"Here Be Dragons" Gets That Sinking Feeling

Summary: Story of Dave's boat, "Here Be Dragons" attempt at foundering: how he solved the flooding problem, and thoughts on Dead Reckoning (DR) navigation, bilge pumps and alarms, and solo-sailing in somewhat rough conditions.

You may want to check out our Selected Books section under the Navigation - Coastal and Offshore category for books covering some of the navigation topics mentioned in this article.


Dave wrote the following story after a solo trip in 1997 on his second boat. It’s much longer than a log entry - more like a creative writing exercise, but we hope you enjoy it:

Vessel: Here Be Dragons
Location: Port Credit – Mississauga
Date: June 1997
Weather: Overcast, Stormy, 50+ km/h wind
Crew: D. Malar
Synopsis: Exhilarating sail from Mississauga to Toronto - almost.  Staying on top of navigation routine comes in handy.



"Here Be Dragons" - Hughes 27

I awoke to the sound of the shrouds whistling, and could feel the boat skittering back and forth, tugging on her anchor line.  Looking out one of the port side windows, I could see the Four Sisters with the backdrop of an overcast morning sky.  Only one of the four giant smoke stacks (the 4 Sisters is an unmistakable and well-known Lake Ontario landmark in Mississauga) was in use and its output was streaming perfectly horizontally from its rim.  With the Sisters lined up to port and the smoke being ripped from the stack’s mouth, it was looking like my planned trip to Toronto would be a fast one indeed!

I jumped out of bed, tuned the VHF radio to the closest weather station to get the day's forecast, and started to prepare the boat for the trip.  As dishes, sleeping bag, and other loose items were being stowed, the VHF confirmed that we'd have great sailing conditions!  The wind was out of the SE at 45 – 60+ km/h (close reach to Toronto, probably letting us make 6+ kts in 3-meter (10’) waves).  Visibility was 1 km or less.  Air temperature was cool but set to improve later in the day as the weather system passed.

With the contents of the cabin secured (when the boat heels suddenly or plunges into a trough, even the most innocuous-looking item can turn into a projectile), I prepared my navigation.

There isn’t really anything to hit in this part of Lake Ontario (besides the shore, of course) but since the entrance to Toronto’s inner harbour (the “Western Gap”) is quite narrow, the visibility limited, and the conditions rough, getting it right the first time would be helpful, to say the least. The plan was to first claw our way off the shore until we had a 5 or 6 mile safety zone, then tack and make a beeline towards Toronto.

My usual method is to very lightly pencil in my intended course on the chart, make detailed notes in my log book and then keep an up-to-date DR plot supplemented by fixes or running fixes taken from charted land marks.


Red = outward bound, Blue = homeward bound, Dashed red = intended route

My theory on what “up-to-date” means in reference to a Dead Reckoning plot works as follows: I constantly ask myself, “If some sort of emergency cropped up requiring me to contact the Coast Guard, could I quickly give them my position (Lat. and Lon. in DMS) with confidence that I could be sighted from that position?”.  If the answer is anything other than "yes", it is time to update the plot.

I employ this method even in fair weather and unlimited visibility because you can never predict an emergency (by definition!) and the weather can change rapidly.  If you are relying exclusively on visible landmarks, you become instantly lost if weather develops that obscures the shoreline – and weather can move a LOT faster than a sailboat’s 6 or 7 kts.

After the navigation preparation was done, it was time to get both the boat and me suited up for the trip and make ready for sea.  From the cockpit, it was apparent that not very much sail area would be required to make good time.  Probably the working jib alone would be sufficient; however, for beating off a lee shore, having a little bit too much sail area is better than not having enough.

While still at anchor I bent on the Working Jib and stowed it in the bow pulpit ready to launch, and hoisted the mainsail.  I then started the engine (an old Evinrude 9.9hp outboard) and made ready to pull up the hook.

Motor-sailing out of the harbour is desirable in conditions like this: If I relied only on the motor, with 3 meter waves crashing against the harbour breakwall and strong winds, a stalled engine on our way out into the lake means the loss of the boat is a near certainty and the loss of the crew a distinct possibility.

With the mainsail up and ready for action, I would have a fighting chance.  Not only that, but the main would act as a steadying sail until we got out of the channel making the ride MUCH more livable.  In this way also, I would have gotten fully half of the sail setting work done in the comfort and safety of a protected harbour rather than on the wet, violently pitching, deck of the boat out in the lake – with no one on the helm to steer.

Often people make the mistake of thinking that a wave’s strength increases proportionally to its height. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The mass of the wave increases by a cube (Length x Width x Height) and its speed increases with size.  This means that a 10 foot wave has not 5, but closer to 300, times the kinetic energy of a 2 foot wave - WAY more mass moving at a faster speed.  Not something to be trifled with!

