You always need to have a contengincy plan. We developed ours on the way, not the best method.
First published in Telltales Magazine. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com
We made our way from Texas to Key West, Florida aboard Rainbow Chaser,our Hunter 37 cutter. From there we planned make our crossing to the Bahamas. My wife Nellie, my stepson Zach and I had cruised there once before - we were going again. Another couple, Ron and Bobbie, had traveled with us all the way in their Gulfstar 41 Anticipation. This was their first time out. They planned to continue with us right across the Gulf Stream. Our plan was to leave Key West, sail out into the Gulf Stream and hitch a ride on up to Bimini to make our official entry. All we needed was a decent weather window.
On Tuesday the wind was predicted to change from the northeast to east by afternoon, then southeast by late evening. During the night it was suppose to go to south. It was not supposed to go over 15 knots during the whole time. We could leave Key West with the wind on our port side, sailing a bit south of east. That would get us out near the Gulf Stream, then as the wind came around, we'd tack and put the wind on the starboard side and sail on up to Bimini. It seemed like a reasonable weather window to us.
The wind was blowing about 10 knots as we left on Tuesday Morning. A front was predicted to show up late Wednesday or Thursday morning. By that time we'd be in Bimini, checked in, and the north wind from the front would give us downwind sailing southeast to Nassau. Sounded great. I'll bet you've already figured out it didn't happen that way.
It did start out just as it should. We cleared the main ship channel at Key West with about 12 knots of wind on a heading about 120 degrees, just as we planned. It did clock around a bit to the south, not enough to tack and go the direction we wanted to go, but too much to continue on a port tack. We ended up sailing back toward the Keys instead of making our straight shot to Bimini. Then the wind got a bit higher than predicted. That made it rougher than the 3 to 4 foot waves they predicted. Since Rainbow Chaser was loaded to the gills with food and other supplies, she was riding a lot lower than designed. Due to that, she did a lot more bouncing than she should. That is uncomfortable.
Before we tacked back toward the keys we saw a sailboat coming over the horizon from the south. It seemed to be sailing very hard on the wind, we didn't know where it was going. After we tacked, we were all on the same tack - Rainbow Chaser, Anticipation, and the new boat. We were about 2 miles up wind of the new boat now. If we all were able to sail about the same, we would stay 2 miles up wind and a mile or two ahead of her. As it was, the new boat was sailing much faster, and was sailing so much closer to the wind that in 2 hours she passed us a mile up wind of our track. I couldn't believe it could do so much better. What is more, it had up so much sail that if it was on Rainbow Chaser, we would have just turned turtle. In addition, it didn't seem to be pounding at all. I should have gotten close enough to see what it was - that should be my next boat.
After a few hours of that pounding, and digesting a changing weather report, we decided we had to stop short of Bimini. They were predicting the front a little sooner now. It would cut it close on the Bimini end, and there wasn't a place to just pull in if it got rough. The Gulf Stream can be nasty in normal weather, with the north wind from the front, it would be unbearable. We picked a spot at the north end of Long Key to pull in. The entrance was wide and well marked. There was a tall fixed bridge going behind the Keys so we wouldn't have to worry about whether it would open. All this would allow us make it at night and anchor until morning. It would take us until about 3 am to get there, but we could just hole up and wait for the weather to get better. All we had to do was get there.
We just kept pounding, pounding and pounding. Nellie wanted to know when the nice weather I had talked about was going to start. She seemed a bit let down when I told her "hours ago - I think this is as good as it's going to get."
We'd been hearing reports from the Coast Guard all day, asking everyone to watch for a missing 12 foot boat that never reached it's destination.After hearing this for about the 15th time, Ron came on the radio. He asked if I'd seen the flares behind us! I hadn't been looking back, so I hadn't seen them. After that I kept looking back and there was another flare. Ron said he'd already seen 3, this was the fourth. The one I saw was a parachute flare and looked white. It should be red to be a distress flare, but 4 of them out in open water certainly was something to worry about. After talking about it for a couple minutes, we realized we needed to get in touch with the Coast Guard and let them know.
Ron tried to call them on his main VHF radio. No response. That was discouraging, since they have repeaters all up the keys and we heard them all day and night. He called some more. No answer. I went down and called on my long range single side band marine radio. 2182 is the distress frequency, it should raise someone. If they aren't near, they can call the Coast Guard somewhere. No answer at all. Really scary. We both tried the VHF time after time. Finally the Coast Guard from Key West answered. The problem was they couldn't understand us. Ron repeated the problem multiple times. He kept getting a response of "Anticipation, you are unreadable, please repeat". We heard that 20 or more times. Finally, little by little they got it. By then, we'd gone another 10 miles from where we were when we first saw the flares.
