A narrow escape at Patos Island

In the spirit of sharing experiences that might prove helpful to others sailing on our Northern Inland waters, here’s a cautionary sea story for you. 

Our sailboat KALLISTO is a 39-foot sloop that draws 7-feet 2-inches and is equipped with a Flexofold three-blade folding prop, all information that will soon prove important to this particular saga.  

We’re entering our third year of ownership of KALLISTO and have just ended our third layup since taking over care and feeding from her previous and first owner. We love our boat yet just exactly how much we love KALLISTO is something we ourselves only learned just a very short while ago when — for a few minutes — we were certain we were going to see her severely damaged or worse. 

KALLISTO is in the San Juan Sailing charter fleet in Bellingham. Each year at the end of layup we’re contractually obliged to take her out for a “shakedown cruise.” As this annual cruise happens in March for us, it’s already become our habit to exploit timing to visit places that are often too crowded during other parts of the year. Active Cove at Patos Island ranks pretty much at the top of this special list for us.

Most readers here probably know that while Patos shows two mooring balls on the chart, in reality there is only one in the cove. For our boat we can safely pick up that ball with a decent safety margin as long as we’re not expecting a minus tide while moored there. On March 20, tidal conditions seemed good and the cove would offer shelter from predicted weather, so we headed to Patos to check the ball situation. This would be our fourth visit to Patos with the same people on bow and helm, my son Kaj and myself respectively, plus Kaj’s girlfriend Abby and my wife Ann, with zero past history of excitement in executing the mooring operation. To us, Active Cove had become the subject of active complacency.

Entering Active Cove, we spotted a commercial fishing vessel on the ball. It was around 1:30 p.m. and we had Stuart Island in mind as a fallback, but we decided to drive in and speak with the fisherman to see if he was just stopped for lunch.

As we turned in to Active Cove there was a bit of a northwesterly breeze entering with us, and the tide was well turned to the ebb, about a third out and just entering the deepest and steepest dip of the day, which created a strong current into the ventilated cove. These two factors didn’t enter my mind as a particular threat but were to become significant very shortly. As well, speaking with the fisherman was going to require driving a bit deeper into Active Cove than usual to make our turn, but we’d gingerly explored there in the past and I knew I could drive a bit farther than strictly necessary for picking up the ball without a problem, seemingly.

It’s my habit to go “power off” when making a tight turn with our boat. KALLISTO turns very willingly and powering through a confined turn can cause crew to be unsteady on their feet. As we were completing the turn to come up wind/current and head parallel with the fishing boat I reengaged the transmission and added a fraction of throttle as the wind and current opposing us became more obvious. Hearing an abnormal double “klunk” from below, I looked to the stern just in time to see a chunk of kelp whirl up. As the boat was not gathering way, I then advanced the throttle a bit more and could immediately feel in my feet that nothing was happening at the end of the shaft — we didn’t have propulsion. A couple of quick exercises of the throttle and shifter produced no encouraging effect.

Active Cove is known for poor holding and we’d be testing that ourselves, immediately. I called to my son to drop the hook pronto. He called back for a depth and chain length, and a glance at the depth meter showed that while we were not in truly ample depth, things would be OK where we were. We’d have to be conservative with scope until we got a notion of what the current was going to do to us with respect to the north shore. We reeled out 75-feet or roughly 4:1. After just a bit of grumbling, the 44 pound Bruce took a bite solid enough to authoritatively arrest the boat. After slippage on the bottom and the chain taking on its catenary we were in marginal depth and OK at the moment but that would be doubtful if the boat swung north.

What to do? As we were on the hook for the moment and seemingly solid, I jumped into the dinghy and zipped up to the fisherman. Brief discussion and uh-oh. He has a mechanical fault and isn’t planning (or really able) to move in the immediate future. Back to our boat, and here’s where I made a bad decision, or at least possibly poor in hindsight and short of a little more information, as hindsight so often is.

