Those were the words from a shaken woman speaking on Channel 16 on the VHF radio at 4:50 a.m. on Saturday, April 23. The drama unfolded over the next 3.5 hours as a very windy night became a gusty dawn in our rolly anchorage at Bahia San Quentin on the Baja Peninsula. The 40’ sailboat was anchored a mile south of us and 110 miles south of Ensenada, Mexico.
|Bahia San Quintin...sorry the image isn't better but it give you an idea of the land shape.|
We were also in San Quintin seeking shelter, having made the decision late Thursday afternoon that it was better to change course and motor sail northeast towards the exposed-to-the-wind but none-the-less safe anchorage of San Quintin instead of pounding into heavy seas and continuing on towards Ensenada. We had plenty of food and water on board and could stay at anchor for a number of days or even a week or two, if necessary, rather than risk damage to ourselves or Falcon VII. Had we continued, we were faced with at least 24 more hours of constantly pounding into head seas to reach the safety and protection of Ensenada Harbour. For the last 26 years of cruising, whenever we’ve left an anchorage we’ve pre-determined a ‘bail out’ spot for just such a purpose. Though we’ve rarely had to use it, this was one of those times.
|An example of the surf in the anchorage|
Ultegra arrived near dusk Friday evening and the skipper, Dennis, had a quick dinner then headed to bed, exhausted. We were loosely buddy boating with Dennis Geraud of Vancouver, having both left Cabo San Lucas the previous weekend, anxious to finally start the passage to Ensenada. When Ultegra’s engine developed overheating problems in Turtle Bay he was forced to shut it down and sail, single handing nearly 200 miles to San Quentin before continuing to Ensenada. With San Diego’s proximity to the Baja Peninsula, the US Coast Guard often monitor Channel 16 transmissions in Mexican waters. The Coast Guard radio operator picked up the transmission between Ultegra and Falcon VII when he alerted us of his situation. The radio operator contacted Ultegra and established a radio schedule to stay in touch with Dennis during his three day passage to Bahia San Quintin, to get an update of his position and ensure he was still safe. We've always been very impressed with the United States Coast Guard and this was one more example of their professionalism and great value to the boating community. Jim and I were very relieved when Dennis sailed into site from the south end of San Quintin’s expanse just before dark on Friday evening after a long but uneventful sail. He was in excellent spirits but physically exhausted. Fortunately he was able to run his diesel engine without overheading, just long enough to anchor beside us in the swelly, shallow bay. By this time the seas and winds were building and he was concerned that his overheating engine might not start again if a problem arose during the night and he had to move. Since we had been in frequent VHF communication with him during his three day passage, we assured him we would continue to monitor Channel 16 overnight in case he needed assistance.
|Imagine being in a surf line with those waves pounding at you!|
To begin with, Cordon’s skipper was opposed to involving the Mexican Navy, preferring to find someone on shore who could help him once daylight arrived and businesses were open because he couldn’t afford to pay for a tow from the Navy. Jim radioed back and reassured him that the Navy would not charge him if he, his crew or his vessel were at risk, an idea which he eventually accepted. As it turned out, an 80’ Mexican Navy cutter was relatively close and was able to make radio contact with Cordon’s skipper. They manoeuvered their ship so they were within site of the vessel in distress.
For the next hour we monitored multiple transmissions between the Mexican Navy, the sailboat skipper and his distraught wife. We could tell from the wife’s voice, often speaking in the background, that she was very shaken, panicky and extremely anxious, while the skipper seemed somewhat unconcerned in comparison, perhaps not coming to terms yet with the severity of their situation. We thought he might be physically and psychologically exhausted and unable to think clearly since he repeatedly told the Mexican Navy cutter that he only needed his boat to be towed to a boat yard where it could be lifted out of the water and he could check for damages.
Little progress was made about a rescue plan over the next two hours between the Navy and the ill-fated sailboat being pounded onto shore. Short transmissions and pleas from Cordon were interspersed with long periods of radio silence. We tried to visualize what might be happening on the Navy cutter. We tried to imagine ourselves as both the people in distress and the Navy personnel helping them. We realized that all attempts to help needed to be well thought out before any action was taken. One challenge appeared to be the difficulty in communicating between the English speaking boat owners and the Mexican Navy radio operator, whose second language was English. At times we had trouble understanding him due to his strong Mexican accent. Perhaps he wasn’t the usual radio operator but the only crew on board with passable English.
