A beautiful scene. The boat is heeling in the evening breeze. The mainsail is hauled tight. And all this in front of a romantic sunset.
But something is wrong.
No spray is flying, no bow is cutting through the waves, no whooshing, no splashes – no movement at all. No sound. A still. Surreal.
I am standing in knee-deep water and look at Seefalke, my 40-foot steel ketch, stranded like a whale. It is day two. She looks sad. But also a bit defiant, as if she is trying to say:
”Ok, we lost this battle but we will win the war!”
While Seefalke’s battle cry dies away over the Bahia of Isla Mujeres at the very eastern tip of Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, I am trying to remember how we got into this unfortunate position: a story of unlucky circumstances. No, I want to be honest, it is a story of negligence and poor seamanship.
Gamma was born three days ago. Gamma is not only the third letter of the Greek alphabet but also the twenty-fourth named storm of this very active season 2020. And with sixty knots maximum sustained winds near hurricane force tropical storm Gamma is now approaching the Yucatán peninsula. The intense hurricane season 2020 drained the regular names in no time hence we are learning the Greek alphabet now.
It’s called calm and it cost me many storms
I know the drill. By now I know the drill. Tropical storms cannot worry me anymore. Or as Dalai Lama had said in one of his famous poems
“It is called calm and it cost me many storms.”
I weathered Cristobal here in Isla Mujeres, I slipped through the remnants of Gonzalo and mature Hanna in the Gulf of Mexico on my way to Mobile, Alabama, I dodged Marco and Laura on Florida’s west coast, weathered adolescent Sally in Key West. And all this just in one season. I have seen many storms. I am calm.
The holding here in the Bahia is notorious. I veer more chain, fifty meters at the end at just 2.3 m water depth. I crank the engine up to 2.000 rpm astern. The water is fizzing and whirling but we don’t move a hair. This is how I like it. Perfect!
Then I set my second anchor, at an angle of fifty to sixty degrees from the first, with twenty meters of twelve millimeter chain and twenty meters lead line. 2.000 rpm astern until we stop moving. What is the equivalent in wind of 2.000 rpm? I don’t know, but I know if anything is going to break our neck it will be the gusts, not the sustained wind.
This was the setup that safely brought me through Cristobal. Still I put on my goggles and dive both anchors. Looks good!
Doubts creep over me when I realize, I am anchored exactly in the center of the dragging during tropical storm Cristobal. My friends from S/V Off the Grid dragged here, and S/V Maverick, S/V Sukha and in another storm earlier S/V Acapulco. All experienced captains with good anchors. And plenty of chain. I know the holding two cables further East is much better.
But then I think about the hassle of hauling in the second anchor manually, then the main anchor, then relocating and dropping the two anchors again, then driving them in and diving them. Two hours work for sure. Pheew, no, too lazy. So I decide my Bruce and my Delta with plenty of chain will do. Even here. At this notorious holding.
I clear the deck and tie everything that could possibly fly away. I secure my dinghy with another line and batten down the hatches.
I am ready! Gamma may come!! Bring it on!!!
Here comes Gamma
And Gamma comes. At nightfall the wind is picking up. It is dangerously howling in the stays and shrouds: the familiar soundtrack of the storm.
The halyards are loudly beating against the mast. I have to tie them off but the rain is torrential. The desire to go out there is low. Very low. Not existent. Which is still an understatement. But the continuous clanking is driving me nuts!! So, finally I take off all my clothes and naked as a jaybird I crawl through that little hatch. I am soaked before I fully make it out there.
The rain shoots horizontally, it feels like hail, stinging hurtfully like someone keeps throwing gravel at me. Or darts. Instinctively I keep my crotch in lee when I work my way to the mast. It is cold out here so my crown jewelry doesn’t make a big target but better safe than sorry.
Out here it is so deafening loud I can’t hear the clanking no more. I tie the halyards to the sea fence and hope that does the trick. Then I slip through that little hatch back into my storm shelter. Awww, this feels good!! While I am rubbing myself down with a towel, I listen to the sound of the storm, the clanking stopped.
Shortly before midnight the wind is steadily in its thirties, with gusts in the forties. The gusts hit like slaps in the face. They don’t come head on. They strike from the side like Thor’s hammer. They make Seefalke heel and accelerate until the chain stops her rudely and she straightens up again, waiting for the next burst.
On the iPad in my nav corner I see the plotter data, received by WiFi, fancy. And very practical. So I don’t have to go out there in the rain. The anchor alert is set but Seefalke moves in a perfect text book swing.
No dragging. Yet.
I try to sleep a little until a voice on the radio is waking me up. It is a big catamaran calling the port captain, asking for tow assistance. I look out of my portholes and try to make out that boat. But the night is impenetrable with torrential rain coming down as if there was no tomorrow. The repeated calls remain unanswered, the port captain is long asleep. At first the voice is full of confidence, then panic takes over, then resignation. Finally I decide to call them knowing I cannot even offer my assistance in these conditions but maybe I can calm them down a bit. It turns out they dragged and are sitting in the mangroves now. Nothing they can do but wait. The good news is they cannot drag any further.
