In our last Ariose Note, we concluded by saying “wish us fair winds”. We posted it just hours before starting the passage that would see us depart The Bahamas and cross the Gulf Stream to the US coast. Maybe our request wasn’t specific enough? Should we have added “comfortable seas”, or “settled stomachs”, or “no shipping channels chock-a-block full of freighters”? Maybe we didn’t convey that it was an earnest request? ‘Cause “fair winds” and all the pleasant associations that go with that sentiment isn’t exactly what we got!
It’s been a while since we’ve shared a suspense-filled Ariose Note. It’s actually been a while since we’ve been through any dig-down-deep-to-get-through-it uppercase ADVENTURES. That’s not to say that our day-to-day cruising life hasn’t been spiced with some lowercase ones. Like what, you may ask? Just the usual that all cruisers experience.
Yes, there have been more groundings. I won’t say how many. More than we’d like to admit. We’d argue, though, that “groundings” is a vague term and we need a better lexicon to more accurately differentiate our first night out Lake Ontario grounding (!!!) way back in November from the rest. Our recent ones have been more of the nudge-the-bottom kind, or the let’s-see-how-deep-a-rut-in-the-sand-Ariose’s-keel-can-carve variety that pose no risk but do, nevertheless, set us into quick action for the next few minutes, or hours, to free ourselves.
Then there was the altercation between Poco’s painter and Ariose’s propeller. Just as we were exiting Palm Cay Marina in Nassau, Martin, our dock neighbour called out a warning about our dinghy painter possibly fouling the prop. We’ve towed our dinghy thousands of miles, and navigated in and out of numerous marinas without incident, so had grown (over?)confident about this very-real risk. We reassured him that it was fine: the line floats, after all, and Ariose’s propeller, several feet below the surface is well shielded by the rudder. Well just as we got that out of our mouths, you know what happened. Yes it did. The dinghy angled sharply pulling the towline under our stern and wham. The propeller was bound up better than a rodeo calf. The engine stalled, and we commenced a slow drift in the marina, having quick but friendly chats with people around us that were keeping an eye on the proceedings from their cockpits. I was able to lasso a post and hold us secure. Tim bravely dove in, trying to ignore the rotting fish carcass floating beside him, and who knows how much septic dumping and fuel spills in the water. Martin, ever helpful, suggested “Don’t worry, it’s well diluted!” Our track record for smoothly departing Nassau marinas has not been a good one.
A night at Compass Cay also comes to mind as an example of lowercase-type excitement. A shudder and crack caused us to leap from bed at 2am, certain that we’d collided with something hard. We hadn’t. It was just thunder from too-close lightening. The battery charger let out a squeal. Tim did too. Then followed a couple hours of Zeus rapidly flicking the heaven’s light switches off & on, with us violently heeling from side to side while the winds blasted and nailed us with hail and rain. Our anchor held, our fresh water tanks were filled, our electronics survived, and we did too, so in the end, all was good. Well, now that I think about it, that night was a notch up from lowercase adventure. If there was a typeface option of midcase aDvEnTuRe, maybe it would better fit there.
And where does our most recent adventure fit? You can decide.
For those who have protested about suffering vicarious stress when reading accounts of some of our earlier incidents, here’s a spoiler for reassurance. This Ariose Note ends with Tim & I enjoying a couple of extra unplanned days in The Bahamas, and there’s nothing stressful about that!
So yes, we did have a bit of a rough go. We had planned a route to take us from The Bahamas across the Gulf Stream, to the US Coast. So far, we’ve had 6 overnight sails, but hope to gain some experience in longer passages before our journey’s over. Not only do 24 hour sails allow us to achieve triple the distance of day passages, they also free us from the hassle of finding a secure anchorage each night. We also want to see how it feels, and have a taste of how we might do in future if we decide to undertake longer journeys. It was appealing, especially being able to take advantage of the Gulf Stream’s northerly current, to try making this passage an extended one.
We are getting into the time of year with more frequent storms and heavy conditions, so favourable weather windows are becoming fewer. The forecast for the 1st 36 hours of our intended passage was borderline for us. There would be wind gusts to 25 knots, and following seas 6-8 feet in height, but it was wind-driven chop with short intervals between, which makes for a really rough ride. We thought it prudent to time our first overnight within Bahamian waters, so that if we needed an easy-out, we could cut the passage short. If we were in the middle of the Atlantic, that wouldn’t be an option. If we made it through that vigorous sailing, more leisurely conditions were forecast for several days, and we’d continue across the Gulf Stream. Depending how we tolerated the 2nd night, we might possibly continue several days north as far as South Carolina in this one jump. If all was not well, we could take a break on Grand Bahama Island.
