Hazel was Pooped (third and final episode)

As a quick refresher to the mini series, we began Episode I with the phrase…

The first thing you need to know is that the title is literal. It’s not some cute figure-of-speech that Hazel James was tired. It’s not some sophomoric, scatalogical humor that, like Jonah, Hazel was swallowed whole—but, unlike Jonah, she exited via the tail end of the leviathan. I mean that Hazel was nautically pooped.

Episode I concluded with Hazel, Rhett and me rocketing out of the Chesapeake Bay and into the Atlantic Ocean. Episode II finished with us approaching the notorious Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras the morning of Monday, October 11, 2021.

As it turns out, the actual rounding of Diamond Shoals was relatively uneventful (as “uneventful” as anything can be in 30 knots of wind). As soon as we rounded, we altered our course to starboard—from south to southwest—in an effort to “tuck inside” of Cape Hatteras and get some protection from the land. Although we were 15 nautical miles from Cape Hatteras at the time and couldn’t see land, we thought that altering course would be our best bet. However, we soon found that the wind-driven waves were getting both higher and shorter period and, every so often, were breaking. Those smaller breaking waves would slide under us with foaming whitewater and an ominous rumble.

It’s important to note that when you read an ocean weather forecast and see wave height listed as a range—for example, “8-10-foot seas”—the given range is generally the “significant wave height” which is defined as the mathematical average of the tallest 33% of the waves. While averages are occasionally helpful, real life tends to be bound by its extremes. With that in mind, another—just as accurate—definition of “significant wave height” is that in a 30-minute window, there’s a 5% chance that a mariner will encounter a wave that is twice the height of the significant wave height. In our example with 8-10-foot seas, we’re talking about a 16-20-foot wave.

Long story short, soon after passing outside the Diamond Shoals buoy, Hazel was pooped by just such a wave.

At this point, it’s probably worth exploring the nautical definition of “pooped. While “poop” refers to the stern or aftermost deck of a ship (from the Old French poupe), “pooped” means specifically when a ship or boat takes a breaking wave over the stern (the back of the boat). Fortunately it’s not a common occurrence and there’s a bit of bad luck that needs to happen in order to get pooped. A boat needs to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As indicated above, the biggest waves in a sea are infrequent. To be pooped the boat needs to be in big and following seas and an exceptionally large wave needs to hit the stern of the boat while that specific wave is breaking. If the large wave isn’t breaking when it passes the boat, it generally slides harmlessly under the boat. As you might guess, getting pooped is not a good thing. The biggest problem with it is dealing with a cockpit full of water. The footwell (lowest level) of Hazel’s cockpit is a rough square about three feet on a side and a foot deep. That’s nine cubic feet of water and water weighs-in at over 62 pounds per cubic foot. Doing the math that’s about 550 extra pounds of water in the back of the boat which seriously changes how the boat handles. In addition, getting pooped is kind of like a concussion, the first one is often not so bad but you absolutely don’t want to get a second one while still recovering from the first.

Shortly after we rounded Diamond Shoals and altered our course to starboard, we found ourselves with the seas directly on our stern. I was a bit concerned about the size of the waves rolling under us and whitecaps were all around (indicating that waves were close to breaking) but I thought we’d be OK. About 0900 (9:00 a.m.) Rhett was below decks (understandably a bit freaked out by the conditions) and I was in the cockpit keeping Hazel moving under sail. I looked behind us (off our stern) and noted that an especially big set of waves was bearing down on us and would reach us in about 30 seconds. I yelled below to Rhett that she had better get her gear on (foul weather gear and personal flotation device/harness). She was in process of doing that when the set of waves reached us. Had one of them not been breaking, it would have been no big deal. However, luck wasn’t on our side at that moment. As they closed in, the biggest wave in the center of the set began to crest and churn. At that point I knew we were in for trouble. No sooner did I have that thought than I had a lapful of water and Hazel was burdened with the equivalent weight of a small hot tub on her hindquarters.

Immediately Hazel started to wallow with all the extra weight. We were still OK but Hazel was noticeably stern-heavy. Hazel’s cockpit has two drains that allow seawater from the cockpit to drain back into the ocean. While getting pooped was not good, we just had to ride things out and sail gingerly (and hope) for no other big and breaking waves in the next several minutes while the cockpit drained.

It was at that point—when things were sketchy but seemingly under control—when Hazel’s high water alarm sounded. Keep in mind that the wind was still whipping and the wave were still rolling—this wasn’t Disney World—the ride wasn’t over and we certainly weren’t getting off any time soon.

When I acquired Hazel back in 2017, one of the first upgrades I made was to outfit her with a high water alarm that would notify me with a red light (visible from the saloon) and loud siren (audible from anywhere on the boat) if she had excess water in her bilge (the bilge of a boat is its lowest-most internal area, where any water tends to collect). While Hazel has an automatic bilge pump that switches on when too much water is in the bilge, if the pump is either not operational or can’t pump water out of the boat faster than it’s coming in, the high-water alarm will be activated.

