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On Living Aboard

The decision to have Patty O’, our live aboard Huckins, hauled for bottom work was made for us on a return trip from a nice weekend at Block Island. We were west bound at eight knots, south of Fishers Island about a mile and a half off Wilderness Point. Suddenly there was a loud bang, followed by a crunch. The starboard engine quit and there was a lot of vibration from the port before I pulled it into neutral. We drifted to a stop. Shutting down the port engine I ran to the end of the sundeck. Peering aft, I tried to see what it was we’d hit. Seeing nothing, I scrambled below, after pushing a button on our GPS plotter to lock in our position. Opening the lazarette hatch, and grabbing the flashlight clamped to the hatch cover and shining it below, I couldn’t see any water which was a relief. Next came the engine room hatch. Still no water, just a trickle, a bit more than usual from the starboard stuffing box. Moving forward to the lower helm, and giving the wheel a turn, my heart sank. The wheel wouldn’t move at all, telling me one or both rudders were jammed. By now the Blonde, my wife had come below. She said nothing, knowing I’d let her know once I had all the information. Going forward and lifting the hatch, the forward bilge showed nothing. Back on the sundeck, and grabbing the binoculars from their case I scanned aft. For just a second I thought I saw something but wasn’t sure. Back below again I pulled Mustard, our little Century runabout close. Climbing aboard, it was clear after checking that she had escaped any damage which told me whatever we hit was at least two feet beneath the surface. Next was a call to the Coast Guard on channel 16 to let them know what was going on. “Are you in any immediate danger?” she asked. “Negative.” I replied. She then requested we don our lifejackets, which we already had. I explained that we subscribe to commercial towing service and that we would call them as soon as we finished here. “Roger that.” She said. “Request that you call this station every fifteen minutes on this channel pending the arrival of the tow boat. Also, request you deploy your anchor.” I agreed and then turned on my cell phone hoping there’d be a signal. Thankfully, there was. It’s so much easier talking to a contractor in situations like this, without having everyone with a radio for several miles listening. The tow boat captain answered on the first ring and there was little doubt they had monitored my conversation with the Coast Guard. “We’re underway and should be there in twenty or thirty minutes.” He said. Back below I was relieved to see that nothing had changed. The Blonde remained on the bridge while I ran out the anchor. The water here was a little over a hundred feet deep and although the anchor would find the bottom, it was doubtful that it would catch. It would, however, slow our drift. The tide was just past high slack, which meant we would remain stationary which was a good thing; it wouldn’t be good to be swept without power into Long Island Sound. To communicate from the sundeck and below we use small walkie-talkies in the Family Radio Service. These operate in the ultra-high frequency band and are relatively short range. This keeps your conversations virtually private. They clip very easily on a belt. Mine came to life as the Blonde told me that she could see the flashing strobe of the tow boat coming around the east end of the Island through Wicopesset Passage. Calling the Coast Guard, I informed them that we could see the tow boat. I also asked if they had a telephone number I could call rather than taking up space on VHF. She gave me the number and I called it to make sure I had it right. They were soon alongside and the captain asked a few questions. Because there was no flooding, he agreed to tow us to our yard. I was very glad we had a plan, as this would have been a several hundred dollar trip otherwise. Handing me two strange looking clamps he said, “We’ll tighten these around both shafts so they don’t pinwheel.” Giving me a quick lesson in their operation, they were simple to deploy and obviously effective. He also handed me a twin to the little radio on my belt. “Got that covered.” I said. “She has one too.” “Good.” He said. “We use channel 5. We’ll all be on the same page.” We did a radio check and he came below with me to double check what I said, and to apply the clamps himself. Going forward, I retrieved the anchor and the captain backed the tow boat and handled me a bridle to reeve through the forward chocks and secure to the bit on the foredeck. “We’ll start slow just to be sure everything holds as it is.” He said. “Then we’ll gradually work up to 5 knots.” “Sounds good to me. I’m going to remain below, she’ll be on the bridge.” I asked the Blonde to load up our bail out bag, just in case. This gathered all our important paperwork and valuables in one easy to carry container. The next several hours were extremely stressful for me. Moving from the lazarette to the engine room and forward constantly, everything thankfully remained the same. I checked with the tow boat captain every ten minutes. The Blonde called the Coast Guard every fifteen. Entering the river, I called Ray, the yard foreman. Turns out it wasn’t only the tow boat captain who monitored channel 13. “I figured you’d call. Let me know when you’re close and I’ll be there.” It was dark when we got to the yard. Ray was waiting with one of the yard guys. Getting Mustard into her own slip, the tow boat crew along with Ray and his helper, Patty O’ was guided into the travel lift well. The Blonde got off and Ray lifted Patty O’ clear of the water. The yard lights revealed the extensive damage to her bottom. Both props were beyond repair. The starboard shaft was severely bent as was the skeg, far to the right. The starboard rudder was jammed up against the bottom, which explained the unresponsive helm. The port shaft was bent as well, but nowhere near the extent of the starboard shaft. Ray settled Patty O’ onto one of the yard dollies and then brought the stairs with the fork lift. The Blonde positively hates climbing a ladder to board the boat. She went up and packed an overnight bag for both of us, while I settled with the tow boat captain. As I was doing that, a pickup truck with Coast Guard markings pulled up. Answering all their questions took about fifteen minutes. Ray and his helper left, explaining that they’d move Patty O’ in the morning. We were both physically and emotionally exhausted by this time. While I was dealing with the tow boat guy, Ray, and the Coast Guard, the Blonde had called and gotten us a room at the motel we use when we can’t stay on the boat for one reason or another. Once there, we both realized that we hadn’t eaten since morning and were famished. Next stop was the diner across the street from the yard where I often have breakfast. I think both of us were asleep before our heads hit the pillow. In the morning, the Blonde called her office and went back to sleep. At the yard, I watched as Ray and his crew moved Patty O’ to a spot beside the big storage shed. At my request, they shored her up higher than they usually do. This gave me the ability to get a closer look at the damage. Calling our insurance company, they said that they would have an adjuster out as soon as possible, which turned out to be sometime the next day. This meant that nothing could be done until he had a look. My inspection showed me that it would be best to replace everything. It took the rest of the morning to order all the parts. Two propellers; I decided not to use our spare. Both rudders, which had to be custom made. All four through hull stuffing boxes, two shafts as well as both skegs completed the order. The dollar total was impressive, but I felt comfortable. I called my friend Ritchie, who knows wood better than anyone I know to come take a look at the hull forward. Fortunately, he was free, or so he said. He took his time looking at the hull from all angles and measuring things I never knew needed measuring. Finishing, he pronounced the hull sound, attesting to Huckins superior construction ethics. The only sign she had hit anything, other than the disaster aft, was a gouge in the keel. Once finished, I sprang for lunch. Next morning at ten, my phone rang. It was the insurance adjuster and I was delighted to find out that he was a marine surveyor who had inspected Patty O’ in the past. He knew wooden boats and had given a glowing report of her condition. Arriving shortly after noon, he tsk-tsked at the damage. Telling him that I had already ordered replacement parts, he nodded his agreement that’s what he would recommend. Another question, who was going to perform the repairs? Telling him it was going to be me, he explained that by doing it myself, my rate was most likely not going to go up. Wondering to myself why that would make a difference, I bought lunch for the second day in a row. Back at the motel later that afternoon, I brought the Blonde up to date on everything. “You still happy with living aboard?” I asked. “Does the bear… never mind.” She said. “Let’s go get something to eat.

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