I should have been
wary of sailing to Lighthouse Reef atoll after our inauspicious
departure. Four adventure-minded but mostly inexperienced sailors had
joined me in San Pedro, Belize, aboard my 44-foot steel ketch.
We were bound for the Bay Islands of Honduras with a planned stop at
Lighthouse Reef, home of the famed Blue-Hole dive spot. It was
early February and an uncharacteristically cold northwest wind was
sweeping across Belize. Northers (cold fronts) rarely reach that far
We were headed
southeast, and the wind was ideal, if we could just clear the harbour.
The lure of Belize's Blue Hole attracts many cruising boats.
The author finds that a mishap out here puts a new priority
on self-sufficiency and anchoring techniques.
The stiff breeze was
literally blowing the water out of the narrow channel between the
beach and the fringing barrier reef. The water level was dropping
before our eyes. If we didn't clear the harbour soon we might not be
able to leave for days. Several times we gained momentum and steered
hopefully toward the dogleg pass through the reef only to feel the
dull thud of my seven-foot keel mating with thin sand and turtle
grass. Hard astern went the engine, the sails were backed, the
crew would lean outboard, and eventually Fortuna would float
free. We repeated this drunken scene at least a half-dozen times
before we finally reached the freedom of deep water.
We enjoyed a
rollicking 50-mile sail out to the atoll as the winds and seas built
throughout the day. Fortuna handles well in heavy going and
we averaged six knots under mizzen and staysail. By late afternoon we
had the pass at Half Moon Cay in sight. The sparkling turquoise
shallows inside the atoll promised a respite from the angry Caribbean.
We carefully navigated through the reef-lined pass and found a secure
anchorage in 12 feet of water. There were pockets of coral all around
us. The setting was both enchanting and eerie. Half Moon
Cay is a postcard-perfect tropical island with a covering of palm and
gumbo-limbo trees and a weathered lighthouse on the eastern end. The
wind was shrieking through the rigging, and the seas were exploding
majestically along the reef. Yet, Fortuna was snug,
lying to a heavy fisherman's anchor with an all-chain rode payed out
to a 10:1 scope. The only other vessel in sight was the rusted wreck
of an island freighter stranded on the reef, a silent reminder that
help was a long way away and foolish mistakes were not long tolerated.
As darkness descended
the crew prepared a welcome hot meal. We dropped below to eat and
toasted our splendid isolation with a glass of Fortuna's
best Merlot. The crew moaned when I announced that anchor watches
would be necessary, given the strong winds. Halfway through
dinner I suddenly felt a draft blowing through the main companionway;
something was wrong—we were dragging anchor! I dashed up into
the cockpit just in time to hear the horrible grinding of the boat's
keel crashing into a coral head. The darkness was complete and I was
further blinded by the glow of the interior lights. Frantic, I
started the engine and shoved it into gear but we weren't moving.
As my eyes started to adjust to the darkness, I noticed coral heads
poking just above the surface along the port side—and along the
starboard side. We were in a terrible situation.
Small waves were
lifting the bow causing the hull forward to grind on the reef. I
silently offered thanks to whatever gods there are that look after a
steel hull. Once I had my bearings in the inky blackness I determined
the direction toward the deeper water where we had been anchored. I
was surprised and dismayed at how disoriented I had become.
Unfortunately, since the lighthouse wasn't working and the unlit spire
was only just visible, it was difficult to maintain accurate bearings.
I lost valuable time by trying to motor off the reef. I gunned
the engine forward and backward, rocking the boat to and fro, but it
was no use—she was stuck. Finally, the engine overheated.
If your boat ends up aground, wave height, wind direction,
tidal state, and whether the bow points landward or out to sea
will all play a role in the strategy to get it floating again.
"It looks like we
better get a kedge out," said the late Dr. Dave Morrison. Dave, a
long-time friend and frequent shipmate, was the one experienced sailor
among the crew. I immediately realized that he was right, I
should have set a kedge first thing. What was I thinking?
A kedge is simply a
word for an anchor that is deployed when you are aground.
Kedging is the process of hauling in on that anchor in attempt to
float the boat. Before we could set a kedge, we had to launch
the dinghy. We lost more valuable time dragging the Zodiac out
of the lazzarette and inflating it. As this was taking place,
Dave hauled in the slack primary anchor rode and began flaking the
spare rode on the foredeck, preparing it to run without a hitch. We
then tossed the dinghy overboard and I rowed to the bow.
Dave suggested that
we set the lighter, Deep Set Danforth with an all-rope rode first
knowing that it would be much easier for me to row with that anchor in
the dinghy than with the heavy fisherman and all-chain rode. I
decided not to use the small outboard motor because in my one other
kedging experience I had fouled the prop of the outboard and even when
it was operational found that I could track better with the oars.
Also, it is better to leave the dinghy transom clear for anchoring
manoeuvres. Dave handed down the anchor and a huge pile of
three-quarter-inch three-strand line.
As I began to row
into the wind, it was apparent that we had dragged onto the reef
leading with our stern quarter. This was good and bad news.
