Ghost Rider Down
There is a real sense of sadness when a boat is lost, let alone a Nordhavn. Ghost Rider a Nordhavn 47 was tragically lost and our hearts go out to her owners Rick and Michelle Riordan. This is their story and one can only applaud the honesty in which is it written. By the grace of god go all of us!
Forewarning: this is a very long post, as well as a painful one.
What follows is the result of Michelle and I documenting on a daily basis everything that transpired between 08-Aug and 20-Aug – we did not want to trust specifics and details to memory, particularly under such pressing circumstances, nor did we want any to risk potentially skewing the story with clouded afterthoughts. So we believe what follows is very factual, without any sugar-coating.
On Monday afternoon (08-Aug) we departed the Summit North Marina on the eastern end of the C&D Canal, entered the Delaware River and Bay, and headed south. In our last blog post we had concluded it with:
“As we approached our target anchorage in the Delaware Bay area around 1700 everything was looking good, but then the situation went to hell in a hurry….”
That was something of an understatement, because in the end the boat sunk. Writing this is likely part of the penance – we were taught to own our actions and mistakes, and this was a definite screw-up, with an end result of Ghost Rider sinking to the bottom of the Delaware River.
How She Went Down
To put it as simply as possible, we missed the fact that there is a submerged (at least at a high tide) rock jetty between the main channel and an entrance to an anchorage south of Reedy Island. On the raster charts – which we weren’t using at the time – it was fairly obvious. But on the vector charts, it was not as prominent. But it was there (see chart excerpts.) The C-Map chart on the Furuno unit we were actually using to navigate at the time we struck it was even less revealing. None of that in any way is an excuse. A prudent mariner should always study all information available to him, especially when transiting into unfamiliar waters outside a marked channel. We had closely examined depths, tides, currents, Active Captain tips and comments – but overlooked the damned jetty markings.
Anyway, we hit the thing at about 5 knots, there was a loud bang and crunch, and then a very sudden and complete stop at about 1700 local time. It was a hard grounding, with the submerged jetty lodged firmly under the vessel, roughly at the hull’s midpoint. Immediately going to idle & neutral made little difference – a 95,000 pound boat carries significant momentum even at a slow speed. We scrambled to make a preliminary inspection for damage and water intrusion in all compartments and bilges: wherever we could pull an inspection panel. None was apparent at the time, but that would change. Minutes later we donned our inflatable life vests and placed a mayday call on VHF channel 16 to the U.S. Coast Guard, who promptly dispatched a fire rescue boat, as well as a SeaTow assist vessel. We toyed with the idea of launching the dinghy, but SeaTow arrived on scene at approximately 1800 hours and we seemed stable. The fire rescue folks departed, we shut down the main engine, stripped as much power as possible to conserve house batteries, and then readied the ditch bag. By then we had also notified BoatUS (we’re a member, but their closest location was over 40 NM away) and our insurance company.
Both we and the SeaTow personnel made another detailed inspection of the vessel for damage and water intrusion, including the engine room and its bilges and all lower level inspection hatches, with once again none being apparent. Rick was especially vigilant with the starboard side stabilizer compartment, since initially we thought it was possible we had ripped that thing off, although we never saw water there. (We hit the jetty at a slight angle….from the measurements Rick took we thought the port side stabilizer probably survived. We also decided to plug the starboard side scuppers on the lower deck level, being unsure if the boat might heel over that far with tide and current changes (it didn’t….but the current can rip through there at 2.5 knots.)
But as the tide kept receding and the up angle of the bow correspondingly increased, we did observe exterior fiberglass damage low on the forepoint of the bow….although an inspection of the anchor chain locker revealed no obvious interior damage. SeaTow remained on site and a second boat delivered float bags (but did not deploy yet), and they expressed with some optimism they would be able to pull or float the boat off at the next high tide, which would occur around 0330 the next morning. A short while later a Delaware DNR vessel approached, came aboard, and processed their report requirements; they also made another inspection of the vessel, again with no other damage found at that point except for some stress cracks in the fiberglass floor of the engine room, just forward of the main engine in the vicinity of the high-water bilge cavity. That was a foreshadowing.
Shortly thereafter (at approximately 1900 hours) as we continued to make periodic re-inspections of all lower compartments, we observed water entering the rear bilge from an unknown location. SeaTow had departed to retrieve some more equipment, so we hailed them on VHF channel 16 to inform them of the water intrusion. Because of the angle of the boat – it was bow-up by 5 or 6 degrees according to the inclinometer that Rick had set up in the pilot house shortly after the collision to monitor boat movement – the water was pooling in the aft bilge and exceeding the capacity of its small pump (rated at 400 GPH). So we began pumping it out with the manual bilge pump (rated at 1800 GPH…but note that any of those pump ratings are optimistic given the lift distances). SeaTow returned a short while later and began deploying their gas-powered dewatering pumps…two of them at first (another would not start…which turned out to be a recurring theme.)
