Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lonely Places

“What the hell am I doing?”

I don't have that thought often, never had it back when I made a living in the sky. Even if I had back then, no Pilot in Command has ever expressed such a feeling out loud while performing the duties of his or her trade. But, half way between the west cost of Abaco Island and Great Harbor Cay, at 2300 on a pitch black night, and out on the bow of a sailboat pitching and rolling in five foot hissing seas, there is no one around to hear such an admission of doubt.

What I was doing was trying to get the jib on deck without dropping a sheet off the heaving boat to get tangled in the prop. That would have been a sure way to make a bad night even worse. There was a better than even chance that the entire sail was about to end up in the water to get tangled in the prop. That would have been an even surer way to make a bad night worse. The surest way to make the night the worst one possible would have been to end up tangled in the sail and join it the water myself which, at the moment of the expletive quoted above was uttered, seemed the most likely outcome. For, at that moment, the boat had rolled hard to starboard, I was sliding off the Ding toward the water, jib halyard trying its best to break my left wrist while I tried to gather in the falling sail with my right arm. Compared to me at that moment, a one legged man in an ass kicking contest would be a potent and capable adversary.

Sunrise leaving Lynard Cay

I have been in a lot of lonely places - a late night solo motorcycle run along the south rim of the Grand Canyon on Route 40 in Arizona, sitting in the single seat of a show plane over a desolate part of Canada while thunderstorms pushed me toward the tops of the pine trees, trying to nurse a King Air back to a cloud-shrouded runway with one engine running and the other locked up with a prop that wouldn't feather - places where there was no one around to help and no opinion but my own that mattered. I can now add the foredeck of Kintala headed to the Berry Islands to that list. (It is, by the way, a very long list. I am sometimes amazed I lived long enough to try this cruising thing.)

We were not supposed to be there. The plan had been to leave Lynyard Cay for a long day sail to the southwest side of Abaco Island. There we would anchor up for the night, making Great Harbor the next day. The first part worked out okay. We left Lynyard at dawn and motored through the cut out into the open Atlantic amid a small group of other, like-minded sailors. Winds were out of the NE with waves of four feet on a five second period. Ugly for anyone headed upwind but not bad for anyone headed the other way. With two reefs in the main and the jib flying, Kintala often showed better than 6 knots for much of the day.

With daylight to spare, we swung around the south point of Abaco island and closed on the anchorage. There was a disagreement between the Navionics and Garmin charts as to there being enough water for our 5 foot draft. The water itself didn't look promising and Deb just wouldn't go in there as an experiment. I halfheartedly disagreed. A pilot who refuses to trust published charts is useless and, likely, soon to be departing this earthly realm. (Much, it is assumed, to the disappointment of his passengers.) But the fact was the water really did look shallow, and I wasn't interested in risking everything I own in this world on Navionics' insistence that the water was deep enough being correct while Garmin told a different story. And before anyone lauds the fact that Garmin is better in the Bahamas since it is base on the Explorer charts, our experience has shown that, in fact, Navionics is actually the more accurate one. The fact that I can't trust published charts is a part of the marine world that just drives me bonkers. I would make a bet that the US military knows the depth of the water world wide to within a few inches but, somehow, that information is too sensitive to share. Which also drives me bonkers.

With no other good option showing itself on the charts, and several hours of daylight left with which to make some hay, we decided to keep going toward Great Harbor. It was an impromptu “all night sail” decision, some of which have worked out okay for us...and some of which have decidedly not. The worst sail we have had since leaving on Kintala occurred in this same area our first year out. But out of options is out of options. Onward.

At first all was well. Sailing far off the wind on just the jib, Kintala was hauling the mail. There were times when the boat speed nearly touched 9 knots, though the GPS showed a more reasonable 7+. Which is still hauling the mail on a night run with the waves hissing by and the boat rolling 50 degrees or so. Deb had the wind vane working and was keeping the watch. I was on the cockpit floor trying to stay warm and hoping to get a little sleep before taking over.

Cruise ship traffic complicated navigation a bit. As far off the wind as we were sailing, and the speed at which we were going, narrowed the compass headings we could safely hold. Several of the light-flooded behemoths (I think there were seven in total) passed less than 1.5 miles away. A couple wouldn't answer our radio calls to ensure that they knew we were nearby. As the night wore on, the winds, already higher than forecast, picked up up even more, stoking the waves as well. From my vantage point from the floor of the cockpit, the white caps on the waves were just about even with Deb's shoulders as she sat braced in at the helm. I was almost glad the moon wasn't up yet so I couldn't really see what we were sailing in.

The heaving, rolling, Nantucket sleigh ride we were on started messing with the jib, which began to slat and bang at times, shock loading the rig and sending shivers through the boat (and crew), all while crashing through the water at hull speed. With a cruise ship too near to windward to be comfortable, and fearing an accidental jibe if we fell off any further, we decided to wake the Beast, roll in the jib, and get off this ride.

For the second time since we left the dock on this trip, the furling line back lashed and jammed.
And so I found myself in one of the loneliest places in the world, where there is no one else in the universe and time flows at its own rate. I was up there for hours, though only a few minutes passed for the rest of the world before I flopped back into the cockpit with the task complete and Kintala back under some semblance of control. All I could think to say to Deb was, “Hi Honey, I'm home.”
A massive Adrenalin hit will do strange things to your sense of humor.

With the deck completely fouled, we were counting on the Beast to behave and carry us through the rest of the night, which it did without complaint. At 0230 in the morning we had turned the corner around Great Harbor, finally putting a chunk of land between us and the wind and waves. Deb tip-toed Kintala in among the anchored boats while I pawed through the disaster on deck to toss the hook. I was cold, wet, and exhausted, and extremely happy to be tossing the hook at 0230 in Great Harbor.

The next morning we woke moving slow, both of us sore from the adventures of the night before. Still, before the day was done the deck was straightened up, with all sails serviceable once again, lines run and stowed, and the Ding in the water. We even managed a short run into town for some provisions, and discovered the little market sold ice cream. We enjoyed a dish full each, celebrating a safe return from one of the lonely places.

The anchorage at Great Harbour Cay


s/v Odin the Wanderer said...

We found Garmin in the Bahamas, over & over was more accurate. Would have missed a few good anchorages & run aground a few other times without it.

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

Quite a story. Glad I wasn't there: reading about it was scary enough.

TJ said...

Jeffery, it was pretty exciting though, maybe, it wasn't really any more hazardous than driving on any big city highway on a Saturday night after the bars close.