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March 26, 2003
Going Aground, or Coursework in Advanced Relationships

There's always something new to learn out here. If it isn't one thing it's another- and I'm just wondering what "others" there are we've yet to discover. It's almost 8pm Atlantic Standard Time on a Wednesday night. That means 4:00 PM back in California. What were you doing three hours ago when we were trying to drag our boat off a shelf of sand?

We've been cruising along the south coast of Puerto Rico for the past week as we make our way north towards the Bahamas, and ultimately, the United States. The weather seems to be doing a bit of a no-show as of late. The trade winds are nowhere to be seen. We've been experiencing 0-10 knots of wind from the south. Not even enough of a breeze to make the blades of our wind generator begin to spin. So, as we picked our way west, when we saw a bit of a marginal anchorage tucked just barely behind a small cay of mangrove patch in clear water, we figured the winds and conditions were perfectly favorable for just this type of spot. The chart showed that the passage in was deep: 40 feet. But it shelved quickly to anywhere from 4-6 feet in a bit of a crescent shaped shoal of sand. We could inch up to the top of the crescent, drop anchor, and given the wind direction, should be fine for the night. Except…

Any good sailor could tell you, this is all quite stupid really. We know we should assume the wind can come from 360 degrees in any given night. We should have assumed that, and assumed a squall could brings winds up to 35 knots of wind. Even you, whoever's reading this, (if you've read any of our adventures from before) should know by now, that we should know better. We got lazy. Maybe we even got cocky. It was a pretty little spot, and we wanted to stay there. To do this meant we had to ignore what we already knew, which apparently we were happy to accept.

We backed down on our anchor and Curt snorkeled it as well. We were well dug in. And we knew our boat sits, "about five and a half feet below the waterline" depending on how much stuff we've got aboard. We set our anchor when we saw twelve feet on the depth sounder and the wind could be blowing anywhere from north east to due south… and Curt thought we had a good bit of slope south of our hook to give us some room to swing in a north wind as well.

I had the slightest feeling of hesitation, but I didn't want to be the one to open my big mouth yet again. I kept it zipped. I wanted to be a trooper. I'm tired of being the heavy.

Clouds had been forming over the mainland, and we could see light rain drizzling over the hills. We've seen it everyday since we arrived on this coast at about 3:00 each afternoon. I sat in the cockpit engrossed in my book until around 4:00, when I noticed the scent of it first: it was rain. I looked up from my book and could see the dense dark gray was moving closer from the north, blurring land from our view. I looked at the water. It had been glassy when we arrived and now I could see the mottled ripples of wind ruffling the surface. Small white caps were in the distance to the north. The American flag off our stern was starting to flap a little with a light breeze. For a moment I paused to consider just how bizarre it is to be so in tune with the telltales of Mother Nature. It's nothing I ever wanted, nothing that I'd ever even considered. It's an inevitable bi-product of living at sea I suppose. Our dinghy was bobbing to one side of the boat, light enough to be affected by the change in wind direction before it was strong enough to swing the five tons of our boat. I considered that the winds were still light. I calmly told Curt below that it looked like the wind was going to blow us the one direction it shouldn't. He absentmindedly made some murmur of reply and finished plotting his waypoints on the chart before standing up to take a look around. Yes, we were swinging south.

Curt flipped the depth sounder on and we slowly watched the depth fall from thirty feet to twenty, to twelve, on down to 5.2 feet as we swung on our anchor and fell back the opposite direction. But we didn't get far since we hit bottom. The boat teetered on her keel like a trapeze artist holding an umbrella. I walked to the back of the boat and peered over. "We're aground." I could have stood on the ground with my head above water. I clearly saw the individual blades of seagrass swaying with the tide. "Yeah, we're definitely aground." From the companionway stairs, Curt looked around mildly. I felt myself getting annoyed. "Shouldn't we be doing something, like motoring off? At what point are we going to try to get the boat off the ground?" Curt calmly said we weren't. We would wait.

"What are we waiting for exactly?" I tried to maintain my composure while he explained his point of view. Perhaps ten minutes had passed since the wind shifted. He felt that to start the engine could churn sand into the intake, and if we were aground, we could break the rudder if we tried to steer. While he spoke, I watched the depth meter vacillate between 5.0 and 5.2. The tide and winds were trying to push the boat ashore further, but the keel was stuck in the sand. The boat was tipping on her side as she tried unsuccessfully to keep her balance in too shallow of water.

The gray was upon us now and thick drizzle filled the air and slicked the decks. I had the sense of there being three of us there then. Curt, me, and Force Five. I know we all had our boat's best interests at heart, but I couldn't help feeling resentful toward Curt on her behalf. I felt we had to DO something for her. Surely we couldn't just leave things as they were - we could use our dinghy, or we could kedge off. We were not in a life or death situation. The danger was not to us, it was to Force Five- but as I saw it, things could only worsen. As I fretted over the depth sounder and the boat teetering to one side, I tried to remain composed and explain my opposing position. This in itself was frustrating as I felt something needed to be done immediately, no time for talk, and Curt felt sedate - he felt we could only wait.

