The Last Days of Sovereign of the Seas

An Account of the Events Leading to the End of a Beautiful Boat
Written on board the grain ship Spirit of Texas en route from
Houston to Djubuti, Africa, June 25-30, 1991

The planned trip was a dream trip towards which I'd been moving for as long as I can remember. It was to have been three legs: Chesapeake to Scotland in '91; Scotland to Norway in '92; Norway to the Canaries, Caribbean, and home in '93. Enough, I thought, to more than satisfy the urge I have always had to sail. For three years, I tried to prepare and equip the boat for offshore passages. She had a beautiful hull for offshore work, but needed much equipment and installations not necessary for coastal cruising. She was re-rigged, new sails added, offshore furniture such as fiddles and racks added, and generally updated across the board. Not everything, of course, got done, but when we left Herrington Harbor in Deale , Maryland, on the 26th of May 1991, I felt she was well found and ready.

With, my brother, Rolf, as crew, we said goodbye to our Wives, Brownie and Joanne, and set off on the great adventure, only one day later than originally planned. A glorious initial sail up the Bay was immediately tempered by the failure of a newly-installed depth sounder even as we left Herrington Harbour. By the time we anchored for the night in Whitehall Bay, it became clear that the depth sounder was not going to be resurrected. Not wanting to start the trip with a non-functional depth sounder, which I considered an important piece of safety gear, I decided to return to Herrington Harbour to have it repaired by the installer. So, with tail between our legs, but feeling at least conscientious and prudent, we sailed back.

The boat yard and installer, John Callewaert, were great. A faulty transducer was diagnosed. A new one was shipped overnight from New England, the boat was hauled and the transducer replaced, and we were once again underway. (Not before, however, an air lock in the saltwater cooling system, discovered as we dropped our mooring lines, was put right.) Our expectant and adventurous mood should probably have been tempered by the little things that kept occurring which, while not in themselves serious, did seem to be occurring to an unusual degree. Such things as the field wire (fastened only with a spade clip) repeatedly disconnecting itself from the alternator requiring us to shut down the engine and reconnect it. But no big deal.

As we were approaching the C&D Canal, after one more engine shut down to reconnect the field wire, the starter would not turn over . We continued sailing and anchored for the night at the mouth of Bohemia River to decide what to do. Next day, we sailed up the Bohemia to Bohemia Vista Marina seeking help. A mechanic was there, Bill Blankenship, but could not look at the problem for several hours so we set about it ourselves. First, we diagnosed failure of the solenoid switch and removed it only to find there was nothing wrong with it. The starter itself was the culprit. A new starter was needed.

Brownie drove to the marina to give us transportation while we called around to locate a starter. Tolchester Marina, about 25 miles by car, had one which we picked up, having first removed the old one—an exercise in mechanical aptitude by braille, since you can't see any of the bolts or wires, you could only feel them way down under the engine amidst dozens of wires and hoses. Installed new starter and turned the key. Horrible screeching. Bill Blankenship dropped by to diagnose that the pinion gear wasn't disengaging from the flywheel. Nothing to do but pull out the starter again. Pinion gear was a bit chewed up, obviously not a good fit.

Joanne drove up from Easton the next day to provide transportation. Returned new starter to Tolchester and picked up old one. Discovered then that pinion gear on old starter had been shortened by 3/16", obviously to prevent problems we had just encountered. Found a new starter at Worten Creek Marina and returned to the boat with both new and old starters. With Bill's help in his shop (on Sunday), we changed pinion gears on the starters so that the old short gear was now on the new starter. Installed it and fired up the engine—back in business. Of course, each time I installed the starter, I had to take out part of the fresh water cooling hoses to provide clearance for removal and this entailed dumping the entire antifreeze cooling mixture. All this on the hottest day of the year. Anyway, we were now ready to proceed.

On to the Delaware. An all night trip in the rain, arriving early morning at Cape May Canal. GPS phenomenal! Took us to the center of the canal entrance. In the last few miles, noticed that the alternator had no output again. Decided to put into' South Jersey Marina to check out alternator and top up. Called in alternator mechanic to have a look. He pronounced alternator healthy, regulator sick. Regulator is part of the Quad Cycle System. Called Cruising Equipment Company in Seattle regarding faulty regulator. Performed multimeter tests as they prescribed and, as a result, they sent new regulator control boards by overnight mail. I installed those plus a new oil pressure switch and once again we were ready.

