Thursday, March 5, 2009

Only This Place

We knew where we were as we sailed parallel to the outer reef near Tobacco Cay. We were smack dab in the middle, just south of the course for entering the pass. The sketch chart sounds showed 9 to 12 feet and the proper chart (150,000:1!) showed 2 meters in the vicinity.

So it happened that we were blowing downwind under the genoa 'admiring' the patches of turtle grass and shadow in the nice green water. We always watch the sounder - it's like a sick fascination with those single digit numbers, but I was almost inured when: THUMP. Then:, thump, thump, THUMP. And we settled over to port, water lapping at the rubbing strake, hard aground, being set on, and not sure what we had hit, beyond the turtle grass we could clearly see all around us

Funny how you can just STOP like that. There's a moment of silence, almost peace, while you're taking in your situation. It was rapidly clear, though, that wait and see wasn't our best option. So we unreefed and hoisted the main, sheeted and eased all sails in all combination, tried the Westerbeke fast and slow, with different rudders, for a good hour. All this moved us a little but not in a good way. Suddenly I understood what those weird bright white patches in the grass were – other keels have blazed this shoal before us.

The inflatable dinghy was collapsed and the kedge anchor buried deep in a locker, but we were getting them out when rescue appeared in the form of a local fishing boat (sistership shown below) and its crew of seven men and boys in Speedos, back from a morning of diving for conch.
We were a little dubious about what they could accomplish with a 40 hp outboard and a lightly built boat of wood and bamboo, but the captain seemed a careful boat handler and we had nothing to lose. "Where exactly is the deep water?" we asked. He waved everywhere. "Only this place."

It took almost an hour but eventually we were freed. It cost us $25 (offered for gas), a bottle of rum (“we drink anything”), and mango squash (for the boys, I thought), my fresh-baked banana bread, and a strapless dive mask. They would have liked line they could use for a halyard, but we had nothing appropriate. It would be great thing to have aboard though, for just this eventuality.

The education? I’d like to say ‘priceless’. However I’m sure we’ll be a little sloppy again, and even more gun-shy in shallow water. One thing we did do that night was take apart the electric anchor windlass and test its manual operation for that day when kedging is the only way off.
Meantime, thanks again to the crew of the fishing vessel Rosa. Like I said, people are nice here. These guys spoke mainly Creole but we could see that they were careful and thoughtful, and we were grateful they'd take the time to help us.

Update:we're using the third edition of the Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast by Freya Rauscher. It turns out that the shoal we hit is very clearly marked, in the second edition, but was unaccountably left out of the third. That only makes me feel only slightly better though.

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