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.
So, this was fun. I was recently featured in a local magazine here in Pensacola, Bella Magazine, in their July, 2020 “Water Issue.” The goal of this issue was to share how time on the water helps many of us unwind, reflect, find solace, and get re-charged. That is definitely true for me. Water is my therapy. (Well, that and wine!) It was really fun, though, and humbling to be featured in this issue. I have to say I was quite elegant, talking about our hack-the-dinghy-off passage: “It was one of those really rough passages, where you get your teeth kicked in. I loved it!” Still true. Many thanks again to Bella for promoting women on the water and featuring HaveWind. It was an honor! I also honestly think the prettiest thing in that picture is the shiny stainless! Way to sparkle Plaintiff’s Rest!
I have to say, calamities—like the one our attempted voyage to the BVIs turned out to be—can sure give you a sense of humor. I am 100% convinced that one of the best qualities you can hope for in an offshore crew member is a sense of humor. No one should set off on an offshore voyage without one. (The sense of humor, that is. Single-handed voyagers have proven you can cross oceans without additional crew; but without a sense of humor, I think not!) I say that because what happened to me and Phillip—after being becalmed in the Atlantic for three days, then getting towed back into Spanish Wells in the Bahamas—can really only be called one thing. Funny.
When we first learned our fresh water pump on our Westerbeke had gone out, we had one cruising friend who really stepped up to help us in getting back safely. BaBaLu, if you’re out there reading, this one goes to you! Captain BaBaLu on the exquisite s/v Partager has been featured via a boat tour and given a shout-out before here at HaveWind as he’s a fellow sailor who, when he says “if you need a hand, let me know,” he means it. BaBaLu always likes to follow us on the Delorme when we travel offshore and send us weather data (as well as find out what fish we caught, what we’re cooking for dinner that night, and how many stars were out, so he can enjoy vicariously). And, when we told him what had happened with our pump, BaBaLu immediately began to shop online to help us find a replacement pump. He even contacted Yacht Haven Marina in Spanish Wells and lined up a tow ready to bring us back in safely to the dock when we returned to Spanish Wells. We couldn’t have been in more capable fellow-cruiser hands.
While our bobbing and flogging back to the Bahamas was frustrating (we fought over sleep, suffered a mutiny, and tangoed with a 820-foot carrier ship, catch up here if you missed those bewildering, becalmed moments), I can’t say the scenery wasn’t enjoyable. That passage, albeit an annoying one, was still beautiful.
But, pretty views and sunsets aside, there was nothing Phillip and I wanted more than to be docked safely and have that wreck-of-a-passage over. We were so grateful when we were finally able to hale the Yacht Haven Marina over the VHF to coordinate the tow BaBaLu had scheduled for us. Ironically, it was Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2019, and I can tell you there was nothing Phillip and I were more thankful for than the sight of shore. But, that was part of the problem. There it was. Shore. Imminently close, with us engine-less and unable to stop our slow, steady drift toward it if the winds didn’t pick up. The most wind we had seen since we’d turned around in the Atlantic was that heavenly little six-knot puff that allowed me to inch across the bow of the monster ship the night before. It was blowing 4-5 knots that morning as we made our way around the north side of Eleuthera. And, for those of you not familiar with that area, I can show you exactly what awaits you on the north shore of Eleuthera.
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE
A reef-ridden channel is not something you want to SAIL into, particularly in light winds. We definitely wanted a tow! The gal at the Marina advised over the radio that the tow boat would come out and tow us in through Ridley Head Channel. Ridley Head Channel? Phillip and I both wondered. It was not an inlet we were familiar with. I grabbed the Explorer Charts to find it and gulped audibly when I saw it.
It was not an entry we have ever made by sailboat, nor have we seen it advised in the Explorer Charts. When we left Spanish Wells headed toward the BVIs, we had navigated a portion of the Devil’s Backbone, where we then exited safely where the reef parts briefly at Bridge Point.
That was my day to play Captain, I recall, and it was a bit scary motoring through the reef, following as close as I could to a track we had dropped when we had a pilot boat take us through the backbone the last time. Seeing these next to your boat is never a comforting sight.
