Expensive Sounds and Non-Catastrophic Failure
We felt like we could have hung out in the Tobago Cays marine park forever. Days spent swimming with the rays and turtles in the clear gin blue waters just off the boat and occasionally hopping in the dinghy to explore the 3mile long reef that protects the whole area certainly weren’t growing old.
But… it was also fairly crowded (especially for the off season) and we spent the last couple days eyeing the remote and idyllic island of Petit Tabac just outside the reef.
Eventually our curiosity gets the best of us and we moved on. A quick sail around the reef to Petit Tabac, we dropped anchor in the middle of a tiny little bay and spent a perfect day snorkeling the waters, walking the beaches and exploring the island.
Having a remote Caribbean island entirely to yourself is a wonder that never seems to lose its magic and we were thrilled to share the experience with friends.
As the light faded we made pizzas on the grill and toasted our friends to an amazing day. Then, as tends to happen when your body hits the rhythm of nature… we were all fast asleep not long after the sunset.
My eyes bolt open despite having been in the deepest of sleeps before that sound.
Did I hear it or did I just dream it? I immediately try to piece things together. I don’t yet know if I made it up but I know exactly what type of sound it was. It was an expensive sound.
Back in our early years of vanlife when we drove the old VW Bus we learned that there are two types of noises. The inexpensive kind and the expensive kind. At first it seemed to be a very poorly described term to someone who knew absolutely nothing about how to fix and maintain an old air-cooled engine, but it turns out that when those sounds actually happened you knew them right away… it was unmistakably the expensive type of sound, and so was the one that just woke me from the deepest of sleep.
“What is it?” Jen asks
“Not sure” I reply “a noise”
My face is pressed against the wall and my eyes are now staring out the porthole at the foot of our bed trying to adjust to the darkness and looking for any clue that everything’s okay. The moon wont be up for another 2 hours and it couldn’t possibly be any darker. My eyes cant find anything but black on the outside of the porthole.
SCAARRRUUUNCHUCHUCH!. There it is again.
Im out of the bed in a flash and in one movement up the stairs from our berth, my foggy mind flying realizing that our anchor has pulled and we are seconds away from crashing into the rocky shore behind us. I race to the corner where we often place the keys in any sketchy anchorage or situation for easy access. My hand finds nothing until my fingers hit the merging of the two walls in the corner. Shit!
We didn’t feel like this anchorage was sketchy and the keys had no reason to make it into that spot.
Yes, we were in one of the odd situations where our anchorage is on the windward side of the island (meaning a chance if our anchor drug we could get blown INTO the island rather than out to sea, but that seemed somewhat common these days and after spending all day on and around the boat in high winds we couldn’t have been more confident in our anchor/holding.
The mind is crisp now despite being only seconds since the first sound. I whip open the cabinet and grab the keys from their normal spot and run up top to the helm. A quick glance behind us confirms my worst fears… I can barely see it, but the stripe of a barely lighter shade of darkness directly behind the boat is sand and we are indeed very close to shore. Im feeling in the darkness for the ignition and fumbling trying to fit the keys.
There’s a flash of light beside me and I look up to see our friends with a light from their phone. Friends. Forgot they were even on board until just now, but the light helps me find the keyholes and bury the keys in the ignitions. I instinctively turn on the chart plotter looking for any feedback about where we are, but Im immediately blinded by the light of the screen and curse myself for ever having turned it on at all. Whatever limited vision I had in the darkness is now gone as my eyes fight to readjust but I don’t have the time to wait. As soon as the engines are fired up I press both forward into full throttle, begging the boat to move forward into the darkness despite being blind to what’s in front of us - but knowing full well that whatever it is… is far better than the rocky shore we're about to crash into behinds us.
The engines roar but I feel no movement forward. My heart sinks.
We have 20+ knot winds and big waves coming right at us and they are winning the battle. I spin the boat to starboard trying to remember the shape of the island behind us and feel a hint of movement. Again, I take both to full throttle and we begin to creep forward ever so slowly into the oncoming assault of wind.
Jen’s now beside me and for the first time I take a breath. We at least have inches between us and the rocks and are moving slowly away from shore. We realize I never turned on the electronics switch that allows the chart potter to read our GPS. Jen darts below… without our location we’re still just driving blindly into the darkness. The shore is no longer the biggest obstacle as heads of coral become more pertinant, but it’s still impossible to distinguish in the darkness where sea ends and land begins or whether it’s behind or beside us. It feels completely helpless, but at least we’re moving.
I direct our friends to each of the bows to shine lights ahead and look for coral and I realize for the first time that I’m wearing shorts. Not even sure when I put them on, but it seems like it was a waste of valuable time… Jen’s back and turning on the other helm electronics as I continue to push the boat ahead into the wind toward deeper water. This is a tight anchorage and I know we’ve got very little room/time to move forward before we hit the reef in front of us. We are literally between a rock and a hard place.
We do a quick exchange at the helm to assume our normal positions and so Jen can steer and I can go pull up anchor. She says something but I cant hear her over the howling wind despite being only a few feet away.
“Marriage Savers!” she shouts, that clearly becoming more important than whatever the first message was.
I race below again to grab the bluetooth headsets that have become possibly the most valuable items on the boat, turn both on (immediately grateful that they pair without issue) hand one to Jen and leap to the front of the boat to loosen the bridle and start retrieving the anchor rode.
“Are you there love?” I question quietly into the darkness?”
“Yes” comes the reply from the helm. Her voice soothing despite the chaos.
We’ve been here before. Okay, not exactly…we’ve never dropped anchor in darkness, much less in a tight squeeze while fighting winds and waves, or with our hearts pumping trying to save the boat from certain destruction… but at least now we’re in our normal positions, the boat is under our control… and the actions we’re about to take are things we know and we have the tools we need. It suddenly seems almost mundane compared to where we were only a few moments ago, but we are still very far from being out of the woods yet. Im directing her which way to turn as we struggle to pickup the failed anchor. She and the boat are fighting against the steady winds but we eventually retrieve anchor and start to make our way back to where we had dropped it earlier in our day. We’d marked it on the plotter as standard practice/precaution and in the moments we have while approaching those waypoints we’re discussing moving a bit further to starboard and further ahead so that we can release even more rode, hopefully giving ourselves an even better anchor geometry to make sure it sticks.
“We only get on shot at this” I say “or else we’re heading out of here to somewhere safer.”
The Tobago Cayes lie less than an hour motor away and we could certainly grab a mooring ball by flashlight if needed… but visual navigation is typically needed to leave this reef or make it through that one… so the option seems like a last resort. at best
Im not sure any of us have taken a deep breath since this all began.
“You’re doing great, love” I whisper into the microphone as we come into position.
“You too” she replies, and it soothes me as much as possible considering the circumstances
“Guys, you’re killing it” I say to our friends, both still waving lights back and forth from the bows and scanning the sea for coral heads. I notice as I look up towards them, for the first time since we started picking up the anchor that rain is blowing by them horizontally and the winds have picked up substantially.
“A fucking squall!?” I think to myself… “Now??”
I’m certain this was not the vacation they had imagined when they decided to join us on the boat for a little casual sailing and island time.
We eventually find our spot and drop anchor again into the darkness. Im trying in vain to see our markers or count length as the chain flies by but the flashlight doesn’t cast enough light to see them. I go by sound and feel and memory alone and hope for the best. I spring up and look over the bow as we start drifting backwards. I can barely make it out but one of the flashlights finally hits the chain lying beneath us. The anchor is hard to our starboard as the wind has already blown us around to the side. If it catches and pulls up now the chain will slice up through the water and damage the hull.
“Hard to starboard!!” I say and Jen starts the boat spinning but the wind is pushing us back faster.
“Harder, full to starboard” she manages to get the boat spun around just before the slack pulls is out of the chain.
“Okay, slow us down” I tell her. I know the wind is pushing us back so fast the anchor will never stick. She pumps forward on the engines just in time and we get a good grab as the anchor yanks tight.
The boat turns back and forth in a familiar and comforting dance as it settles into the wind and it’s clear we’re in. The anchor has stuck.
I SO needed that!!
I duck my head back into the anchor locker to let out more rode and secure the bridle, working as fast as i can by flashlight but being careful to keep my fingers clear in case the chain yanks tight. I learned that lesson the hard way already, thankfully without losing a finger in the process… I scurry behind each of our friends to take up the bridle and retie to the bow cleats. Our friends have been “in training” and doing this role to help out since coming aboard but there’s no time to miss this one. We’re tied off and I let out more rode to ease the pressure onto the rope bridle instead of the chain.
