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Dragging anchor in 65-knot winds

A cruising couple fights for survival when the anchor line wraps around the skipper’s leg

The Grand Cays anchorage is small and shallow with poor-holding ground and a difficult, shallow entrance. But, as the saying goes, any port in a storm. The forecast was for 25 knots from the northwest, which at first was an accurate prediction lasting all day Saturday. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. We had two primary anchors out, and they were holding without difficulty. Our 42-pound Bruce had 100 feet of all-chain rode out, and the 55-pound Delta had 30 feet of chain and 70 feet of nylon out. Water depth was about 10 feet at high tide, 6 or 7 feet at low tide.

After a dinner with friends, my husband, Chet, did his normal early-to-bed routine without any anticipation of a problem. About 0030 I woke him up with warranted alarm. The wind had escalated to 35 knots, increasing quickly to 45 and then a true 65 knots. Our anchors were dragging, as were two anchors on the one other cruising boat in the anchorage. We found ourselves in the equivalent of an unforecast hurricane, in complete darkness and torrential rain.

We tried to maintain position with the engine. After several hours of intense maneuvering, one of the anchor lines wrapped around the prop and shut the engine down. There we were — dragging with no power. We launched another anchor and managed to fall into a sailor’s nightmare: Chet got the anchor line wrapped around his right leg in 60 knots of wind. With adrenaline pumping, we freed his leg, but we still don’t remember how we did it. We did deploy that anchor — without Chet’s leg — but with no effective additional holding.

We dragged out of the harbor, at times lying on our side, missing several coral reefs by inches. We wound up in “open” water in the Little Bahama Bank then, by the grace of God, snared something (probably coral) and stayed in place for about three hours until dawn.

We knew the boat had been blown out through the entrance, and we were only a mile or so from the rocks at the next cay. The GPS confirmed that we weren’t dragging, but we were helpless. A series of pan pan emergency radio calls yielded only a response from another cruiser, who said he heard us but could do nothing since he was barely holding his own. Being this far north limits VHF radio to a very local call, with no U.S. Coast Guard and no Bahamas Air Sea Rescue contact.

We thought long and hard about whether to make a mayday emergency call on the single sideband radio, our long-range radio system. We were in a very precarious position, but for the moment a stable one. If we managed to contact the Coast Guard it would ask, as a condition for help, if we wanted to abandon Dixie III. We did not, unless it was absolutely necessary.

If we waited and the one holding anchor let go or dragged again we probably couldn’t get help before we went on the rocks behind us. In the end, we decided not to issue a mayday call and continued to make pan pan calls on the VHF. In retrospect, that could have turned out to be a very bad decision.

Our VHF calls eventually were answered by a fisherman at Walker’s Cay who couldn’t leave his boat for all the same reasons no one else could. He did come over at daybreak as the wind slacked to about 25 knots, and with his great effort and assistance, we managed to get the anchors up and took a tow to the local Grand Cay marina.

The boat seemed to be unharmed, but we didn’t yet realize how badly Chet’s leg was injured.

Chet spoke to the Sunday afternoon cruisers’ weather net on SSB radio and confirmed that two fronts unexpectedly had come together, resulting in the equivalent of a mini hurricane right over Grand Cay.

Two days later we crossed the Gulf Stream and moved up to Vero Beach, Fla., where Chet went, for the first time, to get medical help for his leg. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the folks at the walk-in clinic there had no idea what they were dealing with.

We stayed a week in Vero Beach and moved on to St. Simons Island, Ga., to visit a friend. Neither of us was happy with the way Chet’s leg looked, so we went again to urgent care, this time run by the hospital. The doctor didn’t need to come within 3 feet of Chet’s leg; one look and they referred him ASAP to a plastic surgeon.

Dr. Mitchell met us at his office that Sunday night, saw Chet’s leg, and had him in the hospital within 20 minutes. It’s a long story, but in summary Chet was in the hospital for 18 days, and the bill was roughly equivalent to the cost of open-heart surgery. Without overstating it, the doctor saved Chet’s leg.

All now is well, and Chet suffers no disability at all, though he will have a scar with which to entertain his grandchildren.

The incident took place three years ago.

We came within inches of hitting numerous coral heads, and perhaps losing the boat and our lives. No one understood how we survived. The local residents had seen many boats go on the rocks but had never seen a boat wash to sea without hitting the coral. That night, a cruising boat sank about 20 miles away, with the couple on board barely escaping in their dinghy and huddling ashore, according to the local island VHF radio net. Another boat went high on the rocks at the nearby cay, about five miles away. When we left they still had not found the couple known to have been on board.

There are many parts of the world where very rapid rescue response is simply unavailable, and the most northern part of the Bahamas is one of them. We all hope that we will never need emergency assistance, or at the very least can get help when it’s needed; sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.

It is impossible to have this kind of experience without questioning one’s own competence, and asking many questions about what we could have — or should have — done differently. In this case, the only clue to possible danger was the barometer reading, which dropped to 1,000 millibars. A pressure reading this low indicates winds greater than 25 knots. The pressure dropped quickly as the colliding fronts approached, and by the time we noticed, it was upon us.

It is very speculative to consider what we could have done differently. In the end, the only action that could have prevented what happened was to have tied up to the marina face dock hours before, and rigged anchors to hold us off the pier to avoid being pounded to pieces on the dock. Obviously we would have taken action had the storm been forecast. But few, if any, cruisers would have prepared for hurricane-strength winds when all of us simply were expecting another in a constant stream of winter cold fronts.

The question Chet gets most when he tells this story is this: “Will your wife sail with you after this?” The answer is yes, I will. Maybe we should have panicked, but neither of us did. I was more concerned about a plan to make sure our cats were safe in the event we had to abandon ship.

Dixie III is as well equipped as any cruising boat and the crew has been sailing for more than three decades, through a number of difficult situations. Sometimes, luck is more important than equipment or experience

Chet, 67, and Dixie Marks, 65, have been sailing for more than 30 years, first in Miami and the Florida Keys, with occasional short trips to the Bahamas, then 16 years in the Great Lakes, with annual trips to the North Channel. They bought Dixie III, a 1986 Gulfstar 44 center cockpit sloop, in 1992. Since retiring in 1994 in New Bern, N.C., they have cruised South Florida and the Bahamas every winter. Chet and Dixie sold Dixie III in 2003 and made the traditional shift from a sailboat to a trawler, a 1985 Krogen 42. The storm had nothing to do with their selling Dixie III. The couple already had decided it was time to move to a trawler. Motoring up and down the Intracoastal Waterway made the sailboat act like a trawler anyway, except that it had a 60-foot stick to carry around.