Topped up and departed Cape May on June 6, about one week behind original schedule. Headed toward our turning point at N39 W5O in pleasant sailing weather with all systems go. Weather made up after second day; unforecast winds above 30 and up to 45 knots for extended periods and waves seemingly mountainous, but we could stay on course highly reefed. Green water frequently over the cockpit often filling cockpit well. Most uncomfortable and wet. Stood one hour on and one hour off watches for four days. Sleep becoming significant problem but crew was game and we slogged on. One-half an hour morning and evening on motor was plenty for refrigeration and battery charging. At some point, the refrigerator compressor burnt out so no more refrigeration but no big problem because we were not highly dependent on it for food. Water was penetrating the cockpit lockers so we had to pump the bilge frequently.

Finally on seventh day out, engine shut down. Examination revealed lots of water in fuel tanks. Apparently, with green water over the cockpit the fuel tank vents were under water and took on water directly into fuel tanks. Drained lines and a few gallons from starboard tank and bled engine as completely as I could. Engine would start then and run for ten seconds then shut down. Bled it again and repeated process with same result. Decided not to wear down batteries in what was likely to be futile effort to start the engine.

Assessed the situation in terms of how long we'd have battery power without recharging. Decided it was prudent not to risk foreign landfall without engine and possibly without electric power to run instruments. Reluctantly made the decision to abort voyage and return to the Delaware. This on the morning of June 13.

Deciding to return and actually returning proved to be decidedly different matters. We were in powerful westerlies and could make no progress west whatsoever. We dithered for about three days first trying to tack south and then north. No matter what we did we ended up further east. Weather and winds remained absolutely unchanged. Closest land north was Nova Scotia, but didn't like the idea of traversing the Grand Banks and approaching Halifax in fog without instruments or engine. Decided to tack south and be prepared to go west whenever the wind changed. If it didn't change, we'd head for Bermuda which was 450 miles due south of us. We'd put things right in Bermuda and sail back to the Chesapeake. So we continued to tack south hard on the wind. We could sail a course of about 180 but course made good was only 160 so we were still going east. But we figured at some point the wind had to change even if we had to sail south of Bermuda into the N.E. Trades. So, on we sailed, often under triple reefed main and a scrap of genny, making five to six knots. We were finally able to settle in to a three-hour-on, three-hour-off watch system which did permit getting some sleep, but no time for anything else. Life was pretty primitive. Not a chance in hell of preparing a meal on the stove. Only place you could sleep was on the sole.

The horrendous strains on the rigging began to take their toll. Reefing winch on boom pulled loose and other minor problems showed up but nothing with which we couldn't cope. We were not using Autohelm in order to conserve batteries, but found that we could balance Sovereign on any point of sail in any wind and, on occasion, she sailed for several hours on course with no one touching the wheel. Learned much about balancing sail.

As we approached the latitude of Bermuda, we'd been blown 400 miles east of it and still there was absolutely no sign that the wind would ever change. We were resigned to continue south another couple of hundred miles until surely we would meet the N.E. Trades.

With Bermuda 400 miles distant just abeam, a final most serious problem occurred. We lost our steering. The quadrant had fallen away from the rudder shaft after the securing bolts backed themselves off although at first we thought they had sheared off. Now, we couldn't motor and we couldn't sail. On first look, it did not appear as if the steering could be repaired. But the only access to the quadrant was through the cockpit lockers which we could not open because of frequent green water aboard.

On considering our situation, we reasoned that it might be best to try to call for assistance while we still had batteries to power the radio. We thought surely there must be a towing service in Bermuda which, if worse came to worse, could tow us in. So we called on VHF and were answered by a freighter, the Spirit of Texas, some 20 miles to our south. They, in turn, called the Coast Guard to learn that the Coast Guard had no assets in the area and there was no towing service available in Bermuda at this time. This was on June 24.

We had initiated our call in the early afternoon and it took a couple of hours for the calls back and forth between Sovereign and Spirit of Texas and the Coast Guard to take place. During this time, we emptied the cockpit lockers and I undertook to examine the steering situation more closely. We were able to find all the parts and bolts and I believed I could probably restore the steering in five or six hours good enough, at least, to get us to Bermuda.

