In 1989, as a 25-year-old sailing solo on a 26-foot sailboat, I spent a surreal Christmas weathering a North Atlantic gale, at anchor in a not-so-sheltered place in the central Bahamas. This piece was originally published in my sailing memoir, The Blue Monk. Thank you for reading my blog. I wish you a safe, warm, and dry holiday.
December 24, 1989
I awaken before the sun. To the east, the night sky purples beyond the dark silhouette of the island. I flip on the radio and listen to ZNS out of Nassau. Someone has died; a five-minute list of survivors—it must be half the population of the Bahamas—follows the obituary. Today is the anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origins of Species. The announcer derides it as “a book that proposes man descended from monkeys.” Several more minutes of not-even-anthropologically-interesting filler follows before the desired weather report is finally broadcast.
Nassau radio clears me for takeoff.
A light rain falls. Humidity condenses out of the warm tropical air. The southerly wind suggests the approach of a cold front. I prepare to depart but my gut tells me not to. I don’t need a weatherman to tell me what these clouds mean.
By sunrise, the wind increases, clocking around to the south-southwest. A powerful tidal current, rather than the wind, determines my vessel’s orientation; I sit beam-to the weather. Machine gun raindrops pelt my vessel’s starboard side. Opposing winds and currents create a large, uncomfortable swell in the anchorage. If the wind blows from the north before the tide changes, I could end up riding stern-to the blow; not a comforting proposition.
Allen’s Cay is hardly the same peaceful anchorage I fell asleep in last night.
I’d love to get out of here.
Radio ZNS’s disregard for accurate weather forecasting betrays Nassau’s long history as a seaport. I passed a protected harbour at Highburn Cay yesterday and proceeded here with no advice about a coming front. This morning’s early broadcast reported only southerly winds at twenty knots; it’s already blowing twenty-five at Allen’s Cay. If this wind holds, I could enjoy ideal sailing conditions for a run north to New Providence, but the clouds are streaky. In these latitudes, winds from anywhere south of southeast foretell the influence of high-pressure air swooping down from the Arctic to overpower the Caribbean trade winds. In these latitudes, winds from anywhere south of southeast are capricious and unstable. I balance nature’s warnings against the lack of any broadcast by man. I listen to the radio one more time before pulling anchors.
The forecast has changed.
Winds are expected to be out of the north today at twenty to thirty knots with gusts to gale force. That’s the forecast for Nassau’s protected harbour; conditions here at Allen’s Cay will be worse.
I let out scope on my windward anchor and then, with the dinghy and my unmatched oars, haul up and reset my second hook in the center of the island group; the soft sand will provide good holding ground. I wrestle a third anchor, a length of chain, and a strong line from a cockpit locker and install them on the foredeck—in case I need an emergency brake.
The rain pauses. Dark, streaky clouds scud across a white sky overhead. The wind diminishes. The ride becomes more comfortable. I enjoy the relative calm while it lasts. A gale can blow for days, and because of the strong tidal current streaming between the islands here, the guidebook warns “Allen’s Cay can be extremely rough in a norther.”
I can handle “rough.” Though staying aboard will be uncomfortable, I’m equipped with sturdy anchors and plenty of heavy chain—good insurance considering the ragged coral shores around me. Beyond the entrance channel downwind of me lies a sandy beach. If I should break loose or drag anchor, its soft sand will be my target landing spot.
The iguanas here, or perhaps some other swarm of unseen inhabitants, have a malevolent laugh. The noise began after midnight last night when the wind first came up and the temperature fell—a raspy, demonic cackle straight out of a horror film, resounding across the islands from a chorus of hysterical devils.
The wind clocks southwest.
The sky fades to a uniform gray.
The air is cold.
A tide-driven swell surges through the turbulent anchorage. Held beam-to the waves by the wind, Blue Monk rolls nauseatingly.
After a few hours, the tide slackens; the boat rides bow-to the wind again. I prepare lunch. Eating my sandwich, I calmly and helplessly await the approaching tempest, experiencing a strange mix of fear, anticipation, resignation, and boredom.
My boat is prepared.
My anchors are set.
My sails are lashed down.
My oars are lashed to the cabin top.
Negligence is no part of this equation. Whatever will happen is up to forces beyond my control.
I consider running south four miles to better shelter at Highburn Cay but, at low tide, I’m not sure I can carry my four-foot-six draft over the sand bar at the entrance. Today would not be a good day to get stuck aground.
I call Highburn Harbour on the VHF but get no response.
Best to sit tight.
Though the word “gale” conjures up images of crashing waves and wind-driven spray, I’ve sailed in 30-knot winds before. The technical definition of “gale force” specifies wind of over 34 knots—a significant, but hardly awe-inspiring wind speed—and I should be at least somewhat protected in the lee of the islands.
A fine line divides disregarding the strength of nature’s fury and taking a storm too seriously; I’m just not sure where that line is.
With time to wait, the impending gale looms larger. By late afternoon, the wind backs to the west—unusual. The rolling swell in the anchorage returns with the tide. The island demons are at it again, cackling in the cold rain.