Hazel’s shrieking high-water alarm—on top of everything else going on—was a bit disconcerting (to say the least). While I test the alarm monthly to make sure it’s working properly, I’ve rarely had it activate in a sailing situation in the four years since I installed it. I was puzzled on a couple fronts: first, while we had taken a lot of water into the cockpit, I couldn’t figure out how water would have gotten from the cockpit to the bilge; second, the alarm was continuing to sound—if it was just one inrush of water and the bilge pump was operational, the pump should be able take care of the situation by pumping out the water in less than a minute or so (and thus silence the alarm).

Rhett was still below decks (with all her foul weather gear on) and I didn’t want to leave the cockpit as I needed to monitor the wind and waves and try our best to make sure we didn’t get pooped a second time in rapid succession.

With the alarm drowning out every other sound, it’s hard to think and even harder to communicate. I shouted down to Rhett to mute the alarm and added that she needed to be my second set of eyes below decks and keep an eye on the alarm’s red light which indicated that we still had too much water in the bilge.

As I watched behind us at the approaching following-seas, I thought and thought. How did the water get from the cockpit to the bilge? What if the water in the bilge didn’t come from the cockpit but came from some other undiscovered leak that had been sprung by the pooping wave? I didn’t even want to think about that possibility. I could hear the pump running but it obviously wasn’t making progress against the excess water in the bilge, otherwise the alarm would quickly silence. Was the pump clogged and not pumping water? Was water coming in from somewhere at a rate faster than the pump could pump it back out? As I mulled over these questions, every 15 seconds I’d instinctively ask Rhett, “Is the high water light still on?” I was hoping against hope that eventually her answer would be, “Yes! it just went off.” However, her unfailing response was a flat, “No, it’s still on.”

It seemed like it took an eternity for the water to drain from the cockpit, in reality it was probably only a couple minutes, the mind has a way of bending time and space when under duress.

In my thinking, I had concluded that as soon as possible (as soon as the cockpit was empty and I didn’t see any big wave-sets approaching), I needed to get below decks and open up Hazel’s floorboards to expose the bilge and bilge pump inlet and find out what was going on. Hopefully it would “just” be a clogged inlet hose that was stopping the pump and not that the pump was being overwhelmed by an intrusion of seawater from elsewhere below the waterline.

Soon, I was below decks on my hands and knees in the saloon pulling back the main floorboard to access the bilge. Rhett was standing nervously beside me holding a flashlight to illuminate the dark bilge (think about that image the next time we post some picture of idyllically sailing through azure Bahamian waters!). Fortunately, when I got the floorboard removed and peered into the dank bilge the first thing I noted was that although the bilge water was clearly high enough to trigger the alarm, it wasn’t “crazy high” and about to flood the saloon. After some additional inspection, I was happy to see that the water level didn’t appear to be rising. My logical conclusion at that point was that the bilge pump inlet hose must have gotten clogged. The bilge pump’s inlet hose is in the bottom of the bilge and is protected with a screen to prevent it from sucking up debris into the pump. I plunged my hands into the bilge water and—sure enough!—when I felt the inlet screen, I could feel that it was surrounded by “bilge gunk” (scientific term). I was able to scoop the handful of goop from the screen and toss it in the trash. To our relief the pitch of pump’s electric motor lowered indicating that it was starting to suck water. When I put my hands back in the bilge water, I could feel the suction from the inlet hose verifying that the pump was making progress against the bilge water. In addition, I started to see the water level in the bilge getting lower and lower. Soon, the high water alarm light turned off indicating that the bilge was relatively dry (that is, the water was at a normal level). While I still had to figure out the mystery of how so much seawater got into the bilge, at least the bilge was dry and the bilge pump was now operating as it should.

Given that we had gotten the bilge water stabilized, I focused on “heaving-to.” Heaving-to is a process of settling the boat down in heavy weather and getting her bow into the wind and waves. We wouldn’t be making much progress southward while hove-to, but we’d be in a safer position to wait out the worst of this weather.

While we were a bit shaken by this point, we were doing OK. However, if the seas built further, we could be back into trouble in a hurry. Given that prospect I decided to move Hazel’s inflatable life raft into a more “convenient” position in case we needed it (and needed it in a hurry). To the good, Hazel is equipped with a serious life raft, it’s professionally packed in a “valise” (a 1′ by 3′ duffle bag that weighs about 60 pounds) with a carbon dioxide canister that will inflate it in seconds if needed. To the not so good, we store the life raft below decks in the quarterberth and some other items need to be moved in order to access it (I’ve since learned my lesson and remedied that!). On this morning however, with the raft buried behind some other supplies below decks and the wind continuing to howl above decks, I turned to Rhett and said just as calmly as I could, “This is just a precaution. I’m going to move the life raft from its storage position to its ready position.” The last thing I wanted was for my first mate to lose it when I needed her most. She said nothing but nodded her head up and down with a wide-eyed look.

