Sunday, May 31, 2015

Living What I Write -- Part IV

Note the waterstains on our sea berth

“I need you on deck, Bud,” I heard through the fog of a sound sleep. I was wide awake as I scrambled out of my sea berth. My feet hit the cabin sole and I staggered to the companionway ladder as the boat crashed from wave to wave. She was rolling through about 45 degrees to each side of vertical every few seconds and plowing into steep head seas with a jarring crash in between rolls.

“What’s the matter?” I yelled up at Leslie as I struggled into my safety harness while bracing myself against the ladder. I could tell from her voice and the boat’s motion that there was some urgency, so I skipped putting on my foul weather gear. She had been on watch since midnight, and I had been catching up on sleep. I had no idea what time it was; I felt like I had slept for days. I wondered if I had slept through the alarm. Tacking back and forth across the channel for the previous 20 hours had worn us both out.

“Wind’s piped up; I need the third reef in the main,” Leslie yelled to be heard over the howl of the wind, as I crawled out into the cockpit.

I was no sooner out than I got soaked by a boarding sea that left a foot of water swirling around in the cockpit. The water was warm, but the wind cutting through my soaked clothes felt like ice. I regretted not putting on my foul weather jacket.

While I slept, the wind had built to a steady 30 knots, gusting higher, and the seas were sloppy. The boat was overpowered, and we had tied in the second reef when the squalls started a day ago.

I clipped a tether onto my harness to keep me connected to the boat in case I fell overboard and made my way to the mast. Hanging on as I struggled with wet lines and flogging canvas, I tied in the third reef, reducing the mainsail to a fraction of its full size.

The boat stood up a bit straighter and the wild motion moderated. I sat in the cockpit shivering from the wind chill until I was sure Leslie was satisfied with our sail trim.

“That feels good,” she said, after a minute or two. “We’ve sped up almost a knot, now that she’s not rail down, and the helm’s balanced again."

“Good,” I nodded. “What time is it?"

“Almost one."

I had only been asleep for an hour. “You okay?” I asked.

“Yes. Go back to sleep. See you at four o’clock."

When I came on watch at four, we were still sailing well with the reefed main and the staysail. I plotted our position before I went on deck; we had averaged almost six knots and were right on course. I put on my foul weather gear and my harness and crawled into the cockpit, slipping behind the helm.

Leslie went below and fixed me a cup of coffee before she crashed. By the time she woke up and came on deck to relieve me at 8 a.m., the wind had moderated a bit. We discussed shaking out the third reef. As we were both still tired and our speed was above 5 knots, we decided not to do it. I went below and went to sleep.

At nine a.m., Leslie called me again. The wind had built to over thirty-five knots, and it was gusting well over 45 knots in frequent squalls. We already had the third reef in the main, and the boat was overpowered again. We dropped the staysail and decided to heave to under the main while we changed headsails.

While Leslie lashed the staysail out of the way along the lifelines on the foredeck, I brought up our storm jib. It’s tiny and made from extra heavy sailcloth. We hanked it on the inner forestay and raised it. Properly canvassed for the conditions, we were still making good time, given the sea state and the opposing current.

After 24 hours, we rounded the southwestern corner of the Bahama Bank and entered the Santaren Channel, which would take us between the Bahama Bank and the Cay Sal Bank to the Straits of Florida. Our course was now a straight line north-northwest to Miami, and we would begin to pick up a favorable current from the Gulf Stream in 15 or 20 hours as we cleared the Cay Sal Bank.

Conditions were still sloppy in the Santaren Channel, although most of the squalls had passed. We had steady northeast winds of 30 to 35 knots, with occasional gusts into the 40s. We were not looking forward to being in the Gulf Stream with this wind; it would be blowing against the current, raising steep, high, short-interval seas. We resigned ourselves to a rough passage.

To add to our anxiety, some welds in our stern rail had cracked in the violent seas. The stern rail supports our rowing dinghy’s davits, and it’s where we carry the outboard for our rigid inflatable dinghy. I lashed the rail together with a dock line, and we kept an eye on it.

I decided that if another weld broke, we would have to jetison both the rowing dinghy and the outboard. If the stern rail went, it would take our lifelines with it, increasing the risk of one of us falling overboard.

As we got closer to the Gulf Stream, we were able to pick up the NOAA weather broadcasts on VHF radio. The forecast was grim, from our perspective. They were issuing hazardous condition warnings for the Gulf Stream.

Our options were limited. We could heave to and wait a day or two in the Santaren Channel, which wasn’t a pleasant prospect, or we could go on and endure another day of yet rougher seas. We opted for the latter.

By the time we reached the Gulf Stream, our decks had been flooded more or less constantly for over 24 hours, and we were discovering a myriad of annoying leaks. These were no threat to the vessel; there wasn’t much water coming in, but it soaked our sea berth, so we were sleeping curled up in the nav station seat. Most of our belongings that weren’t sealed in plastic were wet.

The stormy weather continued until we were about thirty miles southeast of Miami. A Coastguard patrol plane buzzed us there, yelling something on a loud hailer, but we couldn’t make out what they said. Our radio was on, but we were both on deck and couldn’t hear it, so we didn’t know if they tried to call us. The plane circled once and flew away. Our guess is they were responding to a distress call from another vessel and recognized that we we not their quarry.

At sundown, we had the Miami skyline well in sight. The wind dropped to nothing, as if someone had switched it off. We started the engine and motored into the ship channel, turning up into the Intracoastal Waterway at Watson Island. We were in familiar territory.

The anchorage off the Miami Yacht Club at night.
Before we sailed to the Caribbean years ago, we spent a lot of time in this area during the winter months. We were once members of the Miami Yacht Club, which is on the east side of Watson Island. We left the waterway and felt our way through the shallows south of the Venetian Causeway and found a spot to anchor off the yacht club. We didn’t plan to go ashore, but we were going to rest and dry the boat out before we went on.

Next week: Licking our wounds and moving north.


Wayne Stinnett said...

Cold I can deal with. Wet I can deal with. Cold and wet, is another story. A great one, by the way.

Onisha Ellis said...

Oh my, that was tense. I hope the rest of the way has calmer weather.

Diane Rapp from Quicksilver Novels said...

You must have experienced the storms that have pounded Texas for a while. So glad you made it through to Miami okay! I'd hate for you guys to meet Davie Jones face to face.

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