Tech Talk: Installing 380W of New Solar!

Isn’t solar power just awesome?  Using pure sunshine, something that is entirely free, that we all have access to, and that doesn’t cost us a dime to charge our little boat batteries and keep us happily floating and going?  I care none if this makes me appear the quintessential sun nerd.  It just warms my heart (get it ; ) to be able to operate the electronics on our boat from a source that is not only eco-friendly for our poor ailing earth, but that is also super affordable and … (drumroll) easy enough that Annie can install it!  Win.  Win.  Let’s dig in. 

So, as many of you know, our brave little boat survived a hurricane!  Whaaaattt?  Say it isn’t so.  So.  These things happen.  And, while thankfully she pulled through not too scathed, the solar panels on her bimini did not.  (And I know many of you are thinking: What the heck were you doing leaving your bimini up for a hurricane?  Because we didn’t know until hours before that it was going to be a hurricane and we thought the solars might be necessary to power the bilge pumps if she did, God forbid, start taking on water.  Were we right in this thinking?  Likely not, but I can only say that with the beauty of hindsight.  Sally just caught us all off guard.)  Including our solar panels.  Here is a quick run-down of our pre-Sally set-up. 

We had three panels (one 100W and two 50Ws) Velcroed and stitched (for good Annie measure) to our bimini providing us with 200 watts total of solar power.  We combined the wiring for the panels into one heat-shrunk tube, affixed it to our bimini frame and then ran it into the deck on the starboard side via a gland that Brandon with Perdido Sailor helped us install. 

(Phillip and I were too scared back in 2014 to cut holes in our deck without supervision.  Thankfully, that’s long since gone to the wayside since I have become quite the proficient 610-hole-filler as needed.  Annie get your gun.  Pow!).

Once inside the boat, the solar wires then ran hidden in various lockers and cubbies down to this area beneath our aft-berth where we installed two MPPT controllers.

If you are curious what MPPT controllers are, in Annie-speak, they decide how much solar power the batteries need.  Our wet-cell bank has three stages of charging: bulk, absorption, and float.  I like to think of it as slowing down when coming up to a stop sign. You don’t go from 20 mph to stopped, instantly do you? I hope not. Typically, you first slow pretty rapidly (consider this bulk), then more slowly as you get closer to your stopping point (consider that a full battery) so the car doesn’t jerk at the end (that slower charge toward the end would be absorption), and then you’re sitting idle at the stop sign with the car ready to go once traffic is clear (that’s float).  I hope that helps some.  As a woman cruiser who tries (very hard) to be an equal to her male counterpart, I find I have to learn things at my own pace, in my own way, and find metaphors and analogies that make things *click* for me as sometimes (unfortunately many times) the way Phillip explains it just sounds like Hebrew.  I’ve often thought about writing a fun Your Boat, She-Splained book for women that helps explain systems that often seem overwhelming, though once you understand them, you find they are quite the opposite and totally manageable.  Ladies, let me know what you think of that idea (as I unapologetically digress).

Back to the solar.  Along with the MPPT controllers under the aft-berth, we also installed switches that allow us to turn the solar panels on and off.  For whatever reason, our battery charger did not seem like it when the solars were putting in at the same time as the charger was receiving shore power.  The charge would get funky.  So, we always turn our solars off before we plug into shore power and, just to avoid any other interference, when putting in juice from the alternator on the engine and simply turn them back on after we’ve killed the engine for the day.  It seemed the easiest fix. 

So, with the panels, switches, and MPPT controllers, it was a pretty simple set-up.  On a good sunny day, Phillip and I could generally put in 6-8 amps/hour at peak sunny hours, which translated to roughly 30-40 amps in a day.  With Phillip and I using approximately 40-50 amps on a typical anchor day, the solar panels would allow us, usually, to lose less power each day. Although we did still lose, not gain, we did so at a slower rate than before we installed the solar.  With the solar, we were able to stay on anchor for 3-5 days, depending on the sun, without having to crank the engine to charge the batteries.  It was honestly quite perfect as, after about four-or-so days, we either need to get back to the dock to work and/or re-provision, or, when we’re on an extended cruise, Phillip and I are ready by then to crank the engine, weigh anchor, and go scout out a new anchorage for the next few days.  While Phillip and I were perfectly content with this set-up (and quite honestly we liked that the panels were generally out-of-sight, out-of-mind) after Hurricane Sally we knew we would need far more solar! 

Why?  Shore power was in no way guaranteed, anywhere!  There wasn’t a dock, it seemed, in Pensacola that hadn’t been completely mangled by Sally, and those that had survived had been scooped up immediately by any limping boat that had weathered her and was desperate for a home.  Phillip and I had no idea what new dock Plaintiff’s Rest might call home once she splashed back after her repairs or, quite possibly, whether we would have to just leave her on the hook in a bayou and dinghy back and forth to her.  Knowing that latter option was a very likely scenario for us, we wanted her to be as powered-up as possible in case anything happened (a small water leak or other issue) while we were away and she was off shore power.  That was our initial reason to go from 200W, previously, to 380W.  But after Phillip and I saw how much power we could have been indulging in with the simple (and easy) addition of a 170W panel on the dodger, Phillip and I are now kicking ourselves for not having installed one there sooner.  But, c’est la vie. 

So, how did we come up with the plan for the new install?  This is my right and proper cue to introduce to you my Solar Savior, my Sun Sensai, the one, the only: LYALL with Sunpowered Yachts.  He came highly recommended by my good friend and exceptional sailor, Pam Wall, whose recommendations rarely disappoint.  Lyall certainly did not.  He was there for me every step of the way, answering my many tedious questions, sending me diagrams and photos and wiring instructions, even immediately shipping new parts when I had ordered the wrong ones (the blonde is real).  If you are going the solar route, save yourself infinite time and headache by letting Lyall be your first call.  He’s also got a lovely British accent that I can just never get enough of.  (This girl’s a sucker for an accent, can I get an “Amen!” from the ladies? : )

With Lyall’s help, we decided on two 50Ws on either side of the iso-lookout as we’d had before on the bimini, a 110W forward of the lookout on the bimini, and a new 170W on the dodger for a total of an impressive 380 watts.  While Phillip and I did debate the aesthetic of the huge, somewhat sci-fi-looking panel on the dodger—as we often stand and look out over the dodger while sailing so it would now become a major part of our “view”—we decided the extra power and security and safety it offered was worth the minimal diminution of our “pretty view” to the bow and the overall look of the boat. 

Lyall recommended this corrugated plastic material to install underneath them for extra support. You can get it at any Home Depot or Lowe’s.

