The day after we finished our research we were sitting on the back of the boat enjoying an early dinner. Nikki suddenly stopped eating and said “look there is a sailboat over there.” It looked strange to me as the sails were not up and it seemed to be drifting around. Our first thought was that someone might be in need of some assistance so we changed course and turned toward the drifting vessel. As we passed close by I yelled out ‘HELLO’ half expecting to see some unshaven desperate sailor pop his head out but nothing happened. Nikki warned me that if I went onboard the sailboat I might find a dead body. I had to see if someone was in danger so I jumped into our flimsy kayak and paddled over then climbed aboard the injured sailboat. After a full inspection of the boat I found that it was abandoned.
The boat was a 48-foot Swan named Wolfhound full of nice gear. I could have easily stripped the boat but I wanted to do the right thing. I found the owner’s phone number and the number for his insurance company and called them both telling them I found Wolfhound the 48-foot Swan and asked them what they would like me to do. As expected the owner wanted his boat and asked if I could tow it to the Chesapeake Bay. I told him I would be lucky if I could tow it 715 miles to Bermuda. I thought the sailboat still had a lot of life left in her and we could use the salvage money. It was worth a try.
The next day I returned to Wolfhound and pumped all the water out of the bilge. I had to secure the mast because the forestay and backstay were broke. I secured the mast with a few halyards, the mast wouldn’t be able to support a sail, but at least the it wasn’t going to fall down. She was dragging an anchor, which I pulled back on board and tied off. I also took down the ripped up mainsail and stowed it away inside the cabin. I had done everything I could to secure the Swan.
Nikki and I discussed our game plan. We didn’t have enough fuel to tow Wolfhound all the way to Bermuda, so the next day I was going to kayak back to the Swan and pump out its fuel tank hoping to get at least 30 gallons of diesel. The next day I disconnected one of my ships batteries placed in in the kayak and paddled back to the Swan. I used a waste pump that I found which was brand new still in its box and my big group 31 battery that I brought and started to pump Wolfhounds fuel tank dry. I was disappointed when I only got 12 gallons of diesel. I tried to bring back a jerry can with the Kayak but the Kayak flipped, I was being drug behind the Swan with one hand on the kayak and the other hand on the swim ladder.
I dragged myself and the kayak back onboard and decided there was no way to get my battery and three jerry jugs back to my boat using the little kayak. After searching around I found a Zodiac inflatable on Wolfhound so I pumped it up and threw it overboard. At least now I have a good way to shuttle the 12 gallons of diesel and my big battery back to my boat. Then the craziest thing happened. On the way back to my boat the bottom fell out of the dinghy. One minute I’m just rowing along and the next minute I’m looking down at nothing but water.
My 100 pound battery I brought with me had a line attached to it and the line nearly wrapped around my leg. If it had, it would have taken me to the bottom of the ocean with it. I struggled to get back to my boat and climbed aboard, but I did manage to save the 3 jerry cans that had the 12 gallons of fuel in them. Nikki and I set aside 20 gallons of fuel in reserve and decided if we can’t get Wolfhound to Bermuda with the remaining fuel then we cut her loose and use the 20 gallons of reserve fuel to get to Bermuda without her.
The next day we spotted a freighter and asked the freighter if it could spare 50 gallons of diesel. At first they were hesitant but when they saw that we were towing a sailboat the freighter agreed to help. I had to pull up next to a slow moving freighter, stay 10 feet from its hull and maintain a prefect course in order to get the fuel. It took every bit of skill I had to hold my boat in that position for an hour as the guys on the freighter lowered one jerry jug at a time down to Nikki. It was absolutely nerve wracking. You never want to be that close to a freighter in the open ocean, but if we could pull it off we would have enough fuel to easily tow the boat to Bermuda.
As we pulled away from the freighter we were all smiles. We now had enough fuel to motor to Bermuda. We were going to pull it off. A few hours later I noticed our RPM gauge was jumping around and the engine was starting to struggle. I backed down the throttle and the engine died immediately. I said to Nikki ‘we must have got dirty diesel, I’ll change the fuel filter’. I changed both fuel filters and bled the air out of the engine and she still wouldn’t start. It was getting dark so I thought it best to get some rest and deal with it tomorrow. The next day I took my oil extraction pump and jury rigged it to my primary fuel filter. This way I could pump all the dirty fuel out of the fuel tank through the fuel filter and into jerry jugs. By doing this I would clean all the fuel and then I could pour it back in the tank.