While the thought of entering this time through an inlet in the reef we had never navigated—which looked a bit tight, particularly right at Ridley Head—was a bit scary, having spent a good bit of time in Spanish Wells on multiple occasions up to this point, and having hired local captains on two occasions to navigate us through the Backbone over to Harbour Island, Phillip and I were confident in the knowledge and capabilities of the local captains. Many of them have been navigating the waters of Spanish Wells for decades, generations even, and it seems most of them could make their way through the Backbone blindfolded. So, we felt comfortable allowing an experienced, local captain bring us through the narrow Ridley Head opening. But, when we arrived where we thought was a safe spot to catch the two we, at first, couldn’t find our boat.
The Marina had told us the boat would be coming out to get us around 8:30 a.m., but we saw no sight of a tow boat at that time. Phillip and I sailed back and forth, back and forth, inching closer to shore, biting our nails, drumming our fingers, but no boat came. 9:00 a.m. passed. No boat. We started creeping up on 10:00 a.m. and decided to hale the Marina again as we still did not see any boat coming for us.
“Dey be on their way now, Mon. Dey say you need come closer.”
Closer?! That was nerve-wracking. It was an odd feeling having just spent the last three days sailing (or, trying to sail, rather) a bobbing, flogging boat away from a rocky shore to now be advised we needed to come closer to the reef, under sail alone … [Insert Annie huff here.] The Marina gal told us our tow boat had gone out at 8:30 a.m., and they saw us waaaaayyy out there so they decided to go pick up another call while we made our way in closer. Phillip and I had no clue we were out too far. Any time you see reef heads poking up out of the water—when you don’t have an engine, only light winds pushing you towards them—is close enough for me, thank you. But, my huffing aside, we inched closer, and closer, and closer, until finally we saw a little white spec coming out for us. Whew. I hate to sound like a total non-purist, but I have to admit it was such a huge relief to see a roaring boat, shooting off a massive wake, powering its way out to save us. Power. Who knew I could crave it so immensely in certain moments.
After a few wayward throws, we finally got secured up behind the tow-boat and they began pulling us in.
But, this was when the “funny” thing happened. So, the boat brought us in safely through the Ridley Head Channel, which as I mentioned was a tight, crooked little path through some treacherous reefs so we were thrilled to have that portion of the tow safely behind us. We were now gliding along nicely behind the two boat in the big, deep channel that leads into Spanish Wells. There is a ferry lane there where a ferry brings folks back and forth from Eleuthera to Spanish Wells, so it’s a nice, wide (comforting) path.
Phillip and I felt like we were now on the home stretch. Whew. Our tow boat guys haled us on the radio asking what Marina we were heading to. “Yacht Haven Marina,” we replied.
We were right about here in the channel, when the tow captain came back over and said, “Okay, we’ll let you go here and you make your way on into Yacht Haven, den.”
Phillip and I shared a startled glance, thinking the same thing. “Here?!”
And, of course, Phillip was steering which meant I was on radio duty. I’ve mentioned before I get kind of stupid over the radio. Chalk it up to nerves, or feeling out of my element talking to other captains whom I feel are far more experienced than me. I worry I’ll say something dumb (because I often do). Radio Annie unsurprisingly fumbled.
“Wait, wuh …. What?” I asked him. “What? Here?” I continued on, stupidly.
“Ahh, yeah, Mon. Yacht Haven, be right up ahead. Just ‘round da bend,” he replied.
This is the bend:
There is a thick shoal right at the mouth that you have to navigate around to get to Yacht Haven.
I think the word “bend” snapped me into lucidity. Without an engine and no wind, we really couldn’t bend. Terrified I saw his first mate stepping to the back of the tow boat to untie our lines and I shrieked over the radio.
“No, NO! Don’t untie us here. Please, please, Sir, we don’t have an engine!” I watched helplessly as Guy No. 2 continued to untie one of our dock lines. He was just about to let it go, when the Captain hollered something at him. I saw him turn around, our line still mercifully in his hand, and he then nodded and started tying it back. Phillip and I simultaneously breathed out heaping sighs of relief.
