The Perils of the Reefs
Updated: May 29, 2022
”The boat was completely wrecked, most of it had to be taken out and sunk in deeper ocean”
I may have mentioned how amazing the snorkelling is here in the Caribbean. Amazing corals, including waving fans, brain corals and yellow tubes. These support a huge range of bright and colourful reef fish, many very close to the surface so you can snorkel straight from your boat. In some places, the coral is so abundant that you have to use a mooring buoy instead of anchoring so that the coral isn’t damaged by the anchor. In other areas they rely on trust, you just need to look and drop your anchor on the sand rather than the coral. But it’s not only the reef that is at risk from our boats, our boats in some cases are at risk from the reef where it is substantial enough and shallow enough to pierce your boat’s hull. And this week we heard some shocking news.
We left our mooring buoy outside Soufrière and motored to the next bay between the two Pitons. Although Soufrière was beautiful and amazing for sightseeing, we hadn’t slept well as the Soufrière moorings were very rolly with the fishing boats. The next bay over was much quieter. It was our first (and only!) time towing our outboard engine in our dinghy. As it was such a short distance we thought it would be OK, we have seen lots of other people doing it. Unfortunately we hadn’t taken the chain off. Due to the risk of dinghy theft in the islands (except Barbados, which is super safe) we had bought some chain to lock our dinghy to the back of the boat. This is much shorter than the rope, so the dinghy didn’t have enough slack to cope with our manoeuvrings onto the mooring buoy. As we arrived I saw that the dinghy and the outboard engine were overturned! We were gutted and flustered, trying to secure the boat to the mooring buoy and also concerned to turn the dinghy back upright as soon as possible to avoid the loss of our outboard engine. Another big expense we could do without. Eventually we turned it back over. We read the manual on what to do if the outboard engine is submerged. We were foolishly not carrying oil for the engine to do an oil change, but we could do the other procedures, such as draining the petrol and refilling it. Miraculously it eventually started! In a way it’s good that it happened as we are supposed to service our engine every six months, changing the engine oil and gear oil. We have never done this, so at least this is a wake up call. We managed to give our petrol to the man who owns our mooring buoys in St Vincent. He said he will just use the top where it is separated from the seawater, so at least the petrol hasn’t gone to waste.
The setting between the two pitons was magnificent and the snorkelling was the best we have seen so far with an amazing range of corals and reef fish. We also wanted to do some trekking. This was a very long and hot experience up incredibly steep roads. We eventually made it to the start of the trek for Gros Piton, but it was $50US and you had to go with a guide. This would be fine if we were on a two week holiday, but travelling for long periods you have to choose what you spend your money on carefully. So we decided to go to a place called Tet Paul, a community project with the most outstanding views of the region and of the pitons. I don’t want to go into too much detail here as it is much better explained by our tour guide Bertha, who we have interviewed for our next podcast. Please watch out for it as it will be released in the next couple of weeks. In a nutshell the whole community got together to build the trail, invest as a community in renting the land from the landowners and three years later it was ready. All of the tour guides are trained in the different plants and their medicinal properties and it has created sustainable jobs for people in the small village of Château Belair with benefits such as sick pay and scholarships for children. We were accompanied on our walk with Bertha’s seven year old son and it has to be one of the best views I have ever seen, certainly the best on this trip. They call the viewpoints “Paradise” and “Heaven” and they are not wrong. You can see the two triangular pitons and the whole green mountainous landscape dotted with hamlets. We were so exhausted when we got back after six hours hiking the steep terrain in the hot sun and very glad to slip into the cool sea for some refreshing snorkelling. The trouble is there was no cash point and we had spent our remaining cash at Tet Paul. Luckily the marine rangers in the Caribbean are a lot more flexible than officials are at home and accepted payment partly in euros and sterling. It’s been a bit of an issue in St Lucia; most places don’t accept card payments and finding a working cash machine is tricky. In Rodney Bay we had to visit about four different ones to get one that worked. Even then the amount of money we could take is small and we are still waiting for a refund of more than £100 that was subtracted from our account that we didn’t receive the cash for.
The next day we decided to sail to a fishing village called Laborie. We were planning on clearing out from Vieux Fort, but it is supposed to be quite dangerous with a lot of robberies and a yachtsman was even murdered in 2016. We thought we could anchor at Laborie and get the bus to Vieux Fort from there. This was a new experience for us. Laborie has huge reefs stretching out into its bay and is known for having caused many shipwrecks. As we approached we could see the surf breaking in two different areas over the reefs. We motored carefully in between them, one person on the bow to help direct the person on the helm. We anchored and the holding seemed very good. Another boat came in behind us and anchored as well. We waited to check it was secure and then decided to go onland. Laborie wins the friendliest place award. We had already been approached by two very friendly young fishermen who told us we were in a good position. We went onshore and were greeted by a large number of very friendly and interested children. They wanted to sit in our boat, so we let them and promised them a ride in it when we came back from our errands. Namely looking for an ATM, which we were unsuccessful in. As we walked, we spoke at length to another friendly fisherman who told us a boat had been wrecked in the place we were anchoring. As the weather was calm, he said it would probably be OK but better to move it to a different location. The pilot book said our position was tenable but we decided to move it anyway as local knowledge is king. We took the boat out and decided to go to Vieux Fort. We arrived there and anchored but we were the only boat and then decided we wouldn’t sleep if we were worried about being robbed and then went back to Laborie. By this time it was pitch black but we were going to anchor in the bay outside rather than risk the reefs. We anchored and slept well. From there it would have been too far to dinghy. We would also have had to cycle to Vieux Fort, as we didn’t have money for a bus. Instead we headed back north to Soufrière where we knew we could find a cash point. This would mean a longer sail to St Vincent and we wanted to arrive in daylight as we had another reef entrance planned, but at least we could go through all the procedures there.
