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Planet Earth Under Threat

Update from Andy Byatt and Family

  • Jody Bourton
  • 20 Dec 07, 03:06 PM


The thing about adventures is, you just never know what’s gonna happen next… it is an adventure, after all! So the big plan was to head off into the Caribbean and get south to Venezuela for the Hurricane season? Well, we did head for the Caribbean on the 5th of April and the 11th saw us moored by Great Harbour Cay, in the Berry Islands of the Bahamas. So far so good!

At 0530 am that morning the plan got fried. It was truly a wild and a windy night. Fierce. Lying at anchor in poor holding, whilst the furies swept over us, I refused to think of what would happen if we dragged. With one engine not working, we had the limited power of the one remaining engine should our anchor fail and over 40 knots of wind was grabbing at the yacht. It wasn’t pretty.

We held our position, but as dawn and the calm after the storm were surfacing from the night, Zcchapp. CRACKBOOOOM. Scything out of the broiling sky, a huge bolt of lightning shattered into our mast. I was on anchor watch at the time and was temporarily blinded by the light; the thunder, so loud, it literally took your breath away. Standing by the navigation station, glass bulbs shattered past my head and the sour smell of burnt electrics poured from the instruments. It was an instant of time that unfolded over days – discovering all the damage from that schism of an explosion – that moment when the lights exploded, panels smoked and my heart quailed at the sheer immensity of a natural force.

Looking back the most amazing thing was Iona, my daughter, slept through the whole storm – lightning strike and all. The teenage power of sleep is something to be reckoned with! A gift I would gladly have shared in the days ahead, because, needless to say, all the electronics on the boat were a smoking ruin along with our dreams of a Caribbean winter. It would take days of effort just to make the boat safe to travel on her new path because in that searing moment a change of plan was being forged: return to the USA and repair boat. It was desperately disappointing, but there was a strong sense of Karma – it felt like we were meant to do more work on the boat before she could take the high seas in her stride.

So we have spent over 4 months putting our boat back together and even now the work is not completed. In our new world voyage plans are very loose things you refuse to put down on paper – with a life afloat you really never know what’s going to happen next.


We are at the top end of the Chesapeake Bay, still working on the electrics and supposedly safely north of the hurricane belt – we do have a subtropical storm heading our way as I write and Hurricane Isabel pasted this neck of the woods 3 years ago – so every day starts with a catch up on the weather, at sea your absolute master.

On our passage north we always felt to be the quarry of thunderstorms - once struck by lightning – you are ever fearful and we seem to have been a virtual magnet to the lightning throughout the summer. On occasion, at night, I have been literally dodging L’Aventura through storms that were marching westwards, their towering and ominously flickering clouds like giant, electrically armed chess pieces sweeping the board of the night sea. And we felt like the hapless pawn. I’ve seen lightning arc from the very top of a thunder cloud and curve around the entire outside of the storm mass, to bury itself in the ocean, miles distant. We’ve seen other yachts struck and watched storms so violent that the brightness from the lightning was almost constant. My dread of being caught in open water by a full thunderstorm is very real and I’ve run the boat to hide by the shore, heart in my mouth, many a time now. My whole sailing strategy revolves around storm avoidance – it’s an elemental fury that I really want to keep far, far away from.

Our adventures have attracted more than just the attention of the elements – we also have a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as far as officials are concerned. We’ve been chased by police boats, harried by Navy patrol boats and boarded by the Coast Guard. It seems very easy for a foreigner to put a foot wrong just now and we generally seem guilty until proven innocent!

And we’ve found a third way to test the nerve – Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) bridges. For some of our passage, we sailed along the extraordinary ICW, as it wends its way up most of the East Coast, sometimes sailing on rivers so wide you can hardly see the banks and sometimes weaving through channels so narrow that the smallest of navigational errors will see you aground. But the bridges are the thing that gets the pulse racing. 65 foot height of clearance is the normal for major fixed bridges and our mast is just a few inches shy of that. So each bridge is approached on low tide, scanning anxiously for confirmation of the clearance height maker. Once it was so close our antennae tickled the bottom of the bridge… not a soul on board breathed until we were the other side.

