So it did not take us 16 hours to get to the Berry Islands. It took almost twice that; 32 hours exactly from the time we pulled up anchor in Nixon’s Harbor but 30 if you figure that we really left from the Bimini Sands Marina where we stopped to get water and ice.
When I uploaded my last post, minutes before my cell coverage died and land disappeared from sight, it was sunny and the winds were light. We ate soba noodle salad that Chris and Gabe had prepped that morning and chilled in the cockpit playing Scrabble.
Then we discussed how the night would proceed, and divided up into watches. I’d never done it this way, but we staggered the watches so that no one would be alone for longer than an hour. The first half hour and the last half hour of each two-hour watch would overlap with the previous and next watch. We did this because, as newbies, Chris and Gabe wanted less time alone. In retrospect I wish we’d paired up in three-hour watches of two people each because the wind piped up around sunset, along with the seas. We were heeled over for the next twelve hours – leaving really only two berths on the low side of the boat on which to sleep.
With the boat on a decent heel, Chris made rice and beans for dinner. I watched on, impressed. She even managed to cut onions amidst the turbulence. Around sunset I took a bunch of pictures and this 3D video.
Then we ate in the dark, then I went below to try and get some sleep. The boat lurched forward and back and swayed side to side, as it does when forging ahead into the wind and seas, and every time a wave smacked against the bow I felt like someone was beating me with a cudgel. I tried to imagine how this would feel once Greg was in the berth with me – because the heel of the boat would certainly force him down on me, unless I tried to sleep on the high side, in which case I would be on top of him. It would be like sleeping in a washing machine with a bowling balI, complete with water, as a stream of seawater came in from the anchor locker whenever a wave came over the bow. What’s more, I could hear every word of conversation from the cockpit. All I could think was: this is not going to work.
About an hour before my watch started I went up into the cockpit in a tizzy.
“We have to anchor at Mackie Shoal,” I declared. Mackie Shoal is a shallow-er area in the middle of the bank where many people stop and wait out the night. The French-Canadians in the anchorage in Bimini told us that was their plan. We decided instead to try and make it to the Berry Islands as quickly as possible, and during daylight hours instead of spending two whole days sailing and risk arriving at night. I no longer liked this plan.
“We can’t anchor at Mackie Shoal,” said Greg. “It’s way off our course. By the time we get there it would be 2 am and then we’d be so tired we would sleep in and then we wouldn’t make it to Great Harbor by nightfall.”
As a rule, we don’t enter strange ports at night.
I knew he was right, but I wanted to sleep and knowing that I couldn’t sleep in our berth, I knew I had a long, sleepless night ahead.
I pulled on my foul weather gear and climbed into the cockpit. I might as well be topside.
Chris and Gabe both went below leaving Greg and I alone in the cockpit for a few hours. Several ships came near us in the night, and Greg shown his light on the sails.
We were bashing into wind and seas, and making only 2 knots when the autopilot quit. Greg figured we must have run out of battery power so we decided to start the engine in order to charge the batteries, and we rolled up the genoa.
We motored for a while, until Greg spotted a red light on the engine control panel that had never been it before. It was the alternator. This was not good. We shut down the engine. We would have to sail. What’s more, the alternator was key to battery supply – which was key to running the autopilot… which we had assured Chris and Gabe that they could rely on to steer the boat, since they still hadn’t really learned to sail.
Later we learned that Chris was a bit nervous about being alone on watch, and Gabe had reassured her, “All you have to do is make sure the autopilot is on course.”
When we turned off the engine, we had only the mainsail out.
“Guess what our speed is?” Greg asked and then answered his own question: “Zero.”
Because of the oncoming seas, we were completely stalled.
So we unrolled the genoa, but only part-way, to a #1 jib, so we wouldn’t find ourselves over-canvassed in the night.
Shortly after this, a bright pink oblong shape appeared on the horizon to port. It looked vaguely like a cruise ship. We watched it, waiting to see if it was getting closer or crossing ahead of us. Greg once again shined his dive light upward to illuminate the sails.
“We should alter course,” he said.
We tacked, and kept watching the strangely shaped vessel until it morphed again and then lifted up off the horizon. It was the moon.
We had a pretty good laugh about this. I wonder how many sailors before us have been fooled by a moonrise.
Greg went down to “sleep” around 11 pm and I stood watch until Gabe came up at midnight.
I told him that the autopilot was down. He seemed a bit nervous but sat down beside me in the cockpit and watched. I told him how I was trying to steer as close to the wind as possible, how to watch the sails to make sure they were full, how to listen for when they flogged, and how to feel the acceleration when he found the sweet spot. Then I handed him the wheel. He erred a few times to one side or the other and I simply pointed, indicating that he should head up or fall off. Within minutes he seemed to get it. I curled up in the cockpit and dozed off to sleep. Several times I awoke to the sound of the sails, or perhaps to something I felt, and I would look up, look at Gabe, and see he was already correcting.
On the long slog down to Key Biscayne, the day Greg and I beat into the wind all day, I remember saying something to him about how I thought that for all its exhaustion, sailing to windward was one of the easiest tacks to learn on. Gabe was living proof. An hour and a half later Chris came up and I overhead Gabe giving her the same advice I’d given him. I didn’t intervene, but sat back and watched Chris take to the helm as naturally and instinctively as Gabe had. It’s hard to explain how rewarding this is to the non-sailor, but there is magic in it. It’s a beautiful thing when you feel for the first time that you’ve harnessed the wind, and when you see someone else get it for the first time, it’s like sharing a secret understanding of how the world works.
Greg came on watch late at 3:30 am, and I immediately headed below to get warm. I was so tired by this point that I slept right through the bucking bronco ride, until my alarm went off at 4:30 am for my next watch.
Gabe and I watched the day break over the ocean and once everyone was up we made coffee, ate leftover rice and beans for breakfast and spent the day sailing along in pleasant winds under a hot sun. I slept some more in the cockpit and Chris and I played Scrabble.
Not long before we arrived at Great Harbor, the winds completely died. I went below and made hot dog buns, and just after we anchored we put them on the grill. We ate what Chris and Gabe allege to be the best hot dogs of their lives, then we all fell asleep with the dishes still in the sink.