A harrowing start
From Ocean Navigator #124 September/October 2002
Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico. The authors boat was anchored at nearby Bird Key Harbor when a massive storm passed through and put it on the reef.
On March 13, 1993, this super storm, which had formed in the Gulf of Mexico, blasted up the East Coast and set 100-year records for wind speed, low pressure, low temperature and snowfall from Florida to Maine. While it raged, more than 250 people died, 48 were reported missing at sea, dozens of homes were washed away in storm surge, and every major airport in the Eastern United States was shut down.
After a year of outfitting our boat, a Whitby 42 named Indigo, Jens and I cut the dock lines in Kemah, Texas and took a week to work our way across the Gulf of Mexico. Threading a route through the jungle of oil rigs that congest the northern Gulf, we were on constant lookout for aggressive supply boats that claimed right of way as they charged from one platform to the next. We anchored one night at Sabine Pass in a vast marsh that we shared with herons, gulls and three idle drilling derricks that loomed silently overhead. Another night we stopped near the mouth of the Mississippi River and tucked behind a sandbar to get a few hours sleep before heading offshore for the four-day passage south to the Dry Tortugas. In light winds, we motor-sailed most of the way.
We made landfall at Loggerhead Key, and worked our way through the reefs to Garden Key. Fort Jefferson had been built on the island in the 1800s shortly after the Louisiana Purchase was completed, ostensibly to protect American ships from piracy. Instead, rumors abound of mysterious lights that misdirected ships onto the reefs to be plundered. The "old sea-dog" in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island contributed to the notorious history of the place: "His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were; about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main." We were about to learn first-hand why the Dry Tortugas belonged on his list of horrors. Poor holding ground
There are two anchorages at Garden Key: one is just beside the island with easy access to the dock and the Fort, which is now a National Park; the second, southwest of the island, in an enclosed lagoon surrounded by a coral, rock and sand reef. The sailing directions warned of shale with poor holding by the Fort, so we chose the slightly more exposed Bird Key anchorage with a firm sandy bottom. For two days we explored the island and toured the Fort and swam and barbecued and searched for a green flash at sunset and concluded that we had found a lifestyle we could truly enjoy.
Then came the first forecast of a developing low in the western Gulf. At the time, this sounded like good news because the wind would shift from the southeast around to the northwest behind the low, perfect for the sail to Key West. Moderate winds were forecast at first, but by late afternoon, the Weather Service was predicting 30 to 40 knots out of the southeast. This sounded a bit stronger than we liked, but didn't seem unmanageable.
We set out a second anchor that would give us the best holding in strong southerlies and then tied everything down, leaving a handkerchief of sail on the mizzen to help prevent us yawing in the strong winds. About 20 boats of all types and sizes were anchored near the Fort, while a few Cuban fishermen and one other sailboat shared Bird Key Harbor with us. Just after sunset, the Weather Service issued a special marine warning for the waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas. But by then it was too late to try to sail to Key West, past unlit reefs and into building southeasterlies. We felt we had done all we could and decided to try to get some sleep — which, of course, proved impossible — before the front was due to arrive in the middle of the night.
Unknown to us, out in the western Gulf of Mexico, the low had become a subtropical cyclone, and it was deepening at a dangerous rate of 17 millibars in 12 hours — faster than any National Weather Service computer model had been designed to calculate. Because there are few data sources in the middle of the Gulf, the intensity of the storm was underestimated until it struck Florida and the Dry Tortugas.
Jens was up at midnight watching a progression of rain squalls march across the radar screen and listening to ominous weather forecasts on the radio. Soon the glowing green splotches on the screen formed into an ominous solid line about 10 miles away, and within minutes, the squalls had overtaken the landmass of Loggerhead Key two miles to our west.
The wind started to build with each wave of rain — 20 knots, 30 knots, 40 knots — and it didn't stop. Forty-five, 50, 55 and then it spiked up to 72. I flew out of my bunk as Jens struggled into his foul weather gear and charged up the companionway to start the engine in order to motor into the wind and relieve some of the strain on the anchors. After several minutes, the wind seemed to ease and Jens came back below. Then pandemonium exploded around us. Mizzen carried away
A thunderous, shrieking burst of wind battered the boat and Jens raced back to the companionway ladder. Halfway up he froze. "What's wrong?" I yelled. In a shocked whisper, he said, "It's gone. The mizzen mast is gone." "What?" I asked, not comprehending in the least. "The base of the mizzen," he said. "The bolts broke off. The mast just lifted up and went flying off the stern!" By now I was in my foul weather gear and we both grabbed harnesses as we climbed out and clipped ourselves on in the cockpit.
The deck-stepped mast was indeed gone. We were stunned, horrified and in terror. The raging wind was hurling the seas and rain at us horizontally, shrouding the boat in salt water, the stern barely visible from our center cockpit. For several moments we stood paralyzed, unable to absorb the chaos around us. And then Jens saw the boom oddly rise straight up from the water on the starboard side of the boat, the sail whipping wildly in the wind and waves. And connected to it, just underwater, was the mast with all the shrouds and stays and antennas and steps still attached, slamming into our newly painted hull.
