Monday, January 14, 2013

One difference that I notice about television shows from the 70's and the current slate of TV shows is the lack of a snappy theme songs at the beginning of the show.  There were so many catchy little tunes from the older sitcoms;

     "Here's the story....of a man named Brady"

     "Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed"

     "Well, were movin' on the eastside"

     "Love....exciting and new.  Come aboard, we're expecting you!  The Love Boat...."

     "Green Acres is the place for living is the life for me"

However the one that was stuck replaying in my mind for several days on our Bahamas adventure
was from Gilligan's Island;

     "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale from a fateful trip, that started from this
       tropic port about this tiny ship...."  (skip to third verse)

     "The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed.  If not for the courage of the
       fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost..."

Now let me say from the start that at no time was the Maya ever in danger of being
lost.  At the very worst, I could say the tiny ship was tossed.  But let me start from the beginning.

Staniel Cay is about halfway down the Exumas chain in the southern Bahamas.  Its a tiny outpost of small grocery stores, a marina, a restuarant with a bar and a small airport.  Its a favorite for boaters like us as it provides a link to civilization (and the internet) in the vast and mostly uninhabited island chain.  On top of that, Staniel Cay has one of the nicest and most protected anchorages around.  The beaches are pristine and generally the weather is always perfect.  It is the epitome of what boating in the Bahamas is all about.

We had been enjoying our time there in Staniel Cay for about a week when we started to hear rumblings of a nasty weather system that was headed our way in the next day or two.  You must understand that boaters live and die on weather reports and rumours of impending bad conditions spread like wildfire.  Add to that the lack of viable and current information and you have a recipe for mass hysteria.  Now the panic didn't rise to that level but lets say that the coming cold front was the talk of the town.

The chatter on the radio was that those in the know were heading 'out of Dodge' to find protection from the nasty thunderstorms and winds that were anticipated.  The problem was that the weather reports were conflicted.  Some of the weather guru's were saying that the front was going to peeter out and amount to nothing more than a wind shift.  Others were offering a much different view.

My background is steeped in weather.  I know how to read a weather chart and can put the pieces together generally, on my own.  From what I could see, the pattern seemed a little benign.  On top of that, it is almost unheard of for a strong cold front to make it all the way south to the Exumas in late April or early May.  Never happens.

Over the next day or so, the anchorage where we were started to thin out.  From a high of about 50 boats, the numbers of boaters staying was shrinking.  The day before the front was supposed to come through, there were probably about 10 of us left.  Most of our cruising group decided to stay put, however a few of the smarter ones got a marina slip or headed to a mooring ball several miles away.

The afternoon before the storm was forecast to hit, the weather was clear and the winds were calm.  Maybe we were going to be right after all.  Much ado about nothing?

Around sunset that evening, the weather began to turn.  We were expecting this and had prepared for a least a bit of unsettled conditions.  We had raised our dinghy out of the water and put her back onboard the 'mother ship'.  We doubled our lines and battened down the hatches, so to speak.  We were ready.  Our thought was still that there were going to be some light rainshowers and possibly some windy conditions for a few hours, but by morning the sun would be shining again and life in the Bahamas would be back to normal.

Around  midnight the first wave of thunderstorms hit.  At night, the lightning can put on a spectacular show as the bolts can be seen for many miles away.  Even though a bolt seems close to you, it really isn't.  This storm brought us a fair amount of rain but as luck would have it, we were in between the worst of the storm cells.  One of our fellow boaters had access to live NextRad weather radar and he observed a strong squall line that extended from Virginia through Cuba.  There was no way it was going to miss us.  This was not good news.

So we hung on that night, not sleeping much.  One of us kept anchor watch to make sure that the 44 pound piece of steel that was holding us in place kept doing its job.  Even though there were fewer boats in the anchorage, there were still lots of rocks lining the shoreline.  We surely didn't want to hit those!  By far these were the worst conditions we had ever been in on Maya and we were worried that our equipment would hold together.

