Sunday, May 31, 2009

Abort! Abort! Abort!

Chris here... Kids, don't try this at home.  Well, we TRIED to get to Nassau today.  Our Sirius weather showed some big storms, but if the past was any sign, they would turn north once they reached Nassau and we'd be clear.  We headed out around 9:30am with the idea that we could duck into Royal Island, about 7 miles from Spanish Wells, if things got nasty.

We slowly motored through the channel at Spanish Wells.  It's deep in the middle (10-14ft) but is pretty narrow.  As we got close to the channel leading into the main bay, we saw the fast ferry coming in.  Fortunately, we had enough time to slow down, hover to the extreme side of the channel (the right side of the boat was in about 4ft of water while the keel was in 7ft) and let him pass.  We then cautiously worked our way out into the shallow water just outside of Spanish Wells.  It's not a place we would want to be during low tide, but it was mid tide so we never saw less than 7.5ft (we need 6ft).  We followed along the south side of Spanish Wells until we got to slightly deeper water (8ft-9ft), and then turned to our waypoint south.

All during this time, we were watching the weather on our system.  The red and yellow areas got larger and smaller, but overall the storm itself got bigger.  The number of lightning strikes shown around Andros, about 150nm west of here, grew significantly.  Then the storm was over Nassau.  Then the storm was passing Nassau and heading right for us.  "Ummmm... yeah, this storm is different," Kristen and I said to each other.

We continued on for a bit farther and watched the cloud line to the west of us as it drew closer.  The wind had been blowing about 3-5kts, but it started increasing to over 10kts.  Then, the temperature dropped.  I don't mean a little drop - I mean we were shivering we were so cold.  I quick grabbed the wheel, yelled to Kristen that we were aborting our trip to Nassau, pulled a 180 and headed for Royal Island.

At this point the wind was at 20kts, and it was continuing to build.  The water was starting to froth, covered with whitecaps as far as our eyes could see.  The waves started building - two feet, three feet, four feet.  They weren't huge, but the time between each one was so short that we'd have four under us at any point.  Kristen was watching the sky to the west and told me that the lightning was constant, big streaks across the sky and also hitting the water.  The thunder started building.  Then we saw the line of rain - a large wall of gray - rapidly approaching us.

At the point I turned we were about 5 miles from Royal Island.  With the waves hitting us on our nose we were only making 4kts of forward speed.  When we first turned, we were hopeful that we would reach Royal Island before the storm hit, but as we watched the rain and lightning close in on us we knew we wouldn't make it.

I had told Kristen earlier - if things get bad, don't panic - we need to work through it.  If the storm becomes one of the nasty squalls that was predicted - 50kts+ of wind - we'd turn our stern to it and run with it until it passed.  Well, as I watched the wind build to over 30kts (over 37mph), and I felt the temperature continue to drop, I realized that it was going to be a bad one.  Unfortunately, our location placed us in a shallow region of water - to the east was Meeks Island with coral heads, to the west was a reef, also dotted with rocks and coral heads. 

The rain hit us hard and visibility dropped to 15-20ft.  I couldn't see the forward sail from the cockpit.  The wind peaked at 41kts - about 50mph.  We didn't have any sails up, yet we were heeling over at 15 degrees.  Because of our location, I couldn't turn our back to the waves, so we our side was to them and they kept slamming against us.  Then the real lightning started.  Flash bang, flash bang, flash bang - lightning and thunder at the same time.  At one point the lightning hit so close that our GPS turned itself off.  I thought it had been hit, but we turned the power off and back on and it restarted.  After earlier telling Kristen not to panic, I'm the one who yelled out an expletive when it happened.  My adrenaline levels were through the roof!  I must have jumped ten feet into the air.

At this point, I idled the engine and watched our GPS carefully.  I couldn't see anything around me, but our handheld GPS (Garmin Oregon) has excellent charts on it, and I had been tracking our path from Spanish Wells, so I knew as long as I stayed near that path we'd be OK.  We didn't want to head to Royal Island in the storm since the entrance was narrow and tricky.  "We're going for it as soon as we have ANY sort of break," I yelled to Kristen over the noise of the wind.  The wind continued to blow between 30mph and 40mph.  The only way Kristen and I could hear each other was to yell.  Buckets of rain sloshed around out feet and the lightning continued to hit.

It seemed like we were in the storm for an hour, but after what was probably only 20 minutes the wind died down to 25kts (about 32mph or so).  The wind was still whistling, the waves were still big, but I asked Kristen - "What do you think about heading for Royal Island right now???!!!".  She yelled back - "Let's go for it!".  In anticipation of the storm, I had already plotted out waypoints on our GPS to bring us there, so I hit the buttons and it gave us our course.  It was very difficult to maintain our heading with very little visibility, but after 15 minutes we could just make out the coastline of Royal Island.

As we approached, the waves and wind started to moderate.  Visibility increased, and we were able to make out the entrance.  It was a narrow channel between two large rocks, but we headed for it and made it through.  The sea bed here is grass - difficult for anchors to penetrate - so we ended up having to lay our anchor down twice before it would set, but here we are, safe and sound, and with a new sea story to tell.

Tomorrow, WEATHER DEPENDENT, we head for Nassau.


Tom Ray said...

Seen a few of those, and hope to see no more, but manage to get caught once or twice a year. Glad you made it through fine. Welcome to tropical boating. ;)

Anonymous said...

Glad you made it in safely! How did the kids hold up during the storm?

poppi said...

You did the smart thing, heading to safe harbor. The sea is unforgiving; you can only make one mistake.
We use to see waterspouts all the time out at sea... they were always easy to steer around. We use to actually get pretty close to them, but of course, the boat was a little bigger!