“How do you feel about it?” Shirley asked, the day before she was slated to fly to Vancouver. “What do you mean?” I said. “I mean about handling Ariose on your own while I’m gone?” I ran the idea around in my head a little then replied with only slight hesitation that I was confident.
Though I’ve never single-handed before, the last 5 months have been a ‘crash course’, literally at times, in boat handling and maintenance. I saw this as great opportunity to affirm my new skills. I wondered what it would be like to be alone on a 30 foot, well provisioned sailboat with an ocean of travel possibilities over the bow! As we’ve mentioned before, sailing often offers promise of a few moments of shear terror with a dash of complete tranquility thrown in. The next 2 weeks and a bit didn’t disappoint! They brought a few hours of terror, a couple days of complete blissful peace, and about 12 days living and working on the boat.
Although my solo sailing episode is now fading into the past (anyone following our whereabouts will know we have since moved on from the Abacos , have had a taste of Eleuthera, time in Nassau, and are now in super-low gear in the Exumas), it will always be a standout for me in our cruising adventure so probably warrants sharing. Besides, lots of folks have been asking how I managed.
That initial confidence I felt when faced with the prospect of soloing? Well, some trepidation began to slip in over the next day. Neither Shirley nor I could anticipate how her visit with her son Marcus would unfold [we’ve shared more about that in Knock Downs and Life Interjects] so it was with a mix of uncertainties about her trip and about my soloing duties, that we ambled, heavily laden (well, she was…she carried a full pack about 3 miles that must have weighed 60 pounds) to the airport in Marsh Harbour.
By the time I bid Shirl farewell, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to being on my own. We’ve met all of our challenges together over the last 5 months but, hey, I said to myself as I tried to buoy my spirits, who wouldn’t want a little bit of freedom from living together in such close quarters?After a whole first day to myself, I was getting into the groove and looking forward to solo sailing. Ariose and I – we were a team! My second evening was beautiful. The sun was setting over the harbour and I sat out in the cockpit, as many other cruisers signaled day’s end with a blast on their conch shells (some veteren blowers and some just learning). The water was placid, the air was still and I had a great sense of peace.
After dinner, as I set to work on my journal, I happened to notice the wind pick up causing the two 50 ft royal blue cruising yachts at our stern to swing at anchor. I watched them for a bit but felt completely confident about Ariose’s anchor hold because we had already been through several nights without an issue. That confidence may have been a little misplaced.
Anchoring is an issue that is hotly debated by everyone. There are always many opinions. Usually, we use one anchor and a more-than-necessary length of heavy chain rode, and that has served us well. In tight quarters like we had at Marsh Harbour, though, space wouldn’t allow us the luxury of that kind of swing room, so we set 2 anchors on a shorter rode. As usual we tied a floating ball to the anchors to give us a good visual marker of where they actually lay. There are lots of ways to set 2 anchors. We had used a 2 off-the-bow at about a 45 degree angle approach, which works well when the wind is from a fairly consistent direction and currents aren’t an issue. What I hadn’t considered, in feeling confident, was that over the course of the days we had been in Marsh Harbour, the winds had clocked (changed direction) several times.
I went about my evening. At about 6:30 or so, I looked out again and was shocked at how close the first yacht looked. It frightened me. I jumped to attention, got dressed, started the motor, got out flashlights, turned on the VHF, got the maps ready, etc. Judging distance between boats in the water is a tricky thing, especially when some are on mooring balls and others on various lengths of rode. I sat and watched, my heart pounding a little. I wasn’t actually sure that there was a problem as I hadn’t heard any sounds of the anchor pulling along the bottom or had any indication of movement. Was Ariose dragging toward the lovely big (i.e. expensive) blue yachts behind us?
