Baking at the helm, watching a newly arrived bird eyeing me suspiciously—as if this was his ship, and I was the one who’d just flown in—I knew I was unraveling. For two days now we’d been becalmed, sails flogging on the open Atlantic, and in a snap moment, I saw—all too clearly—how easily this could end with a flare gun to the face. As with so many of our triumphs and terrifying moments afloat, this one seemed to come with a theme song. Stranger still, in that same moment it was as if the bird understood and, in response, had cocked his head and started singing: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear...”
Five days earlier, Phillip and I had been sane, joyous even, at the prospect of making our longest passage yet, just the two of us on our 1985 Niagara 35, Plaintiff’s Rest, along the “I-65 route” from Eleuthera, Bahamas, to the BVI. The plan was to sail east eight to 10 days, then head south. Avid offshore sailors, we chose this route over what we had heard was the hellish, daily, upwind slog along the “thorny path,” directly down the Bahamas and then across to Hispaniola—modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Alas, as fate would have it, the trip turned out to be one of our most horrendous passages ever—not because of storms or killer seas, but an equally soul-killing combination of mechanical failures and deadly calms.
“Should I stay or should I go now?” Phillip and I sang as we reviewed the impressive weather forecast we received from WRI (Weather Routing, Inc.— wriwx.com) showing the wind direction for the first 10 days of our predicted passage. Riding the back of one of the frequent cold fronts that blow through the Bahamas in November, WRI predicted two days of good sailing going directly east, followed by a few days of windless motoring before we turned south at around 65 degrees west longitude, where the northeast trades would kick in, allowing us to zip down to the Caribbean on a sweet beam reach. Granted no weather window is perfect, but this one was telling us it was time to go!
“Motoring! What’s your price for flight?” I belted out at the helm as we motored along in the 3 knots of breeze that followed our first perfect 30 hours of wind. Unfortunately, even my off-key howling couldn’t cover the jarring squeal that suddenly ripped out from beneath my feet, sending an electric jolt through my every nerve ending. It was as if the engine had literally just let out a scream. Instinctively, I throttled back, and the shriek mercifully ceased. Moments later, though, the high temp alarm rang out, which was followed by smoke and a foul burnt-oil smell when we opened up the engine compartment. While it had been pretty clear our Westerbeke had overheated, something I was most definitely not expecting was the river of alien-green antifreeze I now saw pouring out of the freshwater pump and filling the bilge.
A hot, greasy hour later, we had the pump off and even I—by no means anybody’s idea of a diesel-engine expert—could see there was way too much play in the shaft and no fewer than three ball bearings were missing. The shriek had come from the belt, scorching around a seized pulley. Phillip and I shared the same silent inquiry: “How loo-ong has this been going on?”
After that came another even hotter, greasier hour punching and cursing the pump, trying to push out the shaft in the hopes of somehow replacing the seal, the same as we had once done with our raw water pump. Our hammering only ceased when we heard a chirp signaling the arrival of a text from our favorite yacht repair expert back home in Pensacola, Brandon with Perdido Sailor. Surprised that our freshwater pump had actually failed, he also dashed any false hopes we may have had of fixing it. “You cannot rebuild those,” Brandon texted. “It will have to be replaced.”
Alas, it turned out our “price for flight” was the spare freshwater pump that we most decidedly did not have. Mid-passage, we had now been rendered engine-less. Desperate to continue the passage we’d spent months preparing for, Phillip and I discussed what to do next. The conversation was a brief one.
Option 1 was to continue on with seven to eight more days of fluky winds and no guarantee of safe entry under sail into an unknown harbor. There were also the Navidad and Mouchoir Banks to the south of us—vicious reefs that like to “eat yachts,” fellow cruiser Pam Wall once told me, and which we could only confidently clear with favorable winds.
