A Long, Harrowing Day

It’s been almost three weeks since I’ve posted anything here—for various reasons.  I have been pretty productive over the past weeks, so it looks like I will head home with three new sweaters, and I have made enough progress on my Portuguese Man of War tapestry to feel that I know where I’m headed with that.  I set aside my third lace heart a few weeks back and have not touched it since.  And I made one, very fun, sock from Cat Bhordi’s Insouciant Knitting book.  Although that sock was fun to knit, I am not that smitten with the sock style and probably will never get around to knitting the second one….  Ah, well….

Here is that interesting sock…


And current progress on tapestry:


 There have been some unsettling moments over the last few weeks, and that is usually what takes me away from blogging.  We have had some sad news from several friends who are having health issues.  I am so worried for each of them and waiting for news is so stressful that it is very hard for me to concentrate on anything else.  I hate to even bring up this kind of thing here, but it has taken up so much of my daily thoughts I will just say that I am willing good friends to regain their health.

Also, we recently had two very frightening sailing incidents.  I hesitate to spend time describing what happened—this is, after all, a blog about weaving and other handwork, not about sailing!  But sailing is a major part of my life each year, and while sailing, Pandora is my floating studio.  Every sailor encounters bad situations.  I’m often reminded of the old adage:

Good decisions come from experience.  Experience comes from bad decisions.

After 40 years of sailing together,  I hope that we have gained enough experience, and made enough bad decisions, to be guaranteed in only making good decisions now.  Alas, not so!

Bad decision #1 is not one that carries much blame for us.  I will always take the easy route to get somewhere, so if it were up to me, I would spend our whole trip motoring and sailing up and down the Intra Coastal Waterway and never go out in the ocean!  Bob, on the other hand, would always choose to be out in the ocean, so he tries to pick the days that will cause me the least stress.

Going out in the ocean from coastal US below New Jersey involves using inlets because the entire southern coast has barrier islands.  Inlets are a sailor’s challenge.  Some are better than others, but since they are all dicey,  it’s better to avoid the bad ones entirely and to be cautious of the ‘good’ ones.  We have used Ft. Pierce inlet over the past few years since it is well known as one of the ‘good’ ones.

However, about a month ago, there was an accident in this inlet where a barge in tow sank and one person died.  This sunken barge is a significant hazard in the inlet, and the inlet has been closed since the accident.  We recently heard that the inlet is now open during certain times each day as salvage operations have begun.

So when Bob wanted to have a good day of sailing up the Florida coast from Key Largo to Ft. Pierce, he contacted the Coast Guard to see what the situation is with the Ft. Pierce inlet.  The Coast Guard told him that on the day in question there would be divers working on the wreck during the morning, but that the inlet would be open to small vessels by 11am.  We hit the high seas to make passage to Ft. Pierce.

When we arrived about 2.30 in the afternoon, we called the Coast Guard again for instructions on how to proceed into the inlet.  We had been told that the wreck was marked off with buoys to prevent boats passing over that part of the inlet.  But the Coast Guard then informed Bob that the inlet was closed until the end of the day because salvage operations, including divers, were still underway.  Ugh!

We noticed two other sailboats nearby us; one was a boat we have crossed paths with several times over the years in the Bahamas.  In fact, they had just sailed overnight from Chubb Cay based on the same information about going through this inlet by late morning.  They had arrived at Ft. Pierce at 11am and had been anchored off the beach all day.

This was one of those times when there were no good choices.  It’s never a good idea to anchor on a lee shore, which is what they chose to do.  But the other options were not good either: to sail back and forth near the inlet waiting for it to reopen which is exactly what Bob and I did.  For our friends, who had already been up all night for their passage from the Bahamas, this was not such a good choice.  Another option would be to keep sailing to another inlet.  The next inlet north is Cape Canaveral, and it was closed for the upcoming rocket launch.  So, given this lack of good choices we all did the best we could.

The third boat waiting for the inlet was not known to us, but after a chat on the radio we learned that he was onboard alone and had sailed from Miami with the same information that the inlet would be open by late morning or noon.

It was 6pm by the time the divers were up and the salvage barge with a large crane aboard had been up-anchored and moved to a safe location inside the inlet.

Here are the guidelines we always use for entering inlets.  It is best to go at slack tide.  Water does not like to be restricted—and that is exactly what inlets are.  The water approaching the east coast of the US has come all the way from Africa and is suddenly coming in contact with shallow coastal areas and then being funneled into a tiny inlet.  Just imagine what happens to all that water—it gets very agitated.  So it’s best not to add any further agitation such as flooding or ebbing tides.  Slack tide will have the least additional agitation. Wind also plays a significant part at inlets.  Never go into an inlet when the wind opposes the tide.

