I had no warning of impending disaster. The morning sky was deep blue, and the fronds of the palm trees on Belize’s beautiful South Water Caye were waving to the usual easterly breeze. I was anchored in the lee of this small island, maybe 400 yards from shore.
The previous day we had dropped my 45-pound Manson Supreme anchor on a large patch of sand that gleamed brilliant white amid the ubiquitous seagrass, backed down to snug it in, let out 100 feet of chain for a 10:1 scope, swum over it to ensure it was buried, and called it good. According to the anchor alarm on my Vesper XB8000 AIS, we had not budged since then.
The weather forecast promised nothing but more of the same. To the west, the mountains of mainland Belize were concealed by the smoky pall from days of crop burn offs. It had been the same for days.
I’d planned to head back to the mainland at noon, but in the meantime my crewmate, Susan, wanted to go snorkeling on the reef at the southern end of the caye, so I ran her ashore in the dinghy. I briefly debated joining her but decided instead to go back to the boat for more coffee. The kettle had just boiled when I felt the boat swing to a new breeze. I was up on deck seconds later to find the western sky now obscured by a gray haze that appeared to be approaching rapidly. The wind was now blowing from that direction and increasing by the minute. As the boat swung to her chain, the distance to the shore—now a lee shore—had decreased noticeably.
My mind raced. What to do? Instinct told me to get the anchor up and get away from the lee shore. But where would I go? I was surrounded by shoal water. I might easily end up in a worse situation—you do not want to hit a reef in Belize.
I could let more chain out, but that would put us even closer to the beach and into shallow water. On the other hand, I had no reason to think that this was anything but just another squall, nothing rare in the Caribbean and typically over within 10 to 15 minutes, if that. All I had to do was keep an eye on the anchor and motor ahead on the chain if the wind increased.
Which, of course, it did. Twenty, 25, 30 knots, rain now coming down stinging-hard, and now the seas were up, short steep critters that had us pitching like a rocking horse.
Almost half an hour had passed and still the anchor held fast, but there was no sign of the wind decreasing. Forget the squall theory. The sky stayed granite-gray, the rain came down remorselessly. I now had the engine running and stared in turn at the beach, which thankfully seemed no closer, at the dinghy, which was bobbing happily astern, and into the wind, which now seemed to be dropping, down into the 20s again.
Then there was an almighty, prolonged puff—I fleetingly saw the number 35 on the wind display, but it felt like more than that—and then I heard the keening of the anchor alarm as the bow turned away from the wind and toward the island. No doubt now, we were dragging toward the beach.
I had mentally rehearsed the next moves many times over since the blow began. I duckwalked to the bow and looked down to see which side the chain was on. It was stretching aft to starboard, and the bow was pointing toward the beach. When an anchor drags in strong winds, the bow blows off and the stern seeks the wind. If you try to motor in the wrong direction, there’s a real risk of fouling the rode on your keel, rudder, or propeller.
I scuttled on hands and knees back along the pitching deck to power the boat to starboard to (hopefully) clear the chain and then back seaward in a semicircle, dragging the chain back toward where I guessed the anchor lay. Engine in neutral, back to the bow, chain up enough to get the snubber off. Back to the cockpit, repeat, each time cranking up maybe 10 to 15 feet of chain before the bow blew off too far.
On my second trip aft I looked at the depth sounder and wished I hadn’t. Six feet of water. We draw five. The palm trees looked awfully close. Another full-throttle power to seaward, another run forward to get some more chain up, then another, and another. The bow blew off to starboard, next time to port. Finally I had enough chain up to motor another couple of hundred yards away from the beach, dragging the anchor under the boat, and to hell with the risk of scratching the gelcoat.
By now the wind was in the low 20s and the rain had stopped. The adrenaline was starting to wear off, and I was exhausted. At this point, Simon, the skipper of a charter yacht anchored nearby, came racing over in his dinghy. With his help the rest of the ground tackle was quickly back on board, and we re-anchored in a different sandy patch. As I suspected, the anchor came up with a solid ball of seagrass and sand jammed under the rollbar.
Soon enough the sky cleared, and the hot sun was drying everything off, including me. I hopped into the miraculously unscathed dinghy and went ashore to collect Susan, who had watched helplessly from the restaurant, and down a couple of much needed beers at the bar.
This sorry story caused considerable soul searching. Could I have kept a closer eye on the weather? Probably. A couple of weeks earlier we had been anchored in Placencia when a rogue westerly blow passed over in the night. The anchor did not budge, and I did not hear a thing. However, I knew these microsystems happen, and I should have listened to local forecasts rather than my usual sources.
I could have anchored in a sheltered spot a couple of miles away, but what stopped me was my slow dinghy with its 4-hp motor. It would have taken forever to run back and forth to South Water Caye. Had I suspected this nasty blow was coming, I’d certainly have sought shelter.
Until that day I’d had no reason to doubt my anchor. It had gripped like a bulldog in much higher winds, set quickly, and never dragged—until I got to Belize, which is notorious for sketchy holding. I had much more scope out than my usual 5:1. But the combination of a 180-degree wind shift, the soupy sand bottom, and the seagrass that lay waiting as soon the anchor dragged out of the sand patch was too much for it. Perhaps a non-rollbar hook would have performed better in that seabed. Until that one big gust, though, the Manson had stayed put.
The real star was my Muir vertical windlass, a real workhorse that handled a big load on the chain and never faltered. I was also very happy that I had replaced the original shallow anchor tray with a full-depth anchor locker that does not require incoming chain to be raked forward by hand (see “A Forward-Thinking Revamp,” November/December 2023). I may well be missing a finger or two otherwise.
If I’d had a manual anchor windlass, I would have been on the beach, no question. I am more convinced than ever that a powerful electric windlass is an invaluable safety asset.
As a mostly solo sailor, I wish I’d had the ability to raise anchor from the cockpit. I have since purchased a wireless anchor remote.
Pay attention to local weather forecasts. The smoky pall over the mainland concealed any warning signs from the west.
I do not have the ability to carry a second anchor on my bow roller, and I did not have the time to unlash my Fortress kedge, bring it forward, dig out its rode from the locker, and deploy it. Dropping a second anchor may have stopped the dragging. It might just as easily have tangled with the main anchor and resulted in a bigger mess.
My biggest fear was fouling the anchor chain with the propeller, in which case we certainly would have become beach furniture. My feeling is that if I’d had rope rode, this may well have happened.
Former SAIL Editor-in-Chief Peter Nielsen is cruising in the western Caribbean and always optimizing his Pearson 39-2.