It is difficult to explain how I got into that situation. A combination of things: my overconfidence on GRIB files, not reading properly the text forecast, and not having told the organizers of the Salty Dawg that I was not receiving Chris Parkers’ weather forecasts; he was sending them to my gmail address instead of my iridium address.
Late afternoon on Sunday November 8, I had just finished my second (and last) G&T when the wind started to increase into the high teens. Richard and I thought it was a good idea to put one reef on the main. But by the time I was at the mast lowering the sail the wind had increased above 20Kt and I decided to set the second reef instead. I waited a bit there, with my legs around the boom-vang and hooked to the jack line, making sure we were not just experiencing a gust. We were not; the wind continued to increase and I wished the main had a 3rd reef — it didn’t and still doesn’t have.
We still enjoyed dinner that night, this time a repeat of the fried rice, I think. We were running out of fresh food and, more importantly, out of ice and gin. But it didn’t matter, we were getting close. I did my first watch with the wind blowing between 15 and 25 Kt. Antares was close-reaching fast towards Marsh Harbor and, although the motion was not very comfortable, she wasn’t pounding against the waves.
When it was time to go to my bunk the wind was consistently in the mid twenties. I wasn’t able to sleep. During Carla’s watch we went through a couple of squalls, the wind was howling and you could feel that the seas were building up. When it was time, Richard went out to replace Carla and shortly after called me. The wind was now in the high twenties gusting above 30 and the squalls became more frequent. He was concerned about Antares healing too much and the stress on the rigging. Inside the cabin, from time to time you could hear the hull crashing against the odd wave with a loud and deep “bang.” I put on my life-jacket and shoes and joined Richard in the cockpit.
Antares was clearly over canvassed, but going through the process of setting the storm sails in those conditions was not a very appealing proposition. The sails were ready to be hoisted, the trysail hooked to a parallel track in the mast and the staysail hooked to the inner forestay. Still, it required leaving the safety of the cockpit when Antares was accelerating up and down the waves with unpredictable jerks. So I stayed in the cockpit instead, helping Richard to handle the main in the gusts. Carla also came and helped me roll the genoa to its second and last reef.
After Richard’s watch I went down to download GRIB files and updated text forecasts; it was well past midnight. The GRIB files showed an area of low pressure to the east of Marsh-Harbor; East-South-East of the Abacos. Between Marsh-Harbor and us the winds were not supposed to be above twenty nots. The text forecast read:
“TODAY…E TO SE WINDS 15 TO 20 KT. SEAS 7 TO 8 FT. .TONIGHT…TROPICAL STORM CONDITIONS POSSIBLE. N OF 29N… SE WINDS 15 TO 20 KT. ELSEWHERE…E TO SE WINDS 15 TO 20 KT…BECOMING SE 35 TO 40 KT LATE. SEAS 8 FT IN N TO NE SWELL. SCATTERED SHOWERS AND ISOLATED TSTMS.”
But what I read was: “Tropical storm conditions north of 29N.” Since we were below 29N I wasn’t concerned and I decided to continue on the same course!!! What an idiot. North of 29N things were ok, the problem was “ELSEWHERE,” where we were… Because the pounding was getting worse and the wind continued to increase I decided to hoist the staysail. We first rolled the genoa and Constancia started having trouble steering Antares upwind. The second step was to set the port running back stay (Antares was sailing on port tack). This implied going up to the mast, disconnecting the stay from one of the stanchions and bringing it back to the cockpit while feeding the line between the block and tackle. It sounds easy but with the boat moving madly and the wind trying to blow away the stay, it wasn’t so. With Carla’s help I eventually attached the stay to a stainless steel padeye on the gunwale over the stern. Then I turned-on my head lamp, attached my harness to the jack line and went to the bow to hoist the staysail. I sat down with one feet on the starboard rail and the other on one of the stanchions to avoid slipping down and falling overboard; the boat was healing at least 30 degrees. With my left hand I was holding the inner-stay and with my right hand removing the sail-ties. It was daring. The bow was moving up and down a distance of six feet and from time to time Antares would crash against a wave whitewater rushing over me; I was socked. When the sail-ties were off the staysail started flapping with a maddening noise and I crawled towards the mast to hoist it. Carla trimmed the sheet from the cockpit and soon the sail was set driving Antares very close to the wind. But the forces on the rigging were enormous.
When I went back to the cabin and to my bunk I could feel the forestay vibrating like a string under the pressure of the sail, transferring tremors to the entire boat. The vibrations were so intense that, despite all the work I had just done, I went back out to take the staysail down. I connected my harness to the port jackline, turned on my head lamp, walked up to the mast, released the halliard, sat down in the bow in the same position as before, got socked while pulling down the staysail as Carla eased the sheets, and finally tied down the sail to the stay with two sail-ties. I went back to the cockpit like a one year old child who hasn’t yet mastered the art of walking upright and unrolled a bit of the genoa. Antares was again sailing close to the wind but it still had too much sail up. I don’t think that the extreme vibration we experienced with the staysail was normal. To date I have not been able to determine what the problem was. I suspect the inner forestay didn’t have enough tension or that the running back stay was not doing its job, but I am not sure; a rigger will have to tell.
