Elsa is becoming such an old salt. This morning she complained that she hadn’t slept last night because we were tied up at a marina, rather than at anchor. “It’s so still here,” she said, rubbing her face and yawning.
We’re in Highbourne Cay in the northern Exumas, having splurged on a marina slip for a couple of nights. We were starting to run low on fuel and water, and our weather guru Chris Parker had been warning for days of a potentially big storm on Tuesday. In the end it never materialized, but it became a nice excuse to do laundry.
Anyway, I’m with Elsa: I prefer being at anchor. It’s fun to swim off the back of the boat and explore in the dinghy. (Soren, by the way, is feeling triumphant because he can finally start our old Yamaha 2-stroke outboard by himself. He adjusts the choke and everything. Lots of maniacal laughing and tenting of fingers now, as he imagines the freedom this will give him.) If there are other boats anchored nearby their sailors will often paddle over to say hello, or invite us over for a beer, or chat with us on the VHF. We can even fish off our stern. All for free!
That said, anchoring does have its challenges. The biggest one here is not running aground. The whole Bahamian island chain is surrounded by shallow banks that shoal and shift over time. We have up-to-date charts, but things underwater can change significantly after a storm so you really need to use your eyes. The key is the colors of the water: Different depths appear as different colors, as do grass, coral reefs, and rocks. But if the sun is ahead of you and glinting off the surface, or there are clouds in the sky, it’s really hard to interpret. Given this year’s winter we’ve moved on a lot of cloudy days so I still don’t feel like my water-reading skills are solid.
On our last night in the Berrys we did in fact run aground. Oy. Drew jumped in the dinghy with Soren, had me lower the anchor into it, then headed to deeper water and hucked the anchor overboard, in the hopes that we could drive toward it to pull ourselves off the bottom. (This whole process is called kedging.) It almost worked, but there was such a strong wind blowing us broadsides we couldn’t quite get off. Luckily, all the while a group of Bahamian fisherman were watching us from ashore, and eventually one of them took pity and motored over in his skiff to give us a tow. His name was Ross. He laughed really hard when Drew said, “We’re new around here.”
[Historical side note: When Columbus first “discovered” the Americas he made land right here in the Bahamas — with no idea where he was, no charts, no GPS, and no local guides. What astonishes me is that he didn’t run aground. Maybe he learned similar water-reading skills in the Mediterranean, where he got his start as a sailor, but still. Whatever you think of him as a historical figure it’s impressive.]
The other trick to anchoring is choosing a sheltered spot. In strong winds or currents the boat can get tossed from side to side all night. Just a few days ago we were in West Bay, New Providence, to the southwest of Nassau, nicely sheltered from some northeast gusts. But the wind still managed to push swells around and into the bay (not sure how), so we weeble-wobbled all night. It felt like being rocked to sleep by an over-enthusiastic toddler. GO TO SLEEP, BABY! Yank, shove, yank. GO. TO. SLEEP!
Sometimes the boat swings around its anchor as the tide shifts, or when the wind and current arm-wrestle for supremacy. Then the ropes attached to our anchor chain groan and creak, and it feels like we’ve been transported back to the Age of Sail — romantic, but loud.
But when it’s calm or we’re in truly protected waters, there’s nothing better. We have dinner in the cockpit by candlelight and watch the sun go down, enormous on the horizon, and see the first stars appear. Soren likes to climb up onto the boom after dark and look at the whole dome of the night sky — Mars pulsing low over the ocean, the Milky Way cutting a swath across the middle. Other than a faint breeze, everything is still. It’s just about perfect.