December of 2015 and the first week of January 2016 will live in the weather records, history books, ships’ logs and personal diaries for the unusual and extraordinary weather seen in the eastern United States, coastal water of Florida and the Bahamas (published April 2016)
Tragically these records will also reflect boats lost or severely damaged over these five weeks. During this period, the eastern U.S. experienced record high temperatures and rainfall with the resultant disastrous flooding. Wind patterns around Florida and in the Bahamas were unseasonal. It was as if the Azores high had settled in two seasons too early and more intensely than ever. Northeast winds of 20 or more knots were forecast day after day in December. Sailors who endured several weeks of rain transiting the Intracoastal Waterway or the southern coasts were piling up in Lake Worth, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami waiting weeks for a window to cross to the Bahamas. Once in the Bahamas, every anchorage seemed more rolling than the last.
Jill and I began our full-time cruising life, departing from Melbourne, Florida on December 1. What had we jumped into we wondered day after day. We left our dock exactly as planned at 10 a.m. that Monday. We were committed to not being a couple that got stuck at the dock fixing, buying, waiting for, or installing the last “must have” item. We were exhausted from moving out of our rental house and putting our last heirlooms into a storage unit. We anchored a few miles down the Indian River and just rested for a day.
Our plan was to take the ICW south only as far as the first inlet, Fort Pierce, a day’s sail/motor away and then continue on the outside down to Miami as we had done several times before. When we got to Fort Pierce winds were blowing a gale and the seas were eight to nine feet. Reluctantly, we stayed inside and ran down the ICW all the way to Lake Worth. Far too many bridges and far too little sailing for our tastes.
During this time, the barge Columbia Elizabeth, lost at least 25 containers off the Florida coast. We saw the remnants of the barge load as we rounded the west side of Peanut Island near sunset bound for Miami. Reports of huge quantities of sundry items—bags of gourmet coffee and ramen soup packets, for example, washing up on the shores of Florida appeared on Facebook. Notices to Mariners advised to be on the lookout for containers drifting northward between Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral. We were glad to be going south.
Our run to Miami was a rough one. “Why do people wish us ‘following seas?”, Jill asked as we lurched forward and surfed southward. Not the best of rides. We reflected later that we could have likely had a better ride with a bit less canvas flying.
We arrived ahead of our optimistic projection and waited for sunrise before rounding Cape Florida to anchor just outside of No Name Harbor. The forecasts made it clear that we were going to be here a while before we saw a window for crossing to Bimini.
Though our boat was well shaken down over the last two years in preparation for full-time cruising, we did find a few things to fix before leaving the consumer Mecca of the United States and Miami, in particular. One day was dedicated to me riding the Metrorail and bus system of Miami and one of our folding bikes where the buses did not quite reach to pick up parts ordered by internet or phone as we awaiting our window. (Note to self: just change all generator belts every two years before they get dry and brittle). The Cuban sandwiches were a great reward of traipsing around Miami.
Our crossing to Bimini was close-hauled, wet, but comfortable. Jill is my hero as she tells me close-hauled is her favorite point of sail (so-far). We arrived shortly before sunset and tied up at Brown’s Marina so check-in procedures waited until the morning. Few other sailors arrived that day from Miami.
We decided to spend an extra day at the dock in Bimini. Jill and I are not marina types so this was quite unusual for us. Our folding bicycles allowed us to tour the whole island and have our choice of conch salad stands along the way. Upon returning, we were asked to move to a smaller slip but watching the parade of incoming boats that afternoon play bumper boats in the current, we decided to stay put and let the marina sort things out amongst the catamarans.
We had a good forecast for crossing the Great Bahama Bank to Bullock’s Harbor in the Berry Islands and looked forward to a restful night anchored out on the banks. Beating to windward would have been more restful than the ride we experienced at anchor that night. We rested happily in the lee of Great Harbor Key the next few days as northeast winds blew 20 plus knots.
As the winds calmed, we decided to move to the lee of Great Stirrup Key, an island owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines. Turns out we were anchored only a few hundred feet from one of the favorite snorkeling spots of the tour guides. We sat on the bow watching the snorkelers watch us. As a safety man in a kayak rounded up the strays to go back to the mother ship I called to him, “Hello Kayak Man! Two rum drinks please.” He gladly obliged us. As the divers waved goodbye, the beach and reef were our private resort once again. The forecasts continued to bring strong winds. Trade wind intensity and direction but too far north and too early in the season. Highs were settling in north of us.
Our next base of operations was Soldier Cay. (The first of several Soldier Cays we found on the charts—no one told us how many of these Cay names are reused over and over in the Bahamas). From there we sat out more blows from the northeast but enjoyed a dinghy excursion over to the pristine Ambergris Cay, on Christmas Day, and down to Hoffman Cay on Boxing Day, to snorkel the blue hole there. While the anchorage there was crowded and the beaches busy, we had the blue hole to ourselves for a few hours.