We just had to hope they had gotten it right. About 20 minutes later I looked through my binoculars and saw lights in the sky in the area where the flares had been. Of course, we were nearly 20 miles from there so there wasn't much we could see. We never did hear what happened.
Several hours later we got near Long Key where we planned to go in. Way out at the edge of the reefs and shallow water was a flashing white light, farther in was a flashing red light out a bit from the channel. From there we would have reds and greens to mark the channel. We found the outer flashing white light with no problem. A couple miles in was a flashing red. The one we wanted flashes once every 6 seconds, this one seemed to be it. Farther in would be another red marking the start of the channel that flashes every 4 seconds. We could see the outer one, we'd find the inner one when we got closer. Although we could pass the outer one on either side, it was wider on the right. That's where I headed. As we approached the first red all of a sudden it was shallower than it should have been. It stayed that way. I slowed down and soon was bumping the bottom. Something was wrong. At 4 in the morning with only an hour or so of sleep it was a bit difficult to figure out. I still couldn't see the inner light, it didn't make sense. They'd had a couple hurricanes here lately, maybe the channel had filled in some. I slowly went to the right, it was a bit deeper, but soon got shallow again. I realized we weren't going to make it in before daylight. I turned around, motored out until I had enough water that I wouldn't have to worry about hitting bottom in low tide and dropped the anchor. At least I could relax.
I was still puzzled, I wanted to make sense out of it before going to sleep. I got the clock to time the light and realized it was the second light - the first one must have been out. I was trying to pass on the wrong side of the inner marker. After figuring that out I could have made it in, but we were anchored and I was going to sleep. We'd find the rest of our way in the morning.
When we woke up it was daylight. I could easily see the outer marker, minus it's light that should have been flashing. The unlit green on the other side was right where it should have been, too. Farther in were several boats who'd come to anchor out of the weather like we tried to do.
I talked to Ron on Anticipation and told him I'd like to go behind the Keys and go about 15 miles up to an anchorage we'd stayed at once before. We could get our mail from our mail forwarding service which was nearby, get haircuts that Zach and I needed and make some phone calls. He was game so we took off. Two hours of shallow water sailing and several narrow passes later we got near the anchorage. We were also getting new weather reports. They were calling for thunderstorms and high winds in excess of 60 knots. And lightning. The anchorage I had in mind was not the best. You could ride out 20 or 25 knot winds but not the stuff like they were talking about. The holding just wasn't the best. We had nearly reached the anchorage and I figured we'd look at it, but the closer we got the less I liked the thought of dropping the hook in such an unprotected area. Ron agreed. We made a quick turn to head back for the protected area near the entrance, hopefully before the storm arrived.
Since Nellie had done a large part of the night watch the night before she had gone below to take a nap. I went up forward to take down the jib, running under the motor with the auto pilot on. As I was pulling the jib down I looked at the water and thought it was strange that the bubbles on the water were going as fast as we were. Then I noticed that the sand on the bottom was going just as fast! I looked back to see a great cloud of sand behind us in the water. I'd just nosed into the sand bank and kept driving it in while I was up forward. All this, and a big storm was coming.
I tried turning the rudder hard over and give it a lot of throttle to work the keel to deeper water, nothing happened. I raised the jib again, then tried the throttle and rudder - nothing. This was getting serious, I needed to be off of the sand bank. I had one more shot before I had to assemble the dinghy and start taking anchors out to kedge off. I put on my biggest jib in hopes that with it pulling in the wind, along with the motor at full throttle and rudder hard over I could come loose. I got the small jib off and bagged it, since I knew with a storm was coming I might lose it if it was loose, put on the big jib, then gave it all I had. We came loose and made it to deeper water! The clouds of sand went back half a mile.
In the midst of doing all of this maneuvering I had tried repeatedly to awaken Nellie downstairs. At one point I resorted to blowing the air horn to try and get her attention. Just as I was getting the boat out of the muck, Nellie came into the cockpit and inquired if I had ever gotten the other boats attention. She looked pretty sheepish when she realized it was her attention I was trying to get, and not that of another boat.
At this point the sky wasn't looking real good and we had about 13 miles to go to get back to the bridge and some better protection. I left the big jib up and gave it a lot of throttle. Anticipation fell in behind. For nearly 2 hours we went as fast as we could. We were getting near the last narrow pass through a shoal. We had a foot of water just a few feet away on the starboard side and a hundred yards to port it was only a couple feet deep. The sky really started looking \bad in front of us. What was worse, it was full of lightning. I know how to get unstuck, I know how to handle a lot of stuff, but I don't know a damn thing I can do about lightning. Being out there on flat water with a big lightning rod sticking up over my head scared the hell out of me. Then it started to rain.
