A good Samaritan tosses the stranded sailor a towline. But would it be enough?

Story and illustrations by Capt. Roger C. Horton
For Points East

Fall in New England: Turning leaves, bitter winds, and the first snow of the season. It’s the time of year any New England cruiser not already southbound is preparing to cast off for warmer climes – often to the Bahamas. I liked to be on my way by November.

A word of caution, though, for mariners planning to cruise south to Bahamian waters for the first time: Be aware that there is an almost total lack of rescue infrastructure there. Yes, there is an agency, BASRA (Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association), which organizes search-and-rescue operations using volunteer vessels and aircraft. However, outside of a few locations, a vessel in distress is a vessel on its own. The buddy system is recommended, but it’s not much help in a critical distress situation in the islands. This was even more the case in years past.

When I was a kid in Florida and the Bahamas, reports of a wreck or stranding would eventually reach a nearby island or settlement, via a passing boat or a survivor. If a suitable vessel was available – and conditions permitted – islanders would venture out to see if anything or anyone could be saved or salvaged. If it was a valuable vessel or cargo, the response could be pretty quick.

Salvage is an ancient and respectable endeavor, and far more economically justifiable than mere rescue. As a former U.S. Merchant Marine officer and one-time owner of a light towing and salvage business, I understood the risk and reward, the difference between rescue and salvage. I also knew how easy it was for a vessel and crew to get into the kind of trouble they couldn’t get out of on their own.

The perception – the expectation – among mariners is that, if able, other seaman are going to answer a distress call. But more often than not, these days, a would-be rescuer lacks the skills and equipment to be successful. Even if he responds to a distress call, he can end up in need of rescue himself. And there’s no recompense for rescue, just good karma.

One such situation stands out in my memory, in the winter of 2006, a short time after I’d retired. My wife and I were cruising the Exumas, in the Bahamas, aboard Risqué, our 46-foot sedan cruiser. This was not a new area for me, but, for Kathy, it was a first. We’d made the 12-mile hop down from Allen’s Cay the previous morning. Anchoring off Norman’s Cay, east of Battery Point, we’d spent the day motoring around the area in our skiff. A weak spring cold front was forecast to pass during the night, and a fair number of boats had crowded the anchorage that afternoon.

Strong current and weather considered, this was not an overnight spot I wished to deal with, so we shifted around to the west and anchored south of Skipjack Point.

The only other boat tucked in there was Prion, a 37-foot Alberg yawl. We anchored ahead and inshore of her a bit and rowed over to say hello. Being acquainted with the Canadian couple who owned her, we shared the sunset, some conversation and a few beers, and returned to Risqué before the first squalls blew through. The plan was to depart at first light, run down the banks for lunch, then out into Exuma Sound, bound for Georgetown. We planned to be anchored off Lee Stocking Island before dark. We turned in early.

On Sunday, March 5, we were up at 0500, and Kathy had coffee on while I hauled anchor and coiled the rode. In the predawn gloom, the strong breeze was pushing Risqué past Prion, when the yawl’s spreader lights blinked on. “Are you responding to the mayday?” Norris yelled from the cockpit.

“What mayday?” I called back.

“A schooner is stranded on the east shore, being pounded against the rocks, east side of Pyfrom Cay.”


“An hour ago,” he answered. “No one’s responded to the mayday, though I did repeat it. There were no transmissions after the first five minutes.”

Well, this kind of situation wasn’t uncommon. Although some 30 boats were anchored nearby, it was dark and blowing a gale from the northeast, enough to make most mariners a little shy, even while monitoring Channel 16 while they slept. With a fair-weather grounding, I might have passed on offering assistance. This was different. I could envision the conditions on the east side of the island: They would be horrendous, with seas sweeping in off Exuma Sound. That was a deadly situation for anyone on the stranded vessel. Hell, I had a good boat and 50 years of experience. I decided to give it a shot, and I asked Norris if he’d go with me. He agreed without hesitation.

Risqué was a solid craft, powered with a single 240-horsepower GM-671 diesel. She was more like a vessel from the 1930s, with flared bow, low profile, narrow beam, and no fly-bridge. A semi-displacement hull, she had a full keel, protected 26-inch prop, and a big rudder. From the gunwales down, Risqué had a lot in common with a Maine lobsterboat, and I knew what she could and couldn’t do. I’d designed Risqué, and I’d built her six years earlier, in a vacant lot next to my home. She’d taken us to a lot of places safely.

I laid Risqué alongside the yawl. Kathy passed our skiff’s painter to Norris’s wife and boarded Prion. Norris, who had put on a work vest, passed her in the other direction. I backed clear, swung around, and headed southwest to clear the shoals off Taffia Point. Both women called after us, imploring us to be careful.

We were south of Battery Point and Channel Cay before 0600, running slow, and weaving through anchored yachts in the pre-dawn light. The outer cays were dark silhouettes against an orange glow in the east. Motoring into dim light, with no markers, we nudged the bottom on the north side. Backing off we continued out.

Wax Cay was to the south now, and we were feeling the lift of the seas. Breakers were putting spray over the top of the small cay at the cut’s entrance, but soon we were clear, out into Exuma Sound. It was not too bad in deep water; seas were maybe 10 feet, but confused by reflective waves coming out from the cliffs. Turning north, Risqué moved with an easy motion as we began scanning the coast for the stranded vessel.

