When the Alarm Bell in Your Head Goes Off, Listen!

By Ralph E. Ahseln

We're supposed to react when an alarm go off in our head. It’s nature's way of saying "Hey, maybe you should rethink this!" The following is story about what happens when you ignore the alarm.

A few years ago, a friend asked if I'd like to help deliver a boat down the Oregon coast to Newport, Oregon. It would be a three- or four-day trip down the Columbia River from Portland to Astoria, across the Columbia River Bar, and then south, down the coast to Newport. Normally it's a quiet, pleasant trip. Normally.

I asked my friend what he knew about the boat and its new owner. My friend said that the boat broker, a friend of his, had told him the boat was an old CSY 44, currently at a marina in Portland, that had been in charter in Florida. Its new owner lived in Newport. We decided to visit the boat and were greeted by the broker, whose first words were, "You’re welcome to go aboard but DON’T OPEN THE DOOR TO THE FORWARD HEAD. It seems that someone had pumped so much pressure into the holding tank that a hose had split and "painted" every surface. As soon as we were aboard, we went directly to the head, peeked in, and slammed the door shut. Fortunately, the aft head was clean, sort of.

Aside from the forward head, the boat itself was in rough shape—ragged looking and tired. I might have bowed out then and there but the broker told us he'd hired a professional delivery captain. Since my friend had confidence in the broker and since we’d be working with a professional, I ignored the boat’s condition and signed on.

A couple days later we got a call from the broker telling us the boat would be leaving at 0400 the following morning in order to get to Astoria by evening. We arrived at 0330 and the broker introduced us to a skinny kid he called "Captain." We all shook hands and settled in. With meeting formalities over, the Captain announced that we’d be getting underway as soon as his wife showed up with the food. This made me slightly nervous-- a little too last minute and disorganized—but she arrived a few minutes later and I relaxed.

After the food was stowed, we were all preparing to shove off when the broker calmly announced that the engine was missing a belt. Missing a belt? Back came my nerves. Normally, finding engine belts isn't difficult, but it was 4:00 a.m. so our only option was a truck stop a few miles away. My friend and I jumped in the car, rummaged around and finally found a suitable belt. But it was almost 6 a.m. by the time it was installed, which meant we’d be working our way into Astoria after dark. That was worrisome but doable. As it turned out, we weren’t quite ready to leave. When the ignition key was turned there were one or two clicks and then…silence. "Oh the battery's down," the broker announced. "The boat was just taken off the trailer a couple of days ago." Off came the cockpit hatch and there below us was the brute--a huge Perkins diesel.

It seems there was no fluid in the batteries. None. "No problem" the broker said. He was trying hard to be cheerful. He picked up a bucket, threw it over the side and poured river water into the empty cells. After about a half hour on the charger, the old Perkins belched, bucked a couple of times and started. We were off. I was apprehensive, to say the least. What I didn’t realize was that the worst was yet to come.

The Trip

The Columbia River has one big impediment to river travel: The railroad bridge at Vancouver, Washington. The bridge height is around 35 feet, which means sailboats like ours have to wait as much as an hour for a train to pass before the bridge can be opened. After we had been waiting for about 10 minutes, our captain began shouting at the bridge tender and all but threatened to run the boat into the bridge. Both my friend and I tried to reason with him saying that waiting was normal, but the Captain wouldn't listen. This is when I first started thinking that maybe the Captain was nuts.

Here’s what I would soon learn about our Captain: He had just been released from federal prison after serving 10 years for drug dealing! Of course he said he was innocent of the charges. He'd met and married his wife (twice his age) while in prison. Also while in prison, he’d taken all of the Coast Guard tests to become a professional captain.

After the bridge was finally opened, I casually mentioned to the Captain that I hadn't noticed any Nav Charts aboard. He said that the new owner was meeting us in Astoria with charts and a GPS and besides, he knew how to pilot the boat to Newport.

It got worse. After we finally got to Astoria late that evening, the new owner met us and invited us all to dinner. Tired and a bit tipsy, we checked the tide charts. In order to pass through the Columbia River entrance at the slack flood tide—the safest time-- we would have to leave promptly at 3 a.m when the tide was flooding. We set the alarm, went to sleep and woke up to a dense fog, which is fairly common in the early morning. Locals cope by using radar. Our CSY had no radar.

The Captain now showed another side to his personality—he panicked, pacing up and down, whining and cursing. We all tried to calm him, but he was in such a state of excitement and angst, no one could talk to him. We sat in the slip for two hours until the fog began lifting. The Captain’s mood lifted along with the fog and we began making preparations to leave. At that point the tide had already begun to turn and was starting to ebb. I did a little quick math: The Columbia River bar was 15 miles away and the CSY averaged about 7 knots under power, which meant we’d be passing over the bar when the tide was ebbing. An ebb tide meets incoming swells, making it the absolute worst –most dangerous--time to cross the bar!

This seems like a good time to talk about the story’s title—the mental alarm that encourages you to rethink whatever it is you are about to do. In my case, the alarm had been going off routinely since before the trip had started. (It’s tempting to say that I first "smelled trouble" when I opened the head door.) In retrospect, I love sailing offshore and badly wanted to make the trip; every time I heard the alarm, I looked for an excuse to ignore it. I hoped things would get better. Before we cast off in Astoria, I pleaded with the Captain to wait, but he’d have none of it. I should have jumped ship then and there, but I didn’t. As you’ll see, I was about to learn one of life’s most important lessons: When alarms are going off in your head, listen.

