Monday, April 13, 2009

Still Alive

After leaving Hopetown, I was reunited with my friends Trevor and Brendon aboard My Life. They had enjoyed a local Full Moon party near Tillo Cay a few days earlier, and as a result had missed their weather window to cross to Eleuthera. I was glad they had, we’ve had an enjoyable and eventful couple of weeks since then.

We stayed at Tillo for a few days, swimming and spearfishing and observing our first launch of a rocket from Cape Canaveral. Brendon and I snorkeled around a small reef indicated by a cruising guide, Brendon successfully speared a lobster, which he hurried back to the dingy. I continued to take aim at various fish, mostly snapper, but spent more time diving to the bottom to retrieve my runaway spear. The largest fish to come within range was a 3 foot barracuda, and I was out of the water shortly thereafter. I don’t know why, but they instill fear in me, though I know they’re usually harmless. They can be mildly intimidating, approaching out of curiosity then hanging around, keeping a watchful eye on you, and showing no fear of a spear being aimed in their direction. In fact, all the fish I aim and fire at seem rather intrigued with the shiny metal pole, which they quickly congregate to as soon as the spear comes to rest in the sand. Perhaps all these fish are just experienced prey, and instinctively know, after taking one look at me, that I’m not a threat to their well-being.

Later in the day, Brendon speared a large Amberjack. I rowed over to the rocky outcrop he had climbed onto (when the blood of a fish starts to flow, the sharks aren’t far behind) and delivered the fish back to My Life, where Trevor (crew and cook) took on the task of cleaning the fish. We ate well that night. Lobster and wine as appetizer, fish and wine for main course, and wine for dessert. I’m not sure what sparked my memory, but I suddenely remembered that the rocket launch from Cape Canaveral had been rescheduled for that evening. We didn’t know what time, so we put the VHF on channel 68, where there is constant chitter-chatter among cruising boats, and someone announced it was 5 minutes to launch time. The trajectory was to be over Great Sale Cay in the northern Bahamas, and the sky was clear. I’d like to give a riveting description of it, but I cannot. All I can really say is you kind of had to be there! I was impressed. It left behind an interesting glowing blue cloud for a few minutes afterwards. Trevor hopped on 68 to ask anyone who was listening if they knew what it was. One guy flatly and concisely declared it was God. Then someone else explained it was from the boosters on the rocket, which made a little more sense.

We were fortunate to pick up a very strong wireless signal at Tillo Cay (labeled ‘The Coconut Telegraph’) and getting a weather forecast was easy. We were all eager to head over to Eluethera. This would involve one more daysail to take us to the southern Abacos, which would be our launch point to make the 50 mile crossing over the open Atlantic the following day. We picked our window, and sailed down to Lynyard Cay on St Patricks Day. A very weak norther was forecast for the day after, 15 knots from the northeast. It sounded perfect. We’d cross the reef just south of Lynyard at the crack of dawn, have a lovely sail with the wind behind us and 10 to 12 foot seas very broadly spaced, and cross the reef at Eluethera before dark. Well. Fifteen knots? There must be a formula that exists that allows one to calculate what the actual winds will be, based on what the forecast claims they will be. In this case, it was multiply by 2 and add 5. Twenty-five knots all night, followed by hours of squalls the next morning that brought winds of 35 knots and probably higher, torrential rains and nearby chain lightning that sent me running to disconnect my radio antenna and switch my boat batteries to OFF. One large gust heeled the boat over about 20 degrees and broke my anchor free of its hold in the part-sand part-seagrass bottom. My Life was suddenly getting bigger. I started grabbing fenders that I had tucked down below and was preparing to throw them between the 2 hulls to ease the impact of the impending collision (did I mention My Life is built of steel?) but then I felt the tug of the anchor grabbing hold of the bottom again, and, like a choreographed and well-rehearsed dance, My Life started dragging her anchor. When the boats were once again a safe and comfortable distance apart, their anchor dug again, and the excitement was over. We would not be making it to Eleuthera today.

Two days later, we had another weather window and departed. It would be a sloppy day of motoring to begin with. There was no wind, but a large swell still remained from earlier winds. The ensuing boredom of sitting at the helm for 6 hours was getting to me, and to My Life too, and we struck up a conversation on channel 17. My Life shared the story of how their various sails had been named (Jenny, Betsy, Sarah), and I asked if we had missed the exit for Dairy Queen (I was craving ice cream). By mid-afternoon, we had a gentle east wind and set some sail. As soon as I set my genoa, my engine started making the now-familiar racing sound that means it’s being starved of fuel. In rough seas, the fuel sloshes around my dirty old steel tank, and little bits of this-and-that get sucked into the lines and clog the fuel filter. Knowing what a pain it had been in the past to bleed the air out of the fuel lines after replacing the filter, I resolved to not deal with it until at anchor. Now all I could do was pray for more wind, so we could cross the reef before sunset. The wind came, and I was full sail as I crossed the reef north of Little Egg Island. Thankfully I had good charts on loan from Banff, and I was able adjust my original plan to cross the reef at a good point of sail, about 15 minutes before sunset. My original plan was to cross the reef a couple of miles further south (my other charts didn’t even acknowledge that there was a gap large enough to pass north of Little Egg Island) but that would have left me with the wind directly on the nose. I’m glad I had another option.

