Always a Crisis at Midnight

Sunday March 17, 2013

imageSetting the alarm this morning to go off 30 minutes before the sun rose, we poked our heads out of the companionway, and everything still appeared to be calm.  Our crossing through the Gulf Stream and into the Bahamas was still on.  Just like the day of our original departure from Michigan, I expected to be overly excited and have my stomach full of butterflies, but for some reason it felt like any other morning.  Raising the anchor we joined with the ICW once more and followed it the few miles south and around Peanut Island until we were faced with the inlet.  Nothing like the last one we experienced, this one was wide and deep and full of commercial traffic.  Although we had the sun rising right in our eyes making it hard to make out a few of the ships passing through (all pleasure vessels at the moment), there was no apprehension about continuing outside and into the Atlantic.  It didn’t hold the dark skies with foamy white caps that I was so used to from our previous journeys on her, but was flat and calm with a bright blue sky looming overhead.  Not knowing exactly how far the stream was to begin offshore, we knew it came the closest to Florida in this particular area, I turned our instruments to water temperature, hoping the sudden rise once we hit the stream would give me any kind of clue.

Since all of our fishing attempts before had failed us, and from what we heard, a lot of it had to do with being in cooler waters, we thought we’d try our luck once more since we were in an area much more likely to produce something on our line. After all, with the dozens of fishing boats that had buzzed out of the inlet with us, there had to be fish around here somewhere.  Combing through our suitcase/tackle box, Matt browsed for the perfect lure and finally chose one that looked like a shrunken head. Maybe the fish like that? Feeding our reel a few hundred feet of spool and then attaching the lure to the end, we dropped the hook in the water.  Finished with that distraction for the moment, I checked back on the water temperature to see what it was doing.  The water had been hovering around 72 degrees right at the inlet, and was now climbing up to 75.  Did that mean we were in the stream, or just getting closer?  It was hard to tell since there was no change at all to the water that we could tell.  Setting the course a few degrees further south than we were aiming for, we sat back to enjoy this perfect morning.  This is the kind of cruising I had been waiting for for months.

Just when I had settled back into watching the coastline disappear behind us, the fishing line jumped to life with a loud buzz.  Matt and I looked at each other full of excitement and I exclaimed, What do you need me to do?!, What do you need me to do?.  I didn’t know if I should get a bucket of water ready or a shot of vodka to stun the fish while trying to get it on board, but first I was just told to lower the engine speed.  Bringing us down to just over idle I looked over to Matt who had untied our reel from the pole it had been hugging (we lost our original rod holder during some high winds on Lake Huron), and he began to slowly reel in the line.  Still excited, I stopped to think for a moment.  Wait, hadn’t we just passed through a huge patch of seaweed?  Was that our big ‘catch’ of the day?  Matt had the same thoughts as well, and described how there was no kind fight on the end of the line.  Reeling it the rest of the way in, we both stuck our heads down by the combing of the stern to look under where the dinghy was hanging and into the open water behind us. Sure enough, skipping across the top of the water was a little patch of seaweed, tricking us into thinking it was our dinner for the night.  Clearing it off we threw the line back in the water and hoped for better luck.

The rest of the day was mostly uneventful.  The sun was bright and the breeze was low, so I finally had a chance to pull out one of my bikinis after six months of sitting at the bottom of my clothing bag, and work on my tan so I wouldn’t be ‘that pasty white person’ once we arrived in the Bahamas.  Conditions were calm enough that Georgie was even allowed to roam the deck, although I did join her a few times when small ripples would send us rocking back and forth a little bit. Once more my Nook came out, and while Matt napped below, I kept a watch on deck while starting a new book.  Although the water temperature had risen to 79 degrees, later in the afternoon it began to drop just a little bit, and our coordinates showing that we were beginning to make progress south as opposed to just east, confirmed that we were on our way out of the Gulf Stream. We couldn’t have asked for a better day for a crossing, and besides the fact that we motored across the entire thing instead of sailed since the 5-10 winds that were forecast (still don’t have the anemometer fixed yet) were on our nose the whole time, it was a perfect day on the water. We watched the sun set while enjoying some leftover General Tso’s chicken, and shortly after I got myself ready for my 9:00 sleep shift. With the early wake up and sun beating on me all day though, I could have gone to bed much earlier.