We were definitely within reach of the mooring buoy (or stern of the fishing boat) on a singled stern tie line line and that line might be adequate if things didn’t become nasty, our line being 600-feet and having a working load of about 250-pounds. We were certainly out of reach of the 250-foot portion of our auxiliary rode which is nylon and amply strong for the job of keeping us attached to something much more likely solid than our anchor.

If I knew then what I know now, I’d have risked using a singled stern tie line to “borrow” some pull and time from the already-occupied float. I’d have stayed put until we could definitively sort our propulsion problem, call a tow boat and/or deploy more stuff off the boat in a controlled fashion to get fully stable. We might even have risked winching the boat up into nylon rode range of the fishing boat’s stern.

Instead, my thoughts turned to the dubious nature of our anchorage, the proximity of a much safer harbor, and the decently plausible hypothesis that we’d wrapped the folding prop with something that might have floated away. Also, a little bit of cowardice; the fisherman’s replies to my inquiries were taciturn and he either didn’t understand my mention of loss of propulsion or I hadn’t made myself clear on that. My visit was not a “hail, fellow, well met” moment. I didn’t relish driving back, knocking again and unilaterally announcing that it was caring and sharing time at Patos Island, with him in the middle.

Time to fully unpack a folding nightmare

Putting the engine in gear and looking aft, I could see lots of swirl. Again in hindsight, I now realize I was not looking at prop wash but was seeing current. I called to Kaj and bounced “let’s get the heck out of here and over to Stuart, eh” off him, and of course he agreed. So, “pick up the hook and let’s go.” I put the boat into idle forward, our standard operating procedure and the hook broke out almost immediately. I could tell, because suddenly we were heading backwards and falling off rapidly, heading north. Throttle up! Nothing. Even repeating several verses of blue language did nothing.

Within what seemed a couple of seconds the boat gathered way, heading straight for the rocks on the north side of the cove, and it struck me only then that the northwesterly had built a bit while we were gathering our wits. KALLISTO loves to sail and sailing she was despite not actually having anything unfurled.

With her huge spade rudder KALLISTO typically turns easily even at practically zero speed. In this circumstance, perhaps because of the current pushing her along sideways, the few seconds I had to try turning down and around for another anchor shot were not going to be enough. Thank goodness, we’re not such speed weenies or purists that I’d refused a suggestion to put a thruster on the boat. A seemingly-forever blast got the boat turned down the current, and with that she again took on her old good ways, using her momentum to obediently turn up as requested.

“Drop it, drop it, drop it!” to which the logical reply is “how much?” In this case, we were down to 12-feet on the sounder. That’s a mighty short scope even at 4:1, and a glance at the rocks aft indicated that anything more was likely very bad news. Down goes the anchor, and with more complaints it took.

At this point we were in overdraft on leeway; we’d used up all depth margin for low tide and were too close to the north side of the cove. Those of us who own fin keel boats know they like to dance on the anchor in a current or wind, and KALLISTO was taking her first steps. A crunching sound from the rudder was likely inevitable where we were.

If one single thing was useful about the visit to the fisherman it was that we had a warmed up engine on the dinghy, ready to go instantly. I jumped in and got the dinghy pulling hard, keeping stern out from the shore. As it turns out and for whatever hydrodynamic reasons, this particular configuration (10-foot AB RIB with shallow V and mighty 2.5 HP Honda) pulls better with the engine twisted to the reverse position.  

If stability was what we were looking for we’d missed it by a mile. Let alone that we’d in all probability ground in a couple of hours presuming the anchor didn’t turn loose first — and the roaring, bucking dinghy was not a sustainable solution for holding the boat off the rocks.

Nautical fiction provided a stopgap. I’m a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s books, and in those are several detailed descriptions of “kedging,” enough to get us started on an imitation. With feverish haste, the crew on the boat assembled the secondary anchor to its rode and passed it into the dinghy. Kaj’s awesomely unflappable girlfriend Abby got in with me, leaving Kaj on board to put the rode on a winch. Paying out over the bow and keeping tension on the rode we backed diagonally southeast across the cove, to where I was fairly sure there was a reasonable amount of beach gravel or sand for the Danforth-style secondary anchor and its 50-foot chain to give us some grip. At 300-feet and all rode out, we were about 30-feet off the southeast end of the beach with gravel clearly visible below. Down went the anchor and as the pull from the dinghy vanished Kaj’s winching took up slack. KALLISTO continued to hold off.