All of this drove home the fact that I had not followed one of my most important rules that I strive to follow, and that is to never rely on my engine. Any journey I make, I ask myself, “If I didn’t have an engine, would I be able to make this trip under sail alone?”. The fact that we were playing chicken with another (and much stronger) approaching norther, and a forecast of little to no wind for that day, begged the question, why had I taken such a risk when I decided to weigh anchor that morning? I don’t know.

I am indebted to My Life, who stuck with me the whole way, even when it originally seemed that we all would be crossing the reef after dark (to be avoided). Once over the reef, after an awesome sail for another ½ hour, they threw me a tow line and towed me close to the southern shore of Royal Island, where we hoped we’d have a bit of a lee from the upcoming front. Key word: hoped.

That evening, we gathered up our conch that we’d been saving (I kept mine in a mesh bag Banff had given me, and when I wasn’t underway, I hung them into the water off the stern to keep them alive. More than once I forgot about them, only to look back and see them waterskiing). After a couple of hours of hammering shells then beating (tenderizing) the meat (messy messy job, we’ve resolved to not bother picking up any more conch if we come across them) Trevor cooked up some conch fritters. Had we known what the next 3 days had in store for us, we probably would have bit the bullet that night and tried to transit the narrow entrance, even under the shroud of complete darkness, into the protected harbor of Royal Island (with My Life acting as tugboat) while the winds were still manageable.

The following morning, I turned on my VHF to see what boats were around, and was surprised (and delighted) to hear Road to the Isles. They had left the Abacos close to a month earlier, and were Cuba-bound, so I really never expected to see them again on this trip. Turns out they had a few problems, and they had to change their plans. Now, they were about 7 miles away, sitting at the entrance to Spanish Wells. I couldn’t wait to get there and see them again.

By this point, the wind had picked up, and I had completely drained my batteries by trying to start my engine, which stubbornly held onto those pockets of air in the fuel lines. My Life refused to leave me there alone, despite their boat being quite a bit smaller, and thereby more susceptible to the uncomfortable motions caused by the seas. They had a portable generator that they brought over, in rough seas, in a dingy that barely floats at the best of times, and we tried and tried to get the engine going, to no avail. Don on Road to the Isles strongly advised that we get into a more protected area if at all possible, and I wanted nothing more. Brendon offered to come along and help me sail, but I was not confident in my ability to sail her where I needed to go in those conditions. We tried anyway. The wind was too strong to have the mainsail set, so I had my small jib and mizzen sail at my disposal. I needed the boat to ultimately end up 7 miles due east of my current position, but with 25 kts of wind coming directly from the east, even if I sailed as close to the wind as I could, the boat was making so much leeway (being blown sideways), I was ultimately going west. I looked ahead to see seagrass reaching the surface, and I wasn’t entirely confident in where I was exactly, and I knew there were rocky shoals in the area, so I turned the boat around and started heading to where I had been anchored. Once back to the anchorage, I was further away from my destination that I had been before we weighed anchor. Sailing to safety was not an option.

As the winds continued to build, the boat was hobby-horsing violently, burying the bow under the waves on a regular basis. Trevor had motored out and dropped my second anchor, but still, the sound of the stress and strain on the bow where the anchor line was tied made me feel sick to my stomach. I was just waiting for something to crack or break. We tried to distract ourselves by having a few drinks and playing card games. That was quickly halted when I went on deck to find their dingy being hung vertically on my stern. Their outboard engine was underwater, and only a bit of the bow of the dingy was still above the surface. Grabbing the dingy line, we pulled it alongside, and reached for the outboard. Everything seemed in slow motion as the motor slipped off the back of the dingy and began it’s decent to the bottom. Trevor immediately praised himself for having, thankfully, tied the engine to the dingy with a safety line. We had one more chance. Trevor grabbed a big knife from the galley, and with one whack on the taut line, the outboard was free and we pulled it aboard. Now it became a race against time to get their engine running before it seized. Oy vey.

Probably 2 hours went by. We put the engine in a bucket of water and they took turns cranking it, and Brendon pulled out the spark plugs to dry and clean them, then we’d keep cranking, and the cursing and swearing that ensued as they periodically sustained minor shocks from holding the engine in the wrong place while the other was cranking, and Trevor all the while never set down his beer, it gave us all a reason to laugh at our predicament and we wondered what the hell could possibly happen next. It was probably around that time that I noticed my bilge pump was coming on a little more often than usual.

I best save some stories for a rainy day. You never know when things might get dull.