Gale!

We thought we were so tough, having survived wild episodes in remote parts of the world, such as the unpopulated sections of western panama, the lawless portions of eastern Nicaragua and Honduras, the whole of California, etc. In those, places we’d often be the only boat in an anchorage, relying on our own gear and wits for survival. Weather prediction would be a hazarded guess, at best. So we naturally thought that our sojourn to the Bahamas, basically in Florida’s backyard and populated by thousands of like-minded cruisers, would be a walk in the park, literally. But nothing prepared us for the once-in-a-generation freak storm we endured on January 6, 2016. Winters in the Bahamas can be tricky at times because cold fronts come off the eastern US and pass through and can bring winds that change directions and strength, along with rain and thunder on occasion. On this occasion we knew that a front was passing through, but it was not predicted to be very windy in our immediate area.

Wrong! We were taking it easy the day after a night of 30 – 40 knot easterly winds – these are strong winds, but are common in the Bahamas. They come from the East and there are many islands to hide behind to avoid the waves that such winds can generate. We usually don’t mind the wind alone because it is the waves that really move the boat around. That night was windy but not anything we were not used to. The next night was predicted to have lighter wind from the West. There are fewer places to hide from West winds in the Bahamas and we went to a location that was good for us in the recent past – just behind the large rock called Thunderball Grotto, where they filmed part of the James Bond film Thunderball (it has a really cool interior cave, which will be highlighted in the next blog post). These rocks have a small area to the East of them where you are sheltered from West winds. So we settled in thinking no big deal because winds were not predicted to be strong and in any event we had good old 007 rock to break the waves.

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Our hidey spot behind Thunderball Rock, in less crowded times

Around 6 pm we noticed the wind beginning to pick up – a normal circumstance toward the evenings here. However, it did not die down and continued to build, and rapidly. The wind quickly accelerated to 30+ knots, and then it jumped above 40 knots and stayed there. Things were getting hairy. There were 3-foot waves in the anchorage even though they only had 200 feet to develop. Whitecaps in a swimming pool it seemed like – and then they started getting blown off and the waters were white with foam and the winds were roaring.

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It never looks as bad in photos as it really is, and this looks bad.  This was when it first started; the worst of it was in the dark.

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One of the cats that dragged past us.

Then the wind increased above 50 knots and again stayed there, and we were closing in on hurricane territory.

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Instruments recorded max wind speed at 55.5kts (63mph)

Things were getting really dicey at this point. I started the engines to push the boat forward to take some strain off the anchor – after all, it was the only thing holding us from a wall of rocks ¼ mile behind us. In these sorts of winds, anchors can give up their hold and let boats go sliding off into oblivion. And it was no different this night. We saw one catamaran go sliding past us, and there was nothing we could do to help him. We just hoped his anchor dragging along the bottom didn’t snag ours and send us on our way too. I was driving the boat to move it out of the way of the dragging boat and take the strain off the anchor.

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Two young guys on this boat out in the open were dragging anchor.  They started the night in front of the rock to the right.  We were glad to see the next day that they stopped short of the rocks.

The rain was coming down so hard that I had to wear sunglasses – I couldn’t open my eyes otherwise. Then another catamaran went by – so eerie and sad to see that in the dark, knowing that those people were in for a world of hurt and you can’t do anything about it. This went on for about 2 hours, with me driving the boat – each time it got a bit sideways, the wind would grab it and I could feel it accelerate out of control sideways. It was lifting our big boat up and tilting it a bit on its side, with spray flying over the side. I gave the engines full throttle just to stand still and try to correct our angle so we wouldn’t slide off into oblivion as well. Mary kept a watch for other boats heading our way in the dark.  She handled the radio, which crackled with maydays and frenzied shouts for help or warnings about impending collisions and was running around giving me clothes to protect from the freezing rain – I started the ordeal in just swim trunks and ended up in full foul weather gear with sweatshirts and boots underneath .  At one point, I looked back and saw that our dinghy, which was hanging behind our boat on a rope, had turned upside down, flipped by the wind like a child’s toy. To add salt to the wound, a stray line from the overturned dinghy caught our starboard prop, killing that engine. I stripped the foul weather gear, dove in and removed the line. Luckily it was not wedged round tightly and I remember that the water felt lovely and warm. I just wanted to stay there and forget about the maelstrom above. But I jumped out, quickly showered, put the foulies back on and went back to the helm.

 

Finally, the winds subsided. I never thought of 30 knots of wind as “light” but it felt that way this night. All the boats were haphazardly strewn about the anchorage. One boat with a French couple and their dog were blown ashore and crashed into someone’s docks, tearing them up.  Another boat washed up against the rocks and started breaking up and taking on water. I was impressed with how calm the guy sounded in putting out his mayday – he was more sad than panicked.  One of the catamarans that slid past us ended up on the rocks with a hole in a bow, a rudder broken off and many other issues. This is the end of the cruise for some of these poor folks. Exhausted, but with hearts still pounding we tried to get some rest but continued to keep a watch throughout the night. When we heard our errant dinghy under the boat and scraping its propeller against the hulls, we went outside at 3 am and flipped it over. Easier than it sounds for 350 pounds of sodden rubber boat in a raging sea. But somehow we did it and tied it up. Next we saw that some of the boats that moved were very close to us. We would have started banging into each other if no one did anything. Now, generally when anchoring space gets too tight it’s up to the latest arrival to move. And the draggers who ended up very near us should have upped anchor to relocate to a safer place. But it became apparent to us that people were too shell shocked to take the proper action. So in the dark of night (by the way, this had to happen on a moonless night) at 4 am we fired up the engines to find a place to anchor safely away from anyone banging into us.  This accomplished, we collapsed into the bed. Surprisingly, adrenalin would not let us sleep and Mary was up at 6 am like she is every day. Its funny how bodies work that way, but the smell of coffee made its way down and I was not far behind her.