With the Mainsail set, engine running, anchor safely aboard, navigation done, cabin tidy, lifejacket on, skipper tethered to the boat (a “must” in rough conditions when sailing alone), we were finally on our way.  Isn't sailing leisurely?!

We made our way across the open part of the harbour and into the narrow rocky channel between the breakwall and the shore.  As we neared the outer end of the channel, where the protected area meets the open lake, the surge started to increase.  When waves angle across the mouth of the channel and crash into the shoreline, they do not just disappear: A sizable portion of their energy is actually reflected, forming new waves traveling out from shore at the same angle the original wave came in on.  The reflected waves, in turn, crash against the inner part of the breakwall and are reflected once again.  This kind of oscillation sets up an irregular wave interference pattern and causes a VERY confused sea within the channel.  It can toss a small boat (Here Be Dragons is 27’ long and about 8000 lbs.) around in a most horrendous manner.

After successfully running the gauntlet of the channel and reaching water open to the main lake, the nauseating wave pattern subsided and gave way to the more regular – and considerably larger – waves generated by about 100 NM of fetch. The strength of the wind was now fully apparent but as the mainsail filled and the boat accelerated, close-hauled and away from shore, the motion stabilized and became almost comfortable.

Then it was time for my favourite moment in sailing…
The boat is making 4 kts pounding into the seas, healing at 15 degrees, the mainsail is drawing, and the engine whining and vibrating quite deafeningly.

Then I shut the engine off.

The boat is now making 4 kts pounding into the seas, healing at 15 degrees, the mainsail is drawing, and the sounds of the wind and boat and water and surf come flooding in.

For me, it is a magical moment when the loud, vibrating, exhaust-smelling mechanical monster is shut off and all the sensations of nature are allowed to come through, with boat's progress not being affected in the least. The sound of the wind in the shrouds is again apparent; the tumbling, whooshing, frothing sound of a nearby breaking wave catches the attention.  In the background are the sounds of the surf crashing onto the breakwall, and the sounds and feel of a vessel come alive are simply exhilarating.

Once we gained a safe distance from shore, I left the boat to fend for herself and went forward to the mast to hoist the jib.  The boat has a long, full keel and tracks very nicely when close-hauled.  She behaved very admirably considering the conditions – healing over at a comfortable angle, climbing the steep breaking swells with confidence, plunging with a shuddering splash into the troughs and gamely lifting up and over again.  I was quite proud of her, while standing up there on the coach roof, arms clamped around the mast, no other boats in sight, while she was so blithely and comfortably in her element. This is the type of sailing this boat was built to do, and is the type of sailing that earns a vessel the distinction of “she” and “her” in her skipper’s eyes and causes me to use the word “we”, even when sailing alone.

I freed the jib halyard from its cleat, waited for a relatively flat spot between waves, and then hauled away as quickly as I could.  As the jib climbed the forestay, the wind grabbed hold and made the sail flog with incredible fury.  The sound of the jib thundering, its clew thrashing dangerously, the added heel of the boat as the wind enveloped the sail, the heaving of the deck, and the spray from waves shattering on her bow made for a tense moment as I quickly belayed the halyard and fought my way back to the safety of the cockpit.

Once in the cockpit, it was simply a matter of taking the jib sheet a few turns around the starboard winch, hardening the line and taking the tiller back into my hands.  Boy are we flying now! I’ve never been one to coddle the boat and this time was certainly no exception. With the added sail area of the jib, the boat was fairly leaping from the crests and landing in the troughs, sending cascades of water from her bows.  Our speed had increased to between 6 and 7 kts and with the gusts we were putting our rail under the water.  Lots of fun!

It is quite a feeling looking up at 10 – 12 foot crests, each the size of a bus, towering well above my head, showing every intention of thundering over and engulfing us, only to have the boat rise up, up, and smoothly over, with never a moment’s doubt. The waves on Lake Ontario don’t get nearly as big as ocean waves can; however, they tend to be very steep and come closer together than their ocean cousins.  I have been told by several people who have made offshore ocean passages that the most punishing sea conditions they experienced were on the Great Lakes. These are probably the conditions they were referring to.

After the initial excitement of escaping the harbour and successfully raising the sails, it was time to establish a stable course, take a compass bearing on the 4 Sisters and begin my DR plot.  With the limited visibility, the coast was already fading and would very soon vanish altogether.  Then, for all intents and purposes, it was just the boat and me in our own private world of wind, water, waves.

After about an hour, at the prescribed distance offshore, I tacked and pointed into the mist to where my best calculations said Toronto harbour should be.  Once speed and course stabilized, I climbed up and into the cabin to update my passage notes and DR plot.  The climb was necessary because I kept the cabin door slats in place and the coach roof hatch shut – a safety precaution to prevent water from rushing into the cabin and swamping the boat in the unlikely event that we took a wave in the cockpit.  While there, I grabbed a bottle of juice, a bag of shelled peanuts, and my harmonica to drink, eat, and entertain myself.