“Ahhh, okay,” the tow captain said over the radio. “We didn’t know your engine was out.”
Although my mind shrieked it out, thankfully, I did not vocalize the very thought that paralyzed me over the radio:
WHY DO YOU THINK WE NEED A TOW?
Before I could say anything else … because honestly, other than that, I didn’t know what to say, he came back on.
“We taut you just wanted a cat’n’s guide trew Ridley Head. But, ‘ey, no problem, Mon. We’ll bring you right in your slip. Small ting.”
Whouuuhhhh … went the sound of my breath spilling out. That was close. And scary. And just a bit wild. But, looking back now, upon the whole spectrum of that voyage—from shove-off, to failure, to fights, fright, and mutiny—out of the entire experience, that moment was just … funny.
The beauty (and wisdom) of hindsight never ceases to amaze me. While Phillip and I were glad to be back at the dock, tied up safely, we did feel—at the time—a bit like failures because the voyage had gone so badly, and we didn’t even make it to our intended destination. But, looking back now on our failed voyage, with the value of hindsight, I can see two amazing blessings that were bestowed on us precisely because the engine went out when she did.
One: She (As She Often Does) Broke Down at the Right Time.
Looking back, it’s super humbling to realize our Westerbeke didn’t fail us in the middle of the reef when we were motoring out here to Bridge Point:
No, she didn’t do that to us. She chugged us safely through all of those gnarly reef heads and took us all the way out into the deep, no-obstacles-around Atlantic before she failed. Imagine if the fresh water pump had gone out when we were motoring Devil’s Backbone and we didn’t have sufficient wind to sail. *gulp*
Like I said … a blessing.
Two:Our Breakdown May Have Saved the Boat From a Hurricane
It was precisely because we had to turn out of the Atlantic and sail back to the Bahamas and leave our boat there for a bit (as opposed to leaving her in the BVIs) while we came back to Florida to work for a couple of months that we were able to sail her back from the Bahamas in 2020 so we could have her here with us at home to look after her during hurricane season. In hindsight, Phillip and I now know—with the pandemic that no one could have predicted that paralyzed international travel and cruising—that it would have been a nightmare trying to get our boat back in March/April had it been in the BVIs, as opposed to the much-closer Bahamas. With all of the travel restrictions, closed ports, time limitations, and other obstacles in our way during that time, it’s very likely we would not have been able to get her back safely in our fold like we did. That might have left our baby girl sitting right now, docked at an unsecured island with potential hurricanes headed toward her and us unable to travel there to do anything further to protect her. That thought makes my stomach drop and is such a valuable reminder that:
Sometimes when you think everything is going wrong, it may turn out it’s all going absolutely right. You just don’t know it yet.
This will probably come as no surprise to you all: Phillip and I turned back. After our fresh water pump failed, forcing upon us an irreversibly waning battery bank, we decided to turn back to Spanish Wells in the Bahamas rather than continue on our I65 route to the BVIs. While we thought the expected two-day passage would be merely a disappointment, it turned out to be the most enduring passage we’ve ever been on, even counting our ocean crossings. Why? Never before had Phillip and I been so mind-numbingly, infuriatingly …
B E C A L M E D
There were things that happened that have never happened on our boat before: shouting, fighting, mutiny! Yet, it was an experience so eye-opening, so psychologically poignant, I turned it into a featured article that will be in SAIL Magazine this fall. : ) Be on the lookout! For now, here are three moments from that horrid passage that I didn’t share in quite as vivid detail: 1) the fight; 2) the fear; and 3) the mutiny.
“You will see no more than three to eight knots of wind the next three days,” Weather Routing, Inc. texted us via our Delorme after we told them of our decision to turn around. Never had I wanted so badly for a weather prediction to be wrong. But, never have I seen one more dead-on. For three days, we saw no more than six. We went no faster than three. It was fine at first, simply moving along slowly, our spirits not yet pricked, our minds still amicable and calm.
