ONCE IN A BLUE MOON
by Dave Gale
Phoebe and I went to bed early that evening in 1971 because we knew that no one would be coming to our pre-Christmas party. Phoebe had cooked and we had made the usual dinner party preparations but as the wind increased we suspected we might be wasting our time. If our guests were not already on Parrot Cay there was no way that they could get here, for it was blowing scary hard before the sun went down, and we realized that it would not abate before party-time the next day. It was blowing over 40 miles per hour with puffs in the who-knows-what range – we didn’t have an anemometer.
About 10:30 we awoke to a pounding on our bedroom door – louder than the wind had been pounding it for hours. The wind was howling and Dave Ralph was yelling at me to get up and help him with a rescue of some people in trouble on the little sailboat Blue Moon. Staggering out, rubbing my eyes, I listened to the sketchy details. A couple with two youngsters had chartered Val Jones’ 24-ft British-built Westerly sailboat from Hope Town and were in trouble outside the Great Guana Cay settlement, about 10 nautical miles northwest of Parrot Cay. By CB radio (VHF marine radios didn’t arrive here until about 1977 whereas we’d had CBs since 1963) they had called Dave Ralph, Val’s charter boat agent through Lighthouse Marina, and explained the problems they were having and it was definitely a serious situation. The marina was at that time owned jointly by Dave and me, along with Marcel and Ritchie Albury. The family in Blue Moon had dragged anchor out of the open-to-the-west harbour, but had managed to start the outboard motor and had re-anchored “inside.” Then they dragged out of the harbour again and when they started their outboard to get back in again, they fouled a line in the prop and the engine became useless. It was blowing much too hard for them to even attempt to put up sail, and consequently they were dragging toward the mainland shore of Abaco some 3 to 8 miles, depending on wave, wind and tide, to their leeward. It didn’t take Dave and I and Jeff Malone, a fine boatman who worked for Dave who he had awakened and brought with him to Parrot Cay that terrible night, to realize that when they fetched up on the raw and ragged coral rock of the uninhabited shore that they would surely be gonners. I was the head of the Abaco division of Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association, I owned a tough little Bertram Moppie 20-footer called Blue Runner and it was the only boat available to us at the time. Dave and Jeff had come from Hope Town in a 13-foot Whaler and that was a feat in itself.
We decided that we must go if this family of four was to survive.
I donned my foul weather gear and we headed northwest toward Man-O-War Cay. A black night it was, because of the heavy overcast and lack of any moon. I had headlights on the little Bertram but with rain and the drenching spray caused by our plunging into the waves all they did was backscatter making the visibility even worse. I drove with Jeff standing beside me and Dave sat on the floor between us. The compass was almost useless for it swung wildly in the viscous action and the pounding we were taking. Knowing that Man-O-War was northwest of Elbow I tried to keep that approximate course. Numbers on the card didn’t mean a thing. Dave was relatively new to this kind of action and he said later that he wasn’t much encouraged by the dialog between Jeff and me for it went like this. “Do you seen any lights on Man-O-War? I think I see a light but I don’t know if it’s on Man-O-War. Watch out for Johnny’s. We don’t want to hit it or worse, not hit it and go outside of it and into the reef.” And other reassuring statements.
When the waves got bigger we figured we were in the South Man-O–War Channel and when they subsequently became smaller we hoped we were in the lee of Man-O-War itself. The lee of that cay did give us a break and we continued that compass course as we hit the big stuff in the North Man-O-War Channel, and then worried if we would be able to stay south of the Fowl Cays and not get outside into the reef – the same kind of worry we had near Johnny’s Cay – how near we didn’t know. So we didn’t see the Fowl Cay chain either and were pounded mercilessly keeping up the same kind of dialog as before – asking each other for opinions, suggestions and help.
We thought we knew where we were but there was always an element of doubt and fear. The fear that kept the adrenaline flowing. Our hands ached from hanging on and we all silently hoped that nothing would break or stop functioning and that we wouldn’t roll over each time a big one would slam us sideways. And would there be a bigger one than that one? Totally blind we ran along the shore of Scotland and then Guana as close as we dared, but we saw neither of them. Fortunately the people of Guana had heard that we were on the way to help and they turned on as many lights as possible, so that we knew when we had reached the settlement. From there we turned downwind in the hope of finding Blue Moon and the family that must have been mightily worried.
Find them we did -- when we got quite close to them for as I recall they had a weak light of some kind. However, we had no clue as to where we all were in relation to Foots Cay or the Fish Cays and if or when we might all end up on one of those rock-bound shores. We only knew that we hadn’t gone as far as the mainland of Abaco.
The family was on deck in their life jackets, but we could only look at each other and wave. A shout would only have gone half-way and been blown to the Mainland. They had their little cockle-shell of a dinghy trailing astern – some of you may remember the Boston Whaler “Squall” – the tipsiest little walnut shell ever built. Dave, Jeff and I agreed that there was no way we could go alongside Blue Moon in those waves without injury to people or boats or both. We didn’t think that the people on board Blue Moon would be able to get rid of their anchor rope, catch and secure our tow line without danger to themselves or do it right the first time. Besides we couldn’t explain to them what we wanted them to do. I didn’t have a radio and there was no shouting to be done. Fortunately their dragging anchor was keeping their bow into the wind so they weren’t sailing off or laying broadside to the waves. Following the plan we devised Jeff made a flying leap – and I mean flying -- into the dinghy and then pulled himself forward till he was able to climb onto the wildly pitching Blue Moon. In one swift motion he used his knife to slice away their anchor rode and caught and secured the towline we threw him. As she laid off wind, free of her dragging anchor, we moved in close enough to get the towline to Jeff while being very careful to keep clear of the severed anchor line, which if fouled in our prop would put us all on the rocks downwind somewhere nasty.
Uneventfully we towed them back to the settlement and tied them and us securely to the dock at the Guana Harbour Club. They thanked us profusely but we were all whipped and soon crashed in the gratis rooms at the Club. Guana didn’t have telephones nor did any of us, so our families didn’t know the happy results till the next day when the CBs began to hum. Dave, Jeff and I headed home after a hearty breakfast at the Club. It was still blowing hard but it seemed so easy in the daylight by comparison. However, it was too rough for the Albury ferries to run, but then they only had 44-footers.
Captain Lambert Sands, a true gentleman now deceased, but then senior captain of Albury’s Ferry Service, and who as captain of the freighter Fendo safely rode out Hurricane Betsy in 1965 in northern Abaco, and whose long and safety-starred career I highly respected and whom today I still consider one of the most capable and dependable captains to grace our marine industry, is reported to have said that it was hard for him to believe that we returned from Great Guana to Hope Town that day but that he wouldn’t believe that we’d gone to Guana that night unless he heard it directly from my mouth.
“Once in a blue moon.” It was just an expression I’d often heard but didn’t give it more thought for the rest of the sentence was usually more interesting, while the “blue moon” part sailed by in the sky. A second full moon in one calendar month is designated as a “blue moon,” and it happens every 2.7 years due to the disparity between our calendar month and the lunar cycle which is 29.5+ days.
Fortunately, this kind of night-time bad-weather scramble comes along only once in a blue moon.