We found a beautiful anchorage all to ourselves.
Shallow anchorage, but good holding.
For the third day in a row we woke up in the incredible gin clear waters of a sheltered bay just off Bird Cay in the Berry Islands group of the Bahamas.
At low tide we were just inches off the bottom in a protected anchorage away from the rolling southern surge that comes off the deep water Tongue of the Ocean. Light South Easterly winds blew across the narrow beach and again our boat could not decide if the current or wind were stronger. As we raised the tender I noticed the anchor was visible just under our starboard stern scoop. At least it would be easy to find.
With little drama or fanfare we left our secluded anchorage. On our way out we saw another Fountain Pajot Venezia and hailed them on the radio for some early morning chit chat. Another vessel was also heading roughly our way called to us and discussed destinations and conditions. The Berries consist of about thirty islands and over one hundred small islands or cays, often referred to as “The Fish Bowl of the Bahamas.” They have a population of 807 most of whom are on Great Harbour Cay, but they were hit hard by Hurricane Mathew last year and what little development remained on Chub Cay is still being repaired. The islands are fairly remote and sparsely inhabited, especially on the Southern end where we were. They are known for their bill fishing and as a stopover point after crossing the Gulf-stream and Great Bahama bank on the route to Nassau or the Exumas.
Our plan for the day was getting an early start and heading to Nassau to meet our two first two visitors. Our trip would take us across the Tongue of the Ocean, a deep water open ocean passage of around 38-40 nautical miles. The weather was not idea and it would be a wet and bumpy ride upwind in 2-3 foot waves and 12-15 knot headwinds.
After getting the mainsail up and a couple of hours of beating into the wind the angle had changed enough I began debating if we could carry the jib, Jessie noticed what we first thought might be debris on the edge of the horizon. Always curious she got out the binoculars, but with the lumpy conditions it was tough to make much out at that distance. I took a look and braced myself against the deck to try to stabilize myself and the binocs, I was fairly sure it was a fishing boat, but the more I looked at it the more it looked like the shape moved irregularly. We decided to investigate further. Perhaps 15 minutes later motor sailing Southwest we were able make out a figure on a small runabout waving a red shirt. I took this to mean distress and so we continue on toward the vessel.
Many things ran through my mind at this moment. I once took a part in an Emergency Management at Sea course provided by the US Coast Guard, and they introduced me to the GAR risk score process. In brief it stands for Green Amber Red, and it’s a quick way to determine risk and decide what help if any can be rendered. It involves many aspects of a rescue and is an effective tool.
It is a great tool that many first responders use. I wish I had more time to really think through all the calculations, but if I am being honest for me it was instantaneous gut decision. I immediately decided we would have to help this individual. At this point all we knew was a lone individual was signaling distress on a 17 ft Chris Craft in Open Ocean.
During the ensuing 10 or so minutes Jessie and I talked about what we thought were the likely scenarios. My instinct was to help, but my first thought was what if this is a set up. Now, at no time have I had anything but positive interactions with the Bahamians, those I have gotten to know are very nice, friendly, and generally kind people, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t suspicious. We were around 13-15 NM from land, and this individual was in a boat that could easily have come from Chub or any of the Southern Berries. And at this point we were the only two boats visible in any direction. I wanted to help, but I did not want to become a victim.
