We used our stuck-on-a-submerged-rock experience to deepen our diligence and hone our routines.
“I see a blow!” My husband spots a humpback whale near the south entrance to Port Houghton, one of many fjords between Juneau and Petersburg in southeast Alaska. Even from a quarter of a mile away we see the whale’s spout before its sleek back curves through the water and disappears into the flat gray sea.
“Let me get the boat around this reef,” Paul says. “We’ll be closer when the whale comes up again and get better photos.”
As Paul steers away from the shallow, rocky area northwest of Point Walpole, I continue to watch for the humpback, camera at the ready. Paul rounds the shoals as I spot another column of vapor. He takes the boat out of gear and we glide forward. I stand in the open pilothouse door, starboard side, peering through my camera’s lens. The whale surfaces a hundred yards distant. I hear the drawer below the dash slide open as Paul rustles through papers for his small video camera. The drawer clicks shut.
“OK, where is it?” He says as he steps behind me.
“See,” I point to a spot off our bow, “there’s the top of its back, barely above the wat…”
“Oh no.” Paul’s voice is quiet, urgent. He moves toward the dash as the nightmarish sound of fiberglass grinding across rock fills the boat.
Screeeech, screeech, screeech.
My heart flutters. My stomach flips. The boat shudders as the high-pitched squeal continues. It fills my head, soaks through my skin, digs into my bones. My left hand squeezes the door frame to steady myself.
With a final shiver, the noise stops.
Reflection, our 42-foot Nordic Tug, is immobile but remains upright and level. My eyes dart across the narrow starboard walkway and downward. It’s a huge rock. Pocked with white barnacles, it lies inches away in clear salt water.
In the center of the pilothouse, Paul stands at the helm and scrutinizes the gauges, checking for indications of flooding: lit bilge pump lights, rising engine temperature, fathometer. He glances to port, then starboard, trying to see what we’ve hit.
My thoughts run together: It’s an outgoing tide — we’re not going to get off this rock — what can I do?
“Life jackets.” I turn to the pilothouse, kneel down, slam open a locker door and pull two out. Paul, continuing to assess our situation, ignores the yellow preserver I offer him. With shaking hands I drop it onto the floor and sling my arms into my jacket, zip it up and look out at the massive rock that stretches six feet beyond the starboard side.
Paul pushes past me, runs down the steps to the salon and out the stern door. While he’s gone, I scan the calm waters surrounding us, whale forgotten, jumbled thoughts racing through my head: Two boats were heading through those islands we just passed — they’ll be able to help — we can hail the Coast Guard on the radio — need to put out a mayday call — we need to get the dinghy in the water — the cat! — she’s sound asleep — is there time to get her carrier? — the ditch bag — it’ll be ok — bestcase scenario we’ll limp back to Petersburg, spend a week or two making repairs — how fast our plans change — help is near so everything’s going to be OK.
“I didn’t see anything off the stern,” Paul says as he races up the five steps to the pilothouse.
“Shut that door,” he yells as he points to the life jacket locker below the settee. Its door opens from the top and now lies on the floor where I’d left it. There’s hardly room to walk around. Kneeling down, I slam it shut.
Paul yells, “What’s the tide doing?”
“Ebbing. It’s about an hour past high tide.” Soon the rock will be bare, there won’t be any water to keep Reflection afloat. How steep is this rock? My stomach sloshes back and forth, keeping pace with my trembling hands, arms, legs.
From where Paul stands in front of the helm in the center of the pilothouse, he can see the rock through the starboard door. But he sees only water when he glances to the left. Without a word, he simultaneously presses the levers for the bow and stern thrusters in short spurts to the portside. Whirr. Whirr. Whirr. The air fills with the mechanical sound of the thrusters. Then screeech as the boat tries to move off the rock. Reflection shakes back and forth … and doesn’t budge.
“How much rock is on the port?” Paul’s voice, loud, tense.
Glancing through the left door, I see a fuzzy outline and guess. “Maybe a foot and a half.” He works the thrusters. The boat shakes. Screeeech.
“Are we moving?” Urgently, Paul turns the thrusters on, off, on, off. The boat jerks, jerks, jerks.
“Are we moving?”
“I think … maybe … a little.” The boat shudders as Paul manipulates the two thrusters. I want Reflection to leap off the rock. I will her to move. In reality we shift no more than an inch or two.
“Donna, go to the back, double-check there isn’t any rock near the stern or the prop.” I stride toward the steps.
“Run,” Paul yells. I scurry down the stairs, across the salon, through the stern door to the transom. I stare down into dark water.
“Is there rock?” Paul’s voice thunders. My brain is numb. I don’t want to see a rock.
Maybe there is a rock, but my brain has convinced me nothing’s there. What if I tell him there’s no rock and he backs onto it? What if the prop hits it? I stare hard. I look to port and to starboard. I look below the stern. I look five feet off the stern. There is no rock.
