Dragging Anchor – A True Story by Hugh C. Howey
When you run a charter yacht, you go to bed tired. Not sleepy tired—just-climbed-Everest tired. My feet start hurting around 4 p.m. and I still have another 7 hours of toil. It’s amazing what you can push through. Hitting the bed, you don’t care that the AC unit in your room doesn’t work because of the parts you removed to fix a guest’s room. You lay in your own sweat in a bunk shorter than you are and you dream of your bed at home. The one that you slide down to hang your feet off of. The one that has a warm lovely just waiting to be snuggled. The one with a grunting, snoring, pushing, scratching, licking, smacking dog nestled beside you. That’s what you think about for the 5 seconds it takes to pass out.
Being this exhausted provides some good sleep. And you do NOT want to get up earlier than you have to. My alarm is set for 6:30 a.m. A little later than normal because the guests are sleeping in, and the boat doesn’t move ‘til 7. Strange, then, that I find myself wide awake at 5 a.m. Something feels weird. The wind is hitting the wrong side of the boat. There is a slight vibration somewhere, and the yacht is rocking side to side just slightly. The overwhelming urge is to go back to sleep. But some part of me deep inside—the part that formed in me while living on my boat and being at anchor for a year—is screaming at me to get up. I am an unthinking zombie rising from the grave. I stagger toward the wheelhouse.
Looking back I see how I was being cajoled and urged by my wakeful subconscious. It was tugging at my sleeves, poking and prodding me, saying, “See? See? Lookit!”. I went straight to the GPS. It said we were moving at 3.5 knots. Backwards.
I pulled up the chart plotter which shows an overlay of our GPS position on the local waters. We were not where I dropped anchor yesterday. We were over a quarter of a mile from there. The anchor alarm was set properly, so I couldn’t understand how this was happening. There was no way of knowing the piezo buzzer in the alarm panel was out. This is why they teach you to test every single safety feature on a daily basis, as if you didn’t have anything else to do. All that mattered at that moment was out movement toward a rocky reef that seemed so lovely while we were snorkeling on it the day before. Now it was deadly.
Firing up the engines that early with guests on board is not something you take lightly. The severity of the situation was therefore evident by my utter lack of hesitation. Thankfully, they roared right to life. Dom and I had been having to prime the port engine from down below lately. I stuck my head out the top of the flybridge hatch to see what the wind was like. I knew it would be bad—I could hear the sheets of water slapping across the windshield and feel the vibration that the gusts imparted on the hull. Outside I found it to be worse than I imagined. 40kt winds? Rain like bullets. Our bimini top was loose, ripped and flapping with the sound of nearby cannon. It’s one of those collections of stimuli that I’ve had a dozen times before, and each time was as bad as the last. The nostalgia and feeling of dread were attacking me as I hurried back to my room.
“Dom. DOM!” I shook his knee, and hoping he didn’t drink too much last night.
“Grab a jacket, we’re dragging anchor, need you up here now.” I wait for more movement from him. It comes after a pause, then jerks him up as comprehension sets in. I only wake him when shit is real bad. It courses through him like coffee and cocaine.
I teleport back to the bridge and start turning on various systems. I bump the engines ahead to slow our suicidal rush toward rock. The danger here is going forward too fast and running over our chain. It’s the only thing below us that’s harder than the rock I’m trying to avoid. With the wind, clouds, rain and hour… I’m blind. I’m groping about with the compass. It’s the only thing telling me which direction I’m pointing. At slow speeds, with heavy winds, the GPS thinks you’re facing the direction you’re moving. I wish the wind wasn’t quite this bad, I’d risk letting out more chain and seeing if the anchor resets.
Dom looks up the stairs at me, wide-eyed. He stumbles up the pilothouse stairs and I show him where we were and where we are. I tell him to get up front and start pulling the anchor in. He grabs a radio and rushes off to the bow.
I am looking at our position and direction and doing calculations. We have 300 feet of chain to pull in. The reef is coming up on our stern. I’m slowing us only as much as I dare. This is going to be close.
I can barely hear Dom over the VHF. It sounds like he’s 100 miles away from the speaker, and there’s a lot of rustling fabric in that gap. I tell him to start taking the chain in. It’s not like the anchor is holding to anything, so just drag the damn thing to us. While he’s doing that, I’m slamming laptops shut, turning off security monitors, dimming the radars… there’s too much ambient light to see a thing. I pop my head up top and look for the radio tower at Highbourne Cay. A dim red light shines through the rain in the direction Highbourne should be… I assume I’m not seeing things.
At some point Dom tells me he has the anchor up. I don’t hear him.
