The Loss of Solution on Return Delivery

July 9, 2024

By Race Communications

On July 2nd, during the return delivery from the 2024 Newport Bermuda Race, the crew of Solution abandoned their 50-foot sloop, 200 miles south of Cape Cod, and were safely rescued by US Coast Guard Helicopter.

2024 has been an unprecedented year of ship abandonments. We are grateful for the safety of all sailors involved and their willingness to share their stories, allowing others to learn and benefit from their experiences.

The following was written by Carter Bacon, Owner and Captain of s/v Solution.

Solution was a 50-foot sloop, designed by K. Aage Nielsen and built by Paul Luke of East  Boothbay, Maine, in 1963. She was expertly designed and solidly constructed for racing  offshore in the North Atlantic, with 2 x 2 laminated 8 ply white oak frames, double planking of  7/8 mahogany over 3/8 cedar, bronze floor timbers and reinforcing members, and a plywood  deck with fiberglass sheathing. She has been maintained since 2000 to the highest standards by  Rockport Marine, and has had undergone extensive replacement of structural members on  numerous occasions whenever any questions as to her soundness were revealed by annual  inspections.  

I sailed Solution, with a crew of seven others, to Bermuda in the Newport to Bermuda race,  which began on June 21. We arrived in Bermuda on June 25 after a fast, uneventful passage. 

On June 29, I departed Bermuda at 3:00 pm with my daughter Libby for the return passage to  Solution’s home port of Rockport, Maine. We had two additional sailors aboard, Louise and  Clive Crooks. I did not know them but had interviewed them on Zoom. They were companiable  and helpful and turned out to be cool and competent when the chips were down. We planned to  sail north using modern weather prediction and communications tools to navigate as efficiently  as possible through the anticipated Gulf Stream currents and weather patterns. My regular  navigator, Jim Gabriel, assisted us with up to the minute weather plots and sailing directions  which he sent from his home by satellite phone text messages. At all times while on deck the  crew wore harnesses with inflatable PFD’s, and were tethered to jack lines or strong points. 

Another vessel which had participated in the race, Orion, left at approximately the same time and  was visible to us on AIS for the entire passage. On the morning of July 1, Orion hailed us on  VHF channel 16 and the caller introduced himself as “Forrest,” captain of Orion’s return crew.  He said they were heading for Boston, and said we should feel free to call on Orion for  assistance at any time. I thanked him and offered the same.  

The passage began with moderate southerly breezes, coming from directly behind us as we  headed north. The wind was insufficient to give us the desired speed and we proceeded under  power with the mainsail set, making about six knots. We were carrying a roller-furled genoa jib  on our headstay, which we deployed from time to time with little effect. As of 7 pm on June 30,  we were 150 miles north of Kitchen Shoals reef, having averaged six knots since our departure. 

During the next three hours the southerly breeze freshened until we were able to shut off the  engine. Over the same period we picked up a northerly “warm eddy” current of at least two  knots. Our speed increased dramatically. We often hit ten knots and we had uninterrupted good 

sailing under the mainsail alone for the next 24 hours. At 5 pm on July 1 we were 325 miles  north of Kitchen Shoals, having covered 175 miles in the previous 22 hours for an average speed  of almost eight knots.  

At that time we were experiencing steady winds of more than 20 knots. We were still sailing  with a full mainsail and had rolled out the genoa which was giving us added speed. The forecast  indicated that winds would increase to 25 knots and then decrease and shift into the west over the  next 12 hours, followed by increasing winds as we neared our planned exit from the Gulf Stream.  Around 6 pm, as a precautionary measure, I put a double reef in the mainsail and we rolled in the  genoa, leaving only a small handkerchief rolled out for balance.  

Clive and Louise went below at about 7 pm leaving Libby and me on watch. Once below, Clive  slipped as the boat lurched and hit his head on a cabin handhold. He told Louise and me that he  was OK. In hindsight, it appears that he suffered a concussion. He went to bed shortly after the  fall. 

The passage proceeded uneventfully, except for two hours of torrential rains, until early in the  morning on July 2. By this time we had left the warm eddy and entered a northbound meander  of the Gulf Stream, which gave us the continued benefit of a northerly current. After midnight,  the strong winds which had been pushing us steadily northward abated somewhat and shifted  from south to west, creating difficult sailing conditions, with confused seas. In response we  started the engine, which gave us the power we needed to punch through the waves. I did not  increase sail, expecting that strong winds would again materialize. The “ride” was  uncomfortable. We bounced around, but there was no pounding and we continued to make good  time because we were riding a favorable current at the edge of the Gulf Stream. Around 1 am I  felt confident enough about the way the boat was behaving to go below. Clive and Louise came  up to take a turn on watch, and Libby and I turned in. Clive said he felt OK, with only a slight  headache. 

