Current Location: Bahia del Sol, El Salvador
There’s a part of me that feels guilty about writing this entry before updating you on all of other adventures in El Salvador and how much we love it here. The people, the weather, the culture, the pupusas! Life is quite tranquil and peaceful here; very little drama. I must admit I'm never one for high drama. I like it this way. However, this tale must take precedence over the trivial and tame events that take place during the average day of a cruiser.
It’s taken me the past few days to digest what occurred on last Saturday evening. If it was a tall tale, it would appropriately begin with a line like “It was a dark and stormy night”……but unfortunately it isn’t a fictional story or fairy tale, it was real.
It began tamely enough and followed the pattern of any other Saturday night for us. We took a dip in the pool, had dinner, socialized with other cruisers over a cold beer and took a dinghy ride back to our boat. We had recently decided to pull up anchor and move over to the mooring field joining about 20 other boats.
In retrospect it was like checking into Psycho’s - Norman Bate’s Motel. There was no crazy, murderous Anthony Perkins dressed up like his mother, attacking us in the shower, but Mother Nature did show up. She decided to create a fright night in her own shower stall, called Bahia del Sol Estuary.
We arrived back at our boat around 7:00 p.m. and started to relax, eat some dessert and put on P.J.s (apparently to my fellow Floating Frat House members, this means changing out of a wet bathing suit and into underwear…if I’m lucky).
As the wind picked up and the common nightly thunder and lightning show began, I reassured Mickey and J.P. all would be well. I recall saying something like, “let’s get cozy, put in the hatch boards and enjoy snuggling up while it rains for a bit. Maybe watch a movie.”
It should be noted that Mickey REALLY doesn’t like thunder and lightning, but has shown great courage and witnessed that many of the storms do not pass overhead. It’s the beginning of rainy season in Central America and nightly rain, thunder and lightning are common.
On our first encounter with this phenomenon, we found ourselves at anchor running around in the cockpit stashing things and taking down anything that could blow away. It took us by surprise and you will cringe to discover we were both butt-naked while doing this. There was not enough time to change clothes and it was too darn hot for foulies. Take heart, nobody was anchored close enough to witness this scary event and if they were, I’m sure their dreams are haunted by naked Doolittle’s dancing in their heads. For this I apologize.
Little did we know we were about to experience our first “microburst” weather (see www.2littledoolittlescruising.blogspot.com for the scientific explanation).
A microburst is a small, very intense downdraft that descends to the ground resulting in a strong wind divergence. The size of the event is typically less than 4 kilometers across. Microbursts are capable of producing winds of more than 100 mph causing significant damage. The life span of a microburst is around 5-15 minutes.
It began benign enough and we followed the same protocol we had before (clothed this time). However, within 20 minutes we were experiencing high winds, a deluge of rain, and intense thunder and lightning. As I handed up a raincoat and lifejacket to Ben in the cockpit, the wind had picked up to 80 M.P.H. and the rain was coming down in sheets. It was difficult see our position and other boats, until the night sky was lit up by flashes of lightning. To put it into a term I embarrassingly admit to using in the 80’s, “It was getting GNARLY!!”
Ben turned to me and calmly yelled over the howling wind, “That boat over there is moving! He’s loose from his mooring!! Give me the radio!!”
Sundancer had been off our port bow and was now moving fast down the estuary directly at another boat, Blythe Spirit. Ben announced over the radio a warning for the other cruisers to watch out for the drifting vessel and gave a heads up to Blythe Spirit that a boat was coming right at them. Thinking and acting quickly, Sundancer’s skipper threw out his anchor and came to a stop after missing the other boat by about 15 feet. For a minute Ben and I thought we had imagined it, but soon realized what he had done. I quickly made a mental note, “have anchor ready to go”. I’ll admit it was not a comforting thought to picture Ben handling a huge hunk of metal on our bow, while lightning bolts filled the sky.
