Narrative #7 - Sailing
By: Ron Reil
During my six years in the US Navy I decided that I would buy a small yacht and attempt to sail around the world when my tour of duty was complete. In 1972 I finished my enlistment and was discharged in Norfolk, Virginia. Prior to being assigned to Norfolk, I was stationed in Barbados at a tiny naval facility for almost two years. During that time I was able to purchased the ideal boat for my adventure when a 27 foot, tri-keeled, Debutante class yacht sailed in from England.
I spent time sailing and reworking the boat, but then I was transferred to Norfolk for my last year in the service. It was a frustrating time for me, watching the hurricanes pass close to Barbados, while I worried about the safety of "Sea Dart". I had left Dart in the hands of some friends on the island who promised to care for her in exchange for being able to sail her. It was a great relief when I finally got on the plane headed to the island to reclaim Dart and start my voyage.
It was with great dismay that I first viewed Sea Dart upon my return. The people that had been so happy to have her for a year had taken horrible care of her. When I opened up the main hatch the cabin was full of wet sails that had been left there for an extended period of time in the tropical heat. This would not be a great problem on a fiberglass boat, other than for the sails, but Dart was all wood, and the moisture had warped the deck boards, and done a lot of other damage. On top of that, the big genoa jib was badly damaged and required two full days of hand sewing for me to replace the bolt rope.
After three months of constant work, Dart was finally ready to go to sea. One afternoon while Fitz, my first mate, and I were relaxing on the beach we decided it was time to start our voyage. We went into Bridgetown to clear customs and take care of all the various legal matters. When we returned to Dart it was late afternoon. We pulled the anchor and pointed the bow at the setting sun, leaving Barbados in our wake. We were thrilled to have a school of porpoise escort us away from the island as we headed for St. Vincent and the Grenadine Islands, our first port of call. Several months later the following events took place.
Sailing south from Bequia (see map - 258K), we had observed a beautiful, but tiny, bay set deep within the limestone cliffs of Canouan Island. We did not try entering the bay at that time, as we had another destination in mind for that evening, but we made a mental note of its location for our return trip. Several weeks later we departed Meyero Island, heading north along the lee coast of Canouan Island when we again spotted the little bay that we had seen during our southern voyage. It was getting late in the day and the welcome appearance of a protected bay seemed just the answer after a day of rough seas, high winds, and heavy sailing.
The date was February 19, 1973, and at that time of year in the Windward Islands of the West Indies the seas can get very rough. The thought of a secure anchorage was almost too much to resist. I pushed the tiller over and headed toward the very tiny opening in the cliffs. The bay was cut into the vertical cliffs of the island, and looked as though someone had dropped a giant cannon ball, hitting the edge of the island and creating the bay. The sides of the bay were all vertical cliffs except the very back end, where a steep shingle beach lay. The entrance to the bay was guarded by coral reefs and a very narrow opening, not much wider than Sea Dart, allowing entry into the rocky bowl. The sea on the leeward side of Canouan was very flat, so entering the bay presented no problems.
We dropped the sail and motored easily into the opening with no more than 5 feet on either side between Sea Dart and the coral reefs. It was very close, but not unusual for sailing in the Caribbean basin and the West Indies. Fitz and I set the anchor and settled in for what we though would be a relaxing night.
Normally, as soon as I set anchor, I would get out the hand bearing compass and shoot an "escape bearing" and plot it on the chart in order to allow us to sail out safely in the dark of night if conditions in the anchorage deteriorated. This time I felt there was no need, for two reasons: first the sea was flat calm, and second, the opening through the reef was so narrow that a bearing would be of no value. We could only sail out in the light of day.
I needed to move the jib fairlead tracks forward, so while I was doing that Fitz dove for our dinner. He came back with 13 nice sized glass eyed snappers, so once again we would feast. Normally it was my job to do the diving, but with the work on the fairlead taking my time, Fitz offered to take over for me. I thought that was pretty nice since he also did all the cooking.
That evening was a very relaxed one, and I spent some time looking at the strange little bay we were in. The opening faced west, and therefore was normally very calm. At the head of the bay was a small, and very steep, shingle beach. The steepness was a curiosity to me, but I dismissed it as of no importance. A few hours later I would learn the reason that the beach was formed the way it was. The bay was almost circular, and about 200 yards across. Since it was so small we were anchored almost dead center in it. The sides of the bay were vertical cliffs some 150 feet high, or higher, on all sides except the opening and the extreme back where the beach was.
