03-16-2011, 05:35 PM
can someone copy and paste the story? I can't get access to it here at work...
It was mid July, 2004
How to sink a ski boat.
We had a great time up until Thursday when we sank a guest's ski-boat. This was the most traumatic thing that has happened to me in all the years I’ve been going to Powell, so I want to share this accident to prevent such a thing from happening to others. Looking back, this was preventable now that I know more about the “narrows” situation at Powell, along with the behavioral attributes of different boat types.
Fortunately nobody got hurt during this incident, but it certainly increases the risk of bodily injury when you’re scrambling around trying to figure out how to save a $30K submerged boat. So consider what I’ve learned, it may help you someday prevent such misfortune.
It was Thursday morning; we were near West Canyon and pulling off shore to move the houseboat downlake near Wahweap turn the houseboat in on Friday. I always like to be near the marina the day before just in case something happens, like weather, a failed motor, or something that will delay the trip back to Wahweap, about 25 lake miles away. I figure if you're going to have trouble, it's better to have another day to deal with it. I also like to think that if you plan for trouble, it won't happen.
After we pulled away from shore we hooked up the tow boats to the houseboat. We had two tournament ski boats and two Seadoos, both 3-man type. A Centurion was on the port side with 2 Seadoos behind it. The Centurion was using a 50’ tow rope, the same length I’ve used for years with no problem. The Seadoos had 20’ ropes behind the Centurion, both in series behind each other. The other ski boat was a 20’ Tige ski boat on a 50’ tow rope on the starboard side, no Seadoo’s behind it. Everything went like normal during the hookup, ropes were clear and we had very little wind which could otherwise make the hookup process more challenging.
After we got all the boats hooked up we slowly started to pull out as the ropes became taut. As normal, we had no problems with the towing process, but I did notice something unusual. The Tige boat was towing strangely far to the starboard side. This was something new to me because I’ve never towed a tournament ski-boat before. All the boats in the past that I had towed had an I/O, and we would always raise the outdrive to reduce the drag. Tournament boats have the engine midship, with the driveshaft going out the bottom of the boat with a prop on the end. You can’t raise anything, it’s fixed. A rudder is behind the prop to steer the boat. In front of the prop you have 2 or 3 skags (like fins) that aid the direction control when skiers are pulling hard left or right as they go back and forth across the wake. Although I’ve never owned a tournament ski boat, I knew the layout differences of this type of boat, but never gave it much thought.
I immediately knew what was wrong. The steering rudder was turned to the right, it wasn’t centered properly. As the houseboat pulled the boat, it was constantly steering to the right. The skags in front of the prop aided in the pulling to the right. I mentioned this anomaly to the owner, Monty. He thought about it for a while. I was thinking about the additional drag on the houseboat which would slow us down, increasing fuel cost. Monty suggested the rudder turned right was a good thing because it kept more space between the two boats side by side, both on 50’ tow lines. Even though I’ve towed boats side by side many times and never touched each other, this was the first time Monty had seen his boat towed like this. The normal 8’ of space between the boats looks pretty close from 50’ away. To Monty more room seemed like a good thing when going around corners, etc. At the time I didn’t see any harm in towing that way, and it seemed to be preferred by Monty, so we didn’t do anything about it. It would be somewhat of a hassle to stop and reposition the steering wheel when we’re just getting started, now at cruising speed of 8mph. I also thought that eventually the rudder might straighten itself out a little with time as we motored along, but that didn’t happen.
We kept an occasional eye on the boats. Monty had already experienced his rope breaking on the trip up to West Canyon on Sunday, so this heightened his family’s concern about things that can go wrong. Monty’s rope wasn’t strong enough on the uplake trip Sunday, so we switched the Tige to a stronger tow line the houseboat was equipped with. As time went on nothing unusual happened as a result of the rudder being turned right. It just wandered out to the starboard side more than usual, about 6 more feet, making it easy to see by sticking my head out the window at the helm. It worked fine in calm waters.
We navigated though Padre Bay, then entered into the narrows, the section of water that usually produces the most rough water of the trip. Then we reached the Warm Creek Pass T, where normally we would turn right toward Wahweap Marina. We couldn’t turn right, the water is too low to use Warm Creek Pass. I knew we had to go left around Antelope Island and follow the original river path toward the dam. The water has been too low to use the Warm Creek Pass since 2003 due to a western drought, now in it’s 4th year.
