Waters of Chaos

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.

 

 

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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.

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About lifenomadik

We are a family aboard a boat in search of freedom and adventure.
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14 Responses to Waters of Chaos

  1. David says:

    quote „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 hope you learned the lesson well, Ivo, never push it that close to a weather window. At the pace we travel on water, always give yourself the benefit of a good few days of clear weather if it is a longer crossing . . . glad that you are all still around to continue the journey!

    • lifenomadik says:

      Lesson learned. And along with this lesson we learned a bunch of other ones: reef before, not after the squall hits; tacking in strong winds is hard; the engine is important; the boat can take more than we thought, etc.

      Plus, I told him so, didn’t I?

      Anyway, we are fine. I guess we had to experience this at some point.

      Thank you, David, for your feedback and good wishes! We hope to see you soon guys. We are in Key West now and will be heading to the Bahamas in a few days.

  2. Jesse says:

    Wow Mira… you have an amazing way with words. I was terrified the whole time i was reading. So glad you all made it through. What a memory to have, please keep safe out there.

  3. Marc says:

    WOW! Da ste jivi i zdravi! Be careful next time! Always think about safety before time! Take care guys!

    Marc, Krisi, Valia y Vladi!

  4. Tom says:

    I have your site bookmarked and everyday while I drink my coffee before work I check for any updates on your awesome adventure.

    Glad to hear your ok and you guys are in my thoughts.

    Tom

  5. Nikolay Shishmanov says:

    Здравейте приятели, невероятен разказ…Радвам се че всичко е завършило благополучно.
    Поздрави
    P.S. Гордея се с вас!

  6. Nokomis says:

    Just found your blog and love it. We are nomads ourselves but on land. We just bought a house and I have been feeling sad about it. My husband just got back from Indonesia and now we will be moving there and possibly getting a boat.after a story like this though I worry about our two small boys in such a situation!

    So thankful you made it out ok.

    I will be casting a protective sheen over you.

    All the best!

    • lifenomadik says:

      Thank you Nokomis, I love the protective sheen already!

      Yes, it is a bit scary sometimes on a boat, but after, when you look back at everything, it is so worth it. And these sorts of danger situations could be avoided most of the time, you don’t ever have to run in front of storms, you just take your time and wait for fair winds like most people do. I heard about cruisers who have been sailing for decades and never experienced storms.

      The boys will love the boat idea, I am sure! The younger the better too, don’t wait too long. They will learn so much through travel, school should not be a concern at all.

      Good luck to you all and welcome aboard our journey!

      Thank you for your comments, we love them!

  7. Раковски says:

    Малей! Каква история и колко добре описана. Как човек претръпва пред лицето на смътните изпитания, а?!
    Не бива да виниш Иво за нищо, той е истинкси мъж, мъжете имат нужда от такива предизвикателства.
    Все пак в края на краищата, той стоя на пост ден и нощ, нали!

    Ама хубаво, че и ти си била там да документираш премеждието.
    Невероятен отбор сте!

    • lifenomadik says:

      🙂 Ужас беше, Раковски, морето не е шега работа… Има крузъри 30 години на море, но внимават и никога не са преживяли това, което ние преживяхме след 3 месеца мореплаване…. Прогнозата за времето е много важна и не трябва да се пренебрегва. Нептун се сърди на самонадеяните и непредпазливите.

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