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Variable weather patterns in the islands create havoc for the unwary. I knew it well now. Those twelve to fifteen foot seas accompanied by the surf-riding adventure had been quite memorable, but northerns aren’t the only destructive winds that can cause trouble. A storm from the southwest can hit the southern coast hard.
Winter months are the worst, with unreliable patterns and capricious winds. Most of the year the wind blows out of the southeast, but during the winter months, the weather patterns are anyone’s guess. It can drive a sane woman crazy. There are days of absolute calm, the seas crystalline mirrors and the reefs as clear as can be. There are weeks even, that the seas haven’t a ripple in them and passage to the mainland of Honduras is thinkable, but the chance of a blow is ever present.
The challenge came in living in a house over the sea. It came with a boat tied up under a boat shed designed for southeast winds, but not the westerlies, not really. When the wind blew hard from the southwest, wave swells were likely to crash into the boat’s stern and motor. The shed was built so that it attached to the dock, which attached to the house, providing a buffer of sorts. Normally, it was good anchorage. It was only reasonable to suppose that, of course, any problem shifts in the wind would occur during the wee hours of the night when the brain is fuzzy and nothing registers immediately.
A slight breeze had blown from the southwest all day and I should have anticipated the change. The sky, that, I should have noticed. A tinge of eerie greeny-yellow had bloomed, stormy weather to come. Oops.
Earlier that day I had made a little trip into town to call Captain Zoa, to check in about our anticipated meetings with the Department of the Tourism. When I returned, I had secured the boat under the boat shed as usual. Two stern lines were attached to the shed pilings and a bowline was attached to the dock. I thought the boat secure. Here, I erred. What an error in judgment that was.
The winds strengthened. The boat, tied up snugly under the boat shed, struggled violently against its ropes trying to smash against the shed pilings. The house shuddered. Oh boy! If the shed was shaking from the wind and the boat was straining at its ropes, the house was being pummeled. I didn’t appreciate the feel of swaying stilt houses. As I struggled to wake up another crash shocked me straight out of any lingering dream. ‘Dicey’ was a good word to describe the night that followed.
Another crash and the house shuddered sickeningly once more. I could tell that my boat might disintegrate, taking my house with it! Rapidly pulling on a bathing suit (little point in putting on anything else) I ran out into the gale and immediately saw the waves pounding into my boat from the southwest. Wave after wave rolled over its stern. It was already dangerously close to sinking.
A panic attack tempted me, but instead, I snapped into action. I ran inside, grabbed a flashlight and a knife to cut the boat lines if I had to, and yanked on my dive booties. I reacted without thinking. I had to save my boat.
“Save the boat, save the boat,” became a mantra echoing through my head.
Jumping into the sea I battled my way over to the boat to loosen the lines. I couldn’t loosen two and in desperation I cut them. This left only the bowline attached for any kind of control, but that was virtually impossible. I struggled to keep from being caught between boat and pilings. I was standing in four feet of water while waves higher than that crashed into the boat and over my head.
I was too scared to be petrified. Nothing to date had prepared me for this emergency. Adrenalin coursed through my veins. Vitriolic words and curses poured from my throat. I yelled at the winds to cease and desist. Did the winds pause to listen? Did the seas calm? Not a chance.
With the lines cut, the boat was now free to really damage the boat shed and me, but with a spurt of sudden unbelievable strength and probable idiocy, I hauled, pulled, pushed and shoved. Waves continued to buffet my body like a rag. Finally, painstakingly, the boat was freed from the shed. I’ll never know how I did it, but it was free at last. I maneuvered the boat to the north side of the house, which afforded scant protection, but it was just enough.
Crack! Snap! I heard it before I felt it. The bow cleat broke, instantly ending the little control I had on the boat. For a moment, I stood there, stunned. The boat was no longer attached. In the blank moment of non-comprehension, the waves caught my boat easily, water-logged as it was, lifting and carrying it toward shore. Half swimming, frog jumping and walking, I caught and turned it, to keep the boat from crashing onto the island. There was a second bow cleat and I was in luck. It was secure. Finally reaching it, I used it. Struggling, I managed to pull the line through the other cleat. Again, I swam-walked the boat to the lee side of my house. Waves kept coming.
Temporarily wrapping the one bowline around a piling, and hoping the line would hold, I added a second bowline, and fastened it to the dock. I reached in for the anchor and its rope which should have been in the bow, but found it at last near the stern. I grabbed it, tied off the line to the cleat and threw the anchor out. Earlier that year, I had placed a permanent anchor attached to another rope for such a wind, but hadn’t used it since and couldn’t find it. Two bow lines and one anchor line would have to do. I was exhausted.
