Monday, June 15, 2009

Sailing Home aboard Annie Laurie

I will take the opportunity now to take back what I said about my engine. She is a great little engine. A bit temperamental, but ultimately, there when I need her the most. I'm so thankful I took the time to struggle with the filter change, because things may have turned out very differently in the following days if I had not...

Allans Cay was a fine place to end my Bahamian tour. The memories and impressions are book-worthy, and it left me wanting more. When I return to the Bahamas it will likely be my first stop after customs. Corstiaan and Wanda loved to snorkel, and invited me along numerous times. We'd wait for near-slack tide and go to one of the cuts, then drift in the gentle current, as if viewing the corals, lobster, shells, and myriad of fish on a slide show.

With the engine now working, and feeling content that I had seen everything at Allans Cay worth seeing, I decided it was time to leave. With my new autopilot, I made this next segment of my journey an overnighter. I decided I would head south of New Providence (home of Nassau Harbour) and up the Tongue of the Ocean, which would hopefully result in an early morning arrival at Northwest Channel, which was relatively narrow and I had no desire to face it in the dark.

I departed Allans at 0800 and arrived at the southwestern tip of New Providence amidst a thunderstorm at dusk. There were storms all around, from this point on, at any given moment, for the next 3 days. You could waste a lot of time and effort trying to steer around these storms, in the hopes of avoiding that one bolt of lightening that would take out all your electronics, or the high winds that could do other damage in many different ways. I decided to stay on my course, and for the first 24 hrs this worked very well for me. The distant (and not so distant) storms were essentially stationary, and just happened to not fall on my course line.

That first night, I probably managed 2 hours of sleep, motorsailing in light and variable winds. I had a little eggtimer that I set in 15 minute increments. It worked well. I awoke from my last catnap an hour before sunrise, and felt unexpectedly refreshed. By 0930, I was a couple of miles from the waypoint for the Northwest Channel, and watched as the harshest, blackest, most violent-looking squall line I had ever witnessed approach from dead ahead.

The Northwest Channel is essentially the end of the Tongue of the Ocean. The Tongue is wide and extremely deep, for the most part, but as you approach the Channel, it gets narrower, and eventually shoals up from its average 6000ft deep, to less than 20ft in the last 1/4 mile of the approaches.

There were a few sportsfishing boats in the vicinity, and one large catamaran under full sail going straight for the channel. He (or she) looked like they knew what they were doing, and I thought to myself, "You get scared too easily. It's probably not as bad as it looks", and I made a decision to follow the catamaran. I thought the worst case scenario would be lots of wind and lightning and rain, but I could drop my sails, motor through it, and let the autopilot do the work.

I had been thinking a lot lately, reflecting on my experiences thus far, the decisions I had made, what they had led to, and how many gut-wrenching situations I had found myself in, all with at least one other person aboard. I had been contemplating the inevitability of the day when I would find myself in a horrible situation, and only have myself to rely upon.

Today was to be that day.

I began to have serious second thoughts as I approached the waypoint and a wall of white suddenly enveloped the tall tower that marks the edge of the reef. The catamaran disappeared too. I felt sick to my stomach, and with no further ado, put the boat on the reciprocal course to what I had been running. Too far to the right of that reciprocal course, and I might hit the southern edge of the reef, too far to the left, and I might hit the north. I really hadn't left myself very much searoom... how irresponsible. I had the feeling things were about to get bad, and I turned around to see what was coming, and not 20 feet off my stern, there were 2 waterspouts. I had seen plenty of waterspouts, fairly close when I was crewing on tallships, and from afar on my own boat. But never this close, and never alone. My knees started to shake, and Effie looked frazzled as the sound of the spout hissed and salt water was being flung in our faces. I grabbed her and threw her below, but she has always hated being below with the sound of the engine running, so she promptly ran back on deck. I screamed at her, (more out of fear for the general situation than for her not staying put), grabbed her by the neck once again, and put her below again, and then I jumped in behind her. I closed the hatch and doors, and looked out my window at the one waterspout that was still visible, and just prayed it would stay where it was and not intensify. Then, the wind and lightning came.