They had some trouble getting those pumps started and primed, so Rick and Chelle took shifts on the manual pump…right up until it failed about 30 minutes later – a seal had burst at the rear of the unit and now it was just sucking air. But SeaTow finally got their pumps working a short while later, and we never got the chance to see if the manual pump failure was repairable. (Other Nordy owners should take note….we are not aware of any scheduled or preventive maintenance on the manual bilge pump, but there should be.) We had also added an additional small electric bilge pump in the main shaft cavity since the bow-up angle of the boat caused some occasional bilge overflow to accumulate there. Another check of the forward bilge revealed water flowing beneath its floor drain (where it is connected with the rear bilge via a 2” pipe that runs from the bow)….that meant we had a hull breach somewhere forward of that location.
By this time we had opened up two of the salon floor hatches for direct engine room access – we used one to route the dewatering pump hoses down there, and the other for personnel access to & from that compartment, as we were making very frequent trips down there to check on damage and water ingress / egress rates. With the up-angle of the bow and wet floor (from all the foot traffic to/from the cockpit) one had to be very careful not to slip and fall into one of them. That angle also caused the galley’s oven and fridge doors to pop open – we secured the former with a rope, the latter with its underway securing latch (although that required the use of a hammer to coax the bolt into its slot.) At about the same time the boat’s two internal fire, smoke & CO detectors started screaming – the fumes from the dewatering pumps were triggering them at regular intervals. Rick finally just removed the batteries and disabled them, although we all agreed to minimize time spent in the salon where airflow wasn’t particularly good.
Over the next few hours that rate of water intrusion increased significantly, and the high-water bilge was now filling up as the up bow angle increased – to the point that the boat’s swim platform was submerged. Rick noticed a bulge starting to protrude into that cavity, enough to dislodge the high-water bilge pump from its mounting and moving it above the water’s level. It took Rick about 15 minutes to relocate its discharge hose and the pump itself so it remained submerged, after which it began pumping well (rated at 3700 GPH theoretical capacity). Rick then went up to the pilot house to silence the high water alarm…it was pretty obvious that wasn’t going to change any time soon, and we didn’t need that screeching in our ears.
But as the hull breach progressively worsened it became evident the situation was getting dire. Around midnight Rick told Chelle two things: that he had serious doubts the boat could be saved, and to pack a couple of small bags in preparation for leaving the boat. The SeaTow folks did not seem to share that sentiment at that particular moment, although we suspect they are trained to say such things (up to a point?)
The bulge in the high-water bilge cavity was intruding further and further, splintering and cracking its top coating of FRP and revealing parts of the hull one really shouldn’t ever be looking at. Given its location, essentially in the middle of the boat and just forward of the main engine – basically where the vessel was resting on the rock jetty – it made sense that’s where the major hull damage would occur. Rick spent considerable time trying to peer into these new openings to discern the nature and size of the hull breach. The ragged nature of it made that extremely difficult….the Forespar foam-cone plugs we carry weren’t a good fit and had no impact on the flow; same for the kapok bags, rags, bedsheets and the StayAfloat goo that he attempted to stuff in there to at least slow the flow. At that point the SeaTow captain-in-charge came down to the engine room and asked Rick to remain above decks for safety reasons. Agreement was reluctant.
Over time the buckling of that hull area continued to increase along as did the rate at which we were taking on water. We surmised this worsening condition was due to the outgoing tide (the jetty was now quite visible) and the boat’s dead weight of 95,000 pounds lying on the rock jetty far exceeding the hull’s design limits. The boat was essentially trying to break in half….we think only the quality of its build kept it together as long as it did.
SeaTow retrieved and deployed two more dewatering pumps, so by that time we had four of them in service, as well as float bags (finally but only partially) inflated under the stern area. (We’ll want to revisit that topic later.) When the last pump was added to the array now covering the cockpit floor it sprung a large leak in its large 4-inch discharge hose. SeaTow attempted to sleeve it, but the water volume and pressure was just too much for that. Rick retrieved several rolls of rescue tape from our on-board emergency gear and applied 2 full spools around on the hose, topped with numerous wraps of 3M vinyl tape, finally getting it to seal. Chelle also spent much of her time in the cockpit helping the SeaTow crews manage the pump discharge hoses, refueling the pump motors, as well as redeploying fenders between our boat and theirs at the swim platform. She also kept an eye out for boat traffic in the channel – it’s a busy shipping lane with large ships displacing big wakes; when one was sighted (or when an AIS target showed up) SeaTow would hail them on VHF 16 and request a minimum speed pass; it wasn’t always successful, and the subsequent rocking motion certainly exacerbated Ghost Rider’s wounds as the teetering hull was grinding further into the rock jetty.
