If you’re reading this … and you’re my mom … you might want to skip to the next blog post. I’ll post about beautiful beaches and sunsets again soon, I promise.
Quote from the Explorer Chart Books: “Warderick Cut is wide and deep. This is probably the best cut between Highbourne and Conch Cuts unless you encounter a north wind against an ebb current. The current can be particularly strong here.”
The cuts in the Exumas are gaps in the island chain that divide the deep, rough Exuma Sound from the shallow, protected Bank. When the tides change, massive amounts of water funnel through the cuts driving extremely strong currents. On a good day, you aim right down the middle and let the current carry you through. On a bad day…. you don’t go through at all.
I have a rule, or maybe more of a goal, that I never want to have a good story about passing through a cut in the Bahamas. I always want us to have reviewed the weather reports in advance, researched the tides, planned the time of day, and then simply glide through each cut like we’re floating on a lazy river. Unfortunately, this time I got myself a story.
We left Rock Sound on Eleuthera in a veritable parade of boats. Everyone had weathered the most recent cold front, and decided to use this good weather window to move on before the next one hit. Six boats were traveling the same route as Sanitas; a straight shot of 46.5 nautical miles to Warderick Wells, halfway down the Exuma chain. Weather forecast was for 10 knots, increasing to 15 knots over the course of the day. Totally benign sailing conditions. Until they weren’t.
At about 12:30, we were seeing 20-30 knots directly on the stern, with at least 3 meter swells. Tricky sailing, because the swells really bounced Sanitas around, changing her direction relative to the wind just enough to trigger some accidental jibes – a fast powerful swing of the boom from one side of the boat to the other, ending in a powerful crash. We use a break system to control how far the boom can swing, but the force was still significant.
Jeff, on Elixir, radioed and asked us to double check the tides. When we expected to arrive at 3:00, it was supposed to be mid-tide, when the current is the strongest and fastest. We agreed to monitor conditions, and radio ahead to other boats to ask about the conditions. If it looked too rough, we’d wait.
Then, chaos erupted. While Capt. Mike was trying put a second reef in the mainsail, the starboard lazy jack lines snapped, and suddenly about 75 feet of thin line was whipping around crazily in the wind. On the next accidental jib, the unbalanced sail put pressure on the remaining port lazy jack lines, causing them to snap too. Double the amount of lines whipping in the wind. One failure cascaded into the next. While Capt. Mike went forward to grab handfuls of line and wrap it in duct tape to get it under control, one piece of line snagged on the corner of our dodger canvas and ripped the hardware right off, folding the canvas and our flexible solar panels in half. We used the knife mounted on the steering pedestal to cut that line to relieve the pressure. So much for saving the lazy jacks! Now I had control of the helm while Capt. Mike had to finish corralling the lazy jacks, and also had to dig spare lines out of the cockpit locker to lash our solar panels on before they could sustain more damage. So now, with our mainsail double-reefed and falling out of the destroyed sail bag, and our view from the helm partially blocked by the sail, we arrived at the Cut.
We hailed The Colonel’s Lady on 16 and asked what the conditions were like when they passed through the cut just before us. Their Captain responded, “Are you familiar with the term ‘a rage’? When northeast winds are blowing against the easterly flowing ebb tide right at the strongest mid-tide levels, forming big standing waves? Well it’s raging right now.” Capt. Mike asked, “But it’s doable?” And the Captain answered, “Well …. how heavy is your boat?”
At this point, we didn’t have a lot of options. Winds were over 30 knots, gusting higher. Swells were 3 meters with a very short period between waves. Our buddy boat Elixir reported “falling” down the waves at over 11 knots. You’re not in control of the boat or able to steer at those speeds. When the boat ahead of us entered a wave trough, it disappeared from view until it climbed up the next one. We couldn’t simply do circles out on the Sound and wait for better conditions. And our mainsail was a mess (we were afraid to turn into the wind and finish dropping it without our lazy jacks and sail bag in these conditions), the dodger and solar panels were barely tied on using a spare line, and stuff was thrown all over the cabin. So we went for it.
Capt. Mike was standing at the helm, tethered in and hand steering; trying to simultaneously keep us from going broadsides to the waves, and to keep us off the rocks and shoals. I was sitting close to the companionway, tethered in, holding up the iPad with Navionics so he could see the best route to take between the hazards. He said, “Don’t be surprised if a wave washes over the cockpit.” Yes. Really. He’d spin the wheel all the way to one side, then spin it quickly all the way back, trying to hit the waves head on so that we wouldn’t be knocked down by a sideways wave. He tried to stay on his feet, but Sanitas was bucking so hard, he got knocked back onto his butt on the cockpit bench. When he’d look back over his left shoulder to try to time the next wave, all he saw was frothy white water higher than our heads. The rock bars on either side of the cut looked awfully close, and Warderick Cut didn’t seem so wide anymore. But good steering and running the engine at maximum rpms got us through it. Capt. Mike would have a sore back and shoulders the next day.
Once we had enough sea room, we turned back into the wind and dropped the sail, manually flaking it and lashing it in place with dock lines. We had already passed the entrance to the mooring field, so we pointed Sanitas’ bow back into that wind and aimed for the narrow entrance. A fellow cruiser jumped into his dinghy and zoomed over to help us pick up the mooring ball. Thank goodness. It was still blowing 22+ knots in the protected mooring field when we got there, and we had to make a very tight turn to head upwind to the mooring ball inside a channel only two boat-lengths wide. Once secured, we took a deep breath, gave each other a hug, and radioed the park office that we’d not be coming ashore to check in that night. Did a quick survey of the damage and decided to put that off until tomorrow too. We confirmed that Elixir made it through ok (although they’d actually been spun around 360 degrees in the cut!), and we poured ourselves a whisky and watched the sunset, grateful to have made it to a safe harbor.