Ship’s log, winter 1975
Carefully sounding our way through the reef into the Tobago Cays anchorage
In the winter of 1975, we sailed the 138-foot Herreshoff schooner Janeen (now the Mariette) to the Grenadines. We had just picked up a charter in St. Lucia, a repeat client and guests who typically stayed with us for three or four weeks.
The cruise started off well. With a stiff breeze off the quarter, Janeen made a fast run between St. Lucia’s Pitons and the north end of St. Vincent, averaging 14.5 knots. The following day found us anchored in the Tobago Cays. Though this was one of the favorite anchorages of the day, it was unusual to find more than one or two yachts there. Horseshoe and World’s End reefs surrounded the four tiny cays, providing protection from the Atlantic swell. Our party requested that we stay for a few days so they could snorkel the coral gardens, and we obliged.
On our second evening, while the guests sipped cocktails on the stern, I sat forward with the captain and my brother Pete, enjoying a small rum before sundown. Spotting a sail to the northeast of Horseshoe Reef, I picked up the binoculars to have a closer look. It was a sloop on a southwesterly course — and certainly in an odd position for that time of day. Her skipper would have had a hard time seeing the reef ahead because the sun was low and right in his eyes.
We worried that the sailboat would hit the reef if the skipper didn’t change course. It wasn’t a particularly rough day, but the water on the eastern side of that coral had a few thousand miles of open sea behind it, and a long, low swell was rolling gently in. Sure enough, the sloop hit and bounced up over the reef, coming to rest on her side in a shallow patch of coral.
Although it would soon be dark, the captain sent Pete, me and another deckhand off in the 14-foot Boston Whaler to help. It was a good three-quarters of a mile to the stranded vessel. We were about halfway there when, in the fading light, I saw an orange life raft pop up alongside the stranded boat. The raft drifted downwind toward us. Pulling aside the flap on the brightly colored canopy, we found a man cowering on the rubber floor, shaking like a leaf.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
He managed to utter a feeble “yes,” and we lifted him out by the arms, setting him in the bottom of the Whaler. He was wet and cold.
Dragging the two-person raft over our bow, we returned to Janeen. It was dark, but we helped our survivor aboard and hoisted his raft to the schooner’s foredeck. We took him below and gave him dry clothes and coffee, but he was unable to speak. We figured he was an amateur sailor taking this misadventure very hard.
I was still trying to learn his name when the captain called me back on deck. “What do you make of that?” he asked, pointing toward the reef. A tiny light waved slowly back and forth.
“It looks as though somebody’s still aboard,” I said.
“You’d better get back out there and find out what’s going on,” he instructed.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy getting back out to the boat in the dark, but the wind had died down a bit with nightfall, as it usually does in those latitudes. The swell would be down, as well. Pete and I took off again, accompanied by the deckhand and with a pair of powerful flashlights.
Cautiously working our way into the shallows to leeward of the wreck, we were amazed to hear a woman’s voice. “Help! Help me, please!”
She was waving a flashlight, which was a stroke of luck. We would have had the devil’s own time trying to find her otherwise.
“We’re coming, hold on!” Pete assured her.
I steered carefully through the reef, guided by our two flashlights, and we approached the grounded boat. From our bow, our deckhand fended off the coral heads with an oar, while Pete did the same from the stern. We managed to get the Whaler right up to the stranded boat without damage. A woman in a yellow life jacket was sitting on the lee side, ecstatic to see us.
“Thank you!” she gasped. “Thank you, thank you!”
We took her aboard and made our way out through the reef. We soon were motoring back to Janeen for the second time. We gave the shivering woman a towel. Through chattering teeth, Susan told us that she and her husband, Bob, had left Miami a month earlier and were cruising their new 40-footer for the first time. Apparently, their misfortune was a result of inexperience and a bit of bad judgment.
As she told us about her husband, Susan burst into tears. She had last seen Bob in the cockpit just before they hit the reef. She had fallen down the companionway and hit her head, losing consciousness. When she came around, he was gone. “Bob must have drowned when the boat hit,” she wailed.
“But your husband is alive,” I told her. “He’s on our schooner. We picked him up in the life raft.”
“The life raft?” she said, looking puzzled.
“Yes, you know, the life raft from your boat,” I said.
Her grief turned to joy, and her tears disappeared. She was sitting quietly as we came alongside Janeen, but as she climbed the boarding ladder, she put two and two together. “You rotten bastard!” she shouted. “Where are you?”
Luckily for Bob, he was still in shock below deck.
“You left me out there!” She was screaming and scanning the dimly lit faces on deck.
In the moments of panic after the sloop grounded, Bob had jumped off in the raft. Susan was understandably mad as hell. She spat out exactly what she was going to do when she got hold of him — and it wasn’t going to be pretty.
In all my born days, I have never seen anyone so enraged. We felt it prudent to keep them apart that night and arranged bunks in different areas of the ship. Our charter party took it all in stride, and we eventually all went to bed.
The next day, a police boat came up from Union Island, and the sloop was pulled off the reef with little damage. As we ferried Bob and a still-furious Susan to the police boat in the Whaler, I recalled a line of half-humorous doggerel: Women and children first, except when it comes to drowning. Then, it’s every man for himself.
Bob must have written it.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue.