The story behind the dismasting of the Gunboat 55

The story behind the dismasting of the Gunboat 55

The first Gunboat 55 , Rainmaker dismasted 200 miles off the Carolina coast, her crew rescued by a USCG helicopter. This interview realized by Sailing Anarchy explain us the details:

” SA: Before we even talk about the boat, let’s talk about the weather.  Tell us about your decision making leading up to the trip.

CB: We’d been monitoring weather along with Commanders for some time, and the forecast when we left it looked like high pressure across the stream into a downwind sleigh ride.  We expected up to 40 knots in squalls when the front came through, but all from behind us.

SA: So what was your routing, precisely?

CB: The plan was to cross the stream with a SW’ly while the high pressure held, then turn to the South as the wind went NW’ly and ride it quickly down to the islands.

SA: Were you sticking with it?

CB: We spoke to them on the morning after we left around 1000 – we were 5 nm North of rhumb to their Waypoint 1 for our route.

SA: And is 40+ knots in the North Atlantic in winter really Gunboat weather in your opinion?

CB: I’ve sailed about 30,000 NM on Gunboats in winds up to 65knots, and always come through.  We were extremely careful in our preparations and felt ready for anything, and I wouldn’t hesitate to take a Gunboat into that forecast again.

SA: Okay, so let’s talk about the crew.  We understand that Brian Cohen had little offshore experience, and he brought his 24-year old son Max, who had less.  Was this really the trip for them?

CB: Brian had done the maiden delivery on the boat from, NC-NY and then sailed the hell out of the boat – we went out pretty much every day last summer.  Max spent loads of time on the boat – he was comfortable too – though this was his first offshore experience. But a sleigh ride on a Gunboat with three pros wasn’t something treacherous or frightening – it was a great chance at a cool voyage.

SA: Who were the rest of the crew and what is their experience level like?

CB: George Cahusac and Jon Ollweather, who are probably the two offshore sailors I would most trust with my life or my boat. Both are impeccable seamen. Both hold multiple licenses.

SA: Ok, so we’ve done crew and weather.  Let’s talk about the boat.  Were there any majors done during the NC visit?

CB: Not really – a few small issues and the addition of a rollerfurling Solent and J1, a new spinnaker, some electronic upgrades and a prop change.

SA: And did you have time to check everything before you left?

CB: Yep – we spent a week pushing the boat pretty hard inshore and testing the new sails, electronics, and engine/generator systems.

SA: So everything’s good but the boat is taking her first major offshore trip in some shit.  What’s on the safety checklist?

CB: Jon and I made about a hundred runs to prepare the ditch bags, life raft, MREs.  Specifically, we made a rig ditch kit with a battery operated grinder with spare grinding wheels for carbon, a hacksaw with spare blades, a handful of ceramic knives, a few Leathermens, some underwater epoxy, and a set of wire cutters.

SA: Pretty comprehensive.  What about the life raft and other safety gear?

CB:We organized all the safety gear under the aft day bed, assuming this would be the easiest accessed place if the boat were to turn over or an emergency. Under the day bed was the life raft, a drybag full of MRE’s to last 5 people 4 days, complete offshore medical kit, our primary ditch bag (full of hand held flares, aerial flares, glow sticks, first aid, water bottles, heat blankets, mirrors, smoke, water dye, solar panel 12v charger, sat phone charger, hand held VHF and a hand held gps), and our rig ditch kit.

SA:So you set off in light air on the 29th.  Tell us about that day.

CB: After checking all systems, seatrial list completed and the boat loaded up, RAINMAKER departed the dock around 0130. I split watches 2 hours on, 4 off with the experienced sailors teaming with Max and Brian. Jon and Brian took the first watch until 0000, then George and Max until 0400, and I until 0600, planning for me to be the one on watch when we arrived Hatteras at sunrise. We expected to motor the entire way down, about 45nm. Before entering Pimlico sound, I conducted a safety meeting with all crew in the salon. Covering where all fire extinguishers were, safety gear location, medical, and duties in case of emergency, along with our planned route and weather conditions.

