Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Tropical cruising lesson #1


pix added on May 3

"You're dragging."

A woman's voice sliced through our sleep. We'd gone to bed, hoping to stay asleep for 8 full hours after five quick-stepping nights at sea. The air had been so still and full of water you could have drunk it. But now, at 5 am, a 20 knot north-easterly was blowing through the anchorage in behind the reef at Porvenir Island.

Alex bolted into the cockpit. It was dark. No moon, no lights ashore (Porvenir has a small airstrip, but no streets). He felt rather than saw the boat pass by our starboard side, "almost close enough to take out the solar panels", he said later. Then it was gone into the blackness. He heard the woman say, again, "YOU ARE DRAGGING". But if we were dragging, we were dragging upwind?

He started the engine (how simple does that sound now?), turned on the chart plotter and the windlass. Which direction were we facing? I was up by now, and went forward. I took off the snubber (a safety line for the anchor) and began to winch up the chain. It felt firm and wasn't rumbling. I hesitated, and even though time is always of the essence when you are dragging, I went back aft again, and compared the note I'd made of our position when we anchored, against the position which by then had popped up on the chart plotter. The same. We haven't moved, I told Alex. But the woman had said... Who was she? and where had she gone?

Our torch beam found our nearest neighbour, the Norwegian boat, just where it should be. Behind us though, where there'd been no boat in the evening, it found a yacht. We recognized the shape of the hull - the Turkish yacht. We'd met Tarsin onshore while we were waiting to clear in. One thing led to another and we discovered we had a mutual friend in Turkey - Banu, an exceptional Turkish woman and solo sailor. Tarsin was over the moon. He'd been running charters with his wife Rengen between Panama and Colombia, including the San Blas islands, for six years. He hadn't seen Banu for a long time, but they went way back to university days in Istanbul, and sailing out of Bodrum.

He pointed out his yacht to us. It was anchored close in. We were at the back of the small anchorage, where waves broke on a shallow coral tongue about 75 m from our stern. And that's where Tarsin's boat was now. It didn't seem a good place to be.

We determined that we weren't dragging, and kept watch - again. At 6 am the sun rose. We kept looking behind us for clues as to what was happening. No-body responded on VHF 16. The Turkish boat was floating. It wasn't on an angle. Its anchor chain was down but the boat wasn't swinging with the wind. It looked to be stuck. Several workboats driven by Kuna Indians running beween Porvenir and the village on Wichubhuala island stopped and words were exchanged. They left. Tarsin and his wife seemed to wave them away.

They must be ok, we said to ourselves. Alex saw Tarsin light up a cigarette (of what significance? a man always has time for a cigarette, I've found). Then they were both at the bow, then both in the cockpit. About an hour passed, during which more local help with serious grunt was turned down. Then a couple in a rubber ducky came alongside, friends obviously. I figured they were from the big charter yacht which had come into the anchorage at sunset. Commercial friends. They tied on, and tried to push Tarsin's boat off the coral.

Then they went away. What was going on?

We got into our dinghy and went to to see. Did they need help? Yes. They did. They were on the reef. Tarsin explained why he'd waved on the local help. The Kuna Indians would claim the boat for salvage if he let them tow it off - they were just waiting for it to be REALLY stuck and then they'd be there, stripping it bare. He knew what he was talking about.

Just behind us was the upturned hull of a wrecked yacht - stripped bare. Later, when were looking at our charts and guide books, the wrecks leapt off the page/screen. Our Canadian friends Jane and Russell on TaB, who were in San Blas a couple of months ago, reported that already six yachts had gone up on reefs this year.

So, within 24 hours of arriving in the San Blas islands we were helping to get a yacht off a reef. And that yacht didn't belong to some dumb newcomer like ourselves. Tarsin had anchored in Porvenir more times than he could remember. "We're more or less locals," he said. Moreover, they'd had been anchored in that same spot for a week, which ordinarily would lead you to believe you were "well dug in", as the saying goes. The kicker though was that when they found they were dragging, they couldn't start their engine. Their batteries were flat. They couldn't start their engine or work their anchor windlass. So they had no way to manoeuvre the yacht in a tight anchorage.

Their friends came back in their large charter yacht with a long tow rope and with the help Enki's dinghy (with its 15 hp outboard) and two Kuna Indian volunteers at the bow, hauling on the anchor chain with Tarsin, the boat came off the coral. An hour later, with the anchor set and holding, Tarsin and Rengen were waiting for sufficient charge from their solar panels to allow them to start their engine.

Why did they drag? Rengen thought that someone had knocked into their boat a couple of nights ago while they were ashore. She'd noticed a bent staunchion when they came back. "Perhaps they moved us a bit, and our anchor had been dislodged and was just sitting on the sand, and we couldn't have noticed these past couple of days because there was no wind."

After breakfast, we weighed anchor (by choice) and moved four miles to one of the exquisite island groups for which San Blas is so famous. We're on our own here, though around the corner about 20 yachts are crammed into the (obviously) favoured spot in the Chichime group. I don't think we've ever been anywhere which matches the brochures so closely - the tropics as they are in your dreams. We're anchored behind a barrier reef, off an island with waving coconut palms. It's uninhabited apparently, though there are two thatched huts set back from the white sand beach. As far as the eye can see are more tiny sandy islands top-heavy with coconut palms.

The water is lukewarm and standard issue tropical turquoise. Clear too - this afternoon I swam enchanted through a coral garden which, like an artfully-landscaped English garden, left me wishing I could commit to memory its contrasting textures and undulating contours, its repeating patterns and sculpted features. Failing that, I'll turn up again tomorrow (with my boatman Alex), at the same place (a dot of sand in the middle of nowhere, with no palms, about half a mile southeast of our boat), and the pleasure will be all mine again.

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