Thursday, May 24, 2018

Worst. Night. Ever.

Tuesday morning we rose early and did a detailed check of the weather updates over morning coffee. We deemed the seas acceptable for a westbound crossing, and so at 8:15 we weighed anchor and got under way. The day got off to an inauspicious start, as Louise's headset for her communicator failed, and we scrambled around to cobble together something she could use. Weighing anchor in heavy wind and then navigating through a reef is more complex than we wanted to do with hand signals.

At that early hour the sun angle was barely acceptable to navigate back out through the reef; we opted for Louise to stand on the bow while I drove from the pilothouse to follow our bread crumbs as closely as possible until we were in deep water. We fought a lot of wind noise on the replacement headset but made it out uneventfully.

Hapag-Lloyd's Osaka Express crosses our path at a distance of 1.6nm. We were the stand-on vessel but he did not have to adjust.

Long Cay receding behind us, we set a course for South Point, at the southern tip of Long Island. And yes, those are really two different islands in the Bahamas both named "Long." As if having a more famous Long Island somewhat north of us was not confusing enough.

The first half of the cruise was quite pleasant; we crossed paths with the giant container ship Osaka Express close aboard, and saw a smaller bulk cargo, Baltic, six miles in the distance just drifting in the passage. Our AIS said he was "Not Under Command," which is never a good sign, en route to Baltimore. Things were calm enough that I even got around to fixing the helm chair, whose top bearing had apparently completely disintegrated.

The seat post had cut all the way through the plastic bearing, and the two aluminum surfaces were grinding together. The gray on my hands is fine aluminum dust.

On a northwesterly heading, we had started out in the lee of Crooked Island and Long Cay, but that lee became decreasingly protective the further along we got. The increase in swell was steady as the fetch increased, but then at some point we were basically out of the wave shadow altogether and seas increased dramatically, to perhaps seven feet or more, with the fetch of the whole Atlantic to the east. Fortunately that was only the final ten miles or so, and as we rounded South Point they dropped off even more rapidly than they had increased.

We could see into the anchorage just past South Point and it looked fairly calm, at least from where we were a mile offshore. And, in hindsight, we probably should have gone in there and checked it out. But we wanted to make as many miles as we could, to make our tight tide schedule Wednesday a bit easier. And so we proceeded on to the northernmost charted anchorage on the southwest coast of the island, adjacent a place called Hard Bargain (map).

I had to file the top of the post smooth. Black cylinder at right is old bearing I had wisely kept as a spare.

And a hard bargain it was. We negotiated in through the reef as close as we could get to shore. At that spot, the wind-driven waves and chop were almost non-existant. But swell from the aforementioned easterly seven-foot seas apparently curled right around South Point and then incessantly marched the dozen miles north up the coast to right here, where it was about a two foot swell. Nothing bad, except it was at just the right frequency to get Vector rocking like a metronome. And when I say rocking, I mean stuff-flying-off-the-shelves rocking.

This was going to be intolerable, but there was no place else to go. We set the hook just after 4pm; not enough daylight to get anyplace else, really, if there had even been anyplace else we could think to go. At least it's early enough, we thought, to try some mitigation techniques.

First up was to deploy the flopper-stopper bucket. This had only been marginally effective hanging from the midships cleat, so I extended the crane to its furthest position, rigged up some stays to keep it straight out the side of the boat, and we hung the bucket from that instead. It helped a tad, but not nearly enough. It was all I could do not to be flung off into the sea while I was up on the boat deck rigging the crane; I estimate the deck was moving four feet laterally with each roll.

Flopper-stopper bucket jury-rigged from crane.

We have a stern anchor now, a nice Manson Supreme that I bought while we were in Fort Lauderdale. And we considered deploying it to keep the boat pointed into the swell, which would have been much more comfortable. But the prospect of putting what was still 15-20 knots of wind right on the beam gave us pause. That's a lot of windage, and thus a lot to ask of a 35-pound anchor. Moreover, we needed to get an early start Wednesday to make it to the skinny section at high tide. Would we be able to quickly retrieve a well-set anchor off the stern with no windlass?

We opted instead to rig a "swell bridle."  We tied one of our longer lines to our rusty backup chain hook, cleated it off to our midships cleat, and ran it forward to the anchor roller. Louise took the helm so I could reach out the snubber hawsepipe and get the hook onto the chain while she took the load off with the engine. I held the line taught so I could pay out chain without the hook falling off; the open design of this hook is why we stopped using it for our main snubber. And then... I pushed the wrong button on the windlass remote, pulling the hook up against the front of the anchor roller and jamming it in the chain.

And when I say "jamming," I mean it. I could not remove it from the chain no matter what I tried, and certainly not with the windage of the boat pulling up against the anchor. Even after using the other chain hook to unload the chain I could not get it off. We even tried using the windage of the boat to pull it out, by tying off to the inside of the "U" of the hook.

Close-up of chain hook, jammed into a chain link. It normally goes around the outside of a link.

We finally decided that the only way to deal with the problem was to get the hook, chain and all, up onto the deck where I could work at it with bigger tools. Up to and including the angle grinder I would need to either cut the hook off, or else cut the chain so we could feed the part still attached to the anchor back in through the roller and into the windlass gypsy.