At 3:30 am, after a few hours of motor-sailing, the engine shut down. The cause was probably  sludge from the bottom of the fuel tank stirred up by all of the bouncing around. The engine  started revving and slowing, a sign that its fuel supply was being choked off. It stopped on its  own before it could be shut it down. In a calm harbor with no rolling I could replace the fuel  filter and get the engine back on line in twenty minutes. In a choppy sea, getting the engine  restarted would be an almost impossible challenge. It would have to wait. We continued to sail without incident, although at a reduced speed now that we had lost the engine. At about 4:00 am  I joined Clive on watch in the cockpit. Louise retired to the cabin. 

I decided that we should head for Cape Cod, then 230 miles away, which was the closest shelter.  This would take a day and a half off the time it would take us to get to a safe harbor. I did not  think I had a realistic chance of getting the engine running and it would be only a matter of time  before our batteries would run low if they could not be charged. It seemed dangerous to try to  get all the way to Rockport. 

As the morning progressed the wind continued to shift, as predicted, into the north. We were  sailing close hauled on the port tack in an ever more easterly direction. At some point I tacked,

in order to put the boat on a westerly course towards Cape Cod. This course would also take us  out of the Gulf Stream which promised to become more turbulent as the wind increased. I hoped  we would get a favorable shift at some point that would allow us to fetch the Pollock Rip  Channel into Nantucket Sound without tacking. I also considered sailing directly to Newport if  we could not fetch the Cape.  

After the sun rose, I set up the inner headstay and set a “staysail” (small jib) on that stay,  providing Solution with a balanced sail profile that served the boat well in a wide range of wind  conditions. Clive was on the helm during these operations, which consumed at least half an  hour. He steered well, keeping the boat reasonably level and avoiding crashing seas, so that I  could work on the pitching foredeck. Once the staysail was set, Clive retired to the cabin and  Libby joined me on watch. It was around 6 am. 

Shortly after Clive retired, Louise popped her head up through the companionway to tell me that  Clive was nauseous and appeared to have a concussion, but he was conscious, calm and  cheerful. Louise had him tucked into his bunk and was caring for him. She was cool, collected  and all business. Clive was in good hands. The wind was increasing. I concentrated on trying to  steer around the worst of the waves. 

By 7 am, the wind had increased substantially. The current was running fast (almost four knots) indicating that we were near the northern “wall,” or boundary, of the Stream, where the current  runs the fastest. The waves coming from the north were being “stacked up” by the southerly  current. As we ascended a wave, Solution would occasionally come down hard, with a loud  bang, rather than the easy landing we are accustomed to. This meant she was landing more on  her side than on her bottom. Two of these “bangs,” which came sometime before 7:30 am, were  the loudest and most bone-jarring I have ever experienced on any boat. I now believe that these  hard landings opened a seam in Solution’s hull. 

Suddenly, shortly after the last, and largest, of our hard landings, we were in calmer seas. Our  instruments indicated that we had exited the Gulf Stream. The waves were still large and  turbulent but they were spaced out to their normal distance and we were sailing fast upwind with  easy motion under a double reefed main and small staysail. However, the wind was also rising,  to a steady 26 knots, with gusts to 30. The boat was heeled way over and I felt there was too  much pressure on the rig. I dropped the mainsail, the boat’s angle of heel decreased, and we  were sailing comfortably and with plenty of speed with just a staysail (a small jib), something  Solution had done on a number of previous passages in similar conditions. We were just  fetching Cape Cod. 

After dropping the main and sailing for a few minutes under the staysail alone, I felt confident  enough about our sailing situation to hand the helm over to Libby and go below to check on  Clive and Louise. It was a little after 8 am. 

Clive and Louise were secure in their pilot berths, but the cabin looked like a bomb had hit. All  kinds of gear and clothing crammed the floor of the cabin where it had fallen during the time  spent battling the waves. I heard water sloshing below the floorboards. I opened the engine  compartment at the rear of the cabin and could see that the water was quite deep in the bilges. I was not too concerned at first because the automatic bilge pump had been off, so I turned it on,  expecting that the water would be pumped out in less than ten minutes (based on many previous  experiences). 

I quickly picked up the cabin sufficiently to remove any hazards. I was then able to lift the  floorboards around the cabin and check all the through-hull fittings that admitted sea water for  various purposes. These all appeared in proper order with hoses attached. However, the bilges  were so full of water I could not detect if and where any water might be entering the boat.   