We had experienced a rough day's sail up from Meyero, so were glad to get the chance to turn in early. Fitz, as usual, was asleep almost instantly, but I lay awake for a long time. Something was telling me that all was not well, and I felt slightly uneasy. What the cause was I didn't know, so I tried to shrug it off and finally joined Fitz in welcome sleep.
I had not been asleep very long before I awoke again with my heart beating hard. I was not sure what was wrong, but I knew that all was not well. I got up and went up on deck. There was a full moon and the little bay was bathed in its light. At first I could not detect anything wrong, but then I realized that there was a background noise that had not been noticeable before. Small waves were now rolling up the shingle beach at the head of the bay and returning to head back out, undiminished in size. The beach was a perfect wave reflector! When the outgoing wave met the next incoming wave they would momentarily combine to form a wave twice the normal height. It was immediately apparent to me that this could be a very dangerous situation if the waves coming in from the west increased in size.
Even as I watched, the height of the incoming wave trains increased, and the noise also increased. Sea Dart was beginning to bounce around on the increasing choppiness, and I became more concerned. We were trapped until day light, when we would be able see the narrow channel through the reefs to escape. I hoped that the waves would not continue to grow in power. I remembered all too well the huge waves that had almost claimed Sea Dart when she was anchored in Gibbs Bay in Barbados almost two years earlier. They had come right out of the west in beautiful weather. I knew that any repeat of that, and we would not survive to escape the bay.
I noticed that the water in the bay was no longer clear, but was milky white, and composed of countless little bubbles coming up from the bottom. It was an indication of the violence that was going on underneath, and on the outer reef guarding the entrance. As I looked around the bay I had to hold on to a "stay" in order to keep my balance. The little yacht was beginning to be thrown around with considerable violence. The effect of the returning waves from the beach was to create a violent caldron out of the bay. Being inside the bay was becoming very uncomfortable.
Without further thought, I decided that we would have to take emergency measures if we were to remain afloat until morning. It was imperative that we get out two more anchors so that there would be no chance that we could be pushed into the cliffs by the wave action in the bay. We would have to set up a three point anchor system with Sea Dart in the center. Getting the other two anchors out would have to be done quickly, before it got too rough for the dingy. I awoke Fitz, and he knew immediately that something was wrong. He came up on deck and broke out the anchors and lines while I got the dingy out and climbed in to transport the anchors to their positions in the triangular pattern.
We had taken action soon enough, and the additional two anchors were quickly set and tensioned. Dart was now riding somewhat easier, as she was no longer surging forward and back with the waves. The meeting of the incoming and outgoing wave trains was becoming alarming however. The combined waves would suddenly shoot up to between 6 and 8 feet high. In the moonlight it was very strange and alien, and I desperately wanted to be out of there. I wished we had passed the bay and sailed on to the next island, Bequia, 24 miles north. We had no choice now but to play out the situation, however it would go.
The night passed very slowly. By 2:00 AM the seas rolling into the bay were truly frightening. The conditions inside the bowl of the bay had become almost impossible to endure. Sea Dart was rolling to her beam ends, and at the same time was being thrown up and down violently. I was thankful for the three anchors, but was also very concerned that their nylon ropes would chafe through on coral. The main anchor had a chain lead, but the other anchors had 3/4" nylon line right to the anchor ring. All we could do was to wait and hang on. My stomach was a knot of tension.
The first grey streaks of dawn finally showed above the island beyond the head of the bay. The noise and motion in the bay were almost beyond description. The light revealed a horrible scene as it became bright enough to see. The waves rolling in from the sea would expose the reefs for 20 seconds or so as the wave approached, and then it would bury the reef in a crashing white breaker. The surge would then enter and cross the bay, run up the beach, and start its return trip out of the bay. Waves refracting off the cliffs surrounding the bay caused a chaotic pattern of crisscrossing and impacting waves from all directions. We were right in the center of it all.
I wasn't sure we could even get the anchors up, let alone navigate the narrow pass through the reef during the short 20 second window as each wave trough approached. If we got caught there it would be over for Sea Dart in an instant, and probably for us too. There was no wind in the bay, so we would have to rely on the cranky air cooled engine that Dart carried. Fitz and I said very little as we considered what was ahead. Finally I could wait no longer and told Fitz that it was time to get the hell out of there.
In order to pull the first anchor it was necessary to let out more scope on one of the other anchor lines to allow Dart to move over the anchor we wanted to pull. With that anchor safely on board and stowed we pulled the second one. We then had only the main CQR plow anchor holding us, in almost impossible conditions. My heart was beating heavily as I started the engine and had Fitz pull the last anchor. We were now under way in a nightmare of vertical plumes that would come and go almost instantly on all sides. Once under way, Sea Dart seemed to steady up slightly, as if she was anxious to get out of the bay also.