“No, I don’t see anything.” He doesn’t hear me.
“Is there any rock?”
Immediately, Paul throws Reflection into reverse.
Scrape. Scritch. Scrape.
Silence. No screeching. No sound of fiberglass grating across rock. No sound of a metal prop dinging across rock. Only the rhythmic rumble of the engine.
I hurry back to the pilothouse.
“Do you want me to see if there’s any water in the engine room bilge?” I say.
“Not yet. As soon as we get into deeper water I’ll double-check the bilges while you steer.” The fathometer reads 39 feet. “All the automatic indicator lights for the bilges are off. That’s good. The gauges show everything’s working correctly. The water temperature in the engine is normal. The oil pressure is normal. So far, there are no vibrations anywhere. The prop is probably fine. In a few minutes, after I check the bilges, I’ll increase the rpms and see how the propeller does. It’ll vibrate if there’s a problem.”
Reflection idles forward: 45 feet … 62 feet … 88 feet of water below us.
“OK. You take over, Donna. Keep us going toward that mountain peak at the end of the bay. I’ll be right back.” He doesn’t need to tell me to watch the fathometer.
The loud, steady hum of the engine is like music when Paul opens the hatch in the salon and climbs down into the engine room. I’m glad to have something to do. I look for debris in the water. I keep Reflection on a straight course. But mostly I make sure we have plenty of water between us and the ocean floor.
A few minutes later Paul climbs back into the salon, drops the hatch in place and the muted sound of the purring engine fills the boat. He checks the bilges underneath the guest stateroom and inside the lazarette before he returns to the pilothouse.
“Thank goodness there’s no water leaking anywhere,” he says.
Paul takes over the controls and gradually pushes the throttle to 2000 rpm where we’re running at 10 knots. I continue to shake. My stomach churns. I cannot get the image of that gargantuan rocky surface out of my head. Focusing over the bow, I watch for floating logs or branches. Each time I glance at the fathometer its colored diagram shows the bottom dropping steadily: 185 feet, 221 feet, 264 feet — plenty of water.
“Do you notice there’s no shimmying, no knocking, no vibrations? Donna, the rudder’s fine, the prop is fine. We got lucky this time. We were pretty flat on that rock. In fact, I think we may have just nudged it. Did you notice the boat never really listed? When the keel scraped across the rock the sound was terrible, but it did its job protecting the bottom of the boat. It protected the prop. It probably got some scratches on it. We’ll check when we pull the boat this fall in Port Angeles. It’ll cost some to fix it. But, like I said, we got lucky.” He pulls the throttle back to 1300 rpm, to Reflection’s usual 7.5 knots.
I unzip my life jacket and slip it off. I pick up Paul’s from the floor, stuff both into the locker and remember to close the door.
“Paul, I felt helpless. I’m glad you knew what to do. You didn’t panic.” My stomach slowly calms, but my limbs remain jittery, as if I’ve overdosed on caffeine. “I’m going to the stern for a few minutes.”
Staring out over the transom, I look at green hills and waterfalls sliding down tall mountain peaks. I watch Reflection’s wake roll gently behind us. Minutes before I believed our summer was over. I thought our boat might be damaged beyond repair — that it might sink. I considered the possibility of abandoning Reflection. But here we are, underway with the boat running smoothly. There’s no need to make a mayday call and we don’t need to return to Petersburg. The cat slept through the entire ordeal. Everything is OK.
When I join Paul in the pilothouse he says, “I can’t believe we hit that rock. I saw it on the chart. I knew it was there. In our 16 years of boating, we’ve never been stuck on a rock.”
“Paul, it’s so easy to get caught up in the moment. In the future we’ll take turns at the wheel. We have to make sure one of us is always responsible for the helm.”
“Yep, you’re right about that,” he says. A moment later, “Hey, there’s another humpback.”
“I’ve seen enough whales for today,” I reply. “Let’s drop the anchor and go kayaking.”
When we returned to Port Angeles and hauled Reflection out of the water, we found several foot-long scratches along the bottom of the keel. The propeller was untouched. The terrible sounds we heard as the boat scraped across the rock barely left any damage. It cost less than $400 to repair.
Having been through the experience, we have some simple and commonsense advice for captain and crew:
1. Keep situational awareness at all times.
2. Never leave the helm unattended.
3. Check and double-check navigational charts.
4. Check and double-check fathometer depths.
5. Be aware of tidal cycles.
6. Avoid distractions.
What to do When Aground
If a grounding does occur, keep these tips in mind:
1. Keep calm.
2. Follow captain’s orders.
3. Check gauges: engine temperature, automatic bilge pump lights, water temperature, oil pressure.
4. Consider the position of the tide.
5. Make sure crew can operate the radio and knows how to report a mayday call.
6. Consider rescue possibilities.