18 July 2012

Strictly on a Need to Know Basis

We are here in Great Inagua, the southernmost island in the Bahamas chain.  It's a 215 nautical mile trip from George Town, Exumas, our last port of call, on a direct route. It can be considerably longer (413 in our case) if the tradewinds are against you, which they guaranteeably are at this time of year.

Like most cruising crews, we've developed a hierarchy of policies concerning passage making. They are predicated on the relative probability of events occurring to us and the consequences thereof.  Our default policy is to sail, rather than motor, regardless of wind direction because we are, after all, on a sailboat. However, this policy can be and is superseded by a number of factors.  Time of year is one.  We're in what is known as the "hurricane box," a set of longitudes and latitudes that is especially prone to hurricane activity in the months of June through November.  Hurricanes are not nice to boats generally and our insurance company, who isn't in the business of being nice to boaters doubles our deductible for any damage caused by a named storm, let alone a hurricane.  So our default policy gets supplanted by Amendment #3: Unless It Is Hurricane Season.  (Amendment #1: Unless There Is No Wind, is the default amendment to our default policy.  Regardless of what season it is, if there is so little wind that we lose steerage when under sail alone, we fire up the engines.)

Amendment #2: Unless We Are Trying to Outrun Bad Weather.  This amendment is pointless for addressing what it was designed for. Even with both engines running at full bore and wind, current, and tides in our favor, we have never done better than 10 knots.  Weather, whether good or bad travels much faster than that.  So by the time we see it, it's too late. We just have to sit tight and ride it out. But Amendment #2 does mitigate the effect of the opposite of what Amendment #1 covers, i.e. too much wind.  The engines can out power the sails and help us regain control of the boat.

Jane's been keeping an eagle eye on the hurricane forecasts.  None are predicted for the rest of July so we defaulted to our default policy. Had we abided by Amendment #3 instead it wouldn't have mattered that I didn't make the call to operationalize Amendment #2 until it was too late.  It was almost evening. I was on watch; Jane was napping.  Sitting by the nav station, I could see the doom-impending skies, but I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for getting up, knowing it meant getting bashed into the bulkheads with and between every step.  We'd been pounding into oncoming seas since leaving George Town and we were both exhausted. By the time I got more scared than tired and went down to get her, the storm was upon us.

Not our first squall, but the first of this magnitude.  Winds of 35 knots, gusting to 40 or better.  Rain so thick we couldn't see more than 30 feet off. Too late to reef the main or roll in the genoa; it was all Jane could do to keep us off the wind so that we didn't shred our genoa. A few moments later we realized the boom was banging as the wind yanked the mainsail back and forth.  She asked me if I'd rather loosen the main to spill some wind or hold the wheel to keep us from rounding up. I always appreciate her offering me a choice, but I can't imagine why she ever thinks I want to go anywhere near the edges of the boat in rough weather. I opted to hold the wheel. Wrong choice. Wearing shoes has never been one of Jane's long suits, especially when woken up out of a sound sleep.  On her way over to winch in the mainsheet, she slipped on the wet deck and crashed into our "life rails." For one horrifying second, I thought for sure she was going over. I, pretty much a deer on the helm at this point, was sure I would have stood frozen watching her go.

"Jane! Jane! Jane!" I screamed through the storm, as if the sound of my voice could defeat inertia.

"I'm okay, I'm okay" She said calmly, CALMLY while grabbing the mainsheet and letting it out. How frickin' rude! I thought to myself as I quite admirably maintained my death grip on the wheel. "I'm totally freakin' out here thinking I just got my promotion and she's calm.  You gotta a lot of f**kin' nerve, lady. Mainsheet loosened, she made it back to the helm without incident and retook the wheel. We tried to decipher the storm's track on our radar. 

"I think it's moving south" I yelled.

"Storms around here generally move either east or west" Jane countered.

"Oh, then I think it's moving east" I amended.

So we went west.  After a little less than 10 minutes, I changed my mind and said that it looked like it was moving west.  What was clear was that it had doubled in size at least. What was also clear is that when a storm shows up on radar it totally obscures the image of any thing else, like an oncoming boat. We have AIS for that, but its very picky about the conditions in which it will work and those weren't them.

There are in life those "doh!" moments, those moments of irksome regret.  All that time in the Bahamas, all those days in Marathon when we could have been honing our sailing skills as we'd promised ourselves we'd do but somehow never got around to. "We could heave-to" I suggested.

"That's not in my tool bag. I don't know how to do that." Jane said.

Well, I thought to myself, I didn't get a 98 on the written portion of my ASA 101 test for nothing.

"Oh, I remember how to heave to" I replied.

"Sure, we can try that" she yelled back. "What do I do?"

"Back the genoa and turn the tiller all the way toward the main."

"But we don't have a tiller, we have a wheel."

"Yeah, I only remember what was on the test.  I don't know how to do it."

Jane managed to work out the details and a few moments later we were hove-to, drifting with the current, but on a more comfortable ride then we'd had for days.

"There" she said.  "That was easy."

Not long after and corroborated by the image on our radar screen, the skies behind us started to clear.  Jane turned JOY around, refilling her genoa and pointed her eastward again.  We were safely pounding into the waves once more.  But despite our best efforts, we couldn't save our genoa; it'd been flapping about too wildly for too long. The leech line ripped open the back side of the sail. Once free, it snapped in half, the remaining portion snagging on the rigging every time we went on a port tack. We knew its days were numbered, so it wasn't a surprise. Eventually, as near as we can guess, what was left of the leech line, near the top of the sail sliced through one of our lazy bag lines.

We are a sight, I'm sure, anchored here off the coast of this working town.  Genoa frayed at it's edge, the top half of its leech line snagged on the remnant of the lazy bag line, mainsail spilling on to the roof of the coach.  Somewhere along the way, the lashing that held our trampoline in place gave way and it dangles in the water below.

After we were back in fair weather, I asked "So about those man overboard drills..?"

"What about them?" she replied.

"That's what I thought." I said, and added "Cause that's how we roll."


  1. Glad you're both safe, for the moment! Wow, sounds like quite a ride!

    Any chance we might see you in the Virgin Islands in say, February or March? We're seriously thinking of going back to Maho on St. John. I mean, who wouldn't???

  2. We'll be in the western Caribbean then. If you're willing to alternate your plan, we could meet in Cancun, The Caymans, Belize or the islands off Honduras are supposed to be beautiful and you can only get to them by boat. See what you think.

  3. Dear Mom, I was NEVER in any danger of going overboard. I was keeping my center of gravity LOW and holding on all the time. Just a little squall.

  4. Dear Trudy,
    Don't worry i have all the confidence in the world on capt Jane it,s her mate i am concerned with:-)

    1. I know. It's unfortunate. If she were smart, she take her half of the boat out alone. Much safer that way.