So at the Warm Creek T, we went left to follow the river route. The water was rough due to the narrow channel and 100% of the boat traffic passing through this area. It's just like the old Narrows of Padre bay, but 4 times longer. A couple miles later, about a mile past Navajo Canyon I noticed a barge passing us on the left. It created a pretty good swell, about half that of what a tour boat can produce. About this time I heard a noise on top deck, so I decided to check it out, thinking the wind may be blowing things around. The wind was a somewhat steady headwind from the south at about 10 knots, with an occasional gust. My co-captain Mitch took the helm so I could investigate. When I went up-stairs to the top deck I saw two of our guests, one reading, one listening to a CD. They apparently had moved some furniture around, causing the noise I heard. My curiosity about the noise was solved, the slight wind wasn't a problem, everything looked fine, until I looked to the aft of the boat. It was about 3pm, this is when all the excitement started.
As I looked to the aft from the top deck and saw cushions floating in the water. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, it appeared that our lounge cushions blew over the railing and into the water..... and my 2 guests on the top did didn't say anything? This didn't make sense, it wasn't like them to not say anything after discussing the surprise winds of Lake Powell during our initial crew meeting at the beginning of the week. From a distance it appeared like the wind blew several cushions off the top deck somehow. Then, as I rushed further aft for a better look I couldn’t believe what I saw, it came into view. The Tige was submerged, right side up, and we’re doing about 7-8mph. The cushions were from the ski boat, now floating out in the water. Stunned, I hustled down-stairs and yelled to Monty (he was taking a nap on the couch) that his boat was submerged and immediately slowed down the houseboat, thinking that such a drag could break the tow rope any second, possibly letting the boat sink in 400ft of water. This is something I’ve never experienced before so my brain was racing to figure out what to do.
Since the gunwales of the boat were slightly above waterline at first, it appeared it may be possible to bail out the water by hand. But when we stopped the houseboat, the boat sank down more, letting more water in. So we kept a forward motion of about 3mph (GPS helps gauge this). Monty took a foot bucket and swam out to start bailing as fast as you’ve seen anyone work. This boat was owned half by Monty, and the other half is owned by his partner Scott (not present). This isn't the kind of news you want to call your partner with during your vacation! After a few minutes of this it was apparent that bailing by hand would not work, even with multiple people, is just wasn't possible to make progress in the choppy water conditions. Too much water was pouring over the front of the boat into the bow-rider passenger area, more than anyone or any team could keep ahead of.
While Monty was bailing his brains out, I contacted the national park service to report the emergency. They immediately dispatched ARA’s Executive Services’ rescue boat out to pump out the boat with a high speed gas powered pump, something we may be buying for the houseboat in the future. Executive Service radioed us to find a beach to take the houseboat to. Unfortunately the narrows area is shear cliff for miles. We sent out Seadoos anyway to scout for a beach, but nothing was nearby. The new Antelope Point marina was about 2mi ahead, so that was our destination.
Bailing the Tige was hopeless. The water was very choppy, big swells, just beating us up as we motored along. Monty pleaded to pull the front of the Tige up so water would not come over the bow so much. Nobody was strong enough to pull the tow line to get slack, enough to get the tow line tied to something higher. Even if somebody could get enough slack I was skeptical about pulling the boat from up top, nobody could hold the tow rope and there were no cleats on the top deck to tie the rope to, not to mention the houseboat was not designed for such a force to be pulling at that angle up high. Tying to the railing on the top deck would be a disaster, surely pulling it loose. Railing isn’t made for tying lines to. To pull the front of the Tige from up high I concluded that we had to stop the houseboat to get enough slack to tie to something high.
Although I had doubts about pulling the Tige from up high, I stopped the houseboat to give it shot. We were desperate to try anything. As it turned out I should have followed my gut feeling and not stopped the houseboat. When we stopped the houseboat to get slack in the tow rope, I ran out back to figure out what to tie the tow line to that would be higher, yet strong enough. The Tige was creeping closer to the houseboat as the crew pulled at the line. When we got enough slack I started looking around for a tie-off solution. The crew stopped pulling as it approached the back of the houseboat. Over the next 15-20 seconds I was looking up high for the answer, but didn’t find anything that would safely work. Then I looked down at the Tige, it was bearing down on Homeless, closer and closer even though the crew quit pulling. It was the wind, it was blowing the houseboat into the Tige. Things were getting worse, not better. I saw it coming, in seconds the windshield of the Tige was going to be broken by the starboard aft corner of the houseboat. It was too late for me to run to the helm and pull away. Boom, the right windshield broke.
