Arwen's Sinking

Copyright 1990, Jack G. Ganssle


Some days things just seem to go all wrong. This story recounts the loss of Arwen.

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Published January, 1989 by Ocean Navigator magazine.

A loud crash signaled the beginning of the end. Arwen, which moments before had been motorsailing at 6 knots, was dead in the water and rapidly sinking.

I was 24, single, and had quit my engineering job a year previously to sail around the world alone. Two years of preparation went into making Arwen ready for the voyage; two years of spending every spare minute feverishly rebuilding every system on board.

Arwen was a 30 foot doublended Swedish cutter built of yellow pine in 1935. Thirty years of sailing followed by a decade of neglect had taken their toll. I refastened the hull, laboriously replacing two thousand #14 screws with new silicon bronze fasteners. The interior was a shambles; I removed every scrap of woodwork, and built new bulkheads, berths, a galley, and a chart table. All of the running and standing rigging was replaced with modern, stronger materials. A new bridge deck, electrical system, plumbing, rebuilt engine, and a thousand other items completed the work. I bought the thousands of dollars of supplies needed for ocean voyaging, from a sextant to all of the charts and sailing directions needed to get to Australia.

Arwen's rebuilding had all but exhausted my funds. I left Annapolis in December of 1977 with $1500 and a dream of far horizons.

In these days of inexpensive airfares most travelers get incensed if they are delayed even an hour or two. Something is lost when travel is so predictable. Many people dream of a "European Adventure", and are then chauffeured, coddled, and generally pampered on their package tour. The very nature of the sailboat makes it one of the last forms of true adventure. Every departure marks the beginning of a new adventure; every voyage guarantees only the unexpected.

And so it turned out. The overnight sail to Norfolk took a week. The 3 week trip down the Intracoastal Waterway stretched to months. Arwen suffered from a variety of near fatal illnesses to her ancient one lung gasoline engine, causing a succession of delays. At the one lock on the ICW the "no sailing" rule forced me to tow her 8000 pounds using the dingy under oars as tug, much to the amusement of the locktenders.

An yet... it was a wonderful trip. After a few weeks I managed to shuck my high tech, production oriented devotion to a schedule, and slow down. I learned to enjoy waiting out the winter gales, to accept the ten mile days and to revel in the great sailing.

After a four month layover in Florida, I departed Fort Lauderdale for Panama. From there - 4000 miles non-stop to the Marquesas and the south seas, names fairly breathing romance.

"I'm off to Tripoli; 
To Tripoli and Trebizond and Timbuctoo mayhap,
Or any magic name beyond I find upon the map."
(From Robert Service's "Jobson of the Star")

Alone, I sailed along Florida's Keys. To starboard lies underwater reefs that have been snaring sailing vessels for five hundred years. To Port the Gulf Stream roars north towards New England and thence to Europe. I sailed along the Keys, skirting the reefs but staying mostly out of the Stream. At night Arwen tacked offshore, into the Stream and safety.

The morning of the third day at sea found Arwen about 50 miles offshore, roughly halfway between Key West and Cuba. She was motorsailing at hull speed, making reasonable progress towards the Yucatan Channel. I was working on deck. Suddenly, with a loud crash, Arwen came to a complete stop, halting so quickly the rigging shuddered.

I was momentarily baffled; we were in water a mile deep. Could my navigation be off? Did we hit a reef?

A quick glance in the cabin confirmed my worst fears. Water was rushing in at a tremendous rate. This was not minor collision damage. Obviously Arwen had suffered a major structural failure.

I rushed below to assess the situation. The boat had hit something massive on the starboard side up forward, caving in a number of frame bays. The frames and planks were shattered. Water was pouring in under pressure; it was impossible to see all of Arwen's injuries. In the few seconds it took to access the damage water had risen a frightening amount despite heroic efforts from a pair of automatic pumps. Arwen was going down; it was time to abandon ship.

