Hurricane breeding grounds

It’s difficult to know when you are dying. The mind refuses to accept it, and for us—stranded at sea—our bodies were withering away so imperceptibly, so gradually, that it was impossible to notice except by studying a mirror.

            That’s not how it dawned on me, though. We were in the middle of the Caribbean with a seized engine and no wind. Our water was down to a few gallons. We’d also run out of food, except for the odd can of beans or jar of peanut butter. Sitting in the cockpit, waiting for wind, it wasn’t a mirror that made me pause – it was Taylor, smoking the last of his cigars.

            They were good cigars. Expensive cigars. The type of cigars we’d been saving to smoke as we rounded the tip of Cape Horn. So on our fourth day without wind—averaging ten miles every twenty-four hours—when Taylor had sucked his last cigar dry, it struck like a whip-crack in the silence. Unless we got steady winds soon, we were going to die.

            The reality, though, is that we already were dying – actively, steadily – adrift in the middle of the Caribbean without enough wind to blow the hair from our faces.

***

Before the calm there were storms. Several storms. Some, we would learn later, had been classified as tropical depressions. Others were never classified, but had just as much bite (if not more) than the rest.

            The first of these struck our anchorage in Roatán, Honduras. We’d left our “Ole Lady” between the island and a smaller, adjacent isle right beside the Port Captain’s office via the recommendation of an adamant local. Then we went to shore.

            We’d spent over a week at sea, caye-hopping out of Belize City down to Honduras, and were on the hunt for power to charge our electronics and Wi-Fi to reach our families. However, not having a weather radar on our boat, and not having checked the forecast since we left Belize City, we’d no idea that a tropical storm was bearing down on Roatán as we laid anchor.

            First the rain came. So thick and dark that we could hardly see our anchor light from the restaurant’s lanai. Then the wind came. Howling and pushing the rain so hard that Taylor and I stopped our frantic plugging-in of laptop and phone chargers to make sure our anchor didn’t drag. We’d picked the nearest restaurant to our boat and, between sheets of rain, we could just make out a glow of light swaying in the wind.

            We might’ve been fine, except that the storm came from the east. Wind funneled water into the channel between Roatán and the smaller isle we’d anchored off of, and all of it was accelerating toward the Ole Lady. Behind her, the sandy shoal dropped off from fifteen feet to a hundred feet. It didn’t happen slowly, over time. One moment the light was there. The next, it was disappearing over the horizon.

            “Shit,” said Taylor.

            I had just gotten enough power on my cellphone to power it on, and was eager to send an “all safe” message to my family. I didn’t even hear him curse.

            “Shit, shit, shit,” he said again, dropping his bag. “She’s drifting!”

            Taylor took off at a sprint, but I took longer to react. We’d dropped a storm anchor with almost a hundred feet of road in what was supposed to be the safest anchorage around. Surely the rain would give and we’d see our anchor light again, right where’d left her. But when I assumed Taylor’s position at the edge of railing, I could just make out a gleam of light above the horizon line. She was headed straight for the opposite side of the bay, where rocks and coral had threatened our approach.

            We left everything and ran. Thousands of dollars of computers, smartphones, cameras, all of it sitting there on a restaurant table in third-world Honduras. I chased Taylor through the rain, hesitating when I saw his sandals torn on the street, but continued on anyway. Rain soaked us from head to toe and splotched our vision, masking potholes in the road. Then, when we’d reached the dingy dock, a group of young men were at work on our outboard engine. They’d been trying to start her up under the mask of foul weather. They heard us sprinting down the dock and dove out into the water, swimming for the dock opposite ours. We didn’t have time to chase them down, though – our boat was more than halfway across the bay. Meanwhile, our outboard wouldn’t start. The thieves had left the choke all the way out and the engine was flooded.

            When she finally kicked into gear, smoke poured out of her exhaust and Taylor flicked her into forward. Then he cranked the throttle. We reached the Ole Lady just meters from the coral line. Taylor sprung from the dingy straight for the ignition and left me to tie her up.

            The engine stalled.

            We had pulled into Roatán with work overdue on our Perkins diesel engine. She had oil leaks, clogged filters, a maintenance list that we’d been saving for a port with repair facilities. Now we needed her to start on a dime, in the middle of a tropical depression, without having had the chance to complete any repairs.