We headed out about 3pm, and it was a brisk sail north, over the top of the Berry Islands past the cruise ships anchored off their islands. Things got progressively rolly-er. Our autohelm doesn’t steer well in those conditions, so we were forced to hand steer. That’s a bit intimidating when knowing we’d have to be constantly at the wheel through the night, but we had done so before, and it did provide a much more comfortable sail.
The sun set – our last Bahamian sunset, we thought – and as Tim assumed first shift, I went below to sleep. I mentioned it was rolly. Everything feels and sounds exaggerated when below in those conditions, and there was no way I could sleep as we were lifted up, and tossed down, with the accompanying crashing of rigging as the wind would dump from the sails then fill again with brutal force. I was feeling a bit queasy, and unable to sleep, so by 10:30pm, decided I might as well get out into the fresh air and relieve Tim. Tim was looking greener than I felt, though, and feeling decidedly unnerved. I knew this from what he was saying, but moreso, from the fact that this never-take-medication guy headed below and straight to the Gravol box. I assumed my position at the wheel. Tim, held into our settee by the leecloth, had his fitful sleep interrupted as he occasionally lunged to empty his stomach into the basin as it slid back and forth on the floor.
Meanwhile, in the cockpit…
There’s an unexpected shock when hit by wall of water with little or no forewarning in the pitch black. Fear or invigoration? It’s a fine line. As the night unfolded, I found myself constantly thinking back to a night mid-December, on our first overnight passage. It was our first North Atlantic exposure ever and we were on the notorious New Jersey coast. Having that comparator helped this night in The Bahamas stay firmly on the side of invigorating. The water soaking me as waves crashed over our stern was luke-warm. No fear of hypothermia this time. Tim was ill but not pinned fully incapacitated on the floor. A couple of monstrous waves hit broadside full-on, causing water to cascade inside, soaking everything in the aft section of the cabin, but we had all the electronics well protected and the bilge pump did its thing. It was a wild ride but our sailing skill and trust in Ariose’s ability have grown exponentially, and I was confident that this night’s conditions were well within our ability. Fatiguing? Yes. Fearful? Absolutely not. It was actually fun in a weird and wonderful sort of way. The stars were extraordinarily dazzling, and helped guide the way. I was grateful that the forecasted isolated squalls never materialized. When the moon rose about 3am it was bright enough to shed light on the binnacle compass. It felt like the sea was playing mischievous games with me, and I conceded points to it with every spray it hit me with. Once the moon also lit the cresting waves, I was a more able opponent, and thereafter, Neptune advanced little in the competition.
A few times I considered waking Tim, but decided against risking it. It was easier to deal with my tiredness, than take a chance on worsening his situation. I wasn’t even particularly uncomfortable. I was tethered on and well supplied with snacks, water, extra flashlight, and spotlight, in easy reach. I could only release the wheel for a moment when there was a lull in the waves, as Ariose naturally turns into the wind when not attended. That’s usually a good thing, but in these conditions, it meant we would be broadside to the waves and that’s not good. I was able to take quick peaks in those lulls to check the charts and to get information on other vessels within view from the AIS. I even figured out a creative way to relieve myself without having to let go of the wheel. I won’t go into detail on that, but suffice it to say that the frequent deck-cleansing waves were a key factor in the manoeuvre.
Usually, Tim and I make course decisions together. This night, though, I made the call on my own: departure would be delayed. I changed our heading so that we would make landfall on Grand Bahama Island. We could rest up, enjoy more time in The Bahamas, and try again another day. The sky progressed through its imperceptible dawn brightening and the night was done.
Tim awoke a little after sunrise, not his cheeriest, but at least feeling human. By 8:00 am, my adrenaline fully depleted, I headed below and dropped into an instaneously deep sleep. Tim, coffee in hand, seemed fine and assumed the helm. We were well into view of the coast, close to Freeport, and making our way a few hours northwest to our planned anchorage. At 8:15 am, I was abruptly roused by Tim rapping at the companionway and with marked urgency in his voice calling “Shirl, I need your help out here now!”
I glanced out, and could see at least half a dozen shipping freighters within close proximity. Let me tell you, THAT is an effective wake up from a deep slumber. Tim saw my panic, and pointed to Poco, our dinghy, dragging behind, bottom up. That was a relief! I’ll take a dinghy issue over a freighter issue any day. He reassured me that he had been keeping an eye on the imposing freighters and most were anchored. We were at the edge of the channel entrance into Freeport’s major commercial shipping port, having been just about to cross it when Poco flipped.
