When you’re on a boat, you have to be present with all your senses at all times. With thorough preparation, a lot of difficulties and problems can be avoided. On our passage from the anchorage Santo Domingo at the entrance to the Bahia Conceptión, we find out first hand how fast a situation can turn into a nightmare. We’re motoring straight into an emergency situation that we very likely could easily have avoided.
Since there was cell phone reception in our anchorage called Santo Domingo, it was time for a weather briefing. The forecast indicated westerly winds of up to 25 knots ahead for part of the route. Neat! We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. Because on the one hand that would have meant that we could actually have sailed for once, on the other hand these wind speeds would have been an important experience for Pati and me. Wind forecasts in the Sea of Cortez should always be interpreted with a little caution. The winds are (like everywhere) influenced by many local conditions. The experience of the more seasoned Sea of Cortez sailors is that you have to be on your guard at all times.
Unfortunately, cell phone reception also had its disadvantages. We received news and photos from the Boatyard in Puerto Peñasco. Contrary to our crystal clear instructions to manager Salvador as well as Pancho, one of the workers, the sanding work on our boat was already underway almost 24 hours after our departure. We couldn’t have expressed ourselves more clearly before leaving. Wait until the beginning of the coming week, check whether the primer is 100% dry and then decide whether it‘s sand or not. All of our requirements were ignored. And we didn’t like what we saw. We therefore instructed the boatyard to stop all work on the boat immediately. We’ll take care of the situation once we get back to Puerto Peñasco.
Here we go!
We shortened our time at anchor in Santo Domingo. Instead of staying overnight, we set out after a few hours to meet our friends on SV Alegría and SV Cavu further south and take advantage of the forecast wind. When it got dark, we lifted the anchor at 8 p.m. in order to move comfortably further south through the night. Everything went smoothly and so we chugged out into the sunset. We have to explore the Bahia Conceptión another time. There is still a lot to see.
Out into the night
On the Sea Note, the night watches were redistributed every day. This time, Ray decided to take the first watch until 10:00 p.m. Pati and I retired to our cabin for a few hours of sleep. I’ve noticed that I only sleep with one half of my brain on boats. Even while sleeping, I seem to register all movements and sounds of the boat. So I wake up even to small changes. Although this is beneficial for alertness, my sleep quality suffers a little.
All of a sudden Pati and I were wide awake. Something had bumped along the hull right next to our heads and Ray had switched the engine to idle. That’s not good. We were on our feet immediately. What happened? Ray brought us the news: We’d motored straight into a fishing net. A nightmare for every sailor and possibly an emergency situation. Small orange plastic floats ran along the top of the net from the stern of Sea Note, lined up and out into the darkness. The first thought was the boat hook. Maybe the net was just caught in the rudder? The boat hook didn’t help. The net was probably caught in the propeller as well.
Help is near?
Suddenly we heard the noise of an outboard engine and saw flashlights in the dark. A panga was moving towards us. It turned out that the fishermen had just laid out the net and were still nearby. When they arrived at Sea Note, they evaluated the situation with their flashlights. Our fears came true. The propeller was thickly wrapped in their fishing net. Together with the fishermen in their panga we stared the thousand yard stare. Then negotiations began.
Unfortunately we didn’t have an interpreter on board. We don’t speak enough Spanish, the fishermen don’t speak enough English. So we communicated mostly by gestures and the little we knew of each others language. The fishermen’s first thought was of course their net. Most of them live in poor conditions and a broken net doesn’t bring any fish. So their idea was that we should get into the water in the middle of the night and free the. Of course! Let’s go! Not. A night dive would certainly not happen.
The next input from the fishermen was the following: “Why don’t you just anchor right here, and wait until tomorrow morning, we’ll come by first thing in the morning and free the net!” one of the boys explained to us. Good idea, but rather difficult for with almost 60 meters of water depth. Since we unfortunately do not carry as much anchor chain as a container ship, this was not an option either. I had another idea. We had to be freed from the net anyway. How about if the fishermen towed us back to the anchorage with their panga?
Great idea David! Now translate your idea into Spanish! My Spanish skills are advanced enough to order beer, but that was a bit too much to ask. So I took a notepad to hand to depict my flash of inspiration. The result was a masterpiece that even put a grin on the face of the fishermen. Despite my drawing skills, they weren’t very fond of the idea. So it was clear that what the Pangueros wanted to prevent had to happen – we had to be cut free.
Before the knife could be used, the net had to be pulled in. Its size only now showed. When the fishermen went to one end of the net, we could hardly believe our eyes. It was several hundred meters long. And we had managed to hit the net perfectly in the middle. Strrrrrike! It took over an hour for the fishermen to haul in the net. In addition, the Panga‘s outboard stopped for a brief moment and they got tangled up in their own net. I am quoting Andy Brehme, a German football player: “If you have shit on your boots, you’ve got shit on your boots”. With a heavy heart they then cut the net on both sides. At least, their catch consisted of around 20 massive yellowtails. We could have taken great photos during the whole event. However, this would have been completely inappropriate at this moment, so you‘ll have to imagine the situation taking place.