Only moments before, I was gently telling the boys that this was just another rain storm, and was now shoving their lifejackets in their face and sternly commanding, “Put these on NOW!” I could see the contempt on their faces and the clear accusations of “You’re a stinkin’ liar!! This is NOT just another rainstorm!“
At this point we were being tossed about on our mooring ball and after violently heaving to port a few times; I considered that we may be breaking free very soon. As Ben looked out over the cockpit dodger, he saw our bow disappear under the water and bounce back up again. This repeated action was enough to cut us free from the mooring ball and we quickly started to drift.
Let me pause for a minute here and articulate what happened in Molly’s world at this point. (Yeah, I know this is like one of those annoying “emergency broadcast tests” that occur on your TV while watching your favorite show..….you can skip ahead if you want).
When the weather picked up, Ben instinctively knew that this storm cell was not like any other. It took me longer to come to this realization. However, when I knew the sh## was about to go down, (sorry, but there really is no other word to describe it), a calmness came over me. Call it motherly instinct, the ability to stay calm under pressure, an out of body experience, being in the moment….whatever, but everything fell away except for the fact that my family and I were going to survive this and I would do everything in my power to make this happen.
In a way it reminded me of giving birth to J.P. I waited and waited to go to the hospital and barely made it there, because I knew my body could do it on its own and I didn’t want anybody gettin in my space like the first time. It was a visceral, primal experience and even in the face of nurses telling me I wasn’t close to giving birth, I knew they were wrong and I was getting this done on my own terms.
Imagine their surprise when that kid popped out and practically shot across the room as they wheeled me into the delivery room.
Yep, I was going to get this done….come hell or high water (ironically we were experiencing both at the moment).
As we broke free, I ran to the electrical panel, adjusting the batteries so Ben could start the engine and turned on the navigation instruments, which includes a depth sounder. As Ben stood at the helm, I stood in the cockpit and read aloud that the current water depth was “5-9” which indicated we were 9 inches away from running aground. If this occurred we were screwed and would be at the mercy of the swell and hurricane strength winds. I remember looking over at the dark gray water as Ben did a u-turn with our boat, quietly willing it to make the turn. Glancing at the depth, we were now 6 inches away from hitting bottom. Miraculously we swung clear, back in control of our boat and headed into the deeper water of the channel. Crisis diverted….for the moment.
For the next 15 minutes we drove up and down the finally decided to anchor behind the marina where there would be more protection from the 72 knot winds. I took over at the helm, heading up into the wind and Ben stood in the cockpit scoping out a place to anchor. The wind and rain was so strong I couldn’t keep my eyes focused as water pelted my eyes. I informed Ben that I really couldn’t see anything and he headed out to the bow to take a look. I soon heard him screaming from the bow, “TURN-TURN-NOW!”
Then I saw her. The boat Talaria appeared in front of us about 10 yards off our bow. I wrenched the wheel to the right as we barely swung clear of her. She had broken free of her mooring, side swiping another sailboat and was awaiting assistance to enter the marina. It clearly articulates how dark and confusing it was out there that night, we couldn’t see a 42 foot boat 30 feet in front of us.
Crisis averted once again. This is where the narrator of the story would say, “Those Doolittles are lucky bastards!”
Little did we know the boats in the marina were undergoing their own challenges. Cleats had broken free, waves were crashing over the wooden dock and barrels used keep the pier afloat were flying everywhere. Go to www.svbellastar.com for the exciting story at the dock and some great photos.
If we had known this, we probably would have second guessed our decision that night to take a slip and tie up.
As quickly as the system had developed, it went strangely calm just as rapidly. This allowed us to tie up to the dock for the night and lick our emotional wounds as there was no physical damage to any of us or Knee Deep. As we maneuvered our way in, all hands were on deck assisting and attempting to get everyone to safety. That’s what happens in the cruising world, when people need help, everyone jumps in to make it happen. We rely on each other and it’s one of my favorite things about this life.
The boys quickly hopped off the boat and I found it fascinating that they had huge smiles plastered across their faces. When someone asked Mickey what he thought of the events of the last hour, he replied, “That was awesome!!” And later in the evening, J.P. made the astute observation, “I really liked how everybody was helping each other!” It put their mother’s mind at ease that they may not be scarred for life after all.
