There are Many Things to be Anxious About When Cruising
Learning to sail a boat. Leaving the safety of home. Crossing borders. Meeting new people. I’ve felt all these excitements and anxieties since we took off on this voyage in April of 2022.
And then there’s real fear. Mine crops up before a long sail across a wide expanse of water.
When I started writing in my journal about my responses to each day of cruising, I didn’t describe the way I really felt about crossings. How embarrassing. This is what I wanted to do. I have an idea that all my cruising and sailing friends are more experienced and fearless. If I come clean they will say, ‘why is she out there if she’s so afraid?’
Leaving Our Berry Island Paradise
So many of my posts here on Tidal Life could start with this image of a beautiful, threatening sky. Weather rules the sailor’s life. Have I mentioned this before? It probably will come up again, because getting caught halfway across in bad weather or raging seas is my biggest fear.
Every combination of weather pattern, geography, and what you want the boat to do, brings a different experience. I try to keep it interesting when I write about it. It’s certainly interesting to live through..
We had great weather for exploring the Berry Islands. Remote, beautiful, glorious clear water, sensational snorkeling. But when it came time to cross from the remotest section of The Berries to Nassau, we had no data connection. We could only rely on the last forecast we’d seen the day before. That had suggested calm winds and two foot seas. Rain and T-storms might move in about 3 PM, but by that time, we’d be in port.
But the only constant is change. Nowhere is this more true than in weather forecasting. We woke to a thunderstorm. It blew and poured when we should have been raising anchor. An hour later, the storm had moved past, and the sky was blue. The weather forecast we’d seen showed this was the day to go, otherwise we’d be stuck at Bond’s Cay with bigger storms for the next week. So we headed out at 7:30, hoping for the best.
The narrow passage out lay between two rocks. The charts advised making this move on a favorable tide. In our case, that meant the outgoing tide, with the current flowing out, helping us on our way. But the wait for the storm to pass meant the tide was coming back in. We would motor against the current, much slower.
The Boat Is Designed to Do This
When a lot of water tries to get through a narrow opening, big waves can build up. As Domino crashed up and down over each, I found myself overwhelmed by fear. What if the motor lost power, as it had the other day crossing the banks? What if we got swamped by green water over the bow? I wasn’t ready for this.
The motion of the boat was awful. We hoped it would settle down once we passed the inlet, but there were no guarantees. The skies suddenly looked ominous. Squalls were possible all the way across.
I took the pounding and the fear for a few minutes, mentally repeating my mantra – the boat is designed to do this, the boat is designed to do this.
Logic didn’t help. I decided I had to take physical action to avoid my anxiety and stress ramping up to an unhealthy level.
“I’m going to raise the jib.” I told Tom, moving the carabiner on my safety tether to the jackline, the security strap that runs along the deck to the bow.
“Are you sure?” he said.
“No. But we need it for stability and I can’t just sit here. I have to do something.” Forcing myself out to the side deck, I crept forward, crouching, scuttling, grabbing for handholds, stopping each time Domino crashed.
It was worse on the bow. Each downward plunge forced me to stop work and hold on as I went airborne, and the spray shot up over me. I was drenched before I removed a single sail tie.
It took quite a while to get everything organized. We can manage the sails from the cockpit once they are up. But we have to prep them by manually taking off their covers, and attaching their halyards, the lines that haul them aloft. We hadn’t expected to use the sails on this crossing, so now I had to work with one hand, between moments of holding on with both. I held the sail ties in my teeth.
The big takeaway was not how hard it was to prep the sail in these conditions. The big takeaway was that working physically to solve a problem took my mind off my fear. I made it back to the cockpit, drenched but triumphant. Then I heaved that sail up using adrenaline. Only after it was up did I turn to Tom, remove the ties from between my clenched teeth, and say,
“You know, you could have slowed the motor to reduce windage. That would have helped.”
Tom did one of those Homer Simpson forehead thumps.
