ABANDONED VESSEL WAVESWEEPER Part II: Speculative Reconstructions

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The September 25th discovery of abandoned vessel Wavesweeper left me with an interesting mystery whose many clues are outlined in the previous post. At the start of this investigation, I had thought to find a single failure that would lead, step-by-step, to the Wavesweeper disaster, a failure profound enough in itself to seal the boat’s fate. But the evidence does not so neatly resolve, and to my reading no such central clue has emerged. That said, what does emerge is compelling and equally horrific.

To review, the key questions are

  • What event(s) disabled Wavesweeper?
  • What was done to save the vessel and over what period of time?
  • Why was such a well-found vessel (floating on her lines) abandoned?

What event(s) disabled the vessel?

The narrative that sifts from available information suggests that Wavesweeper succumbed to not one but a series of compounding failures precipitated by a knockdown, or knockdowns, events that injured her rig and mechanical systems beyond recovery.

It has been a summer of unusually strong winds in the North Pacific. This is corroborated both by my own experience during the recent Pacific crossings in Moli and by the remarks of racers I met in Hawaii. By way of support, the opening sentence from the 2016 Pacific Cup race results:

Kaneohe, HI, Saturday, July 30, 2016 – The 2016 Pacific Cup will be remembered for the big wind and seas that challenged some racers with broken boats and bodies, but pushed many in the fleet to record-breaking passages.

wavesweeper-wind-map

This wind map shows typical 2016 summer winds, in this case for June 30th, and the red dot is Wavesweeper position on July 15th.

Also characteristic of the year was a generally unstable Pacific high-pressure system, often with multiple centers that bounced around the north and were augmented by frequent lows. A sailor passing through these regions could easily experience multi-directional eight to ten-foot seas and winds to 30 knots, as Wavesweeper reported, and such seas could easily generate the occasional something much larger. On a small boat in such conditions, a knockdown would not be difficult to come by.

Given evidence from the photos and the July 19th report where Wavesweeper’s owner (henceforth referred to as “Skipper”) states, cryptically, that “weather had torn the sails on the vessel’s lower mast,” one can imagine a sequence of events like the following:

  • Wavesweeper is in brisk weather and steep seas under a partially reefed genoa and main when a first knockdown fills the headsail with water and parts the furling line. The sail pops open, and before Skipper can release the sheets, it wraps fatally.
  • The main also fills; and under such sudden and extreme weight, the halyard parts.
  • When Skipper attempts to replace the halyard with the topinglift, another knockdown pulls it from his hands. While the boat is down and the mast is in the water, the line wraps the masthead.
  • This second wave shears the pin in the mainsheet shackle, at which point the boom goes over the side. Skipper hasn’t seen that the toppinglift-cum-halyard is now wrapped (like me, he may wear glasses, which have been swept overboard). He retrieves the toppinglift, attaches it to the head of the main and hauls the sail halfway up before the line jams hopelessly, having bound to itself at the masthead.
  • Before the second knockdown, Skipper has also readied the staysail, but as the boat is laid over, that halyard becomes fouled in the lower spreaders. No amount of tugging frees it.
  • With the jib halyard jammed, the main halyard lost into the mast, the toppinglift bound on itself, and no mast steps, Skipper has no way to get to the masthead to free-up a line, even if weather allowed.
  • And without functioning halyards, Wavesweeper’s rig is beyond Skipper’s control. Her genoa is in its death throes, dragging the bow off dangerously at every gust. Skipper attempts to quiet things by cutting the sail down, but above head-height, it simply won’t tear away. Left with only one option for control of his boat, and as a hedge against a third wave, Skipper deploys the drogue.

The above sequence accounts for the state of the vessel as I discovered her, but given scant corroboration, many such scenarios are possible. One could argue, for example, that much of the visible damage occurred after Wavesweeper was abandoned. But my hunch says that’s not the case.

What was done to save the vessel and over what period of time?

To all outside appearances, nothing. In fact, with decks all ahoo–lines tangled or jammed, staysail loose and main and solar panels at odd angles–and no evidence of attempted jury rig, I assumed upon arrival that the scene was fresh; I even thought there might be a person in the water nearby.

Wavesweeper gave the impression that the scene was fresh.

Frustratingly, the two articles describing ship visits do little to clarify interim events. The APL Singapore report from July 15th makes no mention of Wavesweeper’s troubles save that she is short of water. Did Skipper not mention the injury to his rig or how long he’d been out? If not, was the crew not curious enough to ask about damage that was clearly visible? The only clue here is that the water drop was intercepted. If sails were useless at this point, as they must have been, then Wavesweeper still had engine power as of July 15th.

The second report from July 19th adds the mention of sail damage and that the “operator” was “having issues with [the boat’s] engine and batteries and was running low on water.” The jugs on the cabin-top and life rings on the stern rail, which had been retrieved from APL Singapore a mere four days earlier, make that last remark a nonsense, but it is conceivable that during a first or second knockdown, Wavesweeper took enough seawater below to kill her charging system.

