Tales of Truelove – Hurricane Danielle – Episode 8

 

Hurricane Danielle was following right in the wake of Hurricane Bonnie. She sat off the northeastern shore of the Bahamas and gave every indication of coming to hit us one more time. For several days she taunted and threatened by lurking right off the East Coast within easy striking distance of Truelove.

Fortunately, for reasons even the hurricane experts have a hard time fathoming, Danielle decided not to come ashore. Churning up the Atlantic was enough for her. What she did do to all of us at Sea Gate was to pin us down. I had learned that hurricanes are not the least bit predictable. I was not about to let down my guard or loosen a single dockline, even when Danielle moved almost due east and hundreds of miles offshore. Only when Danielle was north and further east did I believe she was really gone. As it turned out, she continued on across the Atlantic and severely battered an acquantance, Tory (Victoria) Murden, from Louisville, Kentucky, who was rowing (yes rowing) single-handed across the Atlantic. Tory was trying to become the first woman to row across the Atlantic. Danielle forced Tory to abandon her historic attempt agonizingly close to France.

With Danielle gone I was ready to go sailing. I was in critical condition. Cabin fever was rampant. The sky was blue. There was wind. Get me out of here!

When I declared my intentions, Lynne Bourne from s/v Suits Us exclaimed, “You’re crazy.” To which I replied, “Well, I’m ugly, too, but you don’t have to point it out.” She went on, “Hurricane Earl is coming.” “No, no,” I crowed confidently, “Hurricane Earl is in the Gulf of Mexico and is going to hit the Florida panhandle. In a few days it will just be a low pressure center bringing thunderstorms to Kentucky.”

With that declaration I untied my many docklines, bent on the sails, and struck out north on the ICW. That night I anchored in a cove called Cedar Creek on the ICW just in from the Neuse River. The cove is actually the confluence of Cedar Creek and Adams Creek, which has been dredged to become the ICW. It is a very pleasant little anchorage and a favorite of many who transit the ICW.

The next morning I headed out into the Neuse River and pointed Truelove’s bow east across the Pamlico Sound. My destination was Ocracoke Island. The blue skies of the previous day had given way to rain. But at least I had wind. In fact, at first the winds were so strong that I considered putting a reef in the main or just sailing with the mizzen and staysail alone. By the time I had raised the mizzen and staysail, the wind had started to drop, so I raised the main and unfurled the jib. That did it! It was enough to completely kill the wind. Instead of too much wind, I now had too little.

Having been cooped up for so long, I was determined to sail. I ghosted along for several hours but only traveled a few miles. Despite my urge to sail, I began to calculate that at the rate I was traveling it would be several days before I could complete the thirty or so miles to Ocracoke. I began to look at the chart for alternative destinations that were considerably closer.

North of the Neuse River is the Bay River, which runs approximately east-west, parallel to the Neuse. Even though the guidebook indicated that Bonner Bay off of the Bay River was not a great anchorage, it looked like the best prospect nearest my location. As I turned to sail to Bonner Bay, the wind dropped even further, making the engine a necessity.

After furling the sails, I began to motor toward the Bay River. Just to check, I turned to the weather channel on the VHF radio. Lo and behold, “The remnants of Hurricane Earl will be passing through the Neuse River / Pamlico Sound area tonight. Storm cells associated with the Hurricane may include heavy rain, lightening, hail, and winds of eighty knots.” Eighty knots?!!! That is ninety-two miles per hour, just three miles per hour less than Bonnie at her worst. And that was at a protected dock with a spiderweb of docklines. Suddenly this was not funny; this was a serious situation.

I was reminded of a phrase I had seen on the Internet. I wish I had noticed who wrote it to give them credit. It went, “A good cruiser uses his or her superior judgment to avoid using his or her superior skills.” Unfortunately, my cabin fever had overcome what judgment I had, so now I was going to get an unexpected opportunity to use what skills I had.