I’m bumping the controls all over the place, I even have the bow thruster roaring now. That’s going to wake the other two crew members up for sure. They sleep right on top of the 250 HP beast. The waves are breaking over the bow anyway, and shit is falling all throughout the boat, so what the fuck should a little more cannon fire mean? Speaking of cannons, I hear the bimini give some more. This is turning out to be an expensive gale.
Looking at the plotter, I see it’s going to get more expensive quick. I figure we’re 40 feet from the reef. 80 at the most. Less than the length of the ship. I yell into the VHF for Dom to get the fucking anchor in. He comes in the side door, wet as a drowned ferret, telling me it’s already up.
Fuck. Just in time.
I kick the 4 turbos into gear. 2,200 HP drives the two 5-foot props in frenzied circles. I really hope I’m facing the direction I think I’m facing. Can’t be sure. I rush up top to look for the red light again.
Back down below it looks like we are crawling away from the reef. Didn’t touch anything… that’s good. I wheel the bastard around to get the seas on our stern and to cancel out the wind with our forward progress. I’ll just head toward Nassau a few hours earlier than I expected to. As long as the china survived, we might get out unscathed.
The rush of saving the boat is intoxicating. We’re surfing down monster waves in a fucking gale at 5:15 in the morning. We just drug anchor half a mile and barely kept the yacht off of a reef. One of the girls comes up with a puzzled look on her face.
“What the hell’s going on?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say. “Could you make Dom and I some coffee?”
All is grins and giggles. I’m weaving through the cuts and reefs to get back out to safety and deep water. We’ll be at the dock before breakfast. What a fucking rush.
I make a little course correction, but the wheel feels a little looser than normal. I try and turn back, and just as it’s clicking, an alarm goes off. “Rudder Response Failure.”
“We’re losing steering.”
As I say this, the boat broaches, going sideways in the seas and rolling like a fucker……..
A normally sluggish wheel can now be spun like a goddamn perpetual motion machine. Just a nudge and the thing starts doing lazy circles forever. But the rudders aren’t moving. I get down on the floor and listen for the hydraulic pump that usually hums under the console. Nothing.
Normally I could steer by alternating usage of the two main engines. But not in these seas. We’re getting tossed about as I throw the gears around trying to control our sideways jaunt out of the pass. This is arguably worse than dragging anchor towards a leeward shoal.
“Tell the girls to secure everything inside,” I tell Dom. He rushes off.
Shit is banging and falling everywhere as the eight-foot waves toss us sideways. If I had steering I could keep them right on our stern and you could play marbles on the deck. Right now you can’t even stand up.
Dom comes back. “We have to drop anchor,” I tell him. “Got to get our bow into these waves before we break the ship apart. Just until we can repair the steering.” He slides on a dripping jacket and heads back out. The nuisance from earlier is about to be redeployed. Let’s just hope it holds this time.
Already I’m making a tool and parts list to take down into the bilges with me. I know for sure we don’t have any fittings or tubing for that steering system, so we’ll be cobbling something together from the bits we do have, or pulling something from another system.
While the chain is clanking over the windlass I realize why I loved the original Star Wars trilogy so much. It was Han and Chewie, keeping that bucket of bolts together and always getting in trouble. Shit was always breaking down, and they never had the right tools for the job, but they always got the job done anyway. They had no reason to love that ship so much…. but they did. And that’s what was missing from the prequels, the reason I couldn’t connect with them. No Millennium Falcon.
Dom is saying something over the VHF about the anchor, but with the wind and the squelch, it sounds more like a Wookie complaining. I grin like a smuggler and think to myself, “This better work”.
The anchor is spooling off the chain with the rattle of a hundred Gatlin guns firing in perfect unison. CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK Each shot fires another link about 4 inches long. I feel like I should be counting them, adding them up, stringing that anchor rode out in my mind. The longer it is—the greater chance of a bite—the lower the angle of attack for the anchor. I tell Dom to put out 600 feet. I think we are at least 700 from the reef behind us.
Weird how you make split decisions like this. A complex calculation of risk analysis and probability. In an instant, you do what would take a calculus whiz and an insurance adjuster an entire day. Like when a lifeguard rushes out to save someone down the beach. They know just how far down the beach to run (because that’s faster) before they dive in. But they don’t run all the way to the person. They find this angle of attack that’s close to perfectly efficient.
It’s a skill we learn from our experiences. The bad ones.
There’s nothing I can do to help the anchor now. I’ve slowed our descent as much as I can, but we’re going sideways and rolling lazily from side to side. Every now and then the waves time it perfectly to send something crashing down inside the boat.
The decision has been made. I join Dom at the bow to see if it was the right one.