Over the years I had obtained a lot of practice at timing waves, so that I could either land or launch a small boat through heavy surf. Only once had I missed my timing. That resulted in a flipped boat and a lot of expensive gear on the bottom of the sea. This time all the chips were down, it was all or nothing. We absolutely had to reach the pass through the reef just after the last breaker had passed. A moment too early and the surge from the last breaker would put us on the reef, and a moment too late and we would be lifted by the next incoming breaker to be crashed down on the reef. There was another concern too. As the previous wave withdrew it caused a terrible suction, pulling the water back out through the slot in the reef at horrible speed. I wasn't sure I could control Dart well enough to hit the narrow pass in those conditions.
I slowed Dart in order to match our speed to the next approaching wave trough. The wave ahead crashed down on the reef, I opened the throttle wide, and held my breath as Dart seemed not to respond. Finally she started slowly forward, as if afraid of what was ahead. The previous wave dissolved into a mass of bubbles and hissing water as the sea's surface rapidly dropped and we started to be sucked toward the horrible black jagged reef ahead. The opening through the reef looked too narrow to allow us to pass. With the engine going full speed, and the suction of the sea pulling us toward the reef, Dart seemed to almost jump forward toward the tiny opening, to meet our fate.
Twenty feet, ten feet, and then we were right in the slot with the black coral walls rising ten feet above us on either side just a few feet away. Our aim was true, and Dart shot the gap and quickly put distance between the reef and her stern as the next great sea rose ahead of her. We started up the steep face of the liquid mountain, but we were safely passed the danger point and running fast toward the safety of deep water. The huge wave passed harmlessly beneath us and we could relax at last.
We raised the sail and shut down the engine. The quiet was wonderful after the noise inside the bay. It was time to relax as we sailed slowly northward toward Bequia along the west shore of Canouan Island. The relief was tremendous. My knees were so weak that I needed to sit down in the cock pit to recover. The danger was over ... or was it?
Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire
There was very little wind blowing, since we were on the lee side of the island. I should have noticed that we were moving along the island much faster than the wind could account for. The relief I felt from our recent escape was causing me to relax too much and not look closely at my surroundings. Great danger was just ahead, but neither Fitz nor I were in the least aware of it.
All seemed wonderful as we approached the north end of the island. I knew there were no dangerous reefs ahead so I sat half asleep at the helm as Dart started into her second trial in as many hours. Fitz was sitting in the cock pit with me enjoying the morning. The front hatch was open because the sea was calm, except for the big ground swell which no longer posed any danger to us. The stage was set, and the play was about to begin.
If I had consulted the chart I might have noticed the little wave symbols just off the north end of Canouan. They indicated a tidal race. This happens when a strong current runs against a strong wind. The waves that form are "standing waves," much like waves in a river that stay in one place all the time. We had no warning other than the great speed that Dart was making in calm winds. There was a very powerful current carrying us rapidly into the jaws of a roaring February trade wind, and the violent tide race that results. We were about to learn about a tide race.
I happened to look forward, and to my horror, all I could see was a sea of white breaking waves dead ahead. We were being swept into the race at a good 15 kts., more than three times Dart's hull speed! I only had time to scream to Fitz to hang on, before we were swept into that hell of breaking seas. Just before we hit them the sails took the full force of the winds coming around the north end of the island, giving me better control over the boat. Dart entered that maelstrom with a bone in her teeth.
The first wave crashed down on Dart's fore deck, pouring water through the open hatch. The powerful wind had Dart heeled over on her port beam so the water poured down into the cabin right on to my bunk. It was the first water ever to get inside the boat, and it all went onto my bed! We were quickly swept through the white water, and then it was over as quickly as it had begun. Fitz and I were both soaked, as well as most of the boat. We had passed through a tide race and survived. Many boats have not been so lucky. Twice lucky in two hours!
I went below and made a quick check of the chart, but there were no other dangers between us and the safety of Bequia. We had 24 miles of heavy seas and high winds ahead, but they posed no threat to Dart or us. With the powerful winds, Sea Dart maintained the bone in her teeth all the way to Bequia. It was a short but spectacular sail. Both Fitz and I enjoyed the ride as we exulted in the thrill of sailing under such exciting conditions, even though we were both dead tired.
By 2:00 PM we had dropped anchor in the safety of Bequia's protected harbor. I went below and cleaned up the cabin from the water that had come in during our ride through the tide race. When all was ship shape I crashed for a few, very welcome, hours of sleep before having to go diving for our evening meal. That night it was wonderful to fall asleep knowing that all was truely well.
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31 Jan 05
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