“This is U.S. Coast Guard, sector Mobile, Alabama. We just received notification that your EPIRB went off. Is everything okay?”
“I … I don’t know.”
“Sir, where is your boat?”
This was such a cathartic and therapeutic exercise writing this article for my friend Adam Cort at SAIL Magazine. It even includes a personal account from some close friends of ours who unfortunately lost their boat on that terrible morning. But, my goal was to emphasize not just the storm and how much it surprised us, but also the community’s response, and how much that surprised me as well, in the best way possible. I have been honored and humbled yet again to be included in the magazine, and I was grateful for the opportunity to tell Pensacola’s story. I hope you all had a chance to get a copy of the magazine and read the article. Phillip chuckled when he saw it, saying he was finally famous because he “made the front page.” Many thanks to the SAIL Magazine team for putting together such a great piece. Enjoy the read!
It’s a weird feeling to fear water recession. With the huge influx of water that surges in during a hurricane, often the boats simply float, to the extent they are unencumbered. However, when the water starts to recede, often the boats have moved and they are now liable to sink down on any number of precarious surfaces: pilings, land, docks, other boats, etc. that could damage, if not impale, them. After Sally startled and shell-shocked Pensacola and the storm surge receded, Plaintiff’s Rest was left, mercifully, clinging to a broken-up dock with a 34-foot power boat sunk beneath her that had likely damaged her rudder. All we knew at the time was: we were not currently taking on water (thank god!), we believed the rudder was still in place and intact, albeit damaged, and we needed to get Plaintiff’s Rest out of that boat-strewn battleground and hauled as soon as possible. Captain Annie, and her full bladder, to the rescue!
Monday, September 21, 2020:
It was my job to be Captain that day. While I do have the official license and title (I received my USCG Captain’s license in 2017), that slip of paper doesn’t always make me feel 100% capable of handling the boat on my own every time, at least not without issue. Although, deep down I know I can. It may be scary and we may bump a thing or two, but I know I can, and I know she can handle it. There is a great benefit to having a two-member crew where each person is fully capable of handling the boat independently. Particularly on this day, when we got word from the marina they were planning to move Plaintiff’s Rest from her battered and barely-hanging on “slip.” With the other finger pier to the south of her tattered and devoured, I’m not sure you can call the sliver of wood she was holding onto a “slip,” but it was the best reference at the time.
Phillip was covered up that day with a number of other hurricane-related emergencies that would not allow him to work idly at the boat while awaiting our move time—which was in no way defined—so it was on me. I didn’t know where they would be moving our boat to or whether they would want us to move out of the ravaged marina entirely. They don’t really give you a manual for this kind of situation, and so many factors are at play: safety, preservation of boats or docks where possible, insurance, liability matters, weather conditions, alternative slip availability, etc. After the storm, Phillip and I had simply been walking down to check on the boat every day to make sure she was not taking on any water and trying, when possible, to gather intel from the dockmaster and other laborers who were occasionally motoring about in their workboat—removing broken docks and boats in no particular order—when they might be moving ours. It was pure luck we heard from a friend that morning who was at the marina who heard the dock crew say they were planning to move our boat that day. We did not know when, but I darn sure wanted to be there when they did move her to make sure, to the extent I could, that she stayed safe and afloat. This was her situation at the time:
“I don’t want to turn the rudder,” I told Phillip over the phone after I texted him the news they would be moving our boat that day. I couldn’t really explain the impulse, but I just felt, deep down, that if whatever was going on with her rudder and within the rudder post was holding now, meaning no water intake, I certainly didn’t want to be the one to un-do that currently-working situation. Not without back-up. If you find a friend impaled in the abdomen by a rather large stick, but he’s not currently bleeding, do you want to be the one who pulls the stick out without anyone else around? What if he starts gushing? For whatever reason, and whether it’s accurate or insane, that’s how I viewed our rudder at the time. If anything was going to change with our precarious but currently water-tight situation, I didn’t want it to happen when I was aboard alone.
“Then don’t,” Phillip said. “Don’t let them make you do anything you don’t want to do,” he added firmly. And, I say “firmly” because Phillip knew that’s how he had to give it, otherwise I would cave. While there are many things I am good at—creating, working, fixing, learning, following orders—there are also many other things I am terrible at, like standing up to people, talking over others, negotiating, taking charge, and telling others what to do. I’m just not good at being forceful, short, or dominant with people. My people-pleasing desire sometimes makes me a pushover. Phillip knows that. That’s why he is always solidly our leader, and I make one hell of a loyal and obedient soldier. But, not today. Today I (a young female, sorry, but you just can’t, as a young female in an older male-dominated environment, unsense that) was going to be telling these old salts, long-time sailors and deck-hands, as well as the marina owner, what I would not be told to do.
But, I squared my shoulders and prepared for it. It was on me. And, of course, it was the first biting-cold, spitting-rain day of the winter season. Immediately after the day of the hurricane the weather had turned infuriatingly beautiful. Sunny, warm, a light breeze. Brilliant gold sunshine blanketed our debris-strewn streets like Sally had never even happened. But, on this day, move-the-boat day, it was nasty and cold out. Of course! I donned my full foul weather jacket over a pair of sail pants for the day with many layers under including hat, gloves, and my rubber rain boots. It was annoyingly frigid out and blowing enough to matter, 10-15 knots. Just enough to make moving the boat while not under engine or sail more difficult. But, the sight of my boat warmed my heart when I got to the marina. There she was. Still floating. Still holding on for us. The gravity of what Plaintiff’s Rest had done—held on in the horrific nightmare that had played out around her—steeled my nerves. If she could do that surely I could be brave, tell the dock guys how I wanted things handled, and get ‘er done.
Here we go, I told myself as the workboat came around to Plaintiff’s Rest to begin the process. When I saw him approaching I felt my hopes immediately buoy. A familiar face!
“Peewee!” I shouted. Yes, that is in fact his name. Or at least the name I’ve always known him to go by in sailing circles. Peewee is one of those salty jack-of-all-trade types that you’ll find working on sails one year, doing rigging and making boat deliveries the next, helping clean up after a hurricane the following. He’s been doing boat stuff in Pensacola for years and was someone I felt I could call a friendly acquaintance. He was also a person I knew would care about my boat while moving her. I was also hopeful he would honor my request not to crank the engine or turn the rudder. When I spoke with Peewee, he confirmed mine and Phillip’s suspicion that the owner of the marina was trying to get all operational boats out and moved to a different location, which was understandable. I just didn’t consider my boat in its current condition safely “operational.”
Mustering all of my available “tell them no” bravery I explained to Peewee that the first time I wanted to move our rudder would be on the way to the shipyard to haul in case we started taking on water, perhaps a lot of water. With a little pushing and a very clear indication that I was not going to turn my wheel, Peewee agreed, and I was so relieved! The plan then was to push and maneuver Plaintiff’s Rest to the extent we could, manually (using our hands and boat poles), to a point where she could then be pushed or pulled out into the open marina by the workboat, then maneuvered over to the seawall on the other side to sit until it was time for her to haul-out. Phillip and I had no clue when that would be. All we knew was we had been put on the list the day of the storm.
This is roughly what we were dealing with as far as surrounding boats, docks, and debris:
Peewee and his crew first tried to pull the piling that was once at the end of what remained of the finger pier to the south of us, but they only managed to tilt it a good thirty degrees. It would not budge after that. But, they did get it heeled over enough to allow Peewee to saw off the damaged finger pier. It was a mangled mess.
Almost impossible to walk on. Thankfully, Peewee was surprisingly good at this awkward crawl maneuver that allowed him to free the finger pier and the crew then dragged it out with the workboat.
That left this space, roughly, to try and work Plaintiff’s Rest safely out.
The view from PR’s cockpit to starboard.
It was cold and spitting rain; we were all pretty much soaked on the outer layers. But, the crew was diligent, calmly voicing orders over the weather. I was staged initially on the dock by Plaintiff’s Rest’s bow, my hands and knees shaking knowing she was now finally untied. I was afraid I might be the leader the day we did something that sunk her, after all she had been through and survived. But, my hope was that Plaintiff’s Rest was taking her first step to safety, albeit with a path of carnage to navigate before she could get there with no propulsion. This was it.
Peewee first thought he would be able to push and pull her to execute a full 180-degree turn in the “slip” so her bow would then be pointed out toward the exit. As we began this process, I had to fight the urge to repeatedly tell Peewee, who was at the stern, “watch the rudder on that sunk boat, watch the rudder, look out for the rudder” over and over again. As if he didn’t know. But, it’s like handing something expensive and delicate to a friend. You can’t help fight the urge to say “don’t drop it.” But, I could see he was watching our rudder closely as we all nudged and scooched Plaintiff’s Rest’s bow over to the southeast corner of the “slip.” However, when we started to spin her, it soon became clear we would not be able to get her turned all the way around. A large sport fisher was just sticking out too far to allow her bow to clear it.
“Change of plans,” Peewee shouted just as the cold north wind started to fight us and push her stern over toward the sport fisher. “We’re backing her out!” Another worker started crawling up on the sportfisher to fend Plaintiff’s Rest off at her bow. The marina owner shouted “Annie, board!” Everyone was scrambling to change course.
