by Capt. Eric
The following is an account of our Thunder Drama at 11 a.m. on Thunder Day. In our case, we overran our anchor line while trying to hold position in the current as we tried to weigh our anchor to reset our position in the strong current. It could have been prevented had the guy on the pulpit (me) been better aware that we were starting to overtake the line as he asked his helmsman to add a little thrust. It is a detailed description of how things can go from perfectly normal to really wrong in a matter of seconds.
We found ourselves spinning in circles, drifting past the Big Four Bridge, having missed a collision with one of the pilings. The current was brisk, and I was on the bow pulpit, trying to pull in the last few yards of anchor line. My wife, who has become pretty adept at helping maneuver, had her hands full of a boat that wouldn't respond. The starboard engine would run in neutral, but would quit with a shudder every time forward or reverse was selected.
Heading for the Kennedy Bridge, we traded positions. I grabbed a knife and handed it to" the Admiral" with instructions to sacrifice the anchor. I scrambled to the bridge with the goal of getting us pointed upriver again. I found that with hard port rudder and about 2000 RPM, the boat would steer straight or turn right, and that turning left was not an option. We were in a bad situation, but it was becoming stabilized.
We left the marina at 9:15 a.m., with the goal of being the first picket boat in position with our 37' cabin cruiser. Since the boat doesn't hold an unlimited number of people, we decided to make it "kid's year," and let our oldest daughter invite the bulk of the guests. She invited four friends, and our youngest brought a friend, bringing us up to seven kids. The galley was stocked, and everybody settled in for a nice cruise downriver. The greenhouse effect on the bridge kept it very comfortable even though it was 38 degrees outside. Inside the cabin, the heater was running, and the kids traded turns running their iPod playlists.
Departing Rose Island, we measured the current at 3 mph, and set a slow cruise speed that yielded a 10 mph speed on the GPS. Debris was light in Prospect, but got much heavier as we headed downtown.
Per the Thunder Command Boater's Briefing at the Galt House the night before, our objective was to anchor at a point 200 yards up from the Big Four Bridge, next to the channel. The USCG, if there, would verify that we were in the correct position. We dropped anchor exactly where we wanted, but found that by the time it grabbed bottom, we had drifted almost 100 yards downstream of our target. We held position as I weighed the anchor, which was a challenge in the current. Our demise came when I asked "The Admiral" at the helm to add a little power so we wouldn't drift under the bridge. The anchor line swept under the boat, which, while holding position, was moving 3 mph. It became apparent we had fouled our prop with our own 1" anchor line. And that's when it got interesting!
Safely headed back upriver, we were restricted in our ability to maneuver. Capt. Joe was heading for us in the "Aftermath*," and we asked if he could do an abreast (alongside) tow to a safe location so that we could sort out our situation. He's been boating as long as any of us, and did what boaters do--that is, he stopped everything to help a friend in need.
Anchored a half mile north of River Park Place on the KY shore, we examined our options. We had line around our starboard shaft, and didn't know if the anchor was dragging behind us. Joe was quick to provide a mask and fins, and it was pretty obvious who got to be the first in the water. I've done the spring ocean in Maine, so I was comfortable donning a vest with a CO2 cartridge and a rope around attached. In retrospect, that may not have been our best option. Knowing there were two EMTs holding my life line and a strong EKG from a physical two weeks prior made me feel better about the operation.
Photo courtesy of T. Lewis
Diving under the boat, I could feel a half dozen or so tight windings around the shaft. In the cold water, I was at my limit and couldn't do much with the knife. We asked the LMPD River Patrol if they could help us and get us back to work. By now, boats were showing up down there, and there was only the authorities to maintain the line.
Next thing we knew, we had three police boats on hand, with not one, but three divers suiting-up. Their practice is to have one in the water, with another fully ready to assist, and the third as a safety backup. I should mention that they didn't like the fact the I'd already been in the water, as hypothermia is a serious risk.
Photo courtesy of J. Collins
Officers made sure the boat was safe and all systems were off, then the diver with a wetsuit and full face mask went in. He found that the windings were too tight for him to cut. He, too, was hampered by the strong current and poor visibility.
Photo courtesy of T. Lewis
The next step was to examine our options. We could go anywhere on one engine, but getting into a slip or marina wouldn't work without help. The police offered a few local options such as the rowing club or River Park Place. While we would have loved to just tie up at the new marina, it would have been difficult to sort out the car situation with all those kids later on, not to mention the Thunder traffic.
With hundreds of feet of empty lay-along slips at Rose Island waiting for us, we decided to just take the boat home and find help getting into the slip. It would also be a better place for a diver to work under it. We were fortunate in that we reached Bob Conrad from River's Edge Marina*, and that he was, indeed, up there and not at Thunder. By now, it was 2:00 pm, and we agreed to rendezvous up there by Heather's around 5:00 to get us into our slip.
