Mayday! A Cautionary Tale



Last summer I did a solo delivery of a friend’s 45’ boat from Sag Harbor to Newport. A few miles off Fisher Island she caught fire, and I sent out the first (and, I hope, the last) Mayday call of my life. It all ended well enough (meaning no one was hurt) but I thought it time to share the story with my loyal readers. Perhaps it can help you in preparing your boats (and minds) for the coming season.

She was your basic twin engine down-east style yacht, and I’ve done this trip many times, alone and with friends,  day and night, in good weather and bad. She was a well-equipped and well-maintained boat, but did not, notably, carry a life raft.

I was heading east at 11 am at a speed of 24 knots, with light winds and two foot seas. It was the proverbial weekday milk run, and the only other boats I saw were a couple of fishing boats drifting through The Race, perhaps three miles away.

I’ll say upfront that I love running boats by myself.  Even on Gypsy, my 40’ trawler, I’m most at peace when it is just the two of us:

Maybe that’s why I can be a little safety-obsessed (my kids’ friends refer to me as Safety Dave). When I am moving a boat alone,  90% of the time I’m wearing my own personal mini-ditch kit. I’d like to say that’s the case 100% of the time, but it just isn’t.

That kit consists of my Offshore inflatable PFD. I like this one, as it is rugged, fairly light, and not too uncomfortable:

There was a product recall a few years ago on this model, due to defective strap design. If you own one, make sure it’s been checked out.

To it I’ve attached this Mustang Utility Pocket. It hangs easily at waist level, and I usually forget it’s even there:

Into it I tuck this mini-EPIRB (properly registered with NOAA):


The Coasties who saved my ass that day told me that 25% of owners don’t register their new EPIRB’s, and 75% of those who do neglect to update it as their boats and contacts change over time. Enough said about that….

Also in there is a sharp knife, and a fairly recent signaling innovation – a compact laser flare. Day or night, it can get someone’s attention from two miles away:

So equipped, I was cruising along at 3,000 RPM,  when suddenly the RPM on the port engine  dropped to 600 RPM. I heard no reason for this – no cough, bang or break. What follows is my best recollection of the exact sequence of events over the next 48 hours.

+ 5 seconds – I remember muttering to myself “Well, that’s not good.”

+ 8 seconds – I put both engines in neutral, and began to check off possible reasons. I glanced at the fuel gauges, which showed half full. Then I remembered I’ve been stranded a time or two due to faulty gauges, and I kicked myself for not checking the engine room’s fuel sight tubes before departing Sag.

+ 12 seconds – I turned off both engines, thinking a restart might cure the problem.

+ 15 seconds – Dense, oily black smoke billowed through the enclosed helm area. I was shocked at how quickly my visibility was reduced to under 12 inches. I leaned forward to check the GPS Plotter, and began to cough.

+ 20 seconds – I grabbed the VHF mic (pre-set to Channel 16, but not by me). I was grateful that the new Standard mic had a GPS display right in the handset.

I announced a Mayday and my position, and with my other hand began to feel around for the manual Halon Fire Suppression switch. I was kicking myself that I didn’t know where it was.

+ 30 seconds – The Coast Guard answered my Mayday call, asking for vessel name. I didn’t pick up the mic to answer, and kept feeling around for the Halon switch. Coughing more, I found I could no longer see the plotter through the smoke. I had the (weirdly calm) thought “I’ll give it twenty more seconds. Then I’m going to have to jump overboard.”

+ 35 seconds – With a loud whoosh,the automatic fire suppression system fired. It took me a moment to identify the sound, as I had completely forgotten about the automatic trigger. Within seconds the smoke cleared, and I knew that everything was going to be OK. Then I saw the that the manual Halon switch was nowhere near where I expected it to be.

+ 40 seconds – I answered the Coast Guard’s call, and told them I was now in no immediate danger. They said I’d have a rescue boat alongside in twenty-five minutes.

+ 1 minute – I went out to the cockpit to take some deep breaths. I thought about opening up the engine room hatch and taking a peak, but then remembered my Coast Guard Six-Pack license training –

Whatever you do, don’t reintroduce oxygen into an engine room after the suppression system fires. Everything will just flare right up again!

