Most people who “go cruising” usually have a bunch of sea stories to tell, and we are sometimes asked to tell ours. However, most people who go cruising do so in sailboats and tend to navigate when the winds are blowing, resulting in many “interesting” moments afloat.

In contrast, our cruising platform was a big, heavy motor yacht, and we would choose to make our passages under smooth, windless conditions which are not conducive to triggering “sea stories”.

The Boat
Here she is: a stable, comfortable, reliable, and self-sufficient cruising platform

All the same, you can’t spend a lot of time on the water without experiencing a few high-adrenalin episodes. Our biggest, of course, was the loss of LIBERTE to a fire, which I recounted in a published article. See “My Fire at Sea Article” page, nearby.

Heavy Seas
It is almost unavoidable to have an occasional rough passage, due to seasonal weather patterns. The notorious “Baja Bash” afflicts anyone attempting to return to the US from Mexico during the spring months, when the winds blow almost continuously from the north. This makes for a very uncomfortable, teeth-rattling, three-day passage from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego – unless one chooses to head 200-300 miles offshore before turning north.

I endured a couple of Bashes, Kathryn having wisely decided that her contract releases her from northbound passages, but she was aboard to experience a nastier-than-expected blow while crossing the Gulf from Cancun to Key West, and to pass the west coast of Nicaragua when the really unpleasant Papagallo winds were in full force.

But the topper is the one I think of as the "Oregon Broach." While on a four-day passage from Port Angeles to San Francisco with just Richard and Glen aboard, I took a severe spanking off of Oregon’s Cape Blanco. The weather charts suggested that everything was copacetic offshore, and now was a good time to go, but crucially, I had missed the low pressure zone sitting inland, which naturally started pulling big winds from the northwest. At 2 a.m. the seas started whipping up, the kind where spray blows off the crest of the waves which get higher and steeper as the water shallows offshore the cape.

Heavy seas
A good time to be in a sheltered anchorage somewhere

The seas were coming from the stern, causing the boat to lurch one way and then the other and the rudders to start losing their grip – the autopilot became progressively less and less effective, and I took over manual steering, attempting to anticipate and correct for the next big yaw motion, all this in pitch darkness, with the magnetic heading swinging wildly in a 90-degree arc.

One wave finally overcame my ability to correct, and the boat went surfing sideways down the face of a huge wave, "broaching" in nautical terms, sliding downwards on her starboard side and scooping tons of water over her high bulwarks onto the main deck. Glen and I were hanging on for dear life until she righted herself, probably my single most intense white-knuckle, high-adrenalin cruising moment ever.

I decided to turn the boat around and face into the seas. With only five or six seconds between waves, this had to be done smartly, using full rudder and racing the props in opposite directions to spin the boat around before another wave could take her broadsides. We limped into the Port Orchard anchorage in total darkness, and spent two days and nights on anchor watch before finding conditions suitable for completing the passage. We were still finding shrimp on the deck two days later!

Another opportunity for moving the needle from “panic” to “terror” is the slow-motion imminent collision. We can count a number of near-misses, including the crossing of an Alaska ferry at speed in the Wrangell Narrows, the overtaking kamikaze pilot boat delivering our pilot for the Panama Canal transit, the sailboat in Florida’s Hawkes Channel suddenly dropping sails and anchor right in front of us.

Canal launch delivering our transit pilot. Oh, no! He looks like he intends to T-bone us amidships...

The only real collision happened when leaving the dock of the Acapulco Yacht Club with the wind on the beam and an unexpected failure of the bow thruster – we bounced off the hull of Larry Ellison’s RONIN, leaving behind one of our scupper spouts and a gouge on RONIN’s topsides.

The protruding spout – right in the center of the picture – was torn off with no other damage.

Dangerous Encounters
Transiting offshore Colombia gave us a couple of "moments". About halfway through an overnight passage, just at a change of watch, we started tracking a light radar target moving on a reciprocal course to ours, but offset about four miles to the north. Cruising offshore Colombia at night had already put an edge on things, and a small, fast-moving target heading toward our boat was not at all reassuring.

