Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On December 3rd 1978 my small sailboat sank out from under me while crossing the Gulfstream. My story revisited.

Going through papers the other day I came across my hand written story of sinking in the Gulfstream in my 18' plywood sloop. This happened back in December 3rd of 1978, I was 19 years old and it was on a Sunday afternoon that I started out. 
I have printed it here as I wrote it 2 weeks after I got back ashore and had healed up physically from this experience. 
I post it here as a cautionary tale of youth's folly and lucky breaks. I am lucky to have survived but I believe I played a role along with my luck by not giving up and working to help myself get back to dry land.
After the story I will have my thoughts on this life episode after having crossed the Gulfstream 67 more times since that night.

Christopher S. Morejohn

On December 3, 1978 I learned a lesson in survival. It was on a beautiful afternoon that I started out from Key Largo on what was to be a two week trip to the Bahamas. The boat was an 18' long, 11 year old, MORC Corsair sloop, built out of Brunzeel mahogany plywood over oak frames in France.
The boat, in my opinion, was sound, especially since I had just completed a 2,000 mile cruise through out the Bahamas and Florida in it. The boat" Bilbo Baggins" had weathered several northers's and 8 months of continuous sailing in all sorts of conditions. I had grown to have quite a lot of confidence in it. This plus many other factors were to make my situation at its worst.
At 1:00 Sunday afternoon I raised a double reefed mainsail and working jib and sailed out of the anchorage near the Port Largo Marina. The wind was out of the South East at around 18-20 knots. I set up a sheet to the tiller system on my boat and with everything sheeted in, set a course of South.
My plan for reaching Bimini was to sail 'till 7:00 that night in order to get put into the Gulf Stream far enough to get a better slant on the next tack of East, which would, with the current and East heading, bring me to Cat Cay, Gun Cay or Bimini.
As I bore away to the south my boat was self-steering perfectly doing about 3-1/2 to 4 knots. The seas on the Hawks Channel Bank were relatively short, and now and then the boat would come down off a wave with a loud Bang! This was the average pounding that I had encountered in all my previous trips in this boat. It was a bit wet on deck as the boat was going along at its best to windward so I stayed down below in the windward quarter berth, occasionally looking outside for boats and the several navigational markers on the way out to the Gulfstream. At 2:30 in the afternoon I passed to the leeward  
of Pickels Reef and sailed on into the Gulf Stream. The seas I was encountering were from 6-8' with many white caps around. On the AM radio there were small craft warnings up. The water slowly changed from the milky lime green of the banks to the deep Indigo Blue of the Gulf Stream. My boat was sailing along just beautifully, barreling along up and down and over the waves. Now that the seas were larger and more spread out the boat would only occasionally pound on a very steep wave. At 6:45 I lowerd the working jib and changed to the spit fire jib (a smaller jib) and I came about onto an East heading sailing 45-50 degrees off the wind setting the self steering again. I was completely out of sight of all the lights of the Florida coast, approximately 18 miles South- South East off the coast of Key Largo sailing East hard on the wind with a reduced rig for a comfortable night's sail on to Bimini.
The boat was now sailing at a top speed at about 3-1/2 knots and only occasionally would it pound on a short choppy sea in between the larger swells. I now stayed down below mainly catnapping, between looking out for the numerous freighters that were about. At 8:00 I came on deck to look around, and spotted a freighter off the port bow that might be on a collision course with me. To keep watch on the ship I sat up on the windward coaming of the cockpit wearing my foul weather gear and a safety harness. The boat was sailing along just fine as it had been for the past 7 hours and over 2,000 miles of open water prior to that. It was with this past experience that made what was now about to happen unbelievable.
Sailing along to windward, the boat rose up on a short 4' wave and suddenly came down with a short dull bang, not like the sound it usually makes when pounding. It then sailed on a bit and then I noticed a different gurgling noise. I jumped down below and to my horror found the bunks already afloat.
Everything, that a few minutes before had its place, was now floating and mixing together. It was one of the most depressing sights I had ever seen. I quickly searched for the leak and it's cause.