+ 10 minutes – A large ferry boat stopped fifty yards away. Dozens of passengers looked down at me. The Captain called me on the VHF. I said all was under control, and they could proceed on their way. They refused, telling me that commercial rules required them to stand by until the Coast Guard arrived. I realized, happily, that if I had jumped overboard these guys would have fished me out even before the Coast Guard arrived.

+ 25 Minutes – I saw the Coast Guard rescue boat coming towards me from several miles away, and I flashed my laser flare at them. When she pulled up, I saw she was crewed by four Coasties – three men and a woman. Their average age was no more than 24 years old. I was pleased that they said they could see my laser flare from over a mile away!  Two of them stepped aboard my boat, and set up tow lines. One said “We heard your Mayday. You sounded very calm.” Indeed, I will say that through this entire episode I remained calm and clear-headed. You’ll see below I paid for it all later. 

+ 30 Minutes – A rather beat up private marine salvage boat arrived, and exchanged a series of dirty looks with the Coasties. There was no love lost between any of the parties. They follow us for most of the tow back to Long Island, clearly unhappy about missing out on their salvage fees. I made a mental note to research the rules of salvage.  I’ll cover this in a future post on The Fog Warning. 

+ 10 hours – Late that night I took a car ferry back from CT, making my way home. That’s when I become aware that some sort of delayed shock has set it. I noticed for the first time that my clothes smell badly of smoke. Fellow ferry passengers clearly were aware of it. Then I found that a real and uncontrollable tremor had set up in both of my hands.  And finally,  I noted that I had begun compulsively telling my story to complete strangers. All in all, an unsettling trip home.

+ 48 hours – My hands stop shaking. The fire department inspection in port revealed that the fire was electrical in nature.

Now, eight months later, here are my thoughts and observations on all that happened. I look forward to your take on it as well.

What I did right:

  • I was well equipped for this emergency, and believe I would have easily survived going overboard if the automatic Halon system hadn’t kicked in. Since I did not have the time or visibility to locate the boat’s PFD’s and signaling gear, I’m quite pleased to have been wearing my mini-ditch kit. If I did jump, the water temp was reasonable, and I’m a good swimmer (my normal pool routine is a 45-minute mile, three or four days a week). Even if I had drifted away from the boat in the strongly running tide, I could have easily stayed afloat until rescued by either the Ferry or the Coast Guard, with the possible help of  the EPIRB and the laser flare.
  • I was well trained. The Fire Safety module of the CG six pack license stuck with me. If I had opened up the engine room hatch, I’m sure a full abandon ship situation would have followed.
  • I kept my head. A lifetime of thoughtful time on the water became useful, as did the hundreds of  barroom war stories I’ve heard from friends, clients, and delivery captains.

What the boat did right:

  • She was well-equipped. The Halon system did its duty, and if I had done a better inspection before departing I would have known where its manual switch was,  saving valuable time and damage.
  • I’ve become an enormous fan of GPS displaying VHF handsets. They are not just a gimmick. When time and vision is short, they really can be a life saver.

What I did wrong:

  • I was new to the boat. I should have done a complete walkthrough before departing. Beyond the manual Halon switch, I didn’t even know where the PFD’s were. This is inexcusable.
  • Almost a month later I realized that I had completely forgotten about the red DSC distress button on the VHF. Using it would have saved valuable time. I am embarrassed to say that I wasn’t even really sure about how this feature worked. Needless to say, I later studied the manual carefully.

  • On Gypsy I keep a survival suit:


And a small valise-style life raft:

Even after the events of this story, I’m very unlikely to pack them aboard for a late-summer forty-mile trip to Newport. But maybe I should?

Beyond that, loyal readers, you tell me….

Safety Dave


*** The essence of Essence ***

At some point in their history most successful custom builders are able hit a sweet spot in the design and execution of a truly special yacht. So special, in fact,  that it becomes their flagship. For Vicem Yachts, that flagship was their 2006 Vicem 85 Classic – Essence. 

Essence is the largest and most elegant downeast-styled yacht that Vicem (or any other builder on the planet) ever splashed. Certainly she is the largest express-style lobster boat anywhere. It is hard to overstate the grandeur she presents on the water:


Her interior views are no less stately:


A truly amazing yacht! I can unequivocally say  that everyone who has ever boarded Essence has come away speechless. And that includes numerous A-list celebrities who have returned many times to enjoy her in charter ( I can’t publicly name them, but buy me a drink or two at the Fort Lauderdale show, and let’s see what slips…).

