Note: This February 8, 2012 posting is the concluding part of a 3-part story.
If you have not yet read Parts 1 and 2, we strongly recommend you do so to enjoy the complete story to its fullest.
Here is your link to Part 1:
A Life Changing Journey, Part 1 – The Adventure
A Life-Changing Journey – Part 3 of 3 – Picking Up The Pieces
(by Alex Watson)
Yesterday, you read about a catastrophic accident in the Detroit River when Gemini (since renamed Algosar), a 432’ Great Lakes freighter, struck and sank Wandering Star, a 36’ Grand Banks Classic trawler.
Here are some stats about that freighter:
Length: 432 ft
Beam: 65 ft
Depth: 29 ft
Capacity: 75,298 barrels / 12,500 tons
Horsepower (twin diesel): 5,220 hp
The owner of Wandering Star, Jeff Martines, and the portion of the boat where he had been sleeping, were thrust under the freighter — over 30 feet down — while the entire 432 ft long ship travelled over him. Miraculously, he survived.
Jeff’s story now concludes with:
1) Coast Guard investigation
2) Insurance claim
3) Salvage efforts
4) Legal proceedings
5) Determination of what happened
7) Long term effects
And Lessons learned.
As with Parts 1 and 2, these are Jeff’s words.
It seems amazing but all of us were treated and released same day, after about 6-8 hours in hospital. It was late at night when we left. My Dad came back to my house with my Mom as he was pretty sore and I wanted to keep an eye on him. John and Jim, our captain and crew, overnighted at a hotel and flew home from there.
I called the insurance company. When I bought the boat, I had the company — Auto-Owners — send me a binder. When the accident happened, just a few days after initiating coverage, I had not yet made one single payment. So here I had to call them and tell them we’d had a total loss. But I’ve got to say, they were quite phenomenal. Not only did they reimburse us for the boat, they also paid us an extra 10% of the value for personal items, things of that nature.
Shortly after the accident, the Coast Guard was making contact with us. They wanted the briefing. I ended up going down to Detroit the following week to meet with them. The freighter captain and crew had met with the Coast Guard separately, so we did not see them. I believe the Coast Guard actually briefed the freighter people the same day of the accident. I think they boarded and dealt with them directly, with drug testing and the like. I understand the Coast Guard wanted to brief us same day as well, but given our condition, the paramedics whisked us away before they could do that.
At the briefing, our whole experience was recounted. We started to get into the technicalities. The channels we were monitoring, the equipment we had on board, this whole situation. We gave our story.
The Coast Guard was very closed-mouthed about what had happened. They took down our information, said they would be doing an investigation, and would let us know the results. Quite honestly, over the period of about the next year, there appeared to be a song and dance response on the Coast Guard’s part. You could just tell they weren’t interested in getting involved. The captain of the freighter was cited, but no other action was taken against him. In fact, I think that citing was later rescinded.
While we were working with the Coast Guard and their investigation, their line of attention began to change. They were asking us how much fuel was on board. From my calculations, we went down with a little over 200 gallons of diesel. Upon learning that, they said “You’ve got to get it out.”
People may not know this, but if something happens and you have to salvage your boat, it’s your responsibility to get it out of there. And that’s not cheap. So we had to hire a marine salvage company. Although we were on the brink of winter, they started sending a diver down. I went with him because I thought it was going to be an easy hit to find it; it would ping on the sonar.
You know, the bottom of the Detroit River is very silty. We would do zig zags. Every time we thought we had it, the diver would go down. But the current is strong. So strong, we’d have to drop anchor and he’d have to follow the anchor rope. He also had to pick up the anchor on the bottom, and then move it. That’s how he would move around the river bottom.
We searched for two weeks. And the only thing we could find was part of the boat that still had the shafts coming through their logs. The diver saw the shafts and told me they were so damaged, they were “bent like curly fries.” You know, that’s 1-1/2” stainless!
Those shafts were the only part of the boat ever found in two weeks of dives. So we went back to the Coast Guard and explained that we’d tried but without success. They allowed us to abandon the search with the condition if they ever got a slick, it would still be our responsibility. Even though I’m not a polluter, this exposure didn’t leave me with a good feeling at all. But the marine salvage guy said we couldn’t have sunk in a more perfect place, because it was just south of Ford’s Rouge plant. If anything did bubble up, how could anyone say it was us, given how much stuff is coming out of Rouge?
We spent probably $8,000 trying to find the boat. Part of the money we got from Auto-Owners ended up covering that. If we ever did find the boat or tanks, it was going to cost us more to hook it up and get it out of the River.