At approximately 0300 hours (now 09-Aug), the SeaTow captain asked us to leave the boat to find accommodations for the night as they continued their efforts – it was very apparent at that point in time that staying on the boat was not an option for us. Before we departed Rick provided the SeaTow captain-in-charge instructions for main engine and generator start-up in case those would be needed, as well as an overview of the electrical panel; and also suggested that at some point they parallel all batteries as the house bank capacity neared the 60% level. We also agreed that attempting to pull the boat off wasn’t a good idea; instead they would attempt to locate divers to inspect, and if possible, plug some holes before attempting that maneuver. Chelle had looked at the chart and we selected some nearby shallow areas with soft bottom as potential landing areas should that plan turn out to be feasible.
Pic 9:And More Water….We Put the Biggest Pump into the Breach Area in the Forward High Water Bilge Cavity]
We grabbed the minimal gear Chelle had packed us for the night – one of the bags with a special American flag inside it, thanks to Chelle’s clear-headed thinking – and Rick changed into some dry clothes. Another SeaTow captain ferried us to Delaware City Marina, and from there to a nearby hotel. It was about 0430 when we checked in.
A bit later, at approximately 0530 – a strange time of day to be drinking wine and scotch in your hotel room, but that’s what we were doing – we received a call from the SeaTow personnel who needed additional assistance in starting the vessel’s generator. (So at that point we knew the boat was still afloat.) We walked them through the procedure for genset startup, and while it started, the unit would shut down after only a few seconds. We were pretty sure that its internal safety switches for various fluid levels didn’t like the angle the boat was at. Rick had also recommended that they start the main engine and rev it to about 1200 RPM should they need an alternate charging source, though it was likely to suffer from similar issues, and in the end it really didn’t matter.
At 0930 SeaTow called us again, this time reporting the boat’s stern had been swamped by passing boat wakes (e.g., those very large ships that transit the nearby channel) and the situation was now turning to strictly salvage….Ghost Rider had dislodged from the jetty and had slowly settled to the bottom after drifting about a mile further south with the outgoing tide and current.
Northstar Marine was subcontracted by SeaTow to dive the boat, sling it, and then raise it using their large barge-mounted crane. (Northstar, by the way, has a solid reputation in the industry, which included a significant role in the BP oil spill recovery efforts.) There would be some understandable delays here….divers were working with very limited visibility, as well as very narrow time windows where the current was at a manageable velocity. Raising a 95,000 pound boat in 30 feet of water is a complex operation under the best of conditions.
By the time all parties were in agreement and equipment was in place, and divers had rigged the slings under the boat, it was a full week later, Monday (15-Aug). The first lift attempt did not go well….as the boat got to the surface one of the slings either broke or in some fashion failed. The surveyor commented that what he saw of it – before it went back down – didn’t look good….the boat was awash in mud and silt, and the mast had suffered significant damage during the lift attempt.
On Tuesday (16-Aug) they tried again….but it wasn’t until the next morning (Wednesday, 17-Aug) that they were able to fully raise the boat. It was, as expected, an absolute mess. The radar mast had snapped in half, the dinghy’s chaps had shredded, as had the fly bridge bimini top, most of the headliners inside were down, and everything was coated in silt & mud. They applied a temporary patch to the holes in the hull, kept the dewatering pumps available (not needed as it turned out), and towed it on the barge’s hip down-river about 30 miles, then a few more miles up the Maurice River to one of Northstar’s facilities (Boat World) in Leesburg, NJ. Before hauling it out, we and Phil Risko, owner of Northstar Marine, discussed pumping out the boat’s fuel and water tanks, removing the anchor, anchor chain and dinghy – all to reduce weight as much as possible given their travel lift would be close to its maximum capacity.
We drove down to the salvage yard the next day (Thursday, 18-Aug) to meet the surveyor, examine the extent of the damage, and determine what of our personal belongings could reasonably be salvaged. From an exterior perspective, the boat actually survived the ordeal reasonably well….it was certainly mud-stained, but still looked rather good above the waterline apart from the broken mast and several stretches of deck railings that were mangled or missing; the salvage crew admitted all that was due to the way the lifting straps were fitted, essentially strangling the boat as they lifted it (twice) with the barge crane.
As for below the waterline, the starboard side stabilizer fin was askew 90 degrees, and the port side stab was deflected about 10 degrees, but both were intact and had never developed any kind of leak. The hull sported two holes….the first was directly on the nose, about 3 feet below the waterline, clearly at the point of initial impact; it had been patched with a concrete mix, but was relatively small – approximately 4” by 4”. In retrospect, we’re fairly certain that is where the initial and relatively low volume water intrusion occurred; but as the stern had settled lower and the bow rose with the falling tide, it wasn’t long before that hole was well out of the water.