Bringing the hook on deck would mean getting a snubber line attached to the chain several feet further away from the boat, and there's no way to do that from on deck. We briefly contemplated launching the tender, but having a 560-lb dinghy hanging from the crane on a violently rocking boat was too risky. Fortunately, the inflatable kayak was ready to go and tied down on the boat deck, courtesy of the propeller fiasco in Provo.

We launched the kayak and I stripped down and headed up to the bow, Louise towing me against the wind from on deck with the painter. It was very rough at the bow, but I was able to hang onto the chain and attach our normal snubber just a few inches below the waterline. That would give us about six feet of chain to play with, enough to get the hook on deck.

Back on board I pulled about three feet of the chain, with the jammed hook in the middle, through the snubber hawsepipe and onto the deck. I tried to fit gear and bearing pullers onto the jammed link with no success, and a four-pound engineer hammer alone had little effect. Ulimately I went down to the workshop, unbolted the vise from the workbench, and secured it to a piece of scrap plywood with #12 wood screws.

Hook and chain on deck. Screwdriver keeping chain from falling back out. Four-pound hammer at right. Black line at left is holding the whole boat against the anchor, further down the chain.

With the chain hook, open jaw facing down, firmly gripped by the vise, and application of liberal amounts of PB Blaster, I was finally able to hammer the jammed links off the hook using the four-pound sledge and a pry bar. Careful inspection of the chain link afterward revealed no major damage or even penetration of the galvanizing, and we just dropped the chain back into the water.

Whew. Well, that all took about three hours. The nice pork chops we had thawed and which I was to grill for dinner remained in the fridge; mid-project Louise decided we needed to eat something and heated up some leftovers. I managed to wrap up on the foredeck before the daylight faded, but now we were exhausted. We talked about trying to rig the swell bridle again, now that the hook was free, but decided, foolishly, to just tough it out for the night rather than risk any more mishaps.

That was a mistake, as rather than abate, the swell increased overnight. As hard as it was to get any sleep on a rolling boat, it was impossible with something crashing to the floor in the galley every hour or so. At one point something leapt off the counter into the cat's food bowl, sending kibble everywhere, and the colander made a hideous racket when it tumbled to the floor. We had taken the precaution of securing anything breakable before we left for the passage, and we kept it that way for the night.

Louise shot this video as I was working. It gives you some idea of the roll, but it does not really capture how bad it was.

I can honestly say this was our worst night ever. Not in an absolute sense, but certainly the worst night on the boat. It was not dangerous, nor did anything even really break. It was just uncomfortable for all three of us, and mostly sleepless for the two humans. We had figured on an 8am departure, but we instead decided to weigh anchor at first light, since we couldn't sleep anyway. Once underway the stabilizers would give us a much needed respite.

Of course nothing is ever simple, and when we brought the chain up the snubber chain hook was double-hooked. Louise literally screamed. This happens to us on very rare occasions and we know how to deal with it, but it was just too much on top of the previous evening (and possibly a result, from dropping the excess chain over when we finished). We were too beat to document it, but this older blog post describes the problem and has a photo. We turned the engine off and sat down in our metronome to finish our coffee.

Thus reinforced, out came the rusty backup chain hook that, just the previous night, Louise had declared we would never use again, to unload the chain so I could untangle the snubber hook. Fortunately it came right off once I had it, unloaded, in my hands, and we were under way only an hour after we started.

Even the hour delay was not enough to prevent us from reaching the skinny section too far ahead of high tide. We putt-putted north along the coast at 1400 rpm, which was as low as we could go and still have enough stabilization in the still swelling seas. Once on the bank the swell started to decrease, and I reduced to 1350 rpm.

When we made the turn into the Comer Channel we were still an hour early, but here the seas were just one foot on a short chop, so we dropped the hook for an hour. That was just the ticket, and we saw nothing less than 8' as we transited the channel, which is charted at 5' at low tide.

Another couple of hours beyond the channel brought us here, to Thompson Bay, off the community of Salt Pond, Long Island (map). We dropped the hook just after 6pm, as close to shore as we could get. Ahhh.... so calm here. I put the pork chops on the pre-heated grill just as soon as the anchor was set, and we had a nice dinner on the aft deck. By 9pm we both collapsed into bed.

This morning we were much more rested. We've got the boat more or less cleaned up and back together. I bolted the vise back down to the workbench, and the cat seems less green. This afternoon we will splash the tender and go ashore. There is a much-needed grocery store here, and we hope to find a restaurant for dinner. Tomorrow we might rent a car to explore the island, and then begins the watch for a weather window for Exuma Sound, to work our way back to Nassau. We need to be in port no later than June 10th.


  1. Wow.. what a night! Thanks for documenting and educating as you went through it - always taking copious notes from what you share. We've been in a swell condition like that ourselves during a storm - and remember the metronome feeling well. And have experienced enough issues with an open chain hook to appreciate the difficulties you had (we have yet to try out our new Mantus chain hook).

    Cheers to you and Louise for a restful and calm anchorage.

  2. Nothing like being sequestered with a green cat I always said!! Sounds like another adventure story to be told around the campfire at the "rest home"! Hope things get smoother. Steve


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