Back to the boat and an assessment of our situation. A tow boat was already on the way but would arrive too late to help. Brief investigation of our propulsion showed the shaft turning fine but still no thrust. The water temperature was in the upper 40’s and we don’t carry a wet suit. Diving to investigate was too hazardous; none of us are remotely acclimated to jumping into water so cold, and with the current it would be a full-effort affair entailing lots of risk.

Not fully comfortable with the Danforth arrangement and thinking that a grip onto something solid would be nice, we decided to take the stern tie line over to the south shore and see if we could get some advantage on the boat from there, to pull off further, find water just that bit deeper to keep us off the bottom and possibly even ease the load on the main anchor by going up wind/tide a bit with the line. That operation was accomplished successfully in that we got a grip on keeping the boat off the rocks but we did not gain any depth and moving up wind/tide was not practical given the various complications entailed in hauling the stern tie line along the cliff on the south side of the cove.

As we arranged the stern tie line, two more small fishing boats arrived in the cove. I’m not sure if their intention was to assist the boat at the ball but in any case this was a heaven sent opportunity to go and beg for help. Also, while we were “messing about with boats” the wind had built further and the tide was going through its programmed acceleration. We hadn’t enough depth to stay where we were without certain damage, and the mere fact that the main anchor was still holding was a surprise, especially given that little bit of swell was now causing some snatch.

Up again in the dinghy, this time to try and interrupt somebody’s workday with our frivolous and voluntary mess. I’m not sure if all fishermen are taciturn, but this group made the first seem like a talkshow host by comparison. A lot of long looks back and forth and barely any acknowledgment of my introduction and pathetic plea, not that I can complain. However, a consensus was arrived at and the fishermen decided on what vessel to use and moved to begin assembling a tow line.

The tow line option available on the responding boat was 3/8-inch crab pot line. While not wanting to openly call this line into question, it struck me that it might not be quite enough, so with a hearty thanks I moved to speed back down to recover the secondary rode, which would make a strong (while dangerously stretchy) tow line. KALLISTO is equipped with heroic cleats of known quality and silky-smooth fairleads so I was fairly confident we could make a hookup that wouldn’t instantly fail, if the line was adequate. At this point, all we needed was to move perhaps 400-feet.

And then, like an omen, the dinghy motor quit. I’d refueled right after setting up the stern tie line and given the current and wind it was straight to oars; no troubleshooting possible.

At this point things began to move pretty fast, and our control of the situation rapidly diminished. The wind was now 12 to 15 knots and there was a noticeable swell in the cove. The ebb current had reached its maximum.

When I passed the stern of the boat I could see that the secondary rode was dismayingly slack. Sighting the boat against the shore, it was clear we were now dragging. The secondary rode had wrapped itself on the rudder stock and there was not time to sort it out properly so I cut it there, tied the ends to the swim ladder and then pulled the dinghy back to the secondary anchor hand over hand as fast as possible, recovering the rode as I went. With the anchor up, I rowed back to KALLISTO and reached her as our volunteer tow was just arriving.

Now events accelerated with brutal rapidity, the situation moving from steerable to inexorable in moments. The main anchor broke out decisively. Kaj received and secured the (now quadrupled and maybe even up to it) line from the fisherman, and the fishing boat began to tow as Kaj brought in the main anchor. But it was all just a few seconds too late; both of us were now being sucked rapidly toward the drying, too narrow and too shallow gap at the southeast end of Active Cove. The anchor rode crossed the plates holding the bow roller, which of course immediately stalled the windlass, not that it made a whole lot of difference with the anchor out and bouncing merrily. As the whole assemblage of boats, people and dragging gear rapidly converged on the gap, the fisherman apologetically announced that he was going to have to cut loose and skedaddle, which he did. And we deeply appreciate the generous help offered in difficult circumstances by the Mengy B. and her crew.

