Transit Blog–Part 1 Mar.11

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

The road I think that I will journey down is rarely mirrored by reality. This “crossing turned journey” brought me to the brink of what I believe I can handle and cemented my understanding that control is merely a delusion.

I could write about a million pages about the twenty-one days since we left Roatan, but I will only start on Day One after leaving Guanaja and its nine days of gale force winds, unsafe anchorages, anchor draggings, and impossible customs agents… some stories should be left untold.

Day One:  We pulled away from the North Side of Guanaja to what was supposed to be four days of amazing weather; enough to get us to Port Antonio, Jamaica and our first resting point.  A huge system had worked its way over the Caribbean Sea for the previous week and a half and the lull was obvious on all weather sites. The seas were flatter and bluer than I had ever seen them and everyone was very excited to be making the “8 Day” trek to Petit Goave, Haiti.  I on the other hand am always suspicious and anxiety ridden once we leave land.  I have seen what an angry ocean can be like, and I never trust a weather report.  But the day was beautiful and the fishing was amazing.  It seemed as if we could get no more than an hour between the mad rush that is “FISH ON”!  Larson and Ben were ecstatic, and Noah’s new addition of the fighting platform on our stern was getting put to use- a sight I never thought I would see aboard S/V Southern Wind.   All was tranquil expect for my growing suspicion that this was way too good to be true.

Day Two: We arrived at the first land we’d seen in about 30 hours, the famous fishing haven Swan Island.  This is a small slice of land 137 nautical miles from Roatan whose waters are crystal clear and full of fish and sharks—Ben and Larson were in total bliss.  We spent the morning exploring the reefs around the island catching fish and admiring the birds.  For me it was very nice to be near the solidity of land knowing that once we pulled away from its shores we had 367 miles of ocean to cross.  At about 10 am, I pulled the latest weather report seeing that our weather window was not as long as had been the day before…the weather gods were closing in on us.

Day Three:  I felt the first buck at about 3:45 am near the middle of my watch. The stern of the boat kicked for a minute, a momentary lurch but definite. I slid out of the navigators chair and walked onto the back deck, straining to see the sea state through the moonless night.   The seas looked dark to me, for I believe I knew what was waiting.  Eight AM brought fun house hell to us.  It’s hard to explain what a 5 – 7 foot confused sea state is like… imagine your house on a pivot point being tossed in every direction possible.  It’s like a roller coaster that doesn’t stop with noises never ending.  Up and down, side to side, forward and port, sideways and starboard, far away from land and a total loss of control of the ride you are on.

I was lying on the floor of the main salon doing all that I could to baby my back, which, for those of you who don’t know me well, has been a huge source of problems for me while on this voyage, when I thought I heard the engines accelerating and then decreasing RPM’s.  Now I am always the one to worry on the boat and am always asking questions about if something ‘seems right’ or not, so I decided that I was going to say nothing and that it was just in my mind and all would be ok.  Right.  Over the next 30 or so minutes the noises and RPM difference became very noticeable until… sputter sputter sputter and the horrifying silence of no engines.  The situation suddenly went from uncomfortable and nerve wracking to the reality of true danger.

Everyone sprung into action… Ben, Larson, and Ed ran to the engine room.  What was the problem?  What are we going to do?  How long until we roll?   The boat in a matter of minutes was turning so that our broad side or “beam” was face to face with the oncoming huge swells.  The likelihood of us rolling over grew with every second we were in that position, but we were left adrift.  The engine room was like something out of a nightmare, up top the rolling waves were taking their toll quickly on the boat and on the crew.  The vomiting started soon after.  Pretty much everyone was growing greener and greener by the passing seconds.  While Ed and Larson were feverishly trying to figure out what was wrong with the engines, Ben and Noah were tying line to our deck chairs to use them as sea anchors with the hope of pulling the bow into the wind, but the help that they were providing was minimal.  I was on the VHF radio hailing the US Coast Guard or anyone that was out there.  Randy and Holly and Noah at that point decided that it was time to deploy our main sail.  In the midst of my radio hailing my stomach reached its breaking point and the little that I had in me decided to come up for a visit.  After my bout of sickness, now covered in my own throw up, I was back on the radio.  It was then that Ben ran upstairs and got sick himself… at this point I knew it was bad.  In my 29 years of being on the sea with my brother and through some ugly weather, I have never seen him sick before–from this point on I was entering into uncharted waters.

Ed, Larson, and Ben came to the realization that the problem was bad fuel, and that our tanks had been filled with very dirty and watered down diesel.  Worst nightmare, as there is no immediate fix for this.  I had finally gotten connected with a navigator from a passing cargo ship who was hailing the US Coast Guard for us—the voice over the radio was surprisingly comforting—someone, over the vast expanse of angry blue, was there.

Noah, Randy and Holly got the main sail up, and, although the wind was not blowing in the direction that we wanted it to, our bow was being pulled into it, and the ship was starting to steady a bit.  But now what?  Jamaica was still 36 hours away.  We opted for the nearest land, Grand Cayman, 68 nautical miles to the North.

First, only by sail, and, then, a bit later when the fuel filters had been changed with the engines, we started our transit through the stormy night towards land.  We trudged through the growing swells getting tossed and beaten for the next 12 hours praying that the engines would hold.  I have never prayed so hard in my life, nor have I ever actually truly been that full of fear.  I had no control, not even the illusion of it.  I had spoken to the US Coast Guard, the Jamaican Coast Guard, and the Cayman Coast Guard, all of which were on the ready for us, but, other than that, there was nothing that I could actually do to help the situation.  I held fast, praying to get to the faint glimmer of light on the horizon that would bring safety. Never once did our crew stop working toward a solution.

At 4:30 am we limped into George Town harbor and tied to a mooring buoy.  I have never been so happy to see land in my entire life.  At 8:30 when we pulled onto the customs dock I nearly kissed the solid ground… the crew and the ship had made it.

Or so we thought.  What was coming to us on our next transit to Jamaica was double the fear… but at least for two nights we slept above the blue waters of the Caymans.

My next entry will tell the tale of what happens in rough seas, bad fuel, dangerous reefs, and one compete engine failure.