This is the story of how we almost died one night when the sea was not there anymore, but a black raging mass of liquid walls and howling winds; when the whole world had disappeared and our small boat left all alone in the entire universe was doomed. This is the story of how we passed Neptune’s first test on our way to becoming sailors.
After two months in Guatemala, we begin a long passage north, 500 miles from Rio Dulce back to Key West Florida, where we planned to do some work and improvements on our 38-feet 2001 Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana. We start in rainy weather with unstable north winds and high seas in the Gulf of Honduras.
The very first day two of the blocks, old and rusty, which hold the boom attached to the traveler break. Ivo uses a rope to tie the boom immobilizing it in the center of the boat. This causes the mainsail to rip off from the base where it is attached to the boom, about two feet. We reef it to the first reef and thus we are able to sail. From now on, for two weeks and a half, we sail with a crippled main and a boom stuck in a central position.
For the next 17 days and nights, the wind is always coming from the direction where we want to go: north-northeast. The good thing about it is that we don’t have to play with the boom much. The bad part is that we have to tack constantly climbing against the wind at a very slow speed, thus covering at least three times the distance.
Many cruisers turn on the engines in such situations in order to go faster motorsailing. Not us. We never use the engines. If there is no wind, we wait. If there is little wind, we drift slowly. If the wind is too much, we reef. We drop anchor and lift anchor under sail most of the time. The two engines on our boat are for emergency situations only, and this is not an emergency situation. Yet. This is just a part of it, part of sailing.
It takes us a week to get to Isla Mujeres Mexico as we make the big mistake of choosing the Belize Inner Channel instead of the offshore route. The current in the 100-mile long channel running between the shore of Belize and the barrier reef is going south, flowing against us like a river, robbing us of at least 2-3 knots. The waves, 4-5 feet coming at an angle from northeast, are stopping us some more. Add to this not one but two mean winds, one northwest descending from the Belize mountains, and one northeast pushing from the sea, and try to sail between them, going north, tacking a hundred times per day with a reefed main and no engine! Not fun.
Our progress is between 1 and 3 miles per hour. We cover about 20-30 miles per day and anchor at night. Being able to stop and get some rest at night is the sole reward we get for sailing in the channel, but it’s not worth it.
After three days of this struggle we are finally out of the channel and sail for three more days and nights nonstop to Isla Mujeres. The plan is to anchor there and get some rest, a day or two, stock up on provisions, check the weather forecast, and cross to Key West: 300 miles northeast of Isla, where the current of the Yucatan Channel and the Gulfstream merge.
In the morning on the seventh day of sailing, we arrive in the familiar anchorage in Isla Mujeres in front of El Milagro Marina, exhausted, but happy we made it. The day is beautiful. We plan to go shopping first thing after we check our E-mails, and then we can sleep all night; sleep like babies.
While the rest of us are checking E-mails, Ivo is checking the weather.
“Strong north winds and big waves are coming soon,“ he announces, „we can’t sail directly to Florida. The best thing would be to sail east to Cabo San Antonio, Cuba, then to Havana, and cross the Gulfstream from there, the same way we came. But we have to go now, immediately, before the weather hits, or wait here for a week or who knows how long. We only have a few-hours window, we have to hurry up, let’s go!”
I take a look at the forecast and maps on the PassageWeather website. “Let’s wait. It doesn’t look too good. What if we cannot make it inside your ‘few-hours window’ and we hit a storm? I am not doing this! Haven’t you learned yet? In sailing the most important thing is waiting. Waiting for good weather. A week, a month, doesn’t matter, we wait here!”
We start a huge fight, like always, and the kids interfere. Both Viktor and Maya want to get to Key West as soon as possible; they don’t want to wait. Three against one.
We lift anchor one hour after we dropped it, without setting foot on land, without shopping or getting any rest, and we begin the 100 miles passage east-northeast across the Yucatan Cannel, trying to run in front of bad weather with a mainsail that doesn’t work quite well. There is your classic recipe for disaster.
Twenty miles offshore, the north winds pick up. The sky becomes thick with dark clouds and the first squall hits, rain and all. We reef the main to the second reef and the jib, and ride it out, 40-knot winds. It pushes us south. All night we fight with three more of these squalls. No one sleeps, we wait for the day. The day comes but it doesn’t look good. The north wind doesn’t drop below 25 knots. The powerful Yucatan current is flowing north, against the wind. When you have a strong current and strong wind in opposite directions, you get enormous waves, taller than the boat, from the direction of the wind. Not long, slow, sleek waves, but sharp, quick, confused ones. These are the worst possible conditions, and small crafts should not go out in the middle of such a mess.