From “Master and Commander” I’d now been demoted to “slack-jawed operator of out-of-control carnival ride.” Probably with reason and deservedly, but still it wasn’t a pleasant downgrade.

It was at this moment, standing in the dinghy and gripping KALLISTO‘s toerail that I realized how much I love our boat, and how shockingly painful it was going to be to see her grievously wounded or even die. I cursed loudly and uselessly several times and then turned to wondering if I should call the crew off or if it would be safer for them to stay aboard, given that it was unlikely that even with a hard hit the boat would go down like a stone. But really there wasn’t enough time anyway, not before we hit the gap.

At that moment the fisherman yelled something to the effect of, “She might make it through!” True enough. As Chuck Yeager said, “keep flying the airplane, keep trying things, no matter what.”

I scrambled back on board and secured the dinghy as we were passing the final yards before the finale. At this point the stern tie line stopped being our friend and turned into a mortal enemy. With the line on the port side center cleat the boat was being swung sideways to the gap, and if the depth was impossible the remaining width (at about half or a little less tide at this point) was doubly so. I think I said something idiotically vague like “dump the line” to Kaj (exactly how would have been a puzzle given the tension and the configuration), but he was smarter, whipped the knife from his PFD (I’ll take credit for that knife being there) and cut the line in the nick of time.

With the stern tie line shooting back to shore in spectacular fashion the boat instantly straightened and aligned itself with the gap. We were now heading neatly backward into Hell. The bouncing anchor and chain were banging hard at the bow but keeping us lined up with the current.

We were all waiting for a horrific bang and crash as we entered the notch. The sounder must have an error, or was confused by current or bottom features because it indicated 6-feet and fully a foot under our keel depth and yet there was no noise.

Then the main anchor bit again and we stopped, in the exact middle of the gap fore and aft and side-side. Murphy is on the boat with us. My wife Ann, who was ably handling shore and tow communications through all this, says I told Kaj to slip the anchor but I have no memory of that. Apparently Kaj did not have time to move on my instructions because the main then let go, allowing the boat to continue moving backward.

Within a few seconds we were flushed on and out of the gap. Even at this point I was expecting a crash; it almost seemed obligatory or mandatory after such a harrowing buildup. No, it was not to be. In a couple of minutes we were 100 yards off shore, winding in a lot of chain that apparently had been stripped past the windlass brake, gathering our wits and being amazed that nobody had to change their shorts.

Abby said she might briefly have heard something like gravel on the bottom of the boat, before we made the final plunge, and indeed later inspection showed a 1-inch scratch in the starboard keel bulb paint to be the total extent of our damage, other than losing 550-feet of decent stern tie line (which I wish I could clean up).

We saved the boat once while we were in Active Cove but the day ultimately came down to sheer good luck. If the tide had been closer to fully out we’d surely not have made it through the gap. I still don’t understand how we came through so quietly — given our draft and the indicated depth it shouldn’t have been possible.

I’m not proud of this story, though I’m hugely proud of KALLISTO‘s crew who, if anything, kept their cool better than her skipper.

What happened and why?

The “proximate cause” of this whole affair was loss of propulsion. Why did it happen? We’ll never know, not exactly. A diver with our towing response said the prop appeared to be unfolding properly, but a person unfamiliar with a Flexofold might not realize that the blades have to be pretty much perpendicular to the shaft for it to be effective. Hauling the boat and inspecting the prop revealed no issues. The mechanism was silky smooth as always, with disassembly revealing nothing untoward, and with the boat back in the water we had good propulsion. The consensus is that one of the blade roots became obstructed by an object as I made my turn at Patos with the prop folded, thus preventing any of the interlocked blades from opening. This object, though stuck fairly fast during our crisis, subsequently fell out while later being towed, presumably. This has not happened before in the six years the prop has been on the boat, and given KALLISTO’s intensive use pattern we don’t expect to see it happen again any time soon.

