Hoping for Nothing

It seems to me that it’s human nature to have hope. That is, to hope for some things to happen. It also seems to me that expectations are just hope taken for granted. I’ve also heard it said that, “Expectations equal planned failure.” Or—for those more mathematically inclined—“Happiness equals reality less expectations.” I guess the nuance between those phrases and thoughts is the difference between “hope” and “expectation”—kind of like the difference, and often confusion, between “wants” and “needs”.

With all that being said, I found myself early on the morning of February 23rd, hoping for nothing. While I would have liked to have said that I was hoping for nothing because the moment was so perfect that I neither needed nor wanted anything else, that wasn’t it. The “nothing” that I was hoping for was that Hazel’s keel and undersides wouldn’t, at any moment, be torn from her topsides. Perhaps it was a slightly irrational fear given all my preparations and my checking and double checking of our latitude and longitude coordinates, but I’m prone to irrational fears. Besides, in that moment, as I looked at the digital display of Hazel’s depth sounder in her cockpit and projected its trend of the past 20 seconds into the future 20 seconds, we’d all shortly be aground for sure—an unappealing prospect given that the nearest dry land was over 20 nautical miles behind us and our destination was still 30 nautical miles off our bow.

At this point, your probably thinking I’m being melodramatic. Dan, how can you be concerned about running aground when land is more than 20 miles away? It’s a fair question. One that I will try my best to answer—but remember, I’m prone to irrational fears.

We had departed Chub Cay in the Berry Islands of The Bahamas around 9:00 AM the morning before and had been sailing for 19 hours straight that’s not as exhausting as it sounds as much of the time Hazel had been sailing herself and I had taken a few naps. When we had left Chub Cay and the Chub Cay Marina, we knew it was going to be a “sporty” day of sailing (“sporty”, meaning higher wind and waves—enough to keep things interesting). Another cruising couple we had met in the marina had elected to wait one more day to embark to let the seas lay down a bit after a several day blow, however we—Hazel and her crew—were itching to get going.

In addition to sporty conditions, the wind direction from the southeast coincided with our overall desired direction of travel. That meant upwind sailing and “beating” into the wind. The combination of sporty conditions and upwind sailing had made for a challenging 19 hours of sailing. A sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind, it has to settle for getting as close as 45° to 60° away from the eye of the wind. Therefore, a sailboat wishing to travel upwind “beats” back and forth in a zig-zag pattern as close to the wind as possible, making slow upwind progress. To help expedite progress, if the mariner can correctly predict how the wind will shift over the course of his sail, he can use those wind shifts to his advantage.

While the normal routing from the Berry Islands to the Exuma Islands is via Nassau and New Providence Island, the wind was predicted to veer from east-southeast to due south during our sail so we saw a window of opportunity to break from the conventional routing and first sail south, deep into the Tongue of the Ocean and east of Andros Island, on the east-southeast wind, then head east as the wind veered to the south, toward our hoped-for destination of Highborne Cay in the Exumas.

Our actual track (north is up). We embarked at Chub Cay in the upper left. The U.S. Navy’s AUTEC is near Andros Town. The blue hand drawn circle indicates where we “climbed up” out of the Tongue of the Ocean onto the Great Bahama Bank.

The Tongue of the Ocean is deep, over 2,500 meters deep in places. That’s over a mile and a half straight down (the standard convention for depths on nautical charts is in meters so I do my best to think of depths in meters with Hazel drawing 1.5 meters). Given that “The Tongue” is so deep, near Andros Town, the U.S. Navy operates its AUTEC (Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center). I just love its Wikipedia description: “AUTEC is a laboratory that performs integrated three-dimensional hydrospace/aerospace trajectory measurements covering the entire spectrum of undersea simulated warfare – calibration, classifications, detection, and destruction.” The military is full of acronyms and the Navy’s acronym for the Tongue of the Ocean is none other than: TOTO.

Shortly after midnight on February 23rd, we were off the coast of Andros Town and could see the harbor entrance lights to AUTEC (I’m sure AUTEC’s security watch was monitoring us). We tacked over from a port beat (the wind hitting our left bow first) to a starboard beat and headed across “TOTO”. We had gotten the wind shift we had been hoping for and were able to to set a course due east for Highborne Cay.

It was later that morning, about 4:00 AM as the waxing gibbous moon set in the west, when I earnestly began hoping for nothing. The average depth of TOTO where we had been sailing for the last 20 miles was 1,300 meters and we were about to sail across the transition from TOTO to the Great Bahama Bank and into a depth of approximately 7 meters. This transition happens in a very short distance and is a near-vertical submarine wall. Although my paper and electronic charts indicated that we were on a well-traveled line between two well-established waypoints and therefore it should be a good location to “climb up” onto the Great Bahama Bank (The Bank), the charts also showed that not far off were shallow and dangerous reefs.