I peer over the bow and stare at the circle of light created by the flashlight onto the ocean floor. I spot a rock on the seafloor and focus intently on it. Willing it to stay exactly where it is.
If that rock stays where it is, that means we’re staying where we are.
“Just - stay - there” I beg in my inner voice.
I’m talking to a rock as though it suddenly has more power than anything else in this situation… but it listens just the same.
I tell Jen she’s off. For the first time since that expensive sound raised us all the boat is secure and not at the will of the sea and the winds, but I’m still less than confident in how much anchor rode we have put out. Too little chain and the anchor might pull again, too much and we’ll swing into the coral heads spotted during daylight off our port side. I begin to run to the stern but pause for a moment.
“Good work everybody. Seriously… really good work”
Our friends take over staring at the rock and I trade my flashlight for one of the dive lights that have been acting as our headlights, run to the stern and grab my fins and snorkel (both still out from our day of fun exploring the bay… though that seems so very long ago and far away now) and I slide into the warm dark waters.
“My first night dive” I think to myself “not exactly the one I might have chosen.”
I grab a breath and dive underwater to inspect the rudders and hulls. Having the proper amount of rode isn’t going to help if we did any damage and are taking on water. We’ve clearly sanded some paint off of each… but otherwise appear to be okay. Deep breath.
Back at the surface, I kick for everything I’ve got into the current, swimming under the boat and watching the beam of light pierce the water and bounce off each hull as I swim forward between them. I follow the chain forward from the boat, allowing it to lead me into the darkness towards the anchor and take a deep breath.
I dive down to the anchor and inspect it with the light. Its well bedded!
“Yes!!!” I shout into my snorkel
I then turn 180degrees grab the chain and trace it with the flashlight back to the boat. Im counting the markers as my hand slides past each one.
“10, 20, 30” I count as I ascend toward the boat. Im running out of air but not about to stop counting.
“40, 50” I reach the last marker a few feet before the connection to the bridle near the surface of the water.
It means I guessed correctly and we’re setup exactly as we’d hoped. It means I don’t have to climb back aboard and tell everyone we have to start the whole process over. I don’t even remember swimming back under the boat or climbing aboard, but I notice Jen is checking the bilges for water .
“Probably a good Idea" I think to myself as I rinse off and then collapse onto the couch across from our friends, both sitting silently waiting for news or instruction. Both, i’m sure terrified at what just transpired before them.
I tell everyone we’re okay and the anchors good. Jen and I start (as always) to discuss what the current setup is, if we’re comfortable with it and debrief about what the hell just happened and how we could have pulled anchor.
We’ll never know for certain but it seems like with the steady high winds came a few sets of big waves that made their way over the reef thats supposed to be protecting us and changed our aspect angle with the anchor causing it to pop out. Why it didn’t grab again (as normal) I cant say. Maybe it was lying on its side and the winds were just too strong or we were moving too fast for it to have a chance to grab again before shore… but it drug all the way until that horrible expensive sound cut through the night.
As with every other experience and near miss on the boat, we learned a few lessons tonight… but we did so without losing the boat and (it appears) without even an expensive bill to go with it (though I’m not sure how).
“Non-catastrophic learning”. I keep thinking to myself as I lie in bed staring at our position on the GPS and far from being able to sleep. The words keep cycling through my head as i pull out the laptop and start to write down the events of our night.
I remember back when my working days were spent in classrooms/auditoriums working with educators. A keynote speech that stuck with me was about todays helicopter parents and the uber-protective nature of our society which means that children never have a chance to learn by failure. They grow up terrified of pushing limits because their parents yank them off the climbing wall or jungle gym before they even have a chance to fall or fail.
“Non catastrophic failure”, the speaker kept saying… that’s what we should be after.
That, is how we humans learn and grow and adapt.
Well… good then.
We’ll just chalk this shit storm of a night up to that… just some good old fashioned human learning through non-catastrophic failure.
In fact, it all ended better than we could have possibly imagined. Apparently the dragging sounds were mostly the anchor dragging over rocky bottom, and other than a bit of damage to one rudder (which turned out to be an easy fix when we hauled out a few weeks later)… no damage to the boat). A near miss, but a great lesson… and thank goodness for that!