Tearaway - Brian BezaireThe movement is slow and regular. It’s a rhythm that’s powerful and in control. It’s exhilarating and pleasant, with just the smallest touch of terror. A scan of the horizon is interrupted by an odd feeling. It’s like my eyes can’t quite focus. What my eyes see all around me is outside of my brain’s experience of what a sight so big should look like. It’s not just the expanse, but that this scene can be so big and also be moving. Solid earth is about two miles below us. The sky is an uninterrupted blue and the water we’re floating on is also blue but almost black. Balanced between these most common of all elements, Tearaway and I move up fifteen feet and then without feeling the apex of our climb, slowly drop to start over again. The minutes it takes to complete the cycle seem exaggerated to a caricature of reality. I’ve never seen such long big waves. The waves are remnants of a Norther that blew itself out yesterday. Tearaway’s thin hull is my security that maintains this precarious balance between water and air far above the sea floor. In the cockpit locker, in an area where the hull is more translucent, I could see the sun playing through the waves against the boat. I think ‘it looks very thin‘. It’s not foremost in my thinking but it is a niggling, annoying thought.
We are three hours out from Rum Quay. We had manoeuvred the coral head obstacle course before dawn to arrive off Crooked Island in daylight. Being alone here is more alone than I’ve ever been. It’s an exhilarating and amazing sense of freedom. Being this alone changes Tearaway from fibreglass, steel and Dacron, into a sentient being. We ride these long big waves easily, enjoyably, but it’s obvious how precarious things are and I love it. A radio that reaches a circle of twenty miles seems less than adequate when there is no one to be seen – and I can see for at least 15 miles. For a time I see a freighter that appears and disappears with our rhythm of ups and downs.
Crooked Island comes up on the horizon and brings us in to an anchorage – land; source of food water and everything I need but also offering the possibility of a grounding. But I’m not worried. We’ve been out in daily hops like this for about 5 months. It’s late February. In Toronto where Tearaway would have been less animated under snow and ice, I would be standing with pale skin, shoes and long pants in a trading pit and the sun would be just starting to crack winter’s icy grip on the city. Now, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, my new wintertime uniform has become the norm. I’m anchored off a small community with the wind off shore. I find that there’s no gas on the island for my dinghy outboard motor. The storms have delayed the delivery ship. But I can’t stick around to wait. A local says the wind is going to clock back to the West and I’ll be facing 10 foot breakers with a rocky shore behind me – this evening. My plan to spend the night has changed. I expected the South East wind to hold until morning, and it might. But the risk is too great. I’ll head further south along the west coast of Crooked Island.
So it’s back to the boat, haul up the outboard motor, deflate the dinghy, store it on deck, lift the forty feet of 3/8” chain and 25 pound anchor and head south to the next anchorage. I don’t like leaving so late in the day. Entering any harbor at night is risky but in the out islands there are no markers - lit or not - so I always watch the color of the water for an indication of depth.
The winds are kind and the boat trims easily. I have the auto pilot on so I’m freed of the tiller duties. I drag a fishing line and continue monitoring our progress and study the approach to the next harbour. I want to know it well without hesitation. The approach is shallow but the bottom is all sand so if we come in slowly and if there’s still ample light it should be easy.
I have a strike on the hand line and the pace picks up and also makes for a change in diet. Fishing with a hand line isn’t like sports fishing. I don’t play the fish. We’re not going that fast but fast enough to overwhelm the fish and with a dousing of alcohol it’s knocked out and easy to ‘land’. It’s a nice sized dolphin, about three feet, (not the animal, but a fish with dolphin shaped head and scales that are right out of the rainbow). It’ll provide dinner and I’ll store the rest for later meals – tomorrow’s breakfast, lunch and dinner and more. In a small boat, without refrigeration or ice, fresh fish is eaten as it comes. It’s not a hardship to eat the same thing in different ways, it just seems normal, another new normal. The sun is getting lower in the sky but it’s behind me and I begin the entry into my sheltered anchorage. Slowly. Then bump. I take down all sails and motor even more slowly. Another bump. I’m hitting bottom – not an immediate problem because it’s soft sand but I’m worried about getting trapped. If I get behind a sandbar and can’t find my way out to deeper water again I’ll get pounded when the wind shifts. When the wind comes off the ocean instead of the land, the waves will grow like a bad dream. If I can’t move they’ll slowly push me up on to the beach and crush me.
