There Be Monsters Below

Wind in the clouds as the storm picks up

Wind in the clouds as the storm picks up

July 29th

Marine Weather Statement Issued 3:55 PM NDT 29 July 2010
A low pressure system over the Labrador Sea will track northward to
lie north of the district tonight. Gale force northwesterly winds
over northwestern waters will subside tonight as the low recedes.

Marine interests are advised that gale warnings are in effect for the
North Labrador Coast and the Northwest Labrador Sea.

Leaving the dangers of the sea for the safety of the harbor is to leave the safety of the sea for the dangers of the harbor. The window of opportunity to transit into safe harbor is always small filled with its own peril. Here, the closer to land the more icebergs, the more icebergs the more bergybits. This gale is from the wrong direction and direction not strength makes it even more ominous. The CAP’N LEM jibs and we head in for the fjords through rocks and shoals awash in the surf. But there is a clear path if taken one turn at a time.

On this heading I cross the 60th parallel. My south most latitude was some 1080 nautical miles below me now and many more miles with all the crooks and turns of river and lakes, cove and coastline navigation added in. Still, I maintain the trip is only one mile long; the mile in front of me.

The mile in front of me is dark with the landing sun and gray with fog. My little radar chooses this time to lose its heading signal, a critical component in painting the truth on the screen. I have to settle for the lie and deduce the truth from that. As the sweep goes round the echo is smeared 360 degrees on the screen. So the little Furuno* even now tries to tell me something. It says, “Something is out there, something big, I won’t tell you which direction but I will tell you how far, now work for it.” So I work for it. If it closes fast it’s ahead, if it holds steady it’s abeam, if it opens it’s astern. I can live with that, for now. At a quarter mile I see it. Big, whiter than the fog, greener than the sea, it’s an iceberg. Now I know. I can sea a quarter mile into the fog. I press on into the fog and repeat the process comparing the GPS to the smears on the radar to the chart plotter and thread my way to anchorage at lat 60° 04′ 56″ N ~ long 064° 23′ 41″ W in 45′ of water. The bear I saw among the shore rocks resents my intrusion and ambles off, yes, over the mountain. I wonder if he may be back in the night, so I decide on a cold cereal supper.

The sun rises at 0451 and with it, as I have come to expect, the wind. This wind is not the slow stead rise of the world warming up. No this is the freight train wind of a frontal passage. The clouds are ragged, the wind gusty, the harbor choppy.

I start my morning routine with a weather eye for trouble. Then I know. I know that I know even though I can’t remember how I know. Two seconds later the anchor alarm on the GPS confirms it. We’re dragging. I’m sitting on the can and we’re dragging anchor. No time for pleasantries. Up with the longjons and out the door.

This is not good. We’re moving fast onto a rocky lee shore. The anchor is not even attempting to grab. At the hatchway I grab the safety line, quick around my waste, a long tailed rolling hitch and a jerk to snug it close. First things First, always. I deal with pants later but not much later for this is a northwest wind and it bites.

Come to life oh little Honda or all it lost! Yes! First try, just as it has thousands of times, it’s alive. Careful now, seconds count but I can not, must not miss a step. Check the engine, is it peeing? Yes, the little stream of cold clear water is shooting from its port to indicate all is well with the cooling system. Check the anchor line, where is it? I consider trying to back away into the wind lest I foul the propeller with the anchor line. Wind too strong. I risk it and power forward slowly increasing speed until just barely creeping ahead, quick back below, dawn rain pants over my longjons, the only thing I can get on without taking off my shoes. Extra sweater, rain jacket and watch cap. Check myself, I warm from exertion, cold from the wind, but OK. Hypothermia can kill as quickly as any bear. My old adage rings in my ear, “It’s easier to stay warm than get warm”.