For example, a wave down the companionway hatch could have soaked the various regulation devices for the engine, solar panels and wind generator and shorted-out the alternator, all without disabling the batteries or engine. This would explain the solar panels being askew (why bother to align them to the sun if they are no longer useful?) and the secured wind generator.

An inability to produce power would also explain the water shortage. If we assume an early May departure from Mexico and a slow, 100-mile-a-day crossing of the 2,700 miles to Hilo, Hawaii; if we assume a brief, one week stop-over and then a departure to the north in the first week of June, then Wavesweeper could have been underway for only four or five weeks at the time of the first ship intercept.

According to the Reliance specifications, the boat’s original design included 130 gallons of water tankage, enough for a solid four months of passages without rationing. But Wavesweeper’s tankage may not have been built to this spec or may have been modified and supplemented with a watermaker, now useless because Skipper was “having issues with engine and batteries.” With far less water to start with and no way to produce more, a call for potable water would have been of first importance. And that the call was for “30 or 40 gallons” suggests that as of July 15th, Skipper thought he could save his vessel and make landfall.

Why was such a well-found vessel abandoned?

That Wavesweeper floated on her lines 68 days after abandonment makes it tempting to think she was abandoned without cause. But floating is only the half of it; a vessel must also be able to make way. Without functioning sails and lacking the ability to produce power, Wavesweeper was out of options.

Skipper would not have expected to drift ashore in any reasonable time frame. Even if winds were pushing him east while he was aboard, he must have realized that the coast’s prevailing northwesterlies and the increasing number of southerlies would have prevented a close approach based on drift alone.

wavesweeper-map

Even after 68 days of drifting, Wavesweeper was still 600 miles offshore and positioned to trend along the coast for a very long time.

He could not have motored the distance either. The Reliance specifications show fuel tankage at 70 gallons, so that even if Wavesweeper’s engine was operable after the accident (as the water retrieval exercise suggests) and even if he carried extra fuel in jerry cans (there’s no evidence of this), the boat’s range under power would have been insufficient given her position 1,000 miles west of the Columbia River.

What happened, then, in the intervening four days between the call for water and the call for rescue? The attempt to save disabled Wavesweeper, even to simply exist on her after the accidents, must have been deeply fatiguing. Especially after the first knockdown, the rough weather, flogging sails, and waterlogged cabin would have made sleep all but impossible. Could it be that a tired Skipper accidentally and irretrievably foul his own halyards? Or was it that a second knockdown after the water drop did that work, putting further repair beyond his reach?

Whatever the case, by July 19th, Skipper had decided to call it quits. Wavesweeper’s drift was setting her slowly south of the shipping lanes; Skipper knew that if he didn’t act soon, he risked moving forever beyond rescue. He made another call. When OOCL Utah arrived to take him off, his fatigue and feelings overwhelmed his seamanship, and he failed to scuttle now dead Wavesweeper.

Hopefully, the above reconstruction reveals more than just my bias, my affinity for a solo sailor who got into trouble where trouble is so easy to come by. One could argue, as my friends have done, that a 70-year old Skipper became overwhelmed early and simply gave up, that he should have continued to fight as long as the vessel floated.

But another conclusion emerges when the evidence is taken in total. Wavesweeper is well-equipped and well-maintained. Her return to the north Pacific comes after several years of cruising and several long, successful passages. When given the first chance to abandon, Skipper chooses to remain aboard and keep fighting. All this suggest a man who knows his business, and I contend that only when Skipper is out of options, out of ways to get Wavesweeper safely to port, does he unwillingly leave her to make her own way on the sea.

6 Comments on “ABANDONED VESSEL WAVESWEEPER Part II: Speculative Reconstructions

  1. A question. Do we know how Skipper called for help, twice? Sideband? Sat phone? This is interesting as it implies decent battery power. The possibility of losing the main halyard inside the mast, and hopelessly fouling the rest is indeed sobering. The other factor virtually guaranteed is mind-numbing fatigue. This is especially the curse of the single hander. Your scenario implies carrying full sails much too long when he should have been using only the staysail, Or does it? And no life raft or EPIRB does not suggest competence. I wish you could check your version by interviewing Skipper. If conditions were that bad he probably should have been lying to the drogue and just waiting for better weather.

    • Hey Kurt, I’ve no idea how Skipper called, but would guess it was a sat phone as I see no SSB/HAM antenna rig. I was able to find the owner’s contact info and have reached out, but have not heard back. For all I know, he’s still in South Korea.

  2. Rarely is there one catastrophic event that brings about a disaster. Usually it is a series of smaller problems that collude to become a catastrophe.

    • It was likely naive of me to think I could find one large incident that rendered the boat helpless, and you’re right about the compound failure. These I worry about the most on my boat because the compounding effect is often due to a human screw-up somewhere in the line.

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