We planned our 2.30 arrival to coincide with slack tide.  There was moderate wind out of the east (yes, all the way from Africa), but with no tidal activity we should have had a reasonable transit through that inlet. It is almost impossible to get all these variables to be in sync with each other, but we do aim for as many positive players as possible.  But at 6pm in the evening, when we were allowed through, a number of things had become rather worrisome.  First, the sun was low in the west, right in our eyes, so it was quite difficult to see the obstructions that were marked in the inlet.  Second:  now the tide was at full ebb and the wind was from the east—bad situation.  The water was very confused.  Third:  I really hate to admit this—I have the highest regard for the Coast Guard– but on this day they were not giving out the best information.

Our friends on Five and Dime entered the inlet first, followed by us, and then Morgana, the boat that had sailed from Miami.  The Coast Guard advised all of us to ‘hug’ the north side of the inlet and proceed close to that jetty.  The wreck was on the southern side of the inlet. The waters were so confused we were all sluicing around and heeling over quite significantly in both directions.  Pandora was heeling about 30 degrees, first to port and then to starboard, so we were heeling a total of 60 degrees every minute or so.  We needed almost full throttle on the engine to keep her going forward; otherwise, she just sluiced around from side to side.

Shortly into the inlet Five and Dime ran hard aground in the area we’d been told to go.  She was right in front of us, so it seemed likely that we would run right into her.  It was harrowing to watch her pounding repeatedly on the bottom.  She was heeled over quite far, so she was pounding on the side of her keel and hull.  It looked terrifying.  They made an immediate distress call to the Coast Guard who, along with the local harbor police, came out to help within a moment.  A few big waves hit all of us then, and Five and Dime came off the bottom and managed to get back underway.

During this time, Bob saw no other option to avoid hitting Five and Dime than to turn around and head back out a bit.  The marked area we were to transit was a bit too narrow for turning around, so we ended up going over the sunken barge a bit, luckily with no incident.  By the time we did an entire 360 degrees, Five and Dime had progressed enough for us to continue forward.

Morgana did not have enough engine power to get through the inlet on power alone, so the captain, who was alone, had to go up on deck to put out his jib.  Boy, did I suffer a heart stopping moment watching him do that.  Our boats were all heeling and sluicing around, and I don’t know how he managed to stay onboard.  But after a tediously long few minutes, we were all safely in.  Five and Dime went to anchor near the Coast Guard station in order to be near help while they assessed any possible damages to their hull.  Morgana and we went further in to a protected anchorage.

The winds had freshened quite a bit during the late afternoon.  We set our anchor, but now neither of us remembers how thoroughly we backed down on the anchor to set it.  Clearly, not well enough.  At just after midnight, which meant it was now Friday, March 13th, Bob got up to check things.  He often does this at least a couple of times each night.  To his horror he found that we were no longer even in the anchorage.  We were dragging quite rapidly toward the bascule bridge that was just beyond this anchorage.  He called me to come up on deck as quickly as I could.  I also was horrified as I came up the companionway to see the bridge rapidly approaching our stern.  Of course, it was entirely the other way around, but it did look like the bridge was bearing down on us, instead of us bearing down on the bridge.

I took the wheel while Bob went forward to assess the anchor.  As he left the cockpit he warned me not to run over the anchor.  Yikes.  I set the throttle at a moderate speed hoping it was not too much to overtake our anchor.  Then I looked back at the bridge and was terrified to see that we were now very close to one of the huge abutments.  Fear took over and I pushed the throttle to full forward.  I can think of only one other time in my life when I was this scared.  I could actually feel us hitting the abutment and our mast striking the bridge–although it never actually happened.  I was in quite a state!  Pandora felt the kick of the full throttle and began making slow progress forward.  I guess we were in quite a current pushing us toward that bridge.  It was deadly dark, except for the excruciatingly bright lights on the bridge, as we tried to re-anchor in this overly crowded anchorage.  This time we backed down good and long to make sure the anchor was well set, but neither of us felt confident enough to go back to sleep.  It was a long night.

I do not blame us for the harrowing experience of getting through Ft. Pierce inlet.  We did our best to choose a safe sailing day for the trip, and we did due diligence by contacting the Coast Guard about the use of that inlet before setting out.  Sometimes things just conspire against your best efforts.

But the anchoring fiasco was entirely our own poor doing.  And the danger of dragging rapidly back to that bridge was quite a bit higher than even the experience of a bad passage through an inlet.  It still haunts me, two days later.  I think it will haunt for me quite a long time to come.

Over a decade ago Bob and I edited and published a book about a man who sailed the East Coast of the US in a very small sailboat.  He had a marvelous ability for understatement and often referred to these harrowing experiences as a “busy cup of tea.”  The whole day was indeed a very busy cup of tea for us!

And I’ll end with another old adage:

Boating is hours and hours of pleasure, interrupted by moments of sheer panic!

Frankly, I often feel it is the other way around….


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