Lyall walked me through the amperage parameters on the two EPSolar MPPT controllers we already had and determined they would work to regulate the new panels, although we discussed upgrading to new Victron contollers if that would be necessary.  Thankfully, it was not.  So, as long as the wiring running to our bimini was still good (meaning only the panels were damaged in Hurricane Sally, not the wiring), the install was really only going to require affixing the new panels to the canvas on the bimini, wiring them to the old wiring running up the bimini frame, installing one deck gland for the wiring of the new 170W panel on the dodger, and running that wiring down to the MPPT controllers.  It honestly was quite simple and Phillip and I were thrilled to find—when we brought the panels to the boat and hooked up the bimini wiring for the first time—that the wiring was working perfectly.  We were ready to install!

My only hang-ups were (and I do this often but can rarely remember the lesson) I ordered a length of wire from the dodger down to the MPPT controllers below that was too short.  Yes, I measured (but that’s never an offensive question) but I always forget that when you start running wires behind things they may not always be able to go the direct straight route you measured as they have to take funky turns and can only come through in certain places.  You know, it’s a boat.  Nothing’s easy.  But, the minute I told Lyall this in an email, he immediately shipped out the longer length of cord, without even charging me, saying he’d figure out when I shipped the other back.  I mean … can you even find customer service like that anymore? 

The second little glitch was the wiring of the two 50Ws on the bimini in parallel.  Lyall recommended this over wiring them in series as this would increase the amperage of the panels without increasing the voltage.  This was beneficial as we would be wiring the 110W and the two 50Ws to the same MPPT controller.  Lyall explained it would be better to combine the two 50Ws and 110W on one MPPT controller with the 170W by itself on the other MPPT controller because of the big disparity in the 50Ws and the 170W, claiming combining those two on the same controller would really bring the 170W down.  Lyall explained it as “you’re only as strong as your weakest player” which made total sense to me.  The wiring in parallel, however, did require two additional Y-branch connectors, which Lyall was happy to send me.  See diagram below and the need for the connectors. 

Phillip and I did have to make some extensions here and there as the length of wiring that comes on the panels (roughly 17”) was not long enough in a couple of locations to reach to the bundle of wires on our bimini frame (that could not be extended).  But, here is where mistakes sometimes make the happiest of accidents.  The “too-short” wire I had ordered ended up working beautifully for this purpose as we could easily cut it and re-attach the fittings to create the necessary extensions.  So it was kind of a blessing in disguise that I’d goofed.  (Reminder to all to not be so hard on yourself when you do that, sometimes you’re just setting up for a happy accident … ride it out before beating yourself up over it).  Installing the gland on the companionway roof wasn’t terribly hard either, just one drilled hole (for the wire to run through), pilot holes for the screws to mount it, and some butyl and we were in business.  Installing and mounting the switch below the aft berth and inserting the wires into the MPPT controllers took less than half an hour.  Once those tasks were knocked out, Phillip and I were ready to plug the new panels in, turn their switches on, and watch the juice pour in! 

And boy did it … not.  Unfortunately it was a very cloudy day the day Phillip and I first turned them on.  So initially we blamed it on that.  But, then the sun came out yet the input was still very disappointing until we realized … duh, the batteries were already full.  We’d only just turned off shore power less than a half-hour before and had hardly ran anything.  Dummies.  Once we figured that out, though, we came back on a super sunny day with the batteries needing juice, and we were tickled pink to see our new 380W bank putting in almost 14 amps an hour

My mind immediately began calculating.  We spend about 50-60 amps a day.  14 times 6 peak hours equals … 84 amps?!  Meaning, on a good sunny day, we would be putting in MORE than we used.  Meaning, adding “cushion” for cloudy days.  With this much solar, Plaintiff’s Rest could, in theory, stay on hook as long as she wanted.  What an incredible thought!  Needless to say Phillip and I were thrilled.  Feeling a little dumb that we hadn’t installed a big-ass panel on the dodger years ago, but hey, we’d never felt super power-starved before.  And, now, we were power rich baby!  All thanks to the sun.  And Lyall, my Sun Sensai!  If you go with Lyall at Sunpowered Yachts, mention Pam Wall’s boat Kandarik for a 10% discount.  You’re welcome! 

Overall, this entire solar panel project I think cost us around $1,000 including the panels, wiring, gland, and other little tidbits.  A very affordable price in our opinion to add such a critical and valuable component (more power supply) on the boat.  I hope many of you start planning your own solar panel install projects soon!  Next up, I’ll share more of our Hurricane Sally repairs.  You’ll be surprised to see the transformation of our rudder.  Stay tuned!

Leaving Palafox Marina … Maybe Forever

I can’t tell you how many times Phillip and I have left Palafox Marina, whether it was headed out to our favorite anchorage, Ft. McRee, or just for a day sail, or sometimes to shoot all the way out into the Gulf and head south to the Keys, Cuba, the Bahamas, or beyond.  There was always a sense of thrill, however slight, when we would turn the corner around the jetty, point into the wind and hoist the main just as we were leaving the marina, a scent of adventure always in the air.  It has been a bit bittersweet to say goodbye to Palafox Marina, at least for the time being, and perhaps indefinitely. We just don’t know. But, whatever may come, Palafox Marina will always be an important chapter in our boat’s story as it was her primary home since we got Plaintiff’s Rest in 2013.  That’s seven years of memories at that marina! 

Our first time docking in our first slip at Palafox Marina, after buying and delivering our girl up from Punta Gorda, FL in May, 2013.

We’ve done dozens of boat projects at Palafox Marina. 

It’s where I first learned to dock the boat (and that bumping the dock is not the complete and entire end of the world).  It’s also where we put on our solar in 2014. 

It’s where we first installed our working jib in 2017. 

It’s where Phillip (we believe) will someday grow a third eye because he had to dive in the marina (yuck!) to retrieve part of our dinghy assembly that he dropped into the water.  Down you go, Phillip!

It’s where I got my heart-shaped “boat bite” from a heat gun.

Palafox Marina just houses so many memories for us.  But, now it was time to leave Palafox Marina, perhaps indefinitely, because it just couldn’t offer us shelter anymore.  What once looked like this. 

At the time looked like this. 

It was just … time to go. 

Plaintiff’s Rest was docked safely on the sea wall to the west, directly across from her former slip where she had bucked and heeled and held on for dear life. 

Now, our day had come to move her to the shipyard to be hauled out so we could finally assess the full damage to her rudder from Hurricane Sally.  I had mentioned, during my previous burst-of-a-post ; ) that Phillip and I were worried to turn or move her rudder in the unknown condition it was in after the storm because we were afraid something that might have been magically lodged might become un-lodged and that she might start taking on water.  For this reason our initial move of Plaintiff’s Rest, from her ravaged slip to her temporary spot on the sea-wall, had been done under sheer man- and tow-boat power as we did not want to move the rudder until the day we were hauling ass to the shipyard in case she started taking on water. 

