When the ship is sinking…
what would You save?

“Ship On Fire”
by James Francis Danby

When faced with a disaster, what would you save? Who hasn’t considered this classic rhetorical question? What would you rescue as you ran out the door in an emergency?  Obviously the people and pets. But then it gets harder, and personal.  The computer? Financial paperwork? Family heirlooms? Photo albums?

At the end of September, the question became real for me.  

My husband Jack and I live on a boat about half the year.  Having spent the summer aboard in Maine, we planned to take ‘Seadragon’ south for the fall and winter. Delayed by hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria, we were anxious to get underway and decided to do an overnight run from Portland to Provincetown.  Fully fueled, we left about 5pm, a bit before sunset.  As we approached the Cape Elizabeth lighthouse, I heard a soft ‘pop’ and a change in the engine sound.  After checking with my husband at the helm, I headed for the engine room below deck.  The porthole viewing window into the engine room was full of smoke and dripping from what I guessed was our fire suppressor.  I didn’t open the door.

Running back up to the flybridge with the bad news, we began doing the things you hope you never have to.  Jack shut down the engines and called a mayday to the Coast Guard, letting them know we might be abandoning ship.  I got our life jackets and ‘ditch kit’, which holds some survival gear.  We deployed the life raft. Then: are we ready? What else might we need? What was I not willing to lose? I grabbed our wallets – ID and a credit card would be nice if we were going to be ashore without a home, clothes or food.  Still time? Glancing around I rejected clothes, medicine, and souvenirs. Those could all be replaced.  Then I remembered – my Painting! The one I had ready to ship to OPA’s Eastern Exhibition in a couple of weeks! No question, that had to be the one thing I would grab. And there was time – barely.  

As I stood on the deck, painting tucked under my arm, ready to jump, I was so sad to be leaving our boat, perhaps forever.  Rescuing the painting eased that sense of loss and I knew I had made the right choice for me, on that day.  Another time maybe it will be different.  Of course, I’m actually hoping there won’t be a next time.

What happened next?  Well, as I stood there, the Coast Guard arrived, my heroes!  We had a scary transfer, jumping from our deck to theirs – but we all made it.  Me, my husband, and the painting.  The Coast Guard guys wondered what on earth they were protecting, ‘Must be really valuable’ they said.  Yes. To me, it was.

And the rest of the story: The Portland fire boat arrived and our boat didn’t sink – it was towed back to the docks.  We lost our life raft, had damages to repair, and weren’t real sure when we would get underway again.  But we were fine, got to celebrate a warm welcome back to shore by wonderful people, and I still had a painting to show.  It’s called “Potions” – but I’m thinking “Lucky Charm” might be its subtitle.

Potions, 9x12, oil on panel

9×12, oil on panel

There were many lessons tucked into that day,  from the Boy Scouts “Be Prepared”, to the philosophical  “it could have been worse”.  But the one I want to share is that while possessions have little value in a life-threatening situation, the work that we do as artists is more than an end product.  It is a representation of how we spend our time, how we see the world, and what we want to share with the world.  Our work is important, and worth saving.

We are so fortunate to have had only a close call. Our boat didn’t sink, and our situation pales in comparison to the stories of thousands of people who lost everything to the recent hurricanes and the west coast fires. For each of these families the question of what to save was real, and many didn’t even get the chance to answer the question. My heart goes out to all those who’ve lost their homes.

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  • Wonderful discussion and very worthy of thoughts about what would be #1 to save after wallet, money and cards (and of course, as you said, humans and pets). I saw your painting at Anderson Gallery at the OPA Eastern Regional at St. Simons Island, GA. It is a wonderfully done and stunning painting! Congratulations on your acceptance into this prestigious show.

    • Terry Rafferty

      Marsha – Thank you so much! With such a crowd at the OPA its nice to know that you saw mine – so many great pieces!

  • Susan Lindsey

    Wow! In the spring of 2011, high seas and exhaustion resulted in our boat hitting
    a reef just north of Belize. We lost the boat but I rescued a painting I had been working on. “Alaska Summer” was juried into OPA Western Regional that summer. We are still boating…..and I am still painting.

    • Terry Rafferty

      So sorry about your boat! We sailed a catamaran off of Belize around that time. Gorgeous place. Glad you are still boating – in Alaska??

      • Susan Lindsey

        Yes. This past summer we took our boat from Seward to the Katmai Coast, a 21 day trip and we always spend several weeks in Prince William Sound. So beautiful! I am not a great plain air painter (I mostly paint stillife and figures) but of course take my paints.

        Spending summers on a boat is heaven. Lucky you! So glad you did not lose your boat…..and I love your little painting……great title.

        • Terry Rafferty

          Lol, its nice to meet another artist who isn’t great on plein air! Everyone assumes I’m out painting the scenery on deck instead of down in the V-berth with my set-ups. We never made it up to Katmai, but wow, you are lucky to live up there! My job was always to do any work needed at the top of the mast and in Alaska it gave me the best views of the wildlife!

  • Karen Storm

    Terry, this is a wonderful story and so very touching. It is so ironic because I visited your website just the other day. You have given me so much encouragement and this very special and personal post gives me a new perspective. Your painting is absolutely wonderful — as are all your works.

    • Terry Rafferty

      Thank you Karen!

  • Nancy Ness

    I immediately thought we have much in common after reading your article. I too live on our boat half the year, a saliboat. My favorite line for sailing is: complete boredom with moments of terror. You got the terror story on this one. Glad it turned out well.
    Wondering if you paint while on board and what medium you like to use? I have been using inktense for sketches on board. i get strong color and it’s water soluble, doesn’t melt and is not messy.
    Fortunately, our dock is near a gallery that represents me. They keep my work and allow me to use the studio upstairs when I’m not sailing. Also, I get the back end of our minivan for storage. Those warm months are an art challenge for painting.
    Thankfully I’ve never had to abandon ship. Mostly what’s on board can be replaced or there are duplicates in our home in Utah.
    take care,

    • Terry Rafferty

      Hi Nancy – My favorite line for boating was given me by our mechanic after this event: “Don’t own a boat if you can’t take a joke!” Does seem like there is Always something a boat needs, right? I do paint onboard – the V-berth is my studio whenever we don’t have guests. I work in oil, and the only difference is that my work aboard tends to be smaller than when I’m on land.
      Lovely that your gallery has working space for you!

  • Diane

    This is a very frightening scenario! I too have spent many years cruising on sailboats, both on the west coast and more recently on the east coast but fire is the one thing that terrified me! I am happy you were able to tell the story with a happy ending (except for the poor boat).
    I can relate however, because in 2006 we had to evacuate from our mountain cabin because of a wildfire in the Angeles Forest behind Ojai, CA. We had about 30 minutes to fill our two cars with what we thought most important. I did include a few painting that had special meaning for me. Our home was spared and we were able to return safely a week later.
    I never met another sailing artist while I was out there. That would have been great fun!
    Congratulations on your beautiful painting and the OPA show!

    • Terry Rafferty

      Thanks Diane – Its always an honor to be included in an OPA show!
      We sailed the west coast, Alaska and the South Pacific, now exploring the east coast. I’m totally amazed by how different the east coast is from the west, everything from the weather patterns to the water depths, to the people. Fun stuff.
      Do you live in California? I grew up not far from Ojai and know what the fires can be there. So glad your cabin was spared.