We got the mooring buoy but both ATMs in the town were out of order. One was being serviced. So we went to customs and immigration to clear out. The ATM was still being serviced. Then we went to the lab to get our coronavirus tests for entering St Vincent. Luckily they accepted cards. Then to the petrol station to get outboard engine oil and the supermarket for some essentials. These accepted cards too. We sat in the town square eating bread and bananas from the supermarket, deperate for cash to buy a coffee and a roti. We went back and the cash machine was still being repaired. Eventually the worker came out and explained it couldn’t be fixed. I went to the marine rangers office to explain, very embarrassed as we had already had to pay in foreign currency the last time. They said not to worry and they would come by later. We went back to get our test results and then tried one last time at the other ATM. Finally it worked and we were able to pay the marine rangers. We went back to prepare the boat for an early start the next morning. We were hoping to sail all the way to the south of St Vincent to the Blue Lagoon which is surrounded by reefs so we wanted to arrive in daylight. There were alternative stops on the way, but they involved a type of anchoring we hadn’t tried before where you anchor and people on boats come and tie you to a tree. This other port of entry also has a reputation for robberies and a murder of a yachtsperson; unlike the murderer from Vieux Fort, the perpetrator in Wallilabou has not been caught. The Blue Lagoon is also a good base from which to see the rest of the island by bus.
The sail was gorgeous with spectacular scenery. As we got closer to the Blue Lagoon, we started to slow down with a very strong current against us. We moved closer inland to try and mitigate the impact of it. We would miss high tide and we would be entering at half tide. According to the pilot book the marked western channel should have enough depth even at low water for our keel. It is not suitable for deep draft boats, but our boat is a lot smaller than most boats we see. There is a deeper channel in the southern side but it is extremely narrow and there was a skull and crossbones on the map in the pilot book and it clearly says “do not enter”. The western channel is only marked at the entrance, not the exit, so we were trying to find information online about its width and the angle to cross. As we did so, we came across a forum that mentioned that a Danish vessel had been wrecked attempting to enter from the south only last month. The name of the vessel was familiar - it was of a boat that we had met in La Línea. The skipper was one of the nicest people we have met and showed us how to use our spinnaker pole to “Goosewing” the headsail on the opposite side to the mainsail when sailing downwind. We used this technique all the time when crossing the Atlantic. He was sailing with about eight other people on a large monohull and was incredibly experienced, having crossed the Atlantic ten times. He was also very cautious, telling us not to put out too much sail when doing the crossing; “slow and safe” was his mantra. We were profoundly shocked. However, we found the entrance with the marked channel and it looked wide enough.
Luciano was on the bow for visuals and I was on the helm, going slow enough to be cautious but with enough speed to stop us from being blown off course. I entered slightly to the north of the centre of the channel where the pilot book says it is slightly deeper. I put on the autopilot so we could keep a bearing of 142 degrees Magnetic as recommended on the chart and we crept in. 0.3 metres, 0.2 metres. This was too low. It went down to 0.0 metres! I hurriedly reversed back out of the channel, trying to avoid the reefs on each side. The surf was breaking around us. We made it back out into deeper water. Then a man came over to us in a dinghy and said he would guide us in as he had his own mooring buoys. “It went down to 0 metres,” I exclaimed. “That’s because you don’t know where to go,” he said. We decided to give it another try and follow his line, I headed in, it seemed to be doing the same line as I had gone before and sure enough the depth went down to 0 metres again. “Keep coming” he said. I couldn’t feel any resistance so followed him in, it went back to 0.1 metres, then back to 0.0 metres and then back to 0.1, 0.2. And then we were in the lagoon and followed him to his mooring buoy. We checked the depth sounder. It is offset by 1.7m for the depth of the keel, it didn’t have any leeway. So then I wondered if the keel is actually less than 1.7. The official depth is 1.68m. Maybe we had a couple of centimetres leeway, or maybe we just grazed the top of the reef. The keel is cast iron so that in itself wouldn’t do any damage; what you have to be careful of is loosening the keel bolts which attach the keel to the hull. Losing your keel can sink your boat. We’re not too worried. We didn’t feel any resistance and we are not going far offshore before we next haul the boat out and can have a good look underneath. Our keel bolts are relatively new having been replaced from the original by the previous owners. On our way out we will wait for high tide. The depth is a little less than we thought, but presumably the reef keeps growing which is why it was shallower than the pilot book had said; it is not a dredged channel.
Kelvin was the owner of the mooring buoys and he confirmed what we had read about the Danish boat. The boat was completely wrecked, most of it had to be taken out and sunk in deeper ocean; the rest, including the mast, was hauled up on the bay. Incredibly sad. We don’t know the details of what happened but we are very shocked and it is certainly going to stay with us that you can never get complacent on a boat, even with decades of experience with no problems, you cannot let your guard down. Luckily everyone was OK and apparently the skipper has already gone to pick up another boat. That’s vikings for you!
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