Well, today was that day.  And, it was Captain Annie again answering the call of duty. 

September 23, 2020, 2:00 p.m.:

“I need you to pull me off at the hip as best you can!” I shouted to our buddy, Cap’n Jack, who had graciously offered to come that day to help in case Plaintiff’s Rest had issues with steering or some other problem once we started operating her and we needed a tow.  Honestly, I was overwhelmed at the response I got from many friends we had asked for help:

“I’m not in town, but I’ll tell you where the keys to our fishing boat are.  Anyone can drive her.” 

“I can come with the dinghy.” 

“You’re welcome to my boat.”

“I’ll be there.  Should I wear a cape?”

These were just some of the responses we received.  It really was heart-warming to feel the effect of such an outpouring of help, even from those who had lost their boat in the storm.  It seemed all sailors, no matter what has happened to them or their boat personally, want to see any other boat possible survive.  It’s like shaking a heavy fist at nature.  You didn’t get us all.  Not this time

We ended up having a friend (shout-out to Bill Wein – I sure wish I could have seen you in the cape!) who was going to come in his 10-foot rib on Thursday (Sep. 24th), when the shipyard had us slated to haul at 3:00 p.m.  As you can imagine, dozens upon dozens of boaters, damaged and scattered throughout Pensacola, were itching to haul, so we were advised, if we were given a pretty early slip to not miss it, as it might be weeks, maybe even months before the opportunity would come again.  This is why Phillip and I were feverishly asking for quick help.  But, the shipyard called on Tuesday and said Wednesday would be better, could we do that?  Off went the round of texts and calls again, trying to line up help for the new, day-earlier time slot.  We finally ended up with Bill’s rib, to be driven by another friend, Cap’n Jack, who was available Wednesday.  It was a hodge-podge rescue team, but I was thrilled to have help.  Phillip was on-board, but just in case of emergencies, as he was still fielding his own onslaught of work emergencies that had not let up since the storm struck.  We had another good friend, Keith, on-board to help as well, but I was once again in charge. 

Cap’n Jack had me tied a few different ways to his rib hoping he could pull me off of the wall (as, of freaking course!) there was a steady E/SE wind pushing me onto it, with not much room to maneuver off.  And, I had absolutely no clue how much maneuvering, if any, I was going to be able to do.  This was the first time we had cranked the engine (thankfully, Westie turned right over) and tried to steer the boat using the rudder since the storm.  Here we go, I told myself as I signaled Keith to let loose our last dock line to shore.  As I started to move the boat I could feel her responding to the rudder, which was overwhelmingly comforting.  But, as we started to pull away from the dock, unfortunately, Jack’s bridal and the force of the wind had grabbed my bow and turned me completely perpendicular to the dock.  Worried I would lose control of her if she started to spin in a circle, I made the tough call. 

“RELEASE!” I shouted to Jack, which we had discussed before would be my “safe word” if I felt things going sideways and I wanted complete control of the boat.  I’ll admit I was just a little terrified, but thankfully after several years honing my piloting and docking skills, I did feel comfortable I would be better able to navigate her than a tow-boat.  All lines fell off the boat and she was free.  By that time, she had turned completely to the north with her stern facing the direction we needed to go, toward the marina exit to the south.  But, thankfully, I had seen Phillip pull off this bass-ackwards maneuver (I can literally call it that) before.  I threw her in reverse and throttled her up hoping I could get enough momentum to steer her nicely, albeit in reverse, toward the exit. 

Phillip watched me attentively, but he did not step in.  He was on call.  I was Captain.  That had been our deal.  Mercifully it worked.  Whatever shape our rudder was in down there, she was fully capable of steering our boat.  I was able to back up to the exit and manuever her, finally after that tragic ordeal she had suffered there, out of Palafox Marina.  Cap’n Jack snapped this pic of Plaintiff’s Rest underway, all of our wayward, flat bumpers still tied on, with Captain Annie at the helm, but damn if we weren’t making way. 

Plaintiff’s Rest was going to make it!  Phillip and I locked eyes and gulped a big knot down our throats realizing the momentous accomplish our boat had just achieved. 

And while our plan had been to travel as gently as possible in the Bay so as not to put any additional pressure on the rudder, of course it was blowing 22+ out there.  We were heeled over without a lick of canvas up, but she seemed to be tolerating the conditions just fine as we made our way into the channel to Bayou Chico.  Cap’n Jack was running recon in advance of us making sure there weren’t any sunk ships or other large debris in our path, as many boats had been smashed and wrecked and met their fate, too, up in the Bayou. 

Phillip had me laughing as we were both looking ahead and he was pointing out the slip where I would pull in and tie to the dock so the shipyard crew could then man-handle us into the straps to be lifted out. 

“Well, this should be the easiest docking you’ve ever had to do.  You don’t have to worry about scratching her at all.” 

I have to admit I really needed that gigantic dose of humor in that moment.  He was totally right.  There was nothing I could do to her now, as far as a hull-bump, that would make any hill of beans.  Plaintiff’s Rest was already scratched and marred to high heaven.  But, she was floating and going!  Those were two big blessings right there.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get lucky with a third.  While this would have dawned on me had I had a little more fore-thought, but I’ll just have to admit, I was in my own little “Save Plaintiff’s Rest” bubble that I hadn’t thought to consider the state of the docks at the Travelift slip.  In my mind they had appeared pristine.  A safe haven for our baby girl once she made her harrowing journey across the Bay. 

What was I thinking?

Almost every dock in Pensacola was wrecked by Sally.  Of course the Travelift docks were wrecked too.  We could see it immediately as we passed by them.  I knew I had an E/SE wind pushing me and, when that is the case—i.e., both momentum and wind charging me toward a slip—I am always inclined, if space allows, to pass the slip and come at her with the wind working against my momentum to give me better control.  So, I had already planned to pass the slip initially, but when I did I saw what terrible state it was in.  Both sides of the dock were thrown cock-eyed from the storm.  Phillip was trying to communicate with Brandon ashore to determine which side was the least damaged so we could tie to it. 

“Starboard,” he hollered back to me from the bow as I was making my turn into the slip, but I could tell the wind already had too strong of a grip on me, and I wasn’t going to be able to make the slip, particularly not with a starboard tie.  It would more likely be a port slam at that point.  So, I backed out and circled again.  My hands and legs were shaking.  I was sweating, although the wind had me chilly.  But, as I started to come toward the slip another time, Phillip was hollering with Brandon and I didn’t know what the status was.  “Neither side!”  Phillip shouted back to me, which just struck me dumb.  Neither side?  Phillip jogged from the bow back to the cockpit and doled out my terrible fate that day: Both sides of the dock were unusable.  I had to motor straight into the straps, no mess-ups. 