Still here we are – some two thousand miles later – safe and sound. So what of life aboard? The guys have just started back at school – which means Sue and I are the teachers – boy are we going to be in for some stick when they reach adulthood: “it was all your fault!!!” It’s a huge challenge for us and a massive responsibility, although the surprise is, it’s fascinating for so called grown ups to have to share in learning again. Just now we are into the history of slavery, the American Civil War and the geography of Maryland. It is so liberating to be able to explore beyond the confines of the British Curriculum which tends to paddle about in a small circle that never changes decade by decade.

School is not the only area of learning - on voyages, increasingly, I can turn to either Iona or Keir to haul up sails, or drop the anchors and all the other myriad tasks essential to a cruising boat. Everyone shares in the responsibility of night watches, anchor watches and helming. In short, everyone is turning into a valuable crew- member.

We’ve invented a great new watersport – the Low Speed Water Drag. I’m not sure it’ll catch on, but we love it. During the hottest and calmest of days out in the Gulf Stream, L’Aventura was stifling as she idled along at just 3 knots. The guys were desperate for a swim, so finally we dressed them up in a harness and towed them behind the boat. With the cooling water surging past, the smiles grew wider and wider. Now, whenever we are underway there are plaintive requests for a good old dragging. Except in Chesapeake Bay – the jellies have kinda put an end to all that.


We have already seen some wonderful wildlife – schools of dolphin playing in the azure blue of the Gulf Waters, baby turtles pedalling past sargassum miles from land, feeding frenzies of ravening blue bonito, elegant diaphanous sea nettles drifting in Chesapeake water and Canada Geese honking in greeting to the dusk as they sweep towards their winter roosts. There is so much to wonder at.

Yet there is also so much to trouble a naturalist’s mind – like the huge fleets of menhaden fishing boats, trawling the sea of ever diminishing supplies of this most ecologically important of fish. It’s an industry that seems bent on destroying much of the East Coast fishery because with the decline of the menhaden, many other more glamorous creatures will follow their demise – such is their importance as baitfish in the food chain. We’ve also seen countless thousands of crab pots along our journey, dodging them as best we can. It may be a mild navigational nuisance but it hides a more insidious threat - the onslaught is so great that apparently much of the crab served in restaurants comes from Asia rather than US waters.

And with fall approaching, soon geese will be in the hunters’ sights, fulfilling a long-standing recreational tradition. When we were visiting the Little Choptank River, Sue got very excited about a small hide hidden in the reeds. Thought it was the home of a keen bird watcher and a very nice touch. Ho, ho – later we found the whole riverbank to be covered with such hides – and all of them there to camouflage duck and geese hunters in the months ahead. It’s no surprise to find that the Canada Goose has been in decline in the Chesapeake.

Already then, I’m finding the journey bittersweet – we’ve met wonderful people, some whom will be lifelong friends and we’ve seen amazing places, with the children encountering wildlife that they would never find at home in the UK. But so much of the natural world here is steeped with the same sensation I had from making the Blue Planet: still hanging on, but for how much longer.

Just think how extraordinary life must once have been on these beautiful naturally sheltered shores.

And what is the plan now? Well, first finish fixing the boat and then head south, joining the transient cruiser migration to the winter sun. Perhaps! Ssh – don’t tell anyone, it’s only a vague idea. I just hope there isn’t another lightning bolt out there with our number on it.

Once we get the Single Side band radio fixed we intend to make regular updates of our progress – sending our emails via the radio waves. So Iona, Keir and Sue will chat about what life is really like when you cast off all your ties to land. There should be much to talk about - Iona and Keir have just started to dive and are fast becoming fish. Sue is longing to get back to coral filled water and I’m hoping our first major diving adventures can be passed in the spectacular Exuma Cays – a must stop location for anyone interested in underwater life. And we are all looking forward to exploring the very different cultures and history of the Caribbean.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 02:06 PM on 25 Jan 2008,
  • Mick Tombs wrote:

Do you think that global warming and mans obvious calous regard for natural life in general is natures way of reducing our population to maybe a billion instead of 8 billion. I think that man cares so little for his enviroment that perhaps this is earths way of controlling the virous that is man.

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