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A Limerick man's Adventure in Long Island Sound

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I learned to sail on the Shannon from my father Paddy Dooley; a lot of people will remember him as he used to own the Dainty Dairy in Bedford Row and Cecil Street. He taught me well, as the lessons learned on the Shannon between Foynes and Carrigaholt stood me in good stead when the following little adventure happened.

I thought you might be interested in this account of a trip on an old English Morecambe Bay Prawner between Annapolis Maryland, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

On board were 3 people, Ashley Butler from Essex, England, Wendy his American girlfriend, and myself Shay Dooley from Limerick.

This all happened just over a year ago at the end of October 2001, about 6 weeks after the horrendous attack on the World Trade Centre.

I had volunteered myself as crew on "Ziska," the old wooden gaffer belonging to Ashley Butler. The plan was to bring it from Annapolis to Vineyard Haven on Martha's Vineyard. About 380 miles which should take 3/4 days. There were three of us onboard, Ashley, his fianc'Wendy and myself. Wendy had done no sailing. Ziska is 42' on deck, 60' with bowsprit and windvane, and weighs in at a svelte 15 tons. She is iroko on mahogany massively built. Her mast is 45' long and her boom is 21'. She did not have an engine. We had two compasses, 2 handheld vhf's, 2 GPS's, flares, an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon), lifebelts, lifelines, and kerosene lamps, both on deck and below. We had a Monitor windvane self-steering.

We got there, but not without some incident. We left Annapolis on a beautiful Sunday morning, the last Sunday of October. As this boat does not have an engine, we use a pusher boat to get it out and to manoeuvre it in confined quarters. A pusher boat is basically a dinghy with an outboard, lashed tight to the stern and it is surprising how effective it can be. Point the dinghy in the direction you want to go, and the big boat slowly turns in that direction. Once we cleared the approaches to Annapolis Inner Harbour, we hoisted sail and took off on a fast reach up the Chesapeake. We averaged 6 knots all day and reached the head of the bay Sunday night, in time for a foul tide on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, so we anchored and turned in.

We were up at about 0400 and with a good flood we pushed the boat through the canal and covered the 12 miles in just under two hours. We then entered the Delaware River, and after an initial slow start, got down to Cape May NJ, by dark. The mouth of the Delaware River is as big as the mouth of the Shannon, about 15 miles wide. Our first night at sea, Monday was spent inching up the New Jersey coast. At least that was what it felt like, as it seemed to take forever to pass the bright lights of Atlantic City. Donald Trumps Taj Mahal should be on the chart, as it is so prominent. Huge red lights on the roof. We were able to see it from 20 miles.

We averaged 4/5 knots all day up the New Jersey coast, Tuesday and between 1400 and 1900 the barometer had, dropped from 1010 to 998mb. The forecast was for a veering change to the south and west from the current easterly 2/3. The forecast changed at about 1700, saying the wind would suddenly veer to the south and west and increase to 25 knots with gusts of 30/35 with occasional gusts of 40. We decided to do 2 on and two off, to see how the night went.

I had the 2100 to 2300 watch. We were sailing in a fitful easterly, just shy of being luffed. Our course and track was about 050 m. The wind was 10 to 15 knots.

We had a Monitor wind vane, which had self-steered the boat effortlessly. They are amazingly effective.

Ashley relieved me at 2300. At 2320, we were hit by a gust of 40 knots, which came from nowhere. Ashley said he saw a kind of black cloud. I certainly did not. The boat had full main, and jib and flying jib on the bowsprit.

In the 40-knot gust, the boat went over probably 35 degrees. The main hatch was open, and Ashley said the water on deck got to within a few inches of the hatch.

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The next few minutes were a blur. I was in my bunk, and I felt the boat go over. I heard Ashley shouting for me. I heard a loud crack, followed by a second not so loud one. I had trouble getting out of my bunk, because of the motion, and then decided to put on my oilskins, harness, lifeline and boots. I put a torch and a knife in my pocket, and went up. The mast had broken just below the hounds, and was in the water on the port side. The remainder of the mast, which was keel stepped, was still there standing up like a massive toothpick, with no rigging holding it up. The mast at the deck has a diameter 18 inches. Big stick, a solid piece of Douglas fir. The rig in the water did not deaden the motion of the boat. The wind was about 30 knots steady, sometimes 35. It was a dark night. Wendy stayed below.

We set out the sea anchor, which took some time, owing to the debris in the water. Once it set, it pulled the bow more or less to weather which was NW by now. The top portion of the spar was the immediate problem, as it was banging into the hull about 6 feet back from the bow on the port side. We chopped through wire, halyards, strops, and just about anything else, and managed to haul it on deck, and lash it down. At least the hull was not so much at risk now. Thankfully we had bolt croppers.

