There are so many milestones for us during this sailing trip. The first time we raised the sails, the first time Maya’s ever slept on a boat, the first time Tobin figured out how to pee between the lifelines, the first time we figured out the stereo player and listened to music while under sail.
Yesterday was a big first for me and required me to face some serious fears – spending the night on an anchor we set. It didn’t help that the wind raged and the swell rolled our boat.
Mastering anchoring feels like a huge accomplishment – it allows us freedom to spend the night almost anywhere the bottom is sandy, shallow and there isn’t turtle grass. Another big bonus we avoid the $30 a night charge of mooring by setting our own anchor.
We anchored at Salt Island, a little over two nautical miles east from Peter Island, which makes the low-lying land mass feel exposed. The bay where we set anchor is a short dinghy ride to the Wreck of the Rhone, where we planned to snorkel and take a closer look at the remains of the ship that wrecked in the 1800s.
The R.M.S. Rhone sunk off the rocks of Salt Island in October 1867. One day the weather typified tropical perfection, the sun beating down from a deep blue sky. Then the barometer fell, the sky darkened and a hurricane blew from the northeast.
The Rhone tried to anchor, but even the 3,0000-pound anchor and some 300 feet of chain couldn’t hold the boat in place. Winds blew her into the rocks surrounding Salt Island where she heeled over, broke in two, and sank, taking most of the crew down with her.
According to our trusty cruising guide, the left side of the bay closest to the wreck is reserved as a day anchorage and the rest of the bay is fair game for anchoring overnight. When we arrived mid-afternoon, we set our anchor in the first available space. As the sunlight waned, I took another look at the map and it seemed we might actually be in the day anchorage area.
We motored toward other anchored sailboats. A man wearing nothing but a pair of white briefs gave us a scornful look. “There’s turtle grass there.”
The turtle grass is an important food source for turtles and habitat for other sea critters, so we don’t want to destroy it.
We motored further out. There was still turtle grass at 25 feet. At 30 feet Sarah made the hand-signal for sand and dropped the anchor. Since the safe ratio is to let out five times the amount of chain for the depth. Sarah let out a little over 100 feet and then I let the boat idle in neutral. When we stopped moving, we were only a couple boat lengths from the white-brief-wearing-grumpy man.
Since we couldn’t let out any more chain without encroaching further on the other boat, we brought the anchor up and motored further toward the point in search of a sandy, shallow spot. On the other side of a sixty-foot catamaran, we found a place to anchor that would position us as the last boat in the harbor.
That night the winds wailed and howled. Goats bleated from the cliff. Waves crashed against the boulders. We all took turns double-checking the anchor and our position. I tried to fall asleep, reminding myself that we had felt the anchor take hold and that we have put out enough chain so were secure for the night.
Then the chain groaned.
My thoughts turned to how small the anchor looked and how it was buried at most a foot into the sand. I wondered if it could hold us in that wind.
I played a dangerous game of what-ifs that kept me up for most of the night. Images of the graves where the Rhone crew was buried – a circle of rocks and mounds of earth adorned with conch shells and coral – flashed.
What if the anchor dragged, the swell and wind would push us into the rocky shore and cliffs. What if water seeped into the open hatches, how would we escape?
Would we end up buried in the graves adorned with conch shells and coral like the crew of R.M.S. Rhone?
I poked my head out of the hatch to double check our position and was greeted by the clearest night sky we’d seen yet, studded with bright stars.
I checked my watch during the wee morning hours, waiting and hoping for the pale light of dawn. I wanted the night to pass quickly, to have certainty that our anchor would hold.
I’d splurged the previous day and bought wifi for a night to post updates. I checked my email, then Facebook.
I yearned for something more than a distraction, for someone to swoop down and reassure me. I wanted to be tethered to an existence where security meant more than an iron hook sunk a foot deep in the sand. That night I wished to be anywhere except that sailboat bobbing in the swell.
I got up to check the anchor again and when I came back to our berth Tobin sprawled spread-eagle-like, taking up all the space on our triangular-shaped mattress. I grumbled, positioning myself around him, curling my body into a ball.
I must have dozed off to sleep because I woke up feeling less tired. I went to pee off the back of the boat and saw that the wind had subsided and the sea mellowed into soft mounds.
Flashes lit up in the water below. The familiar neon bioluminescence sparkled.
I stripped off my pajama pants and tank top and jumped off the stern. Every time I moved, the black water lit up with dozens of fluorescent streaks. I gazed up at the sky at the precise moment a meteor plunged in a long diagnol line.
My body tingled with the visceral sense that I was alive in that moment. It sunk in that this is my reality for the next three weeks and wouldn’t have it any other way. Hours before, if I had been in possession of some magic ball and could have wished the night away, I would have in an instant. I realized that I was enough to anchor myself, that I could trust the skills of our crew and let myself sleep easy knowing we were capable
Swimming naked with all that sparkly light, both in the water and overhead, reminded me that I couldn’t skip the fear of the night without missing the intensity of the wind, seeing the brilliant night sky, and skinny-dipping amongst the bioluminscense.