A line of high narrow islands and rocks run three miles north from Wax Cay, past the Whale’s Tail, Norman’s Cay’s most easterly point and beyond. Even with the improving light she was not easy to see, but we spotted the vessel within 15 minutes. More than a mile inshore, she was pinned against the 40-foot-high cliffs on the north end of Pyfrom Cay, dark hull against black rock and being pounded by seas that at times threw spray over the cliff tops.

Somehow, the schooner had threaded the offshore islands and rocks, covering over a mile of shoal bottom before piling up on Pyfrom. Her position was no more than a quarter-mile short of the entrance to Norman’s Pond. I checked my chart. Not reassuring: The area to seaward of her was blank except for the notation “un-surveyed.”

“Don’t look promising,” Norris had said laconically.

Well, there’s always a way.

We got within a quarter-mile to the northeast of her and watched the waves and surge. I took a mental note of where the waves broke or boiled over rock. Any attempt to put alongside, or even to get close, was plain stupid, so I decided to try to float a towline down to her. I had two 300-foot coils of one-inch diameter line stowed in the forward bilge. Putting Risque’s bow into the wind, and engaging the auto pilot, we flaked them on the stern, married them, and added a 200-foot section of three-quarter-inch line from our lunch hook.

We had just begun to attach fenders and floats when we saw a 12-foot RIB coming up to us. The RIB’s operator informed us that the schooner had one man aboard. He had unsuccessfully attempted to launch his dinghy, which was immediately bashed to bits. The radio antenna had been smashed against the cliff; thus, he had no communications, and it wasn’t possible to get the RIB closer than 40 feet.

With high tide, the steel schooner was afloat but her bow was jammed between the cliff and a huge rock, while another massive rock was astern of her, preventing her from going backward. Every sea picked her stern up five to six feet, heaving it against the cliff before dropping it back on its keel. The schooner’s captain was presently laying prone in the cockpit to keep himself from being thrown and injured. He was either unable, or unwilling, to go over the side to try to swim to the RIB.

It was clear that if we couldn’t get the man off the stranded vessel, we’d have to take the whole vessel off with him aboard. I asked if the RIB could be brought near enough to toss a towline aboard; the wind would help carry it. The guy said he’d give it his best shot. Going forward, I switched the pilot off and swung the bow inshore toward the breakers.

Watching for where water boiled or broke over hidden rock, and glancing at the fathometer, I moved to within 600 feet of the schooner. I had what appeared to be a 300-foot-wide patch bordered by waves that occasionally broke over hidden rock. My fathometer was yo-yoing between seven and 14 feet. Again, we swung up into the wind and seas, holding position.

Norris passed 50 feet of hawser and a heaving line to the man in the RIB, and I asked him to instruct the schooner’s captain to make fast at the stern. He was to put his engine full-astern as the schooner’s transom began to shift out from shore – and go back to neutral immediately if we succeeded in pulling the schooner clear. We both put our VHF radios on Channel 72, and the RIB began its run. Norris paid out line.

My first view of the schooner’s captain was through binoculars. He crawled onto the deck aft to attach the hawser to a big cleat on the port corner of the transom. The RIB, now stationed about 100 feet out, rose high on a larger than normal wave, and I felt an oh-no moment coming on. The big breaker crashed over the schooner as her captain worked. He was swept over the coaming into the cockpit, but on his belly, and he returned quickly to his task. Then he waved.

The RIB reported the line secured, and I eased the throttle ahead, taking up slack on the towline, which was secured on my port quarter, 12 feet forward of the stern. This was necessary because we had a dead pull due east, while the wind and seas were from the northeast. It allowed me a pivot – leverage to keep my bow up – while securing at the transom would have caused my boat to walk out of position to the right.

The hawser tightened. I applied more power, and the hawser lifted clear of the water. I thrust the throttle to full when the schooner lifted to a larger-than-normal sea. Amazingly, the stern swung out, and black carbon erupted from the schooner’s transom as its captain put his engine full-astern. And then she came clear, paint and bits of rigging littering the cliffside. She’d live to sail another day.

Towing her stern-first we got her into deeper water, then transferred the hawser to her bow. The tow into Norman’s Cut took no more than 20 minutes, and we anchored her up in the lee of Channel Cay. Down her port side, everything was scraped or mangled, and I was impressed by how little serious structural damage was apparent. Still, it might be worse below the waterline. The captain, while banged up a bit, disappeared below deck to check for problems.

We retrieved our gear and pulled around the undamaged starboard side. The name board read Deliverance. I chuckled – a good name considering.

We were back alongside Prion by 0800, and I swapped Norris for Kathy. With the skiff in tow, we set out again for Little Farmer’s Cay. We were 2-1/2 hours late, but it was a delay well worth the time spent. A month later, moored at Marina Central, in Nassau, I was asked if mine was the boat that saved the schooner Deliverance. Mine was the very boat, I had affirmed.

It seemed that Deliverance had since returned to New England for repair, and the story had circulated. Even so, I never made her captain’s acquaintance. And, to this day, I never learned his name, only that while bound toward Norman’s Cay under sail, he had nodded off to sleep.

Roger Horton grew up sailing the waters of Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean in the 1950s. By his late teens, he was doing deliveries, working as deck officer in cargo, and for charter outfits such as Wind Jammer Cruises. Holding an Unlimited Masters license, he has commanded commercial vessels on the world’s oceans for five decades, but his passion has always been in building small craft and venturing forth in them. Captain Horton is also an author and an artist-illustrator who enjoys sharing a good story.