From here on in, it should be a straightforward, if wild, ride directly to Toronto.  Every 15 minutes or so (a really frequent interval but I was having fun with it and keeping myself occupied), I updated my DR position using my last known point - heading, speed and distance measurements from my knotmeter.  As my average heading was constant (it is impossible to steer a single compass course in those conditions so the helmsman attempts to stay close to the desired heading and to average out the deviations.  This way, overall, the correct course is steered), I simply kept a record of the DR positions.

After about an hour of fast, but pounding, sailing, I decided to go below and plot the last hour’s progress on the chart and get a good idea of an ETA for Toronto.  I opened the coach roof hatch, took the top door slat out and to my horror saw 2 inches of water over the cabin sole and a serious stream pouring onto the floor from inside the port cupboard beneath the sink.

I went absolutely numb!  Dozens of scattered thoughts flashed across my mind: Use the VHF!, Mayday!, PanPan!, Fire a Flare!, Inflate the dinghy!, Grab the spare lifejackets!…After about 2 seconds I managed to form my first coherent thought. The through-hull fitting or seacock where the sink drain went overboard must have failed!  I immediately jumped into the cabin, yanked open the cupboard and felt around.  The fitting and seacock were wet but not gushing water.  It must have been coming from somewhere else.

My next thought was that I had better get the boat the hell off this starboard tack and onto port. This would have the effect of dipping the other side of the boat in the water and raising the port side – and hopefully the leak – out of the water.

I scrambled back into the cockpit, released the jib, threw the helm over, put the bow through the wind, took the sheet a few turns around the winch, hardened the jib on the other side and stabilized the boat on a port tack close-hauled and heading away from shore.

We are 10 miles off the nearest shore – a lee shore to boot, in about 300 feet of water, in 3+ meter waves with only about a half kilometer of visibility.  NOT a good situation to be in if my boat decides to sink!

If water continued to pour into the cabin unabated, my next priority would be to nail down my position and chart it as accurately as possible – thank God for my fanaticism about the DR records – and calling a PanPan message to the Coast Guard before my batteries went flat (they live in the bilge area under the cabin sole, which was already under water - luckily fresh water, and not salt, otherwise they'd already be dead).

I vaulted back over the door slats and splashed down into the cabin once more. There was still some water coming in through the port side cupboards but it had thankfully slowed to a trickle.  After charting my position and looking at the water flow again I felt that we were no longer in immediate danger of foundering.  No need to call for help yet.

I searched the port side for the source of the water, but couldn't find any obvious culprit.

My next decision had to be where to go from here. I basically had 2 options:
1. Continue on to Toronto – at least an hour away on a starboard tack.  Not an appealing scenario since the starboard tack was causing a flood of water to come in.
2. Turn back to Mississauga – about an hour away directly down wind.  The boat would be on an even keel, which may allow the leak to be submerged again.  It would also mean trying to make landfall on a lee shore with terrible visibility and very rough conditions – I might only have one chance to hit the target. Not a terribly appealing scenario either.

After looking at the chart again and rechecking all my arithmetic, I decided to go with choice number 2.  I was reasonably confident in my navigation, the trip would likely be shorter and certainly less punishing on the boat, and I had one of the largest landmarks on the lake to shoot for (the CN tower is, of course, taller but the 4 Sisters are huge, lined up parallel to the shore, and sit only 500m from the target).

From first noticing the water in the cabin until this point, a total of about 3 minutes had elapsed.  It sure felt an awful lot longer though!

Once again in the cockpit, I turned the boat onto the heading that would put me into the harbour entrance and began a wing-on-wing downhill careen that would have completely satisfied the most demanding amusement park Log-Ride enthusiast.

With a glance into the cabin I could see that the flow of water had not resumed.  A great relief even though I still didn’t know the source of the leak.  Now the manual cockpit bilge pump could rid us of the cursed water.  Lake Ontario is great – as long as it stays out of my cabin!

Once I was sure that we were not going to sink right then and there, and the boat settled down on its course, I began to feel much better about the situation.  The hollow feeling one gets when disaster seems to have struck, as well as the mild nausea from doing the navigation in a cabin that is leaning at 30 degrees, slamming and shuddering, and alternately being lifted and dropped 10 feet was finally fading.  I began to enjoy the sailing once again.

Running with the seas with lots of sail area for the conditions makes for an exciting time. The boat managed about 6 kts most of the time but would often catch a crest and surf down the wave’s front at over 8 kts.  Not bad for a heavily-built old girl with 3000 lbs. of lead in her keel - and an apparent propensity for sinking!

As I approached my destination, still keeping up my DR plot, I began to doubt my calculations and second-guess my choice.  Making an attempt at hitting a very small harbour opening with rocky shores on either side if I missed – while partially blindfolded due to the haze – began to make me uneasy, to say the least.

