You Can’t Depend Upon Luck, But You Need A Bit Of It

Not enough space and no immediate bailout option… 20/20 hindsight

October 12, 2018

     Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 whopper, had already blasted through Florida with recorded winds of up to 155 knots, just 2 knots shy of making it officially a Category 5 hurricane, leaving complete destruction and utter chaos in its wake.  It worked its way inland up the eastern seaboard, slowly losing steam but still wrecking havoc along the way.

     We had moved from the southern anchorage just outside of Annapolis into Back Creek.  Even now, days after the conclusion of the Annapolis Boat Show, there were still boats at anchor everywhere.  

     Our rule had always been to resist anchoring in overcrowded areas, preferring the solitude and security of wide open spaces over the social opportunities and accessibility conveniences of more densely packed anchorages and marinas.

     Over the course of the past fourteen months, our ground tackle had repeatedly proven its worth in reliability; our experiences to date had made us confident in Exit’s ability to handle everything that had been thrown at her.

     Before moving to Back Creek, we had successfully completed the unenviable and expensive, though necessary, task of replacing all six of our house bank batteries.  After nine months of nearly complete solar independence from our generator with regards to battery charging, we had recently found ourselves needing to run the generator again just to keep up with the quickly depleting bank.

     The 12 volt batteries, which were gasping their last breaths, had begun registering minimum voltages of less than 9 volts, barely enough to keep the equipment running. The technical term would be garbage, I believe.  Our windlass, a power hog drawing a staggering 70-100 amps for the brief intervals it is needed to bring up the anchor and chain, started requiring us to run the engine for a bit of time before engaging, or it just groaned, barley moving the chain in a power deficit protest.

     We were fortunate enough to have arranged the four hundred pounds of batteries to be dropped off at a marina very nearby, allowing us to deliver the old batteries and pick up the new ones via our dinghy.  Not easy, but doable.

Now that the batteries had been replaced, everything seemed to be completely functional and all was back to normal.

     Yet, we needed to accomplish a number of other shopping tasks, and Back Creek seemed like a much easier location to work from.

     Plus, there was the residual weather of Hurricane Michael, headed in our direction.  The forecasts predicted 35 knot winds could be rolling through.  Just south of us winds were forecasted to be as high as 40-50 knots, so we hoped the projected trajectory was accurate and we would only be subjected to the outside edge of the storm.

     Our experience had been that the protection Back Creek provided could reduce wind velocities by fifty percent, which was a very appealing prospect.

     So, with some trepidation, we chose to disregard our own rule of avoiding anchoring in tight quarters in favor of an attempt to reduce our exposure to winds in excess of thirty knots (or higher if the storm shifted farther north).

     Admittedly, we were way too close for our own liking to the boat to our port side as well as too close to the boat slips of the marina directly behind us.  

     We were in just over eight feet of water, allowing us a 5:1 scope.  Not ideal, but we had ridden out thirty knot winds on only a 3:1 scope at Block Island when we had to anchor in water forty feet deep.  We trusted our Rocna anchor and oversized half inch chain to keep us in place.  Still, we decided to keep an anchor watch throughout the night, just to be sure.

    By 4:00am, the winds seemed to have topped out at about twenty three knots, and we hadn’t dragged an inch.  It seemed like all was well.

     However, we noticed that the sailboat anchored to our port side seemed even closer than before… uncomfortably close.  They didn’t appear to be dragging at all, so we suspected that they had decided to put out more chain as the winds picked up.

     With only about twenty feet of separation between our bow and their stern as they swung in front of us, I kept climbing into the cockpit every five or ten minutes to take a look… unnerving, but still unchanging.  We weren’t about to try to lift anchor and relocate in the dark with twenty-plus knot winds in tight quarters; and, after more than six hours with no problems, complacency won out over action.

     Just as I was just about to wake Kris to take over the watch, things went to shit in a matter of seconds.

     As near as we could later reconstruct what happened next, it appeared the sailboat on our left swung completely across our bow in a shifting gust of wind.  Because they were only twenty feet in front of us, thirty feet of our anchor chain was now stretched underneath them.  

     They had to have a draft of nearly six feet, which meant that with only eight feet of water depth, there couldn’t have been more than two feet of water beneath them.

     Either their keel or rudder must have tagged our chain as they passed over it, tripping our anchor.  Instantly, we were drifting backwards.

     Immediately, I woke Kris and we started the engine, but things were already moving in a blur.

     Before we could power forward, we were on top of the outer pilings of the boat slips behind us, sideways against three posts.

     Kris was at the stern and I was at midship, desperately trying to push us off the pilings, but the wind kept shoving us back onto them.

     The tip of an anchor, protruding from the bow roller of a boat in one of the slips, was caught on the inside of our lifeline, and our bow was in serious jeopardy of slipping behind another piling which would have trapped us and shoved us straight into the bow of another boat.

     A third boat, whose deck stood about two feet above ours, also had a massive protruding anchor which threatened to either hang up on our stern rail, catch our arch (which the solar panel rack, our radar, and a host of electronics antennas were mounted upon), or tear our rail mounted solar panel clean off.

     Kris moved her hand out of the way only a fraction of a second before it would have been either amputated or crushed between the anchor and our arch.

     As she fought to power Exit forward, I struggled to push us off and keep our bow from slipping behind the outer pilings and into the docked boats just ahead.