Getting woken up at midnight for my first watch, I rolled off the settee and slid on the harness that Matt had just taken off. Getting my bearings, I found out that all the cruise ships and tankers that had been on our radar when I went to bed were now long gone, but we had new cruise ships headed in the same direction we were, a few miles off our starboard side.  Since we had been motoring for 16 hours straight now, Matt asked me to turn the engine off for just a moment while he checked a few things on it.  Obliging, I sat at the stern while our forward moment carried us along under autopilot.  In the few minutes he spent working down there, our forward motion could no longer carry us forward and the autopilot lost it course, furiously beeping at me until I turned it off.  Thinking that our belt was getting pretty worn down, he wanted to take a quick minute to change it. Needing me to hold the step up so he could gain access to the engine, he worked around the scalding hot parts with an oven mitt, trying to get the belt replaced. When he finished and confirmed that everything looked good I was told to turn the engine back on.  Bending down behind the wheel I turned the key and pushed the starter….but nothing happened.  Thinking that I was getting things mixed up because it was dark and I was tired, I tried again with the same results of nothing.

Having Matt come up and try as well, we realized it was more serious than not hitting the right buttons. He left for the engine area again, and with a few grunts and curses he climbed into the aft cabin to find it was an issue with grounding for the spade connector to the starter, and within a few minutes he had it fixed and we were up and running again. I put us back on course and sat back for a moment to relax while Matt cleaned up his tools below.  We weren’t even going for two minutes when I heard shouts of Turn it off, turn it off!!.  Shutting the engine down once more I scrambled down the companionway while he pulled back out the tools out of drawers and shelves. The new belt we had just put on snapped and yet another one needed to be put on immediately.  While Matt feverishly worked, now having to remove the bushing and put it back on, I was constantly trying to crane my neck for a view out of the port light to make sure those cruise ships were not coming any closer while we were sitting adrift out there.  What felt like forever but was probably one five minutes, everything was fixed, we were back on course and out of the way of cruise ships, and I just had to keep up hope that the engine would not die during my shift.

Today came with a lot fewer surprises, at least during the daylight hours.  When I woke up for my 6-9 watch, we were half way through the Northwest Providence Channel.  I had been thinking that we’d already be passing the Berry Islands by this point, but those headwinds were really slowing us down.  Still moving solely under motor power, we were averaging about 3.5 knots.  The winds were also picking up, which would be great sailing if they were closer to our beam, but being directly on our nose the only power they had was to keep us at a snails pace.  Once more without much to do for the afternoon we sat around reading and then took a bucket bath up on deck while trying out our new bug sprayer for the fresh water rinse.  We can each get ourselves fully clean with it’s one gallon capacity (1 @ each), so it looks like it was a good purchase.  While bathing (sans suits, cause…who’s around?) we passed by a cruise ship that was a few miles off our port side and didn’t seem to be moving.  Yet another cruise ship failure out on the open waters?  We just hoped the guests on deck weren’t bored enough to whip out a set of binoculars and aim them at us.  Or better yet, come out with their high zoom video cameras. I can see it on CNN now.  Cruisers stuck on a Carnival ship were treated to an interesting site while bobbing around in Bahamian waters.  A sailboat passing by was giving quite a show with two nude bathers on deck. Are they hippies or have the faucets on their boat just stopped producing water?  We’ll have the story for you tonight at 11:00.

After our possible peep show, Matt was below deck working on getting the water maker attached (we took it apart for workers to get the engine and transmission in and out) when the engine stopped on us once more. A little puzzled since everything for the most part appeared to be working fine, after a few minutes we realized that our fuel had run out.  Still having the 10 gallons in our jerrycans, Matt put about 8 in and left the remaining two in case we were to run out a second time. The last thing we wanted was to come into Nassau Harbor under sail.  While he went below again to continue working I started charting our course more and found out that there were about 75 miles still left between us and Nassau.  Assuming we had put 8 gallons in, that would give us about 16 hours of motoring.  Moving at the speed we were, which was now down to only 3 knots, we weren’t even going to make it 50 miles on what we had. Decisions needed to be made, and while we still had time to make them. My two suggestions were that we check into the Berry Islands instead, now 13 miles away, or turn off the engine and tack our way across the channel until we had made up enough miles to put the engine back on. While my vote was for the Berry Islands, it was only two hours until sunset and there was no way we’d be able to make it there without having to wait in the channel for the sun to come up anyway.  So after talking it over we let out the sails and turned on the motor, having to fall off the wind so far that we were barely able to make any progress on our course. Nassau here we come….even slower.