Then I went back to the engine compartment to check on the pumping progress. The water had  risen, not fallen, in spite of the high-capacity pump. As I watched, our emergency pump, located  just above the primary pump, was activated when the water level reached its float switch, but the  level kept rising, although at a slower rate because we now had two large pumps going. I do not  recall the exact capacity of these pumps, but they could each pump hundreds of gallons per hour,  a number that seemed astounding to me when I installed them several years ago. I checked to  make sure they were both running and then began a second search for the source of such a large  leak. By then there was no way to even guess where the water was coming in. All of the bilge  was under water and water was coming over the leeward floorboards when we rolled. It could  have been coming from anywhere. 

I was out of options. At 8:36, I called my brother Wells, an experienced pilot and sailor, on the  Iridium satellite phone (which worked like a charm! What a relief!). I told him the situation and  asked him to notify the Coast Guard and take charge of all communications. Minutes later he  called back with a phone number to a CG officer. I called the number and was advised that an  airplane and helicopter were being dispatched from Cape Cod, 200 miles away. The officer  directed me to activate Solution’s EPIRB beacon. I did so at about 9:00 am and placed the unit  in a cup holder in the cockpit. I did not secure it to the boat. 

After speaking with the Coast Guard I tried calling Orion, the vessel that had been sailing near us  since we left Bermuda, but got no response. Later in the morning Orion heard the radio chatter  and broke in, offering to come to our aid. The CG pilot in charge thanked them for the offer and  asked them to stand by. I then called them and thanked them for their concern. They had not  heard my earlier call because they were busy on deck. Two hours later, as I was making the  decision to abandon Solution, Orion appeared on the horizon. 

The plane arrived around 10:00 am and dropped the pump in the water near us. It had a 400-foot floating rope attached which should have made it easy for us to sail close to it, pick up the rope  and reel in the pump container. However, when I tried to maneuver close to the rope I found the  boat unresponsive. We sailed right over the rope and then spent an hour trying to maneuver back  to it in the high winds and large waves. Solution was so sluggish she would not come up to the  wind for a tack. Each time I wanted to change directions I had to jibe, losing any windward  distance I might have gained. Later, I realized that we were so full of water that the kind of  steering required was impossible because the boat was so sluggish. 

After we spent more than an hour or more trying to retrieve the pump, the CG pilot who was  flying circles overhead radioed to say that the helicopter would arrive soon, that it was at its maximum distance from base and carried only enough fuel to stay overhead for 50 minutes. He  advised us that our choices were to abandon Solution or allow the helicopter to deliver a second  pump directly onto our deck. There was not enough time to do both. It was my choice. 

It was an easy but painful decision to abandon Solution. She was clearly sinking. I estimated  that the water was rising an inch every ten minutes and it was now completely covering the  floorboards, with 8 inches to go before it covered the main batteries located beneath the lower  bunks in the main cabin. This could be two to six hours away. Once the batteries were  submerged there was no way to know whether or for how long they would continue to provide  power to the electric pumps before shorting out. Even if we got the bigger pump aboard and it  got ahead of the flooding, we would still have to make it 200 miles without a pump failure  through heavy adverse winds and seas, which were not expected to abate until late on July 3. There was no hope of restarting the engine until we reached calm water which meant that the  batteries could not be charged to power our pumps, assuming we could keep them from  becoming submerged. I assumed we had hull damage and had no way to assess its extent or the increased rate of flooding that would result if we started to push the hull. If that wasn’t enough,  there was a crewmember on board with a possible concussion. We had no choice but to go. I  told the CG pilot we would be ready to move immediately when the helicopter arrived. 

When the helicopter arrived, the pilot directed me to turn 180 degrees and place the boat on an  easterly course. After making this turn, the staysail was backed, with the sheet pulling from the  windward side. The boat moved along steadily at 1-3 knots, without any further need for  steering, allowing the helicopter pilot to gauge his approach. 

The actual rescue was at once dramatic and anti-climactic. Each of us jumped in the water in  turn. A frogman was lowered, harnessed up the “victim” and the pair was hoisted 80 feet to the  helicopter. I had watched this so many times on TV that there was nothing surprising except the  tight grip of the harness. The competence and coordination of the CG crew was, not surprisingly,  as close to perfection as humans get. The process was repeated four times and the pilot headed  for Cape Cod at approximately 12:15 pm. 

Although Clive was suffering from a possible concussion, he had no problem getting into his  safety gear, coming up on deck, jumping over the side and ascending to the helicopter. As soon  as he was aboard, CG personnel examined him and performed various tests while in radio  contact with a physician.

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