To see as much of the world as we can,
Using the smallest carbon footprint we can,
Spending the least amount of money we can,
Making as many friends we can.

Team Red Cruising

Mayday Mayday Mayday

Started: Green Cove Springs, Governor's Creek, 30°00.72′N 081°41.26′W

Anchored: Marsh Island, 30°23.74′N 081°30.41′W

Log: 42.6 nm. Time 7½ hr. Engine 7½ hr.

We've heard mayday calls before. They've always been far enough away that we haven't been able to see what's happening or help in any way.

Today was different.

Air temperature started at about 1°-2°C in the morning. The high might have been 10°C. It was cold. With a brisk 10 kt wind from the N.

When we were docked in Ortega River, I had added a kind of "keeper" to the anchor system. It's objective is to keep the anchor from flailing when it gets bounced off it's roller. The keeper, however, binds up the chain under some circumstances. We had to undo the keeper just to get the anchor up.

We started the day with CA freezing up on the bowsprit, struggling with the ground tackle.

The sky was clear, the sun bright and cold. The river was beautiful.

At about 13:00 we arrived at the F. E. C. RR bridge. Which is under repair. We had to wait 10 minutes for a train to pass. Then we had to wait another 20 minutes for the poor bridge operators and maintenance workers to open the bridge open for us. We watched as we circled. A lot of workers in hardhats had to spend a lot of time wandering around.

The main street bridge didn't involve as big a delay. But it did require us to wait while the maintenance workers moved their trucks off the bridge span.

By 14:00 we were through the bridges and making our way down the St. John's to the channel between Marsh Island and Blount Island. We anchored there once before, and liked it. It's a comfy day's run from there up to Fernandina or down to St. Augustine.

Switch and Answer on 22 Alpha

There are two high, fixed highway bridges downstream from the Main Street Lift Bridge: the Hart bridge and the Matthews bridge.

As we chugged up toward buoy Red 82, with the Stadium on our port side and the Hart bridge ahead, we heard the dreaded "mayday" exchange between Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville and some boater adrift in the St. John's River.

We've heard this before, and listened with horrified fascination as the drama unfolds. There's a lot of basic fact-finding that the Coast Guard goes through. Sometimes with crappy radio propagation and intermediate relay boats. How many people? Description of the vessel. Nature of the emergency. Does everyone have PFD's on? Are there vessels nearby?

There was a little bass-fishing boat — near where Hogan Creek dumps into the St. Johns — but they seemed in control. Even if they drifted, they'd just drift into one of the giant piers they were fishing near.

Dead ahead was a boat that might have matched the description. It was drifting with the ebb tide, up river, side ways, mid-channel.

They claimed mayday, but they were only adrift. Technically, they had a pan-pan, not a mayday. If perhaps someone was having a heart-attack or had fallen overboard, then they had a mayday. Mayday is reserved for imminent loss of life. Out of control is less dire, and gets a pan-pan.

It's scary when your boat is drifting.

But it's not imminent loss of life until you hit something and start to sink.

The patient Coast Guard questions revealed no drowning or sinking. It also revealed that they were alone. Since we felt they should be able to see us, we wondered if the boat dead ahead was really the boat in distress. We were less than a half-mile away, and yet, they claimed no boats were nearby.

But. They drifted past marker 82. And they were between the Main Street bridge and another bridge. They were near the stadium. They were a 26' power boat. So. Lots of evidence pointed to the boat ahead. It was just the seeing us part that was amiss.

We saw a police chopper circling, too. More evidence that this was the boat. We cut in on VHF channel 22-A to tell the Coasties and the boaters that we would tow them to the Jacksonville Municipal Marina. It was less than ½ mile away.

In fact, they were going to drift right past it, so towing them there was the least we could do. Since we've never towed anything with Red Ranger — not even Scout, our dinghy — we didn't want to make a mistake. We could easily turn one boat in distress into two boats in distress.

The standard Coast Guard advice is to put on PFD's ("Life Jackets"); we saw none being used by the two guys on the boat.

I can see them being too scared to notice us in the middle of the river. We're just a little sailboat against the background of big-city Jacksonville.

I cannot see them being too scared to find their PFD's. That's just epic bad seamanship.

Tow-Line Bridle

CA grabbed one of our big (¾") dock lines to rig a towing bridle across our two aft cleats.

While she rigged, I circled the boat. She told them what we were going to do: take their line, pull them to the municipal marina right in front of the stadium.

Note: We have no local knowledge. None. We saw the docks and decided to tow them there. It wasn't until afterwords that we figured out what the docks really were. They looked like nice docks. Suspiciously empty. But with a big face dock that we could drag them to. We hoped.

After a few passes — and some hurried conversation with the Coast Guard — we made a pass with the boat hook out. They tossed us a little scrap of line. CA looped it through our bridle and threw it back to them as quickly as possible.

"Make it fast to a cleat. You can drop off under your own control," she told them two or three times. Before we drifted too far, they looped it on a deck cleat and we were reasonably secure. They had fed it over the bow pulpit and down to a cleat. We didn't want to spend a lot of time fixing that kind of poor seamanship. After all, they didn't have PFD's on, either. We could have spent all day on the basics.

The good news: no river traffic, relatively flat conditions, a 1-knot current that I could tow them into, Mr. Lehman loves a heavy workload, Red Ranger has a right big prop.

We eased them over to this municipal marina. With the current against me, I could slowly and gently crab them over to the face dock. They turned their wheel and drifted into the dock. One of the two boaters jumped ashore to secure the boat. After some coaching from CA, the other crew cast off the tow line. After some more coaching, he retrieved it. CA was patient with the poor, half-frozen schlub.

Lessons Learned

It wasn't a real mayday, so we were lucky. Our first attempt at rendering assistance was simple and involved stuff we could figure out.

We've been pulled off sandbars several times by passing boats. We still have a lot of payback for all that kindness. But we did our first one and didn't botch it up.

During the after-action review, CA had one improvement for our towing technique. Next time, she'll feed the tow bridle around the cleats so that she can cast it off from our end more easily. Apparently, she'd fed it the wrong way around the cleat, so that it was jammed down hard under the tow load.


Attribute Value
Depart Started: Green Cove Springs, Governor's Creek, 30°00.72′N 081°41.26′W
Arrive Anchored: Marsh Island, 30°23.74′N 081°30.41′W
Log 42.6 nm.
Time 7½ hr.
Engine 7½ hr.