I don't remember lowering it, but the big jib was on the deck when the heavy rain hit us. Then, just like a hurricane, the wind smashed us. It went from a little bit of wind to more than 60 knots right in our faces. I had never seen so much wind come up so quick. In a matter of seconds we could see nothing, the rain was driving horizontally and we were in trouble. There was no way I could keep the boat in the same spot using the motor and steering even if Rainbow Chaser had enough power, which I doubt it did. Besides, I couldn't see anything. I gave the motor a handful of throttle, turned the wheel towards the wind, hit the button to turn on the autopilot and ran forward to drop the anchor. Nellie stuck her head out about the time I went forward and I yelled for her to get Ron on the radio and tell him to drop his anchor as fast as he could.
There was a terrible howl going on. I realized it was the wind generator. From the noise it was making I expected it to explode. It was making the most God awful screaming howl, there was no way it could be all right. Then the wind caught the solar panels. They can pivot forward and the wind pivoted them down into the frame so hard I thought they smashed to pieces. I couldn't do a thing about it then. I had to get the anchor out.
As I got to the front the waves were already so severe that the front of Rainbow Chaser was going under them. I kicked the 33 Bruce anchor out of the bowsprit as quick as I could. On the way to the bow I'd thought about using the 60 lb. CQR, but I knew the Bruce would catch easier - the CQR sometimes drags before setting and I wouldn't have a second chance. I started playing out anchor line as fast as I could. It was stretching tight as fast as I could get it out. I got about 200 feet out and managed to get one wrap around the mooring bit in the front, then got some on the cleat to hold it. By then it was blowing about 70 knots, not gusts, but steady hard wind. When the anchor caught it snatched the front of Rainbow Chaser around hard, driving the Bruce deep in the sand. As I started back to the cockpit Rainbow Chaser straightened up into the wind. That big jib caught the wind and went straight up the stay. Now I had my biggest sail up in 70 knots of wind! The jib sheets were flying around hard enough to break something and I had to get it down. All of a sudden it backwinded and Rainbow Chaser took off around the anchor. If I didn't get the sail down the luckiest thing that would happen would be the sail would be shredded in a minute or less. The worst would be the anchor would pull loose and we'd be blown into the shallow water. I clawed at the sail and it was all I could do to drag it down. I got it to the deck, let loose to grab a piece of line a couple feet away and the sail took off again. I got it down again and realized I couldn't get the line.
I had to stay and hold the sail or I'd lose it and maybe the boat. I just turned my back to the wind and sat on the sail. I was going up and down about 6 or 8 feet, smashing the water each time it came down. Back in the cockpit the autopilot was still steering, the motor was still at half throttle. The wind overpowered it all.
Behind me I could see Ron on Anticipation coming toward us. He was only 30 or 40 feet away, bouncing wildly. I was sure he was going to hit us and I really couldn't figure out what he was trying to do. Surely he wasn't going to try to come up next to us? He got close to us, then veered off to one side. Later he told me he never even saw us for the rain and wind. As he got off to one side Bobbie took the helm and I saw Ron go forward and drop his new 60 lb. claw anchor. All I could do was sit with my arms under the bow pulpit trying to stay on the sail. The wind was still a steady 60 plus knots, blowing water everywhere, leaving seaweed on me and the top of the boat.
After about 10 more minutes the wind died down just a bit, enough that I could lean forward and get the line I wanted secure the sail with. I tied it through the pulpit to hold the sail down and made it back to the cockpit. I was cold and drenched from head to toe. I could finally slow down the motor and turn off the autopilot. Nellie stuck her head out and told me she'd been really worried, and looked more than a little relieved to see me in one piece.
Another 15 minutes, maybe 40 minutes after the first blast, it got calm again.
There was a lot of grass on the boat, but otherwise it had been power washed clean. The wind generator seemed fine. No solar panels were broken. Zachary said that the wind generator was putting out 35 amps when the wind was really blowing. It's only rated to make 30 amps tops.
We didn't even lose a cockpit cushion. The drip pan blew out of the grill that is mounted on the stern pulpit- but it happened when the jib backwinded and it landed in the cockpit. Ron lost a new bumper he'd just bought, along with his flag and his Nike hat he wears - or used to wear - all the time.
We checked ourselves over to make sure we were OK, then headed for the anchorage by the bridge before any more nasty stuff came along.
I'm not sure what happened on Anticipation after that. Bobbie best summed up the whole situation when she yelled as we passed them "Hey, that storm was a real ......." We couldn't have agreed more!
When I got to the anchorage, I dropped the anchor in 8 feet of water, set out about 150 feet of anchor line to hold against whatever might come along, took a shower and slept for about 6 hours. Bimini would be another day.
As any sailor knows, no two days on a boat are the same. We only hope that the good, somewhat interesting days, outweigh the really interesting "are we going to make it!" days.
