It was a dark and stormy night—OK, not really dark since it was day, but pretty stormy—when we cruised into Salt Whistle Bay on the Caribbean island of Mayreau aboard Indigo, our 46ft Leopard catamaran. We had just sailed north from Union Island heading for the Tobago Cays, but since it was blowing 20-30 knots with pissing rain added to the mix, we decided that a more sheltered anchorage made sense.
We pulled into the small bay to find a dozen boats already cluttering the anchorage. It used to be that these bays were void of such unnatural obstructions, but ever since Wallace J. Cooper accidentally tied his Catalina 38 up to a fishing float back in 1977, things have changed. They pop up not only in places where a deep or rocky bottom would make them welcome but also in beautiful 10ft-deep sandy bays with room to anchor 50 boats.
When the owner of the fishing buoy found Wallace tied up to it, he motored over to explain that the other end of the ball was simply attached to a wooden cage that really wouldn’t hold a 38ft boat if the wind started to blow. But either because Wallace couldn’t understand a word of the slang the fisherman was speaking, or because he was too lazy to throw out his anchor, he simply smiled and gave the fisherman five bucks. The guy shrugged, pocketed the money and went home.
Later that night his wife found the $5 and asked where it came from. When the fisherman explained what had happened, his wife had an idea: what if they put out a whole bunch of buoys in the bay and charged people $5 to tie up to them? They would put so many of them around the bay, it would be impossible to anchor—so the boaters would have to tie up to one. They’d make a fortune!
And thus it was. Before long all the bays were clogged with “mooring balls” as the word spread amongst the locals that they could simply throw out a ball tied to a block of concrete and people would tie their boats up to these things and pay them money. The local governments, not to be beaten to the punch by their constituents, also got in the act and placed “government approved” mooring balls and hired the fishermen to go around and collect the fees.
In some places—such as the British Virgin Islands—it is practically impossible to anchor in many of the bays because there are now simply too many mooring balls too close together. Indeed, in popular places the balls are only 50ft apart, meaning the boats tied to them often come ridiculously close to hitting one another.
Which brings me to Salt Whistle Bay. The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines—of which Mayreau is a part—has declared that many of the popular anchorages are National Parks. This, in turn, means they’ve installed a whole bunch of mooring balls and charge a lot of money (up to $60/night) for people to tie up to them. In Salt Whistle Bay there are two long rows of balls, very close together, and the ranger spends his days zipping between the balls collecting fees as boats tie up even for a few hours.
As it happened, we’d actually anchored there in the spring of 2016 and found a small sandy corner on the edge of the bay in which to drop our hook. So now, eight months later, with most of the balls were taken, I decided to anchor there again. (The exact spot was still marked on my chartplotter.) I actually considered taking a ball, but I like the idea of my big Rocna anchor digging deep into the sand for a nice secure night rather than trusting a rusty thimble attached to a frayed strand of ancient hemp rope disappearing off into the deep.
It was early afternoon. We set the hook in 12ft of water just off the beach, let out 60ft of chain and sat in the cockpit watching the rain. As the afternoon wore on more boats arrived, and before long all the balls were taken. No big deal—we were happily hooked in our little corner. As I usually do, I put on my dive mask to check the anchor, but the water was so stirred up from a week of strong wind that I couldn’t find it. Then the wind really came.
It had been blowing 15-20 knots all day, but a wall of black clouds to the east—headed right at us—foretold of a potentially bigger event. Within five minutes it was raining harder. Much harder. Then the wind starting building, to 25… 30… 35 knots. Walls of water pelted down as I watched the boats around us, their government moorings stretched and straining. I didn’t worry about us, though. After all, we had the big mama Rocna holding us down.
Then I noticed that the little fishing boat that had been behind us was now in front. Uh, oh…we were dragging: very slowly, but moving backward none the less. Before long we were alongside a 40ft sailboat that was tied to a mooring ball. Not right beside it, but close enough that if there was a sudden wind shift we might hit. Damn!
It was then that Indigo reared up and came to a sudden stop. The anchor had reset. We were not in an ideal spot, but at least we weren’t moving as the squall ripped through the anchorage. Indigo continued to strain on the chain as she whipped back and forth, ever closer to the sailboat beside us. Finally, when the wind subsided a little, I decided to make a run for it. Debbie began pulling up the anchor as I put both motors into forward at 1,200rpm to counteract the wind on our bow. She got the bridle up and started bringing in the chain as I struggled to keep Indigo straight into the wind.
Suddenly the chain started skipping wildly on the gypsy. “I can’t get it up,” Debbie yelled. “It feels like the anchor is stuck on something.”
After that, I spent a few minutes frantically trying to maneuver Indigo into a position where we could get the anchor up without careening into any other boats in the crowded anchorage as the wind gusted from all angles. No luck. The anchor was straight under us but stuck on something. Once again, with the water so murky because of the wind, I couldn’t see a thing.
