“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, U.S. Coast Group Honolulu, this is the sailing vessel CHARISMA, CHARISMA, CHARISMA, MAYDAY”. These were words I hoped I never had to broadcast over the radio. In my 25 years of sailing, I always thought there would be a way out of problems at sea without calling for assistance. This day proved that wasn’t the case. At the time of our disaster, we were located approximately 10 nm North East of Makapuu Point, right in the middle of the Molokai Channel. For no apparent reason, we found ourselves quickly and suddenly flooding!
Makapuu Point is situated on the northeast corner on the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. To the east is the island of Molokai. Maui sits further east adjacent to Molokai and the Big Island of Hawaii.
On Friday morning, September 3, 1999, my wife, Tamlyn, dog Scottie, and I departed Kaneohe Marine Corp Air Base Marina bound for Lahaina, Maui. Tamlyn is an experienced sailor having delivered boats to California. Scottie, a border collie, has been sailing all his life and has participated in many inter-island passages.
CHARISMA was an excellent performer both in racing and cruising around the Hawaiian Islands.
Beating in moderate trades towards Molokai, we were to spend the night there then push on towards Lahaina the following morning. This was in preparations for the annual Labor Day Return Race to Honolulu. The day before departing, we performed our routine boat preparations for inter-island sailing. As people familiar to sailing know, the wind and sea conditions around Hawaii can be the roughest in the world. As a norm, we carried traditional safety gear indicated by most coastal cruising standards. Charts, VHF radio and handheld, GPS and GPS handheld, two oversized anchors, various signaling devices, inflatable dinghy stored below, water and fuel tanks filled, etc. We also filed a Float Plan, which is not quite as common. With food stored for two days, complete with Tamlyn’s great underway sandwiches, we were all set. The day before, the boat was given a complete “once over”. Propeller stuffing box, sea cocks, engine and spare parts, tool box check, first aid kit review, EPIRB and VHF radio check, and finally checking keel bolts and sump and wiping the bilge dry. This was standard practice before leaving the dock for an extended cruising period.
Making good progress towards Molokai under a double reefed main and a number three headsail, life was good. Tamlyn was below catching a few winks and Scottie on the weather rail biting at waves in a lifejacket and tether. The boat was riding fine in 8 to 10 foot seas.
The boat road over top of waves sliding down the backside with occasional light pounding. After about four hours, I suddenly felt the helm go sluggish and the boat slipping to leeward. Instinctively, I drove the boat downwind by releasing the jib and main sheets. Just then Tamlyn woke from her quasi sleep and shouted, “There’s water down below!” By the time I passed the helm to Tamlyn and went below, the water was ankle deep and the floorboards were floating. In the two minutes it took to give a bow to stern inspection of the hull, the water had risen two feet. It was coming in fast and we were in trouble. The condition of the cabin can only be described as total chaos. With floating floor boards, cushions, charts and other debris sloshing about it was impossible to determine where the water was entering. There was no apparent reason for the flooding and time was quickly running out. Events were happening fast and decisions to act were overcome by the constantly changing situation. When water began flooding the battery compartment with no chance of isolating the leak, I called the U.S. Coast Guard, before the batteries became useless.
After the mayday call on the VHF, the U.S. Coast Guard responded quickly and accurately. “Roger CHARISMA, we have your position and understand the problem. There is a helicopter enroute to your location.” WOW! That’s what I call spot on. I was overcome with relief. Because I knew through my Navy training and experiences witnessing the U.S. Coast Guard in action, the right people were on the job to help us out. After the response from the U.S. Coast Guard, the transmitter went out. Further radio transmissions were not possible.
Meanwhile, Tamlyn was doing an excellent job steering the boat downwind minimizing the rolls and keeping us level. She did not realize how serious our situation was until I threw a bag of eight lifejackets and signaling devices out in the cockpit. Scottie had a look of concern as he felt the increasing anxiety that was overcoming us. “Prepare to leave the boat”, I shouted. The last item to come from the cabin was our un-inflated 8 ft dinghy. As I pushed what must have been a 100 lb bag up the companionway ladder, CHARISMA caught a wave from the stern and slowly rolled on it’s side. Tam jumped into the water with Scottie while I stood in the companionway. My hesitation was short lived. Water was entering the main cabin like a river. This was it for CHARISMA. She continued to roll over and I jumped into the water. With a final gasp of air from the cabin the weather rail submerged. The boat capsized about 160 degrees. It was only then I understood the nature of our difficulty. To my amazement, there was no keel! The lead had completely separated from the hull. I was shocked beyond belief. This couldn’t be happening. Am I in a bad dream? This type of thing only happens to others or in movies or in novels. Not in real life. Not to me!!! Stuff from the boat began floating by, including our dive camera. Tamlyn grabbed it and snapped a picture of the upside hull with missing keel. This is the photograph pictured at the beginning of this article. Without the photo, it is doubtful anyone would have believed our story otherwise.