I backed out again and was trying to make another circle but the boat didn’t seem to want to respond.  I throttled up, but she couldn’t seem to get her bow around.  “Throttle more,” Phillip said watching me struggle, which I did to no effect.  I was honestly afraid I had lost the rudder and was about to send Phillip down below to look when he asked: “Are you in gear?” 

Gulp.

What can I say?  I was nervous.  I was anxious.  But, I was definitely not in gear.  Get yourself in gear, Annie, literally! Thankfully I had the wherewithal not to throw her immediately into gear, at full throttle.  I’ll give myself that.  And, I didn’t pee.  There’s that, too.  But, once I throttled back, shifted her into gear, I was then easily able to turn and maneuver and by some miracle of grace I then motored her directly into the straps.  You want to talk about not much room for error.  I was so relieved when it was done that I clapped for myself.  I seriously did.  In the cockpit. All on my own. I didn’t care who thought it was weird or silly.  But, the guys at the yard were super nice about it and congratulated me on a great entry.  They said they’d had many boats come charging in and get all goobered up coming into the Travelift, so thankfully I had saved them some extra work. 

And, then it was time.  Time to finally haul our hurricane-ravaged beauty and see what carnage we would find beneath.  Phillip and I gave each other a little hand-squeeze as she started to emerge. Surprisingly, her bottom job looked pretty good.  Gouged in a few spots but nothing too terrible.  That boat that had sunk behind her, although it had damaged her stern rail, hull, and rudder, had likely saved her from other boats that had tried to come at her like a spear.  The rudder, however, was definitely chipped and cracked on the bottom, which meant she was also likely water-logged, too. 

Although we did not yet know the full state of repairs that awaited us, Phillip and I felt simultaneously exhausted and exuberant to have that day behind us.  Our baby girl had been plucked from the wreckage and finally sat in safe hands now on her jack stands at the Pensacola Shipyard.  She was safe.

It was a strange feeling, though, not knowing where she would go next, where her new home would be, and what might become of Palafox Marina.  As I write this (February 1, 2021), Palafox Marina, while it has been cleaned and a few docks rebuilt, remains largely empty with no activity occurring.  We have no idea when the rebuild might begin, how long it might take, or whether Plaintiff’s Rest will ever call Palafox Marina home again.  It’s been sad to see such a beautiful marina go, and while we don’t know what exactly lies in the future for Plaintiff’s Rest, we know she had a great time of it at Palafox Marina.  To our many memorable years there.  Cheers!

Article in SAIL Magazine: Surviving Hurricane Sally

“This is U.S. Coast Guard, sector Mobile, Alabama. We just received notification that your EPIRB went off. Is everything okay?”

“I … I don’t know.”

“Sir, where is your boat?”

“Palafox Marina.”

This was such a cathartic and therapeutic exercise writing this article for my friend Adam Cort at SAIL Magazine. It even includes a personal account from some close friends of ours who unfortunately lost their boat on that terrible morning. But, my goal was to emphasize not just the storm and how much it surprised us, but also the community’s response, and how much that surprised me as well, in the best way possible. I have been honored and humbled yet again to be included in the magazine, and I was grateful for the opportunity to tell Pensacola’s story. I hope you all had a chance to get a copy of the magazine and read the article. Phillip chuckled when he saw it, saying he was finally famous because he “made the front page.” Many thanks to the SAIL Magazine team for putting together such a great piece. Enjoy the read!

Captain Annie Moves Our Damaged Boat – Urine for a Treat!

It’s a weird feeling to fear water recession.  With the huge influx of water that surges in during a hurricane, often the boats simply float, to the extent they are unencumbered.  However, when the water starts to recede, often the boats have moved and they are now liable to sink down on any number of precarious surfaces: pilings, land, docks, other boats, etc. that could damage, if not impale, them.  After Sally startled and shell-shocked Pensacola and the storm surge receded, Plaintiff’s Rest was left, mercifully, clinging to a broken-up dock with a 34-foot power boat sunk beneath her that had likely damaged her rudder.  All we knew at the time was: we were not currently taking on water (thank god!), we believed the rudder was still in place and intact, albeit damaged, and we needed to get Plaintiff’s Rest out of that boat-strewn battleground and hauled as soon as possible.  Captain Annie, and her full bladder, to the rescue!

Monday, September 21, 2020:

It was my job to be Captain that day.  While I do have the official license and title (I received my USCG Captain’s license in 2017), that slip of paper doesn’t always make me feel 100% capable of handling the boat on my own every time, at least not without issue.  Although, deep down I know I can.  It may be scary and we may bump a thing or two, but I know I can, and I know she can handle it.  There is a great benefit to having a two-member crew where each person is fully capable of handling the boat independently.  Particularly on this day, when we got word from the marina they were planning to move Plaintiff’s Rest from her battered and barely-hanging on “slip.”  With the other finger pier to the south of her tattered and devoured, I’m not sure you can call the sliver of wood she was holding onto a “slip,” but it was the best reference at the time. 

Phillip was covered up that day with a number of other hurricane-related emergencies that would not allow him to work idly at the boat while awaiting our move time—which was in no way defined—so it was on me.  I didn’t know where they would be moving our boat to or whether they would want us to move out of the ravaged marina entirely.  They don’t really give you a manual for this kind of situation, and so many factors are at play: safety, preservation of boats or docks where possible, insurance, liability matters, weather conditions, alternative slip availability, etc.  After the storm, Phillip and I had simply been walking down to check on the boat every day to make sure she was not taking on any water and trying, when possible, to gather intel from the dockmaster and other laborers who were occasionally motoring about in their workboat—removing broken docks and boats in no particular order—when they might be moving ours.  It was pure luck we heard from a friend that morning who was at the marina who heard the dock crew say they were planning to move our boat that day.  We did not know when, but I darn sure wanted to be there when they did move her to make sure, to the extent I could, that she stayed safe and afloat. This was her situation at the time:

“I don’t want to turn the rudder,” I told Phillip over the phone after I texted him the news they would be moving our boat that day.  I couldn’t really explain the impulse, but I just felt, deep down, that if whatever was going on with her rudder and within the rudder post was holding now, meaning no water intake, I certainly didn’t want to be the one to un-do that currently-working situation.  Not without back-up.  If you find a friend impaled in the abdomen by a rather large stick, but he’s not currently bleeding, do you want to be the one who pulls the stick out without anyone else around?  What if he starts gushing?  For whatever reason, and whether it’s accurate or insane, that’s how I viewed our rudder at the time.  If anything was going to change with our precarious but currently water-tight situation, I didn’t want it to happen when I was aboard alone. 