That’s when I lost it.
Not my temper. The contents of my bladder.
Unfortunately, the only point at which to board my boat at that time was the bow. Have you ever boarded your boat from the bow? In a hurry? It’s not easy. Or pretty.
In a three-second maneuver, I hiked one leg up and stuck it through the pulpit onto the deck, then sandwiched my torso to that leg while dragging my hind leg through the pulpit and flopping onto the foredeck like a slippery fish. And, what can I say? I was nervous, worried, shaking. The pressure that the situation and the maneuver put on my bladder just gushed it out. I heard Peewee laugh and thought in a flash of panic that maybe the guys could see a huge spot on my pants. I looked down in fear but felt a wave of gratitude flood over me as I remembered both my long johns underneath and my pants were black. The perfect color to hide pee. We were all wet rats out there, anyhow, and with the wind keeping things fresh and breezy, it seemed no one was the wiser. Peewee said “Well, I’ve never seen it done that way before.” I smiled and laughed. “He said board,” I replied with a shrug.
Thankfully that had everyone smiling and in a good mood for the move. We then carefully picked Plaintiff’s Rest’s way between the sportfisher, the sunk boat (Peewee actually boarded Plaintiff’s Rest midship from that boat), and the wayward piling to get her out in the center of the marina.
Although the wind had a good bit of force on her once we were out in the open, with the workboat we were able to nudge and move her fairly easily using the workboat’s engine power and fenders. Peewee and I worked her gingerly up to the sea wall on the other side and secured her to pilings.
The view from her new location back over to the demolished “slip” she had fought her battle in, and from that “slip” over to her new spot on the sea wall told quite the tale.
This was a huge, satisfying Step One toward our recovery. For the moment, Plaintiff’s Rest was safely secured, not taking on water, and on a list to haul at the shipyard to be repaired.
And, I had done it! Saved the day! Captain Annie … Wet Panty!
“It’s some of your best writing, that’s for sure. Magnificently written,” then Phillip paused. “But … there’s no way you can send this to SAIL, Annie. It’s too … too dark.”
That was Phillip’s response to my first version. I was trying to work up a carnage-and-community theme juxtaposing the savagery of the storm with the solidarity among our fellow sailors who all pulled together to help each other in the aftermath. But, apparently I—according to Phillip—had created an entire piece of carnage cinched up at the puckered end with a mere paragraph of community. So, I did a complete re-write. And, I cannot wait for you all to read it when it is scheduled to come out in SAIL Magazine in January, 2021! I’m so proud and humbled to share our tale of survival and the incredible story of two of our very close friends that forms the beating heart of my piece. And, while many parts of this tale are sad, know that they are connected by a thumping vein of love and kindness that can only truly reveal itself in a situation like a devastating storm. My goal is not in any way to make our wonderful friends re-live or mourn again, but, rather, to share with you all the unique hearts that beat in sailors which makes our particular community so strong.
September 16, 2020
I’m listening to the slush and squish of my boots, dreading what’s coming. Although Plaintiff’s Rest is floating, miraculously, in her slip while most of the other boats in Palafox Marina have been heaped in massive piles of fiberglass and twisted stainless steel, there is still a gaggle of boats that lunge at her with every wave and gust. There is no way to even tell what’s holding those other boats in place exactly. A barely hanging-on sliver of dock that might go any second? A line tied to a cleat that’s about to snap in half? A power plug that’s about to pop?
We simply do not know. Phillip and I can only hope everything holds on just long enough as the winds continue to howl in the upper 20s and 30s throughout the entire day. But, more potential damage to Plaintiff’s Rest is not what I’m dreading in this moment, staring at my wet, walking feet. Phillip and I are walking to our friends, Stephen and Beth’s, house to give them news they likely already know is coming, but this will be the first time it will come from a source they know they can absolutely trust: me and Phillip.
And, what we have to tell them is that everything they dreaded all night long, everything they’ve feared every time a storm came into the Gulf, everything they’ve worried about since they bought their rare, unique, suited-them-perfectly Manta 42 catamaran has happened. One of the worst things that can happen to people who love their boat has happened.
Phillip and I have to tell Stephen and Beth that it is true. Cattywampus has sunk. He and I have now been the first people who know Cattywampus to have seen her with our own eyes, half-submerged at the other end of the marina. She was torn from her slip, just one over from where Plaintiff’s Rest is currently riding, slung to the north and somehow impaled and sunk.
Even worse, it looked like she was one of the first to go down in the marina, which I know is going to feel to Stephen and Beth so incredibly and unacceptably unfair. I feel it for them as I’m walking. I know it would be equally hard for me to process if I saw Plaintiff’s Rest wrecked, submerged, done for, not 50 feet from other boats that are simply marred, or even seemingly untouched. The injustice of it angers me.
But, as I write this, remembering that moment and their feelings, which were also my feelings, they are overpowered by the tightness I feel in my throat right now at Stephen and Beth’s strength. Their love, for each other, for friends, for boats. Their humor and ability to laugh through tears. And, more importantly, their awareness and thoughtfulness.
After we told them the news and Stephen and Beth, a few hours later, found the courage to bring themselves to the graveside to bear it, Phillip I were at our boat doing what we could to best protect her. Moving wayward fenders that had floated away from their vessels or from foregone vessels and tying them around Plaintiff’s Rest in a pitiful deflated crown. It felt funereal. I saw several boats I knew personally, boats I had been aboard to tell tales and share drinks, boats I had helped to fend off when they were coming to the dock, now sat wrecked likely beyond repair. There was just so much loss in one place.
I saw Stephen and Beth, first, up on the concrete walk that leads down to the dock. At that time the only way to get down to our boat was to crawl, quite precariously, down a huge swatch of dock that had smashed up and into the concrete. I told Phillip that Stephen and Beth were there but we both decided to give them some space. Even as close friends there’s a time when you just need a moment alone with ‘your person.’ I watched as they crawled their way down and walked to the end of the last floating finger pier on the east side of the marina, that Cattywampus had previously been tied to, so they could actually see their Manta with their own eyes. Phillip and I were at our bow trying to move our boat deeper into the slip in hopes of avoiding more contact with her rudder and the boat that sunk underneath her—which had likely fended off so many wrecking balls aimed at her stern—when the water receded. Stephen and Beth finally turned to face us. With a mighty effort to chuckle, Stephen said “She looks a little Cattywampus doesn’t she?” before his head crashed into my shoulder in a big bear hug. COVID could stick it at that point. With rain and winds of 30 mph it likely couldn’t survive anyway, and that man needed an Annie hug. I felt a gush of tears spring from my eyes when I let him go only to hug Beth just as hard and felt her sobbing in my arms.
Then Stephen and Beth did something that will forever burn them into my mind as people I will always admire. Friends who will always lift me up and inspire. There was no cries of injustice in that moment. No wails of “why me!” Stephen and Beth saw immediately what Phillip and I were trying to do to save our boat. They both wiped their faces and said:
“How can we help?”
I will never forget that. And I can only hope I react with equal generosity, awareness, and kindness when I find myself in some moment where I, too, have suffered a great loss. Because we all know that’s coming. It’s called life. And, the joy of it can’t exist without pain caused by loss. I will think of Stephen and Beth in my “moment” and try to emulate the courage and selflessness it must have taken them to turn their backs on their sunken heart and offer their hands to us. They continued to showcase their strength in the weeks that followed Hurricane Sally as they helped other boaters move or salvage their boats. They helped friends clean their homes and yards after they were smothered in falling debris. Then they wrapped those tough weeks of recovery by combing their own filthy lost love after she was raised up, with humor and hope of finding gems to save. And, Stephen and Beth did recover one amazing treasure: the cockpit table they had only recently made with a resin-coated map of the Caribbean to inspire their travels. Although that voyage was supposed to take place on Cattywampus, Beth and Stephen have already began opening their hearts and minds to the thought of a new used boat. And, they have vowed never to give up on sailing, cruising, or caring for friends in need.
Stephen, Beth, this one goes out to you.
Sally may have taken many things from us, but she also opened us up and showed our solidarity.
With Stephen and Beth’s help, Phillip and I were able to move Plaintiff’s Rest forward, just a bit. It was terribly hard in those winds and still cresting waves. The marina on the Palafox-street side was an absolute slaughter.
It was amazing to see what our baby girl had survived in, but wildly strange to see a massive power boat sunk beneath her.
Phillip and I were sure our rudder had likely made contact with the boat beneath us at some point as I had seen, when I went below to make sure we weren’t taking on water, the rudder stop had been hit so hard it cracked and broke free from the engine room ceiling.
Mercifully, however, we were not taking on any water. You could feel when you stepped onto the boat, though, that she wasn’t floating freely. Her rudder or keel was grounded on something. No one could surmise the carnage that might, at that time, be lying beneath our boat.
