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    Chapter 1 The Wind Reversal
                             October 20, 1998
                 Aboard Iniki off the coast of Bonaire

The wind shifted. I sat in the cockpit of our sailboat with a cup of coffee and barely noticed. My view changed slightly as the boat swung 45 degrees with the gentle breeze, but I thought nothing of it. The shift was too subtle to alert me to impending danger.

I lived aboard Iniki, our 34 ft. sloop, with my husband, Ken. At that time we were moored in Bonaire, one of the “ABC” Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Safely south of the hurricane zone, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao lay 80 miles off the coast of Venezuela.

From my cushion in the cockpit I gazed off our stern. A second row of sailboats flying flags from around the world bobbed gently on the calm, clear water. Less than 2000 meters beyond them, tall cactus caught the first sunrays of the new day on Klein Bonaire, a tiny, undeveloped island next to Bonaire. A flock of loras, indigenous green parrots, flew toward the small island. Their incessant squawking in flight disrupted the stillness of the morning.

Every morning the same old man sat in his little rowboat and fished his spot. Hunched over the side, his dark-skinned face lost in the shadow of his floppy straw hat, he jerked the hand line. Hand over hand; he pulled up the monofilament while three sea gulls circled above him, looking for an easy meal. The hook came up empty. The fisherman put on more bait and tossed out the line again.

Most mornings I had about an hour of peace and serenity to write in my journal or just meditate on nature before the irritating static noise of our single sideband radio interrupted my thoughts. Once tuned into the NOAA weather channel, Ken diligently took notes from the weird, monotone computer voice that repeated the weather conditions for our corner of the Caribbean.

The grating radio noise never bothered Ken. Why is that? He complains if I just turn on a hair dryer! Ken was good at tuning in frequencies and could get broadcasts from all around the world, which was how we got our news. He even kept a weather notebook and updated forecasts two or three times a day to see the weather patterns and how they develop. Our life aboard Iniki revolved around the weather. Highs, lows and stationary fronts punctuated our cruising plans. The weather dictated when to go, when to stay, when to seek shelter and put out a second anchor.

That Tuesday morning, October 28, 1998, there was no radio static to annoy me. Ken left on a business trip to Caracas, Venezuela, the previous day and would be away from the island for six days. The two of us had lived aboard our sailboat for over two years. In the past, anytime I stayed on the boat alone we first brought it into a slip in a marina for safety and security reasons. Bonaire had two first class marinas. Both offered great protection from seas and winds that made them stifling hot and buggy. So I didn’t want to stay there.

“I’ll be perfectly fine by myself out on the mooring while you’re gone,” I assured Ken, presenting my case. “It’s not a big deal. I’ll be much cooler out in the breeze, plus I’ll be closer to town.”

Bonaire is a desert island with a thriving coral reef circling most of it only a short distance from shore. On the western lee side of Bonaire, between the living reef and the shoreline, lies a shelf of old dead coral covered with a thin layer of sand. That made for very tenuous holding for boats wanting to anchor off the charming Dutch island.

A member of the royal family of The Netherlands had donated a substantial sum of money to install a mooring system on Bonaire. Mooring cans attached to huge, submerged concrete blocks provide safe, secure holding for the visiting cruising boats and protect the coral from anchor damage. In normal conditions the eastern trade winds cause the moored sailboats to face land with their bows into the wind. The ocean floor drops so quickly that a moored boat’s bow could be in 15 feet of water while the stern hangs over the edge of the reef in 200 feet of water.

Ken and I took great delight in the underwater wonderland right under our hull. No scuba tanks required. I regularly saw interesting marine life: schools of Blue Tang swimming in unison; a brilliant Rainbow Parrot Fish hovering in a "fish cleaning station” while small “cleaning fish” darted in and out of its gills and mouth unharmed; a flat flounder lying motionless on the bottom, perfectly camouflaged in the sand; an eel slithering out of a coral head and into the hole of another; a pair of spotted eagle rays “flying” by, disappearing into the deep blue.

