April 25, 2015:
Since our Buffett debauchery started early, our night ended pretty early, too. After a few hours hooting and hollering and bopping flying beach balls at the Buffett concert, we were beat.
We crashed hard on the boat but woke well-rested and were glad we still had one more day on our Buffett voyage. It was Saturday, April 25, 2015. We had no real plans or agenda other than to make way west during the day over to Red Fish Point or Ft. McRae to spend the night on the hook before heading back to Pensacola on Sunday. Some coffee was lazily brewed and the docks were meandered before we decided to go ahead and get under way. We had no idea what was coming that day. As I said, no one did. But, by some stroke of luck we decided to toss the lines and head out just in time to tuck in safe for it.
Our de-docking was an unexpected adventure. Reminds me of Cap’n Ron when he barrelled in, skidded up to the dock and jumped off with a hearty “Hey, hey!” — except ours was unintentional. We were tucked in here at slip L175, with a strong (17 knot) west wind on our nose.
Our plan was to back out of the slip, ease the stern around to port, then head back out to the ICW. Simple, right? Sure, in theory–not in execution. We started backing out just fine, got all the lines untied and on the boat and were making our way out. I’m at the bow, ready to push off poles if need be and the bow (not the stern) starts turning strangely to port.
“Are you going to pull back in?” I holler to Phillip, a dock line in hand. He doesn’t answer me immediately. I know not to ask a million questions when he’s struggling with a situation like this, but I did feel the need to ask the one important one. “What’s the plan?” I can see him looking around, handling the wheel, fettering out what the wind is going to let the boat do. But, seconds are passing, he’s pretty much all the way out now, stern to the ICW facing the dead end wall with what does not appear to be enough room to turn around, especially with the west wind and a wall of big, expensive boats behind us.
“Nope,” he yells back after a few calculated seconds. “We’re just going to back out of here.”
Oh Lord. I stood at the bow, ready to push off of boats on our port side where the wind was blowing us, ready to throw a line if need be, ready to–I don’t know, really, do anything necessary I suppose. But, none of it was necessary. Once Phillip got some speed, he was able to handle the boat perfectly in reverse. You should have seen the folks at the dock watching us, slowly easing their coffee mugs down, cocking their heads to the side, eyeing us strangely.
You would have thought Jimmy Buffett himself was backing out of there with the looks we were getting. I’m sure it was a sight to see, us backing out like that. Once I could see Phillip had it all under control, I kind of posed up at the bow, like a hood ornament, waving and smiling. We were rock stars in reverse!
Phillip backed us up into the ICW, clocked the bow around and we set off. It was around 10:00 a.m. With the steady wind on our stern, we threw out the Jenny for a fantastic day of sailing. This little box-of-a-boat passed us along the way (headed to Pirate’s Cove I’m sure).
We sailed all the way down the ICW, through all the turns and dog legs and everything–never cranking the engine once. It was an awesome day on the water. The winds ranged between 14 and 19 knots, strong, but, on our stern, they were nice. We sailed right up to Red Fish Point and were picking out a spot to drop our hook around 3:00 p.m. Looking at the texture and chop on the water, though, Phillip was starting to question our decision to anchor there.
“We’re pretty exposed here,” he said, looking at the weather and radar on his phone. I had to agree with him, bouncing around up at the bow, ready to drop the hook but seeing exactly what he was talkinga about–textured water, white caps, etc. “I think we ought to pull into Ft. McRae tonight. Get a little more protection,” Phillip decided.
“Fine with me,” I hollered back and set my anchor gear down so we could make the 15 minute motor into Ft. McRae. Right about that time, Phillip started getting severe weather alerts on his phone. He certainly wasn’t questioning his decision to pull into Ft. McRae then. When we saw what was coming on the radar, we kinew we needed some shelter. We tucked in on the south side of Sand Island and dropped 100 feet of chain to be safe.
The scene in Ft. McRae was deceiving. There was a guy kite-boarding on the east side of Sand Island, several families set up near the fort with tents and tables and chairs and such. It was cheery. We saw a big foil kite launch over on the west side of Sand Island so I decided to go for a quick run on my paddleboard to check out our neighbors and the goings-on.
The guy with the foil kite was paragliding–jumping off the sandy dune cliff on the west side of the island and letting the steady west wind push him back into the soft sand. It looked like he was just getting the hang of it and had found a good safe place to practice. He was fun to watch. I found some buddies of ours who anchor out at Ft. McRae often and said a quick hello as I was paddling by. They were on a trawler and had a center console rafted up to it. An older couple sat leisurely on the cockpit of their Catamaran on the south side of us, sipping cocktails and watching the sun drop. The guy kite-boarding on the east side was zipping back and forth, making some nice runs with the west wind. It was a quick, 15 minute paddle, but you would never have guessed any severe weather was coming with the look of things in the anchorage.
