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Midnight Madness

It was the middle of the winter when my wife, Laura, and I flew to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to join our old friend Tom Garvey aboard his 37-foot Island Spirit Catamaran, Sanctuary. Californian Mark Paulson, a lifetime beach cat sailor and avid J/120 racer, and Glenn Ashmore, a software developer and delivery boat skipper, also joined us.We met on the dock in St.
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It was the middle of the winter when my wife, Laura, and I flew to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to join our old friend Tom Garvey aboard his 37-foot Island Spirit Catamaran, Sanctuary. Californian Mark Paulson, a lifetime beach cat sailor and avid J/120 racer, and Glenn Ashmore, a software developer and delivery boat skipper, also joined us.

We met on the dock in St. Thomas and—now that we were in paradise—discussed the various itineraries that we could follow. Some of the crew disappeared to take care of last-minute provisioning details while the rest of us stowed our gear and got the boat ready to sail. When the provisions arrived on the dock they were ferried out to Sanctuary and when everyone was safely on board we pulled the dinghy up on the stern davits.

At that point Tom gathered everyone around him for a safety briefing. He pointed out all the catamaran’s onboard systems, safety gear, and other relevant information—just in case something unexpected happened. Not long after that we pulled up the anchor and headed off for Christmas Cove, a pleasant spot just south of Red Hook at the eastern end of the island. Once we were anchored we enjoyed grilled steaks, curried rice with salad, and the first of many glorious sunsets we would enjoy over the next several weeks. The following morning we set off for Soper’s Hole on the west end of Tortola in the British Virgins. We enjoyed the beat past St. John and looked forward to spending some time sailing and enjoying ourselves ashore with old friends.

Late one afternoon we decided to sail over to Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke, where we planned to spend the evening ashore. When we entered the anchorage we surveyed the available space, selected a spot that all of us had used before, and got our ground tackle ready to go. We all knew that Great Harbour doesn’t have great holding, and after we had anchored I put on a snorkel and mask and went for a swim to see how the anchor was set. When I dove down on the hook I was unhappy with the small amount of sand around the anchor so I swam off to the south looking for a bigger patch of clean sand.

About 75 yards away I spotted what looked like a suitable spot and signaled the crew to raise the anchor and come over and set it again. When the anchor had set in 10 feet of water, we put out what amounted to a 5:1 scope. Once the boat had settled down, we took inventory of the nearest boats: one was about 100 feet ahead of us and a second, a monohull, was about 50 feet to starboard and around 100 feet astern. That spacing would have provided plenty of room, assuming both boats had put out about the same amount of scope, for both of us to swing and to keep clear of each other if the wind did shift. At that time the wind was blowing about 5 knots from the north-northwest.

When everything seemed secure we set an anchor alarm on Tom’s handheld GPS and prepared to get in the dinghy and head for the beach. In our haste no one bothered to take bearings on any fixed objects ashore to give us good references for our position. But the GPS anchor alarm was set, so off we went.

When we returned about three hours later, we saw that the wind had shifted further into the north and the monohull that had been to starboard of us was now about 90 feet astern. As soon as we were aboard Sanctuary, our neighbor hailed us and told us that our anchor had dragged. When Tom checked his GPS position, he saw that we were now just slightly west of our original position, meaning that we could not have dragged. But in the interest of maintaining harmony in the anchorage we decided to pull up our anchor and reset it again. It was now dark, but we eventually got it to take a little further away from the monohull. Once again we gave the rode a 5:1 scope. As soon as we had settled down in our new position, the skipper of the monohull told us that he had put out 200ft of chain. With the depth still about 10 feet that meant his scope was at least 20:1.

When things had again quieted down and everything seemed to be all right around us, we went below and turned in for the night. Then around midnight, the GPS anchor alarm went off. When I reached the cockpit, Tom was already there. The wind had increased and we were only about 15 feet away from the bow of the other boat. Tom started both engines, put them in gear, and slowly began moving forward. But suddenly the port engine quit and would not restart. Worse yet, the boat had stopped moving forward. Something was obviously very wrong, so I pulled out a facemask, snorkel and waterproof flashlight and went over the side. When I dove under the boat I couldn’t believe my eyes. An anchor chain was firmly wrapped around our port saildrive.

With all on Sanctuary now on deck and fully awake, everyone lined the rail and tried to keep the two boats from banging against each other as the other skipper deployed some fenders. I climbed back on board and helped the others to keep the two boats snugged up against the fenders while Tom, who had gone into the water with mask and snorkel, tried to get enough slack in the anchor chain so he could unwrap it. It was perhaps 10 minutes before he was able to get the chain clear of the saildrive, which miraculously seemed to be undamaged.

Unfortunately, the clearing exercise had not been helped by the other skipper, who seemed to be incapable of doing anything except to yell “Sacr bleu,” and try to push Sanctuary away from his topsides as hard as he could with his boathook. He did so even as Sanctuary’s crew was trying its best to hold the boats together so Tom could unwrap the anchor chain.

Even with the starboard engine engaged and Tom in the water on the port side of the cat, it wasn’t easy to clear the chain from the saildrive. Part of the problem was that as soon as it was about to unwind and fall away, a gust of wind would push the boat back down onto the chain. That motion took out all the slack Tom had managed to get and he would have to start over.

No matter where the blame ultimately lay, the only thing the other fellow could do was criticize our efforts even as he was making things so difficult for us that we began to feel he might unknowingly undo all the effort we were making to get clear of him.

When we finally managed to get clear we anchored for a third time and waited to make sure the anchor would take. Then the crew went below, one by one, to try to get some sleep, although after all the excitement that had just taken place it wasn’t going to come quickly, if at all.

The next morning I got out a pencil and paper and sketched out what had happened. The chain rode on the other boat had completely encircled our anchor’s swing circle, so that when the wind started to move clockwise into the east and increase, it assumed a J shape. When we left for dinner the other boat may have been 100 feet astern of us, but his anchor was actually about 60 feet off our starboard bow. When the wind shifted, the result was inevitable.

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