This spring, a good friend who has been running megayachts for 32 years had just been hired on as captain of a 130-foot yacht. His first assignment was to deliver it from St. Vincent to Ft. Lauderdale, haul it out for some repairs and get it ready for the summer charter season in the Bahamas.
Just prior to his arrival in St Vincent, the entire crew except one stew resigned so my friend had to muster a new crew, learn the boat and get under way within two weeks.
Due to his experience in the industry, he was able to hire two experienced crew out of the U.S. and get them to St. Vincent within a few days. He needed one more and called me.
Every sailor wants the experience of sailing a big boat and fortunately, my fellow co-workers would cover for me so I packed my bag and went to St. Vincent.
Just prior to cast off, the captain gathered the crew to explain that the yacht had been sitting in the Caribbean for four months and was due for some scheduled maintenance. He warned us we should expect some problems on the trip, and even though most of us were new to the yacht, we were a good crew and would be able to handle any issues.
We reviewed our safety gear, fire fighting and abandon ship procedures and then cast off at noon. We were under way.
Our float plan took us just south of St. Thomas, north past Puerto Rico, through the Bahamas and on to Ft. Lauderdale. Our rhumb line from St. Vincent to St. Thomas took us within a few miles of Aves Island, a small sand spit owned by Venezuela and located 130 miles west of the Windward Islands.
While passing Aves Island early in the morning on day two, we were hailed on the VHF by a voice speaking English and claiming to be the Venezuelan police. It wanted to know what type of yacht we were, what cargo we were carrying and where we were going. After we responded to all of their questions, they signed off by saying “have a nice day.”
Twenty minutes later and three miles past Aves Island, we received another VHF call ordering us to stop. The captain asked the caller to identify himself and explain his intentions. There was an extended conversation on the VHF between two parties in Spanish, but there was no more English spoken.
Within minutes, a small boat departed from the one structure on the island. It appeared to be a small inflatable with three people on board. They were heading straight for us.
Again, we asked their intentions and again, no reply in English. The captain informed them that without proper identification and an explanation of their intentions, we would not stop.
We were travelling at 8.5 knots and the small boat was rapidly gaining on us. The wind was about 10 knots and the seas were 3-4 feet. The small boat was pounding through the sea at a high rate of speed and through the binoculars I could see there were actually five people on board.
We increased speed, hoping the small boat would give up the chase. After about 20 minutes, it became clear they were going to approach the port side of our vessel. The captain ordered all hands on deck and to be prepared to repel boarders. When the small boat approached, one of its crew waved an empty gas can, making it appear as if they wanted gasoline. We tried to communicate again but they did not speak English.
Why did five men board a 15-foot inflatable to get two and a half gallons of gas? They had an English-speaking person so why did they not call us on the radio to tell us what they wanted?
As they approached a second time they wanted us to catch their bow painter and secure it to our stern cleat. We refused and made it clear we had no intentions of allowing them to board. They made several more approaches to come within a few feet of our boat but eventually determined that boarding would not be possible while travelling at 15 knots in 4-foot seas and four crew members blocking their path.
As they throttled back and gave up the chase, they did eventually communicated with us using international sign language, the bird.
About 27 hours into the delivery and on the same day our crew successfully repelled an attempted boarding, the fire alarm sounded.
All crew immediately searched every room on the vessel and found no fire or smoke. We began to think it was a false alarm except that the stew who did not quit before the trip and who had been on the boat the longest said the smell in the crew quarters was different.
The captain and first mate began to disassemble wall panels and floor boards to inspect the hidden areas and after about 30 minutes found the source of the problem on the engine exhaust.
In an area where the exhaust traveled in a pipe from the engine room to the stern, residential-style insulation was used to insulate the hot exhaust pipe from a wall panel. The paper side of the insulation was against the exhaust pipe and it began to smolder due the hot exhaust pipe.
The smoldering insulation was removed and the wall panel left open to ventilate.
On day three we were close to St Thomas at 1400 when the forward engine room bilge alarm sounded. The first mate checked the engine room and found we had water up to the bottom of the engine block and three bilges surrounding the engine sump were full. In this yacht that is about 150 gallons of water.
Immediately the captain slowed the boat to idle, asked me to take the helm and dashed to the engine room with the first mate. It took only a few minutes to find the source of the water. A $3 hose clamp securing a 3 ½ inch hose leading to the main engine raw water pump had broken.
The leak stopped as soon as the engine was shut down and the mate installed a new hose clamp.
Fortunately, a yacht of this size has a high-capacity pump, but even so, it took the mate and I one and a half hours to dry the bilges.
Thinking back, I realize how profound the captain’s departure speech was. Yes, we had some problems, but none of us expected we would have to deal with three of the most frightening problems a sailor can imagine.
Thanks to the experience of the captain and the crew and good decision-making, even those problems were just another day on the job.
When he’s not helping to deliver yachts, Bill Wiard is a yacht broker with Massey Yachts in St. Petersburg, Fla. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.