I had to sacrifice two more fuel filters but it went remarkably well and now all the fuel was clean. I only had one fuel filter left but we should be okay. I reconnected the primary fuel filter to the engine, we bled out the air and — nothing. The engine still wouldn’t start. I spent the next 36 hours bleeding and re-bleeding my engine until I had to finally accept that the fuel I got from the freighter was so bad that it ruined my fuel injection pump. There is no way to fix that out at sea, my engine was dead.
That changed everything. Now the only hope we had to get Wolfhound to Bermuda was to get her engine started. The first thing I had to do was remove the lines that had wrapped themselves around Wolfhound‘s propeller. It took about an hour of hard swimming before I could get all the lines off of Wolfhound‘s prop. While I was doing that a line wrapped around the propeller on my boat. I had to cut lines off of two different boat propellers back-to-back in the middle of the open ocean.
By the end I was covered in scrapes and cuts and completely exhausted. After that fiasco I took another one of my ship’s batteries over to the Swan 48 and got it connected to the ship’s electric system. I was able get the engine to turn over but I couldn’t get it to start. At this point the wind died and my boat stopped but the Swan didn’t. I watch helplessly as the Swan rammed my boat putting a dent in the side of my ship. Then it spun around and the tow line wrapped around its rudder, so now we were pulling it backwards. It took three hours to finally get the Swan 48 spun back around the right way. As all of this was happening the seas were building. I was still on Wolfhound and Nikki was on Ault. There was no way I would be able to bring my battery back to my boat and from the looks of it I would be lucky to get back at all. I narrowly managed to row the little kayak back to my boat as each wave was trying to flip me.
Again Nikki and I sat down to discuss a new game plan. The owner of Wolfhound had offered us $45,000 if we could get it to Bermuda. Nikki, myself and the non-profit are completely broke. We were going to put $20,000 in the next year’s scientific expedition to the Arctic and split the rest. We would have a financial security blanket. We could afford health insurance, car insurance and pay our cell phone bills until we left for the Arctic next June. Back on land we spend well over 40 hours a week managing the various aspects of the non-profit but we haven’t been able to raise enough money to get paid a salary. It could have been a huge help. But between the two boats we had two broken engines and only my boat could sail. We got an accurate weather report from Predict Wind that told us for the next 7 days we had nothing but headwinds and light winds. We tried to tow her under sail into the wind but the combined leeway was pushing us east, further out to sea and away from Bermuda. We knew if we dragged the boat long enough we could get to Bermuda but how long, two weeks, a month?
Every day that went by my boat was receiving more damage. That and it is hurricane season, we can’t just be out here like a sitting duck. Just as Nikki and I were having this conversation I heard a noise. The towline had wrapped itself around my windvane again threatening to rip it off. We are out here to do research not salvage boats. You cannot let greed corrupt good judgment. There comes a point when the risks outweigh the reward. At 4:30pm after 5 long days of towing Wolfhound I cut the line. We cut Wolfhound free and started making some headway when the halyard on the mainsail failed and for the last 36 hours we have been trying to beat into 15-20 knot headwinds with only a foresail, going nowhere.
In a day or two when the wind dies I will climb my unstayed mast to the top and fix the problem. I can’t say I want to do it, but it has to be done. After that difficult climb up the mast we will be able to raise our mainsail again but then we will be becalmed for 3-5 days. When the wind finally picks back up we will continue back to land.
On the bright side of things, every major sailing trip I’ve ever done I did with a broken engine so it’s nothing new to me. There are no big storms anywhere in the Atlantic (for now) and we have plenty of food and water. We won’t be going anywhere for the next 5 days because of the light winds but at least we will have a chance to clean the boat up, fix things and regroup.
By Endurance… Matt Rutherford
Learn more about the voyage at the Ocean Research Project website.