Phillip and I honestly wondered whether we even still had a rudder down there. We knew it had been struck and the proximity of the sunk boat was like an illusion, telling your mind there could be no rudder in the space between the two. We could not tell visually due to the thick cloud of debris and awful-smelling diesel that coated the top of the water. All Phillip and I could do was scooch Plaintiff’s Rest a bit forward and hope, when the water receded, she didn’t sit down on that boat in some unfortunate position that caused her rudder to break further or snap clean off and allow water to come in.
We had left our bimini on for the storm as it houses the solar in hopes that it could give her juice for her bilge pumps in case something very much like this happened. As I’ve mentioned many times, up until hours before nightfall the day before, all anyone expected from Sally was tropical storm conditions. But, our 110-watt panel had blown off entirely in the storm, and the our remaining two 50-watts were so marred and cracked, likely from flying projectiles, we were sure they weren’t working either. Meaning, Plaintiff’s Rest would only have whatever power was in her battery bank to fight incoming water if she began taking any on over the course of the night.
Phillip and I went to bed that evening with weary, worried hearts, hoping we would return the next day and find Plaintiff’s Rest still sitting floating and not slowly sinking. I gripped her bow before we left the marina that day and tried to make sure she knew just how much we loved her before I left. Looking back it pains me to think it may have come across to her as a plea to remain afloat when I truly meant it as a message telling her no matter what happened, we would always be proud to have owned and sailed her and that none of this was her fault. I hope she interpreted it as the latter. I’ve now experienced that moment three times—the first when we hauled with Hurricane Nate pointed straight for us, the second when we left Plaintiff’s Rest for the season in Great Harbour Cay in the Bahamas, and now this time, as she continued to hold on for whatever Hurricane Sally and her aftermath might continue to dish out—and I know no feeling can quite replicate the helplessness of having to walk away from your boat not knowing if you’ll find her in the same place and condition when you return.
Because you just can’t wrap your arms around her and keep her safe. It is only she who can do that for you in a storm. And, that is the very reason all sailors toil and sweat and bleed and curse, yet continue to sail our boats, as they truly are vessels to so much more than just the next shore.
Phillip’s eyes read back to me the exact thing I’m thinking: Should we be doing this? We’re gripped to a telephone pole, bracing against a gust, likely over 40 mph, but we have no idea. Whatever speed it is, it’s so strong we cannot stand up or lean into it. We have to hold onto something or we’ll be blown down. I think to myself that I’ve never felt before the weight of my body leaning forward, supported solely by the wind.
The gust that forced us to the pole is the worst Phillip and I have experienced since we received the devastating news from our dock neighbors, Stephen and Beth, that Palafox Marina is believed to be destroyed and that their EPIRB aboard went off which means their once-amazing catamaran, Cattywampus, is likely sunk. As soon as Phillip hung up the phone I knew. We had to go. We both had to know.
Hurricane Sally simply took every boat owner in Pensacola by surprise, taking an unexpected last minute turn the day before, building, slowing, and choosing Pensacola as the target for her most unforgiving northeast quadrant. So many owners had been pacing those early morning hours, hearing the wind howl at their house-fronts, praying their boat—out there in the elements—was somehow miraculously holding on. It had been a terrifying night for many.
“I think we’re okay,” Phillip answers the question my eyes had asked him. “Do you feel okay?”
I find it strangely hard to answer. More often, when you do something you might look back on and think Maybe that wasn’t the safest or wisest decision, you’re usually not thinking that in the moment. Often because whatever you’re doing is too fun or tempting to consider the consequences then. In this moment, however, I can feel the consequences all over my body. The wind exfoliating my skin. Beads of rain driving into my eyes. My hand gripped tight to the splintery wood of the pole to counter the tremendous push I feel on my body. While being in intense, tropical storm elements I can easily say is exhilarating, it’s heart-pumping, I’m not sure I could call it fun. And it was likely not the wisest or safest decision we have ever made. But, our desperate need to see the boat is beyond tempting.
“I feel okay,” I tell Phillip. I know we are currently in about the most wide-open, building-less portion of our hike—an open parking lot—and I know a litany of buildings lie ahead, which I am hopeful will provide us more shelter along the way. I believe, if we can just get to some better cover to safely endure the gusts along the way, we will be able to navigate the remaining three-quarters of a mile to get to the marina. The gust lays down, and Phillip and I march on. Wind-driven rain forces us to squint, which makes it harder to see anything that might be flying at us. While we haven’t yet seen anything airborne the first ten minutes of our trek, we can see evidence of it everywhere: big slats of metal bent around stop signs, pieces of house siding and roof shingles litter the streets. Thankfully, though, it seems Sally has already shaken everything loose that she could in the hours before, and she’s since laid her mass of projectiles down.
When we get to Main Street, two blocks from the marina, Phillip and I find it buried under water. We hike our way to the top level of a parking garage so we can get a better vantage point to see if we will even be able to get to the marina.
I’ve marked an X here on the parking garage where we were standing. The blue line indicates the water level, and you can see Palafox Marina just a couple of blocks south of us.
Here are some before and after photos showing the water level on Main Street where we crossed.
“Oh god, there’s the Nina!” I hear Phillip shout into the wind. La Nina is a rebuild of the ship Columbus actually sailed on when he crossed the Atlantic that had, sadly, come to Pensacola just one week before the storm to offer public tours. It was docked here on the Palafox Marina sea wall near the entrance to the marina.
Phillip points to a building just southwest of us and my mind simply could not process it. I could see the distinct masts of the ship for sure, but my brain told me if I was seeing La Nina there, it had to be in a parking lot. It was bewildering and also immediately humbling and terrifying. If Sally could pick up that heavy beast of a boat and put it anywhere she wanted, a parking lot, even, I think, how in the world could our boat have survived her? I decide in that moment—whether I have to crawl, climb, wade, even swim—I am going to cross that water and get to the marina. Whatever has happened to her, I have to see our boat.
We decide to let Phillip lead the charge, trudging his feet and stepping very slowly so we don’t fall or cut ourselves on whatever might lie beneath as we begin to cross Main Street. The water remains knee high most of the way with no obstacles. We get a bit worried at one point when I have my phone held up over my head and the water came to our chest. This was just north of the marina where Baylen street ends in a circle and is, so far, our deepest point of the journey. It is incredibly strange to see waves surging at us there. Waves? At a place I’ve walked a thousand times to and from the boat. It feels like an altered universe.
Until we make it to the marina. Then it all feels overwhelmingly too real. Shredded sails pop at alarming decibels. Fiberglass groans. Boats have been shoved in a seemingly impossible pile at the north end of the marina, stacked on top of one another, some have even been pushed up violently onto the concrete and sidewalks.
Every vessel is gouged, split, cracked, some are still tied to broken-up pieces of dock. It is carnage. The wind continues to rip through mercilessly, shoving and heeling boats that are just barely floating. I recognize a beautiful Tayana, Distant Drummer, owned by a friend. Its once beautiful velvet blue hull is now scored and scraped all over. It seems she’s been pushed aground and her anchor has lodged on the outer deck railing of building on Palafox Street.
I recall Distant Drummer was once on a dock several rows to the south of where our boat was and the realization guts me. If all of those boats have come this far … We then see Stephen and Beth’s gallant catamaran, Cattywampus, is just as they suspected: submerged. She’s gone. Already! Sunk in her own home? How … why … my brain tries to make sense. A huge sport fisher that had been tied up just across the way from us in our slip I now notice is the furthest boat shoved into the pile, its scratching its once glistening hull into the concrete steps that used to lead to the beautiful walk along our marina. Then I make out the fuel dock. The fuel dock? my wayward brain asks. The fuel dock was on the first row right by the sea wall! Now it’s here?
Here are some overhead views of our marina showing where Plaintiff’s Rest’s slip was before the storm and the condition of the marina after the storm.
Paralyzed by the impossible wreckage, stunned by seeing things that shouldn’t be, my brain simply didn’t have time, when we first arrived, to look anywhere other than at the devastating oddities right in front of me, but now she realizes what she might see with just the shift of an eye. A white monohull? Green canvas? Plaintiff’s Rest? I immediately begin scanning every boat in the pile as Phillip and I start to make our way south on the Baylen side of Palafox Marina, hoping not to see our baby girl in the pile of bodies. And, each time, it’s not her. I see a sliver of white hull, but that’s not her stern. Some green canvas, but it’s a Beneteau. She’s not there!
I start to jog down the sea wall as the gusts keep pummeling us, then I see it! I’m either insane or I see it! “Her mast!” I shout to Phillip as I take off in a full sprint. It seems unfathomable, but it looks like she is sitting afloat in her slip. My feet pound the pavement as hard as my heart on my chest wall as I tell her, or myself, I’m not sure, over and over: Be okay, be okay, please baby girl, be okay. I will admit I was not aware before you could cry over a boat. I thought I would if we ever lost her, or the day that we sold her, but it was just a thought. I had never done it myself. I had never been attached to a boat before we bonded with our Niagara 35. But, now I know. You can absolutely bawl over a boat.