At this point, having determined that no other assistance was available, the Spirit of Texas offered to divert to us and render any assistance they could. I discussed with them that I could almost start the engine but lacked battery power to keep trying. They offered to come to us and give us a huge 12-volt battery. This seemed reasonable at the time and we accepted their offer. Just how we were going to transfer the battery was not clear but the Captain assured us that we'd work something out. In a couple of hours, the Spirit of Texas hove into view. We were able to give him our exact position from GPS which was important because he arrived near dark on a black night with no moon or stars and had difficulty seeing us. The Captain's plan was to fire us a long line while he pulled alongside to windward of us. Using this line, we'd run messenger lines between the boats and they'd figure some way to provide flotation for the battery that we could pull to us with the messenger line. I requested that we never approacn closer than 150 feet and that we remain always in his lee.

It was now getting quite dark. He approached us ever so slowly and with great care about 200 feet to windward. He fired a line-carrying rocket across our bow but the line came unattached from the rocket. Before they could rig another one, he had passed by us and had to circle up for another try. It was now really dark, wind about 20 knots and seas were lumpy. It took him half an hour to make full circle (The Spirit of Texas is 630 feet long). He fired another rocket but we were unable to locate the line. We repeated the process with the same result. He now stood dead in the water while we discussed options. Sovereign drifted across his stern and was now on the windward side of the Texas but still aft of his stern. He had only one rocket left and wanted to explore alternatives. We decided to try the dinghy. Oddly enough, on a ship of this size, no small boats (except life boats) were carried . We broke out the dinghy and gassed up the motor, but couldn't start it so we gave up the dinghy alternative (This was the first time ever that motor had failed to start; to this day I'm not all that certain I turned the fuel switch.) By now Sovereign was slowly drifting toward his bow and about 100 yards to the windward of him. There appeared to be no immediate danger because it looked as if Sovereign would drift forward and clear of his bow.

However, as we pondered options, Sovereign's drift ceased going forward and began to move aft and toward his topsides. I asked the Captain to pull ahead because I didn't want to drift down on him. He said he would. I had no steering or other control and was completely at the mercy of wind and waves. It appeared for a bit as if he were backing down which would have been fine and would allow us to drift clear of his bow. But apparently this was not so and he remained dead in the water. Why, I did not know. (Later, I learned that his ability to shift gears is dependent on compressed air and after five shifts, he has to wait a while until the air pressure rebuilds.) Sovereign was now slowly approaching amidships, within yards, but very slowly as if the waves breaking against his hull were creating a backwash which was helping keep us off. Extremely slowly, we converged, but now drifting aft such that it looked possible that we could drift clear of his stern. (At this point, there was no question of his engaging his 29 foot diameter propeller to move as we were only yards from it.)

The crew threw us a line from the deck with the idea that they would pull us astern to drift around his stern. But this was not to be.

Sovereign edged ever closer to those looming topsides and a wave pitched the bow in closer. It struck and the bowsprit snapped off. Now we were dragging against her topsides. As we drug aft approaching the overhang at her stern, the rigging caught on various projections. The spreaders and various stays snapped. Then we drifted astern and were clear, but the rigging was destroyed.

The mizzen thrashed a while and then came down still inboard lying across the cabin top. The top five feet of the main mast snapped off, but the main remained standing, held only by its forward and aft lowers. The pulpit dangled awkwardly off the starboard bow and the boat itself was badly mangled. Sovereign was mortally wounded.

The Captain of the Spirit of Texas asked what I proposed to do. I reviewed my options and responded with the most difficult sentence I have ever uttered, that I proposed to abandon ship.

We were now tethered to the Texas' stern about 30 yards aft, riding fairly comfortably and lit brightly by the glare of floodlights. The rigging was snapping and popping loose overhead. The main mast stood staunchly as all else settled down on the cabin top.

Rolf and I set about packing up what we could , stuffing it into sail bags. Rolf, positioned on the bow, with waves occasionally breaking over him tied bags, one at a time, to a line the crew had thrown. They would then pull up a bag and return the line for another. I wandered through the boat stuffing sail bags. I looked at many things I loved and knew I was looking at for the last time. Finally, all the bags were successfully transferred.