    As I repeated a combination of shit..shit…shit, no…no…no, come on…come on…come on, Exit swung out and forward, barely missing the bow roller of the furthest projecting boat in front of us by mere inches.  A crunch emanated from just in front of me as the plastic lens of our navigation light, attached to our bow railing, was torn off by the pulpit railing of the boat in the slip.

     We were finally free of the slip pilings and docked boats, but our anchor and chain were still out, and I battled to pull them up with the windlass before they caught on something, denying us any control. 

     With both of us exhausted and rather terrified, Kris perilously maneuvered in the darkness between the other boats at anchor, mooring balls, and markers while I tried to help direct us and figure out an escape route.  All the while, the twenty-plus knot winds continued to try to push us back into a catastrophic tangle of destruction.

     Eventually, we were able to thread our way through into a small clearing, but still had extremely limited steering ability.

     We angled towards another row of boat slips on the other side of the creek.  This current location was somewhat more protected, so we weren’t fighting the wind nearly as much, but it really didn’t have the space we needed.   At best, if we could get the anchor to set, we’d have a temporary sanctuary we could use to catch our breath and regroup.  

     But we found ourselves slipping backwards, repeatedly having to motor forward as we drifted dangerously close to the yachts on the opposite side of the creek, clearly demonstrating that the anchor wasn’t setting.  The usual rock solid dependability of our Rocna anchor came up short twice.

     As we hauled in the chain again after the second failed attempt, a gruff voice, apparently originating from the window of one of the boats in a slip just in front of us called out in the darkness.  

     Hey, you can’t anchor there.

     More than a bit stressed, I snapped back in a rather perturbed voice, I realize that.  We’re just trying to temporarily hold position so we can regroup to get through to the morning.

      The voice returned.  No… there’s no holding there.  You’ll drag backwards all night long.

     Shit.  OK… thanks.

     We weren’t about to try to thread our way out passed all the boats anchored and moored in Back Creek, which included a big cat that had dragged anchor for the third time just before our anchor chain got tripped, and was still struggling to reset their anchor yet again.

     This left one option… farther back up the creek.

     Unfortunately, the same two boats were still anchored back there when we arrived.

     Literally backed into a corner, we had run out of options.  All we could do was drop the anchor right next to one of the docks and back down as far as possible.  But, with no major wind shift and a person in the cockpit standing watch, we’d be good until noon when we could get the hell out of Back Creek.

     We’d gotten the shit seriously scared out of us, learned some important lessons, and dodged more than one bullet.

     Had we just gone to sleep earlier in the night, it would have been the crunching sounds of us against the dock that we would have awoken to…

     Had we gotten tangled up behind the slip pilings or with the boats that were tied up, the damage would have been catastrophic…

     Had the anchor chain gotten tangled when it tripped… had the windlass remote not worked when it was plugged in (an occasional malady)… had the battery bank (changed only three days ago) still been the old, tired bank which required a few minutes of charging before the windlass would fire up… we would have been fucked.

     Had we not been lucky enough to have lowered the rail mounted solar panels a few hours earlier, or the dinghy was hanging up on the davit at Exit’s stern, the anchor extending from the bow roller we passed so close to would have sheered off the solar panel and ripped into the inflated rubber bow of the suspended dinghy.  Upon later reflection, we were pretty sure the dinghy (which had been tied off on our stern) may very well have helped act as a bumper while we were bouncing around on the marina pilings.  That same anchor still came within a fraction of an inch of taking off Kris’ hand, ripping the solar panel off the railing, and getting hooked up on our stern arch…

     Had the boat that tripped our anchor actually dragged down on top of us, we would have been trapped between that boat and the slips… game over.

     Many things could have happened slightly differently with potentially disastrous and devastating results to both equipment and flesh.  All things considered, we got off pretty easy.  

     The lessons learned were more re-enforcements of what we already knew rather than groundbreaking epiphanies.

     Don’t settle for complacency.  

     The combination of not enough scope and not enough space is a recipe for disaster.  

     Trust your gut instincts.  We thought about moving back into the southern anchorage in the afternoon.  The trade off would have been higher exposure to the wind and waves but more space to work with – more space to put out more chain, more space to swing unfettered, more space to drag, more space to react.  We should have trusted our gut instinct.

     Trust your equipment.  If you don’t, replace it.  If the equipment is sound, it will hold you in fifty knot winds with less risk than hard things in close proximity will ever pose.

     It was ultimately our own fault that we found ourselves in the situation we did.  

     A silver lining…?  Potentially in how we reacted during the situation.  Looking beyond a poor initial decision of being there, at least we were pro-active enough to maintain an anchor watch.  In retrospect, I should have started the engine as I was waking Kris to give us an extra few seconds.  But, during the entire nail-biting ordeal, we kept cool heads and things never deteriorated into a yelling match of confusion.

     It sounds very cliche, but over and over again, there seem to be situations which arise that could be potentially very dangerous or catastrophic events.  Given an inner determination that failure is not an option, the only acceptable outcome remaining is to somehow work through the challenges and sort your shit out.

That’s not to say that simply wishing for something will make it happen.  But sometimes success has to be coaxed, tricked, improvised, massaged, or even bitch-slapped into existence, given the alternative.

     Knowledge and experience help out immensely.  Either one can give the background necessary to make informed decisions.  But lacking both doesn’t make the solution any less there… it just makes it a bit more elusive.  Creativity and tenacity don’t substitute for knowledge and experience, but they come in at a close third and fourth place.

     And, though you can’t depend on luck, sometimes you certainly need a bit of it.

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