Rechecking the chart, Bonner Bay still seemed like my best, and just about only, reasonable prospect. At first I thought it was named “Boner” Bay, which probably would have been more appropriate given my exploits, as you will read. As I motored on with greater urgency, the rain returned and got colder and heavier. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Bonner Bay appeared through the rain and mist. It was a nice, wide bay with shallows on each side and a large area in the middle for anchoring. There was only one other sailboat already anchored in the Bay. It was good to know that at least somebody else thought that the Bay was a reasonable place to anchor.

I motored past the other sailboat, a smaller, steel-hulled sloop. I wanted to get as deeply into the protection of the Bay as I could without taking a chance on running aground. When I finally did head up into the wind to drop my anchor, I was at least a half a mile away from the other boat. Plenty of room to swing, or so I hoped.

My best regular anchor was a thirty-five pound CQR (looks like a plow) which I had attached to my all-chain rode. My other regular anchor was a Danforth anchor (has two large triangular flukes that dig into the seabed) of about twenty-five pounds attached to thirty feet of chain and a three-quarter-inch rope rode. When I first acquired Truelove, I felt that a thirty-five pound CQR was not really large enough, even with all-chain rode. So, in the Spring I had begun looking for a larger anchor.

Studies by Practical Sailor, Boat US, West Marine, and others seemed to indicate that Fortress anchors had exceptionally high holding power, though they were reputed to be difficult to set. Fortress anchors are aluminum anchors that look almost identical to Danforth anchors but depend upon their precise design and larger flukes to dig into the seabed. I had been looking for a rather large Fortress anchor called an “FX-55” when I happened across an “FX-125” on the internet at a Florida consignment shop at a bargain price. At the time I thought, “Nobody ever lost any sleep at night worrying that their anchor was too big; I’ll just go with the bigger version at the good price.” When the anchor arrived, it was not just bigger, it was huge! I realized that it probably would not be practical for normal use but might come in handy as a storm anchor. Fortunately, it comes apart and stows in its own carrying case.

Here I was about to be in a serious storm, so did I bring out my storm anchor, put it together, and deploy it? No, of course not. (Remember “Boner”) For one thing dragging the Fortress out and putting it together would have taken a considerable amount of effort, and perhaps more importantly, time. While I worked to put the Fortress together, I would have had to drift in deteriorating conditions or deploy the CQR and then retrieve it and drift while I switched the Fortress to the chain rode. In hindsight, what I should have done was to deploy the Danforth anchor with its rope rode while I put the Fortress together and on the chain.

Of course, hindsight is wonderful. Why don’t we think of these things at the time? Probably because of fatigue. I am beginning to find that being tired on a boat, even more than on land for some reason, can cause me to forget much of what I thought I had learned over many years of sailing with Karl Millen. As you may have suspected, this is now my excuse for lying in the hammock strung between the masts, sipping a libation, and staving off “fatigue.” It is just a safety factor, you understand.

Another reason I was reluctant to deploy the Fortress was concern for getting it back. I had found that the chain gypsy on my manual windlass apparantly did not match the size of chain of my all-chain rode. When I had tried to use the windlass to hoist the anchor at Cedar Creek, the chain kept slipping out of the grooves in the gypsy. As a result, I was not sure I would be able to dig the Fortress out of the seabed and lift it back aboard by myself. I did not want to contribute the Fortress to Bonner Bay. With this concern in mind, I convinced myself that I probably would not be hit by one of the storm cells and it was not worth it to take a chance of loosing my shiny, new anchor.

I deployed the CQR and dropped back on the chain. I thought that I had let out a considerable amount of scope. But without any markings on the chain, I really did not know for sure how much I had used. I looked at the angle of the chain to the water surface to conclude that I had at least seven-to-one scope.

By the time I had the CQR deployed, it was pitch dark. The cold rain had continued and the wind had begun to blow pretty hard. Small waves where beginning to build in the Bay. I was truly soaked to the skin as I used the engine to back Truelove and try to set the anchor as deep as possible. I put the engine in neutral, took bearings on the anchor light of the nearby sailboat, waited, and just watched. Truelove road to the anchor nicely, not even noticing the small waves (there are some advantages to a large, heavy boat).

