Some of my favorite memories are of being aboard a boat in some quiet, scenic cove, alone but for a friend or two, anchored for the night. But now and then I recall other times, when the boat was in the wrong place at the wrong time, when the good times went bad.
Sleeping aboard an anchored boat in a remote area isn’t without risk. Boat engines sometimes won’t start. Boats sink. Boats burn. Boats drag anchor.
When a boat comes loose from its anchorage in pitch darkness in a small cove, it can run aground. At best, a grounding is expensive. At worst — the nightmare that only happens to other people — you end up in the water with waves bashing you into rocks in the dark, with no one around to save you.
I was with my long-time friend, Doug Green, just the two of us aboard his 34-foot Tollycraft, the Suq’a, for a few days of fishing on Prince William Sound. The weather was iffy, so pleasure boats were scarce. We dropped anchor for the night in a cove just large enough for one boat to safely swing at anchor. At the time, the anchorage seemed ideal.
The cove, though bordered by large rocks, offered good protection from the wind in three directions. We had a little trouble getting the anchor to hold, but when it did, it seemed to be well dug in. The boat had no radar, so we had to use our judgement and the depth sounder for determining a safe distance from shore. I let out all the anchor rope I dared and called it good.
It had been a long day, and we were tired. We had dinner, played one game of Cribbage and called it a night. I slept on a berth in the bow. Doug always slept in the cabin, where he could keep on eye on the shoreline and the depth sounder.
With waves lapping against the hull and the wind causing the boat to swing on the anchor, I had trouble getting to sleep, but I finally dozed off. I awoke to yelling.
“Les! Get up here! We’re dragging anchor!”
I heard the engines start. Heart pounding, I climbed into the cabin. Doug had turned off the cabin lights so he could see outside, but there was nothing to see but darkness. Rain pounded the cabin like buckshot. The wind had picked up. I glanced at the depth sounder. We were moving into shallow water.
“The wind shifted, and it’s blowing right into this cove,” Doug said. “We’re going to run aground if we can’t get the anchor to hold.”
We were too close to shore to let out more anchor line, so we had to pull the anchor. Doug decided to pilot the boat from the flying bridge, where he didn’t have to look through a rain-streaked windshield. He took a big electric lamp with him, so he could see the shoreline. I had no trouble getting the anchor in, but then things took a turn for the worse.
Doug had maneuvered the boat around to where he thought was the best place to drop anchor.
“OK,” he yelled. “Let ‘er go!”
I looked in the direction he was pointing the light. I saw black, jagged rocks, not 50 feet away, downwind.
The captain’s orders, especially in an emergency, should be immediately obeyed, but this order was crazy. If I dropped the anchor, the boat would be on those rocks in seconds. There was no depth sounder on the flying bridge. Doug could rely only on his eyesight, and he apparently didn’t want to rely on mine.
“The shore is right there! I yelled. “We can’t anchor here!”
“Drop the damned anchor!”
“No! Go forward! The shore is right there!”
Finally, seeing that I was adamant, he moved the boat farther from shore. I dropped the anchor, paid out plenty of rope, cleated it off, and it seemed to be holding. We weren’t certain until we were back in the cabin, watching the depth sounder.
We were both still high on adrenaline. While we changed into dry clothes, we rehashed what had happened, what we might’ve done differently.
“Next time, don’t shine that light in my eyes,” I said. “I was blind for five minutes.”
“Sorry,” Doug said. “But next time, do what I say.”
That happened more than 10 years ago, and I still don’t know what I’d have done differently. What I am sure of is that I never want to find myself in the wrong place at the wrong time again.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.