Ivo is at the helm hand-steering since more than 30 hours and we are still in the middle of nowhere. We get pushed south after each squall and coming back north is impossible. We are so much off course, we start looking at the charts to see if we can go somewhere else, south, but there is nothing south of Cuba.
As the second night of this passage approaches, the north winds pick up even more reaching 30-35 knots, steady. We are now begging for those 20-25 knot winds which terrified us in the beginning. With the enormous waves charging at us, and the boat heading off course in a direction where there is no land any time soon, it becomes one of these ‘emergency situations’ when the engine is your only hope. We bring down the sails, turn on the two motors and abandon the boat in the hands of the autopilot, direction Cuba.
It’s only the beginning of the night; only the beginning of our worst nightmare. We find ourselves between two worlds: the above and the below, the air and the water, the living and the dead.
The world above has become a black rampaging monster. The monster is facing us with its cold mouth gaping wide open, and deep from its infinite entrails comes a powerful endless roar. Its breath is loaded with the screams of thousand flying witches, his fury is sublime. Thus is the wind.
The world below has gone mad too. All the underwater invisibles have gathered below the surface of the sea around our boat and are restlessly pushing and pulling us, throwing walls at us: a bizarre sadistic game. Each wall is the last. Will the boat go through it? Will it pass? Or will it turn over? That’s it! This time we won’t make it. How about this one? And the next? We have loads and loads of these, even worst, even bigger, coming from everywhere. Thus are the waves.
Viktor, Maya, and I sit in the cockpit, protected from the outside hell by the thin plastic enclosure. Our lifejackets are stowed away in the starboard engine room, not accessible under the present conditions. So if the boat turns over and sinks we will find ourselves floating in the middle of the sea without lifejackets, in the dark. I promise myself that from now on, if we survive this, the lifejackets will always be close to us when sailing. Viktor has a whistle hanging on his neck, a submergible flashlight, and a knife. Maya is armed with another flashlight and the flare gun. I am holding the submergible VHF radio and a glowing stick. We count: Nine more hours of darkness. Eight and a half more hours of darkness. The time is slowing down, stopping, going backwards, laughing at us. The night is here to stay.
Ivo is out on the deck holding on to the rigging, screaming at the world above and the world below, losing it:
“Why, Night, why? I can’t see anything! I can’t do anything! That’s enough! Stop! There is nothing I can do; I don’t see! I hate you Night; how can I fight if I see nothing, if I’m blind? This is not fair. I am sorry. I didn’t know… I don’t see, I see nothing…” His hopeless howls are terrifying us more than the storm.
Maya is crying. “Mum, let’s call someone on the VHF, let’s ask for help. Let’s call!”
“There is no one around us, there is no one to call, we are all alone,“ I cry back. „Plus, we are not sinking yet, so we have no reason to call for help.”
We can only call nearby vessels on the VHF radio, we don’t have a satellite phone (we don’t have any phone), and there are no vessels near by. We have never been more alone, more abandoned.
We are also beyond exhaustion, especially Ivo who has broken all records for staying awake up on his feet, night after night after night.
“You deserve it,“ I yell at him, „but we don’t!”
The port engine suddenly stops. We are left with only the starboard engine, but the boat keeps going. The boat, our Fata Morgana, keeps going, against the wind, against the waves, against all odds: she takes it. She is like a brick house, they told us, heavy and stable. Such are the Leopard catamarans built in 2001, you will see when you hit bad weather.
Sometime after midnight on the third night, Ivo falls asleep in the cockpit. Viktor and I take turns at the helm, although we do nothing, just sit there and stare at the GPS and the wind-speed indicator. Wind is still the same. The autopilot is navigating and the starboard engine is slowly pushing us towards Cuba. Twelve miles left. Six more hours of darkness. How many more waves?
By this time, we are beyond fear. You can only feel fear for so long. After some time, you just get used to it, accept your situation, prepare mentally for all the imaginable possibilities, for the worst, and ride it out. You kind of become numb. But you never stop hoping. We came so far, why not getting all the way to the shores of Cabo San Antonio? Why not getting to the shallow calm waters where our anchor can reach down and grab the sand? Can you imagine? Land, safety.
Then I fall asleep.
The next morning is the most beautiful perfect morning in our lives. Fata Morgana is anchored, gently swaying on top of crystal blue waters. I can see the bottom underneath. The shore is so close. We sit in the cockpit in silence and look at each other smiling. We breathe. We breathe as if it is the first time we are breathing in our lives, like if we are being born, but realizing it and enjoying it so much, big gulps of air, can’t get enough of it.