“Then don’t,” Phillip said.  “Don’t let them make you do anything you don’t want to do,” he added firmly.  And, I say “firmly” because Phillip knew that’s how he had to give it, otherwise I would cave.  While there are many things I am good at—creating, working, fixing, learning, following orders—there are also many other things I am terrible at, like standing up to people, talking over others, negotiating, taking charge, and telling others what to do.  I’m just not good at being forceful, short, or dominant with people.  My people-pleasing desire sometimes makes me a pushover.  Phillip knows that.  That’s why he is always solidly our leader, and I make one hell of a loyal and obedient soldier.  But, not today.  Today I (a young female, sorry, but you just can’t, as a young female in an older male-dominated environment, unsense that) was going to be telling these old salts, long-time sailors and deck-hands, as well as the marina owner, what I would not be told to do. 

Sigh …

But, I squared my shoulders and prepared for it.  It was on me.  And, of course, it was the first biting-cold, spitting-rain day of the winter season.  Immediately after the day of the hurricane the weather had turned infuriatingly beautiful.  Sunny, warm, a light breeze.  Brilliant gold sunshine blanketed our debris-strewn streets like Sally had never even happened.  But, on this day, move-the-boat day, it was nasty and cold out.  Of course!  I donned my full foul weather jacket over a pair of sail pants for the day with many layers under including hat, gloves, and my rubber rain boots.  It was annoyingly frigid out and blowing enough to matter, 10-15 knots.  Just enough to make moving the boat while not under engine or sail more difficult.  But, the sight of my boat warmed my heart when I got to the marina.  There she was.  Still floating.  Still holding on for us.  The gravity of what Plaintiff’s Rest had done—held on in the horrific nightmare that had played out around her—steeled my nerves.  If she could do that surely I could be brave, tell the dock guys how I wanted things handled, and get ‘er done.   

Here we go, I told myself as the workboat came around to Plaintiff’s Rest to begin the process.  When I saw him approaching I felt my hopes immediately buoy.  A familiar face!

“Peewee!” I shouted.  Yes, that is in fact his name.  Or at least the name I’ve always known him to go by in sailing circles.  Peewee is one of those salty jack-of-all-trade types that you’ll find working on sails one year, doing rigging and making boat deliveries the next, helping clean up after a hurricane the following.  He’s been doing boat stuff in Pensacola for years and was someone I felt I could call a friendly acquaintance.  He was also a person I knew would care about my boat while moving her.  I was also hopeful he would honor my request not to crank the engine or turn the rudder.  When I spoke with Peewee, he confirmed mine and Phillip’s suspicion that the owner of the marina was trying to get all operational boats out and moved to a different location, which was understandable.  I just didn’t consider my boat in its current condition safely “operational.” 

Mustering all of my available “tell them no” bravery I explained to Peewee that the first time I wanted to move our rudder would be on the way to the shipyard to haul in case we started taking on water, perhaps a lot of water.  With a little pushing and a very clear indication that I was not going to turn my wheel, Peewee agreed, and I was so relieved!  The plan then was to push and maneuver Plaintiff’s Rest to the extent we could, manually (using our hands and boat poles), to a point where she could then be pushed or pulled out into the open marina by the workboat, then maneuvered over to the seawall on the other side to sit until it was time for her to haul-out.  Phillip and I had no clue when that would be.  All we knew was we had been put on the list the day of the storm. 

The workboat arrives

This is roughly what we were dealing with as far as surrounding boats, docks, and debris:

Peewee and his crew first tried to pull the piling that was once at the end of what remained of the finger pier to the south of us, but they only managed to tilt it a good thirty degrees.  It would not budge after that.  But, they did get it heeled over enough to allow Peewee to saw off the damaged finger pier.  It was a mangled mess. 

Peewee (in the blue jacket) wrestling his way on the damaged pier

Almost impossible to walk on.  Thankfully, Peewee was surprisingly good at this awkward crawl maneuver that allowed him to free the finger pier and the crew then dragged it out with the workboat. 

Dragging out the finger pier that formed the southern wall of our “slip”

That left this space, roughly, to try and work Plaintiff’s Rest safely out. 

The view from PR’s cockpit to starboard.

It was cold and spitting rain; we were all pretty much soaked on the outer layers.  But, the crew was diligent, calmly voicing orders over the weather.  I was staged initially on the dock by Plaintiff’s Rest’s bow, my hands and knees shaking knowing she was now finally untied.  I was afraid I might be the leader the day we did something that sunk her, after all she had been through and survived.  But, my hope was that Plaintiff’s Rest was taking her first step to safety, albeit with a path of carnage to navigate before she could get there with no propulsion.  This was it. 

Peewee first thought he would be able to push and pull her to execute a full 180-degree turn in the “slip” so her bow would then be pointed out toward the exit.  As we began this process, I had to fight the urge to repeatedly tell Peewee, who was at the stern, “watch the rudder on that sunk boat, watch the rudder, look out for the rudder” over and over again.  As if he didn’t know.  But, it’s like handing something expensive and delicate to a friend.  You can’t help fight the urge to say “don’t drop it.”  But, I could see he was watching our rudder closely as we all nudged and scooched Plaintiff’s Rest’s bow over to the southeast corner of the “slip.”  However, when we started to spin her, it soon became clear we would not be able to get her turned all the way around.  A large sport fisher was just sticking out too far to allow her bow to clear it. 

“Change of plans,” Peewee shouted just as the cold north wind started to fight us and push her stern over toward the sport fisher.  “We’re backing her out!”  Another worker started crawling up on the sportfisher to fend Plaintiff’s Rest off at her bow.  The marina owner shouted “Annie, board!”  Everyone was scrambling to change course.

That’s when I lost it. 

Not my temper.  The contents of my bladder.

Unfortunately, the only point at which to board my boat at that time was the bow.  Have you ever boarded your boat from the bow?  In a hurry?  It’s not easy.  Or pretty. 

In a three-second maneuver, I hiked one leg up and stuck it through the pulpit onto the deck, then sandwiched my torso to that leg while dragging my hind leg through the pulpit and flopping onto the foredeck like a slippery fish.  And, what can I say?  I was nervous, worried, shaking.  The pressure that the situation and the maneuver put on my bladder just gushed it out.  I heard Peewee laugh and thought in a flash of panic that maybe the guys could see a huge spot on my pants.  I looked down in fear but felt a wave of gratitude flood over me as I remembered both my long johns underneath and my pants were black.  The perfect color to hide pee.  We were all wet rats out there, anyhow, and with the wind keeping things fresh and breezy, it seemed no one was the wiser.  Peewee said “Well, I’ve never seen it done that way before.”  I smiled and laughed.  “He said board,” I replied with a shrug. 

