To The Bahamas, Part 9: Great Sale Cay to Hawksbill Cays

2012-04-13, around midnight — Just west of the Hawksbill Cays, Bahamas

CRAP!

Here’s what my logbook entry shows for today:

April 2012 Dream SeQueL Trip 059 -Jim's log entry for April 13th

And, as the line from the Rocky Horror Picture Show goes, “that ain’t no jive”. So far, this has been a really, really, REALLY, bad day. Actually, in fairness, the really bad part didn’t get started until late in the day.

We’d started out a bit late (after 10:00) leaving our little anchorage in Great Sale Cay’s Northwest Harbour. We weighed anchor without problem and motored out of the Harbour. Because of a shallow reef extending several miles to the south-southeast of Great Sale Cay, we planned to sail about six or seven miles south, then turn directly east towards the Hawksbill Cays and then on to Crab Cay (one of many Crab Cays in the Bahamas). The sail started off quite auspiciously, with lovely east winds forming a nice beam reach. Sadly, as we turned eastward, the winds became less pleasant, being right on the nose. We tried to tack back and forth a bit, but the relatively shallow water had me somewhat intimidated and feeling constrained. The wind began to kick up short, choppy seas and we just got tired of beating upwind. So we decided to motor-sail instead.

Shortly after making that turn to the east, we encountered a phenomenon that we wouldn’t have been able to explain if we hadn’t read about it in one of the Cruising Guides to the Bahamas that we’re using. Just look at this shot of the water through which we’ve just sailed:

April 2012 Dream SeQueL Trip 060 -A fish mud

See all that light-colored water? Water color is a key navigation clue in the Bahamas (and elsewhere, of course), and light-colored water is usually an indication of a shoal or reef — very shallow water in particular. But we knew from our charts and from reading the Cruising Guides that there was no shoal or reef here. Instead, this is what is called a “fish mud”:

April 2012 Dream SeQueL Trip 061 -Fish mud explanation

Ain’t that cool? During this day, we saw about five or six fish muds, one of them at least a hundred meters wide.

By around 14:00, it became obvious that we couldn’t possibly make Crab Cay before dark. As Frank kept reminding us, the rule about navigating in the Bahamas after dark comprises a single word: Don’t! We figured we could make the Hawksbill Cays without problem and have the hook down in a sheltered spot well before dark. As it turned out, “well before” turned into “just barely before”. Our plan was to slip into a protected area of “deep” (for the Bahamas) water — about two meters deep — just off Foxtown (a/k/a Fox Town), as seen on the chart image below.

April 2012 Dream SeQueL Trip 066 -Chart of the waters off Fox Towm Bahamas

And here is where I learned one of the most important lessons a captain and navigator should know — do not navigate based on any single source of data. I depended on our chartplotter and its (six year old) Navionics electronic charts. And I apparently managed to just slightly cut a corner in my efforts to get to our sheltered spot before it got completely dark. I did not ask Frank to take his post on the bow watching below the water, because it was already too dark for him to have been able to see anything anyway.

And, just about 19:30, I felt it. Tap. On the keel. Followed quickly by a sort of dragging noise. Instantly, I pulled the throttle back to idle, put the transmission into neutral, and proclaimed “We’re aground!” No drama, no histrionics, no panic. Merely a statement of certainty. Within seconds, Barbara and Frank would have figured it out for themselves, because Dream SeQueL just slowly braked herself to a dead stop. Of course, I tried the usual tactics of slipping the transmission into reverse and revving up the engine, of trying to rotate the boat using the engine (in forward) and rudder, etc. But nothing worked. Grrrrrrr… Here’s roughly the scene around our little plot of “ground”.

April 2012 Dream SeQueL Trip 071 -The rocks near where we ran aground (50 metres to right) where we ran aground -taken at 8;30 am

Barbara quickly got on VHF and tried to contact Sea Tow (we later realized that there are only a couple of Sea Tow franchises in the Bahamas, none of them in the Abacos) and then BoatUS Towing (which does have franchises in the Abacos, but none within VHF range of where we were). After calling a couple of times without answer, we gave up. However, another boat (“Rejoice”) did respond and bucked our spirits up a bit by reminding us that the tide was currently low and thus would be rising over the next little while. The person (whose name we never got) on Rejoice suggested that we could try to kedge off or just wait for the tide to lift us. We decided against kedging off (a maneuver in which one sets an anchor a distance from the boat and tries to winch the boat to the anchor and/or tries to heel the boat over by winching the top of the mast toward the anchor, thus reducing the boat’s draft enough to allow it to move), at least in part because our &$^#&* dinghy won’t hold air!

The chart image above is from paper charts that we purchased before we left Miami. Just north of Foxtown, there’s a little tongue of lighter blue. That’s where we were planning to anchor for the night. Above and a little to the west of that tongue, there’s a channel leading out to the west-northwest, which was the way we were entering our planned anchorage. If you look carefully, you’ll see some pencil marks — little plus signs (+) — that I made on the charts. The + in the darker blue identifies exactly where we ran aground. As you see, I was “only” 50 feet or so out of position. The paper chart clearly shows the shallow spot where we ran aground, while our electronic chart claimed that I was aground in eight feet of water!

But this doesn’t mean that the paper charts are better — far from it! At a different site in the Bahamas, the paper charts claimed that we were in two feet of water when we were sailing merrily along in ten feet according to both the Navionics charts and the depth sounder. The message is this: Use as many sources of information as you can find, then use your seamanly skills to decide what to do when they all disagree with one another. Once I learned that lesson, I really began to feel more confident about navigation.

So, anyway, being firmly aground, we fixed dinner (a very light meal, as none of us had much of an appetite after this misadventure) and “hung out”. At present, we’re waiting for the tide to come up enough to give us two or three inches of additional water, which I think will allow us to get ungrounded. Until then, we’re just reading and dozing.

Oh, one more thing: We’d refueled at the Miami Beach Marina before leaving Florida, and we’ve had to motor a large fraction of the trip since then because of very light winds. About 17:30 or 18:00 today, the engine suddenly started acting fuel-starved, so Barbara ran below and switched over to use the starboard tank instead of the smaller port “day tank” we’d been using. The port tank holds somewhere between 20 and 25 gallons only, so I’m pretty amazed that it’s given us this much distance! The owner’s manual for our Pathfinder engine claims that it should consume between one gallon per hour at lower revs (1800 or so) and up to four gallons per hour at high revs and high loads (3800 rpm). We usually run about 2200 to 2800 rpm, so I expect something like three gallons per hour consumption. But this is absurd — it’s more like one gallon per hour, or even less! Don’t get me wrong…I’m delighted to save money and reduce my carbon footprint by burning less fuel, but it’s very surprising to use so little fuel.

<<All photographs Copyright © Frank Pellow, 2012. Used with permission.>>

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