Phillip and I agreed when I made it back to the boat that it was high time for a cocktail. I mean, we had just dropped the hook. It is protocol. But, before I even got the paddleboard strapped to the stern rail and got back into the boat, Phillip got another alert on his phone. Severe weather alert No. 2 went out, but this time they were reporting the potential for hale and winds of 70 mph.
It was a quick consensus that we had better drop some more chain before we made those drinks. I headed topside and we let out another 25 feet, so 125 feet total and snubbed her off with our Mantus like we always do. By then, the sky had darkened.
Ominous black clouds hung on the north horizon, and the wind, blowing around 18-20 knots by then, took on an eerie chill. Phillip and I could both sense it coming. I wish our barometer on the boat still worked. I would have liked to have seen what was registering.
We started bringing cushions down below, shutting hatches, readying the boat for a storm. Our actions were precise and swift, our nerves pricked with energy. When we heard more chain rattle out of our buddy’s trawler up ahead, a sense of community urgency started to register. People on the beach quickly hustled kids and buckets and toys back to their boats as the wind continued to build. Center consoles and smaller motor boats started zipping by, parents huddling children and holding onto dogs for what was sure to be a bumpy ride home. We saw a sailboat barreling in the inlet to Ft. McRae and watched as they hauled up next to us, kicked the stern around and started dropping anchor the second after their bow fell behind us. I was worried–okay irritated at first–knowing we had some crazy wind coming and now we had a boat not 30 feet away to worry about. But, you could tell by their movements that they were sharp sailors, doing exactly what needed to be done to protect themselves and their vessel in the coming storm.
Phillip and I stood in the cockpit, donning our foul weather gear over our swimsuits, cocktails filling the last thought on our minds and watched as the rains began to engulf the boats ahead of us to the west. Then the wind came–30 knots, 35, 40, 42.
“HOLD!” Phillip shouted into the wind, his thunderous voice about as useful as a spit into the ocean. But, it was all we could do. The only thing that was going to save our boat was that anchor holding. I have never felt such power on the boat from wind alone. We were heeled on anchor. Our boat was swinging so violently to the north and south on its pivot point that it registered a hull speed of 1.2, again while on anchor. The wind didn’t blow, it howled, over the mast, the dodger, every shroud, before it shrieked past us in the cockpit. I wish I had videoed it. I really do. But, documenting is really the last thing on your mind when the only thing saving your boat from popping loose, smashing into the boat behind you and dragging both vessels to shore in a sickening cacophony of banging aluminum and crunching fiberglass is one little anchor in the mud and some chain.
“HOLD!” I hollered it with him. It seemed to help because she did. Thank the stars in heaven she did, even with the bow dipped down so far water cascaded up over the pulpit and the toe rails. It was a strange sight to see all of us cowered in our cockpits or looking out port lights just watching one another. I imagine it’s the same look of helpless terror you would share with someone on an elevator that’s dropping uncontrollably. Phillip and I watched with bitten lips as the head sail on that Catamaran south of us started to flip and flail and wiggle its way out. As soon as it started, it wasn’t ten seconds before it unfurled halfway out and ripped to shreds. The couple emerged and put on a frantic show, the man up at the forestay trying to wrestle the sail in 35 knots of wind, the woman back in the cockpit trying to sheet it in. I had just paddled by them not 20 minutes earlier and admired their serenity, sipping cocktails in the cockpit waiting for the sun to set. No one knew the fury that was about to be unleashed.
Tents ripped up and rolled along the beach. Little buckets and toys and cans raced and tumbled along the sand. We could see the hands and faces of the guys on the sailboat that had scooted in last minute pressed up against the port lights, looking out. The captain would pop his head up every once in a while quickly out of the companionway to look around as his boat whipped around as violently as ours. Then the paddle board zipped across our view. Stupidly, we had left it hooked by its springy leash to the stern rail and it was now airborne, 10 feet behind the boat, hovering and spinning like a pinwheel on a windy day. Like I said, I wish I had videoed it, particularly because I had my phone right there with me. I kept refreshing the radar to see the blob of shit that was upon us. It was huge but thankfully moving fast, up and to the north. I had at least thought to take a picture of the radar:
We were just on a little sliver of green on the south side of the storm and we were getting 40 knots? I can’t imagine what it felt like for the folks in Mobile Bay at the Dauphin Island regatta. Truth be told, I don’t think I ever want to. One of the last gusts on the boat registered at 44 knots. That’s approximately 55 mph. Ass-puckering is what that is. It’s the most wind I have ever felt on our boat and the most I ever want to feel. The anchor wailed and groaned and the bow dipped, but she held. Thank God she held. And, thankfully, the storm passed through quickly. It was about 10 minutes of terror and then it was gone. I finally thought, after the worst of it had passed to get a little footage and video, but it in no way does it justice.
