I should have been wary of sailing to Lighthouse Reef atoll after our inauspicious departure. Four adventure-minded but mostly inexperienced sailors had joined me in San Pedro, Belize, aboard my 44-foot steel ketch. We were bound for the Bay Islands of Honduras with a planned stop at Lighthouse Reef, home of the famed Blue-Hole dive spot. It was early February and an uncharacteristically cold northwest wind was sweeping across Belize. Northers (cold fronts) rarely reach that far south.
We were headed southeast, and the wind was ideal, if we could just clear the harbor.
We enjoyed a rollicking 50-mile sail out to the atoll as the winds and seas built throughout the day. Fortuna handles well in heavy going and we averaged six knots under mizzen and staysail. By late afternoon we had the pass at Half Moon Cay in sight. The sparkling turquoise shallows inside the atoll promised a respite from the angry Caribbean. We carefully navigated through the reef-lined pass and found a secure anchorage in 12 feet of water. There were pockets of coral all around us. The setting was both enchanting and eerie. Half Moon Cay is a postcard-perfect tropical island with a covering of palm and gumbo-limbo trees and a weathered lighthouse on the eastern end. The wind was shrieking through the rigging, and the seas were exploding majestically along the reef. Yet, Fortuna was snug, lying to a heavy fisherman's anchor with an all-chain rode payed out to a 10:1 scope. The only other vessel in sight was the rusted wreck of an island freighter stranded on the reef, a silent reminder that help was a long way away and foolish mistakes were not long tolerated.
Small waves were lifting the bow causing the hull forward to grind on the reef. I silently offered thanks to whatever gods there are that look after a steel hull. Once I had my bearings in the inky blackness I determined the direction toward the deeper water where we had been anchored. I was surprised and dismayed at how disoriented I had become. Unfortunately, since the lighthouse wasn't working and the unlit spire was only just visible, it was difficult to maintain accurate bearings. I lost valuable time by trying to motor off the reef. I gunned the engine forward and backward, rocking the boat to and fro, but it was no use—she was stuck. Finally, the engine overheated.
"It looks like we better get a kedge out," said the late Dr. Dave Morrison. Dave, a long-time friend and frequent shipmate, was the one experienced sailor among the crew. I immediately realized that he was right, I should have set a kedge first thing. What was I thinking?
A kedge is simply a word for an anchor that is deployed when you are aground. Kedging is the process of hauling in on that anchor in attempt to float the boat. Before we could set a kedge, we had to launch the dinghy. We lost more valuable time dragging the Zodiac out of the lazzarette and inflating it. As this was taking place, Dave hauled in the slack primary anchor rode and began flaking the spare rode on the foredeck, preparing it to run without a hitch. We then tossed the dinghy overboard and I rowed to the bow.
Dave suggested that we set the lighter, Deep Set Danforth with an all-rope rode first knowing that it would be much easier for me to row with that anchor in the dinghy than with the heavy fisherman and all-chain rode. I decided not to use the small outboard motor because in my one other kedging experience I had fouled the prop of the outboard and even when it was operational found that I could track better with the oars. Also, it is better to leave the dinghy transom clear for anchoring maneuvers. Dave handed down the anchor and a huge pile of three-quarter-inch three-strand line.
As I began to row into the wind, it was apparent that we had dragged onto the reef leading with our stern quarter. This was good and bad news. At least we could set the kedge off the bow and use the bow rollers as guides and the windlass for leverage. However, the engine is usually more effective in reverse when trying to free the boat, and now our only hope of getting off the reef was bow first. I rowed until all 200 feet of the rode was lying in the water and then after a quick check to make sure that the anchor was not wrapped around anything, including my ankle, I plopped it over the dinghy's stern. Dave waited for it to hit the bottom and then took in the slack. It didn't bite. The thin sand over the limestone bottom kept the Danforth from taking hold. I had learned from experience and from talking with local fishermen that a fisherman-style anchor, locally called "da hook," was the best anchor for Belize bottoms. After a second try with the same result, we switched to the fisherman. At this point I was exhausted and very concerned with our situation. Finally the kedge was set at an angle of about 30 degrees off the bow, and I rowed back to the boat.