This is our Garmin track showing a much more wayward sail back from whence we came:
It wasn’t a few hours, though, before the up and downs began. The sails went up, the sails went down. So did tempers, moods, voices. I can still hear the flogging of the sails when I close my eyes, that metallic flong, flong, flong of the standing rigging being beaten to an early death. I haaaaate flogging sails. I feel like it’s a little metal pick just chipping away at the integrity of our rigging (probably because it is). It was chipping away at my brain, too. While going slow and rotting our minds out there was one thing, damaging the boat in the process was another. We rigged the pole, we tied preventers, we tied inventers (ones I made up to try to stop the flogging). But with such little boat speed in funky winds and even funkier swell, there was no way to stop it. After a day of flonging, that’s when it happened.
I will preface this with one impermeable fact: Phillip and I rarely fight. I’m not boasting, or bragging, we’re just not the type to raise our voices or foster hostility. We’ve had disagreements and uncomfortable arguments on the boat, sure. This was one. But, I can count those on one hand, and none of them involved no holds-barred shouting. Until now.
Over the course of the first 30’ish hours after we turned back, we bobbed and flonged and battled one another over the sails flogging. I consistently wanted to drop the sails and bob; Phillip wanted to keep us heading generally in the right direction (albeit at a speed of 2.1 SOG). Into our second night of this horrendous routine, I finally pushed hard enough to get my way and on the start of my night shift I dropped the sails. Was it any better? No. The pitching and yawing of the boat was equally loud and equally annoying. I could hear Phillip rolling around in his lee cloth below trying to get some sleep. Soon our boat speed was 0.2 headed back out into the Atlantic, and I knew then I had been wrong. If there was one thing I wanted out there more than to stop the flogging, it was to stop the passage. To get the heck back to shore. So, I raised the sails back up (waking Phillip in the process of course) and we continued to flong on at a snail’s pace.
Just as Phillip was—I’m sure—finally drifting off to sweet sleep, a cacophony of beeps rang out. It was our auto-pilot. Turns out he doesn’t like to hold when we’re only going 0.4. Can’t say that I blame him. I don’t either. So, I set him back on. Another cacophony of beeps. Then I hear what sounded like the beginning of a lion’s roar below, this guttural rumble that started to form into voice, as Phillip screamed, louder than I’ve ever heard him scream before:
I J U S T W A N T T O * * * * I N G S L E E P !
M E * * * * I N G T O O !
I thundered back at him. Then it was silence, as if everything around us—the boat, the swell, the stupid flogging sails, all took a collective breath in response to our terse words. I guess you could say it wasn’t really a fight, per se, but it was the most intense exchange Phillip and I have ever had on passage. It was on me, though. That was my shift, and auto had tapped out. I took the sheet to the head sail in one hand and the helm in the other and sailed the snot out of those three knots of wind, trying simply to stay on a general west heading back to the Bahamas while keeping the flogging and sounds of the boat, as best I could, to a minimum. Phillip fell asleep so hard I could hear him snoring from the cockpit. I let him sleep an extra hour, before I dropped dead myself after that exhausting three-hour shift. “I want to sleep, too,” I told him as we traded out. “You have to hand-steer her.” He must have because I sank into the starboard settee and my mind melted into a slew of crazy, turbulent dreams. For the rest of the passage, neither of us spoke of that moment when I think we both snapped.
Our second day on passage, we got a new crew member! As we were obviously sailing (bobbing) slowly enough for any living creature to board, this cute little green and yellow bird found his way onto our boat.
We welcomed him at first, letting him flit around the cockpit and get comfortable with us. It was amazing to wonder how far he had flown to get there, with us being over 100 miles out to sea. I even made him a little bird bath out of the cut-off base of a milk jug. He started to perch on our hands, even on Phillip’s head.
He was our buddy. We named him Sprite and called him our first mate (as Phillip and I are both the Captains : ).
He was cute.
He was friendly.