The moon had set off Hazel’s stern an hour before and we approached the transition from TOTO to The Bank around 5:00 AM. To conserve electricity, Hazel is outfitted with a relatively low power depth sounder. It can only reach and detect the bottom to about 100 meters. As expected, during the crossing of The Tongue, the sounder wasn’t reading any bottom as TOTO’s depths were much too great. As we approached the transition in the inky post-moonset darkness, I thought of the old saying, It’s always the darkest before the dawn. That aphorism had never made much logical sense to me before—but it did now. Of course, I thought of the aphorism’s corollary, It’s always the darkest just before it gets even darker. I continued with that questionable line of thinking and began to second guess myself, What if I had miscalculated? What if we are about to tear Hazel’s bottom off on a shallow and hard reef? It’s one thing to run aground—called a “soft grounding”—on forgiving sand while motoring slowly when entering a shallow anchorage (with land close by). A mariner can generally work himself off the sand, especially on a flooding (rising) tide. This morning was an entirely different matter as we sailed along at four to five knots with the nearest land 20 miles off our stern our destination 30 miles off our bow and the prospect of hard coral and limestone reefs below us.

I did my best to luff Hazel’s sails and slow her down as our GPS indicated that we were approaching the transition. If we’re going to hit something, we might as well do it slowly and minimize damage.

As we continued eastward in the blackness, I became mesmerized by the depth sounder’s display that continued to indicate no bottom. My mouth became dry. I looked to the southeast and saw the massive constellation of Scorpius beginning rise out of the ocean along with its most prominent star Antares, burning some 60,000 times brighter than our Sun. I thought about waking my crew (Rhett) to both enjoy Scorpius’ rising and also prepare for the worst in case that something happened, but decided against it as she was sleeping soundly in the saloon after a bit of mal de mer earlier in the night.

Then, it all started to happen so quickly—“it” would either be something or it would be nothing. Time would tell. The depth sounder started picking up bottom at 60 meters and, despite my slowing of the boat, the sounder’s display raced upwards—55 meters, 50, 45, then a jump to 30 meters. It was like watching the meter on a gas station fuel pump, except we were counting downwards. 25, 20, 15. My already dry mouth was now a desert. Thankfully, the flip from 15 meters to 10 meters happened more slowly and then, just as expected, the bottom—the Great Bahama Bank—leveled off at a comfortable eight meters.

We had done it. Our navigation was on target and we had successfully transited from the Tongue of the Ocean (TOTO) to the Great Bahama Bank. If the sun were above, we would have seen the water color change from a dark indigo of the deep water to brilliant shades of turquoise. However, with sunrise still a couple hours away our only indication of the transition was the calming seas.

Sunrise was going to be at 6:30 AM and about 5:30 we began see the first hints of color in the east. When passagemaking, I find that to be such a hopeful time of day. With the color continuing to build in the east, I brewed myself a pot of coffee to celebrate.

On the Great Bahama Bank shortly after sunrise

The wind that had shifted from the east-southeast to south-southeast during the night continued to veer to the south improving our angle of attack to it and increasing our boat speed. Soon we were bombing across the bank at 6 knots (video here) and we continued that rate of progress for the next several hours until we were close to our destination of Highborne Cay.

The final treat of that memorable night was seeing Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn all rise in the east shortly before sunrise.

Fair winds and following seas.

14 thoughts on “Hoping for Nothing

  1. Thank you for the update. For the record I did ask if you had purchased a periscope just in case the ground rose up to meet you!

    1. T: Yes, I remember all to well your advice. Unfortunately we ran out of space and didn’t bring the periscope. I was second guessing myself on that decision!

  2. Thank you for the update. For the record I did ask if you had purchased a periscope just in case the ground rose up to meet you!

  3. You’ve written a chapter for your next book, Dan. I’m so glad the transition went as hoped! Enjoy your time in Exumas. Hopefully you are connecting with Jan soon. XO

  4. Thrilling build up. Fun release of anxiety. Knowing the Cap’n made it more so.
    To a continued safe and inspirational journey.

  5. You’ve spent a week in Georgetown – everything ok? Great pic of you and Rhett under the spinnaker!

    1. Mike: Yeah, this weather won’t quit. The other day when I was feeling especially hemmed in, I was playing Brandy on the uke (Looking Glass) and chuckled at the lyrics, “No harbor was his home….” I promptly went out and bought Rhett a braided chain (made of finest silver from the north of Spain).

  6. Wow, what a story Dan. Did you wear a band that tracks your heart rate that night? I bet it was “above average”. Glad that Hazel’s bottom and your own are intact.

    1. Craig, Thanks! It was one of those situations that for those who sail the Bahama Banks all the time it would have been no big deal. However, for me, in the middle of the night and never having sailed that line between waypoints before and (now) responsible for another soul onboard—it was a bit nutty.

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