Tears wet my lashes as I scream when I see her. Plaintiff’s Rest is afloat! She’s heeling and groaning, and fighting for her life with every gust but she is, from what we can tell, seemingly okay. “HOLD ON BABY GIRL!” rips painfully out of my throat, although the wind is so strong I don’t know if she hears me. I crush my wet face into Phillip’s shoulder as he makes it to me and we grip one another. We both stand stunned looking at her. Plaintiff’s Rest is one of only two boats on the Palafox side that remains tied to her original dock in its original location. How … why … I’m still confused. Happy. Overwhelmed. Sad. And confused. But, it was terrifying to watch her strain with every wave and slap of wind while a pile of boats and docks jumbled to the south of her roll and lunge at her. They could break free any second I know and demolish her. And, Phillip and I might be standing here to watch, powerless to help her from across the way. I can’t imagine then what would be worse: coming to find your boat sunk or watching, powerlessly, her demise.
But, I can’t think those things as I see her heel and buck in her slip. All I can do is pray those other boats hold until the damn wind finally dies and we can get to the other side to try to help her. Until then, Plaintiff’s Rest fights for her life, holding onto a dock that may fail. I know, even at the time, this is one of those moments I’m going to relive on my death bed. I just cannot believe it. How … why … But I clear those thoughts and channel to her again. Hold on baby girl. You’ve got this.Hold on just a little bit longer.
We later learned the heroic tale of La Nina and why it appeared to me to be in a parking lot, as it just about was. Unfortunately, winds over 110 mph and 10-15 foot swells broke up the docks she was tied to on the sea wall in Palafox Marina. The Nina was sucked out of the marina with the crew aboard, still attached a great length of broken dock. The crew deployed her anchor in the basin. Although it broke, it did slingshot the vessel past the treacherous rocks surrounding the condominiums (while several owners looked on from above, watching her brave journey) and sent her into the soft mud just behind the parking lot of the building we were facing when we noticed her from the parking garage. Captain Stephen aboard the vessel published this write-up about the events of Hurricane Sally and La Nina’s courageous journey and crew.
When the Tuesday 4 pm forecast hits, the heart of every boat owner in Pensacola thumps to a lurch. What had previously forecast as a minor hurricane poised to make landfall on the Louisiana-Mississippi border, 150 miles to the west of us, is no more. For whatever reason, the forecast is, unfortunately and unprecedentedly wrong. It is now clear we are going to experience Cat 1 conditions in Pensacola and that we are unfortunately positioned in the worst, most unforgiving, northeast quadrant of Sally’s path. Many boaters are calling each other, texting, asking if they should tie more lines, do more prep, try to move the boat, scream to the hurricane gods?
Four days prior, when Sally was predicted to be only a storm and to shoot on a straight path across the Gulf to the LA-MS border, Phillip and I had been forced to decide on that day, Friday September 11th, whether we wanted to haul for the storm. Our decision not to, as with many when it comes to predicting storms and preparing the boat, now sits on our chests like a lead vest. Over the weekend we had seen boats coming to our marina from Louisiana trying to get out of the storm’s expected path. Most owners had tied a few extra lines and removed some canvas anticipating we would see moderate winds, heavy rains, and a possible 2-3 foot storm surge that was not exceptionally worrisome with our floating docks. In slip E14 on the west side of the marina, our dock neighbor to the south, a sportfish, is, luckily, in Destin having maintenance done. Our dock neighbor to the north, a tall Sea Ray is buttoned up and removed his iso-glass. The next slip over sits Cattywampus, an impressive, rare Manta 42 catamaran, doted on by her new cruising owners and very good friends of ours, Stephen and Beth. They had taken down their dodger and headsail and tied what Stephen defined as “umpteen hunnerd lines.” Is that the right amount? they had asked us via text the day before, when the banter was light.
Now, Tuesday, 4:00 p.m., the mood is much more somber. We only have a few hours of daylight left before Sally is set to strike. Most sailboats can only travel around 5-7 mph, tops, in the best of conditions, and Sally is 250 miles wide, on a shifting path. Which way do you even go? East or west? In order to get far enough east to get out of Sally’s path, bridge heights force most sailboats out into the Gulf, were Sally is howling, chewing up the surf, and beating her mighty chest. She would eat any boat that tested her. The truth guts us. Sally is coming. And we are all tied to docks directly in her path.
Although it has been wrong up to this point, we cling desperately to whatever forecast that might get us through this sleepless night.
Data from the reconnaissance aircraft indicate that maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 85 mph (140 km/h) with higher gusts. Although little change in strength is forecast until landfall occurs, Sally is still expected to be a dangerous hurricane when it moves onshore along the north-central Gulf coast.
NOAA Advisory 7:00 p.m 9.15.20
85 mph was the worst we expected. That’s not what we got.
Wednesday, September 16th, 4:00 a.m.:
As Sally swirls around, winds now out of the south lash the wall of our house with such force I am afraid to stand in front of a window. I don’t know what 85 mph winds should feel like on the blunt face of a house, but these feel stronger. Tree limbs the size of small vehicles crash raucously to the ground. Transformers explode like bombs. The power goes on and off. Our worry for the boat is overtaken when wind-driven rain starts to push its way in. Phillip and I are, mercifully, distracted while pushing towels against leaking door and window seams, placing pots to catch drops. There wasn’t really time to think about the boat, which was over a mile to the south of us. Until we made the call.
After Stephen sends us a text update he received from a marina dock-hand—“Not good man. I believe the marina is gone.”—we call him. My throat tightens as I hear the tears in his voice. “We just got a call from the Coast Guard … our EPIRB on the boat went off.” Every sailor knows what that can only mean. The truth of knowing a device that was once was sitting high and dry on a top shelf in your salon is now underwater can only be described as crushing. Stephen told us they spent the night watching the updates and watching footage of massive waves crashing over the Wahoo’s Stadium sea wall, which is just a couple hundred yards from our marina. He then sends us a grainy photo he received of the marina. It’s Ivan all over again. A mighty hand has come down and swept and piled docks and boats like toys in a bathtub. Already sickened, an impossible fact then settles on us. Hurricane Ivan struck on the exact same day: September 16, 2004. So much carnage created in what felt like a second. The paralyzing thought strikes Phillip and I simultaneously: What about our boat?
I can honestly say I did not “fear the worst” in that moment. I couldn’t comprehend “the worst.” The reality of that having just happened, without us even there to try to stop it, to help her, to save her!, was a truth my mind simply would not entertain. Our baby girl? The boat we spent three filthy, itchy months on the hard repairing, the vessel that galloped us to Cuba, the Keys, the Bahamas! Our girl?! We have to know.
It’s time to talk about Hurricane Sally. And, I believe the best place to start that discussion, because that storm was such a shock to many lifelong sailors in Pensacola, is with the forecast. After Sally ripped through, so many people asked Phillip and I—along with I’m sure just about every other boat owner in Pensacola: Why didn’t you leave? Why didn’t you haul? Why did so many leave their canvas up? I even overheard a guest at a restaurant overlooking the wreckage of our once-beautiful Palafox Marina ask her friend: “Why didn’t they just go out in the Bay and ride it out there safely?”
‘Ride out’ 15-foot seas and 120+ mph winds pushing you to shore … and do it … safely? Psshh!
But, I understand people who do not own a boat or who do not sail or cruise, simply don’t understand a few unfortunate truths about marine weather forecasts and storm prep:
A forecast is just that, a prediction, an estimate. Nothing is truly certain until 24 hours out.
The decision to haul must be made 3-5 days in advance, when nothing is certain.
Moving the boat in the last 24 hours is dicey, dangerous, and no guarantee.
Why? Because hurricanes are generally a few hundred miles wide, traveling on unpredictable paths. Even if you think you should move the boat in the final hours, deciding which direction to go is incredibly difficult. And, most sailboats can only go 5-7 mph, at their top speed, which requires the winds and seas be favorable (conditions in a storm are rarely favorable). Sailors can’t get anywhere fast, much less travel the likely hundreds of miles it might take to get out of the cone of uncertainty, which is constantly shifting anyway. But, the cone and the NOAA forecasts are the best predictions we have to go on. In our opinion, even if you are in the cone of uncertainty, choosing to leave the dock to sail in a storm when you don’t have to (i.e., when the only goal is to save the boat) is just an unnecessary bodily risk.
While I’m on the topic, I’ll include a word about NOAA’s cone of uncertainty, a bit of which I learned myself in researching to write this piece. The cone (sample below) represents the probable track of the center of a tropical cyclone and is formed by enclosing the area swept out by a set of circles (NOAA has calculated over decades) along the forecast track (at 12, 24, 36 hours, etc.). The size of each circle which forms the cone is set so that two-thirds of historical official forecast errors over a five-year sample fall within the circle. The cone has been enlarged over the years to reduce the error rate. Thus, despite the name of the cone, its highly calculated and time-tested goal is to be as certain as possible. You can learn more about NOAA’s Cone of Uncertainty here.
Unfortunately, NOAA’s prediction for Hurricane Sally in the final days before the storm was the most inaccurate many of us sailors in Pensacola can remember. We were never encouraged to leave our marina, under even a voluntarily evacuation or a mandatory one, which is very telling. We had several boats in our marina who had travelled in the 3-4 days before the storm from Louisiana east to our marina in an effort to get out of Sally’s expected path. The bottom line is, Hurricane Sally just stunned us all. No one expected it to come to our shore, our marina, with such ferocity until it was simply too late. It wasn’t until within 12 hours of her vicious landfall that we realized where her sights were truly set and that we were about to be hammered by her most unforgiving northeast quadrant. What was an expected tropical storm brought us 120+ mph winds in our marina and 15-foot waves in the Bay crashing over the marina seawall. It was an attack the boats and docks in the marina simply could not withstand.