Farewell Astoria, Hello Trouble

It was still dark when we left the slip at Astoria and our captain panicked again. He was shouting: "Where do I go? I don't know where we should be!" I grabbed his coat collar and turned him around so that he could see forward. "Look at those green lights on our starboard side," I yelled. "Just follow them, they’re like street signs showing the channel" He settled down.

Since the Captain was already lost, my friend asked the owner the obvious question, "Where are the charts? "I forgot them" was his reply. Both my friend and I froze. "We then asked about the GPS-- "I forgot that too."

"How in hell are we going to navigate to Newport? " we asked. The captain, now appearing calm, said, "I know this trip by heart. I've done it lots of times. I'll just count the number of lighthouses we see," In the fog, I wondered? (Another question—one that didn’t occur to us until months later--How could he have made the trip ‘lots of times’ when he’d been in prison?

Onward we went toward the Columbia River Bar. Those who have done this trip know that you really can't see the bar until you're almost in it. The river channel heads north then bends around almost 180 degrees and heads south-southwest to the actual bar. It was now daylight as we started to make the course change to head into the bar. I looked forward and got my first big shock. The view of the channel at the Cape Disappointment section was nasty looking--big white stuff everywhere.

Now it was my turn to panic! I went below and turned the volume up on the VHF. The Guard Bar radio was saying, "Columbia River Bar advisory: Conditions at the bar are extremely dangerous; swells and wind waves to 24 feet and breaking!" (Note: Nowadays, the CG would have closed the bar to vessels our size).

I shouted to the captain that we had to turn back NOW before it was too late but he kept staring straight ahead, frozen to the wheel. No amount of yelling could jar him back to consciousness. He kept saying that he had done this a dozen times. At this point the boat's SOG must have been near 10 knots and we were headed out, fast! Then, in what seemed like a tick of the clock, we were in it. We were committed, running alongside the red buoys on the south side of the Bar. Just a few yards away was the dreaded Clatsop Spit, which is a large expanse of sand and sea that has claimed more lives than anywhere else on the West Coast. The water there was confused and whipped up to a froth. I began screaming at the captain to "Get the hell over to starboard, away from Clatsop Spit." He's yelling back at me, " I can see the red buoys, I can't see the green ones!" He's frozen in place and seems to be terrified. He wasn’t the only one. As for me, I figured that if we had wandered into Clatsop Spit, we’d just die. A kind of calm came over me, even though I was really scared. I sat in the cockpit hanging on, watching breaking waves that towered over our boat, which pitched up and down like a teeter-totter, at times going almost vertical. The only one who didn’t seem to be frightened was my friend, who was doubled over seasick.

The worst part of the bar is only about five miles long, so after an hour or so, we were out of the heaviest seas and starting to stabilize. I looked off to our starboard and saw the yellow science buoy that is just off of the bar. (More about the science buoy later.) Things were finally looking up. Then, about an hour later, the big old Perkins coughed, slowed, hiccoughed again and STOPPED! If it had died an hour earlier, I wouldn’t be writing this; we would have been on the Clatsop Spit, rolled over and sunk. One more statistic in the Graveyard of the Pacific. But, now, there we were, in calm water, no wind and with a dead engine.

A couple hours later, after many attempts by the Captain to restart the diesel, he called the Coast Guard for help. He gets on the VHF and shouts " Coast Guard Astoria, Coast Guard Astoria."

A voice comes back saying "What Coast Guard station are you calling sir?"

I yell at the captain, "Say CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT!" He does.

Cape Disappointment comes on and asks what our problem is. (At this point, I'll use the dialog verbatim (I'll never forget it)

Capt: "I'm out here and my motor quit"

CG: "Where are you sir? "

Capt: "Off the coast."

CG: "Sir, what coast?"

Capt: "From Astoria."

CG: "Sir, Do you know your coordinates?"

Capt: "No."

(I yell "About five miles due southwest of the CR science buoy.")

Capt: "We're somewhere past the… buoy."

CG: "Sir, what buoy? "

Capt: "I don't know"

CG: (with disgust) "SIR, where do you THINK you are? "

Capt: "Astoria. I don't know."

CG: "Sir, do you have a depth gauge."

Capt: "Yes."

CG: "What does it read?"

Capt: "Zero." (It hadn't worked since we'd started.)

A Voice breaks in, "Cape Disappointment, this is the Peacock. I have them spotted." (The Peacock was the Bar Pilot boat. She was going out to drop a Bar pilot onto an incoming vessel.)

CG: "Vessel in trouble, standby, all personnel in life jackets, we'll be there in 45 minutes.

Sure enough, 45 minutes to the tick, here comes a big aluminum boat. They toss us some lines and drag us back over the now calm Columbia River Bar, finally pushing us up alongside the docks at Ilwaco, Washington. Our adventure was over.

Epilogue

Anyone who has an older engine shouldn’t be too surprised that the cause of our breakdown was a failed fuel pump. The old Perkins was soon repaired but it took the owner and his captain two more tries to get the boat to Newport. Needless to say, my friend and I weren’t aboard; we finally listened to the alarms that had been doing off in our heads.