The guys in the sailboat next to us starting easing out, blinking and looking around, taking it all in. They quickly determined the coast was clear and started working, just as efficiently as they had to drop the anchor, to raise it and get the heck out of there. The captain gave us a knowing nod of his head as he passed by. We had survived it. We had no idea at the time what went down in Mobile Bay and the people that were fighting and flailing in the water at that very moment. We just knew we had 30 more knots of wind on the boat than we wanted but we had survived it. Phillip and I slowly started bringing up cushions, opening hatches, getting things back to normal. Phillip checked the anchor line and snubber to make sure we hadn’t suffered any damage at the bow.
Afterward, we started joking around about that cocktail: “Okay, now, it is definitely time for that drink!”
And, as it always seems, nature likes to remind you sometimes, what had just 30 minutes prior been a treacherous scene–thick black clouds, sheets of rain, driving wind–cleared to reveal one of the most beautiful and serene sunsets we have ever seen in Ft. McRae. Aside from the littered beach and the shredded foresail on the Cat next to us, it was like it had never happened.
We fired up the grill, cooked some chicken and kind of sat wondering if it had in fact happened.
I know what we experienced was pretty insignificant compared to the mariners who were sailing, full canvas up, in Mobile Bay in the Dauphin Island regatta when that wicked storm hit. They reported winds of 73 knots, numerous passengers overboard, many boats capsized, damaged or lost. Here is some footage if you haven’t yet seen it:
I believe it’s been reported as the most deadly regatta race tragedy to occur in the states. Looking back on it, I can’t believe the day started so amiably–Phillip and I just sipping coffee, meandering the docks, lazily tossing the lines and making our way down the ICW. The fact that we made it safely into Ft. McRae before the bottom fell out was pure luck–not an ounce of sail savvy involved. The decision not to anchor at Red Fish Point, though, I will say was all Phillip. He’s good about checking the weather before we drop the hook, trying to see what winds are predicted and whether we are in a sufficiently protected area to weather them. (I’m usually planning my post-drop cocktail … )
I am also glad we decided to throw out another 25 feet of chain for a total of 125 feet of rode out. That is more than we would usually need in Ft. McRae but I’m certain it played a factor in our anchor’s ability to, as Phillip said, “HOLD!” We also had the anchor snubbed up, which we always do with a Mantus hook and rope cleated at the bow. That much weight and pull would not have been good for the winlass I’m sure.
Now, leaving the paddle board attached to the stern rail was just dumb. That thing could have easily ripped off and been halfway across the bay in 10 minutes. That’s an expensive toy to lose to a stupid mistake. But, it would have been a small price to pay for the storm we were able to weather. I hated to see the couple on the Catamaran lose their head sail. I don’t know if there is anything different they could have done. Sometimes these things just happen. They can’t be stopped. But, it did make us think we could have easily put some extra bungees around our head sail because you just never know. Looking back, we also probably should have put on our PFDs and grapped the EPIRB just in case. You might think that would be a bit much in the protected cove of Ft. McRae, but, with those winds, you could get sucked out and blown across the Bay pretty easily. It’s easy to panic in times like that and waste precious energy trying to swim against the conditions. We heard many of the folks who went overboard in the Dauphin Island regatta weren’t wearing life vests. Also, several who were rescued from the water were found only because they had cell phones or hand-held GPS devices on them that they used to help direct the rescue boats to their location.
In all, we took away several important lessons from the storm. However, while I hate to say it, it’s just true–for the most part, it was pure luck and that’s just a big part of it. We had several friends who we discovered later had been racing in the Dauphin Island Regatta when the storm hit and, though shaken, reminded and humbled at the power and magnitude of the weather, they all agreed–they were just plain lucky to be alive. But, take it as it comes. If you’re going to get out there and sail, you’re going to run into storms and, while you can be smart and cautious, often the determining factor of whether or not you survive them unscathed is just plain luck.
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