Not so Safe at Anchor?

Friday January 31, 2014

boat at anchor

I don’t want to jinx myself by saying this, but it seems like some of our most hair raising experiences so far on this adventure have been at anchor. And of all those hair raising experiences at anchor, they seemed to be focused here in Isla Mujeres. Or, The Anchorage of No Holding, as I’m going to start referring to it. First, there was the time that Skebenga started dragging their big steeled hull toward us shortly after we arrived here, luckily to have Luki and Elmari be on the ball and start fixing the problem as soon as it started. Crisis adverted there. Then during one high winded night, we watched a boat from the other side of the harbor drag it’s way into the channel, finally catching again while it was still far enough away for us to catch our breath and go to bed without too much worry.

The next night, it was us who found ourselves in trouble, our anchor having gotten caught in a bike frame, causing us to drag about 400 feet, narrowly missing the boat anchored behind us. After all this excitement, we decided the lagoon would be a much safer spot to sit out the next storm. And oh boy, it was a nasty one. Sustained winds of 40 knots put all boaters on edge and on a close look out through the dark to make sure nothing seemed out of the ordinary. All of us who had secured a spot during the day, properly setting our 1-2 anchors, were kept on watch all night long as a new boat came into the lagoon while the storm was blasting on high, dragging multiple times and almost running into us twice. From experience here, we’ve learned that it’s not only your anchor you have to watch out for, it’s everyone else’s too.

Back out in the main harbor for a few weeks now, we’d been keeping a very close eye on the weather every day since we’re trying to take the first chance we can get of sustained south or west winds to carry us over to Florida. We also keep an eye out for any strong systems that look like they might pass over us, but I hadn’t seen anything coming through over 20 knots. Nothing was in the forecast, and we felt comfortable staying where we were in the large and open harbor. Then just a little after nine o’clock last night, we noticed the winds shift and begin to pick up a little. Usually we have E or SE breezes blowing through here, and all our bobbing our bouncing is due to boats passing through the channel and throwing off a wake. When we suddenly shifted to the NNW, we were open to the bay that separates us from Cancun, and there was a noticeable fetch starting to come through. Winds had gone up from the 5-10 range to 20 or so knots, and although it wasn’t bad, it was something we said we’d want to keep an eye on.

When the clock struck 10:30, my eyes began to get droopy and I was ready to head off to bed. But just out of curiosity, I wanted to sticky my head out and check conditions since they seemed to be steadily building. While looking around I saw the catamaran that had just anchored next to us that morning seemed a little close for comfort, although it was hard to tell how much they moved since monohulls and multihulls move differently at anchor. Looking at the boat directly upwind of us, their anchor light appeared just a little bit brighter than it had before, and it was enough for me to know that one or both of us should keep an eye on everything until the winds settled down more. It was shaping up to be another long night of anchor watch. Throwing on a jacket and tucking a flashlight in my pocket, I went to start watch in the cockpit while Matt made tea below to keep us warm. At the beginning of these storms, both of us usually have enough piqued curiosity that we want to be out there and see what’s going on.

On this night we didn’t have long to wait before the action started. While the two of us were having a debate on if the little 22 ft boat directly upwind of us looked like it was dragging closer or was just swaying back and forth at anchor, we caught the movement of another light further north in the harbor. Sure enough, there was a boat on the move, and not at the will of the pilot. It wasn’t headed near us or any other boat thankfully, but it’s always a sad thing when you see another boat in impending danger and you can do nothing to stop it. This boat was headed for the shore and the few wrecked and half sunken boats already in that spot did nothing to ease our nerves or our empathy for this boat on the move. Once or twice it appeared to catch and we breathed in a sigh of relief, only to watch it pick up and start moving backwards again moments later, finally coming to a halt against the shore but without any perceptible danger of it flipping on it’s side.

