel Acatez, Acatez, Acatez. We are at 48° 55’ N 125° 32’ W. Our boat has been hit by a freighter and we are in danger of sinking.”
Lorne waited for a reply from the departing ship. After a few moments he repeated the Mayday call. Still no response. He tried several more times but there was only static coming from the radio. There was nobody out there who was going to come to their rescue.
Somehow in Lorne’s head he was able to put aside his anger at the distant freighter and move to save the boat. Snapping his safety harness to the jack-strap, he took the extra jib halyard forward to secure the flailing mast. By wrapping the line around the forward bollard and then winching the halyard tight, it made the mast secured for the time being.
Before he was done, Jennifer screamed from below, “Hon! There’s water pouring in! Hon, come help, there’s water pouring in!”
Quickly, he went below to do what he could. He found Jennifer almost hysterical as sea water gushed from the small access door of the anchor locker. Each wave that passed under them brought a fresh flood of icy water. With so many urgent things to tend to, Lorne told Jennifer to close the door and hold it shut. That seemed to keep most of the water from flooding through the whole cabin.
Trying to calm her, Lorne said, “Hon, you put your shoulder to the door and start using the forward bilge pump. I’m going back outside to see if I can stop the leak from the outside.”
While she struggled below, Lorne crawled back to the bow. The gale was definitely easing off, but Acatez still wallowed sickeningly as each of the massive waves bore down on her. Trying to hang onto a sloping deck in the driven spray is hard enough, but to attempt boat repairs in the dark is almost impossible. All the books say to cover a punctured hull with a sail. What seemed like a good idea soon failed, as the protruding metal cut the cloth to ribbons. As he was peering at the tangled mess that had been their bow, Jennifer started to scream again. As he made his was along the heeling deck, Jennifer shrieked, “I can’t hold it!”
When he got below, he found her almost up to her knees in swirling ice water, crippled with panic. Through tears she tried to explain that she could not hold back the pressure on the door, and when it burst open, the whole cabin was flooded.
Jennifer asked, “Are we going to make it?”
Lorne said, “We are going to be alright. I’ll get the emergency life raft ready. You get all of the important papers into a Ziploc bag. That way we will be ready if we have to abandon ship.”
That seemed to calm her, and he went to look for a way to secure the forward locker door. The answer turned out to be a wind vane, screwed in placed across the door, which held back the flow of water. As each wave passed under them, water squirted out through the seams and holes through the bulkhead, but it was a trickle compared to the previous flood. It bought them enough time to bail hundreds of pounds of icy sea water back into the North Pacific Ocean.
By the time the morning light started to seep through the low clouds, the gale had passed. Most of the water had been pumped out of the cabin. It was a mess below. Books, charts, clothing and all of their bedding was soaked. Jennifer set about to clean up their saturated gear as best she could. Lorne went to work making repairs to their badly damaged boat.
Now he had the chance to have a really good look at the shattered bow. There were a good many fine cracks in the deck around the bollard but it seemed secure enough. By wrapping a length of anchor chain about a mooring cleat and back around the bollard, the jib halyard had more secure fastening. Now the mast was stable.
NOTE: The second half of this story was published in the April 5, 2017 print version of the Driftwood and will be posted online in this space next week.