March 31, 2010
Puerto de Vita, Holguin Province, Cuba
The sailing had been supremely invigorating. Choosing not be bound by the rather pedestrian forecast the wind chose to blow at a very proud 25 knot winds off our port quarter for the entire 24 hour day of sailing. Unconstrained by the very plebian forecast of 1 meter waves chose to present at a robust 2.5 meters.
It was a Lighthouse Day. (you know: "OOOOOOOOOhhhhh, what a feeeeeeeeling. What a RUSSSSSHHHHHHH"). It was a day for the log book.
As dark came on the sound of the water sluicing no make that schlussing, past the hull proved soporific. All were calm. The boat rocked through 20 degrees of heel as each tall black wave raced our transom, giving Meredith a good natured shove as wave bested boat. You could feel the water, in a good natured jibe. "Come on old girl. Pick up the pace" the ocean urged "We're having fun tonight".
A full moon iced the night with full output. Who needs the sun when we were enjoying "Walmart Parking Lot" level illlumination through the night. Moon did not set until 0630 the next morning.
About 0330 (a.m.) the Budget Committee, who was manning the helm solo for the 0200 to 0400 shift, called me out of my early morning conference with Morpheus. Seductively she whispered in my hear "Benner Wake Up. WE'RE IN 14 FEET OF WATER!".
Sleep lifted from my brain like a jello helmut. "What's the story" I asked as I sat up. I remember at the time thinking that this was a very intelligent question. I was pleased to have responded so authoritatively to an emergency presented with such delicacy.
"We're in shallows!" yelled the now breathless Budget Committee. I do not think she was hyperventilating. She always breathes that fast when she is working feverishly to turn the boat and calm flapping sails.. While she called me from sleep the BC had turned Meredith head to wind, spilling our sails and taking all forward motion off the boat. This is a very intelligent response to a situation where your boat is proceeding at breakneck speed into shallow water. It stops the proceeding part.
While the procedure sounds quite obvious and in fact is simple to execute if one has the presence of mind it is not all gravy. No one tells you for example how much noise a sail makes when it is allowed to flap uncontrolled in a 25 knot wind in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean in the middle of a deep deep sleep. It makes a lot of noise.
"The depth sounder says 14 feet" explained the BC in a tenor of voice commensurate with the proceedings. "Now it is 16 feet, 10 feet, 18 feet. We are in shallows. We have to turn around"
This simple fact, supported by the incontrovertable evidence of the depthsounder was more than just alarming. It was also very disappointing on a personal level. You see I had planned the route. Could I have set a course that took us through a reef?
Evidence was mounting that I might have made a fatal mistake. Failure to properly check a route for hazards such as mid ocean shallows is one of those no brainer things. Yet here was evidencne that a good chunk of my medulla obligata had gone AWOL. And it was presented under such charming conditions.
Despite the racket I checked the depth sounder. The Budget Committee was bang on. It was pegged at 14 feet and flashing "last". This means it is in water too deep to get a proper reading. It was telling us that at that very moment we were in very deep water but very recently we had been in 14 feet of the stuff.
But we were supposed to be in 6,500 feet, give or take a couple hundred. Both chart and chartplotter agreed with me on that, not that I take much comfort from agreement of my feeble minded chartplotter.
Things were not adding up. No further shallow water indications being delivered up by the depth sounder we elected to proceed with great caution until we sorted out how much trouble we were in and what we had to do to fix it. If nothing else turning back on course would stop our poor sails from beating themselves to death in the stiff breeze. It would also shut them up.
Slowly we turned Meredith back onto a beam reach. No further evidence of a shelf or uncharted plateau or bank was detected.
So what had happened?
Here is what we figure:
Every now and then when sailing in deep ocean water the depth sounder will flash a depth - 27 feet, or 48 feet. We have always thought this was caused when Meredith sailed over a big fish. The denser mass of the fish when hit by the sonar pulse from the depth sounder appeared as bottom to the depthsounder and give a reading.
We had sailed over a school of very big fish.
A lot of fish. Big fish. The depth sounder went crazy on the Budget Committee as Meredith sailed over a pod of whales or mutant Tuna or swordfish or something.
Each fish in the school was big enough to trigger a response from the depth sounder. This explained the rapidly changing readings which arrested the heart of the poor Budget Committee. As each fish, swimming at different depths of water went under the boat the depth sounder went crazy - fish at 12 feet, 18 feet, 16 feet.
It sure would look like you were running your boat onto a shoal wouldn't it?
I am so thankful we pulled in our fishing gear at dark. One of those monsters might have wanted a snack as it passed our stern.
By the time things had calmed down it was 0400. My watch.
The BC settled in for her two hours of well earned rest.