At first …
After a morning spent being hospitable to the little guy it wasn’t long before he started darting and zipping around in the cockpit seemingly trying to strike at our heads. He became aggressive. I don’t know if his intentions were to truly throw us overboard so he could commandeer the boat and sail himself back to Spanish Wells or if he was just getting territorial. Either way, he was becoming dangerous, darting at our eyes, sneaking up from behind. It was like Sprite had already declared this boat his, and no other bird or human was allowed aboard. I’m telling you it was weird. That or we were losing it. Maybe there was no bird at all. Either way, Phillip and I decided we had to take up armor. Fly swatters can be very intimidating when used properly. It was us against him out there! Sprite had crossed a line. This was mutiny! And, who was Captain of the ship?
That’s right. Phillip and I had to send that bird packing. After a few wallops with a fly swatter, Sprite finally learned who was in charge and decided to fly away. I will never know if he made it those 100 miles back to shore, but I’m not sorry for what I did. This was nature. That bird picked his war. What is it the Sergeant said in G.I. Jane?
You’re darn right Viggo.
The thing was over 820 feet long. Eight. Hundred. And twenty. And I couldn’t see it. This was my last night shift as Phillip and I were finally making our way back toward the Bahamas and coming into the major shipping channel where many carrier ships exit out of Eleuthera to make their way into the Atlantic. And, this is what I found on the AIS.
A monster. While I could see what I thought were its nav lights up ahead off of my port bow, it was really hard to make out. And, it looked like we were headed right for one another. On the AIS, our closest point of approach (“CPA”) was bouncing between 1.07 and 23 feet, then 0.3 and 84 feet. Too close for comfort was the bottom line. I’d haled the guy many times on the radio, of course. “Hey. Hey you. Big ass boat that’s about to hit us. Do you see little old sailboat me?” But I, of course, got no response. What I hate about CPA is it does not tell you whether the “P”—that all important point—is going to be his stern crossing your bow, or your stern crossing his. Thankfully—and I don’t know if it was Neptune or my USCG training that kicked in—but something told me I had—I simply HAD—to get downwind of him. That might seem like a simple thought to many experienced sailors out there, but in moments like that where it’s all on me and I’m terrified, I can be a terrible decision-maker, so I still give Captain Annie a little pat on the back for that instinct.
With little puffs of four knots I turned our tiny spec-of-a-boat as hard as I could in a 90-degree angle to cross before his bow so I could get out of his path and on the safe, downwind side of that beast. I’ll admit, it was terrifying. My heart was thumping in my chest. I was ready to wake Phillip at any moment, but I knew there was nothing different he could do. It’s not like we had oars we could bust out to paddle away. Our fifteen-thousand pound, engine-less boat was at the complete mercy of the wind. And the monster. This moment was horrible, and I was hoping to spare him of it.
This time I’m sure it was Neptune, hearing the thunderous beat of my heart, when he sent a little six-knot puff of wind my way. It was the most we had seen the entire passage back, and it came as a God-send. Our boat picked up three knots of speed and bobbed her way just out of that carrier’s path. When I got on the other side of him, that ship blocked out my entire horizon. He was massive, and dark, and deadly. I saw the CPA blank out as his bow passed my stern and a dreadful gratitude came over when I realized what would have happened had I stayed upwind of him … all eight. Hundred. And twenty feet of him. Aside from injuries and near-falls overboard, that encounter is still one of the most terrifying moments I have ever had on our boat. It was an eerie altered paradigm from my usual fear of merciless winds and seas capable of chucking and breaking our beautiful boat to a chilling fear of a lack of wind that could cause her to just bob idly into a monster boat or devastating shore. A slow creep to destruction? What an awful way to go.
When Phillip and I arrived back in Spanish Wells, we soon met another couple who sailed in with a wildly-different experience from us. While we had been becalmed out in the Atlantic on the east side of the Bahamas, this couple had been battered with gusty winds in the Gulf Stream coming into the Bahamas on the west side. Oddly, however, I almost envied them their experience. At least in heavy winds and rough seas, you are left with no choice but to respond. You’re just reacting to the gnarly conditions being thrown at you. Being becalmed, however, fosters a far greater agony where your mind wages war with yourself. You start picking at your weaknesses, reliving regrets, analyzing bad decisions you’ve made. Strangely, I found I can be nastier to myself than any storm can. It was definitely a psychological struggle. I can tell you, now that Phillip and I have had this experience, if we ever have the choice to be becalmed at sea engine-less for days on end, versus undertaking a bit of a rough passage … it will be a much tougher call.