“I was so busy watching you, worrying about you, and being proud of you, I totally forgot.”
The sail trimmed and ties stowed, fear vanquished, I settled into the cockpit, patted myself on the back, and enjoyed the crossing to Nassau. The seas were still big, but with the jib up, the motion was kinder. Squalls appeared now and then, but each passed without knocking us around.
That day felt bad before I took action, and much better after I took action.
Realizing this, I also realized that there will come a time when I cannot physically do anything to change the conditions, or the motion of the boat. In the vast range of waves I might encounter on the ocean, these were babies. How will I manage my fear when I face big ones, a lot of wind, or an actual crisis?
I will have to consult with my friend Jerome Rand, who sets himself outlandish challenges, like sailing non-stop around the world. He’s sailed in enormous seas, suffering knockdowns, starvation, and hypothermia. Which he wrote about in his unexpectedly upbeat book, Sailing Into Oblivion. I know Jerome copes with fear during his extreme adventures. But somehow he has always come out the other side and is a very chipper and fun person.
Check out his videos at the Sailing Into Oblivion YouTube channel, if you dare.
Now that I have told this whole sordid story, I’m forced to share the quote that frames this post:
Your fear is the most boring thing about you.Elizabeth Gilbert
Fear only ever tells you one thing: STOP.
Whereas creativity, courage and inspiration only ever want you to GO.
GO = motion = change = fascination = possibility = growth = LIFE.
STOP = well, nothing.
And nothing is always more boring than something.
So…go do something.
Liz, baby! Got any advice for those who go out, and do, and feel the fear anyway? I am never bored while scared shitless. So there’s that.
Looking at New Providence Island Through Fata Morgana
Once again, similar to our approach to Bimini, and then to Great Harbour Cay in the Berry Islands, the nature of the island ahead was unclear from the sea. And this time it wasn’t just that we didn’t realize how rocky The Bahamas are.
This time, we saw gigantic buildings that didn’t seem to fit this small island. We knew we’d see the towers of the Atlantis resort. But these were so tall. And what were the big white ones further west?
We were seeing an effect we always forget about until we see it again. An optical phenomenon called Fata Morgana. It’s named for the fairy Morgan of Arthurian legend, who could make castles float in mid-air.
Ships appear to hover above the surface of the sea, or to have higher, and weirdly shaped decks. Buildings loom absurdly tall above the horizon. Sometimes they also have a reflection. That’s what happened as we looked at New Providence Island. We could not tell what was ship, what was building, and what was beach. All we could do was watch, and hope that, as we got closer, something sensible would resolve out of this bewitched scene.
The Pirate Life
The sense of everything being topsy-turvy did not end when we arrived in Nassau Harbor.
Personally, I didn’t want to go to Nassau. My preference is for solitude, wilderness, and adventure, rather than crowds. The stories about Nassau focused on the tourist industry, and especially cruise ships. My picture of cruise ships was formed by the essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace. I think they are evil. But two things forced me to go to Nassau despite my misgivings:
- It was the best place to get provisions
- It lay between us and the Exumas, the string of small, remote islands that were our actual destination.
Turning in to Nassau’s entrance channel, our expectations went POOF once again. On a long, sandy beach, kids were swimming and playing on colorful water toys. A few boats bobbed at anchor. The waterfront town featured tropical colored buildings, bright red flowering trees, and music, music, music.
There was a cruise ship in the distance, but no hordes of tourists.
Most mind blowing of all, in this commercial harbor, the water was so clear that we could see individual starfish, shells, and blades of sea grass on the bottom ten feet below.
Okay, this might not be so bad.
It was late to start exploring a new town, but we wanted to get a brief look around this once-upon-a-time pirate capital. Interesting things had happened here. Most make-believe of all—Tom hoped this major port would have a sailmaker or rigger who could help us replace the batten we’d lost at sea.