Soon, I realized that I had no choice but to act. We were too close! I started the engine, and put it in forward so that I could counteract any dragging. Once I knew that she was moving forward and not backward (upwind and not down), I moved fore to begin to haul up the anchors at the bow. Now…..you realize…. that if I work on the anchors at the bow, there is no one at the helm operating the controls? And worse, the 2 anchor rodes were so wrapped around each other that I couldn’t pull either up. At this point the wind really picked up, the rain began, with Ariose sometimes lying broadside to the wind, perpendicular to the other boats and heeling over with the force. I kept watch on the others around began to notice others watching me. They knew well that my predicament was becoming their predicament. With their floodlights lighting up the night around me, the cruiser off my stern yelled out to me to say that my anchor marker was beside his boat and asked whether I could reset my anchor. This wasn’t a good time for rhetorical questions! This ordeal was beginning to take on the flavour of a Hollywood film: the biting wind, the pelting rain, poor visibility, and anxious voices yelling at each other in the darkness with spotlights lighting up all around me. I yelled back that I was going to try. After fighting, spinning around the anchors many, many times trying in vain to disentangle them, lying broadside, moving full throttle forward then full throttle reverse, time and time again, I finally got the anchors PARTIALLY up and suspended by their chains to the forward cleats. Every time I worked up at the bow though, the wind would swing Ariose around in a matter of seconds and send me hurtling toward the other yachts. The thin line that had affixed the anchor markers had fouled both anchors in an impressive feat of bondage. I couldn’t reset them. Finally, in a fit of panic and frustration, I just got out of there, to the sounds of helpful neighbouring yachtsman yelling, with a heavy dose of self-protectionism, “there’s more sea room out toward the entrance to the harbour”. I maneuvered around the others, and to their relief and mine, into the darkness toward more open water.
Did I mention that the wind was really strong and Ariose was being whipped around? Well, forget that, it was way worse now and I couldn’t see very much around me for the force of the pelting rain that submersed my eyeballs in a fresh water bath. It was hopeless! The wind was so strong that I needed full throttle just to realign her with the wind so that I could leave the helm. Each visit to the bow lasted less than 10 seconds, for, by that time, Ariose would be sideways and out of control. I was getting cold and starting to shiver. I took a moment to find that foul weather jacket that we had gratefully tucked away months ago, warmer clothes to put under the jacket and raced back to the cockpit to gain control again. I lost count of the number of times that I circled uncontrollably so that I could bring her back in line with the wind. I must have ran up and down that deck 50 times trying to untangle the mess, and still was getting nowhere!! The Danforth! – I thought…. if only I could get our 3rd anchor to hold long enough to untangle the other anchors! Eventually, I got it untied from the bow rail, on the deck, tied a line to the shackle, and was ready to throw it over. I knew that with all the twisted lines and chains at the bow, not to mention my feet firmly planted there, that was easier said than done. The first toss – no good – the line became snagged at the bow and I struggled to get it back on board. The second toss – seemed to be no good – Ariose began to swing back violently, broadside to the wind and move fast. My heart sank….until……suddenly…the unmistakable jolt of the anchor digging in. For the first time since the ordeal began, Ariose’s bow began to swivel around into the wind just as it was supposed to do. I watched and waited. In those moments, decades passed as I surveyed for signs that we were in fact, finally motionless. Yes! I breathed a sigh of relief, dropped to my knees at the bow and proclaimed something akin to a profound religious statement (just kidding – a little melodramatic, don’t you think?). I finally had an opportunity to work on the other anchors and rodes. High on adrenalin, my clothing soaked and dripping, my body tired and shivering, I sat on the raised part of the cabin near the bow to gather my thoughts. Then, I went to work. It took another 45 minutes to untie the strangle hold of marker line. I finally had to cut everything free. I managed to get the anchors released and up in their rollers, reattached the rodes, and put the primary anchor back down. Ariose and I were set.
During this ‘event’ the tablet we use for navigation tracked my route – If you insert 50 yachts in between the squiggles, the picture is worth a thousand words!
