Running from Gonzalo

Well, that was a not super fun.

Sometime around Sunday, news started to suggest that the first storm of the season was on its way off of Africa. As we watched the forecasts over the next several days, the predicted intensity slowly crept upward and Gonzolo got a name, though track uncertainty was pretty high. By Wednesday, it was a possible cat 1-2 hurricane headed somewhere between Grenada and St Lucia. On Thursday morning, the median model seemed to put Gonzalo over Bequia, right where we were.

The further north it went, the higher the intensity would be — at least according to Chris Parker, the professional forecaster to whose services we subscribe. His updates, summarizing basically all the major models, are delivered to our satellite phone by email, every six to eighteen hours or so. We can also download model data, like the image above, which updates every twelve hours, but it’s a little less useful in this kind of situation because it gives a false impression of certainty. When we’re close to shore, the internet gives us access to more sources; not that that’s always an improvement.

We chatted with some of the long-term live-aboard sailors in the harbor, and all decided the thing to do was to head to sea to the south; we would check the forecasts as they evolved, maybe turn around, and maybe take shelter in Tobago or Grenada. Because of COVID-related restrictions, it’s unclear whether we would be allowed to anchor at any of these islands, and we’re likely to have to wait it out at sea. We would go together, maybe have a fishing competition to keep it interesting. Leaving the harbor is the last we hear from them.

So we headed to sea at about 3pm Thursday, pointing at the west side of Tobago. Trinidad is better protected, but further west, making the angle tougher for the sail back north. After all, the storm would pass north of us, and we’d end up just turning around, or at worst, hiding on the south coast of Tobago to avoid any big waves. Plus, passing east of Grenada means we won’t be in its wind shadow. The report at 6pm seems to confirm our decision: Chris Parker is “reasonably confident” that the storm won’t pass south of Grenada.

At this point I should mention why we were in Bequia in the first place: our steering system has a leak, and the parts we need to fix it were slated to arrive on Saturday. But no worries: we have plenty of extra fluid and oil-absorbing pads, so we can top the system off as we go and live as mostly normal. Except it turns out that we can’t: the leak has gotten worse, and liquid we add just pours out the other side, leaving our steering wheel, and worse, our autopilot, unable to turn the rudders. We briefly consider turning back, but the possibility of a cat 2 hurricane keeps us moving forward, steering manually with the emergency tiller.

Sunset is stunning.

So is Friday’s sunrise, in its way, behind the storm system that I’ve been steering around through the pre-dawn hours.

By the Friday 2pm report, we’re about at Grenada’s longitude, and the forecasts adjust the track southward; 40% chance it passes south of Grenada, 40% in the southern Grenadines, 20% it passes over Grenada. Bequia is in the clear, but we’re too late to get back; nothing to do but continue south. The wind mostly dies out, and we’re motor-sailing, but at least the seas are pretty calm and we have plenty of diesel. (Did I mention we still haven’t fixed the tack on our mainsail? We can still use the sail, but only up to the first reef, which means that we’re missing some speed in lighter winds.) The weather report also mentions that Trinidad is arresting people who come there, so “anchor on the south coast” becomes “Hang out in the open ocean to the south” – not ideal, but better than a hurricane.

I think this is about when Captain took a shit on the rug. So that’s always a fun bonus. He had the decency to bury it, meaning he turned the rug over on top.

As we’re nearing Tobago, maybe thirty miles out, the next report comes in (via satellite). The track has shifted even further south (“Someone apparently forgot to tell Gonzalo he was supposed to start gaining Latitude”), and may even be as far south as Tobago. We’re at roughly the lowest purple line in the middle of the track.

At this point we’re wishing we’d stayed put, but it’s too late to turn north. We consider briefly whether to head south of Tobago, or to head for the bay west of Trinidad. We hedge: we head towards Tobago until we can pick up internet, to see if we can find out if Trinidad has changed their tune.

We pick up cell coverage some ten miles out, and the models have shifted yet further south: Gonzalo is now most likely to hit Tobago, so we may still get nasty weather even on its south side. Trinidad is some sixty miles west of us, which we’re not excited about, but even if they won’t let us anchor, the Gulf of Paria would offer much better protection. So we decide to give up all that easting and head for Trinidad.

We are tired and demoralized: the emergency tiller is way more draining than the wheel. The ergonomics are not very good: the hydraulic system has much better mechanical advantage, so working the tiller is tiring. And the cockpit is designed around sitting or standing at the wheel, but the tiller is further back. If it were long enough to reach the captains’ chair, it would run into the bimini frame. So to use the tiller, you can either sit in the cockpit unable to see forward, or perch uncomfortably on the traveler. Or you can sit on the nice cushioned storage boxes out back, and see forward a little bit, but then you’re gripping the tiller half way along its length, which takes more strength. (Tiring for me, not an option for Jazz.)

