Adventure on the Low Seas

Someone famous once said something along the lines of all the world being a stage where we are but performers upon it. That is arguably very true of the charter boat industry where entertaining the guests is the be-all and end-all of existence. But sometimes the best entertainment is not that which is planned. 

Adventure on the Low Seas

What started as a bit of harmless fun designed for the amusement of the charter guests turned into a fiasco that ended up entertaining them even more, but not in the way intended. It was also to cause the skipper much humiliation at the hands of his peers

A regular feature of his charter, as long as the ground sea wasn’t running and the winds were favourable, which was most of the time, was to sail through the western approach to the North Sound of Virgin Gorda. For most charter boats that was no big deal, but this was one of the larger ones at 72 feet over all and with a draft that just about matched the maximum depth of water in that virtually tide-less channel. This meant the narrow passage offering sufficient depth for the yacht to sail through had to be hit dead centre, and there weren’t any buoys back then to mark the channel. The approach was always made during the latter half of the afternoon with only the mains’l up and the sun losing altitude almost dead astern, so there was no glare on the water, the coral heads were easily visible and the endeavour was pretty much risk free.

That was until the day the fiasco happened.

In that area where tides were rarely a consideration the tables were seldom referenced by most skippers. It could then have been an unusual and unreferenced spring tide that caused the depth to be just a couple of inches less than usual. It could have been that the skipper misread one of his lay lines and was just a tad too far to the north; it wouldn’t take much. Or it could have been that the recent ground seas stirred up by the big north swell since his last attempt at the passage had moved the channel around a little. 

Whatever was the reason for the apparent change in the channel, this routine part of their passenger entertainment programme became anything but routine.

As was usual for this event during the charter, the guests were primed and in the cockpit counting down the depth in feet beneath them. The transponder was situated about two and half feet above the deepest part of the keel and the depth gauge display had not been corrected for this, so the guests deducted that amount every time the digital reading changed before they called out the new clearance beneath them. As the numbers decreased the pitch of their voice increased in unison with their anxiety, choreographed by the shipper and his first mate.

“Two point five feet …… two point one ……… one point eight …….. one point five ………”

The skipper knew they would count down to zero point three, which still gave them three or four inches beneath the keel before the numbers started to climb again. With a few well timed (and much practiced) “it’s getting close….” and “we could soon be in trouble…..” and “most boats this size wouldn’t even attempt this channel under power” thrown in he built up the tension which led to the eventual collective sigh of relief and cheers as the shallowest point was crossed and the yacht sailed safely into deeper water once more.

“One point three ……. one dead …….. zero point nine ……. zero point eight……”

“Better hold on to something solid.” The skipper advised, winking at the mate who had seen this act several times before.

“Zero point seven ……… zero point six ……… zero point five ……..”

Two more to go, the skipper thought, already looking ahead to see how crowded the Bitter End anchorage was.

“Zero point four …….. zero point three …….”

The skipper nodded at the mate to get ready to trim the sail for they knew there was often a bit of a wind shift just past the shallowest point between the southern tip of Mosquito Island and Anguilla Point where they started to encounter the more localized winds of the North Sound.

“Zero point two ………”

The passengers voices were loud and high, a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The captain checked the depth gauge and looked over the side, a curious half frown now on his face.

“Zero point one ……..”

The mate looked at the skipper with raised eyebrows.

“Zero point zero ………”

There was no sudden thud or lurch. The yacht gently came to rest as her keel buried itself in the sandy bottom.

The skipper and mate looked at each other with blank expressions.

“Pass the main sheet over here.” The skipper said, as calmly as he could manage. “And get the dinghy in. Take in the painter.” He was worried that if he had to use the engine to free the keel then the slack dinghy painter might foul the propeller. The mate jumped to the tasks.

The skipper let out some of the main sheet and luffed the sail so as to take the pressure off the rigging. He knew the bottom was loose sand and that no damage would be done to the keel with such a slow gentle grounding. The effect of luffing was sufficient to bring the boat upright from the gentle angle at which she had been sailing. She rolled slightly the other way before settling back upright again. He walked forward and checked the sea bed before him and saw that they must be sitting on the very pinnacle of the sand bar, for the water clearly was already deepening just forward of where he stood. It also looked marginally deeper just a few feet off the starboard beam to the south. He reckoned he was about a dozen feet too far north.

Walking back to the cockpit he studied the water to the south and silently cursed himself. He called to the mate without looking aft to make sure the dinghy was OK, and on receiving a positive response started the engine. It only took a few seconds of moderate forward thrust for the boat to be free of the sand, whereupon he trimmed the main sheet, cut the engine and they were sailing onward once again.

“Told you it could be a bit tricky, that channel …. We were lucky to make it through.” He continued playing the game with the guests. It worked. They raised their glasses to their good fortune in sailing safely through such an obviously treacherous passage. They toasted the good seamanship of the skipper that enabled them to do so. He cringed inwardly at the deceit.

The skipper called to the mate to let the painter back out as the boat gathered speed and started sailing through the deeper water toward their overnight anchoring spot.

The cook, coming up on deck to find out what happened was the only one on board whose eyes were facing astern. She quietly asked the skipper, hoping the guests wouldn’t hear, what the mate was doing standing in the dinghy frantically waving his arms several hundred yards behind them.


The skipper spun round. Sure enough, there was the dinghy with the mate frenetically trying to attract their attention steadily getting smaller in their wake as he drifted back out to sea as the gentle trade winds pushed him further away from the entrance to the sound.

“What the ……….. !!!!”  Was the skipper’s reaction. “What in the name of all that’s holy is he doing?”