Because there was so much water down below the floating debris made it impossible to locate where the water was entering. I then jumped up on deck and went forward, and hung over the side of the boat feeling along the chines to feel if they gave way. Everything felt fine. I then tried to bail the boat out, but the water was coming in too fast. By this time the boat was unmaneuverable so I let the sails fly to stop heeling. I began to realize that the boat I was trusting my life with was now quickly sinking out from under me.
Because of this trust I had carried no dinghy. I felt the boat was so small as to not need one, in fact the boat was a dinghy in itself.
Two weeks before I had taken out the polystyrene flotation blocks because I thought that it couldn't float a loaded boat. (I also wanted more storage space.)
I had now put myself in a situation where I would have to swim 20 miles perpendicular to a 2-1/2 -3 knot Gulfstream current with 6-8' waves in 78 degree waters that are full of fish of all sorts. Realizing this, I immediately started collecting and tying things together that would float. I pulled out the 2 quarter bearth cushions and tied them together along with 1 life vest, 1 down sleeping bag, 1-2 gallon half empty collapsable water container, 2 empty 1 gallon Kerosene containers and a 6' stainless steel pole spear.
I then quickly put on a 15 year old wet suit shortie top that I had been keeping for some reason and put my mask and fins on the windward side of the cockpit so I could grab them just before the boat went under.
The boat was now half full and only a few minutes had gone by since the boat had started sinking.
The freighter that I had sighted when I had first come on deck was now a quarter of a mile away.
I had no flares so in a desperate attempt to attract its attention I poured kerosene over the sails and tried to set them on fire. It was useless. The wind was too strong and the waves were now rolling over the boat. I then jumped down into the cockpit to make sure my collection of floating articles were not entangled in the boat. My fishing lures with their hooks were floating all over the place hooking on things.
The boats lee rail was still above the water with the boat 3/4 quarters full of water. I and all my floating gear were still in the cockpit when the boat suddenly rolled on its port side, surged full of water, and sank right up to the cabin side, which had an air pocket in it. Because the boat filled so fast I was barely able to grab one of my fins losing the other one and my mask and snorkel. I was now in the water swimming with one fin and trying to untangle my cushions and floating gear from the main sheet. All I could see of the boat was the corner of the cabin above the water and the mast laying at a 70 degree angle to the wind and waves. After frantically untangling my gear I grabbed onto the main topping lift and drifted to leeward in order not to get entangled with the boat when it would finally sink.
I lay this way hanging on to my cushions and a life preserver with my head just above the water which continually broke over me. The topping lift grew heavy as my trusted boat sank below me, only a half hour after it had sprung a leak.
Many things went through my mind as I floated on the heaving seas that continually broke over me. At first all I could think about was what it was going to be like to die a slow, painful and frightening death.
My situation seemed helpless. The distance to swim was too far. The temperature was around 78 degrees, and I was already starting to shake. The chances of being picked up were one in a million unless a small boat ran over me.
I also thought, How long would it take for the Sharks to come around?
With thoughts of these, I floated on a North- Northeast course headed up the Florida coast with the wind and current. I slowly came to realize that since I was the one who had put myself into this situation, it was I who would have to get myself out of it, if I could. I decided that I would survive no matter how long and painful it would be.
With this in mind I started to prepare myself in the best way I could for what might come. First I put on my down mummy sleeping bag and wraped lines tightly around myself to keep the bag close to my body to retain as much body heat as possible. Also in the event that Sharks were to come around I wanted to look as much like a piece of garbage as possible. I then put my arms through the two straps of the floating cushion to support my head. Finally I just hung onto the quarter berth cushions.
In this fashion I started my ordeal. Within a couple of hours my body started to suffer from the cold. The pain and shaking in my legs and hips would only go away if I constantly moved my lower limbs.
Throughout the night I constantly crossed and recrossed my legs to stay warm. Because of the rough conditions I kept my eyes closed most of the time to keep the salt water out. My head was just above the water.