Just as we thought that was going to be the whole excitement for the evening, the catamaran just to the side of us began to move as well. It was strange since it appeared moments before that we had seen movement in the cockpit by one of the owners, but once this hunk of fiberglass began taking flight through the anchorage, not a soul was to be seen. Having been smart enough to put on the radio this time, we heard calls to the catamaran, warnings that they were dragging. There was no response, and no light on board. Another boat from the far side of the anchorage began flashing a light in their direction, trying to get their attention. This also did nothing to stir any person on board. Watching and hearing this all happen from our own cockpit where we were still safe from this wrecking ball, we tried to to our part, bringing out the air horn and giving it five short blasts. Nothing. Then all three of us started in at once. Calls on the radio, blinding flashes of light, blasts on the air horn. Still, no one was to be seen on the catamaran.

We all watched as it slid back to the same shore already holding the first boat that dragged. Thinking that if anything, they’d just end up on the shore and be their own problem, we were wrong. Just as it looked like they were about to make contact with the mangroves that lined the shore, lights lit up in the cockpit and there was an illusion of forward movement. We quickly breathed out a sigh, knowing they appeared to be safe, only to suck in our breath again and wonder where they would try to go from this point. For us, we didn’t need to worry. For the poor fellow on a mooring at the back of our group, well, he had a new permanent neighbor for the night. After wondering why this catamaran wasn’t moving out into the anchorage, I pulled out the binoculars and saw through the lights on deck that they appeared to be tangled up with the boat in the back.

Everyone in the anchorage seeming to sense this at the same time, jumped on the radio to see what the issue was and offer their help. Unfortunately, winds were still blowing so high and the chop in the water was so rough, that sending a dinghy to get anywhere near or possibly between the two boats seemed like more danger than do-gooding. All the while on the radio, there were also messages of spare anchors if needed, or if any boats felt they had poor holding, they should move to the lagoon before another situation arose. This message was relayed many times to the initial boat that dragged into the mangroves, whom did not have their radio on, but eventually did get themselves off.

Through the next hour we waited for winds to subside and kept a keen eye for anything else on the move. There was one large steel hulled boat on the other side of the channel that, in my eye, had clearly moved much closer, but caught once again before even making it to the channel. The initial boat to drag, once their anchor was down again, dragged at least twice more that we saw, but each time was able to get moving before getting too close to the jagged rocks they had now decided to put themselves in front of. We finally went to bed weary and hopeful that no more storms ever come through while we’re here. Maybe we’ll just take our chances out on the open water instead of waiting for a window?* At least it’s not likely that anything is going to hit us out there.

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 The boat that spent a few hours in the mangroves.

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 The red boat on the far right was the one making it’s way toward us, luckily catching before it got too close.

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 And…the big wreck of the evening.

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*Of course we’re actually going to wait for a good weather window. We may be anxious to get out of here, but not that much.

 

Enough Excitement Already

Tuesday January 7, 2014

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The thrills of being anchored here in Isla Mujeres just keep coming. Our daily checks on passage weather showed another heavy front on it’s way, just a few days after the one that sent us dragging at anchor on Saturday. The forecast was very bad, showing winds sustaining at 35-40 knots through last night and into today. This time we weren’t going to take any chances, and we moved ourselves into the lagoon that has much more protection from the wind. At first we were worried that there may not even be room for us in there, due to shoals all around the edges and a channel running through the center, there isn’t space for more than 5-6 boats in total to comfortably anchor without the danger of possibly swinging into each other. As we motored in from the harbor we were pleased to find that only three other boats were anchored in this area, and we hoped that no more would be on their way.

After two attempts to get the anchor down in a decent spot that would also keep the party catamarans from yelling at us that we were in their channel (as what happened last time), we decided that a second anchor, Bahamian style, might not be a bad idea. We had approximately six hours until this blow was supposed to set in, and we didn’t want to be wishing as it was too late, that this was something we had done earlier. Shortly after we had gotten our spare fortress settled down a hundred feet from our Rocna, we were getting all the lines tight on the bow when we had a surprise visit. One of the people from another boat in the lagoon, Jargo, came by to say hi to us. He introduced himself as Lee, and it took us less than a half a second to notice something about him. He was a young cruiser! We thought those were becoming outmoded as we had not seen any new ones since Ana Bianca came on the scene in Guatemala. While talking for a moment he mentioned that he had already done a solo circumnavigation and now he was cruising part time with his girlfriend Amanda. We agreed that if we all got through that night’s storm that we’d have to go out for drinks sometime.

