Escape Plan

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Mon 24 Sep 2012 21:53
06:06.4N    118:00.6E
Recently, Peregrina was anchored at a small Island called Libarran - off the North East coast of Borneo.
In Borneo, the nautical charts we use are good on a large scale; provide some guidance on a mid-scale and are quite dangerous to use on a small scale….such as when anchoring off an island.  Nautical charts here come from a large variety of sources and some information may be 40+ years old.  Often the information was gathered without accurate GPS latitude & longitude figures.  And, in many cases, the bottom has changed dramatically due to wind, waves, storms and silting so caution must be taken very seriously. 
The best way to anchor is to consider a multitude of data before you make the decision as to where to “put the hook down.” Aboard Peregrina, we try to watch water color, waves, the depth sounder, the charts, the tidal range and, most important, our basic intuition.  We try to get close to shore but still maintain least 15+ feet under the keel and a good distance from any visible reef or coral heads.  The last thing we want to do is damage our happy home by running aground!
You can see that Libarron has a very large green reef around it with the exception of the southwest corner.  The water there was relatively shallow, but not too shallow, and we figured it offered the best opportunity to get close enough to dinghy into shore.
We approached the island slowly but, all of a sudden, our depth meter indicated that we had only 6 feet under the keel!  We turned to port and headed back out. When the meter registered 15 feet under the keel, Margie dropped the anchor.  We put out 60 feet of anchor rode (chain) and then put Hercules, our mighty Yanmar diesel engine into reverse to “set the anchor.”  Once we were satisfied that the anchor held, we put out another 40 feet of chain for a total of 100 feet. FYI - We use a huge 115 lb Bruce Anchor which has never dragged yet.  Thank you, oh Anchor God in the Sky! 
After anchoring, we usually wait about an hour before leaving the boat just to be sure that the anchor is holding and that, as the boat swings to the wind, she stays in deep water. The lowest depth recorded under the keel during our swing was 11.5 feet. We anticipated another 4.5 feet in tidal drop at low tide which should still have given us 7 feet of water under the keel at the shallowest point. That’s lower than we normally like but we didn’t have a lot of options so we kept working down our anchoring “checklist.”
Next, we launched the dinghy and, as is our practice, we made a circle around Peregrina at what we anticipated to be the furthest length she could swing at anchor. Normally, we do this with our hand held digital depth sounder – one of my all-time favorite Christmas presents from Margie.  (Yes, I know I’m easy to please!)
Unfortunately, that depth sounder had a “digital malfunction” a few weeks ago so we had to try to gauge the depth visually. This was very difficult as the water was not clear enough to see the bottom well but we couldn’t see any obvious problems.  Again, this was not optimum comfort level anchoring but we could live with it.
Finally, noting the afternoon clouds were building into dark, high cumulus thunderheads, we discussed our “Escape Plan” which consists of preparing everything on the boat for a rapid night-time departure if it becomes necessary.  The most important element of our plan is establishing a magnetic compass bearing that we can follow to safety. The reason for using a magnetic compass bearing is that this information is available immediately.  We have a large lighted compass right in front of the helmsman at the wheel. We determined that our escape course was 235 degrees, which on a 360 degree scale would be southwest and we both commit that to memory.
Modern technology is wonderful and we have installed all the best electronic equipment possible on Peregrina but, if we wanted to use the Raymarine Chart Plotter to follow our track out of this anchorage or establish a “True” GPS Bearing for our escape, we have to turn on all our navigation instruments; wait several minutes for them to warm up; wait some more for the GPS to acquire sufficient satellites and then cycle through the various start-up screens. Using a “Magnetic” bearing from an old-fashioned compass is much less complicated - a “no-brainer” you might say, but that’s what you need in an emergency.
I even keep a little magnetic compass on my watch band!  I have used it on the boat when I’m down below to check the wind direction; when I’m navigating on dinghy trips and even when hiking in the jungle.  (We’re talking deepest, darkest Borneo here!!!)
If “Magnetic” was good enough for Magellan …it is good enough for me!
So, back to Libarron and the storm which started with light rain about midnight. (Why is it ALWAYS midnight?)  In our berth, we were awakened as the rain increased as well as the wind. Next to our bed, I keep a portable Garmin GPS – another technological marvel.  I turned it on and entered a waypoint for Peregrina’s anchor position and set up an electronic “anchor watch” which would alert me with a buzzer if the boat dragged anchor.  Then, back to a fitful sleep. 
The wind increased to about 30+ knots and the seas built up sufficiently for Peregrina to begin hobby- horsing up and down.   About 2am, we felt her strike the bottom. When that happens, you wake up with the speed of a cannon shot and usually pause, in disbelief, for a few seconds while asking yourself if you were dreaming? A couple more jolts and I knew this was for real! I checked the Garmin and saw that, while we had not dragged anchor, we were being blown in a new direction - to the east and parallel to the shore. Apparently, there was much shallower water in this direction that was not on the chart and that we had missed in our dinghy trip around the boat due to the poor visibility.
The thuds were getting frequent and the tide was still going down. We had to act fast! One option is to just take in some anchor chain and try to pull the boat toward the anchor, into deeper water, without using the engine. This is often the best first choice. The danger is that, if you take in too much chain, you may actually pull the anchor out which would mean a quick, potentially hull-crunching trip onto the reef!
Instead, we decided to turn on Hercules and motor back towards our anchor.  We would try to get it off the bottom before the wind blew us either backwards onto the reef or caught the bow and turned us to starboard where we would run aground as we drifted towards the island. Margie made her way to the foredeck to pull the anchor up.  I told her to just keep the winch working and not to stop until the anchor broke free and then we would charge out on our compass bearing of 235 degrees.
It was raining heavily and the wind was still over 30 knots and the seas were pounding on Peregrina’s bow.  I turned on the decklights so that I could see Margie clearly but that meant that I lost night vision to see any landmarks outside the boat. We were bumping the bottom frequently at this point and I tried to use bursts of engine speed each time Peregrina lifted free of the bottom. Slowly, we moved towards the anchor. When it broke free of the bottom, the wind caught Peregrina’s bow and blew us towards shore. I muscled the wheel towards 235 degree magnetic and when Margie gave me the “thumbs up” signal which meant she could see the anchor, I pushed the throttle forward and headed out on our Escape Plan route. 
Once we got into 30 feet of water, we dropped the hook again to wait for daylight. We set the anchor and it held firm.  Crawling back into bed, I reset the handheld GPS with a new waypoint; checked that the anchor dragging function was on and closed my eyes for some sleep chuckling as I remembered Eric Stone’s famous sailing ballad, “If You Ain’t Been Aground, You Ain’t Been Around!”
Peter Benziger