We were making little progress, desperately trying to beat to windward under heavily reefed sail. The current had turned against us and the only direction we seemed able to go was ever closer to the dark shadow and crashing waves of the reef.
We were sailing between islands making good progress when the wind began gusting and the seas very suddenly became confused and crashed over the bow. Was this one of the infamous “rages” we had been warned about? I decided to turn back and seek shelter in the lee of a nearby island. There was no time or sea room to take down the mainsail in the suddenly violent conditions. As we tacked a gust of wind and large wave caused us to broach and forced our starboard rail down into the sea. A rush of water flooded into the cockpit. After a second and then third violent gust forced our rail under I could not believe the volume of water that was so quickly filling our boat.
The boat was feeling heavy and unresponsive from the weight of the water we had taken on and the situation was looking dire. I tried twice to bring the bow back around and into the wind, all while being driven ever closer to the reef. Finally on the third attempt our water-filled, half-sunk boat turned ever so slowly into the wind and hove-to, giving us a chance to bail like mad. One more large wave filling our cockpit and we almost certainly would have gone down.
After what seemed like a very long time on the verge of disaster we were able to bail enough water from the boat and regain some control over the situation. The wind was still gusting and the current had increased against us. Knowing we had to get out of the channel but unable to make any progress beating against the combination of wind and current, I decided we would have to turn downwind and attempt passing over the reef.
This was not a charted route and I was uncertain of the depths or exactly how far the reef continued. We tacked and it seemed we were almost instantly pushed within inches of the ominous shadow of the reef to port. I held my breath as the water grew more shallow and listened for the telltale crunch of fiberglass on rock and coral. Nothing. We couldn’t have cleared by more than a few inches. Once on the other side of the reef and out of the channel I felt the current loose its grip and the seas became more predictable. We were soaking wet and tired but no longer in danger of sinking or hitting the reef. We were finally making progress in the right direction and began to feel the protection from the wind and waves in the lee of the island.
We had pushed our boat to its limits and narrowly escaped disaster. The 2 foot seas, 20 knot gusts , and 2 knots of current had proven too much for our overburdened 8 foot sailing dinghy. Had we sunk it would have been truly embarrassing standing there in 4 feet of water flagging down one of the several inflatables effortlessly speeding around to come to our rescue and tow us back to Baby Blue.