A couple weeks into our 21-day Atlantic crossing from the Canary Islands to Barbados we were sailing along nicely while I was fast asleep in my bunk. It was that magic time when things always seem to go wrong – around 2am. I was awoken by a loud thud and a strong jerk which felt like the boat had come to a sudden stop. It was all hands on deck. The boat had indeed stopped moving, though the sails were still full and trying hard to pull the boat.

Had we run aground in the middle of the Atlantic? We checked the bilge for any intrusion of water and after finding a slow trickle we grabbed some flashlights and checked around the boat. And there they were: faded yellow buoys attached to an old fishing net surrounding our boat. We pulled up on the net and started cutting it back but it just kept going and going like one of those magic handkerchiefs. In the beam of the flashlight we could see a thick line leading down into the deep dark sea. We later learned the net had been hung up on the propeller and broken our strut in half.

After having seen but one boat in the past two weeks my mom suddenly saw a light on the horizon. We called them on the VHF and they responded immediately. We told them of our troubles and they offered to help. When they pulled up next to us we were looking at a 55 meter (180 feet) luxury yacht – the Lady Ghislane of London – then owned by British billionaire and member of parliament Robert Maxwell.

They offered to have their divers cut us loose in the morning but until then they did not want to waste time by waiting around. They tossed us a line and proceeded to tow us through the rest of the night at 10-15 knots! We had never seen those kind of speeds on our boat and it was not without some damage.  We had a few bent stanchions and nearly ripped the cleats out of the deck before we attached the tow line to the mast.

At first light their divers cut away the net and line.* We had a slow leak the rest of the crossing and in Barbados hauled the boat to make repairs. Since we were participants in the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) our story was written up in the 1994 edition of Jimmy Cornell’s book “World Cruising Handbook“.

This event took place in 1987 when I was 14 and cruising with my parents. I recall not being scared at all. On the contrary. Something was finally going on! After two weeks at sea it was a welcome relief from the routine.

How would I react to something like this happening today? Panic comes to mind. Being over a thousand miles from land without a GPS-enabled EPIRB (GPS didn’t exist back then) trapped in a piece of rope attached to an unknown item in the abyss and unable to move forward is not a favorable situation.

In the years leading up to our current cruising adventures I still had that same fearless attitude and didn’t think I would be scared venturing far offshore on our own boat. Boy was I wrong. Something about growing up and learning about everything that could go wrong has made me a lot more fearful of the sea and traveling by boat.

The good thing about no longer being fearless is that I now think (obsess?) about everything that could go wrong and try to plan accordingly. Working as hydrographers, Mike and I were lucky to have had our share of safety courses and monthly drills where we learned how to deal with most major emergencies.

The next time you find yourself sitting in your cockpit while underway, look around. What is the first thing you would do if someone fell overboard that instant? Or one of the shrouds failed? Or a battery overheated and started smoldering? Are you ready for Murphy to take over your boat?

  • We asked the crew of the Lady Ghislane how we could pay them for their efforts. They declined and instead asked us to make a donation to the UK volunteer maritime search and rescue organizations, which my parents did after we arrived in the US. The owner of the yacht tragically fell off his lovely ship a few years after our chance meeting.

This post was written as part of a blog-hop. Visit the Monkey’s Fist website for posts about this topic written by other cruisers or check out these topics:  

Why do we Cruise
Relationships Aboard
Pink and Blue Jobs Aboard
Leave it or Bring it: Stuff
Swag and Approaching the Natives
Clothes and Laundry

7 Responses

  1. Verena – I was a cruising kid too, and I was just recently realizing this, that I don’t remember being scared, when the sh*t hit the fan. Now that I am the grown-up, I definitely feel the fear.

  2. Great story! My goodness how lucky you were to have that yacht right there. It’s too bad about the owner later in life though.

    I also felt fearless as a younger person. Maybe it was because nothing truly awful had happened yet so I had nothing to compare anything to. Now as an adult I am very much more fearful, because like you said, I know that we aren’t invinsible and what can go wrong.

  3. Age (and a child) has definitely brought more caution to my life! Since we’re beginner sailors, I know we still have quite a bit of “Firsts” that will be scary, but hopefully exhilarating too! Love the pic of you and your mom … how cool to have sailors for parents!

  4. I am not a sailor, and I do understand the problem of fear.
    In my case it is just the fear of starting another business, knowing now some of what can go wrong makes it very hard to just go ahead and do it anyway.
    So I do have a lot of respect to all you sailors out there, doing it anyway and having fun in the process.

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