We have heard that you have not visited the Berry Islands until you have eaten at Flo’s Conch Café on Little Harbor Cay. Flo was on vacation until the New Year. Another missed forecast.
The winds worked for a crossing over to Nicholls Town on Andros Island. Passing through the world’s third longest barrier reef at the Bethel Channel, where the tree-colored range poles are nestled amongst the tree-colored trees, we anchored alone off Nicholls Town.There we enjoyed cracked conch, again without Flo.
Sharing a stern line from a departing lobster diver at the church dock to tie up our dinghy, we made friends. A few hours later he showed up at our rolling boat with four lobsters for a very fair price. This made a perfect New Year’s Eve dinner for us.
Nicholls Town seemed to be a shadow of its former glory as depicted in the cruising guides. We had planned to go further south on Andros to Fresh Creek but anticipating the same sort of changes, hearing too many stories about poor holding and strong currents, and tired of rolling anchorages, we turned towards Providence Island.
There we enjoyed a very pleasant night in West Bay. The next day we transited the south side of the island, avoiding Nassau, to fuel up at Palm Bay Marina which gets our vote for friendliest fuel dock. At the marina we shared a ride in their courtesy car to a fully-stocked grocery store, likely the last we will see for a few months. We really were only after some fresh bread, fruit, and vegetables but the culture shock of a big grocery store got us in full re-provisioning mode. Provisions onboard, packaging off loaded, we rounded the end of the island and anchored alone off the east end not far from Porgee Rock, a navigational jumping off spot for the Exumas.
Anchor up at 7 a.m. brought us into Allen’s Cay at 1 p.m. By this time the anchorage was packed. We ended up anchoring in the sand, but in 25 feet and pretty close to the rocks. The forecasted winds and the prevailing current portended to keep us off the rocks. By 10 p.m while the winds were constant the currents were running all different ways and the boats in the anchorage were scattered and pointing every which way like pick-up sticks. Our 85 pound Mantus anchor held firm as we scooted hither and yon sometimes with the anchor behind us, beside us, or under us, but only part of the time ahead of us, never in danger of running aground.
THEN CAME THE REAL WEATHER
We use a variety of weather forecasting tools including PredictWind via IridiumGO!, weatherfaxes and Navtex, GRIBS and forecasts via Airmail, and Windyty.com when we have internet connectivity. We even listen in to Chris Parker to see if he has something different to say. This week every model had a different answer for what was coming next. It was going to be a blow but just where, when, and to what degree no one could agree. Chris was using words like “interesting” and “difficult”. In the end, no one had it right and what actually occurred was a surprise to all and later described by Chris Parker as a “black swan”.
Since we knew a blow of some sort from the northeast was in our near future, we decided to pick up a mooring ball at the north mooring field at Warderick Wells. We arrived at the end of a very rainy squall but once inside the shallows of Warderick Wells found flat waters. The following morning we had 15 to 20 knot winds but flat waters in the mooring field. We hiked the Causeway and Boo Boo Hill trails and visited the blow holes which at low tide blasted warm air up at us from the caves below. That evening we were to get the first round of unpredicted weather.
The forecast called for 20 knot winds clocking to the north and northeast. That seemed like no big deal. We were secure with two stout eight-plait lines, one to each bow cleat and each with the line passed back through spliced eyes at the pendant so they grabbed the mooring pendant loop firmly and would not slide around on the pendant and chafe. The lines were also passed through some woven firehose where they met the sides of our bow sprit, the chocks, and toe rail. We were ready for a blow and it blew indeed with boats reporting 50 plus knots. We clocked steady winds at 40 knots with gusts in the high 40’s.
Others in the mooring field were a little more casual with their lines and they paid the price. Two boats with just a single line run from one bow cleat through the mooring pendant and back to the other bow cleat provided a demonstration of why this is a technique to avoid. The sliding of the lines back and forth through the mooring pendant sawed the lines in half. One, a charter boat, was thrust aground into a sandbar. Three dinghies, each with two crew selflessly and bravely assisted them in setting out an anchor and securing new lines to the mooring in the howling winds and pelting rain. They had to wait out the falling tide but by the 5 a.m. high tide they were back on the mooring as if nothing had ever happened. (And likely the charter company will be none the wiser). The other spent the next several hours motoring into the wind before they could secure another line. No boats were damaged, no one was hurt, but most had a sleepless night.
The next day was lovely with winds around 15 knots. Some boats, including the charter which had run aground in the night, left the mooring field early that morning, likely with schedules to keep. But there was another front on the way which was expected to join the current trough. All of the forecasts we could pull up showed the front, and its accompanying 25 knot winds remaining north of 25N and then in the early evening quickly moving northeast from there. We were 35 nautical miles south of 25N. Predict-Wind showed a dramatic contrast of green 10 knot SW winds in our area and red 25 knot NE winds north of 25N.
