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The Whale (Cue The Suspense Music) - Video

[Excerpt from Chapter 9, Becoming Green Turtle  (Abacos) Bahamas Residents]

Although we were bonding with the Green Turtle yachties, we weren’t learning how to sail. The weather was terrible. By now, it had been a little more than two weeks since our arrival (I know, it seems longer, doesn’t it?). Not knowing how long it would take us to sail to other places, and tired of freezing our patooties off, we wanted to get moving again.
But heading south from Green Turtle Cay meant going through one of the toughest spots in the Bahamas. No wonder half the boats in the harbor never went any farther. You either go through Whale Cay Passage (The Whale) out into the ocean for a little bit (where there are waves and submerged poles from a defunct cruise-ship path), or you go on the inside, through the shallow Don’t Rock Passage (part of the Sea of Abaco), where there is a lot of shifting sand (so charts and prior trips through it are not a guarantee of anything).
Usually if one route is bad, you don’t do either one. If it’s rough in the ocean, it’s not a good idea to go through the somewhat calmer Don’t Rock Passage due to poor visibility. If you pick the wrong day to go through The Whale, you will encounter a “rage,” which is not a good thing. A rage sea is when the deep waters on the ocean side are churned up from a weather front or other nastiness (bringing usually easterly winds). The high seas break through this narrow cut between two small islands and enter shallower waters. It gets bottled up, which creates even higher waves that curl and smash whatever’s in their way. There can also be shallow shoals (reefs) inside the cut, invisible due to the big gnarly waves crashing over them. Whitecaps will be everywhere. Which of the angry, bubbling waves are breaking over a reef and which are not? Who knows? Can you see where this is going?

After finding out about yet another impending weather front (meaning more freezing temperatures—no more winters in the Bahamas for us!), we and three other boats (all monohulls) decided to make a run for it.

Because of a big going-away party the night before, which seemed like a good idea at the time, we were feeling pretty tired and hung over the morning of departure (mistake number one).

LESSON 39: DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE And do not drink the night before you drive. Especially if you have a long day ahead of you. We were pretty out of sorts, which does not lead to good decision making. Two grumpy people on a boat are no fun either.

The morning was blustery and overcast. The “buddy boats” got a head start on us because we decided at the last minute to fill our water tanks at the dock. The wind was coming right at us and the tide was going out away from the dock, so tying up was not easy. This is where the adage “Don’t go faster than you want to hit the dock” comes into play. We added only one little chink in the boat; that’s what the bumper is for, right? Michael didn’t need that finger anyway. Who knew he had such a potty mouth?

We were still at the dock when one of the captains radioed that he had decided against trying Don’t Rock Passage because the bottom was unreadable (this should have been our first clue to stay put). That shallow route would be dicey for a catamaran, but his monohull’s deeper draft would make it even more so for him. He and the others would head into the ocean via The Whale. So we decided to do the same and left Green Turtle’s harbor about an hour behind everyone else.

With winds at 25 knots and gusting to 35, we put the sails up (without reefs in the sails to make them smaller—mistake number two for the day) and were moving at about 9 knots. We were initially stoked about the speed, but I could see that there was a lot of pressure on the mainsail’s sheet blocks (a kind of pulley system designed to make it easier to bring in and let out the mainsail). I asked Michael to let out some line (lines or ropes that trim sails are called sheets, but I like line better), and he told me that the line I was pointing to was the line used to drop or raise the sail from or to the top of the mast. (That one is called a halyard.) Huh? I thought that was in the front—we’d just raised the sail that way, didn’t we? I was still insecure about it all, and he was too, so I didn’t push it.

Think about it. We had sailed a total of two times (ever), neither time in these kinds of conditions, so we were clueless. The books we had on board weren’t helping because they didn’t reflect our rigging setup. All I knew was that there was way too much pressure on the rigging and something needed to be done.

The genny (front sail, aka jib or genoa) wasn’t looking too good either. The furler (which extends from the bow of the boat to the masthead and holds the genny taut) was curved like a bow. Picture a boomerang here. Not good.
First things first. I told Michael to let out the mainsheet anyway to see what would happen, but he wouldn’t do it (apparently nobody had told him about the only one captain rule, LESSON 27). We were literally fighting over the rope when we were suddenly almost blinded by flying debris.

Well, that shut us up.

One of the blocks (pulleys) holding the mainsheet had exploded, sending metal ball bearings and plastic pieces whizzing past our faces. At first, we had no idea what had happened. Did somebody shoot at us?! A New Yorker’s instinctive reaction, I guess.

Still not knowing what happened, I turned us out of the wind that had been picking up the whole time. It was about a steady 35 knots at this point (a pleasant sail for us was 13- to 20-knot winds). I ran between the sails to help Michael get them down and then back to the wheel to keep us away from a nearby island. After analyzing the debris field, we traced the problem and realized that we had really screwed up.

Now this is where we should have turned around (mistake number three). We didn’t because we felt pressured to catch up with the others. What if they were waiting for us? We couldn’t reach them via VHF and didn’t want them to worry about us.

We figured that if the other three boats made it out, how bad could it be? We’d just motor. We thought we’d be in better control with just the engines on anyway (mistake number four).

LESSON 40: DON’T BE SHEEP Do not ever allow the perceived pressure of another boat make you go into conditions that you are not qualified to be in. Do not even allow the pressure of family or friends visiting you on a yet-to-be-arrived-at island make you do this. You must trust your instincts and know your limitations. We ignored both. Had we not been seduced by group-think, we never would have gone out there. This extends to weather predictions too. Many “expert” boaters think they know all about weather and sea conditions and try to dictate their predictions to others. Do your own weather and sea-condition research and go out only when you feel comfortable.