Getting ashore in Nassau proved tricky. You can beach your dinghy at Junkanoo Beach, near the hotel, but there are no dinghy docks. We found a floating raft tied to the sea wall near the cruise ship dock, secured Wonderbaby to that, and climbed up to street level to go in search of a chandlery.
Though the islands were open to travel again, stores still required masks, so ours went on and off as we searched for boat things. No one had a stock of battens. Shipping one the size we needed was well out of range of our meager budget. So we switched to the realities of sight-seeing and provisioning. Old buildings are always my favorite part of any town. In Nassau, they are mostly painted sherbet colors.
Heading back to the dinghy with bags of booty, AKA a few things we could afford, we discovered another cruise ship had arrived and there were many more people in town. We put everything away, then reclined in the cockpit with our sundowner G & T’s to watch the scene, and bop to the very loud music emanating from a hotel down the beach.
At sunset, one ship broke out in raucous calliope music. A few minutes later, it slid toward us. We watched it creep closer and closer to the anchored boats. Then it stopped, seeming to just sit there. Perhaps the pilot had realized he was near a collision? Then slowly, slowly, the ship revolved in place. Surely its bow was going to hit the shore. Surely its stern—from which hung a giant Mickey Mouse in a too-big wizard’s outfit—was going to wipe out that catamaran? We didn’t take our eyes off this impending train wreck. And then the ship was gliding between us and the setting sun, and was gone.
In the morning, we watched four cruise ships arrive in the same seemingly impossible fashion. No passengers disembarked, though. That all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast kept them captive.. We enjoyed one quesadilla each and one cup of coffee each and were righteously satisfied. We vowed to stay out of the downtown area that day.
What Are You Going To Do For The Storm?
I read the text from our friend Jason to Tom.
We looked at each other.
My usual MO is to check the National Hurricane Center site every morning. For some reason, I hadn’t since we arrived in Nassau.
But it was June first, and just like clockwork, a tropical storm was on its way. Current projections had it hitting Nassau in about a week. So our planning switched from sight-seeing to serious storm prep.
We discussed whether to look for a hurricane hole in the Exumas, or stay put in town with the marinas and emergency services. We scoured the charts, looking for the best place to hide. Finally, we had to admit that there was no place we could get to in time that was any better than this. Plus, it would mean bypassing several islands we wanted to visit. So we resolved to stay in Nassau for a few more days.
Then, as is my habit, I went out on deck to gaze down into the clear water and see what the fish and squid were up to. I found our anchor laying directly below us, fully exposed, rather than dug into the sand where it should be.
Our plan shifted again. No sight-seeing yet. We had to get that anchor solidly set. Tom dove in to see why it had come loose. He was gone a long time and came back to report that the entire area was a sheet of rock with a dusting of sand over it. The anchor had never set correctly to begin with. We’d been lucky with a day of calm weather. We had to find better holding before things got nasty.
Tom ended up swimming the entire anchorage, while I hovered near in the dinghy for safety, dive flag flying. He finally found a sand pocket beside the ship channel. We’d wondered why all the other boats anchored out there. We stuck the hook in just as the sun was going down.
The next morning, Tom began the design process for a mooring to keep us secure during the coming storm. He’d found a piece of machinery on the bottom that would not move for any weather. We got out chains and ropes and floats and started putting things together. It took all day, diving over and over, but finally he had it all assembled. There was a juggling session when the dinghy, the big boat, and Tom in the water in dive gear, were all in play. I hopped from one vessel to the other, and back again, feeding lines over to him, anchoring, raising anchor, tying, releasing. It was Who’s On First with boats.
Life in Nassau—One Damned Thing After Another
With Domino secure on her new mooring, we went to dinner at Fish Fry Street, where a dozen small restaurants served local cuisine every night. We’d been listening to the music and smelling the wonderful smells. Each tiny restaurant was different, with wild colors and creative decor. Though the menus seemed similar, each chef claimed a unique style. In the end, we chose the one with the friendliest barker.