Eventually, seemingly a very long way off, a shape began to materialize out of the mist.  As it began to take form, I realized that it was not a long way off but actually only about ¾ of a km from me and directly downwind.  It was obviously a tall structure and as it gradually resolved itself, I could faintly make out several discrete tall sections. The 4 Sisters!

Bang on target, right on time.  Amazing.  A flood of relief washed over me, my worries melted away as I finally knew that I would make harbour.  But there were still challenges ahead.

The next step would be to douse the jib. This usually routine task would certainly be a bit tricky in these conditions.  If I had had a second crewmember on board, it would have been easier – gibe the main over to create a wind shadow over the jib, one person steers while the other goes forward, yanks it down and stows it.  But I was alone.

I gibed the main over, headed up and set the boat close-hauled on a port tack again (the boat naturally steers a straight line when close-hauled).  I then let the jib loose.  Once again it went into thundering, flogging hysterics, shaking the entire rig.  I crawled forward gingerly and released the halyard from its cleat on the mast.  The sail dropped a few feet down but with the force of the wind, gravity was just not strong enough.  I was forced to crawl along the coach roof and onto the foredeck while hanging on to the windward rail (imagine a wet deck on a 20 degree angle plunging up and down with spray coming over the bow) with a death grip with one hand and protecting myself from the flailing sail with the other.  Eventually I got a firm grip on the jib’s leech and hauled it down.  Securing the sail in the bow pulpit was an interesting exercise!  Not only was the deck tilted, wet and heaving, but now with my weight on her nose, with every big wave that slammed into us, the bow plunged under, and solid water washed over the deck – and me!  After several minutes on the bow, I finally got the sail secured, belayed the halyard once again and lurched back to the cockpit absolutely soaked!

I put the helm over and resumed the course for the harbour entrance.  A short distance off, I started the engine and prepared for final approach.  The channel was an awful gauntlet again with waves striking us from 3 different directions simultaneously.  This time there were spectators.

By now it was mid-afternoon and there were people out on the harbour wall watching the huge waves crashing.  We must have looked quite a site coming in from the lake that day, boat and skipper drenched from head to toe, stem to stern, being bounced and tossed about like toys in the melee of harbour entrance.

Not being one to miss an opportunity to impress the locals, I took up a relaxed, confident pose at the helm, seeming not to be bothered by or even to notice the tumult we were going through.  I, of course, graced the onlookers with a curt nod of recognition to their waving hands.  We certainly got some incredulous looks from the wave-watchers on the rocks, which made for one fine return!

We motor-sailed through the channel with the surge subsiding and entered the open part of the harbour.  I put the engine into neutral, headed into the wind and doused and stowed the mainsail.  After positioning the boat in a safe spot over favourable bottom terrain, we dropped the hook once again and breathed our first completely relaxed breath in ages.

With the bilge pumped dry and no sign of more water coming in, I dried myself off, hung out my wet clothing to dry and settled in for a relaxing evening.  I was quite happy to do nothing but make dinner and get a good night’s sleep!

The next morning dawned fair and warm.  After a thorough but fruitless inspection of the boat (I began to wonder if I had simply dreamt the events of the previous day!) for the source of the leak, we made the trip to Toronto without incident.

It took several days for me to puzzle out what went wrong out on the lake that day:

The boat is powered by an outboard engine that lives in an inboard well at the back of the boat.  The hull at the stern has a large opening to allow the engine’s lower unit and propeller to pass through.  The bulkhead separating the engine well from the rest of the boat has at its highest point, two 1-inch diameter conduit holes for the various electrical wires to pass through.

In any ordinary circumstance, when the boat is moving, some water pushes up and into the engine well.  Even when the boat dips her rails, the water doesn’t come close to the conduit holes.  What we just went through were not ordinary conditions though.  With my pushing the boat hard, the extra speed and force of the large waves passing under us must have forced more water than normal into the well. With the boat healing over strongly, the water was able to reach the conduit holes.  From there gravity took over and the water flowed into the cockpit locker, into the cabin cupboard through another conduit hole and out into the cabin sole. Those cursed little holes caused a whole lot of consternation and fright!

All the bulkheads are now thoroughly caulked and sealed and the boat and skipper both look forward to similar sailing conditions again on a future voyage!

P.S. Sad to say, for the boaters on this area of Lake Ontario, the 4 Sisters were demolished in 2006.  It was a spectacular landmark, since they were hundreds of feet high (See our Sailing Experiences – The 4 Sisters Come Tumbling Down) and visible for many miles when out in the lake.

P.P.S. My current boat, Al Hoceima, now has a high-water buzzer connected to one of her automatic bilge pump float switches so I'll have earlier warning next time

The "Four Sisters"



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