In the cockpit, sipping my second cup of coffee, I thought about the day ahead. I was excited about having a few days to myself. Let's face it--cozy togetherness with the one you love is dandy, but a bit of breathing room every once in a while can be a good thing. I looked forward to doing whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it. I figured I would get the work projects on my “To Do” list out of the way; then I could goof off with a clear conscience.

“Teak” was the word for the day. Iniki was a Pacific Seacraft Crealock, a beautiful blue water cruiser with a dark green hull, brass fittings and teak trim. The tropical sun and salt water are brutal on the varnished bright work and she needed a touch-up. The weather report from the night before predicted a clear day with no rain--just what I needed to get the job done. There was, however, mention of a tropical storm named Mitch located north and west of Bonaire. Even though Mitch was increasing in strength and was predicted to become a hurricane, it moved further away from Bonaire.

So tropical storm Mitch was not a concern for me….I thought.

I got busy and cleaned, taped and lightly sanded all the exterior teak. Then I applied two coats of varnish. In between coats I reorganized the cabinets and lockers below. That was a much easier task without bumping into another person every time I turned around.

There was actually a surprising amount of storage space on board Iniki. We had removed the cushion from the aft berth and used that area to store spare parts, dive gear, spear guns and miscellaneous stuff. Compartments under the V-berth and each of the settees in the salon provided more storage. Still, space on the boat was at a premium and had to be used efficiently.

Regardless of what had to be retrieved, it always seemed to turn into an archeological dig to find the desired item and often turned up surprises long forgotten. Generally, I knew where everything was. Under the starboard settee, pasta, tuna fish, diced tomatoes, salsa and oil were neatly packed in plastic containers next to a spare danforth anchor and chain, spare alternator and large black tool bag. Rice, flour, pancake mix, condiments, snacks, canned vegetables, canned fruit, dried beans and lentils were under the port settee.

I took an inventory of provisions on hand. We still had large containers full of lentils that we bought before we left the States. Why on earth did we lug around 25 pounds of lentils for the past two years?What were we thinking? I didn't know what to expect when we started out. It had been a learning experience to discover what worked well on a boat and what didn't. We proved that lentils keep well for long periods of time but we were never so remote or low on food that I wanted to steam up an already-hot environment with a nice big pot of lentil soup. I tossed the lentils overboard that day. Let the fish enjoy them!

After a long day's work I was absorbed in a good book that kept me up reading later than usual. It was nearly midnight when I climbed into the V-berth, ready to sleep. Before I could get comfortable I felt a change in the boat's movement. Waves slapped the hull. The wind whistled through the rigging. Something is wrong! Alarmed, I got back up to have a look around outside.

Standing by the companionway I noticed that the winds shifted and swiftly increased from zero to twenty knots as it clocked around from east to south to west. The driving rain came next. Lightning illuminated the clouds to the west. The sky rumbled.

“Oh no!” I groaned out loud to myself. “Please don't let this be happening!”

My biggest fear while I was alone on a mooring was a wind reversal. Mitch, the named storm soon to become one of the deadliest hurricanes of the century, had influenced the weather in the Southeastern Caribbean and caused an interruption of the normal eastern trade winds. A wind reversal was in progress.

Wind reversals happen in Bonaire only a couple of times a year. Boats on moorings swing around 180 degrees, which places them treacherously close to the rocky shore. But the real danger comes with the large swells and breaking waves. Their force can snap mooring lines, rip out cleats and toss the boats up on the rocks.

The harbormaster of Bonaire is on constant watch for wind reversals and there's usually several hours notice to mariners. Warnings of potential danger are broadcast on television. Radio stations announce wind reversal alerts on the air. When forewarned and prepared the local fishing boats, dive boats, tour boats and recreational boats could take shelter in the marina or go out to sea until the crisis was over.