At least we could set the kedge off the bow and use the bow rollers as
guides and the windlass for leverage. However, the engine is usually
more effective in reverse when trying to free the boat, and now our
only hope of getting off the reef was bow first. I rowed until
all 200 feet of the rode was lying in the water and then after a quick
check to make sure that the anchor was not wrapped around anything,
including my ankle, I plopped it over the dinghy's stern. Dave waited
for it to hit the bottom and then took in the slack. It didn't
bite. The thin sand over the limestone bottom kept the Danforth
from taking hold. I had learned from experience and from talking
with local fishermen that a fisherman-style anchor, locally called "da
hook," was the best anchor for Belize bottoms. After a second try with
the same result, we switched to the fisherman. At this point I
was exhausted and very concerned with our situation. Finally the
kedge was set at an angle of about 30 degrees off the bow, and I rowed
back to the boat.
The crew had been
trying to raise other vessels or shore stations on the VHF radio, but
silence and static were the only responses. We started to haul
in on the windlass and felt the rode draw tight, like a guitar
string, and the boat eased ahead. I fired up the engine and
raised the main and mizzen to heel the boat. After gaining
about five hard-won feet, the kedge dragged again.
kind of bottom conditions your anchor works
best in can help keep you in the place you once you're anchored.
At least we didn't
lose ground. We hauled the anchor back aboard and I rowed out
and reset the kedge. I also, tried the Danforth again, and this
time it buried into the bottom. Using snatch blocks we led the
Danforth rode to the primary sheet winch. This time the anchors were
better positioned, about 45 degrees off the bow. We alternated
hauling on one and then the other, creating a wriggling motion, almost
like a tow vessel might. We kept the diesel steady ahead and
sails sheeted in and full. We were gaining ground, which was
easy to tell by the scratches we heard along the hull. Just when
it seemed like we might pull the boat free, the bow lurched up and we
came to an abrupt halt.
During this process I
kept checking the bilge, making sure that we were not taking in water.
Obviously, the last thing you want to do is haul your boat into deep
water if the hull has been holed. The hull was intact, but the
grinding and thumping was horrible to endure. It is strange the
emotions you feel during a crisis like this. On one hand I felt
like I had betrayed my boat and crew and on the other I also felt
horrible that I was responsible for destroying precious coral. I had
to make a conscious effort not to sink into a deep funk; at that
moment I needed clear thinking and positive action, not self-pitying
Some boats take groundings better than others.
No other hull material can take the beating steel can.
We tried and tried to
haul the boat over that last hump, but she was not budging. The
wind had finally eased, the front had clearly past, so working from
the dinghy to reset the kedges wasn't quite as laborious as earlier in
the evening. Around 0200, I told the crew to gather their
valuables. I had decided to begin unloading supplies from the boat to
Half Moon Cay to lighten the ship—it seemed like our only hope if we
were to save the boat ourselves. I had no confidence that any other
vessels were headed our way, especially given the recent blustery
weather. As we began the process and I was already planning to
run one of the kedge line to the masthead to really heel the boat,
Dave noticed that the wind had shifted from the northwest to the east.
We decided to give kedging one more try.
We hoisted the number
one genoa and reset the kedges. The boat was heeling in the
opposite direction and felt like it might just slide past the coral
hump. I fired up the engine and we began to pull for all we were
worth. Nothing—the damned boat would not move. The rodes were
taut and I was worried that if they parted they could be lethal,
although it was much more likely the anchors would drag long before
that. Suddenly we lurched forward and then, miraculously, we shot
ahead—we were floating! We cheered and then quickly doused the sails
and throttled back the engine; we didn't want to sail right back onto
a reef. I longed for daylight to see other lurking heads.
We shorted up scope on both anchors, although maintaining a scope of
near 10:1, until we were secure in about 10 feet of water.
Sitting in the
cockpit, we were all exhausted, both mentally and physically. Still,
nobody was ready to head below and we all greeted the sun a couple
Eight Thoughts on Kedging
1. We were lucky
that the anchorage was fairly well protected and despite having
dragged, we were not driven farther and farther onto the reef by
large, crashing waves. This is often the case when you drag onto a
lee shore. In that instance, and in ours, the sooner you set
the kedge the better, although it is much harder to set when
aground on a dangerous lee shore.
2. You should try
to kedge the boat off in the opposite direction in which you went
aground. It is almost always the most direct path to deep
3. Rowing the
anchor out is usually better than using an outboard.
Rowing keeps the dinghy transom clear. Hard dinghies are
better for kedging emergencies than inflatables.
4. It really
helped our situation when we set two kedges, about 45 degrees
apart and created a back-and-forth, wriggling motion. It was
an instant improvement over just trying to muscle the boat
5. Extra large
snatch blocks are quite useful aboard, especially when kedging
off. By attaching one block directly to the anchor chain or
rode, you can run another line, creating a handy-billy and
significantly increase your purchase.
6. Once the kedge
is set, take time to analyze the situation. Work methodically. It
is amazing what you can accomplish if you take it step by step and
keep a positive attitude.
sure that the hull has not been holed—this is critical. If
the boat has been holed, try to determine if it will sink or stay
more or less where it is. More lives are lost trying to
abandon a grounded vessel than during the storm that drives it
onto the rocks in the first place. Stay with the boat until
conditions warrant leaving.
8. Heeling the
boat over can really help. In addition to the sails, you can
also run the kedge line to the masthead to accentuate the heel.
Also, if you have a hard dinghy you can fill it with water and
suspend it from the spinnaker pole for a heeling lever.
In our age of
wide-spread towing insurance and instant communications, it's easy
to think that you will never need to kedge your boat off.
This is a flawed assumption, especially if you plan to cruise
beyond US waters. Have a plan in mind along with the right