Most cruisers do not tow dinghies for anything more than the most casual passages. Most dinghies, though are not our unsinkable, remarkably buoyant Portland Pudgy. It’s also self-draining if there’s not too much weight, so the occasional waves that broach do empty out. We have carefully considered the pros-cons of towing versus stowing. It does just fit on deck, and we even modified our lifeline to have a solid stainless portion as a pivot point, greatly aiding the process of hauling it up & down. Its nearly 8 foot length is only inches less than our beam, though, so when on deck, it restricts our movement to/from the bow. It also restricts visibility from the helm. Of course there is a risk of it flipping when towing, but with every passage, including in heavy seas, Poco has ridden like a cork and our confidence in towing has grown.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some tense moments in following seas, when Poco would race forward, seeming determined to ram our stern, only to be fiercely jerked back at the last moment. That was concerning. Through the night, I had noticed Poco riding lower than usual. I didn’t see how I could investigate in the rough conditions in the dark, but in hindsight, once it was light and Tim was up, we should have checked it out. By that time, though, I had forgotten about everything but how good sleep was going to feel.
Tim steered us into irons (facing upwind) to alleviate the serious strain on the dinghy and Ariose’s cleats. We had secured plastic trash in Poco that we intended to discard in the US where there are recycling facilities. How disheartening to watch it float free – our contribution to the masses of plastic debris that eventually wash up on a beach somewhere. Thankfully, the oars attempted their great escape close to Ariose, and we were able to use the boat hook to retrieve them.
The conditions were still erratic. Ariose was rockin’ and rollin’ and we couldn’t keep her in irons. We needed some stability to be able to flip Poco upright, and bail her. We dropped sails and started the motor. Here’s a simple math quiz to describe what followed: chaotic seas rolling us this way and that + 2 long tow lines in the water + turning propeller = ?? Yup, a line fouled the prop and instantly, the motor died. And, to add to the drama, we were drifting further into the shipping lane. Sailing wasn’t an option with Poco’s dead weight acting as a sea anchor.
I put out a call on the VHF, a securite, which is a safety warning to let the freighters know we were temporarily disabled, and may pose a hazard for them. I don’t think they were too worried, but no self-respecting captain wants the nuisance of disentangling a mast & rigging from their vessel’s anchor gear.
It was tricky hauling Poco close, but we managed to attach a halyard, and raise her part way out of water, all while she was wildly crashing against Ariose, threatening to crunch hands. After several tries, we finally coaxed her into flipping rightside up. She was still heavy with water and gaining more with each wave – the self-draining feature only works if there’s less than 25 pounds in the boat. Tim leapt out, bucket in hand, and bailed as fast as he could, looking like he was on a water-park version of a tilt-a-whirl ride. There was also lots of water in the storage area between the dinghy’s walls. He pumped those out. We think that water had been in there for a while, and was probably the reason for Poco riding low, and perhaps, the reason it swamped and capsized in the first place.
It was obvious that we could not get up the dinghy on deck in those conditions – too dangerous – so we decided that we’d continue towing for now. The risk of another flip was one we’d assume over risking injury. All the while, the wind was pushing us closer and closer to the freighters and we had no motor. It wasn’t safe to dive and free propeller with Ariose crashing up and down. But what the heck, Ariose is a sailboat, the motor is only our auxiliary after all, so we raised sails and were underway again. We debated heading into the closest harbour, but despite feeling proud about our growing skill, getting into an unfamiliar marina under sail is still, and probably will always be, beyond our ability. We decided to continue on a few hours up the coast, where we knew we would be able to sail in to drop anchor near West End. Then, we could deal with the propeller and getting Poco on deck under more protected conditions.
How fitting. We would end our time in The Bahamas at the exact location where we made landfall 4 months before.
I went back to sleep leaving Ariose in Tim’s capable hands. By early afternoon, we were anchored at Cross Bay, and slowly tackled the clean-up, hanging soaked items to dry, and disentangling the propeller. We were thankful to find there was no damage. Poco’s centre seat – the seat the oars person sits at – had been torn out and lost at sea. Weeks ago I had scolded Tim when he returned from a beach-combing excursion with a “perfectly good” 1×6 board. He was contributing to the clutter aboard Aries, I argued. Now, that board was ideal as a temporary seat and Tim was gracious enough to keep any “I told you so’s” to himself. That night, we slept deeply, oblivious to the bouncing around from waves refracting into the bay.
The next day, we motored into the basin outside the Old Bahama Bay marina to take advantage of its calm. It was surprisingly easy to get Poco up and secured to the deck. We even found that the handholds in the Portland Pudgy’s keel allow us to climb over it if necessary as we move about on deck. We also spent a bit of time strolling around ashore – interesting how our months has caused us to see things through different eyes.
The day after that, we were up at 6am and as the sun rose, we departed The Bahamas once again. This time, we enjoyed (yes, enjoyed!) a successful 48+ hour crossing. We’ll share more about that in our next Ariose Note. We have arrived in Georgia, a little weary, but riding on another wave of accomplishment.