When I thought that Truelove was going to stay put, I gladly went below. Ah! A dry cabin on a cold, rainy night is a joy forever. The only thing better – a hot shower and dry clothes. Yes, loyal readers, Truelove does have a system that uses heat from the engine to generate about five gallons of hot water. Doesn’t everybody take a shower during a storm? Actually it was not just decadence, well not entirely. Having been thoroughly chilled to the bone by hours in the cold rain, it did not make sense to stand around inviting hypothermia. (See, just another safety factor.) After my shower, I fired up the propane stove and fixed dinner; one has to keep one’s energy level up, too. I am making this all sound pretty blasé, but to be honest, I did all these things in record time and was pretty worried the whole time – and for good reason.

I constantly watched the anchor light of the other sailboat out of one of my portlights. Even though Truelove was swinging around a lot, as long as the other boat’s anchor light stayed pretty much in the same place, I felt that I was not dragging. I figured that it was unlikely that both boats would drag the same amount at the same time. Without any other lights on the shore or in the vicinity, the other boat was my only point of reference. Suddenly the light seemed to move forward. Oh no! I am dragging! I threw open the hatch and leaped up on deck. Sure enough, I had started to drag.

I went to the bow and let out another fifty feet of chain. The anchor reset and seemed to hold well now. I wanted to deploy the Danforth anchor as a backup. I knew that the proper way to do that was to motor forward at about forty-five degrees from the main anchor and drop the second anchor on a line even with the first anchor. Having just dragged the first anchor, I was reluctant to do anything that might break it loose. So I just waited for a swing and deployed the Danforth as best I could right off the bow. I knew in my heart that this method was next to worthless, but I rationalized that if the CQR did drag again, the rode for the Danforth would be stretched out and the second anchor would then be able to help the first. After letting out the chain and deploying the Danforth, I waited and watched. Even though the wind speed had picked up, Truelove was holding her position.

I went back below, but with a lot more anxiety. I watched the other boat’s anchor light even more dutifully. After an hour or so of constant vigilance, once again it seemed to shoot forward. Oh no! Not again! I bounded up on deck and looked. No. There she was, just where she had always been. It must have been a wide swing of Truelove that changed the angle. Whew! This is getting hard on my nerves.

Since I had not permanently installed the GPS receiver, I was able to move it out of the cockpit and down into the saloon. As the storm blew Truelove back on the anchor and then let her come up then blew her from side to side, the screen on the GPS that shows the track of the boat scribed a jagged ball of lines – just what I wanted to keep seeing. After a while, as I watched the other boat’s anchor light and the track on the GPS, a straight line emerged out of the bottom of the jagged ball on the screen. I was moving aft again! Bang, out the hatch and into the rain. No, I have not moved an inch. What the hell? All I could figure was the military had chosen that inauspicious moment to turn on their “selective availability” that they use to keep civilian GPS from being accurate enough for terrorist to use for targeting. My nerves would have appreciated their picking some other time to play those types of “patriot games.”

The wind stayed out of the east and built to more than Karl Millen’s proverbial “twenty knots.” After hours of tense watching and waiting, my confidence was growing that the CQR and chain were going to hold Truelove. Real fatigue was weighing me down. I decided to take another chance and crawl into my bunk in the aft cabin. I really did not expect or intend to sleep, but I hoped to rest at least some.

I could watch the windvane on the mainmast out of the clear hatch over the aft bunk. The anchor light provided just the right light to illuminate the vane’s reflective underside. As the night wore on, I watched the vane periodically swing back and forth as Truelove moved about on the anchor.

As I dozed barely below full consciousness, I sensed a different movement to Truelove. Something had changed drastically. I looked up at the windvane and it was pointing directly toward the starboard side. Wow! What a swing (I hoped)! But it did not swing back. Oh Hell!!! The anchor had completely broken loose and I was flying downwind sideways.