I write this to share with you all and let you see what Phillip and I, along with virtually every other boat owner in Pensacola (many now devastated by the loss of their beloved girls), saw as Sally approached. This was our weather timeline in the days before the storm:
Friday, September 11:
Sally is a tropical depression only, rolling over the southern tip of Florida. She is predicted to turn into a tropical storm in the Gulf and go straight toward the Mississippi-Louisiana border. If Phillip and I are going to haul Plaintiff’s Rest out for Storm Sally (which NOAA did not predict at any point to become a hurricane), this is the day it is offered under our hurricane haul-out plan. The option is: confirm we will haul tomorrow or stay in the water. As our most extreme measure for protecting the boat from a storm, hauling out is something Phillip and I are inclined to do only when there is a likely threat a hurricane will make landfall. As that was not the forecast at the time, we decided to stay put.
Saturday, September 12:
At this time, Storm Sally is predicted to become a Cat 1 hurricane and strike the LA-MS border, almost 200 miles to the west of us, on Tuesday evening. Pensacola is in the far east edge of the cone of uncertainty and is under a tropical storm watch (not warning) only. A Tropical Storm Watch is issued when sustained winds of 34 to 63 kt (39 to 73 mph) or higher associated with a tropical cyclone are not certain but possible in 36 hours or less. You can learn more about the National Weather Service’s storm warnings here.
Sunday, September 13:
Storm Sally is still on track for the LA-MS border as a Cat 1, showing a hook to the east after she makes landfall. At this point, Pensacola is entirely outside the cone of uncertainty. The city is under a tropical storm warning. In increasing from a Watch to a Warning, the National Weather Service changes the prediction from a possibility of tropical storm conditions to an expectation. Meaning, at this time, we are to expect winds of 34 to 63 kt (39 to 73 mph) or higher that may be accompanied by storm surge. Some boaters expect we might get winds of 40-50 knot winds in the marina, perhaps. Phillip and I spend the afternoon taking down the dodger and tying additional lines. We leave our bimini on as the marina typically shuts power down for a storm and we wanted to make sure the bilge pumps could perform in case the unexpected happened. Our head sail is already down. We secure the halyards and the main sail in her stack pack. We fasten chafe guards on our additional lines and help other friends in the marina prep their boats for an expected tropical storm. Although Palafox Marina is notorious for urging owners to leave the marina with just the slightest hint that a storm may come (they are very conservative in their weather predictions, with a strong desire to evacuate in the event of a possible storm to preserve the docks), we receive no encouragement to leave, not even a request for voluntary evacuation.
Monday, September 14:
Storm Sally is still on track for the LA-MS border, predicted to hit as a Cat 1 and then hook to the east and travel to the north of us heading northeast. Pensacola is just outside the cone of uncertainty and under a tropical storm warning only. No additional prep is undertaken as we are expecting only heavy rains and winds of potentially 30-50 knots in the marina, at most. Several feet of storm surge is expected but does not worry us as we are on floating docks.
The wind prediction for Monday shows a 50-60% chance of winds between 35-74 mph (tropical storm) in Pensacola.
Tuesday, September 15:
Sally slowed down considerably over Monday night and is now crawling at 2 mph, no longer moving on her predicted track toward LA but sitting in more of a stall pattern in the Gulf. The 4:00 p.m. NOAA forecast was the one made every boat owner’s stomach in Pensacola drop like a seventy-pound stone.
The rapidly-changing forecast has us all concerned that this storm may come with much more force than we had anticipated. Sally was now predicted to hit as a hurricane on the MS-AL border followed by a sharp turn to the east. For the first time since Sally’s development, Pensacola is put under a Hurricane Watch, which means hurricane force winds in excess of 74 mph are not simply possible but expected. Hurricane Sally was then 250 miles wide poised to strike anywhere from Gulfport, MS to Fort Walton Beach, FL, a span of 180 miles.
Everyone was worried. Many boaters were calling each other, texting, asking if they should tie more lines, do more prep, try to move the boat, bury their heads, pray, puke, cry?! Pensacola only had a few hours of daylight left with no place any sailboat owner could safely move their boat to in that timeframe. In addition, many of us have to travel in the Gulf to go east (because of bridge heights), which wasn’t even an option with Sally out there churning. With fifteen-foot tall waves that came to our marina early the next morning, we can only imagine what ferocious conditions would have awaited any sailor in the Gulf at that time. Winds in excess of 80 mph? Waves twenty-five feet tall? Whatever the condition, it was not a situation many of us could or would put ourselves in in order to move our boats east. The marina did not issue an evacuation order Tuesday evening as it was simply too late. When the Tuesday 7 pm advisory was issued, it was clear: Hurricane Sally was coming, and we were all tied in our slips and locked in her path.
2020 … what can we say? So many weird, scary, painful, odd things have happened to us this year, it’s hard to believe. I had planned to finish up this Queens Bath saga weeks ago and then … Sally stalled, turned, strengthened and before we could respond or believe it, an unexpected, vicious Cat 2 hurricane ripped through Pensacola destroying our marina. So many friends lost their beautiful boats that day. We went from worrying about a tropical storm to trying to identify boats from their hulls or masts sticking out of the water. It’s been heartbreaking here for the boating community. But, somehow, inexplicably (although I will share many posts here trying to explain it), s/v Plaintiff’sRest miraculously survived. This is how we found her as soon as Phillip and I could hike our way to the marina Wednesday morning, September 16, 2020.
She is one of only two boats who remained in their same spot with their docks intact. The remainder of the docks on Palafox broke up entirely and beat and bashed their way to the north end of the marina.
I have shared more photos here on Facebook so you can see how we fared. We have rudder damage and some serious bangs and gouges, for sure, but our baby girl is floating, she’s hauled out, and repairs have begun. That’s more than we can say for many in our area who are, right now, making the immensely painful decision of whether to repair or retire their beautiful vessel. But, we have all pulled together and we do feel incredibly lucky. Plaintiff’s Rest will sail again!
Now, since we’ve overcome that horrendous event, let’s share another. What else could 2020 possibly bring but the funkiest injury I’ve ever endured. Buckle up folks, it’s time to get … funky. This leg wound of mine took some interesting turns while mending up. Warning: If you don’t want to see open scabs and big weird wounds, feel free to read a text-only version here. But, for those of you who LOVE to see weird things (like me!) read on and know that now, a good eight months after this injury, I am fully healed, fully functional, with a leg not near as freaky as it once was, and with just a somewhat-noticeable scar to prove I survived this whole ordeal. I’ll also share our experience seeking medical care in the Bahamas—not anything Phillip or I had done before—and how that compared to medical care in the States.
December 1, 2019:
I’m sitting on a rock by the Blue Sapphire Hole which is beckoning me to jump in, but I can’t. I’ve got a heart rate that is through the roof, beads of sweat popped out on my forehead (although I feel cold), and a rock hard thigh the size of a watermelon I’m not even sure I could or should swim or climb with.
When Phillip finally saw (or I should say I finally revealed to Phillip) the size of my leg after I was rolled on the rocks by a rogue wave at Queen’s Bath, he shut our whole excursion in Eleuthera down. Phillip stopped at a small grocery store to get ice for my leg. They didn’t have any ice for sale at the time, so he improvised and grabbed a couple bags of frozen corn which I plopped on my melon-thigh as he drove us back to the ferry that would take us back to our boat in Spanish Wells. After an awkward hokey-pokey (right leg in, right leg out) attempt at a shower, Phillip sat me down in the saloon to assess and doctor my wounds and take the first round of photographs in case we needed to send them to a doctor for advice/treatment. This was my status the afternoon of the event:
While I had a series of scratches on each chin, my hips, and ankles, it was clear my face and right thigh wounds were the worst. While my thigh was painful, a dull, deep ache, it wasn’t in any way unbearable. It hurt a bit to walk, and I think running would have made me yelp, but I was grateful my leg was mostly functional. I believed at the time time that I had not broken any bones and I was incredibly pleased with that. As it was after 5:00 p.m. by the time we got me cleaned up and worked over and I was, by all accounts, injured but totally fine, we lubed my wounds and wrapped my leg with an ACE bandage and decided to call the clinic there in Spanish Wells as soon as possible the following morning.
I spoke with a “Nurse Gibson” who was super friendly and attentive. This was our first encounter, however, with the Bahamian perception of the Queen’s Bath versus how unknowing tourists see it. While we thought we were visiting an idyllic site where “natural pools are filled with crystal clear water, warmed by the sun, and perfect for soaking,” when I told Nurse Gibson I was injured at Queen’s Bath, she immediately piped up with an “Ahhh … you are lucky. Many people go and do not come back from dere.” I didn’t even have to explain what happened, she already knew a wave had rolled me.
