Stop, Star Dust, Stop

Julie Bradley


Sometimes anchoring out can be a real drag

We’ve all been in over our heads more than once.

Circumnavigating the eastern United States at 7 knots can make for long days. Many nights I go to bed tired. Not the yawny, sleepy kind of tired—the living and working outdoors kind.

Exhaustion usually provides for deep sleep. But while anchored off Beaver Island during a storm, the reptilian, survival part of my brain overruled my craving for comfort. In the middle of the night, I woke up because—as strange as it sounds—the boat felt funny in the water. I got up to look around and felt the rain and wind blowing harder.

I thought my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark because Star Dust didn’t appear to be anchored in the same place where we’d dropped anchor the day before. Maybe the wind has us at a different angle? Then I saw how close the boat’s stern was to shore. The anchor was dragging.

It was as if Star Dust was being suicidally pushed to shore against its will.

“Glen, Glen, get up.” Down below, I shook my husband awake and turned on the starter batteries. “We’re dragging to shore,” I said, and ridiculously added, “Hurry!”

Up on the flybridge, Glen said, “The anchor alarm didn’t go off.” It’s the kind of malfunction you don’t have time to troubleshoot with the seagrass and beach drawing closer. Just then, the engines roared to life.

Outside on deck was worse than I imagined. Wearing orange raingear over skivvies, I stepped out of the protected enclosure holding a 2-inch-long flashlight in one hand and grabbing hold of the boat with the other. Rain slapped my back as I stooped over the anchor windlass and could see the vibration caused by the anchor rode dragging along the bottom. It was as if Star Dust was being suicidally pushed to shore against its will.

Since there was too much strain on the chain and windlass to raise the anchor, Glen bumped the engines against the gusts, following the direction of my small flashlight beam. As the strain eased, I brought up the chain, splaying the light to indicate where Glen should motor. Worried about riding over our chain, I turned to Glen, my flattened palm pointed down, telling him to go slower. In the rain and dark, he was flying blind in the cockpit, using the chart plotter to navigate around the shoals. Thankfully, there’s only one other boat in the anchorage, I thought, and its anchor light looks far away. I hoped that was true.

Now we had the same problem: getting the anchor to hold on the grassy bottom in these conditions.

Oblivious to the rain, I took in the chain; the links clanked over the windlass like a Gatlin gun firing in slow motion. Clack clack clack clack clack.

Uh oh. The windlass whined and strained. The last thing I want to do is break the motor and have to pull it up, hand over hand.

Leaning over the pulpit, I saw the problem through the narrow flashlight beam. Seagrass and mud were packed on the last 2 to 3 feet of chain, covering and weighing down the anchor. Lying on deck, I cleared away all the muck I could, but the anchor still wouldn’t break loose.

Rolling away from the anchor, I got up and ran belowdecks to get something to cut it off. Glen yelled, “Are you OK?” But I had no time for explanations. Kneeling before the toolbox, my mind doing split-second calculations, I decided on a large screwdriver over a small knife. Then I ran up to the flybridge and handed the tool to Glen. “It’s wound thick around the chain. Not sure I have the strength to hack it all away.”

Glen went outside on the bow, and I took the helm, nudging the engines trying to stay off the shoals. Finally, I heard the windlass motor whirring. It was working again. But now we had the same problem: getting the anchor to hold on the grassy bottom in these conditions. We had no other choice.

In the distance, I saw one light and then two. As Glen replaced me at the helm, I pointed to what looked like two people waving us over toward a pier.

“It must be Salty. It looks like they are waving us over to a dock. Hallelujah! Give me time to rig the lines.”

That night I realized that powerful, unseen forces connect the dots when we need it most.

It would be tricky coming alongside in the wind and rain but not as hard as a narrow dock slip with boats on each side. Thank you, Salty, I thought, trying to recall the couple’s first names. We owe you big time. We’d met the couple on their trawler Salty days before in Mackinaw Straits and ran into them during a walk on Beaver Island that morning. Why are they awake at this time of night? They are safe and secure in the marina. How did they know we needed help? I wondered.

Strong gusts snatched the dock lines midair, and I felt like crying the second time they splashed in the water. Finally, the lines made it into the hands of Salty’s captain, who secured our bow. Halfway there. Then I ran back to throw the stern line to his wife, and, lickety-split, we were secure for the night. 

“You are our new best friends,” I said. “We could never have come alongside in this wind without help.”

The couple deflected our gushing gratitude, saying they had dragged before and knew the feeling. “You will probably want to be gone before the fishing boats need to come alongside. I’m an early riser and can untie your lines at dawn,” Salty’s captain said.

Although secure at dock, I was too shaken to sleep. Back and forth in my mind, I wondered: What made me wake up before we grounded, and what made a couple we barely knew look out the window, see our plight, and come to our aid?

So often I feel insignificant, like a tiny dot in the vast universe. But that night I realized that powerful, unseen forces connect the dots when we need it most.

United States Power Squadrons, America's Boating Club logo

The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.