“Well, the boat is not sinking,” my friend Chris Rundlett yelled to me over the noise and hiss of the wind and waves. It was 11:30pm and we were a few miles off the west coast of St. Vincent. We were delivering “the boat” in question—a Catana 47 sailing catamaran—from Port Louis, Grenada to Rodney Bay, St. Lucia. Chris was the paid Captain; I was the volunteer crew. And things were getting interesting.
Leaving the Dock
Boat deliveries are very common in the sailing world. Charter companies and boat owners often reposition boats for numerous reasons. In my case, a charter company in Grenada booked a one-way charter for a group on this Catana from St. Lucia to Grenada. Thus, our boat had to get from its base in Grenada to St. Lucia for the start of the trip. The customers were set to arrive on Monday, February 21st. Chris and I left Port Louis on Saturday evening, the 19th. The plan was to sail to Carriacou that first evening and anchor until daylight, at which point we could clear out of Grenada at the Customs Office in Tyrell Bay. After that, the plan got a bit fuzzy. Sail the rest of the way straight through? Anchor off the Pitons in St Lucia to grab a few hours of sleep the next night? We’d see how things went.
We motor sailed up the west coast of Grenada in the dark Saturday night and bashed our way across the Carriacou passage. Two hours on—sailing the boat—two hours off—trying to rest, eat, etc. Every boat is a compromise, and I learned quickly that this Catana was built with sailing performance in mind rather than comfort or convenience. For example, the boat has twin helms that sit way out on the far back edges of the boat. The helms are a fantastic place from which to see the sail trim in the daylight, but not so comfortable or secure in the middle of the night. They also make it a bitch to maneuver the boat in close quarters, as there is a HUGE blind spot from your position at the wheel and the Chartplotter (GPS) is located inside the boat at the nav station.
This was my first experience sailing at night. It was amazingly different. Everything felt more mysterious and strange, especially without having a Chartplotter from which to verify that I wasn’t about to sail directly into a huge cliff or jagged shore. The distances were disorienting. The sounds of waves breaking and the crashing of boat into the waves as we pushed upwind in the passage were really impressive. It was pretty awesome to sit out there on the back edge and watch the boat violently take on whatever came up and around her. Always leaping ahead, I felt like I was on an amusement park ride. And it was a bit scary to look behind you into the churning water and realize that if you go over the side, you are likely never going to be seen again. It gets your full attention.
We pulled into Tyrell Bay, Carriacou, around 2:30am. Chris drove and I tried to spot boats, buoys, fish traps and other obstacles in our path. The lights on shore made it really tough to see what was in front of us in the water, but I got the feeling Chris had done this before and we dropped the hook at his favorite spot right along the shore without incident.
After a few hours sleep, we made coffee, checked the boat over, cleared Grenada Customs, and headed back out. Two hours on and two hours off for the next 22 hours. We sailed without incident all day through the Grenadines and into the night. The boat sailed really fast, reaching +10 knots a few times in the wind between islands. I went off my shift at 10:00pm Sunday evening, excited to see the Pitons of St Lucia on my next shift. Then things got more interesting.
Through the Grenadines
Chris woke me up a bit before midnight, yelling for me to come out and take the wheel. The batteries were not charging for some reason, the auto-pilot had just shut down, and he needed me to hand steer the boat while he investigated. I jumped up, crab walked out to the back, and grabbed the wheel. Off he went into the darkness. The moon was almost down and it was extremely difficult to see the sails. I quickly found that the best way for me to keep the boat on course was to steer just a bit off the big dipper hanging in there in front of me and to focus on keeping the wind directly on my cheek. I sat thinking how cool it was to be navigating by this famous constellation that I use to find the North Star when I’m at home.
Chris came back about 10 minutes later to tell me that although the boat wasn’t currently sinking, we had taken on “a lot” of water in the port engine compartment. That engine wouldn’t start and the other engine wasn’t charging the batteries. We decided that the best course of action was to tack back towards St Vincent and the Pitons, but once in the calm lee of the island, we would carry on slowly motor sailing all the way up the West coast overnight until we reached Rodney Bay in the north of the island at dawn. Going into a strange harbor at night isn’t a great idea, especially with only one engine on a catamaran that is difficult to maneuver with two. The Pitons would have to wait for another day.
Chris verified our position and a bit later we tacked the boat across the wind on a new heading that took us South East towards the St Vincent shore. Chris went off to grab some sleep with instructions to wake him when we got close to land. I began dutifully hand steering on our new course, searching for a point of reference by which to steer and then I saw it—the Southern Cross, the equally famous constellation of the Southern Hemisphere. It was right out there in front of me. I had never seen it before, and to do so right after leaving the Big Dipper behind was amazing. To make the experience even more spectacular, as I looked down into the water off the side of the boat, I could see bioluminescence streaking by in our wake. It looked like stars drifting by—another universe down there in the depths reflecting the one above us. I was mesmerized.
A Sunday Night to Remember
When I was younger, I would get very anxious and depressed on Sunday nights. I vividly remember going to bed feeling so boringly normal in Wisconsin and thinking about all of the amazing places and adventures that were out there, somewhere, in the world. As I sat there by myself that Sunday night, I couldn’t help but smile and think back to those nights. This was a different Sunday night. This was a reason I wanted so badly to come on a trip like this one. It was an experience I will remember for a long, long time.