Near Disaster in the San Blas

4/15/2011

By Tom Morkin

San Blas Islands

One reason the isles of the San Blas are the ‘holy grail’ for cruisers from around the world is because of the extensive reef system that protects the anchorages from the raw ravaging swells of the Caribbean. The anchorages are windy during the winter trade wind season but waters are flat and the holding is generally good. That is, for the anchorages in the western San Blas. The eastern San Blas has no such protective reef so the anchorages are more exposed, can be rolly and for the most part are less secure. In addition, the eastern anchorages are either on the coast or very close to it. The multitude of rivers and streams particularly during periods of heavy rainfall, make these anchorages murky.

We made our landfall in the San Blas in the east for two reasons: 1) It was close to Colombia from where we departed, meaning one over-nighter instead of two which would not have been the case had we sailed to the western San Blas. 2) The eastern San Blas islands are more remote and visited far less by cruisers and/or tourists. The villages tend to be more traditional.

It wasn’t until a cold front in the Gulf of Mexico started sending four plus meter seas down Panama way that I began to regret our decision not to sail straight to the reef protected waters of the eastern San Blas.

Although Feel Free was safely anchored behind Isla Pinos and had been for four days while Liz and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the village, hiking and swimming albeit in murky waters where I spotted a five foot cayman 200 meters from our boat, and then later, a dead one on shore, we knew we’d have to leave our sanctuary and brave those big seas for 60 miles before we’d be behind the reef.

Although I’m not a fan of three and four meter seas, we have a strong, seaworthy 51 foot boat so the thought of those kinds of seas doesn’t keep me awake at night. But this time they did because those twelve foot waves were meeting the relatively shallow waters of the San Blas resulting in unpredictable and breaking waves for much of our 60 mile trip.

Another and related contributor to my insomnia was the reported depth of 11 feet in the channel we would exit from to meet the open sea. In calm conditions this would be no sweat for our eight foot draft, but these conditions weren’t calm. I was betting that the swell wouldn’t be more than about three feet in the 11 foot channel. They certainly would be once out at sea.

After my sleepless night, dawn finally arrived and from the deck I could see the seas breaking on the reef were not as bad the previous three days. Knowing full well that waiting another day may not mean diminishment of the seas, it would mean another sleepless night.

We were one of three boats at Isla Pinos and each of the boat’s crews was anxious to get west. The trade winds were forecast to just get stronger over the next couple of weeks. Dave and Eli on High Spirits, a U.S. flagged vessel from Texas which draws five feet, said “Hell, let’s go. I’ve saved my previous track through this area on my GPS so you can follow High Spirits.” Um, that’s a comforting thought (?) “Sure, sounds good. You lead, we’ll follow.” That’s exactly what we did.

Heading out the channel we watched the depth sounder report 11, 12, 11.5, 12.5, 13, 14 feet as we approached the open sea. By the time I saw 15 feet on the sounder, I thought the worst was behind us. We were definitely in deeper water but the waves were much bigger as High Spirits and Feel Free pitched like rocking horses into a very unwelcoming Caribbean Sea. My attention switched from the depth sounder to the train of waves that assaulted us every four to five seconds. Each slamming wave almost brought our speed to zero so we throttled up to maintain forward progress. Feel Free was making good two and three knots.

I was thinking this was a bit of a drag, but in a couple of minutes we’d be in the safety of the deep water, when it happened. We dropped down into a trough and then BANG! and SHUDDER! “What was that?!” shrieked Liz. We had hit the rocky, corally bottom. My worst nightmare- going aground in the swell.

If we stayed aground here our boat would eventually break up. Without a moment’s hesitation I firewalled the engine and continued straight ahead. The arrival of the next six to eight foot wave lifted our bow and floated us free. Thank God, we were still moving, but our relief was short lived for five seconds, maybe. Then, BANG! SHUDDER! We hit again, stopped or nearly stopped before the next wave freed us from the bottom.

A quick look at the depth sounder- 14 feet. Down in the trough again and BANG! Should we turn to port or starboard, turn around, or keep going? I couldn’t bear the thought of turning around and presenting our beam to the onslaught of waves so with gritted teeth we carried on dreading that next gut wrenching bang. That next bang never happened. After that third grounding we passed from the lighter coloured water to the darker, deeper water. We were free- pitching and rolling wildly but moving away from danger. That’s when the knees, all four of them, Liz’s and mine, went wobbly. Liz took the wheel while I wobbled down to the engine room to see if we were now taking on water. It was with trepidation that I directed our super bright dive light into the bilge. It was dry. I forced myself to remain peering at the bilge for a full minute to convince myself we were in no imminent danger and that we hadn’t inflicted any major or lasting damage on our beloved floating home.

That didn’t stop Liz and me from feeling sick about what was the worst thing we had ever done to Feel Free in our 16 years of ownership. Later, in the underwater inspection, I discovered she was at least 20 pounds lighter as a result of the removal of a grapefruit sized lump of lead from the bottom of the keel.

 On that day, we were one of four boats heading west. In addition to High Spirits were the Australian boat Santana, eight miles ahead and the British flagged Crazy Daisy, two miles behind (seen here later in the day).

One hour into our trip, Santana called to advise that they too had gone aground in soft mud behind a reef and were able to free themselves without assistance. Kevin of Santana suggested as best he could how we might negotiate the murky water where they grounded, but an hour later, Dave from High Spirits radioed us to report he too had gone aground in that same area. Unbelievable that within three hours, three boats had hit the bottom!

News of High Spirits taking the ground was enough to send me up the mast to see if the route through this reefy maze was more discernible from a position of height. It was despite the somewhat murky water that the reefs could be spotted from my position on the spreaders some 20 feet above the deck. Bob of Crazy Daisy, a boat with a five foot draft, quickly saw the benefits of following a boat drawing eight feet, Feel Free, and tucked in immediately behind us as we wended our way through, and Crazy Daisy was the only boat of the four not to touch bottom that day.

By 1500 hours we had covered 39 stressful miles, either rocking and rolling in six to nine foot seas or dodging coral in flat but shallow waters behind an increasing number of large reefs. We were constantly inputting waypoints into the GPS, checking our progress and our position. One of us was always watching for white water breaking on shoals all around us. Each one was noted and its location on our charts checked. We needed to know exactly where we were and what we were looking at. Besides that, our autopilots were still on the blink so Liz became our human autopilot while I scampered up and down the mast, using a hand held radio to communicate with her “port 20 degrees” or “starboard 10” or whatever.

Surrounding us was a picturesque panorama of traditional sailing canoes tacking to and fro and idyllic, picture perfect villages but we were just too occupied to enjoy them or even get the camera out.

It was an exhausting, nerve wracking day but it put us over the hump. The following day, only 20 miles away, was Nargana and the rest of our time in the San Blas would be sailing behind the extensive reef system which promised mostly flat water sailing and flat water anchorages. Hallelujah! We were definitely ready for that.