Option 2 was make what we thought would be a safe and short (albeit disheartening) two-day passage back to the Bahamas, an area we were familiar with and where we had contacts to help with our re-entry. There really was nothing to debate. Still, I had to laugh when the Bluetooth speaker in the cockpit—which plays most days on passage, but which we had completely forgotten about in the middle of our pump saga—piped up as if on cue with: “Baby come back! Any kind of fool could see…”
There was, in fact, something in everything about returning to the Bahamas, especially since, in addition to yacht-eating reefs, without an engine to charge our batteries we could also lose all power if we continued on and our solar panel failed to keep pace—a realization that soon had us in power-preservation mode: no fridge, no lights besides head lamps and, worst of all, no music. The chirp that filled the resulting silence seemed ominous, foreboding. It was WRI, sending us a weather update after we’d informed them of our decision to turn around. Our foreboding proved to be dead on. “You will see no more than 3 to 8 knots of wind the next three days,” WRI said, dashing any hopes we may have had or a speedy return.
Never have I wanted so badly for a weather forecast to be wrong. But WRI’s predictions proved to be dead on, and we saw no more than six. That’s when the up and downs began. The sails went up, the sails went down. So did tempers, moods, voices. I wanted to drop the sails. The constant flogging felt, to me, like Chinese water torture. Phillip, though, wanted to keep at least a sliver of sail up to prevent the boat from bobbing too wildly and keep us north of the rocky limestone cliffs lining the Eleuthera shore to leeward.
Around midnight after the first day of nonstop flogging, our autopilot Lord Nelson (named after the boat he came from), noisily refused to hold course at speeds of less than 0.3 knot. That’s when Phillip cracked. “I JUST WANT TO … SLEEP!” he shouted. “So do I,” I mumbled. But it was my turn on deck. My problem.
Desperate to somehow improve the situation, I took the helm in one hand, the headsail sheet in the other and began adjusting them in tandem with the fanatic frequency of an America’s Cup skipper. I don’t know if I was angrier at Phillip, Lord Nelson or the wind, but the entire two-hour shift I kept thinking: “I’m a fool to do your dirty work. Oh yeah! I don’t want to do your dirty work, no more!”
My last night's watch on that atrocious passage also brought one of the scariest moments I’ve ever had sailing. AIS told me the ship off in the distance was 936ft long, with a CPA, or closest point of approach, ranging from 0.3 miles to 23ft and set to occur in 24 minutes. What I hate about CPA is that it doesn’t tell you whether the “point” of closest approach is the stern crossing your bow or the other way around. What I hate about VHF is when big ships don’t answer. In this case, the beast ignored no less than three of my urgent pleas.
Either way, with 936ft of potential contact, I knew I had to get downwind of him—stat—and with the jib sheet in one hand, the boom pushed out to port with the other and my foot on the wheel, I was soon literally sailing for my life in 4 knots of wind. A beat pulsed through mind as my hand held out the boom. “Hold the li-iine! Love isn’t always on time!”
By some miracle, a 6-knot puff eventually inched us by, just in the nick of time. The sight of that ship passing by, blotting out the entire horizon from bow to stern, was nothing less than terrifying.
Finally, a full three days after we’d decided to make our “quick” return to the Bahamas, Phillip and I spotted land. Ironically, after days of struggling to stay well clear of the rocky shore, the towboat we’d arranged to come to meet us now wanted us to come in as close to land as possible before they left the marina. Finally, they came out, chucked us a line and began pulling us in. I have never been more grateful to be under power again in all my life.
Safe and sound in the marina, Phillip and I noticed another boat a few slips down, cushions, mattresses, sheets, pillows, all sopping wet and coughed up on the dock, the work of a shroud that had pulled clean through, puckering the deck. Turns out while Phillip and I had been dodging ships and insanity in a seemingly endless drifter, this other boat’s two crew had been bludgeoned and battered by gale-force winds in the Gulf Stream.
I confess, a part of me envied them. Theirs had been a battle that left them little choice but to react, to respond. Being becalmed on the other hand, causes your mind to go to war with itself, pecking away at its own weaknesses like some kind of malevolent bird—a talking one no less.
Still, as the four of us shared our equally harrowing tales over drinks that night at the bar in Spanish Wells, I felt no less a sense of pride in the realization we had once again succeeded in reaping those benefits only to be found venturing offshore: the thrills and spills, wisdom, and humility available to anyone brave enough cast of lines and listen to what the sea is trying to tell them. In fact, I have never been more certain of this than I was in that moment when, in the silence between the clink of our glasses, I heard softly playing overhead: “Whoo-oh-ooa, listen to the music. All the tii-immee!”
Photos By Annie Dike