Wrecking on the Port Royal Reef

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

December 2018


We’d woken up embarrassed and completely shaken after a night with very little sleep. I was on our neighbors panga which was towing our big boat into Oak Ridge while Joey followed us in our skiff. “When it comes to the ocean, if you find yourself questioning whether you should do something or not, you shouldn’t” our neighbor told me. He'd just helped us pull our boat off of the reef the previous night. Those are words I now live by.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán Joey Hewell
Joey and Wicky guiding the Skipjack across Port Royal

The evening before had followed the end of a wonderful day. We’d been at home in the morning - an HGTV crew had been filming at our house for an upcoming episode of Caribbean Life - and when we brought them back into Oak Ridge to drop them off we decided to stop in at The Reef House for some food and a beer or two before heading home. It was a beautiful afternoon so we hung out for a couple of hours, meeting new friends and neighbors, relaxing in the sun and enjoying the Caribbean breeze. The hours moved slowly and so did we. As the sun got closer to the horizon we made our way around, saying goodbyes, then walked across the sandy lot to the back gate that led to the dock where our boat was tied up.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán Oak Ridge Cay The Reef House
The Reef House on Oak Ridge Cay - the evening we left and parked our boat on the reef

As we pulled away we started talking about what a wonderful day it had been, experiencing the first of 5 days of shooting the show and getting to know the production crew, then ending up at one of our favorite places on the island and getting to know more of the folks that worked there as well as others we’d be living around, locals and ex-pats alike. The water was as calm as I’d seen it. Inside the reef it was almost like a pool and outside the reef not much different. We decided to take it slow, instead of hurrying home as we normally did, taking in the gorgeous sunset, the unusual and extremely calm water, and the general happy feeling a day like that can leave you with. Lightly buzzed, fully content and all around delighted.


The scattered lights along the shore, from homes and docks, twinkled against the darkening trees and jungle behind them, the shadows not quite giving away their secret just yet. We moved along slowly, barely throttling the engine, joining each other with elbows atop the windshield as Joey slowly directed us home just a few minutes away.


The videos below happen to catch the moments as we pulled out of Oak Ridge that night.


Roatán is a narrow and mountainous island with its peak running down the center, like the spine of a lizard. Our home sits on the southeast side of that ridge, the far side from the setting sun. As we made our way out of the reef and along the shoreline, passing Calabash Point and away from the sunset, we suddenly noticed the darkness. The diminishing light faded rapidly and the darkness in front of us was growing quickly. We knew our way into Port Royal, having become familiar with the little cays and islets to watch for and steer between, Conch Key, Lime Cay, Cow & Calf. We knew these landmarks well, in the daylight.


Then the lights turned off, seemingly like a switch. It felt immediate though it really might have taken a minute or two, but things had changed very very quickly, from beautiful to bewitching. The sun dropped behind the mountains. Complete darkness. No moon. The shore of the main island blended completely with the cays and other landmarks we were familiar with. A flat black silhouette, a visible and familiar ridge line but no depth at all.


As you approach Port Royal the homes, and lights, are very far and few between and the further from Oak Ridge the further and further between them. It’s one of the things we love out there. But in the darkness we couldn’t tell which lights came from which property, how far back or close they were, or generally where in the hell we were at all. Panic set in. Do we turn back? How close are we to shore? Or to the reef? Is that Lime Cay or Fort Morgan? Are we there yet or did was pass it? Is that Mango Creek? Is that our dock light? Where the fuck are we?


Water is the main influencer for almost everything when it comes to our home in Port Royal. Though we knew we loved the home from browsing online, then obsessing about it online, we didn’t know if the “boat access only” element would be something we were comfortable with or not. We aren’t boat people by way of our upbringing, Joey is from Atlanta and I’m from Charlotte. We’ve been on plenty of boats, but we’ve not been boat owners and we’d certainly not depended on a boat as a means of primary transportation. Pontoon boating on Lake Norman ain’t the same as traveling over open ocean to get home. But how hard could it be? Most of trip to and from Port Royal is inside the reef, but about 2 miles of it is outside over open ocean. Avoiding the reef that lies just below the waterline is imperative and there are only a couple ways in and out of Port Royal (one of main reasons the British, Spanish and pirates lived there centuries ago).


Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán Joey Hewell
Our pup Wicky took to the water and boats like a champ

We’d gotten used to the channels in the reef around Oak Ridge and Port Royal, where the markers were, how these channels related to the cays and little islets along the route, where it was safe to be and where it wasn’t. Where to look for bouys and markers for dive sites - they have long ropes attached, “careful to you don’t drive over one and tangle it in your prop” Joe had told us. We purchased the home from Joe and Kim and they imparted a good bit of wisdom when they handed over the keys for the home and boats to us. Plenty actually, but we still only knew what we knew.