Proximate cause is secondary to the takeaway lessons here, as is so often the case.

The prop failure would have been no big deal if I’d not become complacent about going into Patos and paid more attention to the wind and current and how the boat would be set in the case of a hiccup. and if I’d thought again about how few options a slightly larger boat like ours has in terms of sailing out of trouble from a confined space such as Active Cove. Once the bow of the boat is into Active Cove in the conditions we volunteered for, sailing out is not really feasible, even in the best of circumstances and with a more expert crew. Side-tying the dinghy and trying to motor out into the wind and swell wouldn’t likely have ended well either. The first time we were in Patos I was more acutely aware of these things, but familiarity breeds contempt, or at least thoughtless habits.

Our shakedown cruise shook us out of some bad habits, at least for a while. In the future, we’ll be handling Patos (and Matia for that matter) as an even more difficult target in terms of stars aligning to allow a stop. We won’t go in on a day with a strong ebb tide and/or an aggravating wind situation.

As far as other lessons go, we have a camera at KALLISTO‘s first spreader, one that’s useful for checking on the boat’s dock position while home in harbor during the winter. It happened to be on while this episode unfolded thanks to some troubleshooting I’d been doing. The most awful failure I committed during the day is captured by a picture from that camera (see below). With crew safety first and foremost, I let my cherished son get in line with the tow line from the fishing vessel. I squirm when I look at this picture, because there I am also in the picture, practically looking right at this fearsome feature and not correcting it. The day could have ended far, far worse.

As well, the shot of our foredeck illustrates that while towboat captains make towing look easy, it isn’t. There’s a lot wrong with that setup. In our partial defense, we didn’t have leisure to establish a long tow line, set up a bridle or do any of the other trimmings, let alone that communications with our helpers were patchy at best.

In sum, the whole affair has reshaped my attitude to a certain extent. Not to create unhealthy fear, we picked up a ball at Matia Island as soon as we were able to leave the dock again and had a dandy time in the foreshortened time left for our March cruise. Instead, while safely moored the evening after our excitement I found myself marveling that the drawer I was opening to pull out knives and forks for dinner was not at the cold bottom, or a little part of a huge recovery job. This brought back the immediacy and weight of the grief I felt while believing I was going to watch our boat die. A hard reminder that I can do better in terms of thinking things through ahead of time, both to avoid trouble and to have a fully shaped backup plan in case trouble jumps out despite due diligence. I was also reminded of the trust we place in one another as crewmembers, and how we’re only as strong as the weakest in the crew. As it happens, the weakest crew member may often be the skipper, as the skipper is the person most likely to bring trouble upon boat and crew.

Lastly, when we had a brief moment to contact the excellent maintenance professional that helps us take care of our boat, his first response and question was, “Are all of the crew wearing their PFDs?” Perfect, and we were. If the boat went out from under us, at least we’d have floated.

Editor’s Note: A big thank you to Doug Bostrom for sharing his story with Three Sheets readers. If you’ve got tales, cautionary or otherwise, from cruising the Salish Sea to share, feel free to pass them along here


2 Responses to A narrow escape at Patos Island

  1. Jim Nemeth April 10, 2017 at 6:35 pm #

    What do they say? “If you docked without damage you docked successfully”. I am sure this applys to such a tight spot. Another lesson learned.
    Regarding your depth sounder “error” vs vessel draft, my vessel, a 48 ft William Garden ketch, reads depth below the through haul fitting effectively a 32-36 inch margin below sealevel I choose to pretend is not there (random rocks). I could set my chart plotter to offset that but no I won’t.
    A well written article thank you for sharing.

  2. Melissa White April 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm #

    What a tale! It’s so easy to beat ourselves up when these things happen. But your team did well, you got your boat out, took advantage of the resources you had, and she lives to see another day! I was on the edge of my seat! If we meet up in an anchorage one day, remind me to tell you of the time we used our dinghy to push our Cal34 around Cattle Point. In the dark. Racing the tide. Fun times!

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