21 January 2022: A Questionable Departure
21 January 2022
Lucaya, Grand Bahama, Bahamas
Great Harbour Cay, Berry Islands, Bahamas
Cumulative Mileage (NM)
Crew on Board
Skipper, first mate, chef, entertainment and more; I guess that is solo sailing for you!
GENERAL WEATHER OBSERVATIONS
First half, squally and gusts up to 35 knots; second half a breezy 17 knots at a very close point of sail.
From squally to just overcast.
Too hot for wet weather gear but too wet to go without it.
This leg of the trip was one I was nervous for and was the reason why I originally wanted to cross the Gulf Stream to Bimini (which was not possible with the weather window and US visa timing in the end). This length of this leg is not quite an overnighter, something I was not really ready mentally to tackle yet, but it is long enough that you would either be leaving or arriving in the dark.
Given I had seen this entrance in the daylight and this was my second time in Lucaya, I thought it best to depart in the dark so that I could arrive to Great Harbour Cay – a less familiar spot – in the daylight.
I chose my day carefully, thinking I might leave on the 20th but after consulting coach Jamie, decided to delay one more day for a slightly more mild forecast with an improved wind angle. However, waking up this morning in my protected and still anchorage, I could hear the wind howling in the open water nearby from the moment that I opened my eyelids.
I double checked the weather, which I normally do, and also pulled up the radar from the weather forecast online, something I often forget to do unless I am nervous and wanting more information. As was the case this morning. I could see there were definitely squalls but really only as I left Grand Bahama and then the skies would be clear for the rest of the day. I did not want to delay departure and risk arriving in the dark, so I planned to depart despite the squalls.
Normally I would raise the mainsail as I raised my anchor but I could not decide how many reefs I would put in without seeing the weather conditions first hand. I guess the downside of a beautifully protected anchorage is that you have no idea what you are in for when you do leave that safe harbour. I decided it is easier to raise the mainsail if I decide I want it than the challenge of dropping it or dumping it in challenging conditions. So I just raised the anchor and motored to the channel leading out of the harbour.
It was pitch black but I followed the charts and prepared to poke my nose out past the breakwaters. As I got out of the protection of the condominiums, I felt the real force of the wind for the first time. I was immediately thankful my mainsail was not up.
As I approached the end of the breakwater I could see white water everywhere in the dark but I reminded myself that it was just the remnants of the waves bashing up against the breakwater and not whitewater itself where I needed to exit, so I continued to follow the charts (instinct has you wanting to aim away from whitewater, but there was no apparent place in the dark that I could aim without the white froth). The wind was over 25 knots and the first nautical mile was over very shallow water (under ten or twelve feet). That meant that it was ROUGH. And given the fact it was pitch black, it was nerve wracking. Pitched, bounced, slammed, tossed. It did not help it was raining.
It was the kind of scenario that makes you wish you were not there and second guess your decision to leave. It makes you dread the day ahead and worry if you made a poor decision. But there was not really a controlled turn around and re-entering the harbour option easily available so instead I reminded myself of the facts: it was shallow water and the sea state would change after a mile, it
would be light out soon and these squalls would be gone shortly after that. These thoughts kept me comfortable – information is power – and the only lingering doubt was “did I read the radar correctly” or “That is how wind over shallow water works, right?”. But I was pretty sure.
I had my radar unit transmitting to help ensure I did not hit anything and to make it easier to see the channel markers coming before I could see them with my eyes in the driving rain. It was also informative to see what squalls looked like on my radar screen as I was still working on the ‘identify that blob’ game every time I used my radar.
It was a VERY boisterous ride (confirmed later by the state of things below deck which can only be described as “chaos”) and I was reminded to take every sail very seriously and stow things properly no matter the distance. But maybe an hour after departure, exactly as predicted, the sea state improved as I began to pass over deeper and deeper water. The light coming up around the same time really improved things as well, both morale and from the aspect of physically being able to see. I had a corner of the jib out, maybe a third, to keep the boat moving a little more comfortably in the messy, choppy waves but not get out of control in the strong winds (max gusts seen to 35 knots lasting ten or so minutes) and I continued to endure for a couple more hours.
When the radar started to clear up and the squally weather subsiding, I decided I was ready to raise the mainsail. Given the radar was clear ahead and agreed with what I had seen on the weather radar before departing, I decided to pull up the full mainsail instead of considering one or two reefs. Sometimes being too conservative can also be dangerous because it means you arrive in the dark or fall behind on the weather you wanted to be sailing in and get caught in what comes after. So, with the radar and the forecast in agreement, it is necessary to fight that desire for what feels safer and do what makes sense. Plus, I had not seen over 20 knots in almost an hour, so a full mainsail seemed reasonable.
I furled in the jib, turned into the wind, raised the mainsail and turned back on course before pulling out a portion of the jib again. It was much easier to pull the jib in and out to adjust to varying conditions so I started out making my cautious, conservative-self happy by by only having a partial jib out and working my way up to full sails as the conditions mellowed out even more.
The wind angle was not ideal as I was not quite pointed directly at my destination, but I decided to make miles pointing near my destination and hope the wind would swing a bit. Then, if it did not, I would make up the difference with a bit of motoring. Given it was a long sail already, tacking back and forth would add miles.
I kept the radar on to dodge the the vessels I crossed paths with over the course of the day: multiple cruise ships and various barges making deliveries between Bahamian islands. And while I made okay time, it was not ideal. I was not on schedule after my slow bumpy start and as the afternoon sun started to drop I was incessantly checking mileage to go. Still hopeful I would arrive before dark. The worst part is that I could have stopped at a couple of other anchorages before sundown but my Google Fi would not load data, despite now being close to a couple of islands and having a signal, so I could not double check that those closer anchorages were appropriate for the weather that night. Reviewing the offline Active Captain reviews for where I was headed and re-reading a message from a friend a few days before about approaching in the dark, and I decided it would be fine to proceed to Great Harbour Cay even though it would now clearly be dark. With the wind direction that night, I could anchor outside of the harbour and not worry about any major obstacles I might hit in the dark (i.e. coral heads, the worst thing my imagination could conjure).
I tried to enjoy the sunset without worrying, aided by the fact that it was a spectacular sunset, and then turned on my navigation lights for sailing at night and kept on going. I debated if I should drop the mainsail before sundown or plan to do it in the dark and felt a little bit paralyzed by indecision. Again, obviously the conservative option was to drop it in daylight, but I was back at a better wind angle after a little bit of motor sailing and wanted to keep using the wind. This indecision of when to drop the main continued into darkness, thereby, making the decision for me. Realistically, if I was really worried about it, I would have dropped it sooner in the fading light.
I approached the anchorage and furled the jib. Then I turned into the wind to drop my mainsail, which seemed to take ages. Then I turned back around pointing at the anchorage again to prep the anchor to drop. Then I did a
bunch of laps weaving between the four or five boats in the anchorage trying to determine where I should drop my anchor and estimating distances in the dark (something I am barely mildly competent at in daylight conditions). By the time I had chosen my spot to call home for the night, my charts looks liked a toddler was practicing their coloring and had not yet mastered the art of staying in the lines, the thought of which made me laugh.
And yep, as a solo sailor I am spending a lot of time alone and am definitely getting stranger, it was an audible chuckle at my own clever thoughts.
I completed my normal anchoring routine and did a last look around, happy with the amount of distance between me and all other boats and waded through the chaos below to just fall straight into bed. No dinner, no shower, just sleep.
“Give vulnerability a shot. Give discomfort its due. Because I think he or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable is not only the bravest, but rises the fastest.”
– Timothy Ferriss