Daylight fades. A last-minute boat, Kokonot, arrives in the anchorage ahead of a line of dark, low, ugly clouds and even harder rain. They must have had a bumpy day sailing across the banks.
The latest radio update says the gale will arrive tonight. Had I known I had this much time, I would have tried to make Highburn Cay, but at this point, I’m staying put. In better weather, I’d rather be here than in Nassau’s crowded, industrial harbour for Christmas.
Outside, the night is cold and wet. I’m grateful for my guitar, my stereo, my books, and my warm, dry cabin.
By ten o’clock, the wind howls under a coal-dark, starless, moonless sky. The gale turns northwest, blowing across rather than between the islands; I have better protection in their lee now, but the current and the roaring air fight savagely over my tiny vessel. She tacks awkwardly on her anchor lines. Accustomed to riding bow-to the wind, my instincts respond to the feel of the boat, telling me I’m dragging anchor when I’m not. Mooring lines creak, stretch and strain. Stays and halyards hum. Rain pressure-cleans my hull and deck. Sleep is impossible.
Midnight on Christmas Eve
The howling wind is demoralizing. I turn up the volume on the stereo but find it difficult to summon up a festive holiday spirit.
At 3:30 in the morning, the rain pauses. I grab a flashlight, braving the dark and the wind to inspect my foredeck. I’m hanging on one anchor; I haul in slack on the other so it can share the strain. No chafe on any of the lines; good.
Upwind of me on Kokonot, my neighbor is on deck for the same reason. He waves at me in the loom of his spotlight. The night is so dark I can hardly see the islands, but judging by the position of his light relative to mine, we’re both in the same places we originally anchored.
At certain wind speeds, my halyards vibrate at a low frequency. The mast, a hollow aluminum tube, vibrates sympathetically, causing the entire boat to moan and pump dramatically. I don my foul weather gear and adjust the tension on the halyards to calm the “music.” When the wind finds a new note to play, I adjust them again.
An hour later, it gets really bouncy; I’m caught between wind and tide again. My oven flies from the galley, almost landing in my bunk. The current holds my stern forty-five degrees off the wind. Waves attempt to board my cockpit; they explode against my transom. Each chilling gust heels me thirty degrees.
Enough of this already! What am I doing alone on a tiny boat, getting knocked around in a remote, wet, freezing wilderness? Am I crazy? This is Paradise?
Night’s blackness succumbs to dawn. I venture again to the foredeck and find everything in order. The anchors hold tight. The lines haven’t chafed. But my astonishment at witnessing the spectacle around me transcends all fear of being in the middle of it. A gale does in fact involve crashing waves and wind-driven spray. Wave tops fly off in steaming streaks of spindrift. Sheets of mist blast over Allen’s Cay’s highest hill, the fleeing ghosts of waves detonated against the windward side of the islands. As if a firehose is trained on it, the island that sits between me and the north wind appears to be covered with rising steam. The cut, once clear and transparent aquamarine, is a seething cauldron of furious green water and stirred up sand. Waves driven from the shallow banks boil through the entrance, undulating madly without consistent direction, spitting foam and hissing invective.
Yet, in spite of the cold and the uncomfortable motion, the sinister laughing of the iguanas, the vibrating groans of the rigging and the ominous creaking of the anchor lines, my life is richer for having experienced nature’s power from within.
A voice on the VHF—a yachtsman sheltering at Highburn Cay—announces the wind is expected to calm somewhat by nightfall.
By afternoon, the wind passes through north—still blowing, but less forcefully. “Comfortable” would be an exaggeration, but I welcome any lessening of the storm. Tentative spots of blue peek through gray cotton skies.
Nightfall on Christmas Day
The wind blows steady and cold, but conditions are lighter. After staying awake for almost forty-eight hours, I sleep well.
In the morning, the harbour remains rolly as the gale opposes the tide. My hatches are shut tight against the cold. Tomorrow, I’ll make my run to Nassau. I’ve spent enough time by myself these past few weeks. I’m ready for some company and a change of scenery.
My neighbors on Kokonot hail me on the VHF radio to invite me over for a day-after-Christmas lunch—a kind gesture. They have a big boat, hot tea, and a warm meal to share. I’m grateful for the hospitality and for the company of others who can recount this unimaginable experience. We are creatures of the story; when we encounter the remarkable, we find solace in knowing others have seen it, too. In some small way, nobody else will ever quite understand who we are. We are bound together by common experience.
Long after dark, I thank my new friends for an enjoyable day of commiseration and row back to Blue Monk.
The wind has subsided to fifteen knots.
The sky is starry and clear.
A brilliant moon illuminates the white sand bottom of the anchorage.
The only sound worthy of mention is that of the waves gently lapping against my hull.
It isn’t so bad here.
Tomorrow, I leave the Lizard Kingdom to cross the Yellow Banks to Nassau.
I retire and sleep the deep, satisfied sleep of one who anticipates a day under the Bahamian sun, navigating the clear waters of Paradise.