I pull out and move over to what looks like deeper water. Bump, bump. Turn. Bump. Heart rate is up now. If I don’t quickly find my way out it’s over. I slow down to a crawl. Turn to get back out and now I’m looking into the sun’s reflection. Driving blind. The depth sounder isn’t a help either. It just shows me the depth where I am and the bumps are telling me that very plainly. It’s 5’3” – my draft. I can plough through the sand if it isn’t too hard but that’s probably a big mistake. I could be driving myself into a sand bar – I may have already moved behind a bar. Keeping rational and going slow is the obvious and also the most difficult thing to do. There isn’t anyone around. The small community is too far for my radio and I haven’t seen anyone all day on the water. There is a Norther coming in, so why would anyone be out here?
Luck wins and I escape into deeper water. The charts had showed enough water to enter, and my GPS put me where the charts showed the greatest depth – but there are hurricanes in late summer/fall and they can shift thousands of pounds of sand in a few days.
The sun is getting lower and the next harbour is my safe place for the night and out of the way of the Norther. Back in the wooden ship days Albertown, on the west side of the peninsula, was a prosperous town with carriages and even street lights. The square riggers stopped here to drop their slave ‘cargo’ and take on other cargo, supplies and crew. Now there is almost no evidence of prosperity no matter how ill gotten. It’s almost deserted.
It’ll be dark before I can get around the point to the west side, the sheltered side of the peninsula. I didn’t do so well with light, and darkness changes the odds, but the charts show it’s a lot deeper, if the charts are still correct. It’s been a long day and I’ve been busy all day. But I’m having such a good time that I’m not tired at all – a bit of adrenaline doesn’t hurt either. The sun has set now. The charts say that there is fairly high land just off the port beam but I can’t see it. I can’t see a thing. I’m under power now, the wind is very light. There are no stars or moon. No bumps and the water moves in easy waves – it’s deep here. With only the GPS for guidance I pick an anchorage behind Albertown. It’s incredibly safe here. In front of us is high land, behind us room to drag for hours. I’m inside of a large crescent of land. The water looks about 8’ on the charts – great for conk.
The next day I launch the dinghy and head for a ‘dock’ about 45 minutes away. A few hundred yards from the dock there’s a trench in the water where it’s barely deep enough for the outboard motor – it’s still kicking up a lot of sand. There are pink flamingos in the distance. It’s windy but nothing like the other side of the peninsula.
There are goats in the underbrush and on hills everywhere. They scamper up and down the rocks keeping a safe distance between themselves and the carnivore - that‘s me. After an hour’s hike on a goat trail across salt pans (small dams built by slaves that sectioned off sea water to evaporate and produce sea salt) I arrive in beautiful downtown Albertown. I meet an old man and his young grandson. They’re sitting on the porch of their minuscule house. He’s drinking rum, it’s 11am.
It seems they are among the last people living here. We talk for a while and as I’m leaving he asks me about the ‘sweet boys‘. I feel a little uncomfortable because I have no idea what he’s talking about. But I finally gather he’s talking about sharks. He warns that I shouldn’t swim at night. Later big dark shadows floating around the boat at night confirm his caution. There’s a ‘phone booth’ on the island. It’s in a concrete block building about 15’ square. It has an operator – a man who can navigate the Bahamian phone system. Apparently there are more people who live a few kilometres north of here, the operator being one of them. I also find a grocery store – sort of. It has no fresh produce. “I order fresh stuff and two weeks later it comes in on the ferry rotting in the sun” says the owner. There are about twenty cans on shelves. He owns the goats that cover the island. They’ll eventually overtake the vegetation as they multiply. He explains that the goats were part of a plan to get ownership of land. He had to show that he was a farmer to be granted the property by the government. So he bought a few goats, let them forage and now that he was a farmer he got the land. Then the fences he had built fell into disrepair and now the whole island is overrun.