LESSON 41: TO SAIL, YOU NEED YOUR SAIL UP!Now, of course, our mainsail was useless because we had lost the ability to control it laterally by means of the mainsheet block. But the lesson remains: If you can, always put up the mainsail. This actually helps with stability. In this case, it might have also provided the extra power we would later need (even if the main should have been reefed, given the wind speeds). After we learned this, we almost always had the mainsail hoisted, even on windless days, if only to keep the boat better balanced. Plus, you frequently start out with one wind strength or direction, only to have it change later. When wind conditions become favorable, it’s nice if the sail is already up. We always hoisted the main while we were at anchor—still protected and conveniently faced into the wind.

So we headed for the Whale Cut, got between the two islands, and were just about past the shoals off Whale Cay when a huge wave broke over the top of us. We looked up at it before it hit us. We looked up! It was so powerful that it broke open one of the locked hatches, sending seawater gushing into the cabin below.

Did I mention that it started pouring rain around this time? I couldn’t see a thing (I later learned—in spite of laughing at the suggestion—that snorkel gear would have helped here.)

Michael was trying to fasten the plastic wind/rain screen on the bimini (canvas cockpit cover) so we could protect ourselves, but he was getting thrown all over the place. I looked past him and screamed over the roar of the water for him to brace himself because I knew we were going to be slammed by another wave. Yet another window was forced open, this time in the galley.

After that one, I dragged Michael behind me and told him I was going to turn around. We didn’t have strong enough engines to push us past the breaking waves. Smoke was actually coming out of the engines from the strain.

Plus, all we could see for miles ahead of us were churning white seas. Turning around was the first smart thing we did all day. Actually, filling the water tanks had been the smartest thing. They made us heavier and kept us from being flipped. Yes, it was that bad.

I waited for the next lull between waves and then started to turn the boat around. I had to catch a wave just right so we wouldn’t be broadsided. I was terrified. We were so lucky (and it was luck) to hit the wave just right, and we surfed down the other side back toward safety. Before we could even breathe a sigh of relief, though, I looked to our port side and realized that we were incredibly close to the shoals. I had been so worried about all the other stuff, I had completely for- gotten about them. Michael was literally frozen in place gripping the wheel with me, both of us white-knuckled. Whether we hit the shoals or not would depend on how the next wave hit us. Steerage was pretty much out.

This is where scenes go into slow motion in the movies. Here comes the next monster wave; the wide-eyed crew holds their breath; the boat goes up . . . up . . . up . . . and then slides down . . . down . . . down . . . and . . ?
They miss the shoals! Cue the triumphant music! The two waterlogged sailors jump up and down in sheer jubilation!

Well, we had missed the reef, but we skipped the jubilation part.
No really! Whose idea was this?!

Poor Shaka had been so scared that he pooped on our new carpet. He had never done that before, but I understood. I’m not sure we weren’t close to soiling our own pants. He had also barfed all over the place. Michael and I must have been too terrified to get seasick. Neither of us said a word as we motored back to Green Turtle. Neither of us let go of the wheel either. I wouldn’t doubt we were in shock. I’m pretty sure we were both thinking the same thing though. What the heck were we doing? Regarding The Whale. Regarding boating in general. We didn’t belong out there.


It was a long, wet slog back, but boy were we glad to get anchored again. As soon as we guessed that the anchors were set (yes, guessed—who knew? At this point we weren’t sure we could do anything right), we started pumping water out of the boat. Even the dinghy, which was hanging above the stern on davits, was full of water—that’s how high the towering waves were that had crashed over us.
We continued to robotically hang stuff out to dry and pull out the bedding and the cushions. It wasn’t long before all the nearby cruisers abandoned their ships like ants from an anthill, and we were surrounded by dinghies full of concerned sailors asking us what had happened.

We were still pretty pale and shaken up and didn’t want to talk about it. Of course, Robbie also tootled over and said he was glad to see us. When we told him what happened, he said we were lucky we turned back. It would have only gotten worse.

As a matter of fact, someone on one of the lead boats had been yelling at us the whole time not to come out. We hadn’t heard them. Turns out they had made it through before the tides switched, and with their deeper keels and larger engines were able to weather the waves better than we could have. Not that they would have done it again. By the time we went through the passage, no one should have attempted it. Uh, yeah, we figured that out.

For all the lessons learned during that debacle, buy A Sail of Two Idiots.


  1. Love it!!! I bought the book and am reading it today!! So good I can not put it down! We currently have a 26ft cruising boat
    "C's Life"....but loooong to live the life you chose.

    1. If you two can live on a 26' cruising boat, you were waaaaaay ahead of us. I hope Idiots allows you to live the life you long for. Sail on!

  2. Just finished the book. Great!

    BTW, Bea and I were the students with Steve and Stelly when you grounded at Little Harbor.

    Hope to see you guys again when we cut free in a couple of years with Bea's retirement.


    1. OMG! Hello to Randy & Bea! I love that you contacted me and that you two are a part of our story. So how many times were you called Blonkers or Plonkers then? Too funny. I'm glad to hear you plan to head out to sea and I appreciate your purchase of my book. I hope it helped. Feel free to email if you have any questions and make sure you look us up wherever we are at the time of your departure. Best to you both, Renee


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