            “For the love of god, please…” said Taylor, lifting his face and closing his eyes to the rain. He tried again.

            I’ll never forget the noise that followed. The starter churned and churned like it hadn’t turned over in months; the depth alarm joined the clamor, announcing a coral reef directly beneath our keel; and finally, after what felt like minutes, the engine roared to life.

            “Throw her in forward!” Taylor called, and I lunged for the gears. Taylor was already at the helm by the time I had her moving, and he swept me aside to feed her fuel. I was left panting behind, watching the depth meter fall from seven feet to four feet as we continued backward. We could hear the propeller churning beneath us, the blast of our engine mixing with the blare of the depth alarm.

            Then the alarm stopped. The depth climbed back to ten feet, fifteen feet, twenty-five feet. Minutes later we were back in the middle of the bay above 200 feet of water. Taylor lowered the throttle. We were still exposed to howling winds and slanted rain. We still needed to reset our anchor in the middle of a tropical depression. But the boat was saved. We had saved her.

***

We spent another week in Coxen Hole before starting the stretch that would almost cost us our engine, and our lives.

            I returned to the restaurant where we’d left all of our electronics the following day. I didn’t expect to find our computers or phones or camera equipment. If Honduras was anything like Belize, our gear would’ve been swept up minutes after we left, never to be seen again. In addition, the town was in disarray. Streets were flooding over the sidewalks. Houses were being gutted. Locals were sitting on the ground in ankle-deep water, fully clothed, with their heads between their knees. When I arrived at the restaurant, though, the waitress recognized me. She’d collected all of our things, stashed them in a bag, and stored them atop the refrigerator.

            I couldn’t believe it. She saw the shock on my face—a young, Caribbean islander with a beautiful face and long, braided hair—and gave me a parental look as if to say, “See? There is goodness everywhere in the world.”

            I tipped her all of the pesos I had in my wallet, and then I went to the ATM to pay a kid I’d left watching our dingy.

            Our plan was to hit the marine store, buy the parts we needed, and then move on. But, being the off-season, the only marine store in town was closed for renovations.  We patched up our leaks as best we could (with duct tape and glue), replaced our filters with emergency spares, and prepared to sail for the mainland. It was not ideal circumstances, but there were no other repair facilities or reliable chandleries before Panama. To top it all off, the weather forecast was thunderstorms every day for the next ten days. I showed Taylor a report on the weather channel showing the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua in an enormous red oval. “High Risk of Tropical Cyclones” read the title. The kicker, though, was that this warning was for the entire month of November.

            Our only hope of getting out of there was a high-pressure system rolling down the coast of Mexico and heading for the point of Honduras and Nicaragua. Our options were to wait a month—in a town that had tried to claim our boat and dingy (and had successfully claimed my iPhone, a credit card, and one of Taylor’s walkie-talkies)—or… shoot the gap. Ride the high-pressure system around the point of Honduras and down the coast of Nicaragua.

            For us, in that moment, the choice was clear. “Aim for the bushes?” I said, and we raised anchor the next day.

            Our plan worked well at first. We rode blue skies and 15-knot winds across the gap between Roatán and the Honduras mainland, anchoring in a sheltered bay right as a stark, black wall closed in from the east. We remained there the next day, watching our anchor drag and then stick, drag and then stick, in the broad shallow bay. The winds were so rough, the skies so dark, we thought this might be the tropical depression they’d been projecting to form around the corner of Nicaragua and Honduras. Of course, it wasn’t. And we realized this two days later, when we sailed headfirst into it.

***

We were at sea when it happened. The fabled high-pressure system was nowhere to be seen, and it was too bleak and cloudy to spot any mother-of-all anvil clouds on the horizon, so when it hit the change was more gradual than anything. The winds shifted. The rain increased slowly, steadily. Then the swells came.

            We rode that front for the better part of an afternoon, surfing down swells at ten to twelve knots (a lot for our ole gal). By evening, the rain was so thick, and the wind so overpowering, that we were being blown sideways as much as we were moving forward. Our boat was heeling at a 30 to 45 degree angle, and we had to reef dramatically to reduce the drag.

