Who Needs an Engine Anyway?

Monday April 8, 2013


I’ll let you in on a little secret about our sailing adventure. I love our engine. It just makes things so..easy..sometimes. You can point whatever direction you feel like, you can maintain a constant speed, and you don’t have to pay attention (or be reminded by your spouse) that the sail is luffing and needs to be trimmed. When the engine is on I feel like I have a sense of control. As in, I actually know how to control the boat under engine whereas I’m still 40% useless under sail power alone. (Getting better every day though!). I’m not alone, Matt has had some of these feelings too. While going down the ICW we often joked that things would be so much less difficult if we had a motor vessel. I mean, the money you save on sails and lines and winches and a million different cleats totally makes up for the cost of fuel, right? Which is why we’re always amazed when Brian and Stephanie mostly refuse to turn their engine on. Granted it had to be done for most of the ICW, but if there was a big enough bay of water, their sails were up and the engine promptly shut off. The only time it ever came back on was when the water narrowed back into a tiny winding space and when dropping anchor.

Which is why when the crew of Serendipity was settled into our anchorage in Thompson Bay after our trip over from George Town a few weeks ago, we were intently watching Rode Trip as she came in to anchor about an hour after us. “Wow, they still have their sails up”, I commented, “Looks like they’re going to ride the wind in here as far as possible before turning on the engine”. But they got closer and closer and yet the sails weren’t coming down. “No!”, I exclaimed, “They’re not going to anchor under sail!, are they?”. Not that this is an impossible feat, in fact, in an empty bay it’s probably actually pretty easy, and a handy trick to fall back on should your engine fail you. But this wasn’t an empty bay, and they had to head right into the wind! We watched in curiosity as they tacked back and forth, dodging other boats in their way and then slowing to a stop just as they were about to drop, and then pulling the boom all the way out to allow the wind to catch once more and allow them to back down on their anchor. And all I could keep thinking to myself was ‘Why go through all that trouble?‘.

Then this morning came, the day for us to finally leave Long Island and move ourselves to the desolate, never visited (according to our Explorer Charts) island chain of the Jumentos and Raggeds. Just as our buddy boat routine of yester-year (read, 2012), we set alarms to be up and haul anchor at sunrise. Just as they had come in, Brian and Steph worked without engine power to get the anchor up and get themselves moving. We just looked at each other and then said, “Hell, why not. Let’s give it a shot”. So we raised the mail sail, and as Matt pointed to the left and right I turned the wheel that direction while he used the windlass to get our anchor up. Expecting a lot of hassle, some minor complications, or at least a small argument that normally comes when we try something we’re not familiar with and can’t get our communications through very well, it was actually a piece of cake. Before I knew it Matt was giving me the signal that the anchor was up, and I turned us 180 degrees to face us out of the bay. The wind was now at our backs and I released the main to allow us to gain some speed, and we gracefully slid back out into the Exuma Sound.

The plan for the day was to get through the Comer Channel, an area with a luxurious 6 ft depth at low tide that would allow us to pass through the 2-3 ft water just outside of it. When it dropped us out we’d cut a little south east and hopefully drift into Water Cay in the Jumentos before the sun went down. The overall journey was about 45 nm and we had a healthy 20-25 knots of wind to carry us there. All of the waypoints had been entered in our chartplotter that morning so we wouldn’t accidentally find ourselves outside of the channel and run aground, so all that had to be done was to set the autopilot and watch for our next turn. We listened to the cruiser’s net one more time on the way out, received a wonderful send-off from Ren while he was doing the weather, and called in with our heartfelt goodbyes as we made our way out of radio range.

When we reached the shallows of the Commer Channel the waters turned spectacular postcard colors of blue and teal. With only a few feet of water covering an unblemished sandy bottom it looked as if we had left real life and entered some kind of computer generated perfect world. Wanting to fully enjoy the views, I made my way up to the front of the deck and sat next to the dinghy which we had strapped down in case of rough waters. My feet dangled over the side and as I kept an eye out for starfish I noticed the water color getting even lighter. We had been in a comfortable 9 feet for the most part (we were passing through at high tide), so I called back to Matt to make sure everything was ok. It turns out he was so engrossed in his book that he missed our waypoint about a half mile back and we were now edging into the low 6’s. Still a little bit of cushion, sure, but up ahead I could see almost white water. Like, there’s not actually water there, just sand. Although we had now turned and were in allignment with the next waypoint I still wasn’t comfortable with the 5’6” we were in and turned the wheel for us to actually backtrack a little, where we knew there was at least enough water to carry us there the first time. All this did though was bring us into a patch of coral heads, and while Matt stood at the bow pointing them out to me I maneuvered around them. Within a few minutes we were back to our 9 ft of water and could breathe easy again, although this time I stayed in the cockpit with my eyes glued to the chart.

Once out of the channel the water dropped off to 15-20 feet and turned an emerald color, full of grass growing on the bottom. We also turned from a relaxing downwind sail to a beam reach, and the extra gust of wind on the side of the boat now sent us shooting off at 7 knots. Getting more and more used to the 15-20 degree heel the Bahamian winds like to keep us at I settled into the high side on the cockpit and enjoyed the speed, thinking that if we kept it up we might get to Water Cay early enough to still do a little exploring. My wishes were granted and after floating past a few rocky mounds that were still called cays, we came up to Water Cay around 3 pm. Figuring we were on a roll, we wanted to try our hand at dropping the anchor under sail as well. Starting off from a speed of 0 is one thing, but getting yourself there is another completely. We had never done this before and had no idea when to douse the sails so that we either weren’t too far out, or worse, too far in. (We don’t have to wait for the sails to stop us, we can just let the ground do it!) Not having to do any tacking, we let ourselves slowly coast in. One thing I have under my belt better than Matt is reading water colors and depths, so when he kept saying, “Let’s drop now, we need to drop now”, I kept replying with, “No, we can get in so much further!”. Finally we settled half way between where each of us wanted to be, in 13 ft of water. The process of getting the anchor down was just as easy as getting it up, and after the wind let us float back a little, we also brought the boom out to catch a little wind and help us back down further.  It was our first day ever with no engine, and it was a big accomplishment for us.  Now that we’ve started we’re going to see how far this streak can last.

Rode Trip was a few miles behind us, and just after we had gotten the dinghy down from the deck they came coasting in and under sail alone and dropped anchor a few hundred feet from the beach in ten feet of water. I knew we could have gotten in closer! While they dropped their kayaks in to do a little exploring, we thought we’d drop in a hook since we heard the fishing in this area was supposed to be a-m-a-z-i-n-g. I was below finishing a few dishes so I missed the commotion, but I soon heard Matt yelling at for me to come up. “There’s a shark! A shark just ripped the hook off the line”, he exclaimed! What?! A shark? I had just about been ready to get in the water to cool off but now that plan was off my list. “Look under the side here”, Matt continued, “You can see him swim by”. I kept peering over the side but didn’t see anything. Then there was a small flash of some gray that looked to be about 2-3 feet long. “There it is!”, I heard. That little thing? Doesn’t look as sharky as I thought it would. By this time Brian and Stephanie had come over to see what the commotion was about and after seeing our ‘shark’ circle under the boat once more Brian explained, “Oh, that’s just a remora. Those are fine”. Turns out our first exciting shark sighting was just a bottom feeder. Not that I was ready to get in the water with it, but we did have fun tossing food scraps in the water and watching it swim up to take a few nibbles.

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