In this way, clinging to my mattress, wrapped up in the Mummy Sleeping bag I made it through what seemed to be an endless night.
Dawn brought bright sunshine and a cloudless sky, and I felt a new sense of strength. As the day got brighter I began to survey the gear I had collected. The 2 quarter berth cushions were now waterlogged and bogging me down. The 2 kerosene containers had lost their lids and were full of water, also an orange life vest and the water containers had somehow been lost during the night. I untied and abondoned all the useless gear. I was now floating with the down mummy bag around me, the 2 floating cushions supporting my head, and my arms across my chest holding my pole spear cross ways to help me keep balanced.
After drifting in this way I noticed my first fish. There were several small pilot fish swimming around me.
They, plus a small triggerfish would occasionally bite my elbow or my earlobes. Soon after I spotted these fish, a school of about 20 Dolphin fish came around. They varied in length from 2-3'. They would swim up and bump me on the sleeping bag. This was quite unnerving as I always thought it was a shark coming from behind. I felt that a shark would first investigate before trying to eat anything that looked like a trash bag. With this in mind I hoped to keep the Sharks fooled for awhile.
By early morning I had already survived 14 hours in the water. It was at this time, when rising up on the crest of a wave that I sighted land to the west. Being only at sea level but with the rising 6-8' seas I sighted the tops of the trees ashore, I figured I was approximately 7 miles offshore. The wind being out of the South-East was apparently slowly blowing me at a slight angle away from the direction of the Gulfstream. Fearing that I would probably not make it through the night again without food or water and knowing that I would end up somewhere north of Miami, I decided my only chance would be to swim towards shore. By swimming perpendicular to the coast I would make a big arch to shore taking in the Gulf Streams current. Still afraid that if I were thrashing around in the water I would attack sharks I ripped a hole in the bottom of my down sleeping bag and stuck my one fin outside. In this manner I was able to paddle at 1/2 knot with only my fin making any disturbance. During the next 3 hours of shifting the fin from one leg to another I attracted many large Barracudas, Amberjacks, Needelfish, but no sharks.
One Barracuda swam right up alonside me. He was as long as me, and I'am 5'3" tall. He eventually swam off. After several hours of this I was slowly making it onto the Florida Keys banks. With only about 3 hours to go I reluctantly took off the sleeping bag and started swimming to shore on my back paddling with the one fin. I felt totally naked and very vulnerable. But I was moving faster. I now had only one thing in mind, that was to swim as hard as I could no matter how much it hurt or how long it took. This would be my last chance to make it. The progress now was better because all I had left was just the spear, the one cushion supporting my head, and the wet suit top I was wearing along with my shorts and tee shirt. The wetsuits zipper was broken, the legs were ripped along the crotch. This caused lots of chafe but it helped keep me warm and afloat.
On and on I paddled with the one fin, changing the fin from one foot to another. Every time I turned around and looked at the low lying island of Soldier Key it seemed it would take forever to gain any distance. When I was on the banks in about 9-12' of water I could check my pace with the Crawfish bouys. Unfortunately the tide was on the Ebb and I was swimming against it. 
I had now been in the water 20 hours. Every time I changed my fin from one leg to another I had to bend my knee by hand. My feet were completely numb. Stopping for a few seconds meant a painful start again. My eyes were burning from the constant salt water immersion. My hands and feet were wrinkled beyond belief. I was sun burned on my face and lips. Yet on I had to go. I was within a quarter mile of Soldier Key when from behind I heard a Crawfishing boat coming up and turning around. He was going to pick up the trap line and one of the bouys I was swimming up to. I grabbed the bouy and kept pace with the current. He was only a few hundred feet away. I waved my arm and he turned in my direction. It was a 40' powerboat on its way home to the Miami River and fish house.
He brought the boat to a standstill to the Leeward of me as I slowly swam to the boat, I realized that I had learned a lesson in survival the hard way.
As he helped me climb aboard in Spanish he said with an innocent and unknowing grin" What are you doing swimming out here?"