With the life raft at our feet I occurred to me that I should also alert the Coast Guard via VHF radio that we may need assistance. If things got worse—much worse—and we had to abandon ship, the process would be a lot smoother and faster if the Coast Guard was aware of who we were and roughly where we were. I turned to Hazel’s nav station (navigation station), grabbed the VHF radio’s microphone and keyed the transmit button on channel 16:

Pahn-pahn, pahn-pahn, pahn-pahn.

Pahn-pahn, pahn-pahn, pahn-pahn.

Pahn-pahn, pahn-pahn, pahn-pahn.

Coast Guard sector North Carolina, Coast Gard sector North Carolina, Coast Guard sector North Carolina.

This is sailing vessel Hazel James, over.

I released the transmit button, and waited for a response.

There are three specific calls on the marine radio that are used to alert other mariners and the Coast Guard of an urgent or potentially urgent situation. Like poupe, the “calls” are French and they basically tell other mariners to stop transmitting and listen to what is about to be broadcast because it’s important, not just regular radio chatter. In order of increasing urgency, the three calls are: sécurité (pronounced SAY-curetay, pan-pan (pronounced pahn-PAHN), and mayday. Sécurité prefaces an announcement about a navigational hazard or an impending and significant meteorological event. Pan-pan announces an urgent situation where assistance may be needed. Mayday (the big one) announces distress—that lives and the vessel are in grave and imminent danger.

After 30-seconds of waiting, the Coast Guard responded and we communicated Hazel’s name, our position, and the nature of our situation. The Coast Guard was polite and professional (as expected) and said they’d stand-by and continue to monitor our situation.

It’s often said that, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” and although it was now 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning, it was our “pre-dawn” moment. Hazel was stable and with her hove-to position in the water! any breaking waves churned harmlessly under her starboard bow (and not over her transom!). We had some time to regroup and think about what we should do next.

In our sailing together, Rhett and I often remark about the uncanny ability of dolphins to arrive on the scene at just the right time. Sometimes we spot the unmistakable dorsal fins on the most beautiful of sailing days and their play in Hazel’s bow wake sends our spirts into the the stratosphere. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, they sometimes arrive when we are at our lowest, or the two of us are disagreeing about something trivial, and the dolphins’ unfettered joy of existence buoys us and reminds us of what’s really important in a well-lived life. On this day, it was clearly the latter. I popped my head above decks to check on the seas and immediately saw a pod of dolphins bearing down on us. I took a long look at them and smiled before I let Rhett know what we were about to experience. While I always enjoy seeing them—a dolphin sighting is absolutely one of Rhett’s favorite things about sailing. If I knew anything that morning, it was that my crew needed this.

“Storm dolphins.”

I called below decks, “Rhett, Rhett—get up here! Dolphins!” Rhett scampered up the companionway steps and the dolphins did not disappoint. Although they didn’t stay long (5 minutes or so) they provided the perfect inspiration and diversion that we needed (video here). In retrospect, I think if Hazel would have been sailing fast, they would have stayed with us a lot longer. However, with Hazel hove-to in the water and moving slowly the dolphins lost interest in us.

Bottom line, the wind eased throughout the day and we were able to resume sailing south. The mitigating weather gave me some time to think about and to solve the mystery of how the pooping seawater found it’s way from the cockpit to the bilge. In the summer of 2020 I had upgraded Hazel’s electrical system including installing state-of-the-art batteries in her battery locker (accessed via the starboard-side cockpit). Prior to my installation, the ventilation wasn’t great in the battery locker and I had read that keeping the batteries cool was critical to their optimal performance. Therefore I installed a vented access hatch in the cockpit footwell to give the batteries some fresh air. At the time, I was thinking ahead and had also fabricated a solid (waterproof) access hatch. I figured that when we were in heavy weather, I could quickly swap out the vented hatch for the solid hatch for additional safety. While my thinking ahead and preparation was brilliant, in the “heat of battle” I had totally forgotten to do the swap and when the cockpit footwell (below the seats) was full of water from the pooping wave, much of the water found its way to the bilge via that vent. In addition, the the inrush of seawater would have traversed sections of the interior hull that usually don’t get wet. I’m thinking those areas had probably collected debris from us living on the boat all summer and the seawater had carried that debris into the bilge and clogged the pump.

While I didn’t feel great that I had let this happen, I was glad that there was a good explanation for why it happened and that it was caused by captain’s error and not engineer’s error (i.e., how the upgrade was designed). Hopefully it’s a lesson that I only learn once!

