By Cptn Ron
As we closed on the island of Jamaica Port of Kingston gantry cranes emerged from the mist in the distance. This is the 7th largest port in the world, so we expected heavy ship traffic and would need to be on the lookout for these monsters. From the chart, we could see a few hazardous places to avoid : “Wreck reef”, “Drunkenmanns Cay” and “Biddlecombe Shoal”. The first sets of buoys marked on the chart were missing from the water.
Still about a mile offshore and heading north toward land, we could not distinguish an entrance- it looked like solid land; background hills and foreground beach melded together. It’s happened a few times over the years, once in British Columbia, and once off the California coast entering Fort Bragg , or was it Crescent city. In those cases the charts and GPS verified our correct position, but no entrances could be seen, you had to take a leap of faith, head toward shore anyway, waves crashing, water getting shallow, then the entrance makes it self known just in time. There were no crashing waves this time, but heading for land without a harbor entrance is uncomfortable
Cetacean draws 6 feet. So when the depth went to 10 feet, I got the first hint something was wrong. Quickly the depths went down, 9..8..7.. the engine was already on, throw the transmission in reverse , throttle up full, Cetacean slowed and almost imperceptibly the depth gauge went up, 7..8..9..
Back on track to enter the bay, I scolded myself and determined that almost grounding would not happen again. I didn’t know it at the time, but history was about to repeat.
Finally we spotted a 2nd set of buoys in the distance and headed that way and about the same time the foreground separated itself from the background and the outline of a bay entrance started to resolve.
The bay is huge, the city of Kingston was straight ahead 3 miles on the north side of the bay. A coast guard station maybe ½ mile away , is on a spit of land that forms the southern side of the bay.
Almost adjacent to the coast guard station is a marina with about a dozen shabby power boats and beyond that we can see the airport. The marina we want, the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club is beyond the airport at the very east end of the spit, about 10 miles and 2 hours away.
Off to our left are many more bays, sub-bays? Portland Bay catches my attention. I have a six pack of very cold Colombian beer – “Colombian-Roja”, my favorite in the fridge. We are a dry ship during passages, so I’ve been looking forward to a very cold beer for four days.
It starts to rain as a 25knot squall passes through us. The sky is very gray. I think I can make out a shortcut to the marina – along the right side of the bay.
Suddenly a military skiff approaches from behind. They motion for us to stop. Jamaica is very protocol oriented, so all entering vessels must enter showing a yellow “Q” – quarantine flag flown just below the starboard spreader. I know Judy has put it up, but a second look confirms it is still there.
We stop. The boat has four soldiers in it , the middle solder, standing, has an assault rifle folded under his arm. They just want to know where we came from and where we are going. I say Colombia and the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club and they seem to be satisfied. They leave.
The depths are going down again. I have faith in our charts; they have been accurate for Colombia and except for the missing buoy in Jamaica. That hasn’t always been the case, Panama being the worst. Navigating by the charts we purchased may well have been more dangerous than using common sense; using eyes to find deep water by color and find shoals by breaking waves was far safer. But still it doesn’t pay to take too much for granted. I ask Judy to bring up my tablet with another good charting program called Navionics. I like to use it as a backup. I open the “app” only to be told by an error message, the program has to close, now. I try again after a reboot with the same result. It doesn’t work; it did; but not when we needed it.
Now I see a red and green buoy on the far side of the bay, near the cranes. Another squall comes through with more 25k winds and a thick rain. The squalls don’t last long, 5-10 minutes but they make a lot of noise as the wind passes through our rigging. However, this wind is lingering.
I look down at the depth gauge and it reads 7 feet. The wind is pushing as we watch and depth goes to six feet and we are softly, suddenly almost imperceptibly stuck and not moving. I try our own engine to get un-stuck with no joy. Two fisherman in a small boat are nearby. Their wooden boat with fishing net piled high, row over and offer to call the coast guard, we say great!
He pulls the phone out of a zip lock bag and calls on his phone. But a minute later puts the phone down and says he has run out of minutes, sorry. We call on our VHF using channel 16 – the international hailing frequency for emergencies or assistance. We can still see the coast guard station about two miles away. But there is no answer.
The next 20 minutes were spent trying to hail help – alternating between the coast guard, the marina, passing freighters, anyone that can hear but there is no response from anyone. I try our backup VHF just in case there is a technical fault in the radio with the same eerie quiet.
All this time 20+ knot winds are continuously pushing against us, even if we could float the wind would push us toward even shallower water.
I put out an anchor to stop further pushes by the wind.
There are lots of ways to un-stick a boat without outside help, kedging for example. That is a technique where one uses a dinghy to row an anchor out a couple of hundred feet toward the deeper water. When the anchor is set, use the boats windless to pull the boat toward the anchor. Then repeat if necessary. It’s an option, but I have no energy to inflate the dinghy, row with the anchor and chain, and pull; maybe repeat.
The tidal change is not large in Jamaica, less than one foot. It was low tide and due to start rising in about 30 minutes. But if the wind continued, each time the water was to rise we would be just blown back into shallows.
