Sailing in the Bahamas: Beautiful . . . and DangerousSAFETY — By Vicki Lathom on May 14, 2011 at 01:11
By guest writer Vicki Lathom. Feature photo © Vicki Lathom.
Not often do I see a view that takes my breath away—one that makes me want to pinch myself and say, this can’t be real. That was my reaction to seeing the Atlantic Ocean from the Abaco Inn in the Bahamas. Barry and I looked at the view, and then looked at each other, and then back at the view . . . and did a movie embrace. This place is too beautiful.
The winter of 2010 was our first trip to the Bahamas. Sailing a boat from the United States to the exotic islands of the Bahamas is considered by sailors to be one of the “great adventures.” However, since I’ve sailed 40 years in Chesapeake Bay, to Maine from Annapolis, and by bareboat in Greece and the Caribbean, I was pretty cynical about what the Bahamas had to offer.
Looking out over the Atlantic from this inn near Hope Town on Elbow Cay, I was cured of all doubt. Other than the dramatic beauty and the angry wallowing of crossing the Gulf Stream, my feeling of being in the Abacos was much like that of a puppy in a den with its mother.
But I was reminded that paradise found can become paradise lost when I heard about a boating tragedy that occurred a few miles down the coast from this beautiful view. The view that took my breath away had turned to purgatory one night in November.
As part of a 65-boat fleet, a Jeanneau 45 sloop named Rule 62 left from Hampton, Va., on November 8, 2010. The fleet was making its annual Caribbean 1500 passage to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. The boats that make this trip are all equipped with transponders to monitor their progress and safety over the 1,500 miles.
From the beginning, the fleet met fatiguing conditions and gale force winds of up to 50 miles per hour. The event had already been delayed by a week to wait out Hurricane Tomas, but the seas were still stirred up when they left. Halfway into the trip, Rule 62 radioed that it was leaving the fleet and making for the Bahamas and probably shelter. Theories about this change in course range from boat damage to illness or fatigue.
Recreational boaters seldom enter the Bahamas from the east off the ocean because there are not many friendly inlets. Rage conditions are frequent where a large body of water such as the Atlantic funnels into a smaller area such as the Sea of Abaco. Even to navigate the two most-used inlets—Man-O-War and Whale—requires constant checking of local conditions. It’s not unusual to have to wait a week for a window.
Nevertheless, Rule 62 probably had no choice of inlets that Saturday night and forged ahead in the dark, attempting a virtually unknown entrance into the Abacos near Lynyard Cay.
As a long-time sailor who’s been in stormy conditions, I can imagine such a scene and the helpless horror of it. It’s 8 p.m. and the boat and crew are on their own, desperately searching for sanctuary from the hell around them. The shore line and so-called inlet are nothing but white foam and breaking rollers. There are no buoys. At the helm, the captain cannot distinguish between water and reefs. The boat grinds onto a shoal and a 20-foot wave arches over, rising higher than the spreaders; a wall of blackness. Chaos, and the crew spills into the dark, cold water of a November Atlantic.
To me this is the stuff of nightmares, of being in the dark and in danger but powerless to do anything. Such as the time the headlights on my car went out while I was driving on a narrow rural road at eleven at night and there were no street or house lights.
Or, as a 12-year-old accidentally getting out beyond the breakers, when my attempt to get ashore was going nowhere and no one heard me calling for help.
Or the time my husband and I misjudged how long it would take to get from Solomon’s Island to Annapolis, Md. We ended up fighting to keep our sloop from going aground in a two-hour nighttime squall at the entrance of the Choptank River.
These events did not end in tragedy, but I know they could have—as in the case of Rule 62.
The official Coast Guard report of the fate of Rule 62 states that the boat made a radio check at 1900, reporting a position near the Bahamas. Two hours later, the Coast Guard reported that the boat’s transponder showed that the vessel had stopped moving. Three of the crew of four were airlifted to safety; one person was never found.
In all the blogging and Internet threads theorizing about this sinking, no one could understand why the number one rule of sailing had been ignored: never, never go into an inlet in the dark. No matter how sick the crew is and how desperate they are for land, a boat in this situation must stay out at sea until daybreak.
Could anything justify the seeming suicide of attempting what Rule 62 did?
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Vicki Lathom has been a writer and sailor for 40 years. She retired from being director of public information for Montgomery County, Md., in 1996, and went to work for Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer as his speechwriter. Vicki has also done freelance travel writing and photography for such publications as SAIL and Maryland Magazine. She is currently a writing instructor for two graduate schools at the University of Maryland. Her higher education has been in journalism and public administration.