Devil’s Backbone

Gus, Rosemary, and Annie, you can skip this one. You’re not old enough for this.

Another boat's view was the same as ours: close to the beach with breaking seas
Another boat’s view was the same as ours: close to the beach with breaking seas

Surfers can relate to the exhilaration of being between two lines of breakers. You look seaward and see the huge crashing waves, creating a jagged line somewhat parallel to the beach. Then you look toward the beach and see the foam take shape and dissipate repeatedly along the shore. You wait for the perfect wave to come your way, to catch, pop up, and ride. You are pumped with anticipation for the adrenaline rush this next wave will bring.

But this time, beneath us was not a trusty board. We were riding Alembic. Our home. Our everything.

We sailed East on this path very close to the beach
We sailed East on this path very close to the beach

We were sailing through the Devil’s Backbone, along the north coast of Eleuthera. We had just sailed all night to get here and we were tired. The wind was picking up from the northeast, and we were second guessing our plan to do this. Last year, we ducked around the west end of Eleuthera, into the peaceful Royal Harbor, skipping Harbor Island entirely. We could do that again. Or we could do what most first timers do: call for a pilot. Little Woody would come out in his boat, get on Alembic, and pilot us in through the “hazards”.

Instead, we were heading in. On our own. My biggest regret was that I didn’t take any pictures. I couldn’t. Bill was at the wheel, white knuckles holding tight. I was at the bow, clinging to the forestay as the boat plunged up and down in the seas. I wish I had the set up for a camera strapped to my forehead to take video while my hands were occupied with keeping me on the boat. I was pointing out the coral heads as Bill navigated through the surf. In order to release a hand to point, I had to wrap my leg around the stay to keep from getting tossed overboard.

Gorgeous turquoise water was strewn with coral heads that looked black from the surface. How could something so colorful below look so black from above? And how could these beautiful structures which we admired during our daily snorkel adventures be so potentially destructive to Alembic? One glancing blow could knock off our propellor, gouge our hull, or even knock us sideways to the sea. We focused on avoiding them.

Waves broke as the water got shallower, so Bill aimed for where there seemed to be a lull in the foam. Our charts showed a deep channel very close to shore. Very close. At times, we were forty feet from the beach to starboard (the right side of the boat) and thirty feet from large breaking seas to port (the left). This channel was by no means straight. Alembic looked like a drunk as she swung right then abruptly turned left to stay in the deepest water and dodge coral heads.

Bill and I couldn’t talk over the cacophony of the crashing seas. We had to trust each other and know that we would keep focus until we reached the end. I stared intensely straight down, maybe fifty feet ahead at all times, so I wasn’t sure where the end was. Bill had a better perspective, as he focused further ahead for the best path through.

If you love to live in the moment, you could probably enjoy this. There was no time to consider: could one of these waves knock Alembic over? what if Alembic ends up on the beach? what if her propeller gets knocked off and we have no engine to push us through? could I swim to shore if I had to? would the coral snag me on my surf ride in? Nope, no time for those thoughts. Just focus on the next coral head in our path.

The racket subsided. I remained transfixed on staring below. Finally I could hear Bill’s voice: “I think we are through!” I stood, stretched out my crimped back which was wound around the forestay, and breathed. We made it!

Motoring the last five miles south to Harbor Island was a chance to clear our heads, get our hearts to stop pounding, and count our blessings yet again. We didn’t bother to raise a sail because we were too exhausted. Dropping anchor was like a final sigh.

We followed this yellow line up from Harbor Island, close across the top of Eleuthra, and down to Spanish Wells
We followed this yellow line up from Harbor Island, close across the top of Eleuthra, and down to Spanish Wells

You’d think that after this crazy ordeal, we would stay at Dunmoretown a few days to revel in our accomplishment and take it easy. Nope. We stayed only a day, and headed back around again! This time, retracing our steps along the yellow line back to the northernmost point (the chart shows that blissful white area, signifying deep water) seemed doable as we survived this already. But then we had to deal with the hardest part of all, Salt Kettle Bay, Ridley Head, and Gun Point. All of these were wild with breakers, coral heads that came up twenty feet like spikes ready to tear off our propellor, and even a few barely visible rusty metal markers that were supposed to guide us, but actually endangered us further!

I wish I had taken photos of the crashing seas, almost knocking us over at times. Again, clearing Gun Point was the big relief. Now we just had to negotiate the strong current and shallow waters as we turned down the channel to Spanish Wells. Dropping anchor was once again like getting tucked in to bed after an exhausting day. But bed was not our plan. We quickly launched the dinghy and set off to explore this new place.

Sometimes I wish we reveled a bit longer on our accomplishments, our decisions, our relationship with each other and with Alembic. But we keep moving forward. We are creatures of action. Our reflections show up in our plans for the next time…And there is always more adventure in store.

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