Your Survival Stories – Part 4: Richard’s Sailing Story

We asked our subscribers to tell us their survival stories.  And we received a tremendous response.

Here is one of the best ones, from Richard who sailed around the world:

My wife and I have hundreds of these stories, some dealing with solving emergencies and some dealing with finding or generating food and water and making due in improbable places.  Here are just a couple of stories from our adventures.  We now spend much of the year in our home on the water in southern Maryland.  We speak fluent Spanish as well as English and travel and lecture in North, Central and South America.

We sailed, little by little, across the South Pacific on our 42′ ketch-rigged sailboat (Sundancer III).  Our boat had a fiberglass hull.  There we were, in the middle of the Coral Sea where still, even in this day and age, there are areas of reefs that are uncharted.

This particular evening it was about 9 p.m. and we were moving fast in the pitch dark of the night.  There was no moon to help us to see ahead and it was even hard to distinguish between where the sea ended on the horizon and the sky and stars began their climb up into the sky.  Suddenly in the midst of loud grinding sounds and an upward thrust of the bow and then the entire hull, we had run aground.

Our boat was sitting high in the water and on an angle, leaning to starboard.  We found ourselves on the top of a submerged coral reef with constant fierce waves slapping and grinding at the boat’s bottom from one side.

At that point, if we had just left the boat there where it was until morning, and when we might be able to more easily analyze our situation and try to get the boat off the reef in the bright sunlight, and with the waves hitting it throughout the night, and with the grinding of the boat against the coral of the reef, we knew we had to do something, and to do it fast, in order to keep the hull from being pierced by the sharp coral and precipitating almost certain destruction of the entire boat.

Looking back, if we’d left it there we’d certainly have had little chance at all for saving of the boat, and maybe even our own survival.

So, we had to act fast using the honed skills of experienced sailors, skills that had been acquired through many years of sailing, all the way from the shores of Maine and the entire east coast of the United States, to the many islands of the Caribbean down to South America, and finally to crossing through the Panama Canal and transiting most of the South Pacific.

We worked as a team.  The first job was to launch our rubber dinghy with hard bottom which we kept tied in an inverted position to the bow of the boat.  With a waterproof flashlight for illumination gotten from our cockpit, and using a halyard from the top of the mast, we had the dinghy hoisted up into the air and swinging freely out over the clear water in a matter of less than two minutes of hitting the reef.

This was a standard and well-practiced procedure that we’d used virtually every time we were in port or at anchor, but which is also a procedure that serves well in many emergencies.  I then mounted the oars on the dinghy and tied the dinghy firmly to the boat’s stern which was still hanging out over the clear water of the Coral Sea where it had abruptly stopped in the collision.

Meanwhile, Dora, now my wife of more than twenty years and the person who I’d met long before when back in the Caribbean and had fallen in love with there, and then trained from scratch in all boat emergencies and boat handling and then invited to come with me on my Circumnavigation before ever entering the Pacific, in the dark of night scurried to carry the boat’s heavy anchor from the bow back to the cockpit where I could place it, and it’s long anchor line, into the dinghy to conduct what we call a “kedge” maneuver with our sailboat.  “Kedgeing” is a way of pulling the boat off of sand bars, rocks, reefs, and even beaches.

We’d used it before on several occasions when we’d run aground, mostly on sandbars in uncharted rivers where we would occasionally take shelter and where the water is often muddy.  Running aground is not uncommon for what we call “blue water” sailing boats, especially if they sail into mostly unknown and uncharted places and when it’s dark or if the water is not clear enough to see the bottom.

This “kedge” maneuver is known by all experienced sailors and it works very well.  Here’s how it goes, and how we handled it that dark night in the middle of the Coral Sea with waves bounding at our boat and our salvation.  I wrapped one end of the thick and heavy anchor line to one of the cockpit winches then climbed into the dinghy and began to row out away from our sailboat to set the anchor.

I could see under the water with the waterproof flashlight, and I could see all the reefs nearby and also the sandy bottom which abutted the reef we were stuck on.  I continued to row away from our sailboat until the dinghy was about two hundred feet away.  I then lowered the anchor into the clear water, down to the sandy bottom below, and then rowed back to our stranded sailboat, and climbed aboard.

By pulling on the anchor line I managed to set the anchor so it wouldn’t move in our direction.  Once back aboard and with the dinghy and it’s oars well secured alongside our sailboat, I began to crank the anchor line aboard using the very powerful winch.  As expected, our big 42′ sailboat began to move off the reef.

Dora had gone inside with another flashlight to inspect the interior of the hull and to see if any water was coming in.  Fortunately it was not, but had she found a hole where water was entering she would have plugged that hole as best she could with a towel or whatever was available.  If a hose had been broken from what we call a “through-hull-fitting,” we had wood plugs to seal those, too, and she knew how to use them.  We had practiced using all of these items just in case of this kind of a dangerous situation.