I faced a boat barely afloat and full of water, the water within an inch of the top of the gunwales. Another wave crashed over my head, but my only thought was to save my boat from sinking. I couldn’t buy another. The water had to go. I raced back into the house for a big bucket, a very big bucket, and another flashlight to set on the dock, the first long gone.
One-handed, I began bailing at a furious pace. The other gripped the hull. I couldn’t let go of the boat, it would mean a quick somersaulting trip onto the shoreline. Each wave pounded me into the boat, adding to the bruises already acquired. I had strength that I could never summon again. I couldn’t have repeated the rescue of a wallowing boat. I coughed water as a wave hit. The tide was high. Dip, fill, heave, over and over I bailed. Pull up and pitch the water. The rain came in a torrent, filling the boat almost as fast as I bailed. Did I consider my danger in all of this? No. There was no time to think about danger! There would have been little point in those thoughts, I couldn’t leave. Aching muscles begged me to stop. I continued.
Suddenly, the waves no longer dumped their water into the boat. Victory was possible. Little by little, I emptied the boat of its watery burden and it rose higher in the seas. I hauled my weary body into the wildly pitching boat to bail from there. It wasn’t much better than standing in the sea. With one hand gripping the boat for support when I could, I used the other to continue bailing. How I wasn’t killed during this episode is beyond me.
Hours passed and the rain continued on, blinding sight. Tiny pellets pelted bruised skin. Even without the rain it would have been a black night. The darkness was absolute. There was no moon, no stars, no lights, nothing. The second flashlight was gone too. If I couldn’t see, I certainly could feel. The air, the water, and the rain were cold, I was cold. Fits of shivering rippled through me.
The night seemed endless and I bailed. Somewhere, it registered that the bucket was lighter. The boat was lighter. I finally scraped the floorboards. No water. Wow. No slosh in bucket. Relief washed over me. It was over, for now, but I knew the rain would soon reverse that.
Past exhaustion, there was a brief respite. I could take no more, crawled over the bow, and flopped onto the dock. I crept up the stairs to the deck and stripped, dropping clothes where I stood. If someone had actually seen me then I wouldn’t have cared. No sane person would have been out in this storm.
I walked inside, closing the door to shut out the worst of the nightmare. Finding dry clothes, I felt their warmth as I put them on and made myself a cup of coffee. The shivering eased a bit and then I glanced at the mirror. That was a mistake, truly a mistake. I found that I was a poster child for the black and blue, covered in cuts and bruises and aching in every muscle. The couch beckoned and I sat. Try as I might to get warm, the cold had penetrated my bones and stayed. When the adrenalin receded somewhat I realized that I could easily have lost my life that night. Despite knowing that, I knew I would still have gone into the tempest to fight.
It wasn’t over though. I couldn’t sleep or become too comfortable. In less than two hours I knew that I would need to step out into the storm once more to drain the boat. The rain would fill it up all too quickly. I listened to the tumult raging outside. Too soon I got up reluctantly to go check on the boat. I groaned as I rose.
Instantly, the cold and the rain hit me again with punishing force. Muscles protested. The boat had stayed fast. The ropes had obeyed and had done their job. Three more times that night I walked out into the fury of the storm to bail and verify that the boat lines held. Three more times I groaned. Dawn came, but there was no glorious sunrise.
The only real change was that it was no longer dark outside. As far as I could see, whitecaps crested never-ending waves. Huge green-hued swells crashed onto shorelines. Billions of pearled raindrops splashed on the surface. Really, it was beautiful. Nature’s forces in full assault mode.
At full daybreak, I carefully crawled into my boat to try the motor, afraid that it had gone under water. The key turned. Nothing. Damn, it wouldn’t start. Just to be certain, I twisted the key again, and once more, nothing. Enough. I would try later. Now, I needed sleep.
Fatigue overwhelmed me and I gave in to it. Much later I awoke feeling as though a truck had run over me. I still looked like it too. No beauty prizes would be awarded today, that’s for sure. First, I walked out onto the deck to check on the boat. A substantial amount of water was sloshing around inside, but it hadn’t sunk. The sky was still leaden, a heavy drizzle persistent, with no abatement of wind or wave. With resignation I pulled on another suit and my wet booties and went to bail. Rain is nourishment, but I had had enough to last me for months!