As you may have guessed by now, I am both excited and honored to announce today that Essence is now for sale. She and I are now actively in search of her next owner. It should be you…

This head-turner makes a powerful statement in every harbor she enters. Here she is in the Bahamas, and like all great designs she appears to move, even when at rest:

As impressive as her lines are, to me the true soul of Essence come from her two large, beautifully furnished salons. Down below a formal salon of 360 square feet (and how many yachts do you know where you can talk about square footage?) provides seperate seating and dining areas for eight pampered guests, adjacent to the chef’s galley:

Add to her a second salon of 280 square feet on the pilothouse deck (with seating and dining for eight, adjacent to the outdoor grill) –

– and you get palatial accommodations without any sacrifice to intimacy.

And I haven’t even gotten to her huge cockpit area yet. With her upper salon and cockpit on the same level, there area almost 45 running feet of indoor/outdoor living space:

I have run Essence in Europe and in the States with as few as two, and as many as forty-five guests. Everything and everyone just fits in a state of pure elegance. I’ve been aboard more than a few megayachts that fall short when measured against Essence’s aesthetic.

The owner has decided to make a move back to sailing, his first love. So Essence is now being offered seriously for sale at $1,950,000 ($1,500,000 less than when she was last on the market). The full listing can be seen here:

Essence resides in Palm Beach. I am pleased to say that special arrangements have been made to chauffeur my clients (by the owner’s Bentley) to and from the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show so that they can spend some quality time aboard this one of a kind yacht.  Please call me for an appointment.

It is, I’ll repeat, an honor to be associated with this work of art.


Big Wave Dave


PS: Some history – I watched Essence getting built, stick by stick as they say, in 2005 and 2006. I was commuting to Istanbul on a monthly basis back then, and that gave me a sort of “fast forward” perspective on how a flagship like this gets built. She took up at least a quarter of the factory, and in fact was so big that it was hard for me to get a handle on her grandeur until she went in the water.

I watched her first sea trial from my favorite wine bar on the Asian side of Istanbul (want a great wine? Oküzgözü, meaning bull’s eye, is a really good red). She passed under the Bosporus’ Ataturk Bridge at sunset, where she was lit up by the city’s  nightly summer fireworks display. It was a moving experience. A line from Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez  kept pulling at me – something about a “boat-shaped mind.” I looked it up later, and today it is my [small] gift to you:

And a boat, above all other inanimate things, is personified in man’s mind. Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her. This is not mysticism, but identification. Man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul.

For me that is the essence of Essence. I look forward to sharing her with you during the Fort Lauderdale show.

*** Crunch of the Week ***

I. Crunch of the Week:

As far as I’ve been able to determine, The Fog Warning is the most widely read blog in this (rather small) industry. On average,  anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 people around the world are regular readers (not counting shares and forwards, which I can’t track).  So a huge thank you to all my loyal readers for your continued support and engagement. And don’t be shy about sending these on to your friends and family. I do appreciate it.

I’m very happy to report that last week’s posting (that scary shipboard docking explosion) was the most widely read posting in the ten years I’ve been doing this. It had over 4,000 readers!

This could be a random activity blip, a lucky outlier, or maybe it just means people like maritime disasters. I don’t want to fall into the TV news practice of “If it bleeds, it leads,” but in biz you have to listen to your clients. So I’ll be sprinkling this kind of coverage around here and there, starting this week.

So here’s your crash of the week (literally), in one of my favorite harbors in the world:

The boat biz takes me to Portofino fairly often, but not so often that I lose my amazement over how many yachts cram themselves into that tiny harbor. Sometimes it seems you can almost skip from the cliffs on the west to the docks on the east by walking from boat to boat. But that doesn’t excuse this crash!

Last week’s posting attributed that explosion to the boat, and largely absolved the Captain. But this one? Sorry Captain, but this one is user error,  beginning to end. Even if his back up cameras weren’t functioning, boats of this size always have crew hanging off the transom with portable radios, keeping closely in touch with the bridge. A friend from La Spezia told me that the official explanation was “gear failure.” I don’t buy that for a second. What do you think?

