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Old 09-28-2007
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Women at Sea

Women at Sea
“Force 10 and Alone”

Carol Pieniadz, “Spirit Guide” (IP32-20)

Everything happens for a reason.  I keep telling myself that little pearl of wisdom and now that I am back home in Florida I can almost believe it.  But during my trip down the ICW last fall and winter it was really very difficult to swallow that wisdom.  While moving north out of the hurricane zone and complying with the insurance company’s geographical requirements, I experienced one of the most physically challenging and mentally exhausting times.

"I thought about dropping the second anchor, but found myself resisting. "

I had little incentive to depart from Pocomoke, MD and head south any earlier than November.  My insurance required I stay above 35 degrees north until the 1st of December and by my calculations it would only take about a week to drop that far south.   After several months tied to a dock I set out with the tide around noon on November 1st for a leisurely motor down the Pocomoke River to anchor for the night in Pocomoke Sound.  It was a short days travel, but at that time of year the sun was setting early.  The weather forecast called for winds 10-18 knots out of NNE and I was anticipating a nice beam’s reach across the bay to Deltaville, VA in the morning.   I awoke the next day to sustained winds of 26 knots, which increased throughout the day.  So much for a gentle break in period!  I crossed the bay in small craft warning conditions averaging six knots with the jib alone.  Waves at 4 to 6 feet sent spray over the dodger and into the cockpit and air temperature was in the 50‘s.

By mid November I was ready to continue south and left Deltaville heading for Norfolk.  Everything happens for a reason.  I got a late start and motored into a headwind all day.   With a forecast for near gale force winds by evening I changed plans and headed into Mobjack Bay instead of Norfolk.   I traveled farther up the East River than on previous occasions and was glad to have done so.  That night winds were 35 knots for me but in Norfolk they were clocked at 70 knots.  More by the luck of over sleeping than planning, I missed being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But my luck was not going to last and five days later I found myself alone watching as winds over 50 knots made the water surface look like it was steaming.   

There was a strong 20 knot breeze when I departed Pungo Ferry for the Alligator River, and the forecast was for gale force winds by that night.  Planning to anchor in South Lake on the east side of the river to ride out the gale, I was already out of the sound and into the river when I realized my set waypoints were for my usual anchoring spot just off the channel to the west.  I found the waypoint for the entrance to East and South Lakes, which are off the east side of the river and entered it into the GPS.  The light was fading and I had about 30 minutes to sunset.  In the fading light I could not see the entrance to the lakes, but trusted in the GPS - a  big mistake.  When entering the waypoints I had accidentally changed the N to S.  By the time I recognized my error and turned north I could not make headway against the wind and waves and had to beat my way back north.  

It was dark as I entered the common channel to the lakes, too dark to really distinguish the shoreline.  While I have the Cap’n Voyager for planning on my laptop, the laptop is not visible at the helm.  I made my way slowly into South Lake watching depth soundings closely and using the Garmin 76Map to give me some reference to the snake like shoreline.  My first choice of anchorage was occupied by a powerboat without an anchor light.  Not good.  I finally dropped the hook with 100 feet of chain followed by 200 feet of nylon in a spot that I hoped would not give me too much fetch and gave me plenty of room to drag.  

I thought about dropping the second anchor, but found myself resisting.  I had never had the occasion that required two anchors and had never done this procedure with a crew person aboard, let alone solo. The wind was already blowing in the 30’s and with such total darkness the gut just said, “Don’t do it.”  However, I did pull the 2nd anchor’s chain and nylon from the locker and coiled it on deck for rapid deployment.

Finding three bearing points for anchor watch was not possible.  There were no houses, lighted channel markers or other reliable points of reference.  It was uninhabited dark.  I set the GPS anchor alarm but have never had faith with that system.  Before turning in for the night, I took my other GPS and entering my current position and set the instrument to navigate to that point.  By looking at my distance to waypoint I expected to get an early warning of any anchor drag.

" God answered my prayers and the winds starting dropping within the hour.  "

How do you sleep when you are alone at anchor and the wind is rising?  The answer to that question is “not very well.”   I knew that rest and sleep were essential but I was afraid I would not hear the anchor alarm.  I was also worried about waking up disoriented and not being able to react quickly.  I always have one salon light equipped with a red LED.  That night I moved it to the bunk and left it burning all night.  Sleep was easier and red light gave enough illumination to read the GPS.  I set a timer to ring hourly.  My sleep was light and I woke easily and looked at the distance to waypoint on GPS.  Finding that distance repeatedly at less than 50 feet was very reassuring.  At first I went out into the cockpit to check the wind speed but after a while I just listen to the sound the rigging made.  And so the night went until about 4 a.m. when the winds seemed to settle into the low 40’s and I set the alarm clock instead of the timer and enjoyed a nice three-hour nap.  

The following day I had my first look at my anchoring choice.   In the light of day I could clearly see I should have anchored farther to the north closer to the tree line.  My perception of distance and proximity to the power boat anchored in that general area, as well as the distance between shorelines, had me err on the side of caution.  My penance for arriving after dark was to endure the waves constantly rolling down on me.  The motion of the boat was not comfortable, but bearable.  Winds increased throughout the day to 40-45 knots and with heavy rainfall.   Spirit Guide danced on her anchor and rolled in the increasing waves but never dragged.  I went to bed that night feeling comfortable that my anchor was holding and a forecast projecting the gale would blow itself out soon.  

I was too tired from the prior two days to do anything but sleep well and deeply that second night.  But I went from comfortably relaxed to near panic when I reached for the GPS and found the distance to destination was 200 feet.  Rushing to the cockpit, a quick visual confirmed that I had indeed dragged.  It was no longer raining and I was mesmerized by the sight of foam and mist falling off the top of the waves.  I expect that the heavy rainfall had dampened that particular sight the day before.   Wind speed was now 52 knots.  I had slept comfortably thinking I had reached the height of the storm.  Now with about only 100 feet astern to the shoreline I became concerned for the first time that I might be in trouble.

Re-anchoring in that much wind alone would not be easy and could prove dangerous alone.  I considered dropping the second anchor but was not sure of the continued depth of the 100 feet astern.  Since all my anchor rode was played out I would need to motor forward to drop and set the second anchor.  The deck was too unstable for moving rapidly with any degree of safety.  I began considering ways of dropping the second anchor, which was not on the windlass, while I remained at the helm driving forward.  Deciding that breakfast and coffee were the first priority I mulled over the situation and said a prayer for conditions to improve.  God answered my prayers and the winds starting dropping within the hour.  By 9 a.m. winds were abating, by 11 a.m. winds were at 10-15 knots and by noon I was traveling south again.  

Given what happened I could have spent two days tied up at Coinjock and lost a day’s travel but been well rested after the storm.  Hindsight is always 20/20.  I have learned a number of things from this experience.  First, I can survive a full gale by myself without panic or fear.   Second, I’m going to have to practice setting and retrieving two anchors alone in calm conditions.  Next, I’m thinking about a buying or making an anchor kellet and using it routinely.  I have already sewn an anchor sail.  And finally, I’m going to find an insurance company who will permit me to drop down to 31N before the high winds of November.  


Please feel free to visit Carol’s blog at www.sailblogs.com/member/spiritguide .

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