Because we weren’t getting answers from the Coast Guard, we decided to pursue things in the courts. We just couldn’t let it slide. The whole accident was really bothering us. We needed some satisfaction. So we started calling attorneys.
To be honest with you, a number of them that we called wanted nothing to do with it. They said “you were in the shipping channel, you were supposed to get out of their way, and that’s all there is to it.” But we did find a maritime attorney in our area who listened to me and was interested in hearing the details. I sat down with him, and told him exactly what had happened. After also reading our statements, he felt there was some wrongdoing. He said “ok, I’ll take it.” If we won, he would get his piece of the pie, plus expenses. Anything that was expense-related pursuing this came out of our pockets. The attorney was in his mid 40s and a real pit-bull!
It wasn’t too long after we hired him that something stunning happened. Remember the fishermen that came over to us right after we’d been hit? Well, their story to the Coast Guard was unbelievable! I don’t know if they were cracking the beers or what, but their statement was that they saw us come from behind the freighter, pass it on the Port side, then turn hard East, directly in front of it. That’s what their statement was!
Well, when our attorney heard that, he sent us a letter saying “I no longer want to represent you on this case.” I was so angry! The fishermen’s story didn’t even wash with those of the freighter bridge or the freighter bow watch guy. It made absolutely no sense. We were adamant that we never passed a freighter. Not even one the whole time on the River. So when our attorney sent us that letter, I hit the roof. I wrote him a letter shaming him for dropping us so easily. Well, he took us back on.
Our attorney gagged us. He told us if we said a word, one word to the media about what happened, it would be the end of our relationship. We understood why, but that was pretty rough on us. Because the story was on the news. And it was on the web. The freighter people were talking. Other people were talking. And we weren’t allowed to push back. We so wanted to call people and set the record straight, because the picture they were painting just wasn’t true.
[Here’s something I pulled from the web to show what was being reported.] – Alex
“Gemini Involved in Collision”
10/23/04 8 p.m. Update
“Saturday afternoon the tanker Gemini was upbound in the lower Detroit River below Grassy Island when a 35-foot wooden pleasure boat misjudged the Gemini’s distance and cut across the bow of the tanker. The pleasure craft was struck by the tanker, which had no way of stopping or adjusting coarse. The pleasure craft was destroyed, the wooden hull disintegrated. The crew on the Gemini responded by stopping the tanker and assisting the four occupants of the small boat. All occupants were quickly recovered by another pleasure craft as pieces of their boat floated down river. The occupants of the boat were taken to a local hospital but there were no updates on their condition or extent of injuries.”
“Numerous agencies responded to the incident including local law enforcement. The Canadian Coast Guard was on scene with boats from their Amherstburg Base. A 47-foot boat (41306) and a 25- footer (255042) from the U.S. Coast Guard Station Belle Isle also responded to the scene.”
“The Gemini continued upbound to the Belle Isle Anchorage off Detroit for inspection, there were no visible signs of damage to the vessel as she passed Detroit. She arrived in the anchorage about 6 p.m., it is unknown how long she will remain anchored.”
[Jeff and his Dad also had to ignore the inevitable online “comments.” Like this one.] – Alex
- well, i have to say, WHAT A DUMBASS
- he “misjudged” the distance to cross in front of a freighter? oh, i didn’t see a friggin tanker chugging along in the channel?
- they are lucky they are alive, i hope they didnt have any boat insurance cause that idiot does not need to get another boat
- what a joke
We had to wait three years to hear what everybody involved had to say. Three years trying to figure out why this happened. When it came time for our depositions, I remember the freighter attorney was on one side of the table, and we and our attorney were on the other. My Dad gave his first. But when it was time for me to give mine, it was no different than how I’ve relayed it to you. Just telling this story was so overwhelming. I was deeply emotional. I remember our attorney looking at me quite surprised because, until that moment, he just hadn’t realized the terrible impact of that day.
You know, to this day, nobody heard any sounding from the freighter. We were on Channel 13, which is actually able to pick up 16 automatically. We were monitoring the correct channel. There was nothing that came across on the radio that they were bearing down on us. And, you know, a freighter horn is a freight train loud blast. Yet we heard nothing.
[So how loud is a freighter horn? - Blast is at 1:10.] – Alex
We got pretty worked up in the depositions. We couldn’t understand what was going on; couldn’t understand why this happened; couldn’t understand anything.
There was a mediator who tried to broker some kind of agreement. But you know, the freighter people were just standing firm in the case. They weren’t budging. And neither were we. We felt wronged.
Then something broke the log jam.