Sailing along slowly in the Berry Islands with a small shark hanging off the stern. This fish was used for dinner that night with other cruisers.

 Showing the course and track I ended up taking on my unwanted trek.

39 years later it's still not fun reading my tale. I have relived those 20 hours many times since then in different ways. Most ways in building and outfitting my following boats with lots of safety features. Other ways in trying to see if I had any spiritual exsperiences during or after this event.

At the time I wrote my story I wanted to get the jist of what I had been through along with the navigational numbers in place. There is a back story to this tale and a follow up that I did not feel needed to be told then.

At the time of my sinking I was 19 years old and had just previously spent 8 months sailing my boat throughout the Bahamas. I sailed over in April of that year having just turned 19 that March. I started my cruise in Tarpon Springs Florida in early March sailing down the Florida coast exploring along the way. When I crossed the Gulfstream for the first time for the Bahamas I had $120.00 in my pocket and about $80.00 worth of can goods on board. I cruised throughout the Bahama islands for the next 8 months using my spear fishing skills to supplement my meager food supply and cash. Basically I speared so much fish that I fed every anchorage full of yachts and was traded dinners, sodas, bread and lots of kindnesses by fellow sailors that couldn't catch or clean a fish.
During this time I got to really know sharks hence my thoughts throughout my time in the water, what to do with them and how to try and avoid them. I never saw one but I had lost my mask so I never looked under me into the depths below. It would have been terrifying at the time.
In 1978 in the Costal waters of Flordia were teaming with fish, had very little boat traffic and has nothing like you see today in shoreside population.
My boat had a small kerosene stove, water jugs, a flashlight for light at night along with one kerosene lamp. It had no VHF, no flares and no dinghy as it only drew 18" but a very keen young captain in great shape and health.
The year before I had bicycled 3,585 miles over the summer on a trek through the Pacific Northwest.
Before this I had grown up on a 36 foot wooden Ketch having helped my dad sail her from California to Florida. At 17 years old I had sailed for 3 weeks in our 9' plywood pram down the coast of the San Blas islands living exclusively off the land. I thought I was invincible. All I thought I needed were my spears, fishing gear, some dry matches, a bit of water and a place to lay down at night.

Should never have relied solely on the boat to stay afloat.
Was too caught up in all my sailing heroes past exploits. Didn't think that because they survived they could tell the tale but those who were lost could not. 
No flares !!! Might of helped for that one ship. But from experience it would have been slim for them to have stopped and found my head and gear floating at night.
No dinghy, at 18' there is not much room but a small inflatable or a big truck tire inner tube would have been fantastic.
Removing the foam flotation would have kept the boat from sinking for sure. But I would have then felt the need to stay with the sunken awash boat. I think of the different scenarios of this factor and when do you decide to abondon the boat. I should have let go of my sleeping bag cocoon earlier but who knows what sharks were about. To them I just looked like a silly ole Mannatee.
No VHF. I paid $750.00 for the boat and a radio and battery would have been more $ than I had spent for the year.
I told no one I was leaving and where I was going. I am still a loner and like to keep to my own plans.

