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.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” I said.
“Tow Boat Bahamas!” Phillip replied.
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.