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News / Life / Clark County Life

Everybody Has A Story: Sailboat crew gets out of a scrape

By Janice Johnson, Riverview neighborhood
Published: January 24, 2021, 6:00am

We had been traveling aboard Prologue, our 44-foot, schooner-rigged sailboat for 18 months, visiting 18 countries. I had been a rookie but my husband, Alan, had 20 years of solid sailing experience.

Our trip began in Long Beach, Calif., and from there we sailed down the west coast of Mexico and Central America, through the Panama Canal, up the coast of South America and eventually through the eastern Caribbean to reach the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British territory we knew little about. We anchored alone on clear blue water over coral reefs and surrounded by white sandy beaches.

From here we entered what are called the Banks, where the shallow water turned from deep blue to light turquoise. Alan followed the GPS coordinates in a guidebook and assigned me to watch for reefs. Clouds obscured the sun, making it difficult to see, so I stood at the bow, eyes glued to the water ahead, and calling directions back to him.

Two hours after my coral watch began, Prologue jerked to a stop with a horrible scraping sound. My husband rushed outside and screamed, “We’ve gone onto the coral.”

A wave of shame washed over me. I’d missed it!

The moving water pushed the heavy boat back and forth against the reef, making deep scraping sounds. The hull sounded as if it was coming apart.

“Help me get the jib down,” Alan screamed.

I stumbled forward and did what I could to roll away the sail. Every time the boat made a terrible scraping sound, I imagined holes being poked into our hull.

“Janice, stand on the pilothouse and look for a way out. I’ll get the stern anchor ready to go.”

The scraping grew louder. The boat tipped to a precarious angle. Yellow coral heads stuck out of the water all around us.

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I scrambled up and searched for a path off the reef. I saw sunshine, blue water and coral in all directions. “They’re all around us.” I said.

“There’s got to be a way out of this,” he screamed.

The reef scraping against the hull sounded like it would cut through the hull at any moment.

He plopped a heavy bag at my feet. “Tie this to the mast.”

Our ditch bag. It had food, water, and survival gear in it. We were in serious trouble and were in danger of losing our boat.

The sun felt blinding and hot on the clear blue water. I pulled my hat down over my face.

“Which way?” Alan screamed from below me.

“I don’t know.”

He climbed up on top of the pilothouse with me, and I retreated to the other side.

“Behind us,” he screamed. He may have seen me cringe, because his voice got softer, almost pleading. “We’ll go back the way we came.” He jumped off and disappeared into the pilothouse.

The boat jerked and the scraping sound continued.

The engine roared, and he stood at the outside steering station on the poop deck. The boat inched backwards. The noise of coral against the hull sounded like chalk on a blackboard. Unbearable. I wanted to scream. This was not going to work.

The boat screeched and shuddered, but it kept moving backwards. Then, suddenly, our boat broke free from the coral. I started to cry.

My husband handed me the binoculars and said, “Guide us through the coral to the anchorage.”

I felt pure relief as we chugged through the water. I searched carefully for coral reefs and called back to him when he needed to alter our course.

When we reached safe water, he sent me downstairs to look for damage. First, I checked the propeller shaft by the bathroom. Then I picked up the floor boards in the galley. Finally, I lifted the floor boards in the pilothouse and peered into the engine compartment. Everything looked normal.

After we anchored, Alan dove under the boat and found only minor damage.

That night, we each took flashlights and examined as much of the inside of the hull as we could. We removed more floor boards and squeezed into the engine room, searching every corner. We found no more damage.

The next day the light turquoise water had fewer coral heads. However, when the clouds formed shadows on the ocean, I could not see the coral and panicked. Later, the sail made a shadow on the water and looked like a reef and I felt crazy with worry. It had been my fault that we had gone onto the reef. What if I missed seeing a reef again?

When the water went from 15 to a 100 feet, it turned indigo, and I felt instant relief. No more reefs.

At the anchorage, we found six other boats. The island next to us was low with white sand and a few bushes. It felt desolate here, in spite of the beautiful water.

As the sun set, I poured my husband a glass of wine and we sat on the poop deck.

“I’m so sorry for not seeing the reef,” I said. I wondered how many thousands of dollars it would cost to repair the hull.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he said. “I wasn’t listening to you. I was paying attention only to the GPS coordinates in my guidebook. I guess I’ve learned that technology has its limits.”

By the time I had finished my wine, my confidence had returned and we spent the rest of the evening planning our next port of call.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.