I went down to try to get some sleep but it was impossible. Antares was banging against the waves and I was concerned something would eventually break. The sun had started to raise when I decided to stop the boat and reassess our plans. When I went out of the cabin to heave-to I was in awe of the large and erratic seas that Antares had been battling all night. Richard got up of his bunk and joined Carla and I in the cockpit. I could see his expression of disbelieve but he didn’t say a word. Nobody did.
It was obvious that we couldn’t continue heading towards Marsh Harbor. I suggested to turn a bit south, away from the wind, to ease the motion of the boat. Once we approached the land, I told them, we could get back on course towards Marsh Harbor and if needed motor. We all agreed and I released the genoa sheet to get the boat sailing on starboard tack. Once we got some speed we tacked south with Richard at the wheel negotiating the waves. Carla went to her bunk to try to sleep and I went down to call Natalia through the sat phone.
She was very concerned as she had heard that there was a hurricane watch. When I hang up I called Tatja Hopman, who was coordinating communications for the Salty Dawg rally, to ask her if she what was going on and what the other boats were planning to do. She just told me that Chris Parker wanted to talk to me, that he had been trying to reach me. So I hang up and called Chris. He seemed annoyed at me and simply told me to read my e-mail and to call him back if needed. He had gotten my Iridium e-mail address and sent me an e-mail last night, but I hadn’t checked my in-box. The subject of the e-mail was “weather” and the content read as follows:
I’m not sure how you failed to get the message about a Tropical LO developing in the Bahamas. Most of the other Bahamas-bound vessels (some who were very close to you on Saturday) arrived in the Abacos Sunday morning. I assumed you’d be there Sunday afternoon, since you were right behind them.
How are you getting your weather forecasts? On I think it was Friday, told all the Abacos-bound Dawgs (by SSB Nets AND the “Salty Dawg Email forecast”) to do whatever it takes to get to Abacos by Sunset Sun8, or, at the latest, Dawn Mon9.
I SUGGEST you move as fast as you can to the SW, toward Mantanilla Shoal (about 27-30N / 79W), where you’ll be safe on the W side of the developing Tropical LO which could move from S-to-N thru the Abacos Mon9 night.
Of course, you could try to get into the Abacos this afternoon, but seas are building, and I’m not sure the Cuts will be passable. Then the Tropical LO comes through tonight. Hopefully just E of Abacos, but it’s going to be VERY CLOSE, and might pass over Abacos.
PLEASE CONFIRM you received this message, and will move as fast as you can to the SW, toward Mantanilla Shoal.
When the dust settles, I’d like to know how you have been receiving your weather forecasts on this trip, and why you didn’t care to get your email address in my system so you could receive forecasts from me underway.
If you need anything, let me know…Chris.
And that was it, no more Marsh Harbor. We immediately set course to the South West not knowing yet where we would go. I called Chris back to see if he had more specific suggestions and/or updates on the weather. He told me that we could consider heading to West End. He also wanted us to be as far as possible from our current position before the afternoon. We were, of course, a bit stressed-out and I was feeling guilty for having put the boat and crew in this situation. The reasonable think to do was to set course to West End the previous night; it would have been an easier ride and by early morning we would have been in calm waters.
The new SW course was on a reach and much more comfortable. Richard prepared coffee and I started to look at the paper and electronic charts of the Little Bahamas Bank. It was then that I realized that the IPad wasn’t charging and that the batteries were below 30%. This was bad news for, as I wrote in a previous post, the backup IPad couldn’t connect to Wifi or GPS and we needed the chart plotter to navigate at night in the shallow waters. I turned off the IPad to see if it would charge when not in use. It seemed to work. As we made progress towards the islands the winds and seas started to subside. By sunset the wind had died and we had cocktails celebrating that we had escaped the storm. It was around 8pm when we entered the Bank. With a flash light I could see the flat, turquoise and shallow waters with eels swimming around. The plan was to motor slowly towards the passage between Barracuda Shoals and Indian Rock. The channel was only 6ft at low tide and Antares draws 5.4, but I was willing to give it a try. Once in the Atlantic the entrance to Old Marina Bay in the West End was only one mile to the East.
I spent most of the night in the cockpit. I was focused on the navigation and didn’t want to go to bed. The night was beautiful and one could smell the land. Richard and Carla kept me company when they were on watch. We had long conversations, our spirits were high. By sunrise we were just a couple of miles away from the entrance to the channel and we could see the profile of Great Bahama Island in the south. We hoisted the yellow flag. Some sort of patrol boat had been coming and going all night and it was still there in the morning but it never approached us. By 8am we entered the channel, which to my surprise wasn’t marked! We basically relied on the chart plotter to navigate and this was a bit nerve racking. Richard was at the helm and I was giving him directions. It took us around 1h to cross. As we approached the end we could see the breakers along the reefs. When we exited the channel there was a strong current pushing us north but with the engine we didn’t have a problem reaching the entrance of the marina. I called them on the VHF and they gave me directions to the slip that Natalia had reserved for us. The dock-master was there waiting for us. We threw him the stern and bow lines and soon Antares was safely docked. We had arrived…
It is difficult to describe the high we were experiencing; we were in some sort of trance. Even going through customs and filling an endless number of forms seemed a very minor annoyance. From customs we went directly to the bar at the beach to celebrate our arrival and make phone calls to the family. The setting was ideal: a sunny, warm, afternoon; white sand; palms; and a background of green, calm, water with a couple small cays at the distance. I fell asleep.