As the sun set later that day, the sky cleared and we found ourselves under a dizzying, inverted bowl of stars that stretched from horizon to horizon. It’s always amazing to me when long-distance sailing (when you’re on the water long enough to see the weather and sea state change before your eyes) that when the weather’s bad, you can never imagine that it will ever be good again. Conversely, when the weather’s good, it’s hard to visualize it being anything but good forever.

After dinner that evening, Rhett “turned flukes” (Ishmael’s term) and got some much needed rest. I had the watch for the starlit night but was a bit gun-shy about how much sail we wanted to be carrying aloft. Even though the wind had eased considerably, the events of the morning had understandably made me at bit more conservative than usual. However, that night—all alone on watch—I started to get my hutzpah back. The wind had stayed behind us but had dropped to a consistent 9-10 knots and Hazel was slowly making about 3 knots of headway under her two headsails. I knew if I doused the headsails and flew her spinnaker, I could get her sailing at a more respectable 4.5 knots. I also knew that if I did this, when Rhett awoke in the morning and saw that I had made a sail change at night without waking her, it would elicit a, “Dan Coate!” from her (her standard phraseology for when I’ve done something that she thinks I shouldn’t have).

It was about midnight at that point and I was seriously thinking of waiting six hours to make the sail change and fly the spinnaker when Rhett woke and could assist me. As I watched Orion and Sirus rise out of the ocean to the east, I idly thought my options. For some reason my mind drifted to scattering Colleen’s ashes on the sea 18 months prior, and that on our next voyage I’d be scattering my dad’s ashes on the sea. Suddenly, a wet, slightly raspy “Poof!” interrupted my musings. Imagine the sound a human would make after a deep inhale and holding the breath for ten seconds and then pursing the lips, and exhaling through the mouth while relaxing the lips—that’s the “Poof!” I heard! I immediately looked over Hazel’s cockpit gunwale down into the inky water and, eight feet below the surface, saw a single glowing dolphin. The undulations of its body in perfect time with Hazel’s movement through the water.

In reality, the dolphin itself wasn’t glowing and I wasn’t actually seeing it. What I was seeing was the dolphin’s iridescent silhouette made by the agitated bioluminescent plankton that surrounded it. As it swam, aided by the pressure of Hazel’s stern wake, it worked its way to the surface to take another breath. It did so with another “Poof!”

I watched for several minutes until the dolphin decided that Hazel’s course was not to its liking. The dolphin bore off by 15 degrees, our paths diverged and soon the glowing shape was gone.

I accepted the dolphin’s visit as a sign that I needed to make the middle of the night sail change and fly the spinnaker. If for no other reason than to get back on the horse and prove to myself that I could do it. Twenty-minutes later, I had the headsails furled and the spinnaker flying and we ghosted southward into the night.

Fair winds and following seas and best of the holiday season to all of you as the voyage that we all call “2021” comes to a close. Rhett and I are doing well but going a bit stir crazy with being on solid land for more than two solid months. I’ve spent much of the time on some maintenance and upgrades to Hazel—including installing a secondary bilge pump that hopefully will minimize the chances of having situation like we had above.

I’ll be following-up with another blog post soon that will outline our sailing plans for 2022. Of course who knows what Omicron has in store for any of us. With that being said, we had an exposure over the Christmas holiday and although we are double vaxed and boosted, we’re spending December 31 anxiously awaiting both the Baby New Year and the results of PCR tests we took a couple days ago. Fingers crossed that we end 2021 on a “negative” note.

CORRECTION TO EPISODE II: After I posted Episode II to this mini series, several astute readers pointed out that I mixed up my west and east in one passage of the post. I’ve gone back and updated the post and appreciate your attention to detail!

It’s funny, when Rhett and I are navigating in tight spaces or in less than ideal conditions, we often repeat our directions several times and use hand signals to verify our verbal communications—all in the effort to make absolutely sure we don’t go east when we meant west or starboard when we meant port.

4 thoughts on “Hazel was Pooped (third and final episode)

  1. As I started reading, I wondered why Hazel James was so tired? I figured you were just associating humanistic qualities to your favorite boat. The non-mariner Or maybe it’s captain and 1st Mate Just needed some on shore rest time.

    Thanks for recounting the action and sharing your seaworthy vocabulary. Glad you’re all OK. Can’t wait to catch up in person.

    Happy 2022.

  2. Wow, what a wild experience. Glad you, Rhett, and Hazel made it through that morning. It couldn’t have been comfortable to have to radio the Coast Guard. Happy New Year and we’re all looking forward to your sailing plans for 2022. Glad you’re not pooped.

  3. what a thrilling tale well told! and a great antidote for all the envy i’d been feeling about sailing in the caribbean. 🙂 Best wishes for your 2022 adventures!

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