How about you all followers? How do you feel about being becalmed?
It’s funny, seeing it now—in black and white in hindsight—I’ll admit the answer seems so clear and easy, but it sure wasn’t then. I guess when it’s you out there, only two days into what was supposed to be an incredibly exciting adventure, an awesome offshore accomplishment, and you have sails and promising winds, it’s quite tempting to want to continue. Conquistadors and explorers have been crossing the ocean for centuries without engines, right? They also did it without satellite navigation, AIS, sat phones and texting devices, a whole host of equipment Phillip and I use extensively when we sail offshore. Bottom line is, after we lost the ability to use our engine when the fresh water pump blew, it was a tough call for Phillip and I deciding whether to continue our trek east, then south down to the BVIs, or tuck our tails, turn around, and sail back to Spanish Wells, Bahamas. Many factors played into our decision, and it was a great exercise in balancing risk versus reward. Read on to see what you would have considered had you been in our shoes and let us know: WWYD?
“So, that’s it? No engine?” I asked Phillip, although I already knew the answer.
“That’s it,” he said matter-of-factly.
Then we bobbed for a few quiet minutes. The wind was blowing maybe 4, the sails were flogging gently, somewhere a halyard banged. The quiet was deafening. I didn’t realize before how much sound-space the engine had filled now that he was dead. R.I.P. Westie. Phillip and I were only two days out on an expected 7-9 day passage from the Bahamas down to the BVIs when Westie (our 27A Westerbeke’s) fresh water pump bit the dust.
While we were still floating safely, not taking on water, with sails and rigging still in perfect condition to carry us, Phillip and I had a tough decision to make:
CARRY ON UNDER STRICTLY SAIL 6-7 MORE DAYS TO THE BVIS
TURN AND SAIL 1-2 DAYS BACK TO THE BAHAMAS?
While we do prefer (always) to sail in the right conditions, rather than motor, Phillip and I are not 100% purists. We don’t sail into and out of the marina or our slip just for the heck of it (like we often saw many heartier sailors (kids even!) do in France and the Azores). We don’t sail narrow cuts or channels if we’re afraid the wind may shut down or push us onto a shoal. Simply put, we prefer to sail when sailing is safe. And, I’m not in any way ashamed to say we rely on our engine for many things: propulsion when sailing isn’t productive or safe, a charge to our batteries, maneuvering in marinas and in and out of slips, even as an extra bilge pump if we were taking on immense amounts of water (a trick I have, thankfully, only read about, never experienced myself, but that I will always keep in my back pocket). At the end of the day, the truth is we put a lot of work, time, and money into our engine because we value it.
Phillip and I are also very risk-averse. When your first offshore passage (ever!) is one where you have to lean over the stern rail in rough seas and 30-knots of wind to cut your own flailing dinghy off with a hacksaw, you tend to give the open ocean its well-deserved respect and due.
But, that said, Phillip and I really wanted to make it to the BVIs. We have yet to sail their on our boat. It is the first step of another BIG goal we have: to do a Caribbean Circle. We had a work and weather window in November that had lined up beautifully (when does that ever happen)? And, we were expecting good, solid east winds over the next 4-5 days that could have possibly enabled us to finish the voyage under sail alone quite safely. And, there’s no reason to shy away from it. We simply didn’t want to give up. We didn’t want to quit. We probably debated this decision a laughable hour longer than was necessary just because we were so frustrated by it. But, after extensive discussion about the pros and cons of either choice, Phillip and I eventually decided to turn back and sail back to Spanish Wells in the Bahamas. Here are the top reasons for our decision:
1. Loss of Power
Battery power—or, more accurately, the inevitable loss of it—was easily our number one concern. While we have 200 watts of solar on our boat, they are not able, by themselves, to keep our bank completely charged 5-7 days underway, particularly with the auto-pilot working twenty-four hours a day, as well as the navigation instruments, AIS, and nav lights at night.