Thankfully that had everyone smiling and in a good mood for the move.  We then carefully picked Plaintiff’s Rest’s way between the sportfisher, the sunk boat (Peewee actually boarded Plaintiff’s Rest midship from that boat), and the wayward piling to get her out in the center of the marina. 

Although the wind had a good bit of force on her once we were out in the open, with the workboat we were able to nudge and move her fairly easily using the workboat’s engine power and fenders.  Peewee and I worked her gingerly up to the sea wall on the other side and secured her to pilings. 

The view from her new location back over to the demolished “slip” she had fought her battle in, and from that “slip” over to her new spot on the sea wall told quite the tale.

This was a huge, satisfying Step One toward our recovery.  For the moment, Plaintiff’s Rest was safely secured, not taking on water, and on a list to haul at the shipyard to be repaired. 

And, I had done it!  Saved the day!  Captain Annie … Wet Panty! 

Twas the Night Before Christmas, and All Through the Boat

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the boat

Not a spot in the bilge was oily, all freshly painted with bilge-kote;

The sails were bagged cleanly in the lazarette with care

In hopes they’d soon be hoisted and filled with fresh air;

The halyards were nestled all snug in their bags

With visions of zizzing fast ‘round a winch without any lags;

For the boat and crew, 2020 had proven quite a challenging year

Bringing months of fear, growth, change, but also cheer;

Plaintiff’s Rest had been bruised and battered in Sally’s unrelenting wrath

But she held fast and was mercifully reunited with her beloved owners in the aftermath;

Now, as she sat patiently on jacks, awaiting her rudder and other repairs to begin

She dreamed of the day she would finally be back out in the water and wind;

After a list of amazing places she would one day sail in her mind had been tapped,

Plaintiff’s Rest was all settled in, silent and humble, ready for a soothing night nap;

But just as her eyes closed, up on her deck, she heard an unfamiliar clatter

She swore she could hear someone clambering up her swim ladder;

But whatever was tiptoeing above her was nimble and fast

For everywhere she looked prints and traces of its movement didn’t last;

Out her portlights, Plaintiff’s Rest thought she saw a person jump and scamper

Then a noise trickled in through the dorade and she thought she heard banter;

Shh … ” a muffled voice said, “we’re not supposed to be here at night.” 

Then through the lee boards, shoes and pant legs caught her sight.

Worried Plaintiff’s Rest was, the clatterers had come aboard to steal like a vixen

She was about to ring her old ship’s bell in the vberth in hopes it would blitz them;

But, there on her marvelous teak, where it had once hung so proud

Now sat a bare wall so Plaintiff’s Rest could not make a sound loud;

How it had been removed without her knowing did make her wonder

But she had been quite occupied with all of the tinkering and repairs she’d been under;

Before she could process it, she heard once again the clink-clink of her ladder

So she flew to the lee boards to look in the cockpit and see what was the matter;

And, there, sitting cheerily near her binnacle in a basket of ribbons red and green

Sat a shiny new ship bell, so bright she knew she had never seen anything quite so keen;

It was a gift so lovely and so perfect for her Christmas this year that she let out a whistle

And there beside it, sat a note with bold letters nestled next to a sprig of toe, mistle;

Plaintiff’s Rest read the scrawly letters she knew to be her owner Phillip’s, alright

It said “Merry Christmas to you girl, you put up one helluva fight!”

Ch. 4: Slaughter and Solidarity in Upcoming Sally Article in SAIL Magazine

“It’s some of your best writing, that’s for sure.  Magnificently written,” then Phillip paused.  “But … there’s no way you can send this to SAIL, Annie.  It’s too … too dark.” 

That was Phillip’s response to my first version.  I was trying to work up a carnage-and-community theme juxtaposing the savagery of the storm with the solidarity among our fellow sailors who all pulled together to help each other in the aftermath.  But, apparently I—according to Phillip—had created an entire piece of carnage cinched up at the puckered end with a mere paragraph of community.  So, I did a complete re-write.  And, I cannot wait for you all to read it when it is scheduled to come out in SAIL Magazine in January, 2021! I’m so proud and humbled to share our tale of survival and the incredible story of two of our very close friends that forms the beating heart of my piece.  And, while many parts of this tale are sad, know that they are connected by a thumping vein of love and kindness that can only truly reveal itself in a situation like a devastating storm.  My goal is not in any way to make our wonderful friends re-live or mourn again, but, rather, to share with you all the unique hearts that beat in sailors which makes our particular community so strong.    

September 16, 2020

11:45 a.m.

I’m listening to the slush and squish of my boots, dreading what’s coming.  Although Plaintiff’s Rest is floating, miraculously, in her slip while most of the other boats in Palafox Marina have been heaped in massive piles of fiberglass and twisted stainless steel, there is still a gaggle of boats that lunge at her with every wave and gust.  There is no way to even tell what’s holding those other boats in place exactly. A barely hanging-on sliver of dock that might go any second?  A line tied to a cleat that’s about to snap in half?  A power plug that’s about to pop?

Plaintiff’s Rest, holding on bravely in a mob of wind and boats.

We simply do not know. Phillip and I can only hope everything holds on just long enough as the winds continue to howl in the upper 20s and 30s throughout the entire day.  But, more potential damage to Plaintiff’s Rest is not what I’m dreading in this moment, staring at my wet, walking feet.  Phillip and I are walking to our friends, Stephen and Beth’s, house to give them news they likely already know is coming, but this will be the first time it will come from a source they know they can absolutely trust: me and Phillip.

And, what we have to tell them is that everything they dreaded all night long, everything they’ve feared every time a storm came into the Gulf, everything they’ve worried about since they bought their rare, unique, suited-them-perfectly Manta 42 catamaran has happened.  One of the worst things that can happen to people who love their boat has happened. 

Phillip and I have to tell Stephen and Beth that it is true.  Cattywampus has sunk.  He and I have now been the first people who know Cattywampus to have seen her with our own eyes, half-submerged at the other end of the marina. She was torn from her slip, just one over from where Plaintiff’s Rest is currently riding, slung to the north and somehow impaled and sunk.  

Even worse, it looked like she was one of the first to go down in the marina, which I know is going to feel to Stephen and Beth so incredibly and unacceptably unfair.  I feel it for them as I’m walking.  I know it would be equally hard for me to process if I saw Plaintiff’s Rest wrecked, submerged, done for, not 50 feet from other boats that are simply marred, or even seemingly untouched.  The injustice of it angers me. 