I told her I had a rather large lump (swelling I thought it might be?) that had formed at the greatest point of impact as well as multiple cuts and lacerations elsewhere but our primary concern was my leg. Nurse Gibson asked about signs of infection, of which I had none, and she confirmed I did not have any deep or open wounds that were actively bleeding. After that she told me what had formed on my leg was a hematoma that would simply have to be absorbed by the body over time (like a bruise). It is not something they typically drain. It started to sound like there was nothing Nurse Gibson could do for me, which got me a little nervous. While I don’t, in any way, love going to the doctor (I’m quite stubborn about it), I do love the peace of mind you get when you’re worried and unsure about some troubling symptoms or unknown condition and a doctor looks you over and says “No, you’re fine, it’s just X. Not a big deal.” I didn’t want a simple phone call to be the end of it.
“Maybe I could just pop in to be sure, or send you a photo of it, perhaps. Would that be okay?” I asked Nurse Gibson.
“Sure, send me a picture,” she replied, which I did to the cell number she gave me while she put me on hold. Phillip and I sat, staring at my phone on speaker on the saloon table, wondering if what was going on inside my leg was “not a big deal,” or something that might need draining or surgery, or who knows what.
Tick. Tock. It felt like an hour. It was probably a minute and a half. Nurse Gibson came back on and said:
“Dat a bit big dere.”
It is a quote Phillip and I have used many times since to describe both my leg and anything “a bit big dere.” After viewing the photos, Nurse Gibson said she wanted me to come to the clinic so she could have a look. Phillip and I immediately packed our party up and shuffled over to the clinic a few blocks away. I could walk on it just fine. It wasn’t 100% comfortable, mind you, but it was doable. This “Public Clinic” is the clinic we went to.
If Nurse Gibson was surprised when she saw my wound in person, she hid it well. She pushed around a few spots and did say it was the largest hematoma she had ever seen. But, she was pleased that it did not have any heat or other signs of infection. She wanted me to get an x-ray to make sure I had not broken my leg and to make sure the hematoma wasn’t putting unwanted pressure on something or was not likely to cause any other problems. Nurse Gibson advised with the risk of infection from re-opening the wound to drain it, it would be better to allow my body to simply re-absorb the blood over time. I saw her on Monday, December 2, 2019 and she scheduled me for an x-ray appointment on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at a facility across the road from her clinic.
It was about that time Phillip and I started talking about leaving the boat for a bit and flying home to Pensacola, FL. While we’d had a friend (shout-out again to BaBaLu!) who had ordered us up a new fresh water pump for our Westerbeke 27A immediately after ours failed during our attempt to sail to the BVIs, it seemed the shipping was going to take several weeks to get curried through Nassau and out to Spanish Wells. And even that was no guarantee. With our boat busted, and Captain Annie banged up, hobbling, and in need of x-rays, many signs were pointing us toward home to take some time to heal, work, and make a new decision for hurricane season 2020. (And, with hindsight we thankfully now know flying home was the absolute right call as our pump shipment saga is an entertaining story in and of itself. It took us months to get that pump … just you wait!). Phillip called Delta the next day, Tuesday, December 3, 2019 and booked our flights home that Saturday, December 7, 2019.
Although I went to the x-ray facility in Spanish Wells on Wednesday at the time Nurse Gibson advised, there was a note on the door that said “Closed this week.” This is not at all surprising for the Bahamas. They operate on “island-time.” The thought that a business might be open this week and closed the next (for no apparent reason) is a completely normal occurrence there. There was nothing I could do about it. And, at that time, we did not suspect any broken bones, nor was my hematoma causing me any issues. While my leg was certainly starting to bruise up nicely, that didn’t bother me. My main issue then (and this would continue for weeks) was keeping my leg wrapped in a way that didn’t pull the scab off of my wound every time I removed the dressing or that wasn’t too wet/moist to allow a scab to form. This white pussy patch was a problem area for a while. I can’t tell you how many times I re-opened it. Yuck.
Phillip and I just decided I would go get x-rays as soon as we got home to Pensacola. Other than my thigh wound, I seemed to be healing alright and I was roughly 75% functional. (I wasn’t going to be doing any swimming any time soon with my open wound or any rigorous physical activity that would bounce my hematoma painfully around, but that was tolerable.) But, it was during those last days in Spanish Wells that I entered my strange “Avatar phase.”
The impact site on my forehead puffed up and the bridge of my nose flared out. It sure hurt to sneeze or blow my nose during that time, but I still thought it was just a reaction to the impact (not a fracture). But, over the course of the next few days whatever fluid had accumulated in my forehead started to drain out into my eyes causing weird puffiness and bruising around my eyes, almost like someone had punched me in the nose and given me two black eyes. I guess someone did. The Queen!
I swear I looked just like an Avatar.
My close friends and family, whom I had told about my injuries (it wasn’t many), got a real kick out of seeing these photos. And, I was glad we could all laugh about it because thankfully I was still HERE, walking my Avatar-self around Spanish Wells, and not washed up ashore somewhere on the Atlantic coast. While Nurse Gibson only gave us a glimpse of the Bahamians’ opinion of the Queen’s Bath, the many, many locals I encountered during our last days there, who often asked what had happened to me, gave us the low-down, dirty truth about the Queen’s Bath.
“Ahhh … what ‘appened to you?” they would ask.
“I got rolled by a wave at Queen’s Bath,” I would tell them. These are just a few of the verbatim responses we got:
“Ooohh many have died there. One guy wanted to propose there and he was taken by a wave right before he proposed. His body was never found.”
“Uhhh … a 19-year old was killed there not many years back. His body washed up a’few days later.”
“One guy from the States and his brother went there in a rage. The brother’s body was never found.”
“I am too scared to drive over the Glass Window. My friend’s father was swept away there. His body found several days later. The clothes ripped completely off.”
I can’t tell you how many independent stories we heard about death at Queen’s Bath and virtually every local told us “you should not go in a rage.” It was anything but a rage when we went, low tide on a calm day, yet it was still dangerous. I’m telling you, I cannot stress this enough:
BE CAREFUL AT THE GLASS WINDOW AND QUEEN’S BATH!!
Okay, rant over. Back to the funky pics! When I got back to the States, I booked an appointment with my primary care physician immediately and scheduled an x-ray. This is what my leg looked like the day I went to the doc’s. I call this my “morgue photo.” It literally looked like the leg of a dead person!!
The physician’s assistant (“PA”) who saw me said she had never seen a hematoma as large as mine so she called the doctor while she was in the room with me to ask whether it needed draining or other care. Like Nurse Gibson, my doctor at Baptist Health Care advised the best course of action was to allow my body to reabsorb the blood that had pooled. I was given instructions for frequent icing and elevating, then it was off for my x-rays. I found a long flowy dress (down to my ankles) was the best thing for me to wear during those weeks so no one could see my fatly-wrapped thigh, but when I would pull the dress back to show the medical personnel my wound, many dropped their jaws, as I would have too if I wasn’t so used to seeing my Zombie leg every day. I was surprised, however, to learn after the x-ray that I had suffered a hairline fracture to my forehead and nose. That definitely explained my body’s Avatar response!
Over the course of the next few weeks/months, my leg slowly began to heal. The bruising trickled away in weird purple rivulets and the mound that was my hematoma started to re-absorb centimeter by centimeter.
A little worried about the slow process, I went to see my doc at Baptist again after about a month. This time it was not the PA but my actual doctor who got to see me and his eyes literally bulged when he saw my leg for the first time. But, he did not hesitate in telling me news I probably already could have guessed, but still did not want to hear.
“It will probably take six months or more for that to re-absorb.”
Six months? I thought. He told me that on February 11, 2020 which meant I was going to have to live with my “lady lump” (another name Phillip and I came up with for her) until July at least! But, what could I do about it? Nothing was the answer. Keep icing and resting and carry on.
I often sent friends progress photos of my leg during this time and I had one write back and literally say “Please stop sending these. Your leg is horrifying!” I kept sending them anyway … : ) That’s the price you pay for being my friend! And, my followers! This was my progress April through July:
One of my close friends (whom I texted the pic above to) said: “Looks like abstract art.”
I am thrilled to share this is what my leg looks like now:
The tanner I get during the summer, the harder it is to even notice the scrape scars on the my thigh. There is a slight blue/purple around the ring of my hematoma and it is still hard and numb in the center, but it is no longer a bulbous lump protruding off of my leg, thank goodness! And, my little lump actually sits right on my vastus medialis muscle, so the slight protrusion kind of looks like I’ve bulked that muscle up a bit. I got lucky in that regard.
Here is a pic of me just a few weeks ago at the beach, and from afar, you can’t even see any scarring or lump on my right leg.
As for my face, those scratches did start to heal up nicely even before we left the Bahamas and the Avatar drainage quickly subsided.
However, I definitely have three new, visible scars on my forehead. You can really see them when I’m tan and flushed (from a workout or something).
They were pinkish-red in the beginning and I had to cover them with makeup but that worked well enough.
Over time they turned more white and are hardly visible when I’m more white too, in the winter.