It was now our turn. We donned the two large life jackets they had sent down. The plan was for us to get into the dinghy and they would pull us over to the pilot's ladder which we were then to ascend. The pilot's ladder is a massive rope and timber affair which is dropped over the side and rises from the water to deck about 15 to 20 feet. As the boat rolled in the waves, the ladder rises up six or so feet and then plunges down on the reverse roll. As we approached the ladder, we came in under the turn of the topsides so it was difficult for the crew on deck to see us. They did not fully appreciate the effect of the boat's roll on our situation in the dinghy. They snubbed up on the line to the dinghy and when the Texas rolled away from us the snubbed line would pull the dinghy's bow up six or eight feet clear of the water. A couple of these and we capsized. I was momentarily caught under the dinghy, tangled in the painter, but was able to clear myself. Both Rolf and I were now thrashing around trying to reach the ladder some ten feet distant. I worked my way along the capsized dinghy and reached the plunging ladder. Rolf was behind me and they had dropped a life ring on a rope, which he was able to climb into. Getting on the ladder as it jerked up and plunged down was a formidable task. Finally, I got a grip on it as it ascended and was able to get my feet on the bottom rung.

Then, I started to climb. I was horrified to find that after about five feet, I could climb no more. I willed my arms and legs, but they couldn't move. Then, I realized that the dinghy painter was caught over an inflatable life preserver packet on my belt and I was trying to climb the ladder lifting the 90 pound dinghy behind me. I freed this line, but the effort had left me with no strength left. The crew was shouting encouragement from above, but I knew I couldn't make the 15 feet remaining. I asked them if they could pull up the ladder with me on it. (The ladder itself is several hundred pounds.) They bent their backs and very slowly were just able to pull me to deck level where I was able to clamber off. Rolf, meanwhile, was still in the water but in the tethered life line. Why they didn't just pull him up in that, I don't know, but they had him get to the ladder and pulled him up on that. At last, we were both safely on deck.

Oddly enough, we both ended up on deck wearing our glasses.

A crewman came over to me and asked if I wanted to cut the lines to the Sovereign. I asked him to do it because I could not.

She lay off the stern, pitching to the waves, her black topsides, varnished spars, and chromed fittings gleaming brilliantly in the glare of the floodlights. Her hamper, in total disarray, still clung to her proudly standing mainmast. Her movement was lithe, sinuous, and regal. She was a lovely lady to the end. The fine lines of her black hull proclaimed her still one of the most beautiful of man's creations.

And she drifted off out of the lights.

Part of me went with her.

She was a perfect thoroughbred and she deserved better. I think now that I will always live with the thought that I served her poorly when she needed me most.

Epilogue written September 2009

The boat was a Cheoy Lee Clipper 36 ketch with newly awlgripped black hull, varnished spruce spars, chrome fittings and varnished teak trim. The ship that took us on board was The Spirit of Texas, a 630 foot grain ship en route from Houston to Djibouti, Africa via the Suez Canal. They gave us capacious and comfortable staterooms and the food on board was especially good. After a week's travel, they set us ashore in Port Said, the entrance to Suez, and we took a taxi 60 miles to Cairo and flew from there home.

Two years later, I was able to buy a Lord Nelson 41 cutter, FAIRWIND, and spent two years preparing her for another try. This time, with a total crew of 4 aboard, we had a wonderful, disaster-free cruise to Bermuda, the Azores, Ireland and Scotland. Leaving the boat in Scotland for the winter, we returned in the spring and sailed to Norway where my wife and I spent the summer cruising the west coast of Norway. Returning to Scotland for the winter, the next spring I sailed home via the route of the Vikings — Iceland to Newfoundland to Nova Scotia and home. The entire voyage was trouble free and the boat performed flawlessly.

When age and infirmity curtailed my sailing and I decided to go to power, I never looked at any boat but LNVTs. I was so impressed with the robust construction, thought out interior, sailing qualities, and esthetics of the LN 41 that I considered no other boat. Last Call has not disappointed.

—Peter G. Nordlie

Peter at the 2009 Rock Hall Rendezvous

Sovereign of the Seas

Sovereign of the Seas

A sister ship

A sister ship

A sister ship

A sister ship

A sister ship

A sister ship

A sister ship

A sister ship

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