At this point Monty jumped from the Tige back onto the houseboat. I told him the boat isn’t going to sink, pulling from up high wasn’t an option. I noticed that even though the Tige was submerged, it was still floating when full of water. I concluded that Tige installed enough floatation foam in the hull to make it impossible to sink if we kept the Tige horizontal. It would continue to float at surface level. But we had to safely get separated from the Tige and start pulling it again to a location where the water was calm, and that certainly wasn’t in the Antelope Narrows section of the lake.
Help was on the way from ARA. Although I had doubts about how anyone could pump out the boat in such conditions of choppy water, someone with experience and equipment for a situation like this was coming. We carefully monitored the tow lines and I pulled the houseboat away from the Tige. Other crewmembers were scurrying around on Seadoo’s picking up anything floating in the water. One of them was my 14yr old son, Jeff, who is experienced with Seadoo’s, but this was his first week to operate one without an adult on the PWC. He just took a Utah Fish and Game PWC safety course 5 days earlier to legally ride a PWC on Lake Powell. I had confidence he would keep his calm and retrieve valuables while keeping himself safe, but his mother was worried about other boats zipping by in this narrow channel. Another passerby boat helped collect the bigger items, like seat cushions, engine cover, life vests, etc. They were a big help, whoever they were. But even though some passerby's were helpful, others were not. One cigarette boat full of arrogant idiots nearly ran over the submerged Tige, they missed it by about 15ft doing 35-40MPH! Idiots!
We didn’t know exactly where we were. No buoys were within sight, but I knew that we were downlake from Navajo Canyon and uplake of Antelope Point Marina. ARA kept asking on the radio how we were doing, where we were, if there were any beaches nearby, and informing us the rescue boat was in route. I finally saw a buoy, but couldn’t read it with the binoculars so I asked Jeff to buzz over on the Seadoo and report the mile marker number back to me. It was #9, I informed ARA our exact location. Then, I could see power lines on the cliff, I knew Antelope marina was just around the corner. Then I saw a building on the cliff, and finally we came around the bend to see the marina. Still about a mile away, this was our destination. Everyone zooming by took pictures, video, and gawked at the sunken boat. Amusing and entertaining to them, it was heartbreaking for us. Fortunately nobody got hurt in the turbulence of a futile effort to save the Tige by ourselves.
Here comes ARA somebody shouted. You could tell it was ARA because he was moving very fast, producing huge bow splashes that had the appearance of urgency. To some extent we were comforted that help had arrived, but we still didn’t know how someone could help in such choppy waters. We were still in 400ft of water and anything is possible…. I was thinking. There was one person in the ARA boat, his name was Mike. He hovered around the Tige in his rescue boat to assess the situation then instructed me on the marine radio to continue toward the marina, now in sight, just about ¼ mile away. Mike watched the behavior of the boat and we adjusted the speed to an ideal speed of about 4mph to keep the Tige afloat. The hull helped keep the boat at surface level when it was right-side-up. He instructed me to keep going through the marina wakeless zone (full width of the channel) to the other side, to the windward side of the marina. He suggested I beach it on some flat rocks, but right then the Tige turned upside down. Who knows why, it just happened some how. The Tige was now turtle and the houseboat was acting like it was dragging an anchor on the bottom. With the boat turtle, the front of the hull wants to submarine as we pulled it, putting a huge drag on the houseboat. The houseboat wouldn’t turn left. I was thinking the boat was hooked on a wakeless bouy somehow, or dragging the bottom. The drag was incredible. I had visions of total loss at that point, but I looked back and the Tige was still afloat, but upside down. The situation had changed. With the Tige upside down Mike changed the plan, now we’re headed to the floating tires of the marina, but the houseboat wouldn’t turn left in the direction we needed to go. I radioed to Mike the steering situation, so with the rubber bumper of his rescue boat he pushed the front of our houseboat in the direction we needed to go, left. Slowly I motored over to the tires. Mike had to push the front of the houseboat one more time in the right direction, and we made it. We butted up to the tires and tied up the houseboat. The Tige was still floating, still upside down. The slight wind blew the Tige into the tires, this helped minimize the damage and stabilize the situation.