The second hole – and the one that eventually sunk the boat – was at the bottom of the keel at the amidships point….where the boat rocked and jostled on the jetty wall as the tide ran out and ship wakes rolled her. Over time (e.g., 16 hours) that was just too much weight stress for even a Nordhavn’s thick and sturdy hull. We often wonder what the outcome would have been had more air bag buoyancy been available under the stern. (As an aside, both the surveyor – Steve Mason of Mason Marine – and the owner of Northstar Marine – Phil Risko – marveled at the sturdiness of the boat, relaying stories of other brands that simply buckled and fell apart under similar circumstances.)
Over the next three days (through Saturday, 20-Aug) we spent long, hot hours in hazmat suits retrieving and scrubbing personal belongings and various add-on equipment which had gone down with the boat. Once you got past the stench, though, it wasn’t too bad. The real challenge (and occasional debating point between us) was at what stage do you just say the hell with it and recognize there is a point of diminishing returns? We finally both agreed we had reached that point late Saturday afternoon…we stuffed everything we had retrieved into our rental SUV, and said our final good-bye to Ghost Rider at 1630 on that Saturday. We then spent the following three days driving back home to Fort Myers.
Throughout this ordeal, apart from some scrapes and cuts on Rick’s hands and forearms sustained during futile attempts to plug the ragged hole(s), nobody was hurt – although our egos and psyches took a solid beating. Eventually, after a period of several more weeks, the boat was formally declared a CTL – a constructive total loss.
Back in a July post Rick wrote this, plagiarized from an unknown author, and it seems oh so relevant once again:
“Experience is a harsh teacher: She gives the test first and then teaches the lesson later.”
We’ve had some time to examine the events that led up to the tragic loss of Ghost Rider, and the thing that starkly stands out is a departure from our normal routine, in both the planning and the actual execution of that sortie. Typically one of us would lay out the day’s route and the other would then review and perform detailed checks on depths, hazards, Active Captain comments, etc., switching among multiple chart types, making tweaks as needed. In the days leading up to the event we had been changing destinations and routes on a daily basis; we ended up at the Summit North Marina the day before because our desired anchorage was both too small and too full. We had barely squeezed into that particular marina due to its skinny depths, so the following day we decided to depart late afternoon to hit the highest tide possible during egress.
That meant the next day’s sortie was going to be very short…with a 1500-ish departure, and less than three hours to the next anchorage, since we did not want to run in unfamiliar inland waterways in darkness. It was to be a short run with nothing but daylight, deep water and good weather along the route. What could possibly go wrong? Well…we had omitted our standard cross-check of multiple sources, and had also failed to cross-check them again as we approached the anchorage area…where Rick in particular became afflicted with target fixation (mostly depth contours.) In the flying game, such a lax approach can produce even more dire results.
Looking back, we also feel the boat might have been saved; had the flotation bags been deployed earlier, and with much more inflation, the grinding of the hull on the pivot point on top of the jetty would have been mitigated, and the severity of the breach would have been less…and perhaps survivable. Whether it could have also survived the large wakes that ultimately dislodged her from the rocks is pure speculation, but is certainly in the realm of possibility.
Regardless, the root cause still comes back to our mistakes.
We were both taught that if we weren’t making them, we weren’t trying hard enough. Risk taking had always been encouraged, as was the requirement to deal with the consequences of that….eventually you are defined by how you handle the consequences when under pressure. We think we did OK with the latter, and eventually we will reconcile with the rest of it. (The other infamous thing Rick’s father once told him, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, was “don’t beat yourself up over a mistake….unless of course I’m not there to do it for you.” Roger that.)
So that’s the whole story, and this is our last post in the Ghost Rider chronicles. Our thanks go out to all who have been so supportive throughout the ordeal. There have been too many to mention here, we have an amazing support net.
On this three month voyage we had journeyed 1,800 nautical miles. Since last October, when we first started actively cruising Ghost Rider two months after acquiring her, we had covered over 3,000 miles, putting 700 hours on her main engine – which, by the way, never missed a beat. We owned her for one year and one day before we lost her…and were just starting to think perhaps we had finally reached a comfort point in our knowledge of, and ability to, manage her complex systems, and just maybe had finally caught up with the break/fix expense curve. Or maybe not…that all might be romantic or wishful thinking.
Regardless, we’re going to be dirt dwellers at least for the foreseeable future, so it’s time to sign off and go through our grieving process, with both apologies and thanks to our four ghosts….who will, nevertheless, continue to inspire us.
If /when we get back into the boat market we may have to look at a submersible.
More on Ghost Rider can be found here.