January 18, 2008, 14:00 hrs, about 150 miles NNE of Panama: I’ve just stepped down below decks and I’m standing beside the chart table, taking the oilskin off, when the boat starts a very fast roll to starboard: I think “she’s not going to stop!!” and I find myself tumbling over and being bombarded by various objects which are flying around.
The boat finally stops rolling, leaning on its side, and while I try to regain my balance I stare at the flow of water cascading inside from a small gap left open in the companionway: “if she does not right herself quickly, we are going to sink”, I think while several seconds pass by and then, suddenly, the boat rights up and I fly around again!
Alarms are beeping around me, but my first priority is to go out and check what happened to Barbara, who might be in the water; I have to crawl through the remnants of our shredded sprayhood and then I find the cockpit in a mess. A quick glance towards the mast: it’s still there! But first things first, Barbara is on the outside of the boat, hanging like a koala from the lifelines! The dodger which was tied to the lifelines where Barbara is now hanging has been shredded away, so I can manage to help her while she crawls under the lifelines back on deck.
The windvane’s wooden vane is no longer there, so one of us takes the helm and then we start checking around for damages: the mast is still in place, but the starboard crosstrees are bent and the shrouds are slack. Our horse-shoe lifebuoy is hanging from the crosstrees, still attached to its automatic danbuoy, which has inflated.
Everything which was on the starboard deck has been swept away, the stanchions are bent and the lifelines slack, the teak cockpit floor has disappeared together with other stuff, and the wind pilot is twisted, besides having lost its vane.
We roll a bit further the headsail and steer with the wind on the port quarter in order to leave the slack shrouds on the downwind side, and recover all the lines which have been swept overboard and might get trapped in the rudder or the propeller.
All electronics are off, and the engine (after a quick check) does not start! Below decks, all lockers on the starboard side are flooded, the nautical charts are soaked, computers and other electronics are awash, the main switchboard has been flooded as well and there are beverage cans and other stuff stockpiled everywhere on the starboard side of the boat.
The main GPS receiver is not working, and the spare one is full of water, the mast-head VHF aerial is bent but strangely both the SSB and the satphone are OK, although we will have to use them very sparingly as the only surviving sources of electricity are the wind generator and the solar panels and the first priority will be to feed the navlights.
We take the handheld GPS out of the emergency grab-bag, just to discover that it eats the batteries very quickly and therefore we will have to switch it on only from time to time.
Next job, emptying the bilges (one of the electric pumps does not prime, so we have to use the bucket!) and then we start checking the mess, putting stuff back to where it belonged and trying to salvage the soaked items. Luckily we manage to put back in operation the windvane, despite it’s bent, so at least we do not have to hand-steer and the wind blows from the NE, allowing us to sail on port tack towards Panama. We are very worried though because a small wind shift to the North would send us towards the dangerous San Blas islands, with no engine and limited sailing capability.
During the 18:00 hrs radio check we manage to talk to the other Rally boats (most of which are already at anchor in the San Blas islands) and we inform them of our intention to go straight to Panama. We will later learn that they informed the Panamian authorities about our situation, and they in turn informed the Italian Coast Guard who started calling us at regular intervals on the satphone: there was not much they could do, but it was comforting to know that we were being monitored.
24 hours after the accident, the situation on board was a bit more under control and we were in radio contact with an italian freighter which had altered course to pass near us, upon request from the Rome MRCC: again, they cannot do much, as we are not in need to abandon-ship, but it’s anyway a much needed morale-booster: we are very tired and stressed, and Panama is still another day away!
Just minutes before the freighter “Città di Roma” overtook us while blowing their whistle, our engine decided to start!! Just on time, as the wind was fading away and we were forced to hand-steer under engine all the way to Panama, that we reached after another 24 hours; totally exhausted, but we had done it!