CAP’N LEM is moving into the wind and the anchor line is streaming aft now. I stop the prop, go forward and haul in anchor line, lay it on deck, go back, push forward with the engine, taking great care of where the anchor line is. Foul the prop… game over, rocks win, Tommy loses. Wind increasing to steady 30 kts. I push into it and repeat the anchor process, only now at short stay the anchor is heavy, damn heavy. 2-6, 2-6 is repeated out loud and gains only inches. Back to the tiller, off auto steer and drag the anchor myself in the opposite direction. Check the chart. Head for deep water. Moving 1 knot, but its moving and getting me blessed searoom.

The sleeping snake

The sleeping snake

When my daughter chose a life at sea and first earned the privilege to stand the conning watch on large vessels my only fatherly advice to her: “Searoom, Searoom, searoom buys you time, time buys you safety. Time, Time, time buys you searoom. Searoom buys you safety!” Well, that wasn’t my only advice In fact, it only opened a flood gate of advice, but that’s what fathers do best, give advice.

The depth sounder shows a rising bottom. Now what? I press on. Surely the anchor will catch on that and I’ll be back to hauling and … but no, we slide past the shoaling with 9 feet under the keel to spare and move into deeper water in a long slow chug. I start the coffee water. By the time its hot I’m in 90′ of water and the anchor hangs straight down when I stop to drift in the fast blowing wind. 2-6, two inches, 2-6, three inches make off the slack I’ve gained and repeat. Now there is a lot of line on deck. Line in a heap is a sleeping snake. Don’t let the anchor run; take the time to make it off as it comes up. If it runs the snake comes alive and can grab a hand, a foot. I go back to reposition in the deep water, rest, make a cup of coffee. I can do that now, even though the job is not finished. I have Searoom. I’ve angled out of the bay so that if anything goes awry I’ll have my searoom and more time. 2-6, 2-6 and now it’s chain. 2-6, 2-6 and the true sea monster bent on destruction is hauled to the surface. Bull Kelp. Kelp, that leaf by slimy leaf, stalk by slimy stalk wrapped it self around the anchor chocking its flukes until they could no longer bite the muddy bottom and gave up and let go.

A true Sea Monster

A true Sea Monster

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the “what could have happened” though I do think about it. I just acknowledge the danger and resolve to take care. The kelp was an unknown. It wasn’t on the surface or marked on the chart. It was just an unknown factor to be dealt with.

One of my all time favorite quotes goes like this: “Tall tales of narrow escapes from death at sea are a sure sign of poor seamanship.”** My aim here is not to spin a tall yarn of my prowess as an escape artist but reveal to you my poor seamanship as well as my good. I had much rather avoided this morning and I hope it never happens again, yet I know the only way for that is to stay home. I’m not ready to stay home.

I am in a land and sea unknown to me. It is filled full of the ‘unknown’ and the ‘unknowable’. I have the best equipment available to me for the job at hand that space would allow. The success of each day will rest only with my choices in handling the unforeseen things the sea and wind send my way. Because I’ve invited you along on my grand adventure, my shipmate, it is of the utmost importance that I tell you just what happens, what the unknowns are, when they become known and how I reacted to them and what the results were.

The anchor is cleared of kelp with the boat hook, brought on deck and stowed as though nothing had happened. I return to the cockpit and adjust the course deeper into the fjord, finish some jobs started before the rude interruption and return outside marveling a beauty of the land, the sea and the storm.

Another cup of coffee, drank slowly this time, with peanut butter on a cracker and I find new anchorage in Williams Harbour at lat. 60° 00′ 16″ N ~ 064° 15′ 59″ W in 35′ of water, wind at 25 kts from the west. The anchor is holding. I check it often. I check the shoreline for bears…often.

*This little wonder has served me well first aboard AVANTI and now aboard the CAP’N LEM. My remarks are not to be taken as a slam against this model or Furuno. In my estimation, Furuno makes some great equipment. This unit has performed for 9 years without fail until now. Job well done!

** Once again, may not have quoted exactly and can not give accurate credit. If someone does know the quote and who made it please let me know. I can only recall its impression on my seagoing life.

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