Both sides were revisiting what had happened. We entered the Detroit River about 11:00 that day. The freighter entered the river at approximately noon. Their depositions stated a white trawler passed along their starboard side, crossed in front of them, then continued up the River. Then they spotted that white trawler loidy doidying in the middle of the River. We realized they were first talking about that faster cruiser I mentioned earlier (the one that passed us too, just before I went below to rest), and then about our trawler, which was moving much slower. They saw the two boats as one and the same! So there was clearly confusion on the freighter between the actions of that white boat and our white boat.
But then, soon after that, the bow watchman was given permission to leave his watch to go get the next watch.
That led to the “AHA” moment!
You know, freighters like the Gemini steer from behind. There comes a point where objects in front disappear from the vision of the bridge. The bow watchman, the bridge’s eyes for things near, had left his post. We then learned his replacement did not assume his post on the bow for several minutes. According to the deposition of the replacement bow watchman, when he stepped up to the bow and looked down, there we were, on the brink of getting rolled. The replacement bow watchman is the one who told the captain to “Full Stop.”
And what about the others on the freighter? The ones who had acknowledged seeing us loidy doidying? Without the watchman keeping them apprised of our position, we believe they had simply stopped paying attention.
It was with that finding — the admission there had been a material gap in the bow watch — that the freighter company said “ok we’re just going to settle this.” They dropped the hard core.
I want to clarify something. It’s not like we felt the freighter people or their lawyers were trying to cover anything up. They were convinced their story was the story, and yet we knew it was incorrect. With their confusion regarding the two white boats, they saw us piloting haphazardly. But that wasn’t true. For 9 days we were pretty steady, 7-8 knots, 1800 rpm. In the Detroit River, we never varied course in a big way. And we never changed our speed one bit.
Since this accident, I’ve come to see freighters in a much more powerful light. Now, I don’t know the hydrodynamic effect of a freighter’s bow wave. But when we got caught in that, our boat being a very deep keel design, just spun in front of the freighter.
Perhaps if we were a smaller boat, or one with less keel, perhaps we would have just grazed along the freighter’s side.
You know, we had a meeting with the owner of Mitzie’s a convenience / gas dock business right on the Detroit River, just south of our collision spot. The dock at Mitzie’s is where the paramedics looked after us before we went to the hospital. When we met, the owner was kind enough to return our flag to us, which had been found. (Incidentally, after the collision, he used debris from our boat to make up their bar!)
The reason I mention Mitzie’s, is that the owner showed me something amazing when we were there… When a freighter goes by, the water level changes. A lot. The freighter displaces so much water, it pushes the level up before it, and then sucks it down when it passes. And once you get caught up in that…
You know, I’m a pilot. It’s kind of like getting caught in a downdraft. If the downdraft is 1,000 ft per minute and the most the plane can climb is 500 ft per minute, you’re going down at 500 ft per minute, no matter how hard you pull up on the stick. I think that’s what happened to us. Once we were in that freighter’s pull, it became impossible to get out.
[Here, you’ll get an amazing demonstration of the effect Jeff describes. This video was taken only a few miles north of the Detroit River.] – Alex
[Also on the Web, I discovered a very interesting article in a January 15, 1915 Scientific American called: Suction Between Passing Ships -1 -- Important But Little Understood Forces Affecting the Motion of Vessels. The article described and illustrated in diagrams the powerful forces that affect ships when they overtake and pass from opposite directions. It concluded with this paragraph: “For it is obvious that the forces created by these constrained waves following and preceding the ships can easily be far greater than any of those ordinarily relied upon for maneuvering. While the altitude of the constrained wave is slight its extent covers an area of ship side which is enormous when compared with the rudder surface. Indeed the difficulty in connection with suction is not to explain it but to explain how it is that so many ships pass closely without its becoming an overwhelming factor. The most frequent answer is depth of water. It requires no mathematics to show that this Venturi like restriction of waterway between the two ships is much worse in shallow water than in deep.” As for Jeff’s Dad’s difficulty steering prior to impact, the article said this about a larger vessel overtaking a smaller one. “...the overtaken vessel suddenly swerving uncontrollably usually in defiance of a hard over helm and often against reversed engines,” though the article indicates the greatest suction occurs when the overtaking ship has mostly passed the other.] – Alex
[I also found this, from a book entitled Royce’s Sailing Illustrated, published in 1997. Regarding the dangers of ship waves, the book says: “The movement of a ship displaces a tremendous volume around and under this moving container at hull speed. It produces a suction 1/2 to 3 lengths ahead to fill the void created by the propeller suction near the stern. This suction increases considerably in shallow bays or rivers where the same total volume has to be pulled in from greater distances.” The section continues with this: “The large vessel bow wave may push your boat away...” So why didn’t it in this case? Perhaps Jeff’s deep keel theory in part explains that. Incidentally, seamen call the suction ships create between themselves and another object “the drawdown.”] – Alex
Interesting thing, in early 2005, just a few months after the accident, the Gemini was sold to Algoma Central for $2.3 million. In maritime law, you can’t be sued for more than the value of your boat. I don’t know if Ashland sold it for that reason or not, but I think it probably capped their potential losses if the case ever resurfaced.