SA: So then what?

CB: Everything was chill, wind variable for a while, then coming in gradually from the SW and building through the night.  We took our first reef before nightfall and had a great sail all night long under 1st reef and solent in 15-20 TWS, running down waves to 18-20 knots of boatspeed, heading around 100-120 to keep the wind on our starboard hip.  The boat felt great and balanced.  Brian had brought a bunch of serious fishing gear aboard, and we’d nailed a monster yellowfin tuna in the stream – I mention that because we were all feeling quite lucky to be cruising so calmly at 18-20 knots that night while eating fish tacos that had been swimming a few hour earlier.

SA:When did it start to get ugly?

CB:In the morning, we knew the shit was coming, and we tucked in the third reef and set the little storm jib.  We were felling a little underpowered sailing 7-10 knots, the wind built to an average of maybe 27-35 by noon, with waves to 14 feet.


CB: Not really. We felt very controlled, checked the rig for any pumping action and then going through a rig check after the reef was tucked. All seemed cool, the mainsail clew locks were set in to help keep the belly contained and we let the autopilot sail 100-110 AWA.

SA: You were woken up by the dismasting.  What’s the last thing you remember before you went to sleep?

CB: At noon on the 30th, Jon is on watch after a 20 minute handover. TWS is between 25-40 kts, seas are between 12-15 ft. TWD of 220. Heading is 100, autopilot is steering to an apparent wind angle of 110. The boat was feeling stable, waves were starting to slap the wingdeck and the leeward hull. George stayed topside with Jon, so I could head down to catch some sleep.

SA: So you wake up to all hell breaking loose.

CB: At 1350, I wake up to a gust hitting the side of the hull like nothing I’ve ever heard, and I spring out of my bunk.  I see nothing out the starboard porthole except for white.  I run topside and see Jon at the wheel, eyes wide. By the time, I’m topside it’s a complete white out around the boat. We couldn’t make out the orange storm sail 10ft in front of us.  It sounds like we’re being run over by a freight train.

CB: The boat lurches and I hit the plinth station just as we all hear a crack, followed by a louder crack. The mast hits the deck at the midship cleat, throwing the butt end of the mast off the step and into the air, though it is still held down by running rigging, wiring and hydraulics leading through the organizer.  The port forward window smashes under the mast’s impact on the deck.  I see the boom on the cabin house along the port side.

SA: How long until you were in action?

CB: Immediately, I yelled, “rig down, all hands!  Grab the rig kit!!”  I see Max and Brian ready to come through the port side companionway, and I tell them to make sure their lifejackets and shoes are on and watch for broken glass.

SA: Who’s on the helm at the time?

CB: The pilot was driving on apparent wind when the rig came down, Jon told me it was maybe 5-7 seconds between when the gust hit to when the rig was on the deck.  I took the helm from Jon, who’d grabbed the helm and cut out the pilot when the gust hit.  Meanwhile, Jon and George opened the aft daybed up to grab the rig ditch kit. Jon grabs a hacksaw to begin cutting the shrouds. The boat still has forward momentum and the swell is causing the rig to move around the deck, and the boom on the pilothouse, so I steer the boat around the mast in the water to try to get the boat pointed dead downwind. The wind has backed down to 40 kts and visibility returned.

SA: What did George and Jon tell you about the moments before the squall hit?

CB: visibility was about 5nm, overcast but there weren’t any dark clouds. Radar was on, XM weather was on, nothing notable in range. George was talking about how well the boat was handling actually.

SA: Talk us through the process of getting the rig off.