Then my friends from S/V Bullseye start dragging right towards me. I see them desperately fighting with their anchor chain on the foredeck. In the last moment they get their little motor fired up and struggle to return to their anchorage. It is a challenge to fight the storm with just twelve hp, but eventually this brave crew succeeds.
The Worst Case Scenario
The gusts are close to fifty knots now. Then I see movement on my plotter. We have clearly moved twenty feet where we shouldn’t. But we have stopped again. It seems the anchor has found a new holding point. Still I am alert. I crank the engine. Just in case. First I think the engine wouldn’t start because I cannot hear it. But then I check the rev meter and I see it is running just fine. Just the howling of the wind drowns out everything. A few more terrible gusts go through and I start to relax.
In the next Moment a deep groaning is jolting the ship and I see how Seefalke is taking a 60° angle to the wind, the typical dragging position. I put the engine in gear to get prepared to re-anchor. But after a few seconds the motor dies. I don’t hear it but I see the warning lights come on on my panel and the rev meter needle rests at zero.
The worst case scenario!
It takes me only a fraction of a second to understand what this means. We must have caught something in the propeller. That’s it. We are doomed. Nothing I can do but release the ignition and brace for the impact when we will hit the sandbar. Demoted from captain to spectator in the blink of an eye.
But there are some good news, too. There is no other boat downwind between me and the sandbar and the beaching is soft and gentle. As soft and gentle as it gets with the choppy seas and forty-five knots of gusty winds.
13 Tons Over my Head
As soon as we come to a temporary halt, I grab my goggles, my sailor’s knife and my gloves and jump into the water. If I can get those lines off the propeller quickly, I still might have a chance to come free by my own power. At first I am a bit surprised the water is only shoulder deep, but sure, my draft is 1.5 m and we just ran aground. All logical.
I am in the lee of Seefalke where at least she gives me some protection from the moved seas. Then I slide underneath the boat. I come back up instantaneously. I hit my head badly and I cannot see a thing in the water with all the sand stirred up. I take off my goggles, I have to feel my way to the propeller. I guess, I take the gloves off now, too.
It is still pitch black dark when I slide back underneath the boat, just hoping I wouldn’t get wedged or crushed. Wouldn’t be a nice way to die. Not a good feeling with thirteen tons wildly moving over my head with nowhere to escape. Not good at all. But my only chance. Who wants to live forever anyway? I feel the lines, they are not melted, not even jammed. I may get them out by just untwisting them.
In the meantime I see the boat slowly shuffling herself further up the sandbar. She heels over a lot.
After an eternity I got the first line off and I take a break. Blood is running down my fingers, hands and arms but I cannot feel the pain. But I know I will for the next days. Barnacles cut deep into the flesh and salt water doubles the fun. My head must be bruised and swollen, but I don’t care. I just need to get these lines out.
A few more dives and I will have made it. But the last bit I need to cut nevertheless. It turns out it is hard to re-find the cutting notch on the line. The line is too good (or my knife too bad) to cut it in one shot.
After 45 minutes I report to myself “propeller clear”. But it is too late. The storm has pushed us too far onto the sandbar. No way I can make it back with only my motor.
The sun should have risen but it seems to be waiting for the storm to end, too. It’s way after sunrise but still pretty dark.
Back in the boat, from my elevated position, I see the reef very close, and downwind. Too close. If we keep moving we will get pushed over the sandbar and right into the rocks. The wind is calming down a bit to steady thirty knots but I am still concerned.
Ahead of us, just twenty meters away there is a half-submerged wreck. I think it was hurricane Wilma that put it there. At normal days it is a snorkeling paradise for tourists. I decide today it will be my mooring. So I haul in my primary anchor until only twenty meters of chain are out. Then I go back into the water, carry the anchor a few meters, until the chain becomes too heavy, then I carry the chain towards the anchor, then I carry the anchor a bit further. The anchor and the chain are just too heavy to move them all at once.
It is an arduous work, in the storm, in the seas, in the current that now has become significant. It takes me almost an hour to reach the wreck. An hour for twenty meters! It is all rusted, with sharp edges and covered in barnacles. I expected that, that’s why I have my shoes on. I find a corner in which I wedge the anchor. At least now I won’t go anywhere. Pheeew…
First time in many hours I relax. Slowly I trudge back to the boat. While I am trying to get dry and warmed up I see that S/V Dodue, the wooden ketch of my friend Santiago stranded, too. And she is coming dangerously close!
Santiago comes over, in his bright yellow raincoat and asks if I had some coffee for him. So I brew some for the two of us.
