Drama in Guyana

December 24, 2015

The night before we began our epic journey into the Essequibo we experienced our strongest squall of 35 knots. It was by no means unmanageable but the night watch were taken a little by surprise and there was an all hands call to reef the main and get the boat steady. There were numerous lights on the horizon as the Guyanese fishermen went about their work and we were holding offshore at 20nm to await daylight as advised in the pilot guide that was the basis of our planned entry.

As the sun returned to us once again the horizon was still bare in terms of any initial signs of land which was a stark contrast to the overdeveloped vista of the Recife coastline. If it weren’t for our charted position, the changing colour of the water below us and the presence of the local fishing boats one could easily have believed that were still hundreds of miles offshore upon the high seas. The excitement of the night had left everyone somewhat jaded but the promise of landfall kept the mood buoyant and one by one the crew emerged on deck to help keep lookout for any navigational hazards as we drew closer to the river mouth. There was a small hiccup as the engine started and an air lock gave us issues with the cooling system but this was swiftly rectified and we arrived at our first waypoint with half an hour to spare to allow for the mainsail drop and flake before beginning our navigation on the first flood tide over the shallow bar that presented our first main hazard. The neap high water gave us safe passage across the shallows but there were some tense moments as the sounder recorded as little as 2.1 feet beneath us which was an early indication that the charted depth both paper and electronic were to be treated with great caution. Along the way we encountered a number of withy sticks with what looked like nets or lines strung amongst them. There was a logical pattern to their placement which allowed us to carefully pass between without issue and with 14 pairs of eyes on full alert at all times. Finally the outline of very low lying rain forest became apparent and It was a huge relief to hit the deep water again and proceed to our first anchorage at Roed en Rust which provided us with firm holding and a pleasant overnight surrounded by water the colour of chocolate milk as the river and sea came together beneath us.

We were witness to a stunning sunrise on Friday morning as we lifted the anchor at low water to maximise the flood tide for our next leg to the Hurakabra Resort near to Bartica. I remember thinking that this would be an amazing day and it certainly turned out that way albeit not in the way I had initially envisaged. We had anchored where the river was a few miles wide and whilst the immediate coast gave us an idea of the flora and fauna of the area it was still quite distant. As we made our way up river so the banks drew closer and our course took us just 30 or 40 metres from the bordering rainforest. We passed the colonial fortifications on Fort Island which used to be the capital of Guyana and colourful wooden houses would periodically appear on the riverside as children ran down to the waters edge to wave to us as we passed. Already it was evident that visitors here were few and far between and it’s very likely that we were the first yacht of this size to be seen by the locals let alone with an all female crew. The banks were filled with the most vibrant shades of green that I have ever seen and parrots and stunning tropical birds flew above the canopy as butterflies and dragonflies briefly visited us in the growing heat of the Guyanese sunshine. The water remained a chocolate brown but with an increasing hint of red from the rainforest upstream of us and we began to see the rippling effect of the shoals in random spots across its span. We gently touched the bottom a couple of times and altered course accordingly as we ‘felt’ our way through ever aware of the 12 foot draft of the keel below us. The rising tide gave us confidence and so far we encountered mostly what we had expected whilst cross referencing GPS with paper charts and a waypoint guide from a yachtsmen that had sounded the passage just a few years ago.

We continued to feel our way along using the contour lines of the shoals to navigate with the charts that we have onboard and studying the friction on the surface of the water as if we were reading the currents. It was extremely intense as Imogen and I were glued to the helm hour after hour as we crept along and the further we successfully navigated the more evident it became that the shoals had moved dramatically since the waters were charted, even with reference to the more recent waypoints. We passed a stunning house on the Two Brothers Islands that reportedly belongs to Eddie Grant and the crew sang ‘Electric Avenue’ as we cautiously passed with 50ft of water beneath us. The guide we referenced suggested that from here there were two possible routes to Hurakabra, one via Bartica which was a few miles further south and one directly across to the west and between 2 shoals. Having studied the informed chart datum and the extra distance and therefore tidal factor with the Bartica route it seemed obvious that the most direct route would be the smartest option. We were less than 2nm from the resort and our final destination after 4500nm of sailing and the last 6 hours of intense navigation. We were starting to get really excited. Big mistake.

As we started to edge across the echo sounder was not delivering the depths that we would have expected to see so we turned 180 degrees and found our way back to the deep water. I picked up a hand bearing compass and took some bearings to plot a position on the paper chart and then checked it against the GPS on the Navionics chart. I couldn’t transfer them as the datum is not the same and in laymans terms they wouldn’t accurately work together but by eye the two charts put us in the same spot. With a course to steer and an eye on our course over ground we agreed to gently try once and if it didn’t look good to drop anchor and make some enquiries before trying again the next morning. We were edging along at a few knots when once again the depth began to drop. Imogen dropped the revs and gave her a burst of astern but Sea Dragon still carried a couple of knots of way when we gently sidled up onto a sand bar and the boat stopped dead in the water. My heart sank as I glanced over the side and noted that the flooding tide had ceased and we immediately put the crew onto the port side of the boat and tried to reverse her backwards. We were just a boat length and a half from 30ft of water which was soul destroying and as it became apparent that we weren’t moving we clicked into a seemingly automatic mode of finding solutions.