We weren’t in any immediate danger, the bottom is soft mud and the bottom of our boat is very thick fiberglass; big ships can hit us here – it’s too shallow for them. We are in the geometric center of the bay’s width – visible for miles around – half way between the Coast Guard station and the Port of Kingston Cranes, maybe a mile or two to either shore in either direction, somebody will eventually come. There is water and plenty of food aboard so we could wait, days if necessary. On the other hand we are tired and want to complete the trip. I could just start to imagine the conversation with officials as to why we didn’t check-in sooner.
It occurs to me that all cell phones are supposed call 911 even if minutes are gone. My cell phone didn’t have any Jamaican minutes but maybe….
I call 911. A recorded message asks if I want police, fire or ambulance? Of the three, number 1, the police seemed like the best fit. It rings for a long time, with no answer. Welcome to Jamaica. Next call I try 2 for fire, a woman answers and I explain our situation and ask her if she can call the coast guard? She replies that she can’t call and that I need to call 911 information. I explain I can’t call, but the call is dropped.
Did I really need to come here? Colombia was very nice, maybe we should have stayed.
Cetacean also carries a licensed Single Side Band Radio (SSB), and I have a Amateur Radio license to use the Ham bands. Under the right conditions the SSB can transmit and receive 1000’s of miles. I reach volunteers on 4.125MHz the Mobile Marine Net. I’m soon talking with a station in Florida and explain the situation. He says he will try to get hold of the Jamaican Coast Guard. After about 30 minutes he gets back on and says he made contact so maybe we should try hailing the Jamaican Coast Guard again. We get on VHF channel 16 and they answer immediately.
About an hour later a very sturdy looking inflatable and steel vessel arrives with six guardsmen with three huge 300 HP outboards mounted on the stern. We fix a bridle and a long tow rope – I fire up our 50HP diesel and together, all 950 hp, start to pull the boat free of the mud. After a few excruciatingly long minutes we are in deep water again.
They won’t take money for the service but, wait would they be interested in a six pack of very cold very good Colombian beer – sure comes the reply.
But it is now 6PM and past the time when the yacht club is supposed to be open. We can still anchor outside the club. With no further problems we arrive and anchor out front of the club. Judy gets mad at me because its only 12 feet deep where I anchor.
It seemed like just a moment later a skiff comes alongside – the driver, a RJYC worker says he’s been looking for us all afternoon and we need to pull up anchor and follow him to the fuel dock – all the Jamaican officials have been notified and are coming tonight.
How did that happen? About the last thing I wanted to do then was fill out a bunch of paper work.
At the dock a Chinese woman comes to the boat holding a plastic bag. She introduces herself as the club manager – Pat and welcomes us to Jamaica and here in the plastic bag are two very cold red stripe beers for you. Maybe there is a god. Pat is very nice but indicates there may not be any room for our boat in the marina, but we’ll talk in the morning.
We are tied to land for the first time in 4 ½ days – however, until the quarantine people come it’s not legal for us to step off the boat, not even onto the pier.
Jamaica requires three governmental agencies to issue permits to visiting yachts.
Medical/Quarintine has to be 1st . If they haven’t arrived then the others can’t talk to us.
But, over a period of the next 12 hours they all finish with us and we have declared on two different forms that we have not brought any stow-a-ways with us and been lectured about mosquitoes. Yellow fever vaccinations are a must to enter Jamaica.
Marinas are unlike any other organization in the whole world. If you email to reserve space, 9 time out of 10 you will receive no answer. If you just come, 9 times out of 10 there is space available. It’s the transient nature of boating, boaters and the weather that makes it impossible to make plans with any certainty. If you must have certainty, this is not the life.
The next day, I walk up to Pat’s office and have a lively conversation. She confirms we not only have a slip for a week or two at RJYC but we have phone assurance from a marina on the north side of the island for permanent storage while we head back to the US for a few months. Not only that, but she finds out the day is our 43rd anniversary and it’s her 13th anniversary working at the club.
So in addition to all things she has done she offers to drive us to Port Royal for our celebration dinner and secures a ride for our return. Remarkable.
In the period of one day; from the grounding to the walk out of Pat’s office, I’ve gone from hating this place – to feeling honest love for some of it’s people. My emotions have gone from the dungeon when the coast guard didn’t answer and when told there may not be room for us then to absolute joy at getting a confirmed space.
I still don’t understand why the Jamaican Coast Guard answered after we called the Mobile Maritime Net in Florida, but thank god for organizations and people like that.
I don’t think I have ever come to a place with such dichotomy maybe call it schizophrenia, where there is such a large group of people, more than the US, more than Latin America or Mexico, more than Colombia, that truly enjoys helping a stranger. And on the other hand another significant group that can’t be bothered.
Since that day, we have met more of both categories – from all walks of life, and my original comments still stand. Some people here are marvelous, quick to laugh, quick to help, quick to be a friend. We’ve met the other side too. Very odd.