In The Bahamas, conch is on every menu. Piles of conch shells grace every town. We’d shared a serving of conch on our first day in Nassau. It was very good. Then we learned that the singular focus of tourists on eating this one dish has critically endangered the Queen Conch.
In order to reproduce, conch require a cohort of 50 adults. Throughout The Bahamas, we never saw more than a couple of live adults in any one place. What we saw was thousands of broken, empty shells littering beaches and the bottoms of bays.
We’d already decided never to eat conch again. We had fish instead, which Bahamians serve whole. It was good, the music was fun, and we returned to the boat pretty happy.
The happiness died the next morning when the head wouldn’t flush properly. Looking through our stock of parts, we had everything to repair every part of the plumbing, except the part that had given out. This is typical of boat projects. You literally cannot stock every part. This is the correct use of the word literally. There is never enough space aboard a small boat to keep a spare for every item that
could will break.
So it was back into dinghy and masks to buy a new y-valve at the chandlery.
Toilet repair is not fun in the best of settings. At anchor, with a limited supply of water for cleanup, it’s less. By the end of the project, we were exhausted, hot, dirty and fed up.
We went snorkeling to cool off and make life seem worth living again. Tom built an artificial reef condo, hoping fish from the small rocky ledges further away would move in. He’s always liked creating aquariums for local sea creatures. When the kids were little, they loved doing that with him. And yes, we always released the critters back to the wild after a little while. Any excuse to go to the beach. Here, he could set up his aquarium right in their habitat. A win win. After drying off, Tom relaxed in the cockpit with a snack, and a good book, but he got a little distracted by our surroundings.
Sea Bather’s Eruption
By the time he dried off, he realized something was wrong. Itchy red bumps covered his back. So again we spent a day dealing with a crisis—studying what the rash could be—sea bather’s eruption was most likely. It’s caused by the larva of jellyfish—including thimble jellies, which we’d seen plenty of in the last couple of days.
I cleaned his back and rubbed various ointments into his skin. We went to the pharmacy and bought another tube of hydrocortisone cream. The number one rule for dealing with SBE is don’t go in the water. But the water was the only thing that really gave him any relief from the itching. Being hot and sweaty was agony. He tried to distract himself. I watched the progress of the storm.
In the morning we left our mooring and took Domino to a marina to get fuel, and water. We always want full tanks when a storm is forecast. Being underway for just a mile made us long to make a run for the Exumas. We looked at the NHC site to check the progress. They forecast the storm to pass near or over Nassau the next day. We were safe here, but could not be sure of finding a sheltered anchorage on a new island. We went back to the mooring.
Instead of just waiting for the storm to hit, we planned a trip to the outer beach after lunch. Between bites of peanut butter sandwich, I said, “I wonder what’s up with Margaritaville? They’re always loud, but this is ridiculous.”
The sound was much more than one poolside tiki bar. It was a battle of the bands or something. We hustled into the dinghy to go find out what was going on. It turned out to be a parade for Bahamian Labor Day. The various unions had trucks with either bands or recorded music, and their members marched and danced along. One truck advocated Bahamian ownership of cruise operations. That would be sweet. I hoped they could pull it off. They had the best music, an excellent female rapper. A good start.
We talked all the time about the economy in these islands. We didn’t understand how things worked. It looked like money washed in, briefly touched Bahamian hands, then got sucked right up by multi-national corporations and oligarchs. Piracy these days features fewer ruffled jabots.
After the parade, we took the dinghy around the point of Paradise Island, walked the beach, investigated the ruins of buildings and machines and climbed the old lighthouse. Built in 1816, it was the first lighthouse in the West Indies. Strangely, it’s just not a thing. It’s not tended, not secured, and not on any tours. We had it, and the whole western point of Paradise Island to ourselves. Its times like these that I’m glad the tourists flock to the hotels, leaving the remote places, unusual finds, and nature, for me to enjoy unmolested by crowds,
The next morning we woke to gray skies, rain in the forecast, anxiety, and both of us feeling a cold coming on.