As we approached I told Jessie my plan. I wanted to stand off downwind and assess the situation and determine what if any help we could offer. As we got close the man told us he had left the Abacos, bound for Nassau 5 days earlier and had run out of gas. He had been drifting for the last 5 days and run out of food and water. As I still had the sail up I told him we had to move off to safety drop the sail before we could help him. I dropped a man overboard pin and moved upwind to drop our mainsail. My first instinct was to report the incident to other boaters in the area, but after not getting an immediate response from anyone I issued a Panpan on our VHF radio. I knew we could help the man, but with just the two of us and the wind and sea state I knew we were limited in what help we could offer. A Panpan is familiar to any who regularly listen to marine radio traffic, it is used to signify that there is an urgency on board a boat, ship, aircraft, or other vehicle but that, for the time being at least, there is no immediate danger to anyone’s life or to the vessel itself. I felt this was best for our safety and to report the incident to any who might be monitoring VHF. I stated the nature of distress, our vessel name, the distressed vessel name, GPS position and asked all vessels in the area to assist if possible and to monitor for updates. I explained what we knew. I did this also to make sure we were not alone. I felt confident that this individual was telling us the truth, but I did not want to take any unnecessary risks. My wife and I do not carry weapons onboard, but after a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies we still had some bear spray, so had things gone badly that would have been our only deterrent.
I laid out the plan to Jessie that we would trail a line and hang a few fenders along our starboard side and approach from downwind and get a line to the man. We had a gallon of water, and some snacks ready for him. As we got close it became clear this would be more of a challenge than I initially though. We were able to get a line over but getting the boats to stick together became very problematic. Jessie was able to get a line to the man and one fender secured, but as the boats came together the other boat came under the fender and lifted it up. It became obvious the man was exhausted and his story was entirely true, he blessed us and said the Lord had saved him. I could tell he was overcome by the experience, I was too. We tried unsuccessfully a few times to get the two boats secured. If I am honest I had underestimated the conditions and how differently the two boats handled the wind and waves. We were finally able to get him a line and pull behind the boat. But I had to keep running from the helm to the scoop and back to keep his boat from coming in-between our hulls. I was able to throw over the water and the food and we detached. I yelled that we wouldn’t leave him, but at that point I realized we could not save his vessel. He must have drank almost the whole gallon of water.
I told him that we were headed for Nassau and we could either take him with us, or we could take him to Chub, but that in the conditions we found ourselves I could not tow his boat to Chub. With just Jessie and his exhausted state I felt the risk to us and our boat was too high. We spoke for a few minutes as we both drifted. He explained that he had run out of fuel and I told him I had some premixed 2 stroke outboard fuel, would that work. Over the next 15 minutes we were able to get him our spare Jerry can and he set to work refilling his tank and bleeding the system.
I got back on the radio and by this time had enlisted the help of a few much faster and larger fishing boats from Chub, I reissued the Panpan and updated our current position and was eager to have some help. The other boat indicated they had the crew and the gear to be able to assist with a tow. After around 20 minutes the gentlemen popped his head back up from his engine and said he would try to start the engine. After only a few tries the engine roared back to life and I could see him beaming. He closed the engine hatch and put up his Bimini and gave me a big thumbs up. I told him to head for the very visible lighthouse on Bird Cay and then continue West for two islands and he would find Chub right near the very tall Cell phone tower. I offered to follow him, but with our max speed of around 8 knots we would have quickly fallen behind. With a wave he took off. A few minutes later the sport fisher hailed us and let us know they had eyes on him and would follow him to Chub. We turned back South East and motored quietly for the next few hours.
Jessie and I thought a lot about the experience. I felt ashamed that my mind was suspicious at first, then overjoyed that we were able to help him, and finally overcome with what could have been the outcome had we not see him and headed over for a better look. Although we never got his name or any non-essential details, I feel like we shared an incredible moment. I am glad we were able to assist him, and I feel lucky we were in the right place at the right time to offer help, but I could not shake the feeling that there was something more at work. Perhaps it was my battle weary state from over a month of an endless cycle of things breaking and me fixing them and watching our savings evaporate, perhaps it was the adrenaline of the encounter, but I was left with sincere gratitude that none of the gear or system failures we have experience have been anything more than a nuisance or an expensive setback. At no time were we or the boat every in danger as a result of our breakages. The experience put into perspective the fragile state we are all in who travel on the ocean and how we are bound to one another for help. Just a few things working or not working can make a huge difference in the outcome. We all try to plan and prepare for the worst case scenario, but in reality it is never that far away.
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