I would like to share with you a situation that we encountered on board Ambition, our Hylas 46 #40.
Please accept our thanks to the entire Queen Long team for the quality, design and construction that you built into our boat.
On Wednesday March 25th 2020, Ambition was supposed to have a great ride overnight from Dominica to Antigua. Our route was set to pass 5 miles west of the shores of Guadeloupe for the sole purpose of avoiding the multitude of fishing lines and gear that we have seen closer to shore. Our midnight departure from Portsmouth, Dominica was chosen so that we could have an early afternoon arrival in Antigua, to clear in to customs. Jolly Harbour Marina in Antigua is our summer storage site and we were anxious to arrive, as many islands were already closing their borders to inbound yachts due to the COVID-19 pandemic – we wanted in before their doors closed.
The weather report offered us favorable seas and a 20 knot beam reach all the way. The one thing that would have been nice would have been a full moon, but we had the opposite, almost a new moon. This was our plan that we were going with — apparently there was another plan in the works for us that evening.
At 3AM, 5 miles off the coast of Les Saintes in Guadeloupe plan B kicked in. We were sailing along between 8 and 10 knots in a 5+ foot swell and 20 knot winds, when all of a sudden the boat came to a complete stop in less than 3 seconds. As any sailor might imagine, the next seconds were spent trying to figure out what has happened. Disengaged the autopilot and yet the wheel was jammed hard over. Our heading had swing 90 degrees to port and the GPS speed indicated 0.0 knots. With the stern light illuminating the water behind us, I could see two dark blue buoys or fenders in the water. We quickly furled the genoa and main sails. We appeared to have snagged some rather substantial fishing gear or nets with buoy floats. With the boat now positioned stern to the swells and waves, the aft end of the boat was not a place I want spend much time. Armed with a boathook I did try to see if I could pull something free – that task didn’t last long as the boathook was yanked from my grasp almost immediately and headed for the bottom.
Back in the safety of the cockpit I quickly came to the realization that there was absolutely nothing I had on board that could be used to free Ambition from the entrapment. Starting the engine to back up hoping to free us was thought of, but that certainly would have resulted in a worse situation with a tangled prop or worse.
Being snagged by the stern, the waves crashed into us making an awful thud with the entire boat shaking under the pounding. The water flew completely over the cockpit enclosure and up to the mast.
We called CROSSAG, the French Coast Guard and advised them of our situation and position. They sent out a PAN PAN, but that went unanswered. They then advised that would dispatch a rescue tow boat from Les Saintes and that I could expect their arrival within 2 hours.
We were thrilled to see them approach us and start an inspection with a huge spotlight. They quickly surmised that they couldn’t tow us with what they could see tangled underneath.
We had barely changed position in the last two hours notwithstanding the wind and waves. The SNSM (the French equivalent of Tow Boat etc) advised CROSSAG that a diver was needed and they did not have one available. With the French Islands in lockdown, CROSSAG was concerned about locating a diver to assist. It turns out that we were very fortunate that the French Gendarmerie Maritime (Maritime Police Force) cutter, La Violette was in Les Saintes and they had a diver onboard. The crew was woken up and they left the harbour to offer assistance. The crew of the SNSM 240 advised that they would remain on scene in the event that we choose to abandon the boat.
At this point Ambition had been “anchored” by her stern for four hours and each swell and wave continued to pound under her and over us. We have all experienced this on boats as a wake hits hard - his a gut wrenching sound for any boater to hear. Never been so grateful to have a full enclosure around the cockpit to keep us protected We had removed all the bedding from the aft cabin and opened up the access boards so that we could regularly inspect for any signs of damage or water.
La Violette arrive soon after 7AM and quickly launched an inflatable with a diver.
They spent some time inspecting the stern as it raised out of the water in the swells. The diver went into the water, he popped back up to tell us that he will cut us free but the rudder is jammed and he will be unable to free it in the current sea conditions.
I do not know how the diver was able to work under our stern without being severely injured but he accomplished the task quickly. Ambition was now adrift.
For the first time we saw the size of the buoys and lines that we had sailed into. Navy blue floats attached with heavy polypropylene lines – no wonder we were in the situation we were.
The crew of SNSM 240 set about attaching their towing lines to Ambition and started what would turn out to be a 3-hour tow to safe harbour in Les Saintes. You can imagine with the rudder hard to port, we were far from the best-behaved tow. Ambition fought them the whole way pulling opposite to the direction they wanted her to go.
Finally attached to a mooring ball the crew explained to us what we had snagged. In French it is called a DCP Dispositif Centralisation des Poissons – it is a technique that fishermen use to create an artificial reef that attracts little fish – as we know, where there are little fish you can be sure there will be big fish. They built the DSP that we ran into, by using the large bulk dry goods bags that hold 4,000 lbs of goods each attached in a long column – perhaps 3 to 6 bags deep. You can imagine the sea anchor that it created for Ambition.
As promised, SNSM sent two divers over to Ambition early next morning to remove the remnants of bags from her rudder. I had already been underneath and found that it was the handles of the top bag that the forklift trucks use to lift them with, had wedged itself into the slot between the partial skeg and rudder. This explained why the rudder was jammed in the full port position. The fours of being pounded from the stern only jammed more material into the slot.
I inspected the rudder again after all the material had been removed and the only damage I could see was that the lifting straps had taken off the antifouling paint. After a few tests around the harbour, the rudder and autopilot were working just fine. No unusual noises or feeling to the helm.
A real testament to how well the boat was designed and built - we finished the day off by completing the 100 miles to Antigua under beautiful conditions, the rudder performed as if nothing had ever happened.
I can’t imagine the loads that were put on the rudder during the four hours that Ambition was stern to the seas and wind. The only issue turned out to be a confirmation that the swim platform locker is far from watertight. I discovered that it filled full of water. The labels on some of the stored bottles had plugged the water intake for the bilge pump, which caused it to cease functioning. From now on, all bottles with labels will be placed in a sealed plastic bin so that doesn’t happen again.
Ambition and her crew will always be very grateful top the crews of SNSM 240 and La Violette for coming to our aid and ensuring that we and the boat were safe.
Again, please share this note as a thank you, with the whole team at Queen Long and convey to them our appreciation of the quality they built into our great Hylas yacht. We chose the Hylas 46 because we wanted a boat that would take care of us and she certainly demonstrated that to us!
Merrill and Maryse Mant