I was exhausted! The last few hours had tested my ability and the knot in the back of my neck was a little souvenir of the stress. The cabin was a mess from looking for things in a panic, but tidying could wait for tomorrow. I went to bed. “Oh great”, I mumbled under my breath. The bed sheets were soaked. In all the excitement, I had forgotten to close the port lights (windows). It didn’t matter. It was 10pm and by 1am I finally had the calm and confidence to sleep a little.
My take away from this event? There were many, but most of all, as I would later mention to Shirl “ I think maybe, just maybe, we should rethink our anchoring technique.” There was no argument.
I’d been in Marsh Harbour now for a couple days and had yet to sail Ariose on my own. I was longing for some serene sailing. The second morning after the storm there was a break in the winds and I put together a plan to get out onto the lovely Sea of Abaco. Once I nosed Ariose through those red and green channel entrance markers, I unfurled the foresail, shut down the engine and travelled at 5 knots in a perfect point of sail across the azure blue waters toward Great Guana Cay. With the sails trimmed for a beam reach, the autopilot set to take us to our first waypoint in a couple hours, all I had to do was sit back, relax and watch that pool-like water lapping luxuriously alongside Ariose’s hull while keeping watch for other boats. Heavenly.
But, alas, after a couple days at the docks in Great Guana Cay attending to items on the never-ending “to-do” list, another storm front with high winds was predicted, and the rates at the Orchid Bay Marina were set to jump from 50 cents to $1.95. I had plenty of reason to move on. I hatched a plan to head out again to take refuge at Black Sound, on Green Turtle Cay. After a few tense moments exiting the slip (a tricky exercise single handed and with a tail wind and tides), I headed out of the harbour and toward the passage to the Atlantic that is necessary to avoid shoals within the Sea of Abaco. The swells began to pick up and I was soon rolling with the confusion of the waves coming in off of the Atlantic that are redirected off the end of the Cay. I was making good time though and was soon ready to head off and run down wind through the infamous Whale Cay Cut, a narrow opening in the reef, and back onto the Sea of Abaco.
To celebrate the successful passage, I dedicated my favorite straw hat (unwillingly, of course!) to the waters of Abaco. In a moment of slow motion, my hand clawed the air in vain…… as the hat sailed off of my head…… and into the turquoise water. I shrugged and continued on. I wasn’t about to try and initiate a hat overboard rescue while surfing downwind at a good speed!
Feeling really great about the passage, I brought Ariose & me into Black Sound Green Turtle Cay, and with no mooring balls available, tied up once again at the dilapidated docks of the friendly, budget-oriented, Other Shore Club. The winds picked up as predicted and I spent a rather harried next 4 days protecting Ariose from being assaulted by the dock. I used a combination of fender and wooden boards so we could ride up and down on the piles with the tide to keep Ariose from being damaged. The winds were in excess of 30 knots the entire time, pushing us against nails and rotted boards on the piles, that would inevitably catch the fender boards and pull them off. Once the boards were off, the toe rail and hull would take the brunt of the force. As I pried nails out of the piles, and adjusted and readjusted my set-up, I wondered seriously about the savings had by choosing this ‘cheaper’ option. Arrg,….more lessons!
I had one day of good weather awaiting me before her return, so, I headed out of Black Sound and over to No Name Cay for some peace while swinging at anchor. During this day and night I was reminded that living on a sailboat has it’s ups and downs. I had a fantastic night at anchor and a lovely day spent checking out the under water world and well….just hanging out, scantily clad in the beauty of the Sea of Abaco.
In the morning, I was exited to get back to Black Sound and looking forward to Shirl’s return.
Sixteen days after I had bid her farewell, that Albury Water Taxi showed up, a familiar arm waved to me out the window, and a familiar voice called out that she needed cash for the ride. I was only too happy to run (carefully) down the old rickety dock to greet her, cash in hand. I was very, very happy to bid adieu to solo sailing and welcome my first mate aboard again.