We spent the next day cleaning up and trying to save the engine of our dinghy.  An episode like this really lets you know who your friends are and can bring out the best in some. Our long time buddy-boaters, Charlotte and James, on their way to Nassau to effect their own repairs, offered to bring back a new outboard engine for us and to anchor near us and shuttle us around since we now have no way to get to shore to get provisions.

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Bob and I trying to get the waterlogged engine going.

Bob on another boat in the anchorage spent several fruitless hours with me trying to get our engine running again. After we put out a call on the radio for the stuff that fell to the bottom from our dinghy (the water is crystal clear here after all), we saw several boats trolling around looking for it. And we tried to do our part by giving parts to other boaters who needed them.

 

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The calm

It was sunny and calm now and you wouldn’t know that such danger was only 12 hours past. Some say that traveling like we do is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and this was one night to prove it. We are glad we are safe and only have a waterlogged outboard motor to deal with. We are also glad that the people on those boats that went ashore are all OK. We were impressed by and proud of the way the community rallied to help others in distress.  Some people showed amazing bravery in heading out at the height of the storm to try to get to those calling for help.   Its just part of what we chose to deal with when we embarked on this crazy lifestyle, but we sincerely hope not to endure anything like that again.

This video shows the start of the storm.  When it got worse, Mary had to put down the camera.

 

 

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21 thoughts on “Gale!

  1. Wow – thanks for sharing and God willing that you never experience that again – and Thank God you made it through! Are you heading our way anytime soon, my friends?

  2. What a great recounting of this awful night. What Pete did not say was when he dived into the water to retrieve the fouled prop, the stern of Neko would be pounding up and down while he was directly under her. He and Mary showed incredible bravery. This lifestyle is not for the faint of heart!

  3. Holy crap! I’m so glad you are safe & survived this without too much damage. It’s good to know that you seem to have a community of fellow sailors who are willing to help each other out in times like this. Love, Mom in Lakeland

  4. Glad you are safe! I must admit I am much more fearful and aware of the wind this season. We are stuck in La Paz waiting for a weather window now that Girl Four is ready. There is a small craft advisory and white caps in the bay…Pete would have great fun in La Ventana!

  5. OMG< OMG OMG. I am glad you are both ok. Your blog gave me heart palpitations and I'm sure Mary's parents were biting their nails too. It sounds like you two did an incredible job and you knew what to do and when to do it. I can almost hear Mary's parents say "you better keep her safe". And I say, you'd better both keep each other safe or you'll have to answer for it!
    XXXOOO
    Mom

  6. Pete, wow, you never mentioned the fouled prop before. Amazing display of bravery. It would have been amazing in the brightness of day. So much more in the darkness of night. I know that it was a night you and Mary will never forget but also wish you never experienced. From this point forward, fair winds only!

  7. Oh man, my heart still is a racing! Did not get all these details from our VHF and or emails so thanks for filling in some blanks. So………….ready for this coming week? I hate these predictions of a repeat. So glad you and Mary are ok when all is said and done but bummed at all your repairs and such you need to do to get up and running again. Since we are not there to help dinghy you two around, we are doing the next best thing……………….ferrying the cruisers here in George Town who also lost their dinghies. So many people in “the same boat” so to speak. The stories here are similar to the one you have shared, the ones we saw in Black Point and the places in between. Amazing stories. Look forward to happy hour together again and sharing our tales:):) Now that we are all safe and all that.

  8. Neko, thanks for sharing your story. We were anchored next to you behind the grotto for several days and had been admiring your boat. Glad you had minimal damage. We had moved around to Big Major for the 30 kt night then onto Black Point (anchored behind R&R Kedger. Small world). It’s amazing you have pics & videos! I wish I had pics of the waves coming over the Government Dock in Black Point!

  9. Wow! What a way to start the new year! Very glad to hear that you are OK. Sounds like quite an adventure… You showed almost as much bravery in the storm as you did docking in Jersey City!!

  10. Glad to hear you made it through that horrible storm safely. Hope this bad weather is behind you! The Bahamas still look nice to us! Temp was single digits this AM in KC! Take care and stay safe!

  11. Hi Pete and Mary, Kimberly and Ryan here, Great description of the event that we all went through in various places. Well done. Glad you are both safe. Our friends here in Rock Sound lost their dog overboard during the storm, a pet they had been sailing with for at least 10 years. They buried him on the other side of the sound. Some other friends also saw their dinghy flip over and have just now managed to recover the engine, but it’s not working all that well. We’re all hunkering down here, freaked out, of course, because who can relax, yet, after going through it….the body takes times to return to normal after undergoing so much stress. Nicely written post.

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  13. Great post felt like we were there! We were actually but weather was much better. Looking forward to follow along in your adventures. Wondering what kind of anchor you have? Hope to run into you guys down island.

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  15. Not at all the travel story of Neko that I was looking forward to. Am so glad you guys are safe. Those gales are not fun & yea, the adrenalin really flows & doesn’t seem to go away for awhile.
    I know it makes you feel like superman, but please, please be safe . Hugs to you both for your “right of passage” . Jan

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