We donned life jackets and tied the dinghy bag and lifejacket bag together and hung on. Scottie didn’t panic; he had an anxious look that only a dog can have when he knows something isn’t right, but he stayed with us and didn’t try to swim toward shore. Good dog!
By the time we had gotten into our life jackets we had drifted 50-75 yards away from the boat. The thought of sharks then entered my mind. “We must get back to the boat and get on the hull”. We would have a good chance of inflating the dinghy, and be more visible to any search and rescue effort, and more importantly not be shark food. Sharks have been known to swim around vessels within an hour of capsizing. We started swimming, but it seemed we were getting nowhere. The wind and waves were acting against us. Just then, we heard the familiar high-pitched whine of helicopter engines and rotor blades in the distance. Soon an H-65 helicopter was in sight. What a relief! “Great we’ll be out of the water in no time”. Not so fast, Rick. First they have to find you. A difficult task considering the aircrew was looking for a right side up boat and now we were just three tiny heads bobbing in eight to ten foot seas. To my amazement, the helicopter approached us, hovered nearby then headed north out of sight. We were stunned. Apparently, we were a little harder to see than I had imagined. This was not going to be easy. About 20 minutes later, the helicopter was headed inbound again right for us. They were bound to see us now. Just in case, I lit off a flare. I was disappointed to see the light from the flare was near worthless. The flame was blown horizontal in the wind severely reducing its brightness. Again, the helicopter hovered near overhead, then sped off out of sight. Tamlyn and I looked at one another and didn’t say a word. We both, however, were thinking the same thing. If they didn’t see us then, when will they? For all the signaling devices we had sailing countless miles inter-island, it was ironic we didn’t have them when they we needed them most. Smokes, dye markers, aerial devices, mirror, VHF handheld radio, man-overboard module were all on the boat a short distance away but were totally useless. The helicopter made a third approach near our location. For what it was worth, I lit off the remaining flare. It only served to burn me with molten phosphorus dripping down my arm. Finally, the aircrew saw our frantically waving arms and circled around to set up for a final approach upwind. I thrust my thumb skyward to let them know we were all right.
As the helicopter approached, we reviewed hoisting procedures using a horse collar. Again, Navy water survival and search rescue training came in handy. To my delight, the aircrew was preparing for a much easier and safer basket recovery. As the basket was lowered to the water and submerged, Tam and Scottie got in and soon were on their way towards the helicopter.
When the basket was lowered again for me, I hesitated. The aircrew was motioning to get into the basket. But, I didn’t want to leave CHARISMA. Not this way. I considered swimming back to her for reasons unknown. The thoughts of Tamlyn and our newborn baby we were ready to adopt put a more important perspective on the situation. I reluctantly climbed into the basket.
We were flown to U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, Barbers Point where salvage efforts to retrieve the hull began immediately. Three days of intensive air and surface search using various assets proved futile. CHARISMA was never seen again.
Looking back and reliving the final minutes onboard, we tried to figure out if there was a way we could have saved the boat. Approximately six to eight minutes elapsed since we first discovered flooding water until the boat capsized. More time was needed to assess the situation, decide what to do, and act. Time is a luxury. Events were changing rapidly and our options to save the boat were quickly diminished. Despite losing the boat, we came away with a new appreciation of the importance of preparedness. Some folks have asked me, “What do I need more, a VHF radio or an EPIRB?” Hopefully, you have determined your own conclusion. In my opinion, you need both. Whenever we are on the water, we are potentially at risk in an adverse environment under conditions not always under our control. We leave behind the security of land and enter risky and sometimes hazardous circumstances. Consider this. Would you rather be on the dock wishing you were sailing, than sailing wishing you were on the dock? Taking action to minimize risks before getting underway will enhance your survival.
Hopefully, our experience has provided a few “lessons learned”. Be prepared for anything when you least expect it. The following perception sums it up. When there is a problem on the water, you just can’t walk home.