Getting to know the ocean was something we took seriously but also saw with a bit of adventure and excitement. Taking to the water was part of a move to an island and we didn’t consider it a negative factor, especially if high on the list was finding a place that had land, waterfront, views and that special “wow factor”. On Roatán waterfront and water access are huge components in how things are priced. If the home we ended up buying would have had easy access and a road to it we couldn’t have afforded it and it wouldn’t have had the privacy we’ve come to love. Plus the ride along shore in and out is beautiful.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán Skipjack
The big boat (Skipjack) that came with the house, the morning after the incident

We decided boating to and from home wasn’t a deterrent, rather a positive for us, and plunged into living with a boat as a necessity. The home came with boats, a larger 24’ Skipjack built for the ocean. It had an inboard diesel engine, plenty of space for many people and a cabin upfront intended for overnight stays on the water if you wanted. There was also a smaller skiff with an outboard motor. Great transport around inside the reef and suitable for use outside the reef if the seas aren’t too rough and the waves aren’t too large. Lastly it came with a 16’ catamaran sailboat. A recreational option not intended for any sort of real transportation.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán Blue Noodah
Our skiff, the "Blue Noodah" in the foreground and the catamaran further back

We quickly got used to the skiff, taking it back and forth daily, across the bay to bring Randy to and from work, or for errands from the house into Oak Ridge somewhat often. We’d become accustomed to the seas and waves we encountered in September 2018, the month we lived there after closing on the house. We didn’t understand, at the time, that it wasn't always that calm. Those calm seas had done us a favor by not being too stressful heading in and out that month, but they also lulled us into a sense of ease that wasn’t really “true” when the water isn’t so friendly. The ocean isn’t always calm, we learned, and calm isn’t always as safe as it might seem. Calm comes with its’ own perils.


Of the many lessons we’d learned early on, we knew coming in and out at night wasn’t a great idea for anyone, especially us. We knew to watch and make sure we always had enough fuel. We knew a few other odds and ends. Just enough to become falsely secure and to be dangerous.


As the darkness became complete we realized how thoroughly unprepared we were. We both had our cellphones, but both with diminished battery life after a full day of using them. We didn’t have a marine radio. We didn’t have flashlights.


We tried desperately to figure out where we were, staring as hard as we could into the night towards land. I climbed up front, shining the light from my phone forward to no avail, it just made things harder to see. We slowed even more, almost coming to a stop, idling in place and desperate to figure out what to do next, considering turning back toward Oak Ridge though we weren’t even sure if that was a good idea.


As our predicament worsened I tried sending a message through Facebook to Kim and Joe. They lived on Lime Cay at the time and our channel in went right past them. Though no other services worked, Messenger did. Kim and I exchanged messages rapidly, me explaining what had happened, she asking me to shine my phone light around so she could hopefully look out and see us. After a few minutes of messages and waving our phones around she saw us, we’d passed them, and our access point in, and had ended up past our home and about halfway past Port Royal. We were about a quarter mile out.


Then we hit. I’d never heard a boat hit anything before, the ground, rocks, a reef, but when it did I knew exactly what it was. The hard “boom” was followed an awful grinding sound, all of it growing louder since our engine had turned off, the reef stopping the spinning prop immediately upon impact.


Though the ocean was calm, there is always some motion, and that motion slowly lifted the boat and set it back down on the reef, over and over and over. The grinding sound never ending. We were certain it was tearing the underside of the boat wide open. Real panic set in then, we weren’t just worried about our situation but our situation had become our worst fear. We shined our phone lights down to the water, the reef was just inches below the surface. Good part, the boat can’t sink, bad part, we can’t go anywhere or we’d be ripped to shreds by the sharp and unforgiving surface of the coral. Plus we still didn’t know exactly where we were.


We kept the messages going and we screamed for help. The only time in my life I’ve actually had to. We waved the lights from our phones frantically, not really sure who would see them or hear us, but it was all we could do. Kim sent a message, her husband Joe and a couple other neighbors were heading our way - to try and pull the boat off the reef or, in the least, get us off and back to safety.


We probably waited ten or fifteen minutes for them to get to us but it felt like hours. The rocking of the waves we normally love felt horrible, leaving our imaginations to wander wildly. Were we taking on water? Would we be pulled out to sea rather than pushed inward? Would they find us and if they did how could they get to us without endangering themselves? It was awful.


When we finally did see the lights of the boats coming our way we were relieved. If nothing else were weren’t completely alone out there. They maneuvered around us, shining spotlights on us, then down into the water, trying to figure out how far in we’d gotten and how close they could get to us and how they might be able to pull us out.