            We weathered headed east along the mountainous coast of Honduras, and I had us pointed a healthy two miles off of a point that hooked out of the coastline in an arch of rock and coral. As we came near, however, our GPS heading began to shift. First, it was 20 degrees south of the compass– then 35 to 40 degrees. I’d never seen anything like it. I figured the GPS was glitching, but to be safe, I sought out the gleam of light that marked the point’s lighthouse, and pointed our bow well beyond it.

            When Taylor rose to swap shifts, he glanced around us and saw that our angle was clear of the point. Then he took the helm and saw our GPS route. According to that, we were headed straight for land.

            He said nothing at first, examining the charts and glancing studiously at the horizon. Then he tried cutting tighter into the wind, but the heading didn’t change. The GPS was now 45 to 50 degrees off from the compass.

            Finally, Taylor started to tack. He did this without telling me, even though he usually had me to reel in the jib sheets and tighten the wenches in rough conditions. Then he ignoring me when I asked, “But aren’t we going to be headed west?”

            Sure enough, we tacked and our compass heading was 270 degrees west – directly where we’d come from. The GPS, though, still showed us moving east. Slower, now, but east all the same.

            “What the hell’s going on with this GPS?”

            “It’s not the GPS,” said Taylor, breaking the silence. “We’re getting sucked in by a current.”

            And he was right. Even after we’d filled the sails and were cutting into the swells, we were still going backwards. We could just make out the shoreline behind us, where waves crashed against the rocks and sprayed frothing water into the air. We were two miles out, but could feel the shudder of those waves breaking against the shore.

            “That’s it,” said Taylor. “We’re turning on the engine.”

            We were in some of the roughest, choppiest waters we’d seen since the gulf, and we were both well aware of an oil leak that Taylor had jerry-rigged shut in Roatán. But our options were slim. Turn on the engine, or get smashed against the rocks.

            So we keyed the ignition.

            She started smoothly enough this time, and when Taylor popped her into forward we felt her kick. Then he gave her fuel. First a little. Then a lot.

            We were still drifting backwards.

            It felt eerily similar to our last tropical storm—déjà vu from when the anchor had dragged in Honduras—except that now we had the engine running at close to full blast, and the seas were over 20 feet. We had to run a dangerously high RPM just to neutralize the current (keep in mind, this is with the sails up in 25 to 30 knot winds!). We had just begun creeping forward at half a knot when the storm picked back up.

            Rain slammed against the bimini. Gusts of wind pushed us horizontal on the waterline. And our bow crashed through massive swells, sending up walls of water on either side of us.

            That’s when our engine seized.

            She didn’t freeze up all at once. There were slight revving noises, as there always are. But these were camouflaged by the revving that our engine would make when we mounted the crest of a breaking swell, our propeller accelerating through white water to keep its speed. By the time we realized that this new revving was too sporadic, too loud and too frequent, it was too late.

            “Kill the engine!” shouted Taylor, my hand on the ignition. “Turn her off!”

            But she’d already frozen. A vacuum of silence followed, and the two of us looked at each other, stunned.

            Taylor leaped downstairs. He disappeared so quickly that I had to grab the wheel just to keep us from back-winding. It took all of my strength to keep us dead into the swells without the powering punch of our engine. But I held her that way, hardly breaking zero knots on the GPS, until Taylor returned.

            His face was pale with nausea as much as despair. The line connecting the low oil pressure gauge to the engine ruptured. All of the oil had been dumped out in a matter of seconds. Without oil, the engine had overheated and seized. So there we were—caught in the middle of a tropical depression—hundreds of miles from a viable repair port and less than two miles from being bashed to splinters against a tumultuous shoreline.

***

Long before we left Florida—before we’d even bought the Ole Lady—Taylor and I sat down at a computer in College Station, Texas, and started drafting up a timeline. We used a program that Taylor had found online to estimate the duration of our trip. Apparently, the sail from Florida to Cape Horn, a straight-line distance of 6,000 miles, would take just three months.

            “Great,” said Taylor. “So if we leave by October, we’ll have a three month buffer to get down there by the end of March.”

            On paper, the plan was simple. Even if we allowed double the time for our stops along the coast, for delays in Panama and exploring Patagonia, we’d still make it to Cape Horn before the weather window closed.

