On January 6, 2016, we expected a “big blow” with winds shifting through all directions except Southeast. We took shelter in the very well protected harbor at Royal Island, near Spanish Wells and Eleuthera. Sophia is 36 feet long and weighs 13,500 pounds—pretty light in comparison to many bluewater yachts. We have great ground tackle—a 33 pound Rocna and 100 feet of 3/8 inch chain attached to 150 feet of a 5/8 inch nylon rode. We sheltered in the north west corner, in front of the biggest hill on the island. We set anchor, let out all the chain, set a snubber, dove on the anchor, saw it solidly in the ground, and kept a close watch all day. We didn’t budge an inch and felt quite relaxed when we finally turned out the light around “cruiser’s midnight,” 9pm. We were in for our first big cruising lesson.
“Bam!” “Bam!” Silence. I awakened at about 10:30pm. This was a new sound. “Bam!” “Bam.” Something was hitting our hull. Could it be waves? I wondered. “Ryan! do you hear that?” “What?” “Bam!” “That!” He bounded out of bed. The winds were screaming overhead the air was thick with electricity. I raced to the cockpit and could not believe what I saw. We had dragged about 200 feet, right past another boat, and stood 10 feet from the rocky shore with 1.5 feet of water under our keel. Our hull had been hitting either the sand, or rocks, or something else. Royal Island harbor is littered with old cars and other metal trash.
Sheer terror. Adrenaline shot through me, clouding my mind, making my hands shake. Think! I clawed open the stern lassarette and pressed the engine warm-up button, counting with ragged breaths—never had 15 seconds passed so slowly. The engine roared on Ryan took the helm and drove us away from the rocks while I scampered up to the bow, shivering in underwear and tee-shirt. It was impossible to see, and we had to rely on flashlight signals to communicate about the operation of the windlass. I had to put down my flashlight to get the snubber off the chain. “I. HATE. THESE. THINGS!” I remember screaming as I urged the metal hook around and off the links.
Finally we got the anchor up and motored to the other end of the harbor. This was a terrifying journey, because not all the boats had their anchor lights on and we couldn’t see where we were going. My eyes were playing tricks on me. I saw two boats where there was only one—later I realized it was a ketch, and it was so difficult to think! Ryan stayed calm, fortunately, and shouted, “here! we’re dropping the anchor here!” We let out all 100 feet of chain plus an 25 feet of line, in 10 feet of water. We were far too agitated to sleep, and finally took turns watching until morning, which came slowly.
The weather got worse the next day. It rained so hard that the bimini leaked, especially right over the wheel and chart plotter, making it malfunction. We clamped a plastic Ikea bag over it, lifting up the edges to see the chart, and stayed soaked for hours while the storm raged around us. The wind roared at 40 knots per hour for much of the afternoon, and gusted above 50. A neighboring boat dragged a couple hundred feet. We sighed with relief when they stablized their position, not far from our stern. We monitored the wind gauge and our breadcrumbs on the chart plotter, watching, watching. My skin crawled with anxiety. It was impossible to settle down, even though there was nothing to do but watch, watch, watch and watch.
I attempted to calm myself by tidying and eventually felt comfortable enough to start a lasagna. Just as the sauce was starting to bubble, Ryan informed me, “we’ve dragged 40 feet.” FREAK! went my system. But I calmly turned off the burner, put on my rain gear, and went above. It was time to learn how to set a second anchor. Our second anchor is a 23 pound Fortress on 30 feet of 3/8 inch chain and 200 feet of 5/8 inch rode. The Fortress is actually designed for the messy, slimy sand we were sitting on. Setting it seemed like a good idea, but only after a nervous discussion. By this point, Murphy’s law seemed to be in play—if it could go wrong, it would. We didn’t carry on for any length of time, as the winds were still wailing and the rain was still sheeting, thunder was booming, lightining was flashing, and we were dragging. By this point, we were fully suited up in foul weather gear with harnesses ready to clip into the jack lines. We set the second anchor. And we held.
And we held. Ryan seemed to relax finally, but I couldn’t unwind, even when the winds finally went away at midnight or so. I sat up reading and checked our position every hour or so. And we held. Finally, around five in the morning, I allowed myself to sleep.
Chris Parker wrote, “In 13 years, I don’t think I’ve seen an event like this in the Bahamas. He said it may have been a Derecho, essentially a “self sustaining linearly-organized storm.” As Parker explained, “A Derecho often starts as a series of outflow boundaries/gust fronts extending from squall/T-storms, advancing ahead of a pool of cold air aloft. Over time, these outflow boundaries/gusts can merge into a long line, and be self-sustaining.”
We learned a lot. In the long run, we were really lucky, much more fortunate than our friends. For a rousing, well-written tale about how awful this storm was for many folks, please read Neko’s blog. Some other people we care about suffered the worst loss that we know about. Their beloved terrier, who had sailed with them for ten years, washed overboard during the gale. We have talked to many cruisers who have sailed all over the globe for many years, and every one of them says that this was the worst experience they have ever had.