He suddenly realized that although the dinghy had a powerful outboard motor, it was policy to bring the fuel tank and all other loose items, including the oars, on board the larger vessel while the dinghy was being towed. The mate had a boat and an engine, but no fuel, and no oars as back up. Had they been in a river he would not just figuratively have been up the creek without a paddle.

“Looks like he’s calling for help.” Offered one of the guests.

“We can just turn round and get him.” Said another. “We got through the reef before; we can do it again.”

Hardly a reef, the skipper thought. But he was concerned. To head west now to go back through the channel meant he’d be looking straight into the afternoon glare on the water with no chance of assessing the depth ahead. Knowing he’d missed the channel when conditions were perfect he was worried that he’d miss it even more and hit shallower water going back out. Or even strike a corral head.

He weighed his options. He could go all the way up Colquhoun Reef through the deeper northern entry with the sun at a more favourable angle, round Mosquito Island and come down from the north to pick up the mate and the dinghy. But that could take well over an hour or so with the mate out of sight for much of it.

He decided to chance his luck and use back-bearings to try to work his way out through the channel using the more predictable engine rather than the sail.

With the help of the cook and a couple of willing guests substituting for the mate he furled the mains’l, explaining that he was using the engine this time because he wanted to make speed to ensure they found the best over night spot before the other charter boats beat them to it. The guests were happy for not only had they already experienced and beaten the treacherous western approach but were now embarking on a rescue at sea mission. This was above and beyond anything either the brochure or the broker had promised!

This time, as he approached the sand bar, he was not playing when he studied the readings on the depth gauge. Placing the cook on the bow to watch for corral heads he knew the glare off the water would make even that task a challenge and that predicting the depth ahead would be nigh-on impossible even through her polarised sun glasses.

But then luck turned his way. The cook called that she could see the discolouration in the water from the sand they stirred up when they touched bottom the previous time. It was off their starboard bow on a slight angle away from the sun so the glare was nowhere near as bad. He asked her to see if she could locate the northern most line of it and keep pointing to it. From that he estimated where he had hit the sand and very tenderly eased the boat to where he thought the marginally deeper water may have been just a few feet south.

He felt the keel rub against the bottom as he ran aground again but with the engine pushing gently ahead it was not enough to arrest the forward motion and with only a little extra thrust on the throttle he slowly moved clear into deeper water.

Coming alongside the somewhat embarrassed mate in the dinghy he asked what had gone wrong.

“Nothing.” Replied the mate. “I did what you asked. You said get in the dinghy and take in the painter. That’s what I did.”

The skipper didn’t say anything then but later, after they had grounded lightly on the sand bar for the third time re-entering the North Sound, had found a half decent spot to overnight and were ashore at the guest’s behest to celebrate with them their epic adventures, he pointed out to the mate that his words were actually “Get the dinghy in.” Not “get in the dinghy.” And that by “take in the painter” he had meant the mate to take in the slack in order to shorten the painter so it couldn’t become tangled in the prop, not to un-cleat it and take it all into the dinghy.

The mate said he’d figured it was something like that when he saw the yacht motoring away from him. He hadn’t wanted to disturb them while they were attempting to re-float the boat and by the time the engine was switched off and no longer drowning his voice they were too far away to hear him.

As if the incident hadn’t been embarrassing enough for the skipper to deal with in his own mind, the real ignominy came when he overheard his guests bragging about their adventures on the high seas to another group of charter guests also ashore with their skipper who was listening intently with something of a smug look on his face. He knew that skipper well for he was based in the same marina. He also knew the other skipper could see right through the interpretation the guests were putting on the afternoon’s events and all too well recognized the “Just you wait until I tell the other’s back at the marina what you did….” look he wore.

“That’s one way to clean the barnacles off your keel.” The other skipper said as he passed him on the way to the toilet.

On his way back he said, “If you ever think of getting out of the charter business I hear there’s good money in dredging.”

And that, the skipper knew, was only the beginning of what awaited him at Peg Leg’s Landing back at Nanny Cay the moment he walked in after the charter was over, for he knew the news of his running aground three times within half an hour on the same sand bar would precede his arrival by days, and that the story would have grown out of all proportion by the time he got there. Not only that, but his peers would have had lots of time to perfect their sardonic wise cracks at his expense.

Maybe, he thought as he hid his shame in his pint mug, he should listen to the suggestion of the other skipper and instead of going back to the marina to face the inevitable ridicule he should just sail off to another island, put the recent experience to good use and take up dredging.


One of the problems with working your way up in the standings of any profession is that the higher you climb the more conspicuous you become. Ignominy is thus more easily attained by the successful than by the failed, and generally far more difficult to recover from due to the extra distance fallen before hitting the ground. The skipper of a 72’ LOA crewed charter boat is far more visible than the charterer of a 38’ bare boat who if they touched bottom during a charter would hardly garner a comment.

 The British S.A.S., arguably one of the top, if not THE top fighting forces in the world, has as their motto “Who dares wins”.  That’s all very well and good because it is true that you achieve very little if you don’t try, but shouldn’t that expression come with a caution on the label? 

Yes, the winner was one who dared, but that does not mean that everyone who dared won; just that the one that won was one of the ones who dared. There are likely many others who also dared that are flopping around on the ground trying to ease the throbbing from their broken reputations or bandaging their bleeding self-esteem purely because they dared to try when they perhaps shouldn’t have. In the world of sailing that is particularly true and there are a great many washed up wrecks, both structural and human, scattered around the coastlines of the world, to attest to that fact. But sailing through a narrow shallow channel next to a gentle sand bar in the British Virgin Islands with the sun behind you should usually be a pretty safe dare ……… usually.