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Depth Sounding the Hard Way

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Our boat is long and slender and has a 3.5m draft. Only after very memorable and embarrassing situations while navigating the Caribbean's anchorages, lagoons and harbor entrances did we gain a true understanding that 3.5 meters is just a blade of seaweed shy of 11.5 feet.

We decided to celebrate the full moon by relocating from one marina in Sint Maarten's Simpson Bay to another. We waited for a special guest to join us on the simple trip around the bay, and just as the dock lights came up and the sun went down, we cast off. One of us had had the foresight to ask at the marina office about the channel. "Back out, point your bow at the center of the white boat over there. Make a hard left as you leave the channel marker to port."

"I don't need the flash light to see the channel markers. I just need to head for the white boat," were the helmsman's last words as we slid up onto a soft, receptive sand bank.

We threw the propeller into reverse and did it again and again. The boat did not budge. With the wind on our starboard bow, unfurling the genoa would do more harm than good. Our only hope was to wait for the tide to rise.

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When was high tide? Neither of us had any idea.

How shallow was the water? On our port beam it was 1.7m (5.5ft) deep, and nearly 3m (9.8ft) deep to starboard.

"How could that be," said the Frenchman? "He told me that it was 15 meters?"

"He probably meant 15 feet … in the channel."

"Merde. Bien sur. How could I be so stupid?!"

"Can I interest you in appetizers and a glass of wine?"

"Why not?"

Our private bank turned out to be the perfect place to watch the full burnt orange moon rise over the saddle between Sentry Hill and Cole Bay Hill.

It took all the power and ingenuity of a tugboat crew working for nearly a half hour to back us off our bank the following morning.

Once freed, we continued toward our destination with a scout boat ahead of us while maintaining radio contact with knowledgeable local assistance on shore.

Our attempt to leave the dock as sunset approached was ill conceived from the start. Currents and storms contribute silting and the formation of sand bars throughout the Caribbean's bays and lagoons and it's a lot easier to recognize shallow water, sandy bottoms, coral heads, wrecks and channel markers in broad daylight than by the light of the moon.

Our next lesson came hundreds of miles away in Curaçao. What little written information we could find about Curaçao suggested that it was dangerous to approach it at night. It was strongly recommended that pilot services be arranged for escort into certain areas.

Spanish Water, known as a safe anchorage, was likely to be very crowded in early August. For numerous reasons, we held offshore throughout the night and waited for first light before approaching Spanish Water. Even a kayak would have to navigate that channel opening with care. Luck was with us as we passed over the narrow tongue of deep water and cleared the reefs on either side of the channel entrance. We got a bit further than Santa Barbara Plantation and we found another bank. While we waited for the tide to rise and the wind to turn in our favor, boats with much shallower drafts whizzed by us. Eventually, we backed ourselves off and headed back out to sea.

During our departure from Spanish Water and our subsequent return, we monitored the depth sounder with precision. Being off course by less than half a boat length would mean running aground. Ultimately, we resorted to a using a local pilot to guide us to a safe anchorage. Were we to do it over again with all lead 3.5 meters suspended below, my vote would be to go to Willemstad or make arrangements to be escorted to Curaçao Marine inside Schottegat Harbor.

Lynn Fitzpatrick's articles on sailing appear regularly in international publications including AARP The Magazine and Cruising World. She has been a highly competitive Snipe sailor and was the 2008 Sports Information Specialist for sailing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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