Overall I have very little to complain about or bemoan considering the severity of what I now know happened in those harrowing seconds as I rolled over the rocks and how well my tough little body handled it. I think she deserves a whopping high five. On a final note, this was an interesting takeaway from our experiences seeking medical care in both the Bahamas (which, I mentioned, we had never yet done) compared to in the States.
Comparison of the Available Care in the Bahamas Versus the States
We learned when talking to many people after my injury that had I suffered a severely-broken bone or some other serious injury that needed immediate emergency treatment, Phillip and I would have found ourselves in a very bad place. It would have cost somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 to get a helicopter to fly out to Eleuthera or Spanish Wells to fly me to an ER in Nassau if I had needed it. The gal that worked the desk at Yacht Haven Marina told us when her little brother broke his leg jumping off the infamous bridge connecting Spanish Wells to Russell Island and they learned it was going to cost $15,000 to fly him to Nassau on an emergency medic chopper, the family buzzed him across instead on a neighbor’s power boat. “That ride was not com-turble for lil’ Davin, I’ll tell you dat,” she said. I couldn’t imagine bouncing around on a power boat with a cracked tibia. Uggh. So, the availability and cost of emergency care in the Bahamas is hard to come by. I’m incredibly lucky I didn’t need anything of the sort.
However, the difference in the time it took to get care and the cost was astonishing. Phillip and I sat in Nurse Gibson’s clinic for ten minutes, maybe, before she brought me back for an immediate, personal inspection and the visit cost me a total of $35. Back in the States, however, I sat about forty-five minutes after my scheduled appointment time before I was called back to the examination room where I sat another fifteen before the PA came into see me. That visit was over $100 with my co-pay costing me $25. I then spent a good two hours being shuffled from desk to desk in the hospital before I was sent up to the third floor for my x-ray, where I sat another forty-or-so minutes before they called me back. The x-rays I was going to get in the Bahamas I was told would cost $160. The cost of the very same x-rays the States? $380. I wonder why that is.
Warning: there are some graphic footage and photos in this blog. If you get queasy easily, feel free to read a text-only version of this occurrence here.
Part Two: As I mentioned in my last blog, what occurred that day in Eleuthera was one of the main reasons Phillip and I ended our cruising season in 2019 early. While that decision proved wildly advantageous in the following months—particularly when the unpredictable COVID pandemic began to spread—we did not know it at the time. All we knew then was: Captain Annie was not in great shape to set off on an offshore passage anytime soon. I was in need of x-rays, wound care, antibiotics, and months of icing and elevating. What we know now is: I’m incredibly lucky to still be here, albeit with a new wicked scar that, along with the others, form the chorus that is my story. Here’s what happened.
December 1, 2019
Phillip and I had just returned from our failed attempt to sail from Spanish Wells, Bahamas on (what was supposed to be) our longest offshore passage yet on the I65 route down to the BVIs. After we were towed back in, we met another couple, Mike and Melody, who had just sailed into Spanish Wells after a pretty rough Gulf Stream crossing, and had set up a fun joint date to ferry over to Eleuthera on a calm day and explore several attractions Phillip had found in the guide books: 1) the Glass Window; 2) the Queen’s Bath; 3) the Preacher’s Cave; and 4) the Sapphire Blue Hole.
The Glass Window did not in any way disappoint. It’s amazing to think one tiny little cleft in the rocks traversed by a small bridge is all that stands between the mighty deep blue Atlantic and the shallow, emerald-green Caribbean Sea.
Mike, Melody, Phillip, and I had become practically giddy when a big wave came toppling over the rocks soaking us up to our hips on the road. In our euphoric state, we made our way to our next stop, the Queen’s Bath. The Bath had been promoted as a tranquil spot high up on the cliff where you can wade in the pools of water that form in the quarry and are warmed by the sun. Hence the name: the Queen’s Bath. Unfortunately, the pools were not as warm as we had expected (a little chilly to be honest), but the view out into the Atlantic was stunning. Mike and Melody picked their way down a little closer to the water while Phillip and I were taking pictures further up.
Mike hollered at us from a pool with a fantastic view so Phillip and I ventured over. We sat there for a bit watching the water in the ocean ebb and flow, hoping to see a good splash. We were probably a good 20 feet up and away from the water below. Mind you, this was a PERFECTLY CALM DAY. Very little wind and waves.
As we watched the Atlantic breathe a swell, a wave crashed against the rocks and sprayed up soaking us all. Immediately after it subsided we all looked quickly to one another. At first I didn’t see Phillip which scared me, but he soon popped up, saying he had jumped down to hold on tight as the wave came through. Looking back, I cannot tell you precisely why none of us, not a one, had a worry or fear at that moment. No hairs were rising on the back of our necks. No red flags were waving. Nothing told us, at that point: Beware. And, this rings true for Phillip who is a very cognizant and cautious person, considering his military background, as well as Mike, who has considerable military experience as well, including that as a field medic. It just did not seem dangerous. That’s all I can say. And, it was only a brief 5-10 seconds after that first considerably minor wave came through that the ocean took a deep breath and sent a massive rogue wave through that changed everything. While I was the closest to the water, I wasn’t but about 2-3 feet from Mike and Melody who were sitting and standing on the other side of the same pool. I was holding on, incredibly tightly, when the water rose up and began to rush past us. At first it was thrilling. Such an intoxicating, exciting feeling.
Then it took me.
It was just far too powerful.
I felt an immediate plunge of guilt as I felt my hands rip off the rocks and my body struck in several places. I can’t tell you where I felt an impact (other than all over) until, after a few tumbles, my head finally struck. That one I remember. I heard a little crack at the moment and thought it was my neck popping. I would find out later it was something else. But, when my face struck, for whatever reason, instinct told me to grab that rock and never let go. I reached out and got a firm grip just as the massive amount of water that had moments ago submerged us now began to rush out. Imagine holding onto the edge of an Olympic size swimming pool at the top of a hotel and the bottom of the pool drops out. Hundreds of gallons rushed past me with astonishing suction.
I held on.
When the water receded and we all scrambled to make eye contact, I will never forget Mike’s expression. He was the first to see my injuries. His eyes immediately bulged. The whites around his pupils are burned into my memory. His jaw went slack and he stumbled at first trying to lunge toward me, his hand outstretched, to examine my wounds. It must have looked bad, but thankfully when he stroked a wet hand over my forehead, it revealed only surface wounds there and he breathed a sigh of relief, as did I because I was able to move everything just fine. Phillip looked mortified. And angry. I was definitely angry. Mad at myself for letting the water take me, for letting myself get injured, for (as stupid as this sounds) potentially ruining what was supposed to be a great day for everyone.
I immediately downplayed any need for treatment. “It’s just scratches,” I told them. “I’m fine,” I chuckled with a smile. And, in that moment, I did feel fine. I’m sure it was the enormous amounts of adrenaline pumping through me, the coursing of which had mercifully guided my hands to the rock I gripped with all I had that both pummeled and saved me. I’m sure it was the adrenaline and shock, as well, that had made it not hurt that bad. Especially considering what I found out later had occurred in those tumultuous ten seconds.
I suffered hairline fractures to my forehead and nose, deep, scar-rending scratches all over my body and face, and an impact to my right thigh that caused a hematoma I believe I will live with in some form for the rest of my life. I cannot believe I didn’t break my femur with that hit.
Even though the pictures you will soon see on this blog and the next are alarming, know that I am lucky. Extremely lucky. With the wisdom and insight of hindsight, I know now it could have been far, far worse. There could have easily been NO wounds to see, no body to find at all. While the four of us had no idea at the time, we have since learned the Glass Window and Queen’s Bath in Eleuthera are actually notorious for sweeping people across the rocks, breaking bones, gnashing skin, even snatching people entirely in their grasp, never to be seen again. Here are some videos (don’t watch if you’re squeamish).
Article about a 19-year old who was swept off the bridge and never found … sad.
Here is a video by another travel vlogger (go to 5:48) showing them in a calm pool at the Queen’s Bath when a VERY small wave comes over their shoulders, but there is a good shot right after the wave of the flesh-eating rocks that I was raked across. Yeesh.
The Wynns even did a video featuring the Glass Window and Queen’s Bath and they mention (while standing on the ledge) wishing it were “a raging sea, a storm,” so they could really capture the intensity of it (go to 9:02). I’m telling you, you just can’t fathom how fast and powerful the water can become once a swelling wave slams into the rocky cliff. It can shoot up 100 feet in an instant, as if gravity does not exist.
I’m sharing all of these so those of you out there who are planning some day to visit these very visit-worthy, stunning places, please PLEASE give the incredible power of the ocean its due. Stay back from the ledge. Do not go if the seas are rough. Go see them. Absolutely. Just, go with caution.
Okay, enough of that. Suffice it to say, we went on a CALM day, and we never expected the wave we got, its immense power, or our unfortunate exposure to such danger. So, rewind back to post-Annie rock-roll. Like I said, I did not believe I was hurt that bad. No broken bones (that I knew of at the time), no persistent, dangerous bleeds. Just scratches … or so I thought. I convinced everyone I was fine and that we should just carry on with our day. “Take a pic,” I said. And they did. And, I’m smiling.
