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.

1.31.14 (1)

 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.


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