Before the fishermen took off, they assured us that there would be hardly any wind or current overnight. If they didn’t know about local conditions, then who would? So we prepared to let Sea Note drift overnight while we took turns with night watch. With the first light of day, we would check the situation again. During the watch it was particularly important to keep an eye on our distance from the shoreline. Should we drift too close to the coast, the last emergency solution would have been to drop anchor at a suitable depth. Fortunately, the wind and current were on our side and so we simply drifted back in the same direction we had come from. Not to imagine what would have happened in rough sea and wind conditions. And the forecast 25 knots of wind did not even blow in the slightest. We had all the gods of the sea on our side.
The next morning
The next morning the time had come. A morning swim was due. Conditions were safe and calm enough that I could venture a dive under the boat. Equipped with diving goggles, snorkel, suit and fins, I got to work. First of all, the rest of the net that was still hanging around the rudder had to be removed. Otherwise I could run the risk of ending up as a catch myself. Then I turned my attention to the propeller. Although Ray had reacted very quickly, the situation wasn’t looking very rosy. The whole prop was tightly wrapped in fishing gear.
A toolbox for divers
I worked my way forward for almost two hours. It was tedious, because I not only had to find out how to hold myself in position as effectively as possible, but also to be careful not to cut my hands open on the line cutter on the propeller shaft or get caught between the dinghy and the hull. Since I’m anything but proficient in freediving, I was only able to stay below the surface for a short time. Ray was on deck rummaging through his tool boxes, Pati was the middleman and assistant in the dinghy, I was the diver. So we tried our hand at cutting tools across Ray’s repertoire. Unfortunately, a beautiful, homemade knife from Ray sunk to the sea floor, never to be seen again.
Thanks for nothing!
After a few hours, help actually showed up. The “Cruisers Net” on the single sideband radio turned out to be completely worthless in emergencies. Although cruisers were asked at the beginning of the session whether someone had problems or was in need, we were banished to the end of the radio session. The weather forecast and stories about the latest discovery in taco catering seemed more important. So much for that. No one answered our calls locally too, although about 10 boats were in the Santo Domingo anchor bay, only 8 nautical miles (approx. 14 km) away. Thanks for nothing! We were apparently on our own.
Rescue is near!
But suddenly things happened in quick succession. A panga with a diver approached. A diving compressor was on board, too. Another sailboat appeared almost at the same time. The owner had picked up our call from the radio of another boat next to her and headed our way. She had rushed off, and not the owner of thecradio. What is wrong with people? It was easy for the diver to remove the remaining fishing gear, which was wrapped tightly around the shaft and even melted by the immense tension on the propeller shaft. A short inspection dive afterwards showed no damage. It’s unbelievable how lucky we were. Sea Note was suddenly alive and kicking again and our journey could continue.
What do we learn from this incident?
While not exactly a positive memory, we could learn a lot from the rendez-vous with the fishing net. When you get out of such situations safely, it is important that you learn and take as much with you as you can. These are our key findings:
Going completely crazy and panicking does absolutely nothing. Letting stress cloud your senses leads to wrong decisions and possibly to another chain reaction of events. During the whole time we as the crew on board Sea Note and also the crew of the fishing boat remained absolutely calm. This to evaluate the situation and make the right decisions. But we also had all the conditions on our side. The sea and the wind were calm, the fishermen extremely helpful, the distance and water depth sufficient to be able to react slowly and deliberately.
Keep more distance from the coast!
If we had steered Sea Note away from the coastline immediately after leaving the Bahia Conceptión, the chance of catching the net would have been significantly reduced. Especially at night it makes no sense to move near the coast anyway, there’s nothing to see. It’s dark.
Be on your guard!
There was no way to avoid the net. We had absolutely no chance. Fishing gear from local fishermen is mostly poorly or not at all marked and therefore invisible at night. It is essential that you regularly scan your surroundings 360 ° at any time of the day. This may not help with fishing nets, but it does help in all sorts of other situations. Even at anchor, I regularly checked the area before this incident. There is simply no getting around that, at least for me personally. No matter what time of day or night.
Can you think of another point? Let us know in the comments!
The wild ride continues
So thankfully the whole experience ended on a good note. It could have turned out differently. Either way, it was an enormously important experience, which fortunately we could experience on another boat with an experienced owner. The onward journey was uneventful, and so we anchored late in the evening in an anchorage by Isla Coronados. Lo and behold – half the Cabrales Boatyard was there too. SV Cavu, SV Alegria, SV Catspaw and SV Skookum V. A lot of familiar faces. Nice! So it was no surprise that we gathered in the cockpit of the Sea Note late at night and indulged in a beer or two, tequila and rum. All of this in a starry night and sparkling bioluminescence in the water. Everything was good. There was a lot to talk about.
We hope, of course, that we will never get into such a situation again. Do you still want to pay us something into our emergency money box? You can do so either with a monthly contribution on Patreon or without having to register, if you click on the button below the text. Many Thanks!