While you can definitely see the abrasions on my forehead, some on my chins and thighs as well, “Everything is fine,” I told them. Nothing to see (or treat) here. (I do hope you are realizing what a dumb move that was, but I’ve been known to make a few of those in my past.)
We carried on, ambling around a nearby beach to pick up shells. I tied a sarong around my waist to cover my injuries as we headed to a little eatery for lunch. I even took a selfie in the car making a funny face at the camera, seriously thinking it was just going to be some minor wounds to deal with.
I cleaned up my face and other scrapes a bit in the bathroom at the restaurant and pulled my hat down low to hide my marred forehead (something I would do every day for the coming weeks). But, as we sat at the table and ate, weird things started happening to my body. I could feel under the table as my right thigh (which had hit the hardest) started to swell and firm up considerably. I didn’t mention anything at lunch (because I’m brilliant remember, and stubborn … a quality Phillip has had to battle before). But, as we made our way to the next stop, the Preacher’s Cave, my heart began to race as we walked up the path. I got hot all over and sweaty. I honestly thought I was about to pass out. I sat down and finally showed Phillip my leg. It was the size of a watermelon.
That’s when we all changed course. Nothing was fine. There was definitely something to see here. And treat. I had a leg the size of a blimp and pain that was finally starting to seep in where all of my joints had hit. My head began to throb. It was time to take action and seek treatment, which was an experience in and of itself. Stay tuned next time for the final chapter of this saga. The evolution of my leg wound will bewilder you.
Followers, I have quite the graphic tale to tell you. It’s something I debated even sharing here because … well … you’ll see. I won’t give it away. But, over and above our failed attempt to sail to the BVIs back in November and our out-of-commission engine, this was one of the primary reasons we actually ended our cruise last winter and flew home early. And, after some long talks with Phillip and friends about it, I’ve decided the story could serve as a valuable warning to others and perhaps just a little proof that miracles might happen more often than we realize. This is a spellbinding trilogy. Strap in.
Thanksgiving Day, 2019:
The very same day that Phillip and I were towed back to our slip at the Yacht Haven Marina in Spanish Wells (and thankfully, despite an almost pre-mature toss, they did eventually tow us all the way, safely into our slip), Phillip and I both spotted a strange sight on the dock. A boat freshly-docked began to cough up what appeared to be every soft good on the boat. The finger pier and dock around the boat were covered with pillows, cushions, blankets, rugs, even their vberth mattress. I believe the time Phillip and I spent out in the Atlantic frustratingly becalmed had sort of erased from our memories the thought of being tossed around in too much wind and waves. Where do you find that? our bewildered minds asked. Not out in the Atlantic right now, that’s for sure. That thing is glass! Thankfully, Phillip doesn’t have as much blonde as I do ; ) so he “came to” sooner and correctly guessed that the nice new couple on the dock, with the soaking soft goods splayed out, had likely bashed across the Gulf Stream in some gnarly conditions and took on water below. Phillip is annoyingly good at guessing things like that …
I ended up meeting the Captain of that ship later on my way back from the shower (ahhhh … that glorious first post-offshore shower!). Meet Mike!
They cruise on this stunning Tartan, s/v Moorglade:
Turns out Phillip had been right! While he and I had ironically been bobbing around in zero wind on the Atlantic side, trying to dodge massive monsters with minuscule puffs of wind, Mike and Melody had been getting their teeth kicked in with an unexpected wind shift and build in the Gulf Stream that had caused one of their shrouds to pull through the deck, allowing buckets of water to slosh in. Mike and Melody suffered a constant leak, huge waves, failing instruments, an almost-broken finger, and all-told, quite a tale of their own to share from that voyage! (Perhaps I’ll ask Mike for a guest blog following this saga … let me know in a comment below if you’d like that!) But, the very funny (ironic, really) thing about meeting Mike right there, at that moment, on that tiny little island in the Bahamas, was that he knew we had met before. I didn’t, but you’ll soon understand why. Quick side story … (trust me, this is hilariously worth it!).
Turns out, just a short six weeks prior, Phillip, Mike, Melody, and I had all once again been in the very same tiny spot in the world: the Annapolis Boat Show! As a HaveWind follower, Mike knew me and had spotted me one day at the show. Mike and I chatted for a minute, even shared a hug, and I didn’t remember the guy at all. I know, sounds terrible right?! But, I have a complete, bullet-proof, untouchable affirmative defense. Mike was the guy who recognized me RIGHT in front of Brian Trautman from s/v Delos. That was my #1 moment from my Annapolis Top Tens list (I’m not kidding – go check it for proof, scroll down and read No. 1), and Mike was the guy who’d got all star-struck about me in front of Brriiiiaaannn which absolutely made my day (year, life!) I gave Brian this “Uuhhh, recognized again? Happens all the time right?” look as I hugged Mike. I mean … who could remember Mike in that moment? (I know Mike well enough – and we’ve had enough laughs over this – to know that he’ll take no offense and get a monstrous laugh out of reliving this yet again). I simply called him “fan dude” in my Annapolis re-cap. Well, here was fan dude, standing right in front of me in Spanish Wells. Who would have thought … Once Mike and I made that revelation and also discovered that the four of us had now ironically and inadvertently ended up in the same spot again—among all the millions of spots to land in the world—we knew we had to get together for drinks and share some tall sea tales. Those two love to share drinks and tales.
We confirmed our double date. Happy hour at Wreckers (the awesome bar and restaurant there at Yacht Haven Marina in Spanish Wells) for drinks followed by dinner.
It was an awesome night. The four of us clicked incredibly well (although, admittedly, it’s rare for cruisers to not click), but Mike and Melody had the same confident and calculated (Phillip and Mike) meets comical and courageous (Melody and I) combo that can really pull a couple through even the most trying times. I’m telling you, while wisdom and experience are great on a rough passage, a sense of humor and spirited spunk go a very long way, too. The four of us had a fantastic time regaling our vastly-different experiences offshore—Mike and Melody’s being a howling, churning, beat-down, and mine and Phillip’s being an infuriating, mind-numbing, melt-down—and learning, as we always do when meeting other cruisers, how each of us got into sailing. Phillip and I had such a great time with Mike and Melody at dinner that night, we decided to rendezvous again the following day for a full-day adventure over to Eleuthera!
Phillip, my forever-awesome travel buddy, had previously planned a full day ferrying over from Spanish Wells to Eleuthera, and had lined up four attractions for he and I to visit: 1) the Glass Window; 2) the Queen’s Bath; 3) the Preacher’s Cave; and 4) the Sapphire Blue Hole. As the weather was calm and sunny that day (not enough wind to kite-surf and, remember, our boat was, at the time, kaput), Phillip and I had planned to rent a car and spend the day checking out these awesome sights, so it made sense to split the car cost with this awesome new couple and enjoy spending the day getting to know them better and enjoying all that Eleuthera had to offer. Besides, Mike and Melody’s boat needed a full day—at least!—to dry out, so Mike and Melody were thrilled to accept our offer.
The next day, the four of us rendezvoused in the morning near the ferry point and shoved off around 8:00 a.m. from Spanish Wells over to Eleuthera. Our rental car turned out to be quite the attractive little green lime, which was quite fitting because we certainly had to squeeze in!
Our first stop was the Glass Window. Have any of you ever heard of or been to this attraction? It’s astounding. Between the vast, deep Atlantic on one side and the jewel-toned shallow basin of the Caribbean on the other.
In between these two vast bodies of water stands one tiny hole, a cleft in the rocky shores connected by a single bridge. This “hole” is known as the Glass Window, and it is quite breathtaking.
Phillip parked our little green clown car a good ways back from the bridge so we could hike up the Atlantic side and explore.
It was a really cool feeling to see the grand Atlantic on one side, then turn around and see a far stretch of shallow turquoise water on the other. What a dichotomy! We peered over the edge, snapped some fun photos, watched a few pretty white waves crash on the rocks, then headed back to the car to make our way to the next attraction.
As we were standing on the bridge, however, looking out on the Caribbean Sea. A pretty big wave crashed up and spilled over the rocky cliff on the Atlantic side, rising up over the cliff we had just scaled and crashing down onto the road. The water came instantly up to our hips as it gushed by Mike and I standing on the bridge. Melody and Phillip were closer to the car and didn’t get quite the gush Mike and I did, but the water was still spewing up around our little green car’s tires. I whipped out my phone to capture a quick, post-wave video and you can still see plenty of water pouring over the rocks a good 8-10 seconds after the wave.
You can see from our reaction in the video how thrilling it was. Such a simple thing. A gush of water. But, it was … intoxicating. We all laughed and joked about what would have happened had we parked the car closer! It might have taken our little lime straight out into the Caribbean sea! While we were still giddy and giggling about the wave, we all snapped our heads at the sound of a loud SPPEEWWWHHH that bellowed over our shoulders! It was a blowhole! Just a hundred feet up ahead. The four of us walked over and each got a chance to feel that tingling rush from the power of the water.
We were having such a cool day! With several sights still left in store. The crew packed into our green caddy and got back on the road to our next destination.