While we can (and have) foregone refrigeration while underway to save on power, cold drinks and food were the least of our power worries. Phillip and I knew we would want auto steering the boat as much as possible. We would want AIS, particularly at night, to avoid ships. We wanted our nav lights shining like bright beacons at night to ward off other boats. We wanted our bilge pumps to be strong and vigorous if in the very unfortunate occurrence we started taking on water. All of those things require power. The thought of gradually losing power over the course of 6-7 days, losing the ability to see other ships, and be seen by them at night, as well as a potential inability to access our digital charts for navigating, all while the wind (particularly light ones) pushed us whatever direction it felt like was just, hands down, a scary thought. An unacceptable thought.
2. The Navidad and Mouchoir Banks
My good friend, Pam Wall, had warned us about these reefs on the north side of the Dominican Republic when we first told her of our plans to take the I65 Route from the Bahamas to the BVIs, and she urged (quite strongly, in pure, energetic-Pam fashion) that we sail a hard-and-fast route dead east (“Not south!” she shrieked) for the first 3-5 days of our voyage before turning south to avoid these reefs. “They eat yachts,” Pam said, quite bluntly, which put the fear of Mouchoir in us.
Being out there with no means of propulsion other than sail, and potential winds that could push us up onto those yacht-eating rocks was easily our second reason for turning back, but there were others as well.
3. Navigating a New Inlet and Port Under Sail Alone
While Phillip and I knew we were going to be coming in—whether we decided to sail to the BVIs or back to the Bahamas—under sail alone, having navigated the entrance to and from Spanish Wells several times now (during this trip in 2019 and previously when we sailed the Abacos, Eleuthera, and a sliver of the Exumas in 2018) we felt we had become somewhat familiar with its channels, depths, and shoaling. Navigating a brand-new inlet always stands the hairs on our necks and gets our hearts pumping. The thought of doing that under sail alone with no contacts there in the BVIs was a mark against continuing the voyage without an engine.
4. We Thought the Sail Back Would Be Short and Easy
Aside from not carrying a spare fresh water pump, this was our one whopping mistake in this whole ordeal. Having just poked out into the Atlantic a day and a half, we thought the sail back would be a quick 1-2 days zip back. Super easy. No problem. We figured it would be a bit of a bummer, with beat-down morales, retreating back from whence we came. But, all we thought we would be was a little bummed. We had no idea we would be psychologically battered. As wild as it sounds—even with the two ocean crossings Phillip and I have done and some of our more horrendous bashes in the Gulf—that three and a half day sail back to Spanish Wells in little to zip wind was BY FAR the absolute worst passage Phillip and I have ever been on. The. Worst. Have any of you ever been mind-numblingly, infuriatingly becalmed? Just wait … We have stories to share my friends. And a casualty. There was mutiny out there. Stay tuned!
I know, it’s a loaded question. And, I’m asking over 100 boaters, so I’m likely to get 200+ opinions, right? While we all carry plenty of fuel filters, zincs, gaskets, and the like, do you carry any spare parts that bolt onto the engine block? A spare alternator, perhaps? Or a starter? Well, this part was one we really could have used and did not have. Considering how small it is, and what a game-changer it can be, Phillip and I will definitely carry one in the future.
After we had made the decision to take the “I-65” route from the Bahamas down to the BVIs and found our weather window, Phillip and I fully stocked the boat, stowed the dinghy, ran the jacklines, and prepared to shove off. Knowing, from our fantastic WRI weather routing, we would likely have to motor for a couple of days after our expected south-clocking-west winds turned light and on the nose, Phillip and I decided to do something a bit different for this offshore passage.
We bought three extra jerry cans of fuel and strapped them on our whisker pole on starboard (giving us 6 5-gallon jugs of diesel total) to ensure we would have plenty of fuel to motor as much as we needed during our expected 8-9 day passage.
Because, you know packing extra diesel is like paying homage to the Wind Gods, daring them to make you not need it. Well, it turned out we did not need it, but not for the reason we’d hoped. The first day and a half of our passage was phenomenal! Beautiful south winds on the beam, then quartering on our starboard stern, then clocking around behind from the west. We were flying, making consistent 5-6 knots heading due east, which is the exact direction we needed to go. It was too good to be true!