We hunkered down behind the dodger and tried to decide what to do. Cutting it loose was our first instinct. The shrouds were sawing away at the lifelines and the stern rail as the mast banged alongside. But we were anchored in 25 feet of water, and couldn't be sure that the mast would fall flat on the bottom. We didn't want to risk a hole below the waterline. On the other hand, the five-foot seas in the anchorage were making it more likely every minute that the mast would puncture the hull. We decided to try to get it under control.
Over the next four hours, in darkness, we struggled to remove the boom and the sail from the mizzen mast and then to tie lines around the mast. After each little achievement, we sat in the cockpit and planned our next step. The screaming wind and heavy rain made the simplest action difficult. At one stage, I was clinging to Jens' feet as he hung by his harness over the side of the boat feeding lines under the spreaders. Finally, we were able to winch the spar up out of the water and secure it firmly alongside. Still attached were the radar, the wind generator (minus a few blades) and the GPS, cell phone and radio antennas, all thoroughly soaked in salt water. We decided to wait for sunrise before attempting to remove anything else from the mast.Chaos after the storm
The gray dawn unveiled a scene of chaos. Seven boats were high up on the beach at Bush Key, a small island next to Garden Key. Shredded headsails flogged in the still 50-knot winds, various sections of bow pulpits and stern rails were bent at strange angles, and some boats seemed to be hanging from the same anchor. Through the night nearly every anchor had dragged, turning the boats into bumper cars, with frantic sailors tossing fenders and extra ground tackle to each other as they banged together, trying to limit the damage. Amazingly, there were no serious injuries.
We inspected our lashings and concluded the mizzen was as secure as we could get it. The winds were still strong and had now shifted around to the west. Although our nerves were frazzled, we felt a small sense of relief, believing that the worst had passed. But our own "dreadful story" of the Dry Tortugas was not nearly over yet, because that was when our primary anchor let go.
Jens started the engine. I scrambled to the bow, and as he powered ahead I hauled in the anchor line. Within moments, I lost track of our second anchor line and the inevitable followed. Just as I got the first anchor above the water, the second line wrapped around the prop, and with a staggering jolt, the engine roared and then died. I immediately dropped the anchor and let out scope, hoping the reef marking the edge of the harbor was farther away than we thought. I snubbed the line, felt the anchor dig in solidly and then felt the sickening thud of the keel hitting solid ground. Water gushing aboard
We went below and found water gushing through the shaft seal. The force of the anchor line wrapping around the prop had jarred the 85-hp engine backwards, sheering the bolts on three engine mounts, cracking the timing gear casing, smashing the oil filter against a bulkhead, and forcing the hose on the shaft seal to fold back on itself, leaving a gaping hole between the seal faces that water was pouring through. At this rate, being aground was looking like a good thing. But when Jens discovered that the stationary seal on the shaft had been shoved aft, he managed to pound the rotating seal backwards, reducing the flood to a trickle. Further investigation showed no more leaks.
Amazingly, we had gone aground on a sandy section of the rock and coral reef, which probably saved the boat. The 50-knot winds had churned up huge waves in our anchorage and each one would lift the boat, roll it from side to side and them slam us back down on the reef. We marked the time to that jarring rhythm for the next six hours, tensing in anticipation of each crash of the keel. We were helpless. Our engine was dead, the anchor line was still wrapped around the prop and with the gale force winds, the windlass wasn't powerful enough to haul us off the reef.
Finally at low tide, Indigo was still, lying on its side in about a foot of water. After 24 hours of adrenaline and fear, we went below, had a bowl of soup and collapsed on a pile of cushions laid on the side of the hull. A few hours later with the rising tide, the lift and slam began again.Dragged off the coral
By morning, the winds had eased to 35 knots and at the next low tide, Jens tied a rope around his waist, climbed down into the water and untangled the anchor line from the prop. When the boat was nearly upright, we got the engine to start and tried to power off the sandbar, without success. Shortly afterward, the Park Rangers came alongside, soaking wet from the rain and waves splashing into their 15-foot runabout. With them was a sleek fishing boat with twin 300-hp turbocharged diesel engines. They had been working their way through the anchorage on a salvage and rescue mission and had managed to get all the boats off the beach. Now it was our turn. With the runabout pulling sideways on our main halyard and the fishing boat pulling ahead with a one-inch hawser, we slowly bumped off the reef. Then, under our own power, we managed to retrieve both of our anchors and get our 45-lb CQR reset.
Four days later, the wind finally abated and we joined a rag-tag flotilla for the overnight sail to Key West. Some boats had ailing engines, others had shredded sails, some had lost their navigation electronics, all of the crews were exhausted. Along the way, two boats snagged crab pots in their propellers, one lost its main halyard up the mast, and another, confused about its position, nearly ran aground. The radio crackled all night with the sounds of tense sailors confirming positions, checking routes and trying to offer moral support — as much to themselves as to each other. Twenty hours later, we were all securely tied off at the docks in Key West, blissfully motionless at last.
A year later, we had a new mizzen mast, wind generator and sundry antennas, a firmly mounted engine and two much bigger anchors, and we embarked on our sailing voyage again. We are doing our best to avoid all the major weather events of the 21st century.
Allyson Madsen and Jens P. Jeager are currently voyaging the Pacific aboard Indigo, their 1982 Whitby 42 ketch designed by Ted Brewer.