The settlement amount from Ashland Oil was a joke. Ashland may have viewed us as a thorn in their side, but they made it clear they were ready and tough if we were thinking of fighting this further. Auto-Owners recovered very little of the $60,000 they had paid us. When we paid everybody off — paramedics, attorney, salvage — we ended up with less than $20,000 each.
Now this was never about the money for us. We weren’t going for the throat. The insurance company had already pretty much reimbursed us. What we wanted was an explanation. We wanted to know “why.” And if there was some fault, we wanted an apology.
But you know, Ashland never admitted fault.
My Dad and I have had 7+ years to reflect on what happened that day.
One thing that amazes me is had there been just one break, one break in the link of events that led to this accident, it wouldn’t have happened. For instance, had I stayed in the pilot house, with an extra set of eyes, maybe I’d have seen something the others never did.
Here’s something else I’ve reflected on a lot. While the Grand Banks is an excellent boat, there’s something to be said for having greater visibility from the pilot house. The whole center section of our pilot house was solid, because there were stairways at both ends. And on both sides, there were small windows. Those are some significant blind spots. And probably the freighter bore down on us in one of those spots. You know, when it came time to buy another boat, I insisted on a model that had greater rearward visibility. I wanted windows, big windows, all the way around. Some of those I looked at had absolutely no visibility behind them. That was not an option for me.
I’ve also wondered time and again how I survived this. I think the integrity of the Grand Banks played a huge role in that. The sides were 1” planked mahogany. The 4 stringers are of an especially hard wood; you have to pre-drill to put a screw in. It’s dubbed “ironwood.” I give credit to the strength of the boat. It held together until after it rolled. That’s when the freighter punched us, on the opposite side of where I was sleeping. That integrity probably saved my life.
There have been consequences for my Dad and me that extend beyond boating.
For months after the accident I could not stop sweating while sleeping. I would wake up in a cold sweat asking for air. I would be telling my wife to open the window, that there was no air. Even today, wherever I am, I need air circulating, always. And I need light when I sleep. I am also extremely claustrophobic now. I wasn’t that way before. I can be down below in our own boat when we’re at the dock, but when we’re underway, I cannot be down there. It freaks me out.
You know, before the accident, my attitude was “life’s an adventure and I’m going to live it.” I was into a lot of things. Like flying. Ironically, I sold my plane to buy this boat with my Dad, because my Dad had been hounding me to give up flying. He kept telling me “with flying, there’s no second chance.” So I sold the plane, bought the Grand Banks, cruised at 7-8 knots, and then almost died. My attitude these days is far more cautious.
My Dad, to this day, can’t get his confidence back. He’s 73. He placed a lot of the blame for the accident on himself because he was at the wheel. He really took it hard. He won’t go on our boat unless I’m there, but as long as I am, he still enjoys boating.
The big water quest left my Dad with this accident, but it didn’t leave me. It took me 5 years to regain that. I came from piloting, you know? I love setting my course, navigating, having my systems. I want to make Hessel, I want to go to Mackinac Island, Charlevoix, Petoskey…
I got to a point where I wanted to get back up on the horse. Only this time, I wanted a boat that had visibility all around. I wanted a boat that was faster than freighters. And, I wanted one that was built strong like that Grand Banks. So I bought a Tollycraft. If you know anything about the Tolly’s that’s really what they are. Heavy, hand laid fiberglass. Made in the Pacific Northwest for those waters.
I bought my Tolly in Cedar Point (OH) marina. It was amazing getting it to Harsens Island (MI), up the Detroit River. Once again, my Dad came with me, along with my cousin. We had to pass by where the accident was. When we did, my Dad and I kind of looked at each other. We didn’t say anything. But you know, I really had the attitude that we needed to move on; we needed to get past this. There’s a raw steel factory to port. As I looked at it, I remembered that was the first thing I saw when I came up from the bottom that day. And I remembered hearing the ding-ding of a train noise. How could one forget?
What’s ahead? Well, next Spring, my Dad and I are bringing the Tolly up to Hessel for the Summer. We love Hessel. We’ve found it’s a place where we can totally relax. It will be my second big trip.
So what have I learned from this experience?