I catapulted myself out of the hatch and looked around. The feared storm cell had not missed me as I had fervently hoped. It had arrived with screaming winds and rain that stung. The wind had clocked ninety degrees, now out of the south. The shift in direction and sudden increase in speed had wrenched the anchor right out of the seabed. Truelove was driving downwind sideways, right for the other sailboat. A half-mile of room was dwindling quickly.

I turned Truelove’s wheel and hoped that she would respond. In the meantime, I struggled to get the engine started. Much to my relief, Truelove’s bow began to come up into the wind. As soon as it did, she slowed down just enough for the anchor to stop flying through the water. The anchor settled down and got a bite on the seabed. The CQR set, Truelove suddenly swung bow to the wind, and the chain jerked bar tight. Thank you, thank you! The wild ride had stopped for now, but would she hold?

I looked aft to see that the sailboat that had been half a mile away was now just fifty yards at the most directly downwind! The anchor seemed to be holding, but what if it did not? If it let go like it had just done, I would smash the other sailboat before I could get out of the cabin. Sailing a large steel boat does have its responsibilities; wiping out a smaller sailboat that is riding nicely at its own anchor is probably considered “bad form.”

Now what do I do besides a lot of praying? (Isn’t it interesting how storms can refresh your religious feelings.) The storm anchor would certainly be in order, but now, in the teeth of a real storm, it would be even more difficult to get it down. I was afraid that if I deployed it on the rope rode in such strong wind, I stood a good chance of snapping the rode. That was probably not accurate since rope rode often has a higher breaking strength than chain, but at the time it seem right. Again, how was I going to come up on the CQR, haul in all that chain, and transfer the chain to the Fortress without drifting right down on top of the other sailboat? It was not a great time to be single-handing. A first mate might be able to hold Truelove into the wind with the engine while I made the switch to the larger anchor.

I was not sure how I was going to deploy it, but it definitely had come time to get the Fortress out of stowage and put it together. Two things about Truelove made this difficult situation considerably easier. Truelove has wide, flat cabin tops. They provide excellent space for working, even putting a huge anchor together in eighty knots of wind. The other nice thing about Truelove is that she has excellent spreader lights fore and aft that really light up the deck.

As I put the Fortress together on the foredeck, I kept a very close eye on my position relative to the other sailboat. At the first sign of slippage, I wanted to be able to throw the engine in gear and at least try to maneuver to miss it. By the time I got the Fortress ready, it appeared that the CQR was going to hold. I was torn. I really did not want to try to play games in this much wind. I was not sure whether Truelove’s engine could make way against eighty knots. If I tried and only succeeded in breaking the CQR free again, I would be in much worse circumstances.

I waited and watched and waited and watched. No hot shower this time. Just cold, stinging rain and constant vigilance on deck. I looked at my watch. Two o’clock in the morning. Four hours before sunrise. It was going to be a long night.

By about five in the morning the wind was still howling but the sky began to lighten prior to the actual sunrise. I went forward to check on the anchor chain, still bar tight straight from the bow to the anchor. I noticed that the rope rode was still over the bow roller. I had completely forgotten about the Danforth. While the chain was extending essentially straight out from the bow, the rope rode was under the chain and angled about fifty degrees to starboard. Apparently when the wind had shifted and the CQR broken loose, the Danforth had set and held to some extent.

I pulled on the rode to see how well the Danforth was holding. Not well. Apparently it was not taking any of the real pressure; it was just holding Truelove off to the side. I was able to pull the rode in and take up the anchor.

When I got the Danforth out of the water, Truelove swung slightly to port. Now she was straight downwind from the CQR. The Danforth had been holding her more to starboard. When I looked aft, I was shocked to see that now Truelove was not upwind of the other sailboat. If she dragged her anchor, she would safely zip right past the other boat. It quickly dawned on me that I had just spent four excruciating hours when all I had had to do was raise the Danforth. A primal scream pierced the storm as one very tired but somewhat wiser sailor dragged his “pain-racked body” into his bunk for some serious fatigue reduction.

 

Next Installment: “The Plumber and Friends”

 

Lee Huddleston

s/v Truelove

lying Sea Gate Marina

Core Creek, North Carolina

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