As we see the second red mark on the anchor run over the side of the yacht, I nod to Dom through the rain and wind. The chain grinds to a halt and I lock the break down. Now we wait as the feet stretch to their limit. As the wind and waves push us towards the reef.
100 feet to grab. I’d like it to happen in 50.
I’m laughing at Dom who is trying to light a cigarette in this soup.
An anchor grabbing sand and holding and an anchor being drug at the end of 600 feet of chain look almost just alike. It was easy to “feel” the difference asleep in my bunk, but here on the bow, looking down into a frenzied froth of angry sea, being pelted by a billion raining bullets, with a small flashlight’s cone of vision, I just can’t tell at first.
As the yacht settles back into the wind, the chain rises up out of the water. It is off at a crazy angle—the yacht’s getting stuck in the sides of the seas again. I will the bow to point into the wind…. and it begins to. It would do this, somewhat, even if we were dragging anchor. It would tease me.
I’m watching the chain now. It’s the only thing that exists. I can still see the rain bouncing off the dull grey metal. The salt water dripping off it into the foam below. The way it hoists itself up with the strain of tautness. I’m staring at it. Looking for vibration. Because that’s the way that anchor chains talk. They vibrate.
If the chain vibrates it’s because the anchor is being drug across the hardpan bottom. Really loud bangs and clacks around the bow are good signs. Those are the sounds of an anchor willing to fight back. But the hardly audible sign of vibrating metal… that is the siren’s song of death.
I’m watching the chain.
I almost feel the reef off the stern of the yacht.
It seems that the sounds of waves crashing is more keen back there on the rocks.
I’m watching the chain.
It does so for what feels like an eternity, and then it stops. The chain makes a loud noise as links line back up properly and bang on one another. I slap Dom on the back and run for the engine room. The wind is pushing on my rain jacket, urging me along. Veritable streams of saltwater are coursing down the dark teak.
The engine room is already warm from the engines, they idle loudly, the sound of large diesels latent with might. I look at the power steering reservoir. It’s empty. Gallons of oil gone. And no sign of it here.
Up the ladder and back out in the rain. I pop the hatch on the back deck leading to the garage. A fiberglass jetboat and two jetskis make moving around impossible. I have to squeeze down between two of the crafts and slide on my belly below the rack holding the larger boat. I’m popping deck panels and sliding them far out of the way, unconcerned with the clean-up later. Hoping there will be a clean-up later.
Finally, I find the mess of oil in the bilge. I trace it back, sliding through filth on the garage floor and not caring. My flashlight is in my mouth, tasting like the grease from my hands, when I get to the broken line. I’m already thinking of ways to rig this since we don’t have any spare hoses.
I crawl out and go grab a piece that’s smaller. With a knife, I split it down the middle, giving me a flat rectangle of rubber. Armed with this, four hose clamps, and a driver, I make the long slog back through the recesses of the ship to get to the break.
The rubber goes around the split, the hose clamps go around the rubber. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a knife wound. I just need it to leak slowly, instead of gushing the last of my oil through the same spot. Before I leave, I see where an exposed bolt did the damage to the original hose and pull off my jacket and then my shirt, leaving the soiled mess wrapped around the hasty repair.
Back to the engine room. The long crawl is not something I’d do for money in the best of conditions. I’m completing my second round-trip. I grab a 5-gallon bucket of engine oil, the wrong stuff for the hydraulic pump, but I’ve got no choice. I make a mess, the bucket glugging oil all over the funnel and running down my arms. I fill the reservoir up to the upper limit, head back up the ladder, and rush to the wheelhouse.
The wheel is still spinning freely. I give it a few turns as Dom rushes in from the bow.
“Might be dragging,” he tells me. “Gotta be fifty knot gusts out there.”
“Spin the wheel,” I say, pulling a grate off the wall below the console. I pull out the driver and crack the bleeder, letting the air out of the system.
“Resistance,” Dom says.
Finally, some of the good kind. I put the engines in gear just as the nose is starting to fall off; Dom runs off to the bow, leaning into the wind. With steering, we’re able to pick up the useless anchor a second tome and swing toward deeper water, away from the reefs that make for anchorages both protected and deadly.
Amber arrives with a coffee. She looks like shit, then I realize the condition I’m in. I have no shirt on, just a foul weather jacket over some khaki shorts. I’m soaking wet and there’s puddles all across the wheelhouse. I have grease and filth all down the front of my body from the last crawl out, and my hair is standing straight up from the sweat, salt, and wind.
She’s eyeing my filthy shorts, and I know what she’s thinking. That she’ll never get them clean again.
“What?” I ask.
“You need to change,” she says. “The guests are up and they’re starving.”
I look at my watch. It’s six in the morning. My feet are hurting already.