For starters, when it comes to boat insurance, make sure your coverage includes the stuff you have with you on board. We were lucky Auto-Owners covered that. I’d also look for a clause which covers, at least in part, salvage costs. The bills from a costly salvage could really add to the hurt of a sinking.
Secondly, you know, I’ve seen videos of people riding freighter waves in boats or jet skis, or getting in close for photos or to sense the “bigness” of them. All of that is dangerous. The currents these boats generate are huge. And, as we learned, even from the bow they can suck you in. So, I would advise people who boat in big water, that freighters are to be kept at as great a distance as possible.
Thirdly – and this lesson is one that applies to all boaters at all times in any kind of boat in any body of water, big or small – never assume the guy in front of you, next to you, behind you, gaining on you, or falling back from you, sees you and is going to do the right or predictable thing. We assumed anyone bearing down on us would do the right thing and sound and/or call to state their intentions, just as they had the entire 9 days of our trip. That assumption nearly got us killed.
Another lesson worth sharing with novice boaters, or worth reminding experienced boaters, is closely related to this previous one. And that is, don’t just look 180 degrees when you’re on the water. Check, and keep re-checking, 360 degrees. It’s called being a defensive boater. Learning this lesson the hard way has changed how I boat. I’m like the Exorcist. My head spins clear around all the time now.
Lastly, while I can’t say this final point relates to the accident itself, it relates to the entire 9 day trip, and the navigational challenges, medical emergencies, and weather conditions we endured, some of which any boater can face. People make fun of others who fuss a lot about safety, who even obsess over it and won’t go on the water without all their safety stuff. They call them wackos. But you know, things happen very quickly on the water. Our near-tragedy is a good example of that.
So I would say to readers of this story, don’t scrimp on safety. The one item, redundant device, or feature you scrimp on could be the one that makes the difference between life and death. If you’ve thought about buying a VHF, GPS, better radar, flare gun, stronger bilge bump, fume detector, lanyard kill switch, blower – anything safety-related, even a lowly first aid kit – just get it. I know the costs of safety stuff add up. And not using things that expire, such as flares, might seem like money wasted. But when the need arises, as it might with any of us, those items can become priceless.
[In the whole story Jeff told me, he never mentioned lifejackets. I asked him if he wears one.] – Alex
No, though I always ensure kids do when they’re aboard. I’ve thought about buying one of those self-inflating ones.
[I told Jeff I wear one of those. And I’ve found that in time, as with a seatbelt, one doesn’t even mind, or notice, that it’s on.] – Alex
You know, I’m on my way home right now. I’ll be passing by a West Marine. I think I’m going to pick one up.
Jeff, thank you so much for sharing with us the incredible events of October 23, 2004 and its aftermath.
While you continue to try to find meaning in the accident, and continue to feel the emotional scars such a near-death experience leaves behind, perhaps some good can come out of it through sharing this story.
Maybe it will touch people in a way that will make them safer boaters. Perhaps it will prompt them to pick up and wear a self-inflating life jacket, whether or not they are strong swimmers. Or prompt them to become, or help their family members become, better swimmers. It could trigger them to buy safety equipment they had, or had not, been contemplating. Or to take a boating safety course, or enroll their spouse or kids in one. Or maybe it will simply remind them to drive defensively, and to teach their kids not only how to drive a boat, but how to drive one defensively too.
In so doing, you’re turning a painful event from the past into a positive one going forward; one that might even save lives.
By Alex Watson – Hessel, Michigan
Here are some links to make taking the above safety measures easier:
1. Self-inflating live jackets. You’ll find them in the Safety category of this website www.westmarine.com – To get to the Safety category, just scroll down the column on the left of the home page. After clicking on “Safety,” click on the “Lifejackets” category. There is even a video clip here to help select the right type. (or click here to go directly to that category)
2. Safety equipment. Here is a link to the West Advisor (click here) with a video and listing of Coast Guard Required Safety Equipment, by class of boat. This stuff isn’t optional. It’s the law. You might want to go to the www.westmarine.com store and scroll through the entire Safety category. It’s so easy not to buy this stuff. Who needs an extra fire extinguisher when there’s no fire? Yet. Or a first aid kit when no one has danced with a prop? Whether or not you buy from West Marine, you might want to review the categories in the Safety section to see what’s available and what’s new or improved. Then beef up, or update what you have on board. And while your thinking safety, don’t forget to replace expired items, such as flares or medical supplies.
3. Boating safety course. Here’s a free one from BoatU.S., (click here) the leading boat owners association in the U.S. It’s Coast Guard approved. And it’s online too. How much easier could that be? There’s even a boating simulator and docking and navigation games, to make learning fun (click here to see that).