Approaching an anchorage at night isn’t a challenge with a chartplotter, but some pre-GPS caution never goes amiss, says Tom Cunliffe


In this month’s ‘Skipper’s Tips’ I’ve mentioned how I hate blundering around strange harbours at night. The most colourful near miss to join the lexicon of frights leading to this conclusion took place before GPS. In those days, because we were often in doubt about our exact
position, we stayed on the safe side of uncertainty. Now that we know where we are, we are more inclined to push our luck.

I was on passage from North Carolina to Anguilla, northwest of Antigua, working entirely
on celestial navigation. We made landfall on Sombrero Island light 30 miles from our
destination late one afternoon, then set course to clear the off-lying reefs before shaping up for the Road Bay anchorage. To say we’d enjoyed the trip would be an overstatement. We had,
in fact, survived the efforts of the late-season Hurricane Klaus to spoil our party, although our pilot cutter had given us a better shot at this than some others unlucky enough to be out there. Nonetheless, we were well beaten up and looking forward to a few rums and ‘all night in’.

We cleared the west end of the nasties by dead reckoning in the moonless gloom. Without specific data on the current squirting downwind through the island chain, I aimed to come onto soundings upstream, halfway along the seven miles of east-west peninsula running between the western extremity of Anguilla and Road Bay. A light was advertised by the chart, which made my already substantial target even easier to hit. A solid proposition, you’d think, and so it proved – almost. The plan was to sound in towards the coast until I found 5 fathoms, then turn east under power, work the depth contour up to the anchorage, let go in fifteen feet, then bend on a tumbler of Mount Gay’s finest.

In we came, close-hauled out of the night, but no light flashed reassurance. Knowing the Caribbean as I do now, this should have been no surprise, but I confess to feeling hard done-by after all that way. Undeterred, we pressed on, peering into the whirling neon of the ancient Seafarer echo sounder. When it read thirty feet, we rounded up, dropped the headsails, cranked up the diesel and crept onwards at tickover, keeping the depth constant with a sense of the bulk of land to starboard. If we’d had the sort of chart plotter I have now I expect I’d have speeded up. As it was, we only knew we were in the right sort of area and that Road Bay lay upwind. The chart showed no obstacles near this depth and it was in date, so all we needed was patience. I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever get there when my mate called from the foredeck where he was keeping lookout.

“In we came, close-hauled, but no light flashed reassurance”

‘Big lump dead ahead, Skip.’

‘What is it?’

‘No idea, but it’s not lit and it’s very close.’

I swung hard to seawards. Then I saw the object. It looked as large as the Bristol city hall. We skirted round it, wondering what on earth it was, until we came upon the next. This one was inshore of us. Another stood out to port and we tip-toed through the gap. Ahead we could discern riding lights, but between us and them loomed a fourth enormous ‘thing’. I’d had enough. None of this stuff was on the chart and goodness knew what lay ahead, so we stopped where we were, dug in the pick and served the drinks as per Plan ‘A’.

Daylight showed that we weren’t the only ones to have been hammered by Klaus. The massive midnight shapes had resolved into overturned coasting ships. They’d been sheltering from the easterly ‘leg’ of the hurricane, then been stranded when it reversed, driving them ashore as far as their draught allowed.

A pal of mine had shrewdly shifted anchor into the lee of the biggest wreck and survived. He’d found a breakwater by thinking outside the box and I’d learned yet again that caution pays off in the dark.

It’s an ill wind that blows good to nobody…

Tom Cunliffe