Tropical Waves, and Hairy Moments At Glover's
Southwest Cay, Glover Reef, Belize
By Bernadette Bernon
16 45.707 N 87 47.001 W
July 6, 2001
Almost every night this week my dreams have included images of someone pouring water on my head, or spraying a hose in my face, or dropping me off a bridge into the water. Invariably, I awaken at those moments to find rain coming in the hatch over our V-berth and Douglas sleeping soundly beside me, soaked. I awaken him, and then there's the mad dash to close hatches and ports as powerful squalls pass over, usually packing winds anywhere from 25 to 35 knots. This has become our routine.
For the past couple of weeks, especially while we've been out at Glover Reef, an atoll 25 miles off mainland Belize, we've kept our eyes on the morning weather faxes, which display the positions of three successive tropical waves that developed, one after another, moving west through the Caribbean, and signaling the start of hurricane season. They're of particular concern as they sometimes shepherd in days of convection: heavy winds, thunderstorms, and lightning. It would be nice to have a bit more protection against such conditions when they hit, but many of the islands of Belize are so small that they offer marginal harbors of refuge. This is the good and the bad side of cruising here—good because the islands are so pretty and isolated that you often have them all to yourself, bad because at this time of year you can be seriously exposed.
Last night, around 2:00 a.m., the same rain-squall scenario took place, and after we'd closed the hatches and set up the water-catchment hoses, we felt the squall deepen, then pass by, so we both went back to bed and dropped off to a fitful sleep. There's almost no protection at Southwest Cay, one of the three teeny islands at Glover Reef, where we anchored Ithaka more than a quarter of a mile off the beach to avoid the mosquitos. Like Banco Chinchorro off the coast of Yucatán Mexico, the whole of Glover atoll is an exposed, mid-ocean, submerged mountaintop, and you rely on the fringe of reef around its edges to break the swell, while you hide as best as you can behind the small islands, hoping for a benign and consistent wind direction.
But last night, another squall followed the first one, and at around 3 a.m. all hell broke loose. Instead of passing over and dying down, as they usually do, this new one seemed to stall, then intensify; the wind speed rose to 50 knots, gusting more; the waves built and broke around us, then we suddenly clocked around 180 degrees when a second squall line hit. The boat's motion was absolutely chaotic; we churned and tossed like a cork in a washing machine. And then, frighteningly, the lightning and thunderclaps became almost simultaneous, which meant the bolts were striking not far from where we sat. With each strike, for seconds, our surroundings were illuminated, and whitewater surged around the boat. Thinking of the pressure on our anchor, I was afraid we'd drag in the darkness. I knew Douglas feared the same. Behind us was the massive coral shelf, its jagged staghorns and brains reaching up just below the surface—a lethal combination for sliding in reverse, out of control, in this dark wind.
Douglas and I agreed that we should start the engine, just in case we dragged, but at that moment we didn't have a chance. There was an explosion of noise, a wild new screaming and a beating that seemed to shake Ithaka to her core. I thought for a split second that we'd actually been hit by lightning or by some enormous object in the water, but that couldn't be because the roaring noise continued. Then we saw it. Our roller-furling genoa, around which we always take several extra wraps at the headstay, had become unfurled. It was flailing and kicking and the boat pitched and hurled dangerously on her rode, because in fact we were sailing at anchor, and the pressure was threatening to uproot us.
We wanted to wind the genoa back in, but the furling line, which had come off its winch and loose from its clutch cleat, had flogged and tangled itself so tightly around a lifeline that we couldn't get the bitter end free enough to wrap it back around a winch. To make matters worse, the genoa sheets were stored by being wound around their own self-tailing winches, out of the way, but also serving to keep the sail sheeted in tight and full to bursting with the powerful wind! I finally freed the genoa sheets, while Douglas grabbed a knife, cut the furling line from its hornet's nest of knots, and with sheer strength held onto it long enough to take a wrap around the self-tailing winch. Adrenalin and terror helped us crank it back in.
Finally, we were able to start the engine and tried to assess in the blackness and roaring wind if, after all that, our anchor still held. We didn't think right away to use radar to check our position relative to Southwest Cay, but next time (next time?) we'll do that immediately. With the genoa in, Ithaka fell back against her anchor rode and I listened for the groaning and stretching of the snubber. It seemed to take an eternity, but when I finally did, it was sweet music. Finally, we were riding steadily. Exhausted, Douglas went below to check the instruments and set up the anchor-alarm mode on our GPS, while we waited for the squall to peter out, which took another two hours. This was the most wind I've ever been in, and I couldn't have imagined, before this, how it would have felt. Now I know. My legs trembled for an hour.
We talked about the lessons this episode had taught us. First, we hadn't adequately secured our furling line. It had been held by its rope-clutch cleat, which wasn't enough; the lever had slipped open or had been inadvertently knocked open too easily. We'd gone to bed without ensuring that the furling line also was wrapped securely in the jaws of the self-tailing winch. Better yet, it should have been tied around a cleat. Next, we had neither an emergency knife nor flashlight in the cockpit, and Douglas had to dive below to fetch them, wasting precious seconds. Finally, we hadn't turned on our GPS anchor alarm, which could have provided useful information had we dragged.
As dawn broke on a calmer morning, we looked toward the island and noticed a sailboat hard aground in the shallows just off the beach. Harold from Sea Camp, who'd also held well during the blow, and Douglas both jumped in the dinghies and motored over to see how they could help. The boat was Pirata; we'd met David several months ago at Chinchorro Bank in Mexico. Despite hours of effort to kedge Pirata off, she was firmly aground in three feet of water. David was fortunate to be able to hire a local dive boat with a pair of 225-hp engines that still had to strain to pull him free. He was lucky he hadn't dragged in a slightly different direction, or he'd have been on the reef.
If these are the conditions surrounding a tropical wave, we decided reluctantly, as much as we loved being out at Glover's and diving its magnificent coral beds over the past weeks, it was probably time to seek better shelter. This has been one of the richest reefs I've ever snorkeled. We've spent hours swimming through the shallow labyrinths thick with thriving coral: olive-green trumpets rising up, intricate brains, giant staghorns, chorus lines of pink and purple fans sashaying in the current, boas of gold feathers, great chocolate gorilla fingers of furry coral reaching toward the sunshine from the white sand. And among these wonderful formations were countless tropical fish: schools of blue tang, colorful parrotfish, speckled trunkfish, angels of every color, curious squids with their iridescent gauzy capes speckled with neon spots, nurse sharks asleep in the crevasses, manta and eagle rays soaring by. All of them were close enough to reach out and touch.
It will be hard to pull ourselves away from such a rich underwater world. But it appears the weather window for Glover's is closing. Last night reminded us the seasons are changing, dramatically now, and we need to be heading back inside the relative protection of the barrier reef, closer to shelter should the weather-faxes tell us trouble's brewing. It's time to go.