The crew had been trying to raise other vessels or shore stations on the VHF radio, but silence and static were the only responses. We started to haul in on the windlass and felt the rode draw tight, like a guitar string, and the boat eased ahead. I fired up the engine and raised the main and mizzen to heel the boat. After gaining about five hard-won feet, the kedge dragged again.
During this process I kept checking the bilge, making sure that we were not taking in water. Obviously, the last thing you want to do is haul your boat into deep water if the hull has been holed. The hull was intact, but the grinding and thumping was horrible to endure. It is strange the emotions you feel during a crisis like this. On one hand I felt like I had betrayed my boat and crew and on the other I also felt horrible that I was responsible for destroying precious coral. I had to make a conscious effort not to sink into a deep funk; at that moment I needed clear thinking and positive action, not self-pitying introspection.
We tried and tried to haul the boat over that last hump, but she was not budging. The wind had finally eased, the front had clearly past, so working from the dinghy to reset the kedges wasn't quite as laborious as earlier in the evening. Around 0200, I told the crew to gather their valuables. I had decided to begin unloading supplies from the boat to Half Moon Cay to lighten the ship—it seemed like our only hope if we were to save the boat ourselves. I had no confidence that any other vessels were headed our way, especially given the recent blustery weather. As we began the process and I was already planning to run one of the kedge line to the masthead to really heel the boat, Dave noticed that the wind had shifted from the northwest to the east. We decided to give kedging one more try.
We hoisted the number one genoa and reset the kedges. The boat was heeling in the opposite direction and felt like it might just slide past the coral hump. I fired up the engine and we began to pull for all we were worth. Nothing—the damned boat would not move. The rodes were taut and I was worried that if they parted they could be lethal, although it was much more likely the anchors would drag long before that. Suddenly we lurched forward and then, miraculously, we shot ahead—we were floating! We cheered and then quickly doused the sails and throttled back the engine; we didn't want to sail right back onto a reef. I longed for daylight to see other lurking heads. We shorted up scope on both anchors, although maintaining a scope of near 10:1, until we were secure in about 10 feet of water.
Sitting in the cockpit, we were all exhausted, both mentally and physically. Still, nobody was ready to head below and we all greeted the sun a couple hours later.
Eight Thoughts on Kedging
1. We were lucky that the anchorage was fairly well protected and despite having dragged, we were not driven farther and farther onto the reef by large, crashing waves. This is often the case when you drag onto a lee shore. In that instance, and in ours, the sooner you set the kedge the better, although it is much harder to set when aground on a dangerous lee shore.
2. You should try to kedge the boat off in the opposite direction in which you went aground. It is almost always the most direct path to deep water.
3. Rowing the kedge anchor out is usually better than using an outboard. Rowing keeps the dinghy transom clear. Hard dinghies are better for kedging emergencies than inflatables.
4. It really helped our situation when we set two kedges, about 45 degrees apart and created a back-and-forth, wriggling motion. It was an instant improvement over just trying to muscle the boat forward.
5. Extra large snatch blocks are quite useful aboard, especially when kedging off. By attaching one block directly to the anchor chain or rode, you can run another line, creating a handy-billy and significantly increase your purchase.
6. Once the kedge is set, take time to analyze the situation. Work methodically. It is amazing what you can accomplish if you take it step by step and keep a positive attitude.
7. Make sure that the hull has not been holed—this is critical. If the boat has been holed, try to determine if it will sink or stay more or less where it is. More lives are lost trying to abandon a grounded vessel than during the storm that drives it onto the rocks in the first place. Stay with the boat until conditions warrant leaving.
8. Heeling the boat over can really help. In addition to the sails, you can also run the kedge line to the masthead to accentuate the heel. Also, if you have a hard dinghy you can fill it with water and suspend it from the spinnaker pole for a heeling lever.
In our age of wide-spread towing insurance and instant communications, it's easy to think that you will never need to kedge your boat off. This is a flawed assumption, especially if you plan to cruise beyond US waters. Have a plan in mind along with the right gear.