The boat heeled over, and I felt her turn, despite the autopilot being set for a course of 130 degrees. I did not want to go on deck. The lightning and thunder were simultaneous, and I was sure I'd be struck if I went up there. Looking at one of my many magnetic compasses I had down below, I could see I was pointed due north now. I felt trapped in a nightmare, you know the one, where someone is chasing you, and your body is made of solid lead, and you're trying to crawl away but you can't move at all. I could not compute what I was seeing, my brain was like cold molasses. Where exactly am I? What are these sounds? Waterspouts, or just a solid wall of wind now? Can it really get this rough that quickly? North, north, what does that mean? I'm pointing north, why aren't I pointed southeast?

Then it hit me. North. Reef! To the north is reef!

I was already wearing my harness, the lanyard was on deck, wrapped around the mast, ready to be clipped into once I slid back the hatch. I crawled out, clipped in, jumped on the helm, and gave the engine a bit of throttle to keep ahead of the waves that she had already begun to surf. I heard Effie once, assumed she was below, though I couldn't understand how I could possibly hear her if she was locked below and the sound of the wind was as loud as it was. I quickly forgot about her, and concentrated on my compass course, as it was very difficult to keep the boat going where I wanted her to go. With every lightening strike, I winced, expected to be hit, or the boat to be hit, and I kept looking up to the top of the masts to search for damage after each strike, but the force of the rain pelting my eyeballs would have made any real attempt to see damage impossible. I don't want to exaggerate, so I'm going to estimate the winds at 50kts, though I believe they were closer to 60.

When things settled a bit (I felt I had regained control of the boat) I took stock of the situation. I had dropped my GPS as I stumbled to grab it, and I couldn't leave the helm to go below to get it. Visibility was no more than 50 feet. I was surfing down closely spaced 5 to 6 foot waves, the rain was torrential, and the wind was no less persistent. The lightning seemed to be getting ahead of me, and I was breathing a tentative and silent sigh of relief in that regard. Other than not being able to determine my location, nothing else seemed of immediate danger.

I've never felt so alone in my entire life. I thought if someone was there with me, none of it would have seemed half as unnerving. As it was, the sound of the wind, the sight of the still-building seas and the occasional bolt of lightning seeped into my veins to produce a trauma that I can't yet say I've managed to shrug off.

The storm lasted approximately an hour, and when it finally passed, I found myself nearly 7 miles away from the channel. A storm petrel had landed on the foredeck and similarly appeared to be trying to shake itself of the experience, and its soaked feathers. This was my first chance to go look for Effie, who I was certain had been somehow vacuumed overboard by one of the waterspouts. She was in the chain locker in the bow, where she stayed for the next 5 or 6 hours. I brought offerings of tuna juice, in an attempt to apologize for what was out of my control. Another small bird plopped right on top of my chart as I was plotting a position late in the afternoon, obviously blown far from home (I think I was at least 10 miles from the nearest shoreline). Effie tried to eat her, so I put her under a box on the deck until she gained a bit of strength. She didn't make it.

That night I had no option but to anchor on the banks. No land in sight, no protection, and the wind kept up at a steady 20kts which caused the boat to pitch and heave the entire night. I had rigged a new bow roller in Allans Cay, to make it easier to haul the anchor up, as well as to keep the anchor away from the hull as I hauled it up the final few feet (it had been badly dinging the hull for months). It was ripped off my bowsprit by sunrise.

Two more days and I'll be safely in Miami.

The next evening I was at Cat Cay, and a couple from a catamaran came over to offer me a lift ashore, since they had a high-speed dingy. It was good to feel solid ground for a few hours. A small gap just north of the cay was the gateway to the final 50 or so miles to Miami.

I crossed the reef at sunrise, setting my course for 20 miles south of Miami, anticipating the distance the Gulf Stream would set me out of my way. It worked out perfectly. I arrive just east of Fowey Rocks outside of Miami at sunset. I only wished I could have arrived an hour or 2 earlier, so I wouldn't have had to cross the reef on this end in the dark. By mid-afternoon, I knew this was going to be the case, and I just hoped the cloud cover would dissipate so the moon would at least make certain landmarks easier to see and navigate by. Having been in the sparsely inhabited Bahamas for 4 months, I had forgotten about the notion of light pollution, and so I need not have worried about having sufficient light around a city as large as Miami.

At 10pm, I was safely at anchor in No Name Harbour, a comfortable anchorage I have visited a couple of times before. What a tremendous relief. My ordeal of recent weeks had finally come to an end.

Now, the chance of a boat being struck by lightning in the United States is 1.2 in 1000. In Florida, that statistic becomes 4 in 1000.

These are odds I would have preferred not to beat.