The remaining hours leading up to the storm were quite boring. I had just found a new series of books on my e-reader which were keeping me captive, and the hours on the clock ticked by so fast that I hadn’t even realized it had gotten dark out. Dinner was quick, I wanted to get back to my book, but I kept taking mental notes of the positions of the boats outside in the lagoon, memorizing the location of their anchor lights. Because of our Bahamian anchoring there was no swinging on our part, so it was very easy to keep tabs on the others. Every time I’d get up from my book I’d look out our deadlights and make sure nothing seemed out of place. One time, there was. A new anchor light.

I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me so I made sure to stick my head out the companionway to double check. I still couldn’t be sure since it looked as if it was on the other side of the channel and I didn’t know if I was confusing one of the previous anchor lights as something from the nearby marina. Grabbing a high powered flashlight and shinning it across the water, I confirmed that it was in fact a new boat. One that had come in in the dark. I wasn’t thrilled by this thought, but they seemed to be set, so I went back to my book. Every time I got up to refill my drink, use the head, or just generally torment (snuggle) Georgie, I’d glance outside. On my third or fourth check I noted that this new light seemed noticeably closer. Calling Matt up, he agreed that the boat did look like it was getting closer.

As I had mentioned in our last post, one of our bigger fears is not actually dragging ourselves, but others dragging into us. Putting on some warm coats, we flipped on the instruments as the wind was distinctly getting higher. It had sounded as if it was holding in the 20’s before, but now we were pretty sure it was getting into the 30’s. We watched from the cockpit, staying behind the shelter of the dodger, and watched as a flashlight kept running the length of the deck, making us thinking the person operating this other boat was a singlehander. It looked as if the person was trying to get their anchor up, but luckily, not getting any closer to us during this process. We watched intently as the light made rounds between the cockpit and the bow, and finally the boat was underway.

Now came the fun part. This person obviously had issues with their anchor dragging once tonight…where would they try and put it down a second time? The same spot? Which happened to be directly upwind of us. Yes, that is exactly what they tried. After 3-4 attempts of getting the anchor to stay put in that area and ultimately failing, the boater decided to start zooming around the anchorage at breakneck speeds, weaving around all the currently anchored boats and coming very close to some of them. We thought we heard a yell from our new friend Lee down on s/v Jargo, and we had a feeling he was outside watching this mess as well. Soon it became a game to try and spot this guy’s anchor light zipping through the anchorage, and then figure out what direction he was facing, and if he was trying to get his anchor down.

Honestly, we did feel bad for the guy. Even in this very protected lagoon, the winds were strong, holding in the mid 30’s, and I myself would not want to try anchoring in this midday, let alone in the dark. A few times I asked Matt if we should do anything to help him, but Matt remembered a French flag on this particular boat (we now remembered him from the main harbor), and didn’t think we could be of much assistance to him. He did finally set anchor down in front of us again, and after keeping an eye on him for the next 20 minutes to make sure he did not move an inch, we finally felt comfortable enough to go down below deck again. Being on high alert though, I kept checking out the deadlight every ten minutes to make sure he was staying put. He did not.

Just to make sure I was seeing things right, I climbed into the cockpit so I could get a firsthand view. Then I calmly called down the companionway to Matt, “I’m going to need you to put on your jacket and join me up here”. By the time he was up in the cockpit, this boat was 2/3rds closer than he was just moments before. We grabbed fenders out of the lazarette and prepared ourselves to run up front and fend him off. We were waiting for just the right moment so we didn’t have to face the brunt of these now 40 knot winds at the bow unless we knew if/when he would hit. Once more, right as he was getting too close for comfort, the engine kicked on high gear and he hightailed it out of there, realizing this was not a safe spot for him to anchor. 20 more minutes of anxious watching later, we watched him set his anchor down on the far side of the lagoon by the channel, far, far away from us. I really hope Isla doesn’t have any more of these high wind storms in store, I don’t think I can handle this constant excitement.