The following hour was extremely intense as we tried every trick in the book utilising the boom the halyards and anchors the crew weight the engine and even the RIB with its 25hp engine that was still playing up after Brazil. Imogen contacted the resort just 2nm from our position and Mike the caretaker arrived on his dory to join the efforts. In turn a number of locals came in smaller boats to try to help tow us off but as time passed so the water disappeared and we were clearly going to be there for some time. When it became clear that we would be unable to move her we began to take measures to secure her to ensure that she would remain safe while she rested there and we gently pulled her over to rest on her starboard side and not her keel to avoid her falling suddenly later on. We secured all seacocks and hatches and arranged for the crew to take their essential items and go to the resort overnight.

As the crew left just Imogen, Holly and myself remained on board to make final preparations and to monitor the angle of list to minimise any knock on effects. Both low water and darkness approached and we all quietly knew that it was going to be a very long night indeed. As soon as it was evident that the water would only lap her gunnels and we were happy that nothing more could be done, we arranged a ride ashore to fully brief the crew and to make a plan for the next high water at 0230 the following morning.

As we arrived at the resort the crew were in full swing in the bar and dancing with the locals and generally having a grand old time. It was an insane contrast to the previous few hours which saw us sitting on the high side of the boat quietly reflecting and planning ideas on how to move forward but it was lovely to know that they were all totally happy and it was one less thing to worry over in the coming hours. We had a full briefing followed by dinner although I personally had no appetite and was surviving on adrenaline alone at this stage. At midnight Mike returned the 3 of us to Sea Dragon whilst the crew showered and retired to their resort rooms to rest and sleep off some of the rum.

The mood in Mikes Dory was that of extreme apprehension as we returned to the boat. From afar I thought I saw her masthead and deck lights upright in the water but I dare not speak of it until I was sure. I could have cried upon the realisation that she was indeed once again upright and with 3 hours of flood to come I felt sure that we could once again return her to the deep water. There was a tangible group sigh of relief as we came alongside her to see at first glance that all was well and as we meticulously went through the boat the mood lightened again. As soon as was possible we ran through the relevant checks and started her engine and with Mikes assistance we began to try various methods of getting her clear. As we tried, Mike also sounded the surrounding waters to ascertain where the deep water lay and it was frustratingly close. For 3 hours we tried to move her and in doing so we did manage to re-set her at a more favourable angle but as the high water came and went so did our hopes and once again Sea Dragon began to rest gently on her side. Imogen, Holly and I stayed with the boat and tried to get some sleep but this was an almost impossible enterprise with her steep angle and the general stress of the whole situation. As day broke Imogen started to make phone calls to as many local boat owners and fishermen as possible using references from the guide book on board. Despite the extreme fatigue and frustration with the situation we were determined that she would not see another low water on the bar. We tried to find the humour in the ridiculous angle at which we were manoeuvring around the boat and in those few hours I think we grew a special bond between the three of us that would be hard to emulate in any other situation.

On Saturday afternoon four boats arrived to help us including one with 400hp on her transom. It felt good this time and hopes were high until we came to start the main engine. She started to turn over and then nothing. Talk about being kicked when you are down. Imogen naturally went into trouble shooting mode and I returned to deck to try to create some order with the four Guyanese boats that were all arguing over how best to get us off. The chap with the large engines insisted that he could see the channel with his Guyanese eyes despite the fact that it was the opposite direction to where Mike had sounded the deep water just that morning. I told him he needed to take a course from the skipper to which he asked if ‘he’ was on board – Imagine his surprise when I told him that yes in fact ‘she’ was down below. Before I knew it we had one boat pulling with two boats assisting the bow and I was setting the halyard for the coastguard boat to give the keel some clearance when she came free and started making her own way back. The three strand tow line that the man with the Guyanese eyes had insisted on using then snapped just as Sea Dragon turned 180 degrees. Fortunately this conveniently allowed us to quickly change to the bow bridal and we were finally moving forwards with 30ft of water below us. It was a wonderful wonderful moment and we continued the tow to a safe anchorage on which we are still sitting.

And so yesterday we finally took the crew ashore to clear in with immigration and customs in Bartica. The whole town had heard about the yacht that went aground with all of the girls on board and there were definitely a few heads turning as we arrived by water taxi to the small town. After clearing immigration we were called back to have our photograph taken which I had assumed meant for official purposes until the immigration officials pulled out their mobile phones and took it in turns to have their photographs taken with us. The crew were all participant in the deep clean which we managed to complete in just a few hours until the water taxi arrived to take them on the first part of their journey home. There were a few tears and some rather stunned looking faces as the boat departed and we said our final goodbyes and Sea Dragon became very very quiet indeed. It was strange saying goodbye to Holly as she was such an integral part of the core team for the duration but I was glad that she was on her way to a cold beer a bed and a shower that she most certainly deserves.

This journey began with high drama and it comes to a close with more. We have still to try to fix the main engine and the full time crew Eric and Shanley arrived today with fresh eyes and minds which was a big boost to morale. It seems that this adventure just keeps giving and giving and whilst this is my last night on Sea Dragon I won’t be resting on any laurels any time too soon.

– Emily Caruso, 1st Mate Sea Dragon
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