Mickey and J.P. were quickly escorted off to our friends’ boat, Stray Cat and Blue where they were looked after by their surrogate grandmothers who watched them so adoringly.
All in all, only one boat sustained structural damage (see blog post on www.sailpanache.com) for the details and the incredible story of his boat that decided to save itself), while most others were only cosmetic. Physical injuries were what we would categorize as “boat bites” which are bruises and cuts that occur while scurrying around your boat.
The next day was spent partaking in therapy-like conversations on the dock. After an intense event such as this, I found it interesting that an important part of the healing process is the purging and sharing of your stories and observations.
All in all we only lost 3 pair of shoes, the bench to our dinghy and our foot pump. Ironically the guy who rarely wears shoes, retained his flip flops, perhaps it was the weight of them that saved them. In the morning I realized I could not locate Mickey’s new IPod and my Kindle and figured they too had disappeared in the storm. They were later recovered from inside of our microwave. I quickly threw them inside so they wouldn’t get wet from our leaky windows the night before.
As I lay in the cockpit last night looking up at the stars, mulling over how to tell this story, inspiration hit in the form of a James Taylor song, The Secret O Life. Here’s an excerpt:
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it
There ain't nothing to it
Nobody knows how we got to
The top of the hill
But since we're on our way down
We might as well enjoy the ride
Give us a smile now
Isn't it a lovely ride
And gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It's just a lovely ride
Now the thing about time is that time
Isn't really real
It's all on your point of view
How does it feel for you
Einstein said that he could never understand it all
Planets spinning through space
The smile upon your face
Try not to try too hard
It's just a lovely ride
The line that struck me most was “Isn’t it a lovely ride” and the inherent message of just enjoy life. The highs, the lows, the flat lines….all of it. There’s nothing better than experiencing an event like the other night to reinforce that fact.
I could walk away from an event like this, declare it a disaster and leave the sailing life. Or I can learn from it and I wholeheartedly did. I learned that I am capable in a crisis situation and that I would protect my family with everything I’ve got.
I think we all experience things like this, maybe not with this much intensity, but life throws you curve balls and you either get hit by the pitch and whine about it….or smack it out of the park, declaring it a victory. Most of the people I encounter take the homerun every time. I know I will!
I woke up the morning of the storm and told Molly, “We are in for some weather tonight…”. Nor sure what it was but it felt really warm and dry. My “unagi” was working.
We had a typical day and headed out to the boat that evening. Molly is right that in one moment she was telling the boys “Let’s cuddle up and enjoy this” and the very next she was shoving life jackets at them and things were getting interesting.
Here is my description of conditions at the height of the storm: Imagine driving down a country road at 85 MPH on a VERY rainy night…..now turn your headlights off…..NOW put your head out the window! A little scary.
What was most amazing was my crew. The boys hunkered down below and just rode it out. Molly TOTALLY stepped up, taking care of details (the depth sounder was HUGE) that I was too busy to think of.
It was amazing to watch SunDancer pitch violently and pull on her mooring so wildly. She is a very big boat and given the conditions, I was not surprised to see her bust loose. I was shocked at how fast she went passed us. I knew immediately when we broke free and was not worried, as I was able to get the boat to come around and power into the wind and current.
The visibility remained poor which explains how we almost plowed into the back of Talaria.
Again, Molly was totally on and we got snugged up to the dock with no hassle.
Nothing beats Mickey’s “THAT WAS AWESOME”!
I then went into rescue mode and helped pull Tolerance off the pilings that wrecked her, got her secured to the dock, tarped her to stop the ingress of water, and weighted the boom so she would heal away from her cavernous hole.
This was definitely the BIG event of our cruise so far, and I can proudly and confidently say I have an incredible crew. Our family was awesome in the eye of the storm.
Looking forward to getting home and seeing everyone.
Photos by Zachary SO Lough (www.sailpanache.com)
Doolittle boys happy to be at the dock!!!
J.P. checking out the damage to sailboat Tolerance @ Bahia del Sol Marina.