20 February 2013

Polar Behrs (pt. 2)

It is dawn and with two anchors we are holding against a six knot current that the previous evening drove us onto a coral head at the mouth of a bay.

It is a recommended anchorage in the latest edition of Eric Bauhaus's guide to Panama. It is, moreover, a bay that he himself discovered by air and subsequently named. La Bahia Golondrina. To our regret, we discover that Bauhaus's description of his find omitted some of the pertinent details, such as the width and placement of the deeper water at the entrance to the bay and the strength of the current washing across it and up onto the left bank. Since there are no tide tables for the immediate area; we have to rely on Bauhaus's soundings, purportedly calculated for low low water.

Despite Jane's efforts to drive us off with our port and only engine, the current pushes us further onto the coral and nearer to the shore. We stand in shock, helplessly  listening to the starboard rudder scrape and crunch across the top of the coral as it holds JOY both aloft and fast.

If we'd had both engines at our disposal, Jane could have fought the current before we went aground; with only one we had neither the power nor the necessary alignment to retreat. Once it is clear we aren't going anywhere, Jane shuts off the engine and considers our options which she rapidly narrows to one: call someone for help. 

Meanwhile, a young fisherman, seeing that we are in distress, paddles his ulu out of the same bay and over to us. It is getting latish in the afternoon and if we can't free ourselves almost immediately, we are here for the night. Jane later tells me she wouldn't even have even tried to rescue us had it not been for the young man standing up in his ulu attempting to bounce JOY off the coral, trying first one of her corners than the others. Shamed into action, she gets one of our Fortress anchors and the rode from the stern locker. The young man, Amelio, (as we later ascertain), has been welcomed on board and stands ready to help with whatever comes next. Jane and I drop the dinghy, she gets in and I hand her the anchor and rode. She dinghies into the deeper water in the center of the bay as I pay out the rode. Between the current and trying to maneuver around the rode, the dinghy proves almost impossible to control. Eventually, though, she is able to drop it over the side.

I wrap the rode around the winch and Amelio and I take turns grinding to kedge us off the coral. (Afterward, Jane remarked that she wouldn't have believed it possible to pull all 11 tons of JOY off a coral head with a winch.) We are free but not clear, that is, we are off the coral but the current is too powerful and our one working engine too weak and too off-center to propel us into deeper water. 

Now bound and determined, Jane formulates a theory: If one anchor can't do the trick, maybe two can. We have an anchor off the stern, why not one off the bow as well? The challenge is to get the dinghy around to the front of the boat so we can drop the anchor and chain into it without wrecking the outboard's prop on the same coral heads that snagged our rudder. Amelio is with Jane in the dinghy; I am at the windlass controls. (Somehow, in the midst of all this she retains enough of her command of Spanish to communicate with him.) She tilts the outboard up out of the water and moves the dinghy around to JOY's bows by grasping her topsides and pulling the dinghy. Once in position under the anchor, I drop it in along with about a 100 feet of chain. Again, trying to maneuver against the current and against the pull of the anchor chain as Amelio pays it out over the stern is almost more than the outboard can handle. Pineapple steers so erratically, that we are pretty sure we've managed to damage it, too. Finally, they pay out all the chain and Amelio drops the anchor overboard, setting it adjacent to the stern anchor, Jane's strategy is to use winch and windlassin concert to pull JOY laterally away from the mouth of the bay and its coral shoals. 

We try to reduce the scope of the bow anchor, but the chain is under the port hull and overpowers the windlass every inch or two. By then it is past dusk and getting dark quickly and Amelio has to get home. Jane knows he'll never make it the half-mile or so to his village before dark using paddle power, so she hands him a line to attach to his painter and tows him back home. When they arrive, she tells him to keep the line, which she reports, he seemed very pleased to have, even more so than the twenty-five bucks we've given him for his time and for the fish we surely cost him.

While they are gone, I go back and forth between our stern and bow anchors, grinding in a few inches of each in turn. Eventually, I am able to bring in all but fifty feet of our bow anchor and could bring in more, but don't want to reduce our scope so much that we lose our hold. We'll stay off the coral (good for both us and the coral) provide both anchors hold, but we won't be going anywhere before morning. Amelio has told us the tide will start rising at four in the morning, about nine short and mostly sleepless hours away. 

We check the depth sounder every so often throughout the night to see if the water level is rising at all. It doesn't begin to change until about 4:30. According to our tide table app, the water level twenty-three miles away (the nearest place for which it has any data) rises by only a half meter from low tide. Not a lot, but any increase can only help, if the data is even relevant.

Long before dawn and not long after our first sips of coffee, we are back at the winch and windlass, pulling both in hoping they are still pulling us back and out. The wind is down when we start, but comes up quickly. Amelio, unbidden, returns before dawn. 

Jane presses Polly back into service. The game plan is to pull the bow anchor the rest of the way in and quickly use the engine to twist us away from the coral. The current is just as fierce as before. With only the port engine, twisting JOY to port and away from the coral happens only by putting it in reverse which carries with it the risk of driving her backward squarely onto more, all the more likely if the stern anchor isn't already free. But pulling it up too soon will let the current push us back onto the coral on our starboard side. "Oversteer to port!" I yell to Jane when it seems we are still trapped by the current.  Amelio and I, again taking turns at the winch, pull up the stern anchor in time. I look over the stern and at one point I am sure we were aground again. "F**k you, we are not! I'm going forward." Jane yells to me and at me. I am fervently hoping Amelio's insular cultural life has precluded an exposure to English swear words, though Jane's meaning is plain. "Look!" I look to starboard to see that she is right, we we heading away from the mouth of the bay and its coral "teeth". 

To a rising sun off our starboard bow, Jane calls out the depths: "nine feet, fourteen feet, twenty feet." Amelio, backs down the swim ladder and gets back into his ulu asking, I think, if we will be coming to his village that evening as Jane had said we would when she towed him home. I tell him yes, though it is not true; we've changed our minds in the intervening hours. I hope he isn't planning a party to welcome us or anything. I don't want to just say "no" but I don't have anywhere near enough Spanish to explain why not. We want to get as much closer to Nargana and Internet as a day's sailing can get us. 

We motor up the inland route till just before it is time to turn out into the bigger water where we can sail. I'm very protective of Polly when she's working solo as she so often is so, we drop the hook by a little islet for just long enough to give her a quick check and a good dose of oil (she burns it up fast when Jane guns her), we secure the dinghy as best we can then weigh anchor and steer toward the sea.

...rewind yet another eight hours...

[Continue to Part 3]


  1. Holy crap guys, that sounds intense!! Glad everyone is okay, hope JOY hasn't suffered too much damage from the coral.

    1. So, it wasn't actually SIX KNOTS of current. It did FEEL like 6kn at the time, but I'm thinking 2 or 3 knots was enough to do the job.... Sarah, we're going to get hauled out within a week or two - send positive vibes our way.