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One of our fenders marking our second anchor.

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Our other neighbors in the anchorage.

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This area was wide open, and we have no idea why.

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Georgie is ready to help in any way necessary.

 

 

What a Drag

Saturday January 4, 2014

boat anchored in Isla Mujeres harbor

 You’re sitting pretty now, but little do you know, we’re going to come careening at you in a few hours.

 

The past few days on Serendipity have been quite boring. There’s a front blowing through the area, bringing clouds, rain, and lots of wind. We actually haven’t left the boat since we’ve returned from Cancun, not actually wanting to put ourselves out in that weather even for much needed groceries, and subsiding on a diet of sandwiches and lots of reading. The weather has brought our batteries back down as well, so of course, computer work is once again out. Yup, these have been quite boring days indeed. And if I was lucky, it would have stayed that way.

The winds yesterday were much more fierce than they have been today for the most part, only blowing in the high 20’s with gusts up in the 30’s, instead of yesterdays 30’s with gusts into the 40’s. During our after dinner relaxation time though, they began to kick up again. The wind would howl, rigging would clank, and we’d look up from the books we were reading, our eyes communicating to each other, ‘Wow, that was a big one’. At some point we began to step into the cockpit to glace around and make sure we were still in the same place, that our anchor wasn’t dragging at all. But with darkness, also comes confusion. It became much harder to tell exactly where we were because we were now surrounded by a sea of black with only twinkling lights from town and the occasional anchor light as a guide.

There were a few times that we’d pop our heads out, and I being the much better judge of measurements and distance, would mention to Matt, “I think these other boats look a little closer than they did before”. These other boats, meaning two that were anchored behind us. With the wind coming over the island from the east, we were at the front and center of the channel, with nary a boat in front of us, which is just the way we like it. We have a Rocna. It holds. We don’t have to worry about dragging, our biggest fear is of others dragging into us. So with these ‘slightly closer’ positioned boats, we weren’t sure if we’d actually moved or if our eyes were playing tricks on us in the dark. They tend to do that sometimes. Going back to our books we just said that we’d keep an eye on it, looking out again every so often to make sure these other anchor lights weren’t getting any brighter. Every 30 minutes after that we’d check again, and everything looked normal. I thought to myself ‘Even if we did somehow drag back a little bit, we seem to be still now’.

We were quite content with our situation and position while getting ready for bed around 10:30, when we heard our anchor alarm going off. Normally this doesn’t send us into a panic as it will sometimes go off even if we’re only rotating at anchor, but this time we knew to be suspicious. I stepped up on deck, and Matt was quickly behind, moving me out of the way because, as usual, I wasn’t moving fast enough. We looked behind us and though, ‘Ok, yeah, that boat does look a little closer’. Then we looked to our side and said, ‘Huh, we weren’t even with that boat before’. And then it dawned that we hand in fact dragged. And silly me, I somehow assumed that we’d caught again. We formulated a plan to move forward and re-anchor, and I went about finding a clip to pull my hair back so that it wouldn’t blow in my face, causing temporary blindness, and changed from my long yoga pants into shorts so that I wouldn’t trip on hem while out in the cockpit. Finally getting back out into the cockpit I realized that I should have been in much more of a hurry. The boat behind us was growing closer and closer….we were still dragging! And not very slowly either.