I did not lose my composure. I gathered what I thought could help and just carried on.
The SE wind was helping to push me along at an angle to the Florida coast. I would eventually wash up on shore if the SE wind held. But would I still be alive?
My camping sleeping bag gave me warmth, security and flotation.
I grabbed at least 1 swim fin before the boat went under.
I knew navigation and what angle to swim towards the coast.
I belived in myself and that I would make it back to shore.
As I was approaching Soldiers Key in Biscayne Bay I knew from having been there 9 months before that there would be lots of fish and sharks in between the channels of this island and the closer islands down south leading up to Elliot Key. Back in 1978 there would be next to no one out there during the week except for maybe Captian Bill Curtis on a charter looking for bonefish. I knew I could live off the land eating what ever came my way. And would have survived having reached that small island for days longer. Lots of ways to get moisture from fish, crabs, and digging holes in the sand to get what ever fresh water is sitting on top of the salt water.
Having the lobster boat come my way shortened my adventure by a possible few days.
When the Cuban pulled me aboard he barely spoke English. He did not comprehend what had happened to me till we docked that evening up the Miamai River. The fish plant manager spoke English. I told him my tale. He asked me if he should call the Coast Guard. I said, "Why? I'm here, I'm fine."I knew only one person's last name in Florida and they lived in Key Largo. Could he look them up in the phone book? Mel and Marge Jelsma owned the first house built in a Key Largo subdivision back when the Keys consisted of mostly newly dug up mangrove and limestone canals. We had met in the Bahamas as they sailed around on their 50' ketch. I contacted him and Mel said he would drive up and get me in the morning. Would I be all right till then? Yea, sure I'am on dry land. I told him the fishing plants address and that there was a small park across the street and he would find me sleeping on one of the benches.
I thanked the Cuban lobsterman and gave him my last seat cushion and the one fin. I took off the torn wet suit top and put it in the trash. I said I would be fine and thanks for letting me use the phone. They gave me a soda to drink.
I went across the street barefooted wearing a tee shirt and shorts and found a nice bench to lay on in the evening darkness and fell into a deep sleep with my spear laying along side me.

I dreamed I was being grabbed at by all kinds of weird fish. I awoke to 3 black mulatto men kicking me awake trying to see what I have in my pockets. They were like sea gulls wanting to pick their bench find clean before it knows what's happening. I kicked them away and pulled out my spear jabbing one in the side but not too deep as my spear has a flipper on its point to help hold onto the fish. I sure  didn't want to lose my spear right off the bat.
These were night sea gulls with nothing else to do but try to harass me. I spent the night till 3:00 in the  morning fending them off with my spear till Mel drove up in his small motor home. Mel got out. He was 65 years old but was All State in football in Michigan and is still a formidable guy. My sea gulls disappear.
Mel boils me a can of noodle soup. Nothing has ever felt so good but I can't taste anything. He says lay down and get some sleep and that he will drive to the Keys in the daylight. I fall asleep and don't wake up for 40 hours back at their home. Mel says he tried staying there for a few hours but the sea gulls were back trying to steal his locked byclye off the back of the motor home. He got tired of grabbing them and tossing them onto the street.
My inner legs had chafed lots of skin off and it took a week before my nose felt normal. Within three days of coming ashore I had a job building an ice box in a sailboat and I could sleep on the boat too. Within a week I had a full time job working for Glander boats in Key Largo.
Many people heard of my adventure. Before I knew it I had plenty of clothes and many new friends that I still have to this day. It's one of the reasons I'm here this winter as I want to say thanks for the kindness and friendship. The Jelsmas have passed away a long time ago. I still miss them.

I am not a religious person. I believe what goes around comes around. I believe in something akin to Karma, and well, just being a good person. I did not ask for help from anyone when I foolishly put myself in the postion to be floating with my chin just above the water at night in the Gulf Stream. I feel that humans make their own belief systems and that mine is me. It's up to me to make it happen, get it done, be a good man.

It is fun to look back and think of all the what if's in ones life's trajectory. You can look at it many ways. It was all in so and so's plan and so on. I look at it as life, and as I went along I've seen interesting opportunities as I have tacked back and forth through ones life and took some of them. 

This is my tale of a roundabout way of making the Florida keys my home for many years. 

I've had a good life, with good adventures, and good people, life is great

See you out there

PS  I have seen lots of big sharks when crossing the Gulf Stream since.


William said...

Thank you for sharing. An amazing story. Good on you to write it down and share it.

Alan Jones said...

What an amazing story Chris. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Dave Z said...

Duuude! Glad you're still among us!!

Your decisiveness played a big role, I think... not wasting time on denial or panic.

Doesn't hurt to've been 19, either! 8)

Dave Z

Gustavo Pinheiro said...

Such a story Chris! Glad you made it.