Thursday, September 4, 2008

ड्राइविंग होम इन अ रेंटल

Driving home in a rental is not what I pictured for Skip Allan when he set off on the Singlehanded Transpac, much less when he won the thing going away. And when I first saw a note that Skip had abandoned his beloved Wildflower on the return from Hawaii, I wondered if it was just a sick joke. Unfortunately, no.

(The joke is the headline for this post, which software translates into some mysterious Eastern-looking script no matter what I write. Never happened before; probably will never happen again, and right now I just want to get on with writing. Shrug and go. Skip Allan abandoning his boat pitches me into a jabberwocky world anyhow.)

There's been a lot of talk about the loss of Wildflower, a boat that was closing in on 100,000 miles after two cruising circuits of the Pacific, a cruise of Alaska, seven races to Hawaii for the boat, and 28 for her builder/skipper. A typical comment, from "Don" on Warrior's Wish, " If Skip chose to step off of Wildflower it had to be real bad. She was part of him."

"My consort and magic carpet," he called her. Now, thirty-four years after he built his 27-footer, and thirty years after he first raced it in a solo Transpac, one of the legendary sailors of the California coast is suddenly boatless.

On Thursday morning at SAIL West, the phone rang. It was Skip calling from a rental car on Route 101, "in a state of heartbreak." He was driving north from LA, on his way home to Capitola. The container ship MSC Toronto that had plucked him off Wildflower some 350 miles west of California had been en route to the Port of Los Angeles, and that is where Skip stepped ashore.

We agreed to talk again later, when we had something better than a cell phone connection. "There's going to be a lot to catch up on," he said. "My Skype mic went down with the boat."

In his account, a few observations stand out. Gale conditions lasted for days, through a series of evolutions.

On day three: "At noon, it looked like the gale was lessening. I left the safety of the cabin, and with two safety harnesses affixed to the windward rail, began to hand steer eastward on a reach with the #4. It was mogul sailing at its best."

On night three: "Breaking crests would poop the boat about every five minutes, filling the cockpit and surging against the companionway hatch boards. Even though I had gone to lengths to insure fire-hose integrity of the hatch, I found the slamming power of the breaking crests would cause water to forcefully spray around the edges of the hatchboards, into the cabin."

In the wee hours before dawn: "There was no doubt that if the tiller pilot was lost, we would round up and be at the mercy of these breaking waves, some of which I estimated at 25-35 feet, bigger than anything I had seen since the '79 Fastnet storm on Imp. The anxiety and stress of the night, and the 70-degree knockdowns that would launch me across the cabin, created serious doubts that we could continue this for another night, much less the three or four days the conditions were expected to continue."

Going into day four, with no improvement in the offing, Skip began to lay the groundwork of an escape plan, working with "my longtime sailing friend, ham radio contact, router, navigator and weather man, Joe Buck of Redondo Beach. I explained that I'd had a difficult night and wasn't sure I could safely continue. Joe's info had the highest wind and wave overhead on my current drift southward continuing for at least another three days, with continuing gale force winds and 18- to 22-foot significant wave height. I asked Joe for help in some difficult decision making."

That difficult decision process involved communicating with the Coast Guard and assessing the options while "Joe helped me to understand that if the boat were lost, I would likely be lost also. But if I left Wildflower in advance, only the boat would be lost. I spent the next hour sitting on the cabin sole on my life raft, debating.

"At 1200, like a gopher popping out of its hole, I slid the hatch open to get a clear Satphone signal and called SAR. Lt. Saxon already knew my details and position and only asked, 'What are you requesting?' I replied, 'I am asking for assistance to be removed from my boat.' "


Despite some reports elsewhere, Skip says he never put out a PAN call. He was beyond the range of Coast Guard helicopters, and the MSC Toronto, one of the largest container ships in the world—too big for the Panama Canal—was the closest vessel to him.

Consistent with reports elsewhere, Skip did indeed scuttle his boat: "Lt. Saxon said that if I left my boat, she would be considered derelict and a hazard to navigation. I assured her I would not leave my boat floating or derelict."


The MSC Toronto triggered Wildflower's Automatic Identification System at a range of 30 miles, closing at 23.4 knots.

The ship's radar did not read Wildflower until it had closed to 2.5 miles.

And what to take?

"With no idea how the transfer would be made I decided on my documents, wallet and passport, laptop, camera, cellphone and satphone, logbook, EPIRB and a change of clothes and shoes. And in a moment of whimsy I decided to try and offload the two Singlehanded Transpac trophies, as they had a 30-year historical value to our Race.

(Much of the above comes from a very long SSS Forum posting written by Skip Allan, and there is a special irony for both of us, because my profile of Skip and Wildflower appears in the current issue of SAIL. This development is not a followup I could have imagined. And there is the now-standout quote in the print story about flying a storm trysail only once, "but I didn't really need it." To read the full posting go to SF Bay SSS Forum.
Skip closes his account:)

Treasure each day
Skip 9/3/08