CB: We tried to be as calm as we could, but it was all a bit chaotic; I grab my ceramic knife, open the forward sliding windows, and begin cutting all the running rigging and hydraulic hoses.  I get hydraulic fluid in my eyes, and George steps in to finish cutting the hoses. I grab a set of wire cutters from the ditch kit and cut all the wiring connecting the mast. Using the ceramic blade, I cut all the halyards where they connect to the deck. George is at the headstay with a hammer, banging the pin out to release the stay from the furler. Jon has just freed the last shroud, and I begin cutting the mainsheet. As soon as the main sheet is cut, the rig is fully disconnected.

SA: And how long do you think all that took?

CB: Somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes.

SA: So everything is free, but all that heavy shit is still laying on the boat.  Now what?

CB: We attempt to push the boom off the coachroof, but we can’t move it. There is hydraulic fluid and glass on the deck. We decide the only way to get the rig away from the boat is to drive out from under it.  The butt end was cleared, and close to punching the hull with each wave. The starboard engine wouldn’t start, port engine started, and I put it into gear and drove forward, as George guides the boom off the cabin top. We motor away from the rig about two boat lengths, noticing that the storm jib is trailing behind us. I put the engine in neutral and shut it down.  Then ask Jon to get comms going with the satphone and handheld, and issue a Mayday.

SA: Okay – damage assessment?

CB: The boom and rig impacted and compressed the pilothouse port mullion above the companionway. This bent the port companionway sliding hatch frame so we can’t shut it all of the way. The port forward window is gone. We were getting rainwater and salt spray in the salon. The electronics and navigation at the helm and radio box are out. The aft enclosure tracks have blown out. Without being underway, we are getting some wave tops into the salon.  The port companionway hatch could be an issue if seas get bigger. George checks the port hull bilges for water. There is none. The longeron appears stable. It is lower without the rig but the side and whiskers are supporting it. The electrical tech space with the genset’s charger/inverters has gotten some water through the cleared away mast electrical conduit. Starboard engine still isn’t rolling over.  Comms are limited to the Sat phone which is working on its battery. The satphone charger is mounted at the navstation. It’s wet and doesn’t appear to be charging. Port prop is fouled by the storm jib sheets and the seas are too big to get in the water and free them.  George, Jon and I have a load of cuts on our hands and knees from the glass, but no major injuries.

SA: How long til Jon made good contact?

CB:  Maybe 10 minutes.  He had a full emergency contact sheet.  Then he initiates the boat’s EPIRB, as well as his personal EPIRB (going to his folks in NYC, who contact GB). Max and Brian are sitting in the settee, quiet and in a bit shock. George is at the helm, trying to get STBD engine going. I go to the port aft scoop and begin fishing the two lines that are stuck around the prop and connected to the storm jib with the boat hook. I pick up the solent halyard and sheet and pull the storm jib up into the salon and begin to cut the sheets as close to the water line as I can. Once it’s clear, I look over at Jon who’s beginning to create a muster station at the helm chair with the liferaft, first aid kit, and both ditch bags. Jon says the Coast Guard is constructing a plan, and that he will make contact with them again in thirty minutes.

SA: Did you know you were going to abandon already?

CB: We weren’t sure at that point, we were still in damage control and assessment stage.  I told the crew to get their foulies on and make sure that their lifejackets are ready. George stays at the helm, while Jon and I put on dry clothes and foulies. We compile all other safety equipment at the settee table which was pretty sheltered.

SA: So you’re ready to abandon if you need to – any thoughts of self-rescue at this point?

CB: Of course – no one wants to abandon their boat.  I try again to fire up the starboard engine. It finally catches, and I slowly start to bring the boat around so that the swell is on the beam. Heading around 110 degrees, TWS 30kts+ at 220TWD, seas around 15, and we’re making about 4kts.

SA: And meanwhile, the CG isn’t wasting time.

CB: Jon has another transmission with them on schedule, and they tell him that two cargo ships have been diverted for support, and they’d dispatched a helo and C130.  The CG was crunching numbers to see if the helicopter could make it to the scene, stay on station long enough and safely back, as we were approaching the end of their range for a helo evac. Shortly after the call, we see a tanker on the horizon. I make contact with the Ocean Crescent over the handheld.  They tell us they have no visual, so Jon shoots off three flares, and they confirm our location

SA: Right – the moment of truth.  What’s your decision making process when there is a rescuer on site?