Since we had to deal with the new problem of having issues with our starter, and THANK GOD we figured that out earlier or we’d still be engine-less, just like we were when we went to charge the batteries this afternoon and found out it wouldn’t turn on; Matt jumped into the lazarette and manually started the engine as I was behind the wheel, quickly trying to unlock it. There had been no time for a discussion on exactly what was going to be done or any kind of planning for a course of action. This was a fly by the seat of your pants, get your ass moving before you hit the boat that you’re quickly coming up on, situation. I put the boat in gear, not sure of how much punch I should give it since I knew we still had to get the anchor chain up in the first place and I didn’t want to go roaring past it. So I kept us around 1300 RPMs. Until I looked behind me and saw that we were, I’m not kidding, about 40 feet from hitting the other boat. The wind was so strong that drowned out my cries of “Oh Shit!!” as I punched us up to over 2000 RPMs to get us moving. I kept at this pace until I saw the boat growing dimmer behind me, and finally, Matt waving his arms, trying to get my attention to slow down. So I basically brought us to a stop. Can you see where this is going?

Now my too slow speed was giving us no forward motion against the winds that were trying to hold us back, and the bow was turning to Port even though Matt was sternly pointing toward Starboard and I had the wheel fully cranked that direction. Scared, flustered, and frustrated, it didn’t dawn on me to give us enough gas to at least keep us moving forward until Matt had to run back and tell me. My heart sank a little more as I realized this is the only way we could communicate. There was no way we could hear each other over the HOWLING wind with him at the bow and me at the stern, and with it being so dark out, my beloved hand signals were now obsolete. I kept moving us forward at a slow and steady pace, unsure of where we where, or even where we were heading. The darkness made everything so disorienting and I couldn’t tell exactly how far away we now were from the other boats, or especially the channel.

Matt came back once more to tell me that it all started because our anchor had gotten caught on a BMX bike frame which came up along with it and the chain (wtf?!) and now to just keep an eye out,that we wanted to try and end up at the current position we were at that moment after the anchor was let down again and enough chain was let out, so to just get us a little further out. Which again, in the darkness, I had no idea how to judge when we’d gone another 100 feet or so. I just kept us slowly moving forward, hoping for some kind of signal from the bow, when I looked over to Port and thought, ‘Huh, that kind of looks like a mast’. Then I stuck my head out further around the dodger and realized, ‘Holy s%*t, that IS a mast!”. I guess in my rush to get us forward I had put us into the channel, and now we were coming up on another sailboat that was anchored on the other side. One which, instead of having a light atop their mast, had one glowing from the cockpit, perfectly matching the location of the lights on shore. I know a lot of people have these, so don’t take this personally, but I HATE anchor lights situated on the boom or in the cockpit. It does NOT light up your cockpit making you easier to see, it just makes an optical illusion that you’re much further away than you actually are. (Done ranting now)

Eyeing this new boat that we were now on top of, I quickly turned the wheel to Starboard and we began to follow the path of the channel. Becoming extremely aware of my surroundings now, I eyed the anchorage more closely and realized there were a number of boats that didn’t have any kind of light on. None. I could barely make them out through the blackness. Another pet peeve of mine. Yes, I know that legally it is not mandated that you have a navigational light on your boat at night if you are in a marked anchorage. But seriously people, do you not want to be seen?! I know people aren’t normally moving around anchorages at night, and if they are they should at least have radar on, but there are times (like this!) where emergencies happen, there isn’t time, and that’s not an option. (Whew, sorry about all this, if you can’t tell, I’m both a little stressed out and worked up right now).

Since I happened to instantaneously change direction, Matt came back to see what the heck was going on, where upon he got a full earful from me on all the things listed above. He was just as peeved too. Once we both took a few deep breaths and calmed down a little, we made a plan to keep our new course for just a minute, now putting ourselves in an area where no one was behind us, before slipping the boat into neutral and dropping the anchor once more. We settled into a spot that we’d hoped was just out of the channel, although I’m sure we’ll both be up with the sun tomorrow, ready to reposition. The winds now seem to be dying down, but my heart is still going a million miles a minute. I hope we don’t ever have to do that again. As I just mentioned on our Facebook page, THAT.WAS.SCARY.