But, as I write this, remembering that moment and their feelings, which were also my feelings, they are overpowered by the tightness I feel in my throat right now at Stephen and Beth’s strength.  Their love, for each other, for friends, for boats.  Their humor and ability to laugh through tears.  And, more importantly, their awareness and thoughtfulness. 

After we told them the news and Stephen and Beth, a few hours later, found the courage to bring themselves to the graveside to bear it, Phillip I were at our boat doing what we could to best protect her.  Moving wayward fenders that had floated away from their vessels or from foregone vessels and tying them around Plaintiff’s Rest in a pitiful deflated crown. It felt funereal.  I saw several boats I knew personally, boats I had been aboard to tell tales and share drinks, boats I had helped to fend off when they were coming to the dock, now sat wrecked likely beyond repair.  There was just so much loss in one place. 

I saw Stephen and Beth, first, up on the concrete walk that leads down to the dock.  At that time the only way to get down to our boat was to crawl, quite precariously, down a huge swatch of dock that had smashed up and into the concrete.  I told Phillip that Stephen and Beth were there but we both decided to give them some space.  Even as close friends there’s a time when you just need a moment alone with ‘your person.’  I watched as they crawled their way down and walked to the end of the last floating finger pier on the east side of the marina, that Cattywampus had previously been tied to, so they could actually see their Manta with their own eyes.  Phillip and I were at our bow trying to move our boat deeper into the slip in hopes of avoiding more contact with her rudder and the boat that sunk underneath her—which had likely fended off so many wrecking balls aimed at her stern—when the water receded.  Stephen and Beth finally turned to face us.  With a mighty effort to chuckle, Stephen said “She looks a little Cattywampus doesn’t she?” before his head crashed into my shoulder in a big bear hug.  COVID could stick it at that point. With rain and winds of 30 mph it likely couldn’t survive anyway, and that man needed an Annie hug.  I felt a gush of tears spring from my eyes when I let him go only to hug Beth just as hard and felt her sobbing in my arms. 

Then Stephen and Beth did something that will forever burn them into my mind as people I will always admire.  Friends who will always lift me up and inspire.  There was no cries of injustice in that moment.  No wails of “why me!”  Stephen and Beth saw immediately what Phillip and I were trying to do to save our boat.  They both wiped their faces and said:

“How can we help?”

I will never forget that.  And I can only hope I react with equal generosity, awareness, and kindness when I find myself in some moment where I, too, have suffered a great loss.  Because we all know that’s coming.  It’s called life.  And, the joy of it can’t exist without pain caused by loss.  I will think of Stephen and Beth in my “moment” and try to emulate the courage and selflessness it must have taken them to turn their backs on their sunken heart and offer their hands to us.  They continued to showcase their strength in the weeks that followed Hurricane Sally as they helped other boaters move or salvage their boats.  They helped friends clean their homes and yards after they were smothered in falling debris.  Then they wrapped those tough weeks of recovery by combing their own filthy lost love after she was raised up, with humor and hope of finding gems to save.  And, Stephen and Beth did recover one amazing treasure: the cockpit table they had only recently made with a resin-coated map of the Caribbean to inspire their travels.  Although that voyage was supposed to take place on Cattywampus, Beth and Stephen have already began opening their hearts and minds to the thought of a new used boat. And, they have vowed never to give up on sailing, cruising, or caring for friends in need. 

Stephen, Beth, this one goes out to you. 

Sally may have taken many things from us, but she also opened us up and showed our solidarity.   

Taking Stephen and Beth ziplining weeks after the storm as a pick-me-up!

With Stephen and Beth’s help, Phillip and I were able to move Plaintiff’s Rest forward, just a bit.  It was terribly hard in those winds and still cresting waves.  The marina on the Palafox-street side was an absolute slaughter.

It was amazing to see what our baby girl had survived in, but wildly strange to see a massive power boat sunk beneath her.

Phillip and I were sure our rudder had likely made contact with the boat beneath us at some point as I had seen, when I went below to make sure we weren’t taking on water, the rudder stop had been hit so hard it cracked and broke free from the engine room ceiling. 

Mercifully, however, we were not taking on any water.  You could feel when you stepped onto the boat, though, that she wasn’t floating freely.  Her rudder or keel was grounded on something.  No one could surmise the carnage that might, at that time, be lying beneath our boat.

Phillip and I honestly wondered whether we even still had a rudder down there.  We knew it had been struck and the proximity of the sunk boat was like an illusion, telling your mind there could be no rudder in the space between the two.  We could not tell visually due to the thick cloud of debris and awful-smelling diesel that coated the top of the water.  All Phillip and I could do was scooch Plaintiff’s Rest a bit forward and hope, when the water receded, she didn’t sit down on that boat in some unfortunate position that caused her rudder to break further or snap clean off and allow water to come in. 

We had left our bimini on for the storm as it houses the solar in hopes that it could give her juice for her bilge pumps in case something very much like this happened.  As I’ve mentioned many times, up until hours before nightfall the day before, all anyone expected from Sally was tropical storm conditions.  But, our 110-watt panel had blown off entirely in the storm, and the our remaining two 50-watts were so marred and cracked, likely from flying projectiles, we were sure they weren’t working either.  Meaning, Plaintiff’s Rest would only have whatever power was in her battery bank to fight incoming water if she began taking any on over the course of the night. 

Phillip and I went to bed that evening with weary, worried hearts, hoping we would return the next day and find Plaintiff’s Rest still sitting floating and not slowly sinking.  I gripped her bow before we left the marina that day and tried to make sure she knew just how much we loved her before I left.  Looking back it pains me to think it may have come across to her as a plea to remain afloat when I truly meant it as a message telling her no matter what happened, we would always be proud to have owned and sailed her and that none of this was her fault.  I hope she interpreted it as the latter.  I’ve now experienced that moment three times—the first when we hauled with Hurricane Nate pointed straight for us, the second when we left Plaintiff’s Rest for the season in Great Harbour Cay in the Bahamas, and now this time, as she continued to hold on for whatever Hurricane Sally and her aftermath might continue to dish out—and I know no feeling can quite replicate the helplessness of having to walk away from your boat not knowing if you’ll find her in the same place and condition when you return. 

Because you just can’t wrap your arms around her and keep her safe.  It is only she who can do that for you in a storm.  And, that is the very reason all sailors toil and sweat and bleed and curse, yet continue to sail our boats, as they truly are vessels to so much more than just the next shore.    

Ch. 3: The Trek to Sally’s Boat-Laden Battleground

September 16, 2020, 9:30 a.m.