With the police gone, it was time for Capt. Joe to pull his anchor. It wouldn't budge, and we found that something had gotten wrapped around his line. The more we pulled, we discovered the problem--a piece of line that looked just like... yep, it was our anchor line, complete with a mangled version of our anchor, with all 15' of chain still attached.
Above, what was left of our anchor after we pulled it a few miles up the river hanging from under the boat.
Joe retrieved his new souvenir, and the free line swept back under our boat. Unbelievably, it went right toward our port running gear. Sure enough, we started our port engine and it quit when we put it in gear. Not willing to give up, I revved the engine a little and tried it again. There was a shudder, but the prop won and we were back in business as a single-engined Silverton equipped with assymetric thrust.
Heading upriver, we had lots of time to ponder our situation. Over the years, we bragged that we'd never do the "Thunder Traffic" since we owned a boat. Tables had turned, given that we now had seven kids that we had promised a fireworks show. A quick call to Chip at Sea Ray of Louisville* secured a last-minute spot at their Thunder Party, something they offer to Sea Ray customers. Our ski boat is a 1998 Sea Ray we bought from them, so I suppose we qualified. Since we didn't have an RSVP or parking pass, Chip was kind enough to notify his gate security of our vehicle description to let us in.
Arriving at Rose Island, we put Bob to our starboard, in effect making his tow boat our starboard engine. His friend, Capt. Duane Bratcher, was on his bow, helping us both with steering commands. Even with a 10 kt. wind, Bob made the whole operation look easy, getting us in our spot on the first try. The three of us had attended the same Commercial Assistance Towing class, so we were on the same page from the get-go.
Above, Bob Conrad of River's Edge Towing has us safely in our slip.
In retrospect, we are very fortunate that things worked out the way they did. At the end of the day, everybody got a boat ride. Somehow, thanks to the kid's art of texting, we picked up an extra load of kids for the fireworks. We saw Thunder after all, while eating the last of the hamburgers and brats off Sea Ray's grill. We were safe, the kids had a great time, and we all have more Thunder memories than we really need.
Above, the mess from the starboard prop shaft, cleared by a diver at the Rose Island Yacht Club
Where I work, we employ a "Threat and Error Management (TEM)" safety model that forces us to continually ask ourselves: "What are my "threats," or risks, and what can I do to mitigate them?"
We also have a "Swiss cheese model" that, if you can picture this, depicts the threats on one side, with multiple slices of cheese lined up to capture those threats. If something makes it past all the holes in the layers, the end result is an accident or undesirable outcome. The layers consist of things such as good communication, preparedness, standard operating procedures and the last piece is "Luck." Yes, in the end luck can be the only thing that saves your hide.
This event gives a good opportunity to employ these models. While we had a major hiccup, there are things we did right and things to be learned. Here are a few examples of things I think we did correctly:
1) Risk: anchoring. Managed by: my spouse and I wore life jackets and had all the kids but one inside the cabin.
2) Risk: cold water, Man overboard possibility. Managed by: Equipment: we have not 1 but 3 Type IV throwables, and everybody knew where they were.
3) Risk: kids as guests. Managed by experience, 1 of the teens is a competent boater who has attended safety courses and answered all the questions during vessel safety checks. Only 1 guest under 12 was invited. Spouse was trained. All the guests got a thorough safety briefing before leaving the dock.
4) Risk: challenging conditions. Managed by no alcohol on board. Was easy to do considering our guests were underage.
5) Risk: near falls in heavy current. Managed by having spare anchor accessible.
1) Risk: fouled propeller shaft at Big Four Bridge: managed by moving boat upriver to tie up to another boat. After securing for "tow abreast," moved to shore, a mile or so upriver, anchoring in a safe location away from activity but close to authorities.
2) Risk: single engine operation. Managed by taking boat away from activity, back to quiet marina.
3) Risk: nighttime operations are more difficult. Managed by going back immediately to conduct docking during daylight rather than trying to salvage air show and fireworks.
4) Risk: single engine maneuvering in tight quarters with current and crosswinds. Managed by arranging towing service to help into marina.
It is worth mentioning that this event is getting a lot of attention on the Port KY River Forum. Outside the forum, you'll quickly find that there were many boaters who faced challenges that day. I'll let them share their own stories, but I'll wager the ones arrested and the ones with a hole in their yacht most likely won't.
For next year, my goal is to have an all chain rode. That, for sure, would have helped. A strong current is something else that we don't normally play with while anchoring. We'd never weigh an anchor while moving forward at 3 kts., but in effect, that's what we did while attempting to hold position.
Some have said that a "captain" should know better. What I will say for sure is that, at the end of the day, there were several things that went right, and that we never stop learning.
My goal in telling the world about this event is to give you something to think about. I challenge you to think about your operation, and consider what you would have done differently. In the end, we can all be safer learning from not only our mistakes, but from those of others.
Special thanks go to the following people who helped make our day much better:
Capt. Joe Frith of the Aftermath
Officer Chad Crick and his team from the LMPD River Patrol
Capt. Bob Conrad of River's Edge Marina and Towing
Chip Jowarski, General Manager, Sea Ray of Louisville