Over the next hour the radio operator intermittently radioed a series of questions which revealed the identities of the skipper and his wife and that Cordon had been on a non-stop passage from San Fransisco for 14 days. They had entered Bahia San Quintin because they were exhausted, everything was wet down below and their sails were torn. The Navy then ascertained that the engine was still working while they were being pounded in the surf. The operator repeatedly asked if they should wait while Cordon’s skipper contacted his insurance company and the skipper repeatedly responded that he didn’t have any boat insurance. Around dawn the skipper radioed that there were locals shouting to him from the beach. They wanted to help but he couldn’t understand them; the noise of he wind howling hindered further attempts at communication with those on the beach.
Around 7:30 a.m. Cordon’s skipper informed the Navy that his engine had finally failed and they now urgently needed a tow away from shore. A moment later his sobbing wife came on Channel 16 and made another tearful plea to the Navy and to us to help them. She thought they were leaving the scene and she begged them to stay. Her voice was full of emotion when she added that she didn’t even know if her skipper was still onboard since he had gone out on deck and hadn’t returned. We felt helpless just listening to her but didn’t want to confuse communication by giving our emotional support over the radio. The Navy’s response to the woman’s pleas was that they were not leaving. We felt that the two people on board needed emotional encouragement over the radio to keep their morale up, but at that point decided not to butt into the conversation. On several occasions, the operator asked if they wanted to be taken off the boat but the skipper kept refusing, repeatedly asking for a tow to a boat yard to assess damage. It was clear to us that even a 20’long boat with a powerful outboard engine would have trouble reaching them with the surf breaking as it was. We felt great empathy for the skipper and his wife. We listened and slowly ate our breakfast in the safety and protection of our sturdy, comfortable sailboat. I had tears streaming down my face, envisioning how wet, cold, frightened and helpless they must have felt and knowing how helpless we felt sitting only a two short miles away.
Jim and I talked at length about whether it was appropriate for us to intervene and contact Cordon’s skipper on Channel 16 to let him know that the closest haul out facility was not nearby in the village of San Quintin but rather in the Port of Ensenada, 110 miles to the north and impossible to reach due to the current severe weather conditions. We agreed that the skipper needed to know that information and transmitted accordingly. Cordon’s skipper was unaware that there was a weather system brewing outside the bay, perhaps because he was so fatigued. Jim then respectfully suggested that the skipper should start thinking about what his other options might be. Jim said that he felt that it was time for the skipper to put the safety of his crew and himself above that of his boat, even if it meant abandoning ship. Eventually Cordon’s skipper acknowledged the severity of his situation and said he would give thought to abandoning his sailboat. A moment later he radioed back that the Navy personnel had just arrived onboard and he had to go. Around 8:20 a.m. he radioed again to say that they were going to abandon ship after all. He thanked us for our help and we wished them well as they started gathering the few documents and belongings they could, in preparation for leaving their sailboat to the ravages of the pounding surf.
For the rest of the day Jim and I felt crushed, like we had a huge weight on our shoulders having witnessed such an unfortunate tragedy. Hearing the skipper say they were going to abandon ship saddened us incredibly. We didn’t know the couple on Cordon but, as cruisers we have communicated with hundreds of fellow cruisers over the VHF radio and, even though we may not actually meet them in person, a bond is formed. Since we had obtained Cordon’s skipper’s cell phone number, we contacted them a few days later and found out that local missionaries were putting them up in San Quintin and would provide transportation to the Mexican border. The skipper said they were not doing well and he sounded very disheartened with their situation.
Knowing what terrible circumstances the crew of Cordon faced became an opportunity for us to discuss how we could improve our own safety procedures on Falcon VII. These now include:
- Monitoring Channel 16 24/7 while cruising and at anchor. This is a decision each skipper must make themselves; we are not suggesting every cruiser should do this, but if we hadn’t monitored Channel 16 that night, no one would have heard Cordon’s cry for help and notified the US Coast Guard and subsequently the Mexican Navy. The two single handers in the anchorage didn’t have their radios on (completely their choice) and slept through the wind-swept night, unaware of what was happening until after dawn when we filled them in on the VHF radio.
- We have also now decided to do hourly anchor checks anytime we are concerned that winds and weather warrant it to ensure that our anchor is holding and that the bridle hasn’t chaffed. Those checks are done together, with one of us staying in the cockpit keeping an eye on the other on deck. Imagine if one of us fell overboard during an anchor check and the other didn’t realize it for a few minutes because they were below!
- Life jackets are always worn on deck, while doing anchor checks and while underway.
- We've downloaded an anchor alarm app onto our iPhone. We set up the parameters according to the length of our anchor rode and the distance we could travel before the alarm sounds. It's a loud annoying sound that will wake us up to deal with the situation.
Jim and Tricia Bowen
S/V Falcon VII