Phillip’s eyes read back to me the exact thing I’m thinking: Should we be doing this?  We’re gripped to a telephone pole, bracing against a gust, likely over 40 mph, but we have no idea.  Whatever speed it is, it’s so strong we cannot stand up or lean into it.  We have to hold onto something or we’ll be blown down.  I think to myself that I’ve never felt before the weight of my body leaning forward, supported solely by the wind.  

The gust that forced us to the pole is the worst Phillip and I have experienced since we received the devastating news from our dock neighbors, Stephen and Beth, that Palafox Marina is believed to be destroyed and that their EPIRB aboard went off which means their once-amazing catamaran, Cattywampus, is likely sunk.  As soon as Phillip hung up the phone I knew.  We had to go.  We both had to know. 

Hurricane Sally simply took every boat owner in Pensacola by surprise, taking an unexpected last minute turn the day before, building, slowing, and choosing Pensacola as the target for her most unforgiving northeast quadrant.  So many owners had been pacing those early morning hours, hearing the wind howl at their house-fronts, praying their boat—out there in the elements—was somehow miraculously holding on.  It had been a terrifying night for many.

“I think we’re okay,” Phillip answers the question my eyes had asked him.  “Do you feel okay?”  

I find it strangely hard to answer.  More often, when you do something you might look back on and think Maybe that wasn’t the safest or wisest decision, you’re usually not thinking that in the moment.  Often because whatever you’re doing is too fun or tempting to consider the consequences then.  In this moment, however, I can feel the consequences all over my body.  The wind exfoliating my skin.  Beads of rain driving into my eyes.  My hand gripped tight to the splintery wood of the pole to counter the tremendous push I feel on my body.  While being in intense, tropical storm elements I can easily say is exhilarating, it’s heart-pumping, I’m not sure I could call it fun.  And it was likely not the wisest or safest decision we have ever made.  But, our desperate need to see the boat is beyond tempting.

“I feel okay,” I tell Phillip.  I know we are currently in about the most wide-open, building-less portion of our hike—an open parking lot—and I know a litany of buildings lie ahead, which I am hopeful will provide us more shelter along the way.  I believe, if we can just get to some better cover to safely endure the gusts along the way, we will be able to navigate the remaining three-quarters of a mile to get to the marina.  The gust lays down, and Phillip and I march on.  Wind-driven rain forces us to squint, which makes it harder to see anything that might be flying at us.  While we haven’t yet seen anything airborne the first ten minutes of our trek, we can see evidence of it everywhere: big slats of metal bent around stop signs, pieces of house siding and roof shingles litter the streets.  Thankfully, though, it seems Sally has already shaken everything loose that she could in the hours before, and she’s since laid her mass of projectiles down.

When we get to Main Street, two blocks from the marina, Phillip and I find it buried under water.  We hike our way to the top level of a parking garage so we can get a better vantage point to see if we will even be able to get to the marina.  

I’ve marked an X here on the parking garage where we were standing.  The blue line indicates the water level, and you can see Palafox Marina just a couple of blocks south of us.

Here are some before and after photos showing the water level on Main Street where we crossed.  

“Oh god, there’s the Nina!” I hear Phillip shout into the wind.  La Nina is a rebuild of the ship Columbus actually sailed on when he crossed the Atlantic that had, sadly, come to Pensacola just one week before the storm to offer public tours.  It was docked here on the Palafox Marina sea wall near the entrance to the marina.

Phillip points to a building just southwest of us and my mind simply could not process it.  I could see the distinct masts of the ship for sure, but my brain told me if I was seeing La Nina there, it had to be in a parking lot.  It was bewildering and also immediately humbling and terrifying.  If Sally could pick up that heavy beast of a boat and put it anywhere she wanted, a parking lot, even, I think, how in the world could our boat have survived her? I decide in that moment—whether I have to crawl, climb, wade, even swim—I am going to cross that water and get to the marina.  Whatever has happened to her, I have to see our boat.  

We decide to let Phillip lead the charge, trudging his feet and stepping very slowly so we don’t fall or cut ourselves on whatever might lie beneath as we begin to cross Main Street.  The water remains knee high most of the way with no obstacles.  We get a bit worried at one point when I have my phone held up over my head and the water came to our chest.  This was just north of the marina where Baylen street ends in a circle and is, so far, our deepest point of the journey.  It is incredibly strange to see waves surging at us there.  Waves?  At a place I’ve walked a thousand times to and from the boat.  It feels like an altered universe.

Until we make it to the marina.  Then it all feels overwhelmingly too real.  Shredded sails pop at alarming decibels.  Fiberglass groans.  Boats have been shoved in a seemingly impossible pile at the north end of the marina, stacked on top of one another, some have even been pushed up violently onto the concrete and sidewalks.  

Every vessel is gouged, split, cracked, some are still tied to broken-up pieces of dock.  It is carnage.  The wind continues to rip through mercilessly, shoving and heeling boats that are just barely floating.  I recognize a beautiful Tayana, Distant Drummer, owned by a friend.  Its once beautiful velvet blue hull is now scored and scraped all over.  It seems she’s been pushed aground and her anchor has lodged on the outer deck railing of building on Palafox Street. 

I recall Distant Drummer was once on a dock several rows to the south of where our boat was and the realization guts me.  If all of those boats have come this far …  We then see Stephen and Beth’s gallant catamaran, Cattywampus, is just as they suspected: submerged.  She’s gone.  Already!  Sunk in her own home?  How … why …  my brain tries to make sense.  A huge sport fisher that had been tied up just across the way from us in our slip I now notice is the furthest boat shoved into the pile, its scratching its once glistening hull into the concrete steps that used to lead to the beautiful walk along our marina.  Then I make out the fuel dock.  The fuel dock? my wayward brain asks.  The fuel dock was on the first row right by the sea wall!  Now it’s here?  

Here are some overhead views of our marina showing where Plaintiff’s Rest’s slip was before the storm and the condition of the marina after the storm.  

Paralyzed by the impossible wreckage, stunned by seeing things that shouldn’t be, my brain simply didn’t have time, when we first arrived, to look anywhere other than at the devastating oddities right in front of me, but now she realizes what she might see with just the shift of an eye.  A white monohull?  Green canvas? Plaintiff’s Rest?  I immediately begin scanning every boat in the pile as Phillip and I start to make our way south on the Baylen side of Palafox Marina, hoping not to see our baby girl in the pile of bodies.  And, each time, it’s not her.  I see a sliver of white hull, but that’s not her stern.  Some green canvas, but it’s a Beneteau. She’s not there!  

I start to jog down the sea wall as the gusts keep pummeling us, then I see it!  I’m either insane or I see it!  “Her mast!” I shout to Phillip as I take off in a full sprint.  It seems unfathomable, but it looks like