If we left the Force Five here until this passed, wouldn't our keel dig in further as the current and winds pushed us into shallower water? Or what if the tide dropped? And would the wind ever shift back to a favorable direction to get us off the sand? Could we expect the winds would be strong enough to push us off? As I tried to compose a counter argument, we both had one eye tuned to the depth meter and to the leaning of the boat. Minutes were passing. I was trying not to panic as she leaned further over with the oncoming swells, but Curt's absolute lack of reaction seemed to make things worse. Finally, I reasoned that at some point, action would be warranted? If the depth meter read four feet? If it read two? If the boat was lying completely on her side? Then would we do something?

I don't know what triggered Curt to decide it was time to move, but it seemed that all at once we were acting. He dug out a spare anchor, I was on a rampage to find a long and sturdy enough line. In the rainfall, and thankfully steady and not too heavy wind, he was in the dinghy headed for deeper water with the anchor. I was paying out line from the stern. I cleated the end off and when he tossed the anchor into the water and it set, we winched the line in slowly to pull the back of the boat into deeper water. Slowly, Force Five righted herself. The depth sounder read 5.8 feet. I was only mildly placated. We were now taking the trade winds right on the beam, and adding "X" percent more pressure from the windage to our anchors, which we desperately needed to hold. I felt the battle had only just begun. Now that we were off, I wanted to insure we'd stay off. I was all too aware we were only inches from going aground again.

The weather was cooperating as much as we could hope for. The winds weren't screaming, but still kicking up a strong breeze. Standing in the steadily dimming light and falling rain, we re-grouped and discussed our options. I knew I would be a nervous wreck if we left things as they were. Though I conceded, I probably wouldn't sleep tonight regardless. We opted to set a Danforth off the bow and try to crank the front of the boat further off the shallows as well. It worked. When the depth sounder read thirteen feet, we agreed the balance of scope and depth were a sufficient balance. After discussing possible wind shifts and the impact on the anchors, we decided to leave things and spend the night in this rather precarious perch aside the steep shoal of sand while keeping an eye on things.

Women being what they are, and me being a woman, I was going to take some time to simmer down. Curt was trying to be playful and cajole me out of my sour state. It had been hours now of me trying to maintain my composure since this ordeal started, and not say a word other than to solve the immediate situation. My feelings ran the gamut of annoyance, frustration, exasperation, fear and panic- and I had tried to keep a lid on it all. Even in my seething silence once all seemed in control, I was thinking what to say and even if I should? I wanted us to learn from this experience: both as seaman and as a couple trying to understand and relate to one another. I felt that he had looked at me like I was an hysterical idiot through the whole thing, and yet I looked back at him like he was nuts for not caring that the boat was no longer floating atop the water.

I tried to sort through my emotions and thoughts, and focus on what could be productive from them. It wasn't his fault we went aground, my frustration was more at the way he reacted, or perhaps it would be better said, how he didn't react. Exasperation at the way he looks at me like a small naïve child when I tell him I disagree. The way he tells me not to panic, when I'm not… it makes me want to go ballistic. I want to tell him that what he reads as panic is fury in my eyes for his lack of reaction, his lack of engagement in what's happening, the way he has of rolling his eyes at me without really rolling his eyes. I would rather argue out loud than be ignored. It seems to me, he thinks if he says nothing, than it can't be considered a fight. How could we find a space somewhere in between?

The silence between us on the boat was heavy when I finally decided to break it with my thoughts. I relayed to him what I had been thinking, and he apologized for making me feel small. I wondered how we could avoid this way of dealing with each other again - or rather dealing with a problem. He feels one way, I feel another. There's no time to reason, emotions are running too high to have a conversation that isn't heated. The frustration I was feeling ran so deep in my heart, I couldn't sort it out because I knew this wasn't the first, and surely not the last time. Sometimes, these are just the way things are when you're cruising. This exact situation may not happen again, but certainly something similar will. He will feel one way, I will feel another. We'll try to talk, and we may not agree. We will try to find compromises when there is no way to make us both comfortable with what may be going on. It's impossible to stop and take a breath for a moment. You can't hang-up on each other. You can't walk out, or take a break, or even leave the room until you've cooled your jets. It's like a slow motion car crash with infinite choices of how to avoid it, but it's all unfolding while you try to agree.

I can think of no more vigorous test of a couple's strength than these adventures we have at sea. As a matter of fact, I can think of no more vigorous test of an individual's tenacity than these adventures at sea. But perhaps that isn't necessarily so. This isn't exactly like a ride where you can stop and get off. There is simply no choice but to endure. By the time you're in these situations, you're in them whether you like it or not. You cannot just walk away. I wish I could say that with more of them, I'm a master of the sea - but no. It seems it's merely a process of learning how to manage the infinite myriad of problems as they arise. And while I can see that it's "good" for me and "good" for us, it's no easier medicine to take then anything my mother ever described in such a way. Given the opportunity, I am still a kid at heart and want to hide under the bed rather than take my dose. I suppose in that regard, it's a good thing I can't see them coming before the bitter medicine is on my lips, or perhaps I might not have ever left San Francisco in the first place!

And yet, even as I say that- I know I'll look back at this and envy these times for how they made me feel alive. Sailing pushes us, and a year later, we're strong enough to keep pushing back. That means something. It means we're stronger than we thought we were, and if I can keep remembering that, then I can hold my head up to take another dose.

Until the next time…

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