Not wanting to risk hitting another boat, I decided to try to drag our anchor and whatever “thing” it was stuck to away from shore, and by backing up hard succeed in getting them both to move until we were perhaps 50 yards in the clear. That done I went forward again to try to see what our anchor was tangled in, eventually getting it up to within a few feet of the surface (a miracle our windlass didn’t blow up) where I saw that it was hooked on a loop of chain. Undoubtedly it was attached to an old anchor or concrete block, or perhaps an old car. In any event, it was very heavy, and it was not coming up.
After that, I grabbed our boat hook and snagged the chain to try to pull it off the tip of our anchor. No go. After that I held it tight and told Debbie to quickly let our anchor down, thinking I could hold the wayward chain while our anchor dropped out of the way. Yeah, right. Our anchor went down, and since it was now also supporting, however, many tons of crap was attached to that old chain, it yanked me along with it. Luckily there was a nice strong trampoline between the water and me, although the boathook went flying into the water.
“We’re free,” yelled Debbie. “You did it!”
“I did?” Somehow the combination of snagging the chain with the boathook and dropping anchor had tilted the tip of our anchor enough to let the chain drop off. Truly a miracle. We were free, just as another squall ripped through the bay.
“I think we’ll just try another anchorage,” I said as we headed south to the next available harbor—a big, wide open bay with only a few boats and a nice sandy bottom. Once there, we anchored in 18ft of water, put out 125ft of chain and took a deep breath as the rain poured down.
Later, I decided to use our anchor alarm before we turned in for the night, just in case, setting the alarm perimeter at 60ft. Sure enough, at 0300 a big squall came tearing through, the wind direction switched 90 degrees and, “WHHAAAWHHAAA WHHAAA WHHAAA,” off went the anchor alarm.
Instantly, I jumped out of bed and went up to take a look. The rain was now coming down so hard I could barely see the front of the boat. The wind was also wailing in the rigging. But…we weren’t dragging. Instead, we had simply rotated out of our 60ft “circle of safety,” which I had clearly set too small. Returning aft I increased it to 100ft, reset the alarm, dried off and went back to bed, only to have gone off again 30 minutes later. Now what?
Getting up out of my bunk I went out into the rain again with my big flashlight to survey the anchorage. The wind had now switched back to the original direction, and since we had so much chain out we had, once again, rotated out of the “circle of safety” for the anchor alarm. So I did what all good sailors do, I made the circle even bigger.
It reminded me of being a kid and daring a bully to cross the line in front of me, which, of course, he immediately did. So I’d draw another line and dare him to cross it. Which he did. And on and on until I was safe inside my front door, looking out the window and making faces at him. Of course, he’d beat me up tomorrow, but that was 18 hours away—several lifetimes if you’re a kid.
In the morning over coffee, I reflected on the events of the previous day. Something about the entire scenario was ringing a bell deep in my little brain. Something about an anchor…
“Didn’t you find an old anchor in that bay last year?” Debbie said as I stared into space.
“No, that was somewhere else,” I replied. “Scotland, I think.”
“You sure? I thought it was around here somewhere?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure,” I replied. “That was somewhere else.”
Then it hit me. Wait a minute! Debbie was right! It was right there! I dug into my photos from eight months earlier when we were anchored in the exact same spot, and I had discovered a huge old stainless steel anchor attached to at least 50ft of chain sitting just 20ft from our anchor. It was over 5ft long and had to weigh at least a 150lb. I had scraped the algae off the shank to reveal shiny stainless steel, then had my friend Dave dive down next to it so I could show how big it was as I took a few photos. What a find! And in only 12ft of water!
Naturally, I did what any other hand-to-mouth sailor would do: I listed it for sale on eBay. “Bid on this beautiful 100# stainless steel anchor. Located off Mayreau Island. Perfect spare anchor for your 100ft yacht. I will divulge the exact GPS coordinates to the winning bidder, and then it’s yours for the taking!”
Sure enough, I got several bids and ended up selling the coordinates for $26. (Note to impoverished yachties: you can sell anything on eBay.) I guess the winning bidder never came to pick it up, though, because I’d now “found” it again.
Of course, this is the ultimate payback. I make $26 selling an underwater anchor and end up losing an $80 boathook trying to untangle myself from it a year later. Yes, Lucy, there is such thing as Karma. I think that anchor had it in for me. But as was the case with that bully, I decided I’d show that anchor who’s the boss once and for all. Now that it’s in a different location, I’ll sell the coordinates again.HA!
The following morning was gray and gloomy with intermittent rain—the start of yet another perfect Caribbean day. Perfect because we’re not going to move a damned inch.
MHS Summer 2017