Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved
"Land ho!" cried my mate when the tiny
of Bimini first appeared. "Right on schedule" I boasted
in reply, inwardly relieved. We’d just made a night
crossing of the infamous Gulf Stream, from Miami to the
Bahamas, in order to arrive in full daylight.
It was the Fourth of July 1975,
America’s Independence Day, and my 40-foot gaff-rigged
ketch, “Autant,” was as traditional as the holiday.
Built in 1927 of double diagonal strip planks, Sitka
spruce spars and lanyards & deadeyes, she had almost no
modern amenities and, most notably, no auxiliary engine.
Needless to say, I was grateful for the steady breeze
that carried towards our landfall.
I knew, however, that we were soon to
lose the wind. The entrance to
Bimini Harbor stretches long and narrow in the lee of
South Bimini Island, where tall casuarina pines block
the prevailing easterlies entirely.
While the air is still, the water is not; a strong tidal
current runs. We'd have to enter with the flood and rely on
it to carry us through the channel to the open harbor, where
we could regain the breeze.
Our timing was perfect; the tide was
mid-way and rising when we arrived. In no time we were in
flat water, ghosting up the channel in between a beach and a
sandbar, wafted along by the current, the sails limp yet
still yielding just enough way for token steerage. After the
turmoil of our offshore passage, the silence was so complete
we found ourselves whispering to each other.
Then all at once the harbor came into
view through the narrow mouth ahead, and the contrast struck
us like a brass band blaring Anchors Aweigh in double-time.
The anchorage was jam packed with boats of every description
- sailboats, motor yachts, sport-fishermen, runabouts,
dinghies and skiffs – most of them anchored too close to
each other, some rafted together, others motoring about
haphazardly. It looked like every boat owner in
had decided to spend the Fourth of July weekend in Bimini
Just then the current compressed at the
harbor mouth, increasing to 3, maybe 4 knots. Autant was
Bimini Harbor as if by slingshot, and as we cleared the
trees a 12-knot breeze instantly filled the sails. Into the
chaotic mass of boats we flew under full sail, at a total
current-plus-sailing speed of 9 knots!
The next few moments were a blur. Near
panic can do that to you. We were dodging boats, rodes,
dinghies and swimmers all at once. I caught glimpses of
wide, disbelieving eyes and gaping mouths as we sped by
yachts loaded with festive, beer-swilling sailors. In
desperation I hailed the tipsy crew in the cockpit of an
open fisherman. "Is there room to anchor farther back in the
harbor," I yelled?
One of them waved his bottle vaguely in
the direction we were going and slurred, "Jus’ anchor
Anywhere, indeed! There was nowhere to
go and no way to turn back. We were hemmed in, moving much
too fast, and the congestion seemed to thicken ahead. I made
a snap decision to stop RIGHT NOW.
I headed Autant into the wind, aiming
her bow at my amused advisors in the fishing boat. The sails
luffed and I started forward to lower an anchor off their
stern. But I had never before anchored in such a strong
crosscurrent. To my surprise and utter horror, I realized
that Autant was now sliding sideways at 3 knots, drifting
straight into the open arms of a pair of anchor rodes at
whose apex was a very beautiful, very expensive yacht. My
life flashed in front of me.
Autant still had way on, just enough for
steerage. I put the helm hard over and prayed. The bow
shifted ever so slowly to starboard yet still the sails
luffed. Adrenaline pumping, I grabbed the mizzen boom and
hauled it out to starboard, backing the sail to push the
stern around. Less than two boat-lengths away down current
disaster awaited us if the jib didn't fill NOW!
It did. Autant fell off onto the new
tack, her sails filled, and after another agonizingly long
moment she was stemming the current. We hung there, eerily
suspended under full sail, neither moving forward nor
drifting back. The gleaming yacht's anchor rodes ran along
our port and starboard quarters, her bow (and my financial
ruin) scant meters from our transom.
Then Autant began gaining on the current
ever so slightly. We inched forward, all sails trimmed and
drawing. I gave my mate the helm and stationed myself at the
mainmast. Just before we hit the wall of boats ahead, I let
go the jib and main halyards. Down came the canvas and
Autant stopped almost immediately. Quick-stepping to the
bow, I lowered our 60-lb. anchor into the shallow water
about 2 feet off someone’s transom, ran out some scope,
strapped on a facemask, dove overboard and hand set the
hook. I couldn’t afford it to drag even a little.
I climbed back aboard Autant and as I
stood there on deck dripping wet, my heart pounding, some
fellow puttered by in his inflatable dinghy. "Nice sailing,
skipper," he offered with a friendly smile, and moved on. It
suddenly occurred to me that to the casual observer the
entire maneuver must have appeared planned and controlled.
He actually thought I had done that on purpose!
"Thanks, mate." was all I said, with the
casual indifference of a guy who does this sort of thing all
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