In time the sailboat was off the reef and floating nicely.  We pulled up our “kedgeing” anchor and reconnected it at the bow while maneuvering the boat to a protected area over a sandy bottom where we anchored it safely for the rest of the night.  In the morning in the bright light of the bright morning sun I dove down with my mask to check the bottom.  It was fine.  It had only scratches where some of the coral had scraped, but not penetrated, the inch thick fiberglass.

Seeing through binoculars a multitude of birds in flight off in the distance, we mounted the gasoline outboard engine onto the stern of the dinghy and headed off to explore.  What we found there was amazing.  There was a white sandy island about a half mile long that was covered with beautiful sea birds nesting.  We went ashore with our camera and what we witnessed was amazing.  Without nests, sea birds, mostly terns, but also boobies and albatross, had laid their eggs on the open sand to guard and to await hatching of baby sea birds.  We viewed thousands of baby birds being fed by their parents.

Of course, the albatross were by far the largest of those young birds, and several of the babies were fat and fully as big as their adult parents, and now living alone among the other baby birds, but standing down by the water waiting for their feathers to fill out when they then could learn to fly at sea for what I understand will be about seven years of flying over the sea and eating the sea life.  Here’s how it works.

The albatross parents mate and the mother lays her eggs on the sand, then guard them while the egg hatches and the little bird grows fatter daily as the parents, one at a time, feed and fatten the chick to the point where it couldn’t possibly fly.  At that point the final parent flies off for another extended period at sea, leaving the baby there to slim down, grow its flying feathers, and learn to fly on their own before leaving for their own life at sea.

Our perceived difficulty in hitting the reef in the darkest of nights had turned into a wonderful experience in seeing all the birds who seemed more fearful of other birds than they were of humans.  The following day we were off again and headed west towards Australia.

This will be short, but it involves survival.  Have you heard about the giant Australian cod fish?  They exist and I’ve fed them, including a cod fish that was an estimated ten or twelve feet long, five feet tall, three feet wide, and with a mouth that could have swallowed me whole.  But that story is for another time.

Crossing the oceans, and especially the Pacific Ocean, involves extensive fishing and extensive harvesting from the sea.  Its often not possible to keep, without preserving, the fish that one catches on a sailboat.  So, if you catch a huge fish that doesn’t fit into the normally small refrigerators or freezers they have on small boats, or if you don’t even have a fridge, its necessary to find a way to store those fish and the other bounties of the sea without modern conveniences.

For us, we often used “Pickling.”  Yes, “Pickling.”  But also, because its necessary, we also did farming aboard our sailboat as a way of avoiding getting “scurvy,” the scourge of sailors out of the past.  All of this blend of survival activity, we found, was necessary to live a healthy life aboard, and it was all very delicious.  Together, we spent a total of twelve years surviving at sea.

Now, back to pickling.  Here’s how it’s done.  Before you leave the dock on a long voyage, here’s what you’ll need to do if you want to pickle. This can also be done if you’re not on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean, and even if you’re living on land in remote places, as we’ve also done.  OK, back to pickling fish.  You’ll need the preferred “large wide-mouth-jars,” for starters.

You’ll also need some clear “apple cider vinegar” which you can buy at the local supermarket, or make yourself if you know how.  Here’s what you do and its amazingly easy.  Let’s say you catch a huge five foot long dolphin fish (not the air breathing dolphin),  a fish more commonly called, “dorado,” that contains about seventy to one hundred pounds of delicious meat that will spoil if you don’t protect it.  We’ve caught hundreds of fish this size.

First, you’ll need to cut the meat into two inch chunks and fry them quickly in a frying pan until the center the chunks change texture and color.  This takes less than five minutes for each group of chunks fried.  When you have them cooked, place them in layers from the bottom of an empty large-mouth pickle jar, but with seasonings placed between each layer for flavor.

Seasonings should consist of sliced garlic, sliced onions if you have them, and bay leaves or laurel leaves.  Once the jar is full with layers of fish, up to the top, pour in the apple cider vinegar until it fills up to two thirds full of the jar.  You’ll be surprised how little vinegar this takes.  Note: I usually start a two year voyage with two or three of these three gallon jars of vinegar.

Fill the rest of the jar to the top with salt water from the sea (or regular water from a sink if you’re not at sea and pickling something else on land).  That’s it.  Room temperature will be fine for the jar.  Leave chunks in the vinegar, uncapped, for just three days before trying it out.  Even then it’ll be delicious and great to eat, and good to eat at least for three months after that.



So what’s your survival story?  Feel free to share it in the comments…

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