What about my house? Rain could enter and it had. It was minor though. Nothing to worry about or take care of. The walls dripped with miniscule rivulets, but the floors and roof were dry. Was the house damp? Yep, but that wasn’t such a big deal. It would dry out. I did live over the sea and dampness was inevitable on days like today. Sinking boats were not. I found my couch again and stretched out. I was sore and bruised, but calm. I slept, fitfully, but I slept.
On the second morning the sun appeared, adding dazzle to the froth of sea. I looked at my boat, at the sea, at myself and laughed. I really laughed. It was pitiful. What a mess. The boat was weather-beaten and so was I. The seas, they were beautiful. I couldn’t help it. Laughter bubbled out of me. Who was that nut who had stood out in the storm?
Later that morning, when the waves had eased a bit, I called Wayne Sinclair on the VHF radio. Wayne, his wife Alta, and I had become friends after their arrival and residence at the small Conch Resort, then at the Beach Resort, both near my house. Our first encounter was prickly at best, at least Alta thought so. She’s stated that it seemed as if my eyes had bored into them with glints of hostility and defensiveness. I remember that I had gone over to meet them with the desire for friendship. I remember it like this.
I picked my way up the rock-strewn path to the old McPherson house, now converted to resort-guesthouse. At the steps, I stopped. Almost ready to turn back, I took a deep breath, gathered my self-confidence around me like a Shetland shawl and called out.
“Hello, anyone home?”
In the quiet of midday my voice clearly echoed off the pillared veranda. Two curious bodies materialized from within.
“Yes? May we help you?”
“Um. Hi. I’m Sharon. I came to say ‘hi.’ I live over there and—”
Somehow, messages were crossed somewhere, but from that “auspicious” beginning we spent many a night talking and many a day diving together.
They managed the Conch Resort and later assisted at the Beach Resort. They had come to the islands to dive, to experience the unknown, had come shortly after I’d returned. They blended nicely, though their personalities couldn’t have been more different. Alta is a nourishing soul, with her own opinions of right and wrong. Wayne might share those opinions, but reminded me of a grizzly bear often enough, a kind grizzly bear. Alta had seen right through the rough and gruff posturing to the hidden soul within. She had patiently coaxed those good qualities to the surface.
Kind person that he was, Wayne came to my rescue and took that engine apart.
“Sharon, Sharon, what happened to you? You look a bit raw. Decided to sink the boat did you? You realize that boats hate being dipped, unlike you or I? Well, let’s take a look.”
“Would you like some help?”
“Thanks, no. I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
Nice, he might be, but he had a love-hate relationship with motors. Perfection, impatience and patience at war. Pigheaded was the term Alta used affectionately, most often. Uh, huh. As the first expletive exploded over the water, I swiftly retreated. Ooops. The depth of cursing was surprising, as was the real irritation that accompanied his work. A wrench came up. I needed no additional prompting as a fist banged down on the hull in exasperation. I decided that it was in my best interests to leave the dock completely. After a period all was silent. I ventured out to see. No sounds. No attack. Whew! He was done. Since he was done, the motor ran, of course. Satisfaction oozed from every pore of his body. Certainly. There had never been any doubt that the motor would run under his hands. He has the touch. He saved my boat motor and I still had transportation. I didn’t have to walk or swim.
Calmer now, he told me, “Sharon, the boat will run now. I think that the motor wasn’t submerged but you say waves crashed into it. Well, it doesn’t like waves either. Your engine was wet, sparkplugs don’t do too well once they’re wet. The rest, it was treatable, too. I sprayed down the engine and dried out the sparkplugs.”
He paused for a moment, ran fingers through short, bristly hair before continuing, “You know how a motor runs, right?”
“Nope, don’t even try to explain. Many have tried and failed. I can’t seem to grasp the functioning of motors, not really. I’ll forget as soon as you leave. What I know is that you know. You are a wizard and I thank you. Thank you sir.”
He had performed his magic to make it better and it was better. With a barked “Alright then” he lumbered off my boat onto his and puttered home.
From then on, when the winter breezes approached, I tied the boat behind the house in its lee. Here, the boat was able to swing freely in any wind without being swamped. Only a hard northern would cause concern, but the island protected me. Although I remained deficient at forecasting the weather, I had become more attuned to its vagaries and adjusted my days and nights accordingly.
Christmas came and with it visiting, traveling, and participating in holiday celebrations. Winter had barely begun, but the storms had come early this year. Would I be able to move about for the holidays? No clearly defined weather pattern had been presented in the limited news received. I would just have to be alert and hope for the best.