A Tragic Christmas Cruise

Witnessing a sailboat run aground in the Caribbean offers a stern reminder of the dangers that can occur, even in paradise.

Last night I watched a sailboat die. It mistakenly cut the corner on a windy night off the eastern tip of Culebra, and went hard aground on a reef that juts out just below the house where I am staying with my family for Christmas. We saw its navigation lights approaching, wondering whether the crew was crazy enough to try to run the narrow, unmarked passage between the reefs that protect Manglar Bay. Suddenly, the lights stopped moving. The genoa started flapping madly in the 20-knot tradewind breeze. The masthead light heeled crazily.

It was wrenching to watch, and a reminder that when you are on a boat—even Christmas cruising in the relative safety of the Caribbean—a moment’s inattention can mean disaster. In this case, there was no redemption, no way out. The 3-foot chop and gusty winds quickly drove the boat, a 32-footer with a canoe stern, hard onto the shallow reef. There was no danger to life. The passage between Culebrita and Culebra, known as Canal Del Sur, is protected from ocean swells, and the water over the reef is no more than waist-deep, meaning the crew could easily walk ashore if need be. We didn’t have a working VHF to reach the crew, but within minutes called the wreck into the local marine police, who said they were on it.

We saw flashlights stabbing through the dark of the night, and heard the engine going to maximum revs, as the crew desperately tried to reverse their error. It was sad and sobering to imagine what had taken place: a happy ship headed for safe harbor a few days before Christmas, a nighttime passage through relatively protected waters, perhaps a little wine and music, and then a sickening crunch, and a dawning awareness that in a split second everything had changed.

Every sailor, deep in the subconscious, fears that little mistake, that brutal transition from the pleasure of a passage aboard a sound vessel to the harsh reality of a shipwreck. So it was hard not to feel tremendous sadness and empathy for the crew in that terrible moment. The wind and chop quickly drove the yacht—inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot--further up onto the reef, until it was laying on its keel and starboard side in very shallow water. The window in which the crew might have reversed or kedged off the reef could be measured in minutes if it existed at all. Three hours after the boat went aground, a Coast Guard helicopter clattered overhead, and with impressive efficiency and purpose, winched two people off.

Daybreak revealed a bleak tableau. A foundered yacht—“Morning Mist”, USVI the stern read—grinding itself toward oblivion against hard coral, a small scrap of genoa snapping pathetically in the breeze. A well-used vessel, a source of countless memories, and maybe even the owner’s only home. Abandoned.