The remainder of the mast, gaff, and boom were still in the water, as were the sails. We next salvaged the two jibs and lashed them on the deck. We then needed to separate the gaff from the mast, so we chopped and hacked until we had that free and on board. Separating the jaws of the gaff from the mast was a game, and eventually we got that onboard too. The mainsail was still attached to the boom, so we separated them and got the boom on board. The boom was 21' long. That left the mainsail, which we eventually got on board. That all took from 2330 to 0140. By that stage we were exhausted and I had been sick. Probably a combination of fear, seasickness and whatever.

We came below, and the motion was now bad owing to the waves and wind, and having no rig. The waves were 12 to 15' occasionally breaking, but steady now from the SW. We were all feeling ill, especially Wendy, who was also a bit panicky and tearful. We had 2 handheld vhf on board and an EPIRB. We sent out a distress message on Ch 16 for 2 hours, and nobody responded. We saw two ships pass close by, and they went right by us. We sent up two rocket flares. Nothing.

We were about 25 miles south of Long Island, and about 15 miles east of New Jersey (Barnagat Bay). We were in the main approaches to New York Harbour and nobody was responding. Our VHF was obviously weak. We had no lights, no engine, no rig and it was not that good a situation. We all rested for a couple of hours, and at 0530, we decided we had to do something. We could hear the Coastguard and the radio on Ambrose light, but they could not hear us.

As it got bright at about 0700, we decided to try and rig a jury rig on the stump. If this were not possible, we would set off the EPIRB. In order to get going, we had three problems:

1: the dinghy was upside down and in the water
2: we had a sea anchor out
3: how to haul a sail up a mast stump with no rig.

The dinghy was probably the most dangerous thing about the morning. It is a rigid 9' made of cold moulded wood and epoxy. We got it long side, but the motion made things tricky. Then we righted it awash, and managed to get two buckets on lines into it and emptied it. We put it out on a line, and tackled the sea anchor. It was a big parachute basically and we used the lifting bow with the anchor windlass to get the thing onboard. Ashley pulled and I tailed.

We came back to the cockpit and the dinghy was upside down again. Cut it loose or try again. As the rig had wrecked the wind vane when it came down, we had more or less a fairly clear aft deck. We again hauled the damn dinghy in and righted it. We emptied it again, and again by using the rolling motion of the boat, we got it on deck. We lashed it across the transom upside down.

That left the mast and how to get a sail up it. We had a combination of jibs. The mast still had two hoops left on it from the mainsail. We lashed them together and attached a block with a halyard. We then shoved the hoops up the mast as far as we could with a rowing sweep. We then lashed the sweep to the mast and we had a halyard. The sweep was lashed to the base of the mast and lashed to the hoops. We then lashed the tack of a jib to the halyard, lashed the clew to the base of the mast, and attached a sheet to the head of the jib. We raised it gingerly and it worked.

We brought the bow round to the northeast and got going at about 0930 Wednesday. That all took about three hours. Under this jury rig, we averaged 4.5 knots for the next 30 hours and actually sailed to Martha's Vineyard. We had covered about 230 miles Sunday Monday and Tuesday. We covered the remaining 130 miles in 30 hours with this jib set at 90 degrees.

The wind stayed WNW; about 25 to 30 knots, so we had a broad reach run on 60 magnetic to Martha's Vineyard. We sailed past Long Island, Montauk Point, Wednesday night, as well as Block Island, and by dawn Thursday morning, we were about 20 miles SW of the Vineyard. It was a lee shore, and as we had limited manoeuvrability, we called the Harbourmaster at Newport RI and the same at the Vineyard, and eventually the Harbour master at Vineyard sent out a launch to tow us the last few miles. We tied up about 1600.

News spreads like wildfire, and there was quite a crowd on the dock by 1700. We were all soaked and caked in salt. The boat was a mess below. I am not going to into all that, but suffice to say; every part of the inside of the boat was wet. A woman took away all our wet clothes and brought them back dry and clean 2 hours later. We then had showers and a change of clothes. Life felt a lot better.

We were taken for a meal, but we were falling asleep from the heat in the restaurant and from sheer fatigue.

We were back in the boat by 2100 and asleep. I spent Friday then, getting from Martha's Vineyard to Annapolis to my car.

Quite a week. One of life's experiences.
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Lessons: 1: the forecast never lies. We were complacent. We should have been prepared for the sudden wind shift.

2: it was the outer jib that brought the mast down. Not the main. The boom was in the water and the main was luffing.

3: the sheets for the headsails should have been led aft into the cockpit. They were secured forward of the mast

what would we have done different' Not a lot. Maybe set off the EPIRB.

During the fight to survive, my thoughts returned to sailing on the lower Shannon between Foynes and Carrigaholt, sailing round to Cork from the Shannon in all kinds of conditions, running through Blasket and Dursey Sounds, beating hard in a Mirror dinghy in Galway Bay, freezing in a Laser in Dromineer, and many other happy thoughts.

Anyway, out of this, we learn how much we can cope with adversity. I found myself afterwards thanking God for the chances we had in recovering from the situation, and later while sitting for hours helming, wishing that all of life's problems could be dealt with like losing a mast.

I did not know Ashley and Wendy two weeks ago. Now, we have been through quite an experience.

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