II. Time to go…

A client called me last week to say this about his brokerage listing:

“It’s time for this boat to go away.”

Mind you, it wasn’t a sad statement, as he’s going to build a new boat. We had a long talk about how to make this happen, and when we hung up, the song Hello, I Must Be Going  popped into my head. Even if you know the song well (and who knew Groucho had a range of  one and a half octaves?) stick with it for his inspired dance at minute 1:45. Such amazing, physical humor:


So yes,  its time for our Reliant 40 Commuter brokerage boat to go away! Here’s her plans:


The owner has just dropped the asking price by $55,000! He is now asking $595,000, and the full listing can be found here:

Our Yachtworld Listing

She is in Florida at the moment and will be coming north in the next few weeks. Which means you will have at least two opportunities to see (and sea trial) her this summer!

  • First, you are invited to come to Reliant Yachts’ dockside event in Sag Harbor, NY on July 22nd and 23rd! You can spend as much time as you like aboard the Commuter 40, and sea trials are available by appointment (if you let me know quickly). She will be located exactly here:


  • Then she comes to Maine in August. We will be displaying her at the Maine Boats and Harbors Show in Rockland from August 11th through the 13th. If you haven’t had the pleasure of attending this show before, let me say that it is a wonderful, intimate show in a quintessential downeast town. With no more than 3,000 or so attendees, there is plenty of time and space to take a leisurely look at boats you will love (at least two of my clients bought their Vicems here). Full details about the show can be found at The Maine Boats and Harbors Show, and sea trials can be had by appointment.

III. On The Subject of Brokerage

You will see some of our latest brokerage listings popping up here in the coming weeks. And that calls for another classic clip:

Why post this now (not that anyone needs a reason to laugh hysterically)? Because you have many choices in listing your boat for sale. I estimate that there are between six and nine thousand brokers on just the east coast who would be happy to list your boat. But if this video proves anything, it is that real talent is a rare thing. You can try to copy it, but nothing succeeds like the real deal.

At Reliant Yachts, between Dave McFarlane, Jim Ewing and myself, we’ve sold in excess of $50 million in fine yachts in our time. Our Rolodex (to use a word from a bygone era) is the deepest in the industry. There is virtually no one we don’t know, or can’t access, in the service of selling your boat for you.

What’s my point?  If you’re thinking about selling your boat, call me to work out an effective marketing strategy. As readers of this blog probably recognize, I love creative marketing.

IV. A Closing Note

If you’re lucky enough to spend your time playing in, on, and under the ocean, you probably have no shortage of passions. I certainly have more than my share. But if I have to choose one above the rest, it’s salt water fly fishing:

Captain Dave at Montauk

Last week I was on my flats boat at one of my secret spots in Peconic Bay. It’s a place where, when the stars align and the universe wants to smile upon you,  some very large bass can come into water as shallow as 24 inches.  Just as I was quitting for the day, out of the corner of my eye I saw a fish-as-submarine ghost her way up onto the flat (at +45 inches and +40 pounds, most probably it was a “she”). But while she was seen only from the corner of my eye, I was clearly front and center in hers. So she quickly ghosted back into deeper water before I could cast. She was the largest bass I’ve ever seen on the flats. She left me shaking.

I’ve been thinking about this fish, and the life she’s lived, all week. She’s probably thirty years old, or half my age. Which means that for thirty springs she has slowly made her way up from her Chesapeake Bay winter grounds, to feed or spawn in Long Island waters. Or perhaps she leaves Montauk to starboard and makes her way north to Nantucket, or downeast Maine.  She’s probably seen hundreds of flies and lures swim by her in her time, but wisdom born of age and experience has kept her safe. I’m sure she is far more worried about a Mako shark or a large seal than this middle-aged Jewish guy with a five ounce fly rod. But she was concerned enough to drift off my flat, and out of my life. I wish her well.

Writing this today I realize that it wasn’t the fish’s size that moved me. No, it was the size of her life. I’m humbled by the waters she’s travelled, the things she’s seen, and the lessons she’s learned. I add that special feelings to the many that have come from my time on the water. So I sign off now with this “message in a bottle for you,” my 4,000 loyal readers:

Get yourselves out on the water this week, my friends, and live large.