January 6, 2016:
We have spent the last three weeks in the Bahamas and fill our days with beach volleyball, walks in the surf, and lots of socializing. Christmas was celebrated with a huge potluck followed by an evening bonfire, and everyone is enjoying the social atmosphere and relative civility of Georgetown. The anchorage is well protected, the town is safe and with a SIM card, we have great connectivity to get weather and stay in touch with friends and family. What could go wrong….right?
As I write this I realize that you may look back in twenty years and ask us, “What the hell were you thinking when you dragged us on this trip?” Most twelve/ thirteen-year-olds don’t have life-endangering experiences on a monthly basis, but at least you won’t ever say your childhood was boring.
We have been expecting the Wiebes for a visit and unfortunately, their flight was canceled due to weather, which seemed strange since the weather in Georgetown and Miami didn’t seem too bad. Upon my return to the boat, we played our regular three hours of volleyball, and the wind did seem a little stronger than usual, but nothing to raise any concern. When we returned to Rafiki the waves were out of the west which was unusual, and we all got soaked in the dinghy (again, not out of the ordinary). When we got back to the boat we had our showers and Alex and I started making dinner.
We cooked a wonderful meal of spicy hoisin pork with rice and sautéed snow peas with carrots in butter. By the time dinner was ready it was pitch black and the wind had now swung into the north which, unfortunately, left us totally exposed with the anchor chain now straining on a lee shore…never a good thing.
I will take a second to remind you of the geography of Georgetown. Great Exuma Island is part of the Exuma chain and is oriented NW/SE. Two miles to the east is Stocking Island which provides a relatively sheltered channel in normal conditions. We do get pummelled daily as we cross the two miles in the dinghy to do laundry, groceries and other errands, but the anchorage is generally pretty calm even in rough winds. So we had just served dinner….
The strength of the wind can be determined by many ways but the whistling of the halyards is engrained into my consciousness since I was a young boy, and as we sat down I started to hear the rig sing. We threw on the instruments and saw that the wind had switched into the NW and was now blowing 28kts right down the throat of the two islands. Did I say it was pitch black and the only references we had were the constellation of mast-head lights from the boats around us? At Monument beach where we were anchored, there were around thirty boats within a half mile of the shore and most were about 50-100 yards apart, a reasonable distance in this type of roadstead anchorage. We all monitor channel 68 which provides us local weather, yoga times, all social activity as well as acting as a general hailing frequency.
As we all came on deck (not a meal was touched…) it was apparent that all was not right in the anchorage. The winds were now clocking 45kts and the waves were being whipped into a frenzy and were crashing across the bow. The radio was buzzing with a dozen boats calling out to each other: “Hot Sun you are dragging..”, ”Axion, Axion you are coming right for me…”, “Cours de Loup you have just smashed into me and are about to smash into me again..”, “this is Wind Walker, my mast is down and I am trying to cut it free…”, “This is Hot Sun, we are on the rocks and our rudders have snapped…”. The yells and cries coming from the radio were soon drowned out by your mother shouting, “Do you see that boat?”. I had both engines going but ‘that boat” was a catamaran thirty yards to port and looked ready to T-bone us. Redlining the engines, I managed to make the miss but no sooner did we evade that calamity, than someone called another boat to our port that appeared to be heading right for us. Remember that it was pitch dark, no references and a rapidly deteriorating situation. Finally through the radio staccato I heard someone yell, “Rafiki you are dragging”, and it finally dawned on me that all these boats were not coming towards me, but rather we were careening though the anchorage towards them! Our anchor had broken free. Now it was a matter of manoeuvring the boat away from the rocky shore, without hitting anyone, and not snagging someone else’s anchor with our 100 feet of chain and hook trailing after us. If we were the only boat dragging this would have been a challenge but, unfortunately, half of the fleet was either dragging, or had decided to cut and run to avoid the likes of us, so there were boats splashing and thrashing everywhere.
When your Grandfather died several years ago I made a deal with him and he agreed that he would look over us. Every time I see a shooting star I remind him of the agreement and, needless to say, he hasn’t been playing much shuffleboard in heaven lately!
How we managed to power out of the anchorage without hitting or being hit, or snagging a dozen anchors along the way, I will never know. We were fighting 60 to 90kt winds which made steering wildly unpredictable, the seas whipped up into a frenzy and it felt like we had a firehose on us, all the while the radio was on fire with panicked shouts from other boats in distress. After what seemed like forever we cleared the most threatening boats and managed to get things under control in the narrow channel about a mile offshore. Here we struggled to keep our nose into wind and maintain position so the anchor didn’t catch and rip the davits off the bow while we waited for the winds to abate so we could reset the anchor.
Now we were becoming increasingly concerned about the anchor and chain dragging beneath us, so we elected to try and raise it to prevent it from unintentionally hooking and causing damage. Because it was difficult to maintain position with the wind, Mommy hooked in with two harnesses and went forward to try and raise the anchor. Remember that the deck was being pummelled by the sea, we were rocking violently in about five-foot waves, and there was Mommy lying prone on the deck trying to raise the anchor each time the boat would swing over the hook and provide a little slack in the chain. Alex was tethered in the cockpit on the port side with eyes on, ensuring that if Mommy did go over, we would at least have a last known position. Kathryn was busy lashing the dinghy down so that it wasn’t carried off, like the parade of lost dinghies being reported on the radio. I threw on the deck light to illuminate Mommy so she could see what she was doing, and so that we could see her.
Let me backtrack here… As I said, we had just come back from volleyball and everyone had had showers before dinner. You two were wearing pajamas, I had on shorts and a sweatshirt and your mother had on her nightgown. Now as she lay flat on the deck with the wind and waves valiantly trying to toss her into the ocean as she attempted to raise the anchor and stave off further disaster, all she could think was, “I really should have put on underwear…”
Our friends on Hot Sun, unfortunately, had dragged onto the rocks, snapping their rudders and leaving them without steerage. When we reached them on the radio they were contemplating abandoning the boat for the beach but after a little consultation, I suggested that the power his boat off the rocks and try to get an anchor down in the channel which, thankfully, he was able to do. He came careening out of the field with only the engines to steer by, weaving like a drunken sailor. Credit to him, he was able to get to deeper water and managed to get a hook down which probably saved his boat. Floating and alive, we will check the rudders in the morning.
After two hours the winds mercifully abated and people started licking their wounds. We feel extraordinarily lucky to have escaped this one unharmed and without major damages. I also feel a little humbled about the risks that I have subjected the family to, and it has given me serious cause for reflection. When all was said and done they recorded winds upwards of 95kts in Georgetown and sustained winds of 60kts for over an hour. The storm that hit us is called a “Derecho” and is associated with a land-based, fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms which can cause hurricane force winds, tornadoes, heavy rains, and flash floods.
There will be carnage on the beaches and in the harbours tomorrow, and I know that everyone did not get away as unscathed as we did. Once again you two responded remarkably well under fire and as I sit here drinking a glass of rum as night rolls into morning, I am amazed at your fortitude and courage. The past two months have challenged us in ways that we had not anticipated and frankly placed us at greater risk than I am comfortable with. We survived through thorough preparation, solid teamwork and a healthy dose of good luck. Hopefully, you will remember these events and use them to contextualize the myriad other challenges that will arise in your lives, providing concrete examples to the “small stuff, big stuff” paradigm.