Weathermen – a pox on all their houses…
After three fabulous weeks in Cartagena, carefully watching weather patterns and cancelling two intended departures, we finally had a window. “A trough settling over the region bringing light and variable winds with three foot seas”, sounded pretty good so with all systems working and six extra jerry cans, we set out for the 600nm crossing to Cuba. Our intended heading was due North and with gentle winds out of the East we anticipated motor sailing most of the way.
So much for thorough planning.
Five miles off the coast of Colombia the winds started to pick up and swing into the North, which was not unexpected, so we started the engines and motor-sailed into the rolling swell. By nightfall the wind had increased to 15-20kts and the seas were whipped up into a froth of waves crashing into the starboard bow. We were confident that the wind would switch back into the East sooner or later so we pressed on, but at 2330 I noticed the left engine torque gauge flickered. Those sort of things tend to catch one’s attention in rising winds entering into a very large and empty sea. At 0030 the engine died. As the winds continued to increase and hold steady from the North, Belize suddenly became a possible tourist destination. Unable to match speed with our buddy boat, they passed on one final weather update, and pressed on. We were suddenly very alone, in lousy weather, with one engine out, in the middle of the Caribbean sea.
The following day we did get a wind shift and started to head towards Jamaica but the winds were now 25kts gusting 35kts from the NE and the seas were 15 to 20 feet (always difficult to judge but I pretended to cut Rafiki in two and stand her on end) and it was rough going. On the third day Alex was on watch and I was asleep in the cockpit when she looked at me and said in her best Yogi Bear voice, “we’re gonna get wet!”. The cell that soon engulfed us brought sustained wind over 30kts and thrashing rain, accompanied by a return to northerly winds. As I tried to maintain course we suddenly heard a crack and the Jenny let go with the remains of the sheet trailing from the clew of the sail. With one engine running and just the main up, steerage suddenly became an issue and I realized that we would need to get the jib back on line to maintain way. We were now in the middle of the Caribbean Sea with an un-forecast gale and multiple systems breaking under the strain. When Mommy came and asked me if she should put together a second emergency ditch bag with added provisions, I realized that we were in a precarious position.
As you remember we never go on deck at night or in a storm but at this stage we didn’t have much choice. We discussed the implications of a man overboard with the main up and one engine, and frankly the potential for pick up would have been low. I connected with two harnesses and went forward to dig out the spare sheets from the bow and then tried to connect it to the clew of the sail. Due to the height of the clew I could not do it if the sail was furled so was left to contend with a Jenny ragging in the wind, with a four inch stainless fitting trying to decapitate me. With Mommy on the helm and you two passing me knives and lines I entered into a precarious dance where I would stretch on my tippy toes trying to thread a new line into the end of the sail. It did have the sensation of standing on a horse at full gallop trying to thread a needle. To make a long story short we got the sail rigged and soon had a partial jib which enabled us to make way again. Unfortunately the wind was now howling from the North and Jamaica was no more realistic than a travel brochure, so we cut and run to the West.
With all sails pulling, making eight knots into enormous seas we had another shift and suddenly Jamaica was again looking like a possibility. Without belabouring the point, over the next two days we blew the number one reef line, then the number two reefing line and then, with the entire main sail up, roaring towards Jamaica, the clew outhaul broke???!!! With no option we dropped the main and continued under one engine and the jib heading for Negril, which we knew we could approach at night and drop the anchor in shelter.
The boat was a mess. Hatches had leaked under the onslaught so there were towels everywhere trying to clean up the water. I was hand fuelling the tanks with jerry cans underway trying to keep our one engine going and diesel was all over the back of the boat, and foul weather gear was hanging everywhere trying to dry out. Mommy had cooked one meal on the first day and after that you were on your own, eating what and when you could.
Mommy and I reflected that in all this chaos and uncertainty, we didn’t hear one complaint or disgruntled remark from either of you. Considering the number of disgruntled remarks coming from me, you were both exceptional.
A week prior in Colombia we had had some friends that were boarded in the night, beaten and tied up at gunpoint and robbed of everything. These incidents tend to raise the tension of all cruisers and then every fishing boat becomes a potential threat. With this in mind as we neared the coast of Jamaica, we were approached by a fishing boat with three men, who initially were on a course to pass us, but slowed, changed direction and closed from the rear. They were probably curious fishermen with the best of intentions…but I was done. We promptly went into a defensive posture and executed the drills that we had practiced regularly for the past two years. Kathryn took the helm, Alex got our deterrents in order, and I sat in the stern in plain sight and made clear signals that we were not interested in a social visit. After several tense minutes they carried on and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Like any emergency drill, I was impressed how quickly and efficiently you both responded when faced with a real threat.
Unfortunately for us, they probably were harmless fishermen because an hour later we were intercepted by the Jamaican Marine Police armed with M16s who intended to board our boat. Now we were doing 7.5kts in rough seas and they looked ill-equipped to do a boarding, so I asked them if they really wanted to do this. When they nodded I laid out bumpers, Mommy took the helm and held her steady while I tried to help these guys with the ship-to-ship transfer. They thought they were going to raft alongside our boat, however, given the sea-state, I refused and told them that they would need to jump from bow to stern, and while neither looked enthusiastic about the proposition, after several approaches, one near miss and lots of soaked legs, two officials came aboard. Instead of swarthy Colombian cocaine smugglers they got us, looking like we had lived inside a washing machine for the past four days. After some Coast Guard forms and a cursory look around they did the reverse acrobatics and we continued on to Negril.
We actually had a lovely sail into the flat calm bay on the West side of Jamaica, and it was with great relief that we dropped the hook in 20 feet of water. As Mommy and I sat in the cockpit drinking a glass of rum reflecting on the past five days, we were extremely relieved and grateful that we had made a safe port without major injury or catastrophe. Our only take away from the horrible weather reporting is that we’re back to forecasting with chicken bones!