Eventually, once it was almost abeam, we were relieved to pick out a red running light through the binoculars, relieved on the theory that the bad guys don’t turn on their running lights when far offshore. But we had hardly settled back down when the blip, now a few miles astern of LIONESSE suddenly seemed to erupt into a huge, shapeless cloud about three miles in radius, filling a whole corner of the radar screen! It was as if a major rain squall had suddenly materialized right behind us. Eyes glued to the display, we then saw several small radar targets burst out from the edges of the cloud. Our automatic radar plotting software calculated speeds in the 20-25 knot range (that’s FAST) for these small blips!

Lots of mysterious "STUFF" on the screen.

Although we no longer felt directly threatened by the traffic showing up on the radar, we were compelled to wonder if we were hallucinating… We continued our nervous fixation on the mysterious nebula, and we relaxed only gradually, in proportion to the slow disappearance of the whole phenomenon from the screen as we forged ahead.

The next day, in Cartagena, we learned that offshore exercises were being conducted jointly by the navies of Panama, Colombia, and the U.S. We are still speculating about what it was we did see, but perhaps the best explanation so far is that it was some kind of stealth exercise, including an electronic “cloaking” technique intended to hide the activities of a naval task force.

Locking up
The LIONESSE locking up in the Miraflores lock of the Panama Canal. We had fourteen people aboard during that exciting day.

Later, having departed Cartagena, Kate called me to the helm – she had picked up a radar target four miles away, off our starboard bow, running at speed on a seeming collision course. The plotting software on the radar put the speed of the target at 20 knots, with a closest point of approach at less than a tenth of a mile! Kate made a sweeping 45-degree turn to port hoping to broadly signal our course correction and to increase the gap between our respective projected tracks. To our consternation, the target now also shifted its heading and maintained a collision course!

Within what seemed like the blink of an eye, the range between us had shortened to two miles. Peering through my binoculars I finally locked onto the target – and the image was the same as the one seen through the periscope in the standard submarine warfare movie: an ominous destroyer head-on, throwing up a huge bow wave as it rushes forward to battle! When the warship had narrowed the distance to about a mile, it suddenly slowed to about five knots and turned away, almost like a fire truck suddenly recalled from a false alarm. After we had settled our frazzled nerves, we decided that a Colombian frigate on drug-interdiction patrol had simply decided to check us out.

System Failure
There is a saying on the water that goes: “the best bilge pump is a scared mariner with a bucket”… and yes, when alone out in blue water, one is highly motivated to solve any problem that seems to promise dangerous consequences.

Kathryn and I were making an easy 24-hour passage across the southwestern Caribbean, smooth seas and at least 100 miles offshore. Boats and land don’t mix well, so being far offshore encourages peace of mind…unless it is the middle of the night and your main engines start failing. That is what happened – both of the twin workhorse Caterpillar diesels started losing more and more rpms, until they would only run at idle speed, and out of gear at that.

All the gauges on the bridge, and their counterparts in the engine room gave normal readings. I fiddled with the oil levels – first adding oil, then draining oil. I replaced fuel filters. I switched fuel tanks. All to no avail – communicating with Kathryn at the helm who would start and stop one engine or the other, engage and disengage one or the other transmission, depending on which experiment I was running down in the hot engine room.

Diesels are very simple creatures – they require just three things to run (fuel, air, and compression) and one shuts off the fuel supply to stop them. Having given up on everything I could think of, that left only the air supply. I opened one of the air filters to find it completely caked with a crust of dried salt! And the minute I pulled it off, the engine took off at full rpm!

I tracked down the culprit – a pinhole leak in the seawater cooling system for the generator which was spraying a very fine mist in the engine room, gulped down by the air filter which did its job until it could no more. I cleaned the filters, shut down the guilty generator, and we finished the passage without further incident.

The air filter is mounted low on the engine, shown by the arrow here on the Port main engine.It had turned gray with crusted salt.