We did not have a T.V. on board and I did not listen to the local radio stations that night. Out on deck in the wind and rain, I was suddenly very wide-awake. Strong gusts strained the flapping awning, so I hauled it down and cleared the excess stuff out of the cockpit area. The rain didn't last long and the wind soon dropped back down to dead calm.

Maybe the worst is over. I hoped it was true but I didn't quite believe it. I sat up a while to watch the wind and seas. Just then the big swells began to roll in from the west. Like a giant pendulum, Iniki rocked so much from side to side that it felt like her mast would hit the water.

Down below, the coffee pot crashed on the floor. Books flew off the shelves. Pans and dishes banged and clanged. I stuffed towels everywhere to stop the racket. Since there was no wind to hold all the moored boats in the same direction, they were rolling and swinging every which way, masts and sterns too close for comfort. Iniki's stern was nearly on top of the building breaking waves.

I looked around and saw flashlights on boats nearby. Other cruisers were also up and alert to the situation. I watched as a few left the mooring area to ride it out at sea, while other boats in deeper water on the outside moorings stayed put.

On shore it was the eve of a local holiday--Antillean Day. I could hear the loud music blasting from the huge speakers at Karel's Tiki Bar, full of dancing partiers. The festive mood seemed odd and inappropriate considering the danger and drama I faced on the water. The pleasure of my solitude was gone and I longed for Ken's experience, skill and strength. I needed his gift of clear, quick thinking in emergency situations.

My mind raced. What should I do? Should I stay and ride it out? Should I call someone for help? Who? I figured everyone I knew would be busy dealing with this. Should I take the boat off the mooring? What if I screw up and end up on the rocks?

I had handled the boat plenty of times before but there was always someone else on board. I had never single-handed her before. I remembered that Ken had said in case of a wind reversal we would simply slip off the mooring lines and go sailing for a while. Slipping the lines was simple with two people, but could I do it by myself with these big rollers pushing me around?

The sound of my pounding heart seemed to amplify in my head. I wanted to shut my eyes and have the nightmare go away. Maybe I'll be all right if I just sit tight. But I could not shake the thoughts that kept creeping back into my mind: Land is danger! Get away from the shore! It is safer in deep water.

I turned on the engine and looked for an escape route through the swinging row of boats between the open water and me. It was 2:00AM. I glanced around and mentally went over a plan of what I had to do. Just take one step at a time. I turned on the running lights and looked around some more. Can I do this? Still, I hesitated. I didn't want to risk it. I sat frozen with fear until I heard a loud crack. Startled, I looked toward the small fisherman's pier that was about two boat lengths away from me. An unattended ferryboat ripped away from the dock as I watched. The violent waves spun the boat around and bashed it up on the rocky shore. Each wave that pounded it produced a sickening sound of splintering, crunching wood. Somewhere inside its cabin a bell clanged like a death toll.

That's it! I have to go. If I stay another minute it might be our home that gets destroyed. I can do this. I MUST do this! NOW!

Spurred into action, I went forward, slipped the starboard mooring line at the bow, then went back to the wheel to keep the boat facing out to sea toward the waves. I put on the autopilot, thinking it would keep the boat straight. Timing was critical. Watching and waiting for a lull between series of waves, I hurried back to the bow to slip the port bow line and made sure all the lines were in the boat. The last thing I needed was a line wrapped around the propeller crippling the engine. That most certainly would spell disaster. Another big breaking wave pushed the boat broadside to the seas and even closer to both the shore and the sailboat next to me. Grabbing a handrail for balance, I rushed back to take the wheel.

OK, get me out of this mess! I turned the wheel and revved the engine but the boat wouldn't turn. I had no control! My mind could not grasp the problem. All I could see was the depth gauge registering less and less water under the keel as Iniki continued to drift towards the rocks.

What's wrong? Why is this happening? Think!


Yes, Jane, I would like to continue the adventure and order my autographed copy of Windshifts! Click here.
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