Off Goes the Wedding Ring

If you sail long and often enough, you will likely experience a fair amount of the good with the bad. Those are the odds; no getting around it. We did indeed experience some mishaps and accidents. One of the more memorable ones comes to mind.

After two years in South America, we sailed briefly through the West Indies from the Windward and Leeward Islands, making our way up to Florida. We had just day-sailed from Martinique to the island of Dominica, arriving peacefully one late afternoon, and anchored for the night intending to indulge in a leisure dinner and a good night’s sleep before heading out the next morning.

Sightseeing at a few of the islands along the way, we couldn’t really dawdle too much because we had recently discovered that Michel had a hernia, and he was somewhat handicapped for heavy maneuvering on the boat. We had hoped to take care of it in Martinique, but given that hurricane season was approaching, it wouldn’t be wise for us to be in the West Indies as he convalesced from such an operation. So we were making headway to the States to see what we could do.

The anchorage in Dominica was rather deep, and apparently a more rocky than sandy bottom. An anchor holds better in sand than in rocks. We had a little trouble getting the anchor to hold, but after a couple of attempts, it seemed fine. We had developed a pretty surefire system in our anchoring strategy by now, and it was rare that we dragged anymore (what the boat does when the anchor slips from its hold). We learned our lessons from several harried anchoring mishaps in the beginning of our career. Typically I would be at the wheel, and manipulate the engine speed and gears to forward and neutral positions in order to get the boat well positioned heading into the wind so Michel could drop the anchor and its long heavy chain in the desired spot. Once he decided it was set properly, I would put the engine in reverse, pulling hard on the anchor and chain to make sure it held. This we did, as so many times before, and it seemed fine. However, realizing that we were anchored on a narrow, rocky shelf, there wasn’t much room to wiggle should the anchor shift, so we stayed alert.

There is a good, solid feel on board when the boat is well anchored. The boat moves in harmony with the swell and stays nose into the wind. We knew the noises of Cowabunga at anchor—certain halyards and stays that clanged in a regular rhythm. When those noises and movements went awry, my body and ears knew it immediately, and a quick look outside often confirmed that.

Indeed, we were just about to sit down to dinner. Michel had been outside for a while, keeping an eye on things because he still wasn’t one hundred percent sure that we were solidly tethered. By picking a landmark on the shore, you could also tell if the anchor was dragging. We thought we’d go ahead and eat and take our chances. The anchor chain was creaking abnormally within its groove in the windlass at the bow, on the front of the deck (the device that lets the chain out, reels it in, as well as holding it in place at anchor). Fifteen minutes after we sat down to eat, Michel popped back outside for a quick look.

“We are dragging,” he declared.

“Do you really think so? It doesn’t feel too much like it,” trying to convince myself otherwise.

“Yes,” he answered very decidedly in the no nonsense tone. “Let’s go.”

I really didn’t want to have to re-anchor now. The sun had set, it was very dark, and we still needed to finish the evening routine of getting the boys to bed, let alone finish dinner. So, we put everything on hold, fired up the engine one more time, and got ready to lift the anchor to start the process all over again.

Since the anchorage was unusually deep, Michel had let out more chain than usual. The more chain out, the better the hold. We had an additional little dicey problem, however, in that our chain was in inches, and the windless groove was a metric gauge, so the two didn’t exactly fit well together. Michel always had to keep an eye on it, and help it along as we lifted or let out the anchor. Lifting the anchor this time was rather tedious since it had already dragged out of the rocky shelf and all 180 feet was pretty much dangling vertically straight down from the bow. That was a lot of heavy chain for a man with a hernia to deal with.

The windlass worked slowly and laboriously to lift it all. Michel hovered over it to make sure it wouldn’t slip. And then it did—not much, but enough that several precious hard-won feet fell right back into the water. Against his better judgment, and with no time to control his gut reflex reaction, Michel grabbed for the chain to keep it from slipping. He didn’t have his gloves on, and his whole left hand got tangled up and smashed with the chain and the windlass before he was able to stop the sliding.

He yelled bloody murder. I was at the wheel, and given our precarious position in relation to the shore and the wind, and not being anchored, I couldn’t leave my spot. I was controlling the engine so we wouldn’t drift onto the shore. I couldn’t see what had happened, and he was in agony. Only several hours later would I see what had happened: the blood and the broken fingers.

We had no choice but to raise the chain any way possible. Now with his hernia, and badly hurt hand, Michel really struggled to lift the chain, literally inch by inch, back onto the boat, with just his one good, right hand. I kept maneuvering the boat so we wouldn’t drift onto the shore. At the speed he was able to work, it took hours—a chore that would have normally taken 10-15 minutes. All this began around 8:00 p.m. We finally put the last section of chain back into the hold around 1:00 a.m. We were exhausted, but not done. We couldn’t re-anchor; Michel was in no shape to attempt it again. We had no choice but to head out to sea, hopefully to find a small town with a dock, and a doctor at the closest possible next island. With this in mind we targeted a small group called The Saintes, near Guadeloupe.

Michel was not in good shape, so I steered most of the night. Despite his handicaps, he made a huge effort to anchor us in the lee of The Saintes the next morning. His hand was horribly swollen, and in particular his wedding ring finger so we had to cut off the wedding ring with the available tools on board. We then promptly put the dinghy in the water, and he headed to shore in quest of finding a doctor. He returned an hour later, one finger splinted as it turned out, wounds dressed, and the morale on board was a bit better. We stayed in the picturesque this spot a few days to recuperate mentally and physically before moving on.