Teamwork Prevails in a Tricky Channel

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How teamwork and preparation saw this cruising couple safely into port

How teamwork and preparation saw this cruising couple safely into port. Illustration by Matthew Laznicka

Slamming into 6ft seas and driving rain is hardly the stuff of Caribbean cruising dreams, but this was not the time to reflect on the disparities between romance and reality. Our Catalina 34, Nancy Ellen, surged to the top of a wave, and I thrust the 2in screen of my pocket GPS in my wife’s face just as an oil tanker emerged from the gloom a few hundred yards off the starboard bow. As I looked into Nancy’s cold brown eyes, I realized only one thing would make her relax her grip on the wheel—the joy of strangling me with her bare hands. The boat pitched and the tanker disappeared into the squall. Our destination was just a few miles ahead of us, the sheltering harbor of Christiansted, St. Croix. The next half hour would decide if we were to spend the evening peacefully at anchor or be counted among the nameless wrecks that litter the waters of the Caribbean.

Like many cruising couples, Nancy and I had developed our own way of handling the challenges of life afloat. Nancy, a lawyer by training, was the expert in the business side of sailing. This left me time to admire the view while she dealt with short-tempered mechanics, recalcitrant yard owners and the odd Coast Guard official. It had taken us a little longer to sort out the chain of command while underway. In a stroke of genius, I had named the boat after her, and this set the proper tone. I may have been the skipper, but Nancy was the owner, and she made the rules. When the sun was shining, she’d take her turn at the helm, but when it came time to set the hook, she left me to deal with “captain’s business.”
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We had been “trailer sailors” for more than a decade. A few years earlier we had graduated from Minnesota lake sailing aboard a pocket cruiser to “big boat” sailing aboard our Catalina. Mystic, Connecticut, became our new home port, and for three summers we made coastal New England our playground. In 2005 we hired a skipper and signed up for the Caribbean 1500, dreaming of the clear waters of the southern islands. Fourteen days after leaving North Carolina, we made landfall in Soper’s Hole on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, dead last in a fleet that numbered more than 80. The Caribbean was everything we’d hoped, and when the fleet returned to the United States at the end of the season, we found a berth on Tortola at Nanny Cay and looked forward to continuing our adventure in paradise.

After that, we spent three seasons exploring most of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and were now outward bound for Christiansted. We’d left the south coast of St. John in high spirits, but woefully short on what experts call “situational awareness.” Passages in the Virgin Islands are generally short, and we had fallen out of the habit of paying close attention to the weather. Just an hour after leaving St. John, we found ourselves battling 25-knot winds and ill-tempered squalls that reduced visibility to a few hundred yards. While these conditions would barely interest hardier sailors, things were more than challenging enough for us.

Like most cruisers, we had an assortment of electronic gadgets to make life easy for a shorthanded crew. They’re all great, especially when they work, but today was not their day. The autopilot was the first to go. It was a wheel-mounted unit, intended for light duty, and could not handle the strong winds and choppy seas. We had learned that when it got rough, I was the best qualified “deck ape” aboard, while tasks that called for a calm head and steady hand were best left to Nancy. She took her place at the helm, and we drove on.

Next to go was the GPS chartplotter. The GPS was tough, but its power cable had always been suspect and the whole system was prone to throwing fits. Usually, this was little more than an annoyance, so we’d never bothered to fix the weak connection. We always figured eventually the rain would pass, and the GPS would recover from its snit and go back to work.

Today, however, was different. The passage from St. John to St. Croix is only 30 miles, but there is a tricky bit: the channel into Christiansted, which divides in two a few hundred yards from shore, so that any vessel missing the critical turn runs the risk of smashing onto the unforgiving jaws of Round Reef. Without the GPS, we did not know exactly where we were as we settled in for the final approach. And while luck was with us and the squalls passed before we got there, as every skipper knows, identifying a given buoy from the deck of a small boat can be a challenge. Fortunately, we had the proper harbor chart for Christiansted on board, and we had handheld GPS units as a backup to our chartplotter. Still there remained the question of whether I could plot the “fix” from the GPS on our chart.

Up to then I had always relied on my sensible wife to check my navigation and bless my final decisions, but today it was all Nancy could do to handle the helm and keep the boat on track. We had an engine, of course, but felt the boat would be more responsive under sail in the unruly waves. As Nancy brought Nancy Ellen into the harbor, I plotted our position, corrected our course, and soon the sea buoys were in sight. Pass the first, pass the second, then hard to port.

After we made the turn we bobbed gently in the sheltering arms of the reef, fired up the engine and dropped sail as we motored to the anchorage. A few minutes later the hook rattled down, and we paused to catch our breath. Our passage was over and done.
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“Sometimes you watch the show and sometimes you are the show,” an old Caribbean hand once told me, and just two days later we had front-row seats watching someone caught in the disaster we had managed to avoid. It was late in the day, the breeze was balmy, and the sun was sinking slowly in the west. A large ketch was gliding toward the anchorage, a truly beautiful boat. On she came, past the first buoy, past the second and then on to the critical turn where she missed the mark. I couldn’t actually hear the sound of the crash, but I felt it in every fiber of my being. In just a few moments the ketch was heeled hard over, her hull firmly lodged on Round Reef.

It is never good to go aground, but if you have to hit a reef, Christiansted is the place to do it. The rescue boys there are very good, and they have ample opportunity to hone their skills. In less than 10 minutes, a very sturdy RIB was alongside the stricken craft. Even without binoculars, we could easily watch as the drama unfolded. In short order the obviously shaken “first mate” was taken safely aboard the RIB, even as the captain refused to abandon his ship. After a brief trip to shore to offload their passenger, the RIB returned with more RIBs to help out.

It all went off like a textbook exercise. The skipper of the stricken craft passed a halyard to one of the waiting RIBs, then another halyard was passed to a second. They were big boats, each with a 50hp outboard, and the stricken vessel, fortunately, was steel-hulled and could take a lot of punishment.

In less than an hour it was all over. The two powerful RIBs managed to pull the ketch off the reef and into the safety of deep water. A few days later, I spoke to the skipper and relived with him the ordeal that had nearly cost him his boat. He was a good man, a seemingly competent and knowledgeable skipper, but there was a critical difference between his crew and mine. As with Nancy Ellen there were only two aboard, the standard husband-and-wife team found on cruising sailboats everywhere. But unlike us, the skipper’s wife was unable to assist and at the critical moment, there was only one person to do the work, which was at that precise moment that demanded four hands and four eyes. Even a prudent skipper finds it hard to do two things at precisely the same time, and it had been this man’s misfortune to glance at the chartplotter just in time to miss the critical turn.

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I turned to my wife and said nothing at all. Nancy has often observed there seldom is a silence I cannot fill. But at that moment I was literally grateful beyond words: grateful to be enjoying the beauty of Christiansted, grateful to be living our dream, and ever so grateful to know that my partner in life was also my partner at sea.

What I did right:

We had a handheld GPS and an alternate set of charts to back up our chartplotter.

Both of us were capable of helming the boat under sail or power, even in moderately difficult conditions.

In preparation for our cruise, I had completed the Coast Guard’s Coastal Navigation Course and I remembered my training.

What I did wrong:

We did not pay careful attention to the weather when we picked the day for our crossing.

Because conditions in the islands are generally moderate, our guard was down.

We did not pay proper attention to maintenance— we knew the connection between the power cable and the GPS was not secure and had not fixed it.

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