Santiago is Columbian. He and his Swiss girlfriend Alicia sail the world together but on their two boats. A great concept! Now Alicia is in Switzerland to give sailing lessons on Lake Geneva and Santiago takes care of both boats. It is tough to take care of one boat all by yourself, but two boats in conditions like this, almost impossible. I admire him. He has guts! And enough smoke, too.
He tells me that he slept on Alicia’s boat during the storm and that he was totally shocked when he got up and realized the other boat was gone. And how happy he was to find it on this sandbar and not in Cancún or on the rocks or never. So, despite the unfortunate circumstances he is in a pretty good mood.
And he is right! It could have come worse. The catamaran that called for help in the night was sitting all the way in the mangroves, buried in half a meter of sand and mud. They will sure have some trouble to get out of there!
After we had our coffee, I lay down and try to get some sleep. I can hardly keep myself upright. But after one hour I get up again and hail the port captain on the radio. Surprisingly enough he responds to my call but tells me I need to call the coast guard on phone and he gives me their number.
So I call the coast guard, but they are not happy to come out. If people were in danger? No, no people are in danger, just boats. No, they don’t come out for boats.
Later they call me back and let me know they are coming now with two rescue swimmers and a big RIB I should have everything ready. Maybe the port captain had a word with them?
An hour later I see their boat, and a little later I see two men in the water heading my way with a tow line. We make the connection and I drop more anchor chain so we have room to move. But then the disappointment. The commander of the RIB orders to abort the mission. The gusts were too dangerous and people and equipment were at risk. Really?? I had eight sailboat crews standing by in their dinghies ready to jump in without a second thought but the professional coast guard is scared of thirty knot gusts? I hope I will never get into real trouble here.
Then I have to fill in tons of paper work and make a video statement that I refuse to be rescued and wish to remain onboard. Quite a lot of hassle for no help.
Then all my friends show up, one after another. Quite a view! This feels good!! At the end we have eight dinghies between 5 and 60 hp. Two of them are YouTube camera crews, though. But when their camera batteries died they join the crowd. One pulling my mast down to heel me, the rest trying to pull me back into the channel. But no way. The wind had shifted. On the one side this is good. I hoisted my mainsail and the wind, still strong, helps to heel us. But it is also now pushing the water out of the bay. Even high water cannot compensate that.
I need more power! But first I need some rest.
On the next day I call my friend Martin, captain of NEMO, a glass bottom boat that looks like a submarine. It is bright red and has a friendly face. He has a friend with a 300 hp tourist boat that usually takes tourists out to the best diving grounds. That could work!
An hour later they are here. And yes, we move the boat but just about two meters but not a millimeter further. We understand that we will have to wait for high water which will be at 22:34 tonight.
So we abort again and re-schedule for 21:30.
In the meantime I realize in shock that I left the head porthole open and a lot of water had come in while we were heeling the boat. Damnit!! Nobody else’s ass I can kick for this but mine!! I don’t know yet that it will be over 600 liters of water that I took on.
Then I try to pull the boat forward towards my anchor using my windlass. “Kedging” this is called. But no way. I will have to wait for high water.
The afternoon passes in slow motion. I feel like living on a climbing wall with Seefalke laying on her side. Every movement in the boat becomes a climbing challenge. It almost looks like one of these houses they sometimes have in amusement parks where everything is upside down.
At 21:00 we start the next attempt. The water is twenty centimeters higher now. Not much but maybe that does the trick. I receive a text message from Martin they are coming with 400 hp now. Good! He is great!!
Liam from Australia is there with his sixty hp RIB and Ken from the US is back, too. German from Argentina and Fahrettin from Turkey and Philippe from France. It’s good to have friends! Liam takes the halyard again and Martin and Marcelo with their heavy power boat take the tow line. At first nothing moves at all. We are sitting like cast in stone.
Then Liam pulls us over just a hair more (I am a bit worried about my rigging and more water in the boat but this is our only chance.) and all of a sudden we glide through the sand like my hull is greased with Vaseline. I give Liam the signal to stop pulling and we are coming upright again. We are afloat!! Only now I have to hurry to take my sail down or I will bump into my rescue boat.
I hear cheering from the boats in the anchorage:
“Hurrayyy!!! Hurrayyy!!! Yippieh!!!”
But then my motor won’t crank. I sense it got some water or too much sand. So I ask the tug to pull me into a marina in the lagoon.
Shortly before we arrive my motor finally cranks, spitting and stuttering at first but then purring smoothly as a cat and I can do the docking maneuver under own power. Man, that feels good!! My good ole Peugeot tractor motor, competently marinized by Vetus, obviously is hard to kill!
It is midnight when Seefalke is finally safely docked and our little land trip is over. Martin tells me we might get another “small blow” in a few days.
Nobody had an idea that that small blow would be known as cat 4 hurricane Delta in the morning.