Joe was on his skiff and the smaller boat became the obvious best option. He had to turn off his motor, pull it out of the water, and paddle in with a light shining down so he could see the coral heads and work his way between them. He managed to get about 20 yards from us. He tossed a rope towards us. It didn't quite make it but after a few attempts it finally was close enough to grab and pull aboard.


We used one rope to bring in another, and another if I remember correctly. We tied them to our boat and Joe paddled back out and over to another neighbor, Leif, who was on his large panga, the same boat I’d be on the next morning towing our boat to Oak Ridge. He tied on, turned his boat from us and told us to hold on. The only way to get the boat off the reef was just to pull and hope for the best.


He pulled the rope tight and began the throttle up. After a moment or two of no movement, we finally felt the boat join a small wave and lift off the coral. It ground its way backwards, eventually free and bobbing on top of the water. I don’t remember if there was any sort of jubilation from anyone involved, as clear as my memory of everything leading up to that moment still is, the moment we were freed is a complete muddled mess. I know we rearranged the ropes, tying up tightly, and began the slow procession towards home. We weren’t completely out of the mess yet, it was still a moonless dark night and the guys who were towing us were exceptionally cautious. We moved slowly, their handheld spotlights guiding the way.


I collapsed on the bow of the boat, the adrenaline from fear finally depleted, and Joey fell onto the center console in the back. I stared up at the stars motionless. I could hear the boats in front of us and their marine radios, crackling with static but with intermittent messages between the boats and, it seemed, everyone nearby. “We have them, pulling the Linwells in now”. I wouldn’t have the energy to be embarrassed until the next morning.


We headed west and rounded Lime Cay, circling back into the port. They towed us to our dock and helped us tie in. We repeatedly thanked everyone that helped, hoping they knew how much we were indebted to them and how thankful we were. We appreciated then and now how risky it was for them and how we’d put them in a dangerous situation as well.


We walked up our 55 steps to the house, poured huge drinks, sat on the deck looking out towards the beautiful and dangerous reef we’d just been parking upon and sat silently.


The next morning I woke up and the embarrassment set in. I felt foolish, and had been foolish, and I wasn’t sure how to face all of these wonderful people after our debacle. Not long after sunrise a message came through. Leif, who’d pulled us off the reef, was offering to pull the boat in to dry dock so we could get the damage assessed - he said he was heading in that morning and wasn’t sure when he’d be going in again. We gladly accepted the offer and went down to the dock to meet him, tied the Skipjack to his boat, and left for Oak Ridge. He asked that one of us ride with him and the other bring our skiff so we could get back (he’d be in town for a few hours). He and I sat as Abel, who works with him, drove us in. I thanked him again for the night before and the tow now.


He wanted one of us on the boat to talk, I knew it and appreciated it. He knew things I needed to know and he readily admitted that when it comes to being cautious you can't know everything. You can just be as prepared as possible.


Since that night we've sold the Skipjack. It's an amazing and sturdy boat, but not something we need right now. The body had no real damage to speak of, the only real damage was to the prop and the shaft. For now we have the skiff to do light work and we hire a friend out of Oak Ridge when we need something bigger. When we are here more often, or full time, we'll get a panga.


We take marine radios with us any time we head out in the water. We also take flashlights though we won't and don't come close to being on the water near sunset. We are overly cautious.


Later that week that week we passed through BJ's, where we hop on the boat to head home. BJ was sitting in her seat and greeted us with a smile and a huge hug. She's an Islander and lifelong resident of Roatán with many decades under her belt.


"I guess you heard we parked our boat on the reef" I said. "Of course", she mused, "everyone has". I turned red and my shoulders dropped. "But don't feel bad", she continued, "it happens to everyone eventually, one way or another, just be thankful you guys are OK." In her slow and calm voice she told us her stories, including wrecks and reefs, friends and rescue, mayhem and drama.


She told us how calm nights and be deceiving, when there's no moon and little to no movement on the ocean. When the waves are there you have breakers on the reef, but on calm nights, like the one a few earlier, there aren't breakers and you can't see it - it can be more dangerous because you don't know where it is.


As the days passed we saw more and more friends and neighbors, each propping us up with encouragement and stories of their own. Each imparting just a bit of wisdom that we happily and eagerly absorbed. We learned caution is always the side to take on the water. We learned to respect the ocean and the reef and not just take in their beauty. We learned that we love living boat access only but that comes with some rules in life that we are happy to accept.

Fort Linwell Port Royal Roatán Joey Hewell
Heading through Calabash in the skiff

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