We sat around reading and drinking juice and tea. We took naps. Biding our time. Waiting for the storm. Then in the afternoon, the harbor police showed up and told us we shouldn’t stay in the anchorage. We told them we had a secure mooring. The officer said it was up to us, but he knew from experience that this anchorage would get very nasty in a storm.
So, with the last of our energy, we let go the mooring and moved down the harbor to a more protected spot behind the Atlantis Resort.
Just in time. Because the storm rolled through that night. And by the next morning, Tom was down with Covid.
I tested negative. Which didn’t mean I didn’t have it. I felt pretty lethargic. Knowing it would get worse, I went to the store for test kits, an O2 meter, saltines, and lots of Gatorade. Feeling like an enemy of the people, carrying disease, I kept my distance, masked up tight, and sanitized like a demon.
Later that day, I had a headache behind my eyes, eyestrain and fatigue. Perhaps from lack of sleep the night before. Tom slept a lot. When he woke, he complained of a stuffed up head and a chest cough. His O2 was fine, but his heart rate fast.
The boat’s movement never bothers me, but that night I felt seasick. And that’s how I knew I’d succumbed. My headache got worse. I could not stay upright. I tried to sleep it off, but my fever went to 99.8 and I coughed. Being sick on a boat has one positive aspect. On land, when I have a fever, I rock myself for comfort. In Nassau harbor, the boat did the rocking for me.
By the next morning, I was much better. I could sit upright and walk around without feeling unbalanced. I was still quite sweaty, but life seemed possible. Weakness and fatigue plagued us both for about a week. Then we began to plan to leave Nassau. I was in a hurry to go. I’d lost my sense of smell, and since it had returned everything smelled of sewer. It took a few days to figure out that was all in my head.
Too Much Time for Thinking
While waiting to get back to normal, we watched the mega yachts coming and going and looked up their rates. Picnic rents for $280,000 a week. Kashmir rents for $110,000 per week. This is base rate—fuel, food, tips, marina fees are all additional.
There were hundreds of these charter yachts constantly moving in and out of Nassau. Plus, the 6 cruise ships brought 18,000 passengers per day. There were also 10,000 guests staying at the hotels. The amount of money being spent in town was staggering. Where did the money to do all this come from? Where did the money go? My writer’s mind whirled with plots for thrillers and mysteries.
After four days of recovery, and starting to look forward to the next leg of the voyage, I did too much and got slammed with a relapse. Flattened again, I was unable to stay awake, unable to stay hydrated. Tom went to the store this time to restock our supply of Gatorade.
Finally, I felt enough better to get on with the cleanup and prep for crossing to the Exumas. My final cleaning task was thoroughly scrubbing the old plumbing parts and putting them away.
I sat on the transom scrubbing, and rinsing, and, of course, I dropped one black 2 inch diameter piece of plastic tubing. We don’t have enough money to be throwing valuable parts overboard. (Like the time I threw the sink off the dock.) It floated away on the current, so I hopped in the dinghy and chased after it. But it started slowly descending through the water and I couldn’t reach it and steer the boat. I went back and got Tom and we chased after it again.
By now, it was six to eight feet below the surface. We kept our eyes on it the whole time. Which tells you how clear the water in Nassau harbor is. Tom dove in—without a mask—and plucked it off the bottom just before it disappeared into the mailboat dock area. We were amazed.
Escape to the Exumas
We’d lived through all the fear-inducing things Nassau threw at us. Now we had our parts back aboard, our fuel and water tanks full, and we both felt human again. Though our route to Shroud Cay lay through a minefield of coral heads, I felt only joy and excitement as we headed east.
Fear though, that most boring part of me, we had not seen the last of it.