Worse Things Can Happen Than Running Aground

Or so Captain Bill said in our sailing classes five years ago. I think he was trying to teach us the difference between “Mayday” and “Pan Pan” in radio etiquette. Our friends from St Pete had similar advice. “You’re going to run aground in The Bahamas. Don’t let it devastate you.” Still, there’s an element of “It will never happen to me” about running aground.

Well, now we’ve gotten that out of the way!

We left Great Sale harbor in marginal wind conditions, because we thought we might go crazy if we stayed one more day. Winds 13 to 17 on the nose, and seas that built gradually over the day. We got a nice early start, so even with beating into the wind, we arrived at the entrance to the Foxtown Harbor on Little Abaco Island before 2:00 pm. Theoretically, that allowed for great mid-day light to allow us to see the changing water colors indicating rocks or coral heads while standing on the bow looking at the world through polarized sunglasses. Unfortunately, what really happened, was I stood at the bow in a driving rain squall with rain washing sunblock into my eyes, wiping my sunglasses on the hem of my t shirt, and the sun completely hidden by clouds, so the water looked a uniform shade of grey across the whole harbor.

Mike had done his homework, comparing the paper charts in the Explorer Chartbooks and the electronic charts in our chart plotter and using Navionics, and plotted a detailed series of waypoints through the shallow areas and rocks to a preferred anchorage. But it is one thing to see a series of lines and dots on the chart plotter, and another to orient them to the real world landmarks and features around you in less than perfect conditions. Our friends on SV Orion radioed that they had just crossed an extremely shallow spot, that wasn’t captured on any of the charts, and they got us slightly spooked. SV Disorder took a different line into the harbor than Mike had plotted, and they were calling out depths in the 6 foot range. So we continued to follow our plan to head south and get closer to land, and then to turn east toward the closest anchorage. I was on the bow (remember that rain?) and Mike was at the helm and we had to shout to hear each other over the wind. Mike called, ” is that dark water shallow? Or it is a shadow? Which way do I turn?” But there was no good direction to turn. We were essentially aiming straight at a horizontal band of rocks that, according to the charts, we had already safely passed. Mike went from calling out safe depths of 11’4″ and 10’8″ to a dead stop in less than a minute. We jammed Sanitas into reverse, we were well and truly stuck for about 15 seconds, and then the prop walk started a turn that allowed us to spin all the way around and head back the way we came. With no clear idea of how to enter the harbor, but without needing to radio for a tow boat.

After finding a safe anchorage, Mike dove the hull and found only a few scratches – nothing too heavily damaged. There may have been a few frayed nerves and short fuses on Sanitas that night as her crew recovered from the scare!

Recovering with cracked conch and rum at Da Valley restaurant in Foxtown.

Bahamas or Bust

On Friday, 16 February, almost a month after setting off from St Petersburg, we finally made our crossing from Florida to the Bahamas.

We left No Name harbor in Biscayne Bay with two other boats: Chris and Stan on SE of Disorder, and Bob and Laura on Orion, and headed east. Our goal was to benefit from the fast river of water known as the Gulf Stream to give us a little boost of speed and assist us in covering the 92 Miles to West End on Grand Bahama Island. Why cross at night? Good question! I suffered from FOMO all day on Friday, because the rest of the boats that had been anchored near us weighed anchor at 4:00 am and headed for Bimini, leaving just the three of us to wait for an evening crossing!

Two reasons:

  • Winds and seas tend to be calmer over night, as a land breeze creates winds flowing from the Florida land mass out to seas, and
  • We wanted to arrive at West End in daylight, allowing us to see the clear customs as soon as they opened, and to continue on across Little Bahama Bank when we could see the color of the water, and watch for unexpectedly shallow areas or coral heads.

Not much in the way of photos documenting this momentous occasion, because of the night crossing, but our wait for a weather window paid off, because the trip was relatively uneventful. The down side of waiting for light winds was that we could only sail about half the way, and had to motor the rest of the way to make forward progress.

We managed to stay within a couple of nautical miles of our two buddy boats all night, which was rather comforting. On watch by myself in the middle of the night, I could see a dim red light to my starboard that was Orion’s port navigation light, and a dim green to my port that was Disorder’s tri-color mast light. It also allowed Mike and me, on Sanitas, to serve as air traffic controllers for our tiny flotilla, since we were the only vessel with a functioning AIS system.