What bothered me even more about having to fall so far off our course while we tacked across the channel, was now avoiding cruise ships and tankers without the ease of changing our course to whatever direction we needed to go to get out of their way.  And there were boats everywhere. We couldn’t look at our AIS without seeing at least five or six within a few miles of us. I was hoping that once it got dark out and we began to take our shift alone that the engine would go back on, but Matt assured that we’d be fine and we could tack out of the way of any oncoming traffic if we needed to. Having switched shifts with him since he was feeling a little ill after spending a bumpy afternoon stuffed into the aft cabin, I was on first watch from nine to midnight. We tacked just before Matt went to bed, and by the time we’d need to tack again after running into what would hopefully be the lower part of the Berry Islands, it would be time for him to wake up.  The first half of my shift was uneventful, although when the winds had died down and left us still moving forward at a pace of two knots, although now heading pretty much west when we wanted to be aiming south, part of me was hoping that the slow pace would continue so that it would actually take us until morning to reach the Berry Islands where we could then check in and fill up on diesel.  But as soon as I started wishing, the winds picked back up and now had me hurtling towards my target at close to six knots.

Our course over ground kept shifting all the time, so I had no clue if we were going to end up at the north or middle Berry Islands before it was time to tack again. While I crossed over I kept an eye on the AIS, and watched the screen as blinking arrows passed miles away from our stern and bow, and then scanning the dark to make sure I could match up the navigation lights on the water that belonged to them. There was one point about 45 minutes before my shift ended that I showed three arrows on the AIS headed at my beam, and I kept praying that they’d pass in front of me before we came up on one another. Sitting there I contemplated on which direction I’d even be able to go to miss them. The only thing I could think would be to tack and turn back in the direction I had just come from, but that would mean losing lots of miles and even more time. I decided to wait a little longer until we got closer to each other. Scanning the dark horizon I tried to place each vessel (two cruise ships and one tanker), so I could try to estimate if/when we’d run into each other. Watching them all get closer and closer I started wringing my hands with what to do.  Should I wake Matt to tell him we need to tack?  Should I wait until they get a little bit closer?

Keeping a close eye on both the chart plotter and water, it looked like we might fall into an opening between the three. The cruise ship closest to us looked like he was slightly veering off where he would pass by our stern, leaving a gap while we sat in an open space while the other two vessels passed by our bow. Still not feeling comfortable leaving it up to chance, I hailed the cruise ship that looked like it was veering, just so he knew we were out there.  Although all these vessels are supposed to have someone constantly monitoring their radar, they don’t always follow these rules and sometimes little sailboats like us get missed.  Getting a hold of someone on the radio, I gave him our location and made him confirm that he had a visual on us.  He confirmed that he could see us passing in front of his bow, two miles out and to continue on course.  Feeling safe and satisfied, I called down to Matt to wake him up for his shift. Crisis averted, and now I’d be able to get a few hours of shut eye.  When Matt came up a few minutes later I informed him of the situation, but he still wasn’t feeling comfortable with the other two vessels to pass in front of our bow.  He suggested we turn the motor on for a few hours so that dodging ships while in the dark wouldn’t be so hard.  Ummmm….didn’t I suggest that before?

Getting behind the wheel I turned on the engine while Matt went about furling in the headsail.  I hadn’t given a ton of thought to the cruised ship I had just hailed, but looking to my side once more, he didn’t look like he was going to go as far off our stern as I originally thought.  In fact, he looked like he was going to run us over.  Earlier I must have assumed that he was much further away because all of the cruise ships we had seen up to this point were lit up like a Christmas tree and impossible to miss the entire shape of the vessel. This one however was much more stealthy, so it wasn’t until he was right on top us us that I could see how close he was.  You know those photos you see on DVD covers where it looks like you’re looking up at the bow of a naval ship and standing 10 feet away from it?  I could have taken that shot.  Without the zoom.  Punching up our RPMs we hightailed it out of there as fast as possible, angling ourselves so that we’d come up on it’s starboard side.  While I’m sure we weren’t in any real danger since we were able to clearly get out of it’s way by the time it passed, it was still very unnerving. Still awing though, as we both stood there with mouths open at the sheer size of this vessel.  I’m really hoping we make landfall tomorrow afternoon, because I really don’t think I could take another crisis at midnight.

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