The first thing Mike did was tie a heavy duty line to the Tige to prevent the boat from sinking. Then he assessed what was needed to get the boat turned over. Sometimes this can be done with enough help, but Mike was by himself. Another ARA boat happened to come by and was going to help out, but just then a bigger emergency came in over the marine radio, the help had to leave. Mike needed more help before he could do anything. Although our crew was eager to help and offered assistance, he didn’t know who we were or what our skills were. That could increase risk of injury, which was not an option; he didn’t want any help from us. He just said, “watch and learn” (good advice). He called Wahweap marina to get more help. The situation had stabilized. With the heavy duty tether line tied to the Tige there was no danger of losing it in 400ft of water. The wind had died down a little, and a special rescue boat was on its way to turn the Tige over, and pump out.
Mike started talking with us about the logistics of getting the Tige up to the boat shop ASAP, as he collected Monty’s credit card info. He assured us the Wahweap boat shop could get the boat engine “pickled” and the boat would be OK, running tomorrow. After all, this was the 11th boat this week that sank in the same way, in the same channel. The boat shop had experience at “pickling” engines, which is basically removing all the water from the engine and replacing all the fluids, before any rust sets in.
All we could do now is wait for more help, and the special rescue boat. Mike asked about our boat trailer to take the boat to the boat shop. One problem, the keys of the tow vehicle were lost in 400’ of water. They were in the Tige, and flushed out of the boat at some point. But there was a solution though. Mitch (my co-captain) had his keys for his vehicle which also had a 2” tow ball.
Monty and I decided to take the Seadoo’s to Wahweap and get the trailer ready for when the Tige arrived, we were running out of daylight. The Tige would be towed in by the rescue boat after it got pumped out and we needed to be ready with the trailer to pull it from the lake. Once we arrived at Wahweap and got the trailers swapped around, we called the local Lake Powell locksmith. It was 6pm and fortunately the Page locksmith was available to immediately help us out. He said he would meet us in 30 minutes at Bene’ Pizza at the launch ramp. Our luck was starting to change. Monty and I ordered a pizza while he made some more calls. We finished our pizza right when the locksmith arrived. He made 2 keys for Monty’s Suburban for $90. Yes we were elated to get keys made within 90 minutes of calling for help. The trip home was looking more promising.
While we were dealing with trailers, keys and pizza, the rescue boat was approaching with the Tige. They successfully pumped the boat out with 2 gas powered high speed pumps and it was on it’s way to safety. All of this took a couple of hours and getting the boat safely to shore was a relief, and a new experience. It felt like a weight was lifted from our shoulders.. Since the captain of the houseboat (me) was still at Wahweap waiting for the Tige to arrive, the houseboat stayed tied to the Antelope Point Marina breakwater tires, overnight.
Since the Tige in tow was approaching Wahweap ramp, we had no time to switch the trailers back around to the correct vehicles, we had to scramble down the ramp to pick up the boat and take it to the boat shop. It’s 7:30 now, getting dark and we were hoping to drop off the boat with enough daylight left to return to the houseboat via Seadoo. Everything seemed to be coming together until we arrived at the shop. The boatshop yard gate was closed, the gate was locked. Mike with ARA had radioed ahead around 4pm to the boatshop and arranged to have the gate left open so we could drop the Tige off, then lock the gate. But apparently that part of the plan didn’t come together. Somebody at the boat shop must have forgotten. We had to wait until morning to take the boat in.
Now it’s 8:15, too dark to ride the Seadoo’s back to the houseboat, so we loaded the Seadoos onto the trailer in the dark and spent the night in our RV in the marina parking lot. Neither of us slept very good, too much on our minds I guess. It’s was certainly a bad day, a lifetime memory we’d like to forget, but won’t.
Friday morning we had a 6:30am breakfast at the lodge. Then we took the Tige to the boatshop for the “pickle” job, it was about 7:30. We launched one Seadoo and I returned to our houseboat, still tied to the floating tire breakwater at Antelope Point Marina. Monty stayed at Wahweap and visited the national park service office to file an incident report. Later that morning I skippered the houseboat to Wahweap and picked up Monty around noon, in time to turn the houseboat in at 2pm.