A few days of fishing, eating conk and then I head out to St. Clemens. It lies across the straight on Long Island. A nice day’s sail. The winds were clocking once again but I’ll have plenty of time before the next Norther according to the shortwave. The winds began to die so I motor-sailed to keep up the pace. Later the wind picks up again so I shut the motor off. About 6 hours into the crossing I realize I was making less progress than I had thought. There is a counter current that was slowing me down. Now the race with the sun was on. I was making good speed with favourable winds. Land grew out of the western horizon and I started the count down. First a smudge on the sea, then I can make out topography, then houses then windows on houses. A beautiful setting sun outlines palm trees next to a church on a hill. But it’s only a tease. Between me and the harbour is a line of surf and small islands. The entrance is further north along the coast around and behind the shoals. Then I can head back toward the church where there’s a commercial dock. This town is a little more lively, but not much. Darkness is quick. And the remaining light magnifies the white line of surf that looks as big as houses. I can’t see the entrance and my GPS course is converging with the line of surf. I know there’s deep water to starboard but spending the night sailing up and down is not appealing. I still have good depth but watching the power of the breakers as night closes in is unsettling. ‘Trust your instruments, stay with a plan, avoid hunches’ that was parting advice from a military pilot I knew in the pit. Keeping a close eye on the wind and current I closed in slowly. I was afraid of getting into a position where I couldn’t turn to starboard if the bottom came up suddenly - it was still very deep. Then like magic the line of surf ended and the GPS lead me through a wide deep road to town. It’s pitch black now and still no help from the night sky. I pull off a bit and drop anchor hoping I was outside the shipping channel and that there would be no freighter leaving at night. I wasn’t prepared to head in further to anchorages that were better but invisible tonight.
I slept well and woke to find a beautiful harbour with signs of civilization. I snuggled Tearaway into a finer anchorage behind a small island next to a big hole where the surf broke over a wall of shoals and scoured the bottom. In town I had a restaurant meal of fish beans and rice. I happen on a fresh market and purchase pumpkin and cabbage. After storing the supplies I walk the island for a few hours. It’s hot and tiring but great to stretch the legs. I had left the dinghy pulled up on the beach for three hours with personal things, gas the motor unattended for the whole time. Like usual nothing has been touched.
I have to change the anchorage because the wind is supposed to clock late in the day but first, a quick snooze. I wake up almost an hour later shocked to find the stern very close to the beach. The wind had swung around while I slept. I couldn’t believe it happened so fast. Now I had the job of pulling up the anchor while just a few feet from shore. I was afraid of losing the rudder. The wind was strong. I couldn’t pull myself up on the anchor by hand. I turned the motor on and at idle put it in forward to take some of the load off the anchor. No luck, I still couldn’t budge the boat. The wind is really strong and I‘m afraid the anchor might drag. I load the second anchor and rode into the dinghy and play out the full length of rode and chain. Back on the boat I winch in the second anchor and take some of the load off the first anchor. Playing back and forth between anchors and resetting the second anchor I get the first anchor up. Now I have more room behind me. A little more on the engine and I can pull myself up on the second anchor but it’s tricky because if the engine takes too much of the load I fall off to port or starboard then I have to correct with the tiller. I do this little dance between the rode and tiller and varying the engine speed while watching that the anchor isn’t dragging. Finally I pull up and I’m away from the dreaded shore. A little exhausted but very pleased.
Another day of rest and then I start back to Rum Quay where I started over a week ago. From there on to Conception and Georgetown up the chain to Nassau and across the banks to cross the big ocean river to mainland USA and on to home - Alexandra Yacht Club where the sailing season has just begun...