By morning, the rain had let up.  The thunderstorms were over but there were still lingering rainshowers that dotted the horizon.  I went up to look at the dinghy and found about 7 inches of water in her bilge.  Thats a lot of rain!  But, we had survived the night.  What does it say in the Psalms?.....'joy cometh in the morning'.

By about noon, the sun was peaking out and we thought the worst was over.  With any cold front in the northern hemisphere, a frontal passage is marked by a wind shift from the south to the northwest.  We were prepared for this shift although, as it turns out, we were not ready for the increase in the velocity of the post frontal winds.  All the forecasters, including myself, guessed that after the front went through, the winds would shift and the velocity would increase a little, but would die down by the time midday had passed.  This is typical behavior for most cold fronts, especially those that make it as far south as the Bahamas.

No, this front was a record setter.  As it turned out, the winds did shift to the northwest, but the velocity increased.... a lot.  And they kept on getting stronger.   And stronger.   By five that afternoon, the winds were clocking in at almost 40 miles per hour.   And to make it worse, they were coming in from the Northwest; a direction in the anchorage where we had no protection from the resultant waves. 40 mile an hour winds can kick up some pretty big waves.  They were all headed right for us unfortnuate few still left in the anchorage.

This turned out to be much more problematic than the previous night's thunderstorms.  The chop and waves created by thunderstorms are pretty much short lived.  When the storm is over, the waves die down.  The winds created by this front, while forecasted to last only a few hours actually last for THREE days.

For three days we were prisoners on our boats, riding the waves like a  monkey on a skateboard.  Inside Maya was not a pretty sight.  We had taken down about everything that could be tossed around on the boat.  Nothing was left on the tops of shelves or tables.  We had to sleep on the floor as it was impossible to stay on the bed as the boat heaved back and forth, up and down.  We had heard on the radio that several other boaters were in worse shape.  Those on sailboats were getting beat up even worse as they didn't have the benefit of Maya's heavier weight and deeper keel.  All we could do was watch and wait for the winds to subside.  After the second day, Kim was ready to call a boat broker and list Maya for sale.  She had had enough.  By day three, we were ready to abandon ship and fly home.

But the winds did subside. 

And so did our anxiety.  It was a bad living experience but a good learning one.  As a pilot, I always erred on the side of conservatism.  Had we been on an airplane, we would have headed to higher ground at the first hint of bad weather.  I learned that we must treat the weather with the same respect I did with the airplanes I flew. 

But that was months ago now and while it seemed terrible at the time, it makes for a great story now.
In the years to come, as we retell our saga to those who haven't heard it, I am sure the waves will be bigger and the storms even stronger.  Such are the lives of those on the sea.

"So, join us here next week my friends, you're sure to get a smile."  "From the two intrepid castaways, sailing to Maya's Isles"




  1. OK stupid question from a non-boater here - but why did you stay on the boat? Couldn't you just pull the boat up onto a beach and head to a hotel till it was all over?

    1. Hi Peggy,

      Good question! The reason is twofold: The first reason has to do with our boat draft. The draft is the amount of distance you need between the waterline and the bottom. For instance, our draft is around five feet. That means that you need the depth of the water to be at least five feet below the boat otherwise you will hit the bottom. The area where we were anchored had a depth of about 9 feet. To have that depth, we were about a quarter mile offshore. Normally we would use our dinghy to get into the beach, however due to the rough conditions, it was far too dangerous to try and get off the boat and into the smaller dinghy.

      The other reason was that the island we were anchored near was place to stay.

      There were some accomodations nearby however we would have had to park Maya at a dock. The marina, because of its exposure to the waves, required all the boats to vacate thier slips prior to the storm. In that kind of blow, the boats would have done great damage to the docks as they bounced around.

      Interestingly, in a hurricane, the US Navy requires all of its ships to head out to sea. It is safer for them to bounce around in the waves that to be connected to the piers. Its not too comfortable, but a lot safer for the docks, ships and personnel.