Earlier this season, we encountered an unexpected microburst storm in Eleuthera, Bahamas, which produced 78 knots of wind while at anchor. It was very scary to go through, I am not afraid to admit. In fact, it has taken me several months to write about this experience because we came way too close to losing our boat on the rocks.
This past season in the Bahamas has been a series of storms, one right after the other. Every few days, you move and re-anchor depending on the direction of the next storm, in order to be well protected. We have a Rocna 25 (55 lbs.) with an all chain rode; attached with about 40 feet of 1/2 line in case we have to cut it quickly and tie a fender on to later retrieve. Our secondary anchor is a Fortress with a length of chain and long rode.
Once leaving Great Harbour Cay, which is our Bahamian home port, we spent some time at anchor in the outer Berry Islands and to wait for a settled weather window to sail to Eleuthera. We needed calm seas to travel to Spanish Wells, located at the top of Eleuthera. We knew a westerly storm was coming, so we researched protected anchorages near Spanish Wells. Royal Island seemed like the best choice. Charts said that “holding is variable,” however, reviews on Active Captain were very favorable for this location.
We were the first boat to arrive, so we had our pick of this beautiful anchorage. We decided to minimize the fetch by entering the well-marked channel and heading west to anchor. We had about 10:1 scope and backed down on our anchor to make sure we held. We dove on our anchor to verify we were well set in the sand. Oddly, we noticed the presence of silt over the sand, which is very unusual for the Bahamas. We later learned that a failed resort construction project had dumped a large amount of debris into the anchorage.
Other boats soon joined us to ride out the storm, too. We had a nice day or two to sight see by dinghy, swim, and enjoy this pretty location. Here are a few of my photos from before the storm.
This was a long storm, I remember. Before it was over, we held anchor watch for 2-3 nights total. I remember the winds for most of the storm being between 30-55 knots.
To make a long story short, when the winds got high enough, our anchor did not hold. This was the one and only time over the past two years where our Rocna did not hold securely. Too late, we realized that under the silt and sand, there was muck layer that our Rocna sliced through with high enough winds.
We were not alone in dragging- most the boats in this anchorage dragged their anchor, too. Of course, it figures that Murphy’s Law dictates your anchor drags in the middle of the night when it is pitch black. Add to that scenario many boats did not seem to have anchor lights on. It was crazy. Also, the winds were shifting directions throughout the storm.
At one point during a wind shift in the dark, our anchor let go, then tried to regrip the bottom. We could shine our light and see the rocks getting closer on the lee shore. Not good. We had the engine on to stay off the rocks and we deployed our secondary anchor, which in hindsight was a huge mistake.
Some lessons are best learned after the storm subsides. During a crisis, you are stressed, tired, and frankly, may not be operating on all cylinders. Poor decisions are compounded and next thing you know, you find yourself in a precarious situation. In our case, the Fortress fouled everything- the primary anchor, the keel and the prop.
The Fortress then dug in, and in the dark, held up sideways to the high wind, just off the rocks. Thank God we were set- and daylight was only a few hours away. Neighboring sailboats later said our rigging was screaming in the high wind, but we couldn’t hear it. I went below to check on Ethan, make sure he was still wearing his PFD, and reassure him. He was a trooper during the whole ordeal.
At first light, Joe snorkeled down to assess the situation. It was not good. We knew from radar reports that a nasty band of red (meaning extreme weather) was going to hit the anchorage about 9 am, so we needed to get everything unfouled. Problem was that the fouled rode of the Fortress was dug in nicely, while our Rocna was not. Those rocks on the lee shore were looking closer by the minute.
Just as Joe came up for air, a dinghy approached and 2 guys asked if they could assist. These were two wonderful young men, Danny and Frank from the French-Canadian catamaran, S/V Narval. Danny and Frank had dive equipment on board, so they brought them over, and carefully reset the Rocna, then unfouled the Fortress. This was actually more complicated than you would think, since the Fortress was really fouled on everything. These two amazing, young men from Montreal, saved our boat, saved us, and are heroes in my book!
They finished about a half hour before the microburst arrived. Several boats in the anchorage saw winds in excess of 78 knots as the worst of the storm hit. For all my non-sailing friends, that is hurricane force winds. Pretty scary stuff!
Here is a video shot during the microburst of a boat anchored in front of us. Video taken from Narval:
We had the motor running and the throttle forward to counteract the high winds and remain in place. We did not drag! Once again, thanks to the crew of S/V Narval! We later talked to them and offered them money. These heroes refused and instead did accept 2 bottles of wine as a thank you.
This scary ordeal provided Joe and I many opportunities to learn. We made errors, but we have certainly learned from them.
Anchoring Lessons: We learned quite a few anchoring lessons. So many, they could be a post unto themselves. We added our secondary anchor as an emergency measure, which in hindsight was a mistake.
Royal Island Anchorage- As the chart indicates, holding is variable. The holding was rather deceptive with the silt and sand over muck. Active Captain reports online were not for storm conditions.
If we were to ride out a storm again in Royal Island, we would do it by heading for the better holding east of the entrance channel, not west. It can get rather shallow there, but holding is better in this location. Better yet, if we had to do it again, we would have paid the $$ and gone into Yacht Haven at Spanish Wells. We had assumed they would be full, but in later talking to Treadwell (marina dockmaster), they had plenty of room for the storm. If in doubt, call.
Lesson: If someone anchors too close, call them and chat. We had a situation where the wind shifted, causing our chain rode to curve at a 90 degree right angle. Another boat came and anchored nearby, not realizing that once the wind picked up, our anchor would straighten out and they were in our swing. We instead reanchored, and our holding was not as solid as we thought since we later drug.
Lesson: We also changed where we anchor in a storm. We now intentionally anchor at the back of the pack, with lots of scope out and in better holding. No worries about boats too close. A month later, we encountered 55 knots storm at Rock Sound, Eleuthera, and did not drag.
Lesson: Learn how to dive for self rescue. This summer, during hurricane season, I plan to take diving lessons and buy a hookah set up for 2 reasons: self rescue and cleaning the bottom of the boat. Cruising is all about being self reliant.
Lesson: Learn how to safely deploy a secondary anchor without fouling anything. This is what got us in trouble. Once your prop is fouled, you lose the ability to manuver and stay off the lee shore.
Other lessons- yes, we learned many other lessons during this storm. A few have been too painful to write about, and there was one incident where Joe got injured during the storm. Luckily, thanks to our fellow cruisers for all their support during this storm, especially the wonderful crew of S/V Narval.
Many other boats during this storm were very helpful- S/V Sunshine also came by to say they had dive equipment, S/V Jalu helped with radio support and flashing their spotlight in the dark. Many other boats were also helpful, so thank you! Cruisers are the best!
If you are curious as to how we did post-storm, I did write a post here.