Prologue to a year off sailing the Caribbean

We were thirty miles off the west coast of Florida, I was just coming off the midnight watch. We had been underway all day and half the night. We were pounding into a head sea. It was pitch black as I felt my way into the cabin so as not to night-blind the crew member on deck or wake the ones sleeping below. As I lay there, the boat’s pitching raised my entire body about a foot off the bed and then slammed it back down. The mattress was soft, but I didn't think I would get much sleep bouncing like I was on a trampoline. But the sound of the water rushing by my head, just inches away through the inch-thick fiberglass hull, lulled me to sleep.

I had just drifted off when a loud crashing by my head woke me. Damn, we forgot to tie the anchors down! One had come loose and was swinging back and forth on the bucking bow of the boat banging onto the hull, threatening to knock a hole in the boat and perhaps sink her.

I jumped out of bed and climbed into the cockpit, explaining the problem to Karl, who was steering the boat. He moved the throttle to dead slow and I clipped a harness to a jackline we had tied to cleats on the front and back of the boat. I inched my way to the bow, keeping a firm grip on something solid—a slip could mean a fall, or injury, or sliding off into the cold, dark water and being dragged beside the boat. I would drown me before they could retrieve me. "One hand for you and one for the boat" was a mantra I had preached to all who sailed with me, even on small lakes in the warm summer in Kansas. I repeated it to myself as I worked my way to the still bucking bow pulpit. I tried to brace myself on the slippery stainless-steel tubing while pressing the windlass switch with my toe, but the clutch slipped, and the anchor still swung—sixty-five pounds of cast iron with two sharp claws swinging through the night.

I knelt and tightened the clutch. When I pressed the switch this time the chain caught, pulling the anchor up on the bow roller and into place. Hooray! I took a minute to catch my breath then crawled onto the heaving bowsprit, which still threatened to buck me off the slippery deck. I looped a dock line through the cross brace on the anchor and tied a bowline. The rabbit goes up out of the hole, around the tree, and back down the hole. I'd tied this knot thousands of times, but never with this much at stake. If it came untied, I would have to crawl back up here again. I got it on the first try. I cinched it tight with all my strength, pulled the bitter end around a bow cleat, and tied it off. Once all the way around the base, then two figure eights, then a locking hitch, and once more around the cleat. That should hold it.

By now I was soaking wet and chilled. I needed to repeat these knots on the second anchor that hadn't yet come loose. It was a lot easier this time. After one more rest, I crept back to the safety of the cockpit, unclipped, and went below, where I took a brief, hot shower to rinse off the salt water. We had to take short showers: 200 gallons of water needed to last 4 guys a dozen days in the tropics until we made landfall still 1,500 miles away in the islands.

Warm and dry at last, I crawled back in bed for a bouncy 30-minute rest before going back on deck for another two-hour watch trying to stay awake, dodging fishing boats and tugs with barges. This was the first night of my one-year sailing sabbatical to the Caribbean Islands and back. I hoped that the rest of the adventure would be a little less exciting.


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