Phillip and I had high hopes that we would continue making great time and make our first passage over five days an enjoyable and successful one. Everything was trending in that direction. When the winds laid down a bit and turned more north, north-east (too light to sail easterly in them), we cranked up the engine and began to motor, just as we had expected to per our weather routing. Westie (our 27A Westerbeke engine) purred along perfectly throughout the afternoon. Late into the evening, when I was at the helm, the engine ripped out this squealing sound. I immediately throttled back more out of instinct than anything (like stepping on the brakes) and that stopped the sound. Phillip came up to investigate. We throttled back up gingerly and everything seemed fine. No sound. Westie then ran all night long, no problem.
The following day (our third of the voyage), November 25th, we were motoring along around noon when that same piercing wail rang out from the engine. Wrrrreeeeeeee! Phillip throttled back and the sound stopped. The temp and oil pressure all looked good. It was a mystery. Now a twice-occurring one so we decided this time to investigate. Phillip stayed up in the cockpit while I went below and started to empty our aft berth of its contents so I could access the engine. Just about the time I had got the berth emptied, I heard Phillip scramble around topside and suddenly the engine died. I popped my head up in the companionway to see it had not died, Phillip had cut it.
“It was overheating,” he said worried. Thankfully, he had been carefully watching it because no high-temp alarm rang out. Add that to our list of things to inspect.
When I opened the little door that allows us to access the engine from our starboard aft berth, a nice waft of smoke poofed out and smelled of burnt oil. I looked at the back of the engine and could visibly see antifreeze pouring out from under the fresh water pump on the back of our engine.
Not a good sign. We then pulled the floorboards up to see how much had drained into the bilge. It was disheartening. The entire bilge was Ghostbuster green. But, for the moment, Phillip and I were not deterred. We had all of the tools necessary to remove the pump, and we were hopeful it was just a seal inside that we could replace. We have plenty of spare seals. We also had plenty of antifreeze to refill it. I spent a hot, greasy hour crammed up behind the engine (only Annie fits here).
With some serious cheater bar action and hammering on the end of our biggest deep socket wrench, I was finally able to remove the pump.
While Phillip and I are certainly no diesel engine experts, we could tell even from our untrained fresh water pump eyes, that the thing was shot. I could see there were several ball bearings missing and the shaft had a wonky movement to it. But, we have bearings aboard. Phillip and I still thought we could turn things around.
We texted out to a few friends who are knowledgeable about boats and engines (Brandon with Perdido Sailor, always being one), letting them know what had happened and welcoming their thoughts/advice. Then, Phillip and I both spent another hotter, greasier hour, tapping and banging on the pump trying to get it to come apart so we could see if it was fixable aboard. We were still banging and cursing when our Delorme chirped out. It was Brandon.
“You can’t rebuild those,” he said. “It will have to be replaced.”
I can still remember that moment. Phillip and I just kind of sat there, our greased-up hands on the table, staring at our forlorn pump. The whole scene makes me think of Eeyore.
As we were not carrying a fresh water pump spare, Phillip and I had to face the sad reality that, for this passage at least, our engine was completely useless. So much for all that extra diesel we brought …
But, our next moves were some of the hardest. Phillip and I had a very BIG decision to make. And, although we did not know it at the time, we had our hardest sail to date ahead of us. This includes both of our Atlantic Ocean crossings, and still wins out. Plaintiff’s Rest’s crew was a day and a half out into the Atlantic Ocean on our first 8-9 passage, trying for our first time to sail to the BVIs. I will have to admit the sheer excitement of that goal and the desire to achieve it weighed heavily on us. We still had sails! We were expecting wind in the next day or so. People have been sailing the world for centuries without an engine. They’ve been shipwrecking too …
Next up, I will share the difficult, but well-reasoned decision we had to make on whether to slump our shoulders and turn around to sail back to Spanish Wells or carry on toward our destination without a working engine and what an awful adventure it embarked us on. Stay tuned!