CB: I went back to our damage assessment.  The port companionway hatch is a concern without being able to close it. If we have to motor into a seaway, the longeron could be an issue and may need to be cutaway, but would be a huge risk trying to get that thing free. Port engine is out with the lines on the prop, and starboard is still having issues. The aft enclosure tracks are blown out. The cockpit and deck have broken glass and hydraulic fluid, the nav station electronics we’re all soaked. Two of the crew were potentially in shock.  And the forecast weather coming in was looking pretty horrible.

SA: Some of that could have been sorted out though, right?

CB: Of course, but not easily and not quickly, and if there was one factor that made my decision for me, it was the forecast, combined with our location. A nasty trough was moving in fast with the certainty of continually deteriorating conditions, potential for hurricane-force winds, and huge seas for the next 3 days if we couldn’t motor out of the area.  We all discussed it, we all agreed, and radioed the Ocean Crescent.

SA: Was it a relief once you made the decision?

CB: ABSOLUTELY NOT. That fucking sucked.  Now we had to get everyone safely onto a ship!

 SA: Time for some sketchy action?

CB: Oh yeah.  The Ocean Crescent told us to hold course and they would come around our port side, around our transom, and to windward, along the starboard hull. As they were in final approached, they radioed that they would be crossing in front of our bow, then stopping to windward of us.  At this time we were going approximately 2-4kts down the waves, no engines (STBD kept cutting out) with our starboard quarter to the wind. The Ocean Crescent made this call while they were within approximately 900ft (3 of their boat lengths) of our bow, approaching at about 10 knots.  As they got close, they made an emergency turn to port to try to avoid collision.  As soon as it became obvious they were going to hit us, I try a handful of times to get starboard engine on, finally it caught and I threw it into reverse.  The starboard side started to turn, exposing our port bow and longeron to the ship, and they collided with our port bow forward of their midships.  It was a big blow, and we heard the crunching of the carbon (really getting sick of that sound now), though we didn’t know how much damage we’d sustained as we rolled off their bow wake and slid down their starboard side.  But OC was still turning to port, and as we neared their transom, the tanker went bow down on a wave, completely exposing their massive spinning propeller.  It missed our port hull by a few feet.

SA: Holy crap!

CB: Yeah, right?  Slightly terrifying.  Anyway, they radioed back.  “Let’s try that again, Captain.”  I told them we’d prefer to see if we could get into their lee on our own engine, and slowly bring our starboard side into their port side.  They agreed, and we slowly reversed toward them, but were blown away.  We made a second attempt after asking them to lower their boarding nets further down the topsides of their boat, and we slowly crept to them, leading with our starboard stern.

SA: Same sea state?

CB: Choppy seas still, maybe 15 feet, with winds still to around 40.

SA: OK.  So the second time’s the charm?

CB: Not really!  We were able to catch two heaving lines from their crew with Rainmaker standing off about 100 feet from them.  It gave us a chance to look at the boats’ relative motions, look at the cargo net, and evaluate the potential transfer. We all agreed that jumping from the cat to the ship would create some real potential for death or serious injury, and we dropped the heaving lines, motoring a couple more lengths to leeward to keep clear of the Crescent.

SA: Scary shit. So then what?

CB: Yeah, not something you can train for.  But it looked seriously bad.   Anyway, Jon called the CG again and let them know what happened – they responded that the C130 and helo were 20 minutes out, and that the helo would have very little time on station, 18 minutes max.  We discussed the options, and agreed unanimously that an air rescue was the best option. Jon radioed back to the Ocean Crescent that we planned a helo evac, and asked them to stay to for support. ”

Interview realized by Sailing Anarchy




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