Thank goodness for AIS! Literally the last boat project we completed before leaving St Pete was to pay a technician a large sum of money to program our VHF radio, chart plotter, and short wave radio with our MMSI identification number to allow us to broadcast our information over the AIS network. As we crossed the busy shipping lanes outside the port of Miami, one of us would notice a light on the horizon and start to worry that the cruise ship or cargo ship bearing that light might be on an intersection course with our slow, teeny, sailing ships. Cruise ships, by the way, are lit up like a Christmas tree and can be seen for miles and miles (plenty of time for me to fantasize about what they were serving for dinner, and how cold the champagne must be) while cargo ships are dimly lit with only the required identification and navigation lights. Zoomed to the correct resolution, our Simrad chart plotter showed a triangle for each ship transmitting AIS, and with a click I could request the ship’s name, size, course, speed, and an estimate of when it would make its closest approach to Sanitas and how far away it would be at that closest point. Pretty cool technology, and invaluable when the horizon was filled with lights at 3:00 in the morning! Once, the City of Bismarck, listed in AIS as a military vessel, hailed us by name on the VHF radio to let us know that they saw us, and were changing course to avoid our path. None of the cruise ships or cargo ships lowered themselves to speak to us, but we did correct course several times to ensure a safer distance.

The Gulf Stream is no joke! Sanitas usually putters along at about 5 knots. With perfect sailing conditions, she gets up to 6 knots, and her hull speed is 7.2 knots. Crossing the Gulf Stream, we saw our speed over ground exceed 8 knots! (Of course that is only impressive if you don’t think too hard about the fact that I can still run faster than that for short distances.)

We haven’t quite got out overnight watch routine down yet, so we just sort of winged it. Mike slept under a blanket in the cockpit from 10:00 until midnight, when he wind changed and there were cargo ships everywhere so I woke him for reassurance. Then I “slept” until 4:00 am (if you can call it sleeping when every noise or change in motion of the boat causes me to bolt upright and yell, “Hey Mike! Are we ok?” Then Mike slept below through the rolliest part of the night until about 7:00 am when we could see Grand Bahama Island approaching.


Have I mentioned we are still learning? A LOT?

Arriving at Dinner Key yesterday, just south of Miami, I called the marina on the cell phone to reserve a mooring ball and to confirm that the channel to enter the marina was deep enough for our 6-foot draft. I thought calling would be easier than using the VHF radio. Well the woman on the phone had a strong accent (this IS Miami) so I had to listen extra closely, and repeated everything back to Mike including the directions on how to find mooring ball 105:

  • Come all the way into Dinner Key channel
  • You are close to the limit on depth, but stay to the middle and you should be fine
  • Turn left, and follow the (something) along the marina
  • When you get to the (something) channel, look for yellow marker Mike
  • Ball 105 is the third ball from the marker

I hoped that when I reviewed the nautical chart, it would all become clear. But it didn’t. We had flashbacks of the GIIW and the Miserable Mile as Mike squeezed through the narrow channel. We were at high tide, so depth was fine, but when we reached Brennan Channel, we saw a small yellow marker, with the letter facing the opposite way. Eventually decided it was C or Charley. But which direction should we turn for M or Mike? Not the direction we choose, apparently.

As water got shallower and shallower, and the boats got closer and closer together, my thought was “these are not our boats ” “This is not where we belong” and “Turn around Mike!” But sometimes turning around, in a 37 foot sailboat, is easier said than done. Capt Mike was a hero, and somehow found a gap between the too close boats in the too shallow water, and got us out of there. I hailed the marina on 68 and got more detailed directions. Turns out we were supposed to turn INTO Brennan channel and motor back out into Biscayne Bay to find water deep enough for our type of boat. Once you know that, it seems so obvious! Back into deep water, it was still tricky finding the exact ball we had been assigned, but we had plenty of room the maneuver, and I picked up the ball on the first try. Phew!

Lesson learned today: when something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Listen to your instinct and don’t be afraid to back off, try again, and even to ask for help before it’s too late.