Later that day about 4pm the boatshop had the pickle job done. All the water was removed, fluids replaced. The motor was saved, but it wouldn’t start. There was no spark, likely due to a shorted computer module. The mechanic said that sometimes the computer housing leaks, ruining the electronics. The motor was cranked enough to build oil pressure, long enough to flush any water out of the system. The mechanic was confident everything would be OK once the electrical system was repaired, something that should be easy to do when we got home and take it to a local shop. Other than the broken windshield and a few cushion casualties, the boat was in pretty good condition. The $1100 stereo system will need to be replaced, and possibly a few other electrical items, but overall the boat was saved. Costly, but salvageable. Yes, there was insurance coverage.
HOW TO PREVENT THIS
After talking to a lot of locals that have seen this common situation, I learned a lot. The frequency of this kind of incident has increased dramatically since the closure of the Warm Creek pass in 2003. Until it reopens it's important to be cautious in Antelope Narrows because it appears the national park service isn't going to do anything. They continue to allow the big tour boats operate which contributes to the danger. Here’s a list of things to know that could help prevent such a mishap.
Tournament ski boats are most vulnerable. Their engine sits midship, placing the weight bias farther forward than a rear engine I/O setup. Although a midship engine is good to plane quick for skiing, it puts more weight on the bow of the boat. In rough waters a heavier bow will submerge easier than a boat with an I/O setup in tow. A lighter bow is more buoyant, which will adjust to sudden swells and wakes quicker, preventing water coming over the bow.
Bow rider boats are most vulnerable. When the bow is submerged the bow passenger area acts like a bucket, scooping water in as is comes over the front. Boats that aren’t bow ride are less apt to take on water because the water runs of the bow deck back into the lake. The windshield of non-bowrider boats prevent the water from entering the boat, skirting the water off the sides.
Boats with less freeboard are more vulnerable. The higher the gunwales of boats with lots of freeboard is better and more buoyant, preventing water from coming over the front of the boat.
ALWAYS use a 100’ towrope. Make sure the tow line at least ¾” diameter with a hook and retaining clip on one end that’s big enough to tow a bow twice the size of yours. Using shorter tow lines will increase the leverage of the houseboat to pull the bow of the towed boat underwater THROUGH swells instead letting the boat float over the swells. Longer tow lines let the towed boat adjust to the swells quicker, preventing water coming over the front.
If towing a tournament ski boat, make sure the rudder is centered. If it’s turned like ours was, this puts more tension on the tow rope, increasing the risk of pulling the bow of the ski boat underwater THROUGH a swell instead of letting the ski boat adjust to the water elevation to float over swells.
When going though the Antelope Narrows, from the dam to Padre bay, have someone watching the towed boats 100% of the time from the TOP AFT DECK. Do not observe from the lower aft deck where you could suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning, sitting near the engine exhaust.
Watch the tour boats, and barges! The Antelope Narrows is about 12 miles long. You will certainly pass these large boats. They can make enormous wakes that will toss the houseboat around like a toy. These tours boats try to slow down for houseboats as best a possible, but the residual effect of a tour boat wake can last for 30 minutes as their wake bounces off the vertical cliffs, back and forth. This section of the lake is very rough from dawn to dusk as a result.
If you remember when the water level was higher and Warm Creek Pass was open, the old narrows from the Warm Creek T to Padre Bay was only about 3 miles long. In this short 3mi section the tour boats would slow down since it was only 3 miles. But driving a tour boat through the 12mi Antelope Narrows at a reduced speed would take too long to visit Rainbow Bridge. These tour boats will go fast most of the way, making huge wakes that last a long time. You'll see them way over to the edge of the water, trying to do their best to minimize their wake, but it's not enough. I believe tour boats and barges are the reason 11 boats sank this week, the same way ours did. The national park service apparently doesn’t believe the problem to be severe enough to ban the tour boats during this low water level timeframe. I think they should reconsider.
It would be wise to drive ski boats though this 12mi section of the lake instead of towing them. If you have the people to do this, this is the best option to reduce your risk. Be ready for a rough ride.
If you tow boats, go though the narrow EARLY in the morning. When going uplake there's a convenient campsite at a sandy beach just before the "S Curve" wakeless zone, near the dam. Get up early the next morning and go though the narrows when it’s calm. When returning do the same thing, try to get through the narrows before 7am when it’s calm.