Also there’s lightening all night. Every direction. Which is terrifying, until the terror just melts into the generalized anxiety and exhaustion. (Jazz may write a follow-up post just about this.)

Making things more complicated: the wind is directly behind us for the trip between the islands, so while we can sail, we do so wing-and-wing with the downwind pole out to one side and the mainsail pulled over to the other. This angle provides a fairly comfortable ride, but it requires us to steer relatively straight to avoid an accidental jibe, where the mainsail violently switches sides. With the emergency tiller, this takes constant attention, plus the comfortable places to sit leave the sails blocking most of the view of the lightening.

When it’s time to take down the downwind pole, a steel ring attaching it to its halyard snaps, dunking the end of the pole in the ocean.

We get within radio range of Trinidad, some six hours ahead of the storm, and find out that with a five-step dance, we might be granted permission to anchor. Gonzalo continues to defy expectations and resist turning northward; some models even have him extending into the Gulf of Paria (between Trinidad and Venezuela, where we were headed). We do the dance, and are granted permission to anchor in Chacachacare bay. The trip in is demoralizingly slow, as we motor into the gulf against an outgoing tide, creeping along at about 1.5 knots despite apparently surfing the inbound waves. Deeper into the Gulf of Paria stands a sea of cargo ships and a couple of oil wells.

When we arrive, the bay looks protected, but is a deceptively small anchorage, because aside from a few shallow pocket coves, the shore gets deep too rapidly to anchor. Coast guard directs us to pick one of two allowed coves, both of which have some boats in them. We find maybe the last remaining feasible spot, and get our anchor down about 3 hours before the storm is supposed to pass. This is the filthiest bay we’ve been in since probably Luperon, with murky brown water and floating garbage everywhere.

We sit for a few moments, and then start tying down the outside as the wind starts to pick up. It turns out that we needn’t have bothered. The couple of minutes of 30-knot gusts while we work are all the wind we see, as the storm passes just north of us. We are drained. It’s about 4pm. We both have a drink and fall asleep.

We wake up around 9pm and look at the weather. Gonzalo is now far west of us, leaving the return path clear. We contemplate going back to bed, but then look at the forecast for the next few days. The wind is currently OK for travel, but is going to die down sometime Sunday and stay down through Monday. We are not at all clear on whether Trinidad will let us stay until there’s wind to sail again (stupid COVID), and anyway we would like to get our hydraulics working again before the next storm, which could be here as early as Wednesday. So we undo all our tie down, pick the garbage out of the anchor chain as we haul it in, and get the boat back in motion. We’ve at least gotten enough sleep to get out of the bay and get the sails up together. We’ve been anchored in Trinidad’s waters about 5 hours when we leave. At least the current is in our favor this time.

Jazz takes the first nap. She is about due to wake up when we hear a crash inside, and she reports that we have lost the hot sauce shelf. As I lean down to listen to her report, I can smell the hot pepper coming out her window.

Jazz takes the sunrise shift, which brings us possibly a little closer than we should have gotten to yet another oil platform.

It’s later; Jazz has taken her shift and is back asleep. I have turned on the engine as the wind has shifted too far north for us to sail. When I go to rinse off an apple, I notice that the water flow is low. I check the tanks, and they have water, and the pump is working, which means we have a leak. I turn off the pump and go back to the tiller. I can’t really leave it unattended for more than a minute: even with it tied in place, the shifting wind can spin the boat off course quite rapidly. When Jazz wakes up, we find the leak in the first place we look: the output hose has come entirely off of the water heater, and the engine bilge is full of hot water. At least it’s a relatively easy fix.

The day passes, the wind gradually relaxes, and we find ourselves motoring again. Eventually a little bit of wind comes back, but it’s basically on the nose, unusable unless we want to take a lot of long, slow tacks. As evening falls and we near Grenada, we find a southbound current, and we spend the night crawling along the windward coast at 1-2 knots. We are still experimenting with ways to tie the tiller down enough to hold a course, without making it too annoying to make corrections.

The story of the night is lightning. Everywhere.

Sunrise was not just beautiful, but very, very welcome.

Captain looked like we all felt.

In the morning, we pass Carriacou, waving figuratively at our friends who are hauled out there, and we drop anchor in Chatham Bay in Union Island, the southernmost Grenadine. We have now traveled about 290 miles to get back to the country we started in, and we’re still almost 30 miles from our replacement parts.

The parts, due to weather, are delayed until at least tomorrow. We decide to hang out until the weather is more conducive to sailing the rest of the way, and treat ourselves to a barbecue dinner, which (due to COVID) is delivered to our boat. This suits us just fine.

5 comments

  1. As your mother, I’m kind of glad I was blessedly ignorant about all this – that sounds like it was really stressful and dangerous and exhausting. Plus catshit and hot sauce.

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