There was no time for panic. A year before I had worked out a detailed procedure for abandoning ship and tacked it over the chart table where it was visible every day. I never even thought to consult the card, but having seen the words daily, the procedure was drilled into my unconscious.

Back on deck I cut the emergency raft free and partially inflated it. By some serendipitous magic I had purchased the surplus aviator-style raft in Fort Lauderdale a few weeks before. It was stowed on deck in the panic bag, with an EPIRB, provisions, and flares. A separate 3 gallon water jug, with a floatation air bubble, was tied to the bag. I threw the whole affair over the side, securing it with a painter.

A few quick strokes of the emergency knife (always kept razor sharp) cut the hard dingy free from the cabin top. I launched this inadequate lifeboat and secured it to Arwen.

With the emergency craft ready to go, I went back below to try to salvage some gear. The logbooks, passport, and a little money was first. For some inexplicable reason I entirely forgot the navigation log. I saved the good sextant; not really essential since the panic bag contained a cheap plastic version. The ham radio was next.

By now the water was waist deep. I worked frantically, stuffing items into a bag. An old passport, a flag, and hundreds of perhaps insignificant but personally meaningful scraps of paper, books and endless other flotsam floated in the mayhem.

By now I was afraid to stay below. Water rising over the carburetor had suffocated the engine. The boat was so submerged that her sails were ineffective; she was more scow than sleek sailing yacht, and had virtually no way on.

I abandoned ship. After climbing into the hard dingy I paddled a few hundred feet off with the inflatable in tow. Arwen sank almost immediately on an even keel. I was reminded of a poignant picture taken of the Bailey's boat going down in mid-Pacific with her sails still up; Arwen's end was much the same.

From the time of the collision to her sinking was about five minutes. It is truly unbelievable how fast a heavily damaged boat fills. I was shocked at just how little time one has.

Alone in a six foot plywood dingy 50 miles from land, I finally had time to consider my plight. In these busy waters I was not at all worried about being rescued. I sorted through the provisions and supplies, first digging out and loading the flare pistol. I switched on the EPIRB, which turned out to be a pointless task, for as far as I know it was never heard. Although I still carry an EPIRB I no longer have my old unshakable faith in the high-tech marvel.

A tug going by half a mile from the raft either ignored or never saw the half-dozen flares I fired. Another lesson learned; my current boat is well equipped with orange smoke signals and a copious supply of frighteningly expensive parachute flares.

"And I alone survived", although in a much less dramatic fashion than Ishmael's salvation through Queequeq's coffin. Rather, a commercial fishing vessel saw my flares and rescued me after only a day adrift. They confirmed my position; Arwen was indeed in deep water. Only something massive, floating mostly submerged and thus invisible, could have caused the damage. Newton's immutable laws lead me to the conclusion that in all probability Arwen struck a floating container from a commercial cargo vessel.

Arwen hit something and stopped. Immediately. As a Chesapeake Bay sailor I've often run aground in the gentle fashion inimitable to the Bay's muddy bottom. I've never, before or since, experienced the sudden, abrupt and complete stop that sank Arwen. If she hit a four or five ton object that object would have given way, easing the collision. No, whatever Arwen hit must have weighed an order of magnitude more.

A simple calculation shows that an average container has around 50 tons of buoyancy. I was on deck at the time of the collision and never saw what Arwen hit, leading me to the belief that the object was mostly submerged. Archimedes' principle implies that a waterlogged, barely floating container would nearly be at its 50 ton displacement.

The container theory seems to describe this accident, although friends have seriously suggested that Arwen may have collided with a submarine operating in the area. I consider this unlikely; certainly a periscope would be visible if the sub were close enough to the surface to be a danger.

Arwen was lost, but the memories live on. I have no regrets. The entire trip was a fabulous adventure of gales, calms, friendships made and experiences that shore-chained commuters will never experience. I've been fortunate to have survived to apply what I've learned to my present boat, Amber II. However, all sailors should realize that no amount of preparedness, no amount of watchfulness, can guarantee a vessel's safety.

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