            Months later, after Taylor had purchased the Ole Lady and measured our route on paper charts based on the average speed of his voyage from Tampa Bay to Pensacola, our timeline changed dramatically. In fact, unless we sailed overnight a good portion of the trip, we were going to have almost no buffer at all. Averaging 50 miles a day (our average when we anchored by night), it would take five to six months to reach Cape Horn. And that was with no delays, if nothing went wrong.

            So we began trimming.

            We cut out the coast of Mexico, opting to sail straight across the Gulf to Cancun. That trimmed a few weeks from our timeline, but it wasn’t enough so we cropped Belize and Honduras. We were even going to skip Nicaragua and shoot straight for Panama. Then there was the stretch from Panama to Ecuador, a straight shot, which would cut out the whole Pacific coast of Colombia, and—with a few other multi-day stretches off the coast of South America—we’d be able to get to Patagonia by mid-February.

            All of these open-water stretches, of course, assumed that our third crewmember, Manny, didn’t bail on us. Of course he did bail, just days before we were set to depart, and Taylor and I hardly had time with our last-minute preparations to re-route our journey accordingly.

            So when we were caught in Roatán, with a line of tropical cyclones forming in the Caribbean, we had a timeline in mind. We were racing the clock. And that, any sailor will tell you, is the Original Sin.

***

We broke free from that Honduras shoreline after hours of battling the current. We tacked into swells, trimmed the sails, backtracked for miles, and when we finally rounded the point it was late into the night. The storm, meanwhile, lasted another four days. It wasn’t until two days afterward, though, that the fear set in.

            It started when Taylor went to check our reserve water tank. He found it empty. The valve separating the reserve tank from the main had been leaking, so that while we thought we had water for another week, we in fact were down to our last few gallons.

            We’d already begun rationing water, but now it was different. “We need to be drinking two mugs a day or less,” Taylor said. Our mugs were large, and two of them amounted to maybe a half gallon, but humidity levels reached a hundred percent every day, and temperatures were well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Most importantly, there was no wind. We were sweating out twice as much as we were swallowing down.

            For food, there were few things we could cook without water. Our favorite was coconut rice, which we were able to make because of the cans of coconut milk we had, but once those ran out we were eating dried ramen packets and peanut butter from a spoon.

***

It’s hard to say more about that period. In order to preserve energy, we entered into a kind of lethargic state of hibernation. Hours would slip beneath half-shut eyelids. Days would pass between gusts of wind. There was no ominous ticking of the clock. No conscious deterioration of health. There was only our drained water reserves, and the miles we had to go.

            When our prayers were finally answered, and we received a full night of steady wind, Taylor and I summoned every last reserve of energy that we had and sprung to life. We harvested that wind for all it was worth, riding a full twelve hours to within five miles of the breakwater. There the wind died again, and we began drifting toward a rocky surf (for the third time that stretch). But we turned our Garmin on had our Manager frantically calling Shelter Bay for a tow.

             When they finally responded, it was to say that the Colón guardacostas wouldn’t allow them to send a tender to tow us. So they sent a dingy.

            The skiff ran out of gas about a mile from the breakwater, and we had to give them what little we had left (we’d lost our own dingy in a storm). It was enough to get us through the breakwater, but we ran out of gas again, inside the harbor, and another dingy from the marina had to come out with fuel to help tow us in.

            We arrived at the Marina in quite the spectacle. Marina employees watched us with an expression somewhere between pity and awe. Other cruisers boarded their decks to see what the commotion was about. Even the manager of the marina came out to catch our lines. Afterward he told us not to worry about checking in. “We’ll do that tomorrow,” he said, even though it was eleven in the morning. “For now, you guys get some rest.”

            But Taylor and I were still riding a delirious high from caffeine and adrenaline. We went straight for the restaurant and ordered chicken fajitas with two glasses of ice water and a pair of cold beers. It wasn’t until I went to the restroom to wash my hands that I had a moment to pause, to realize that we were alive and safe. We’d made it.

            When I finally looked up at the mirror, I saw what everybody in the restaurant kept staring at. My eye sockets were sunken in. My cheekbones protruded from my face in a sharp angle. Even my skin looked pale and discolored.

            Then I looked down. The water was warm, the air-conditioning cool. My hands were shaking.