We packed up some beers and appetizers and dinghied over to the next mooring ball to visit our new friends on Ti Amo, a gorgeous custom Caliber 47, for sunset and comradery. We also brought our computer with us to share the PredictWind GRIB images. About a half hour later, seemingly out of nowhere, all hell broke loose. From light winds, the anemometer shot up to 45 knots. Okay, a rain squall, quick in—quick out, we thought. But the winds just kept building for the next two hours. Ti Amo’s dinghy went airborne several times eventually landing upside down, its engine head in the water, drive shaft straight up in the air, across our heavier aluminum hulled AB RIB. We watched our ketch, Regina Oceani, on the next mooring ball do its job and bob away in the surprising large waves that built up in this otherwise calm shallow basin. We had no safe way back to our boat and started making plans for a sleep over. The taller Ti Amo with its enclosed mid-cockpit tended to “sail” back and forth on the mooring at times heeling dramatically. Beers were spilled and food moved below slid off the galley counter and into the sink. No one was too hungry at this point as we saw nav lights and steaming lights all around the anchorage as other boats either broke their mooring lines or decided to motor up on the balls to relieve the stress on the lines. Ti Amo clocked 95 knot winds. Others in the mooring reported similar numbers. Then the real drama started.
Over the VHF radio Mayday calls started to stream in. As this blow moved south of us (way south of 25N) boats were dragging anchor. One boat “off the pig beach at Big Major’s Spot” hailed it had lost its anchor, was on the coral and breaking up. He was amazingly calm on the radio despite his situation. Others reported “losing anchors” and grounding. It was heartbreaking to listen to all these radio calls knowing we could do nothing to help.
The blow passed within a couple of hours and light winds prevailed. We returned in our dinghy to Regina Oceani. Since we always close hatches and ports and place our companionway drop boards before leaving our boat, she was dry and secure. To our final surprise, a small glass of water left on the cockpit coaming rode out the blow in place, perhaps with a little more rain water in it than when it all started.
As the reports of that evening rolled in the next morning, many reported over 100 knots in the Exumas and on the north of Andros Island. At least two boats were considered losses. Plenty dragged anchor and ran aground. The total damage report may never be known.
Chris Parker speculated that this wall of wind, over 50 miles wide which proceeded south for at least 50 miles was a straight line wind event known as a derecho. In the high school meteorology classes I used to teach, I covered derechos and other specially-named wind events. These usually happen in the “I” states (Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana), can be a few hundred miles wide, spanning a whole state, and can carry on for a few hundred miles but they are rarely seen below about 30N. Here again exactly what this freak wind event in the Bahamas was may never be known.
One thing for sure though, as Jill and I set at anchor just northeast of Fowl Cay, west of Compass Cay on a calm, sunny afternoon after snorkeling the caves of Rocky Dundas, we are loving the cruising life. That forecast we got right.
Over the last several years we have watched Pete and Jill Dubler’s restoration and refit of their Pearson 424. In December, they began their new life as cruisers aboard S/V Regina Oceani.
Many Lessons Were Learned Here…
Above all expect to be surprised from time to time. Don’t take any forecast at face value and certainly don’t stake your boat on a forecast. Be prepared for worse than forecast conditions to occur at any time.
Moor like you mean it: We always use two lines. Each is ¾” eight-plait with eye splices. The eye is passed through the pendant and the tail of the line back through the eye. This leaves each line with two runs of line tightly around the pendant, not prone to sliding and chaffing. At the deck the lines are run through braided fire hose for chafe protection. Sure it is more work to set lines this way and much more work when leaving the mooring, but the boat will be safe while there.
Anchor like you mean it: Jill and I are regularly amazed at the number of beautiful and very expensive boats which carry minimal and lightweight ground tackle. This is the one place not to scrimp. We never “lightly” anchor. It’s just not that much more work to anchor well. When we anchor, we always set our oversized 85 pound Mantus with a long, strong bridled snubber with chaffing gear. A separate line with a chain hook provides a backup deckside as does the locking pin on our windlass gypsy. Our primary rode is all chain. For storms we have a 65 pound CQR and 37 pound. Fortress ready to go each with 50 feet of chain and 300 feet of ¾” rode. We also often tie an orange float with SOLAS reflective stripes to our anchor so we, and everyone else, knows exactly where it is set. This practice is frowned on in the crowded anchorages of the Bahamas and can in fact lead to someone pulling up your anchor with their passing boat or even you pulling up your own anchor as you drift around in the currents of the Bahamas. Use the float with discretion.
The more diverse the forecasts, the more likely they are to be wrong: Use multiple weather forecast sources. Compare them. If different models are coming up with greatly different perspectives, you can bet that the atmosphere is sending them a lot of confusing data that the computers just don’t know how to handle. Plan for the reality to be worse than the forecast.