I'd like to share some observations from the position of the Co-Captain, known to most boaters as the first mate. When we first posted an account of this trip with the readers of an e-mail list we are on, Gene's decision to not physically turn around to investigate the "distress" flares was questioned.
I must say for about a tenth of a second Gene and I reconsidered our responsibility and came to the same conclusion we still come to today. The flares were white, not the red they should have been to be distress flares. It was spring break, they could easily been spring breakers firing off whatever they'd brought with them. The possibility of us safely finding the source of the flares was exceedingly remote, the geography of the area would have endangered us, and in all likelihood the Coast Guard could assess the situation long before we could ever hope to get there.
Our inability to reach the Coast Guard was disconcerting, but we're not so sure the problem wasn't our transmission, and not their reception. Once they received our information, it appeared from the lights that we saw in the sky, a rescue chopper was dispatched to investigate.
This whole portion of the trip reaffirmed our decision to have a good 406 MHz EPIRB on board so that given a situation of poor or absent VHF message to relay our distress and location.
In our next "situation", Gene's observation that I was a bit sheepish when I realized he was blowing the air horn at me and not some idiot boater was very true. Gene and I take great pride in working as a team, but the reality of sailing with 2 helmspersons is that sometimes one just poops out.
In the over 6000 miles that we've cruised this was the first time that either one of us had not responded to the need for help. For the rest of the day I was demoted from Co-Captain to Barnacle and accepted my failure.
Of course, our final interesting event on this supposedly short jaunt to Bimini was hardly one I could sleep through! As the skies began to darken, and the lightening began Gene and I were fully aware how vulnerable we were. The speed with which this storm hit was unlike any we had seen while cruising. As the rain began I remained below sitting in the galley door to be available if Gene needed help at the helm. (I seldom make the same mistake twice in 24 hours).
Within seconds after the rain started the water began to churn, the rain became blinding and horizontal, and Gene was yelling orders as he hurried to the bow. There was no time for life jackets, or safety harnesses. (more about this later). While I listened to Gene's footfalls to the bow of the boat I called Anticipation on the VHF and relayed that we were dropping the hook, and advised them to do the same. After the transmission I went to the galleyway to stick my head out to see how Gene was doing.
At this point the assault of the rain only allowed me to do a quick look towards the bow before I retreated below. My inability to see Gene, considering the conditions, didn't surprise me, but as the seconds ticked by and the more time that passed without him returning to the cockpit the more my concerns began to grow.
From listening to Gene go forward to do sail changes in the middle of the night as I laid in the V berth, I knew each sound he would make. I could hear his safety harness clicking on the side of the boat and count his steps forward and back. I always had a picture in my minds eye about where he was on the boat, and knew I could relax when he got back to the cockpit. This time there was no clicking safety harness, and I heard no footsteps at all. When I went into the cockpit this time I could see the bow of the boat, the flapping jib, but, I didn't see Gene. Once again I dropped below and this time began to use my assessment and planning skills gained from years as the director of an emergency department. I was presently on an anchored boat, with the motor at half throttle, being steered by an autopilot, in more than 50 knots wind, and there was a very real possibility that the captain had gone overboard. Emotion could wait until later, I needed to think clearly. Going forward in the present conditions would endanger me, and any kind of man overboard maneuver with no visibility was out of the question. I told Zach to put on a safety harness and to go to the helm as soon as the rain and wind allowed. I would attach my safety harness and would go forward in an attempt to see Gene. With the assumption that we would be able to see Gene bouncing in the heavy chop I would then decide the best way to support him until we could get him back on the boat. If it meant a hard grounding of the boat to get him out of the water that's what we would do. With that plan in mind I once again ventured out into the cockpit. The rain was still hard, and the wind blowing, but there was a subtle change for the better. In just a flash I saw a flap of Gene's yellow foul weather gear. I suddenly realized that he was crouched on the bow sprit, wrapped in the jib, and hanging on for dear life. Whewwwwww, I could breath again. No rescue at sea needed. I slipped below and waited for the weather to calm and the sound of those size 14 feet to make their way back to the cockpit.
In the minutes while I waited for Gene to return to the helm, I pondered the fact that Gene didn't have a chance to secure his safety harness. In retrospect I'm not so sure that the harness wouldn't have been more of a hindrance. With the wind speed it's likely that the tether would have beaten him to death, or become tangled in the jib, further endangering him. Would my thinking have been altered if he really had gone overboard? In that case he would have been tied to the boat, but beaten on the side of the boat. It's food for discussion when the disaster isn't occurring.
I'm sure it was only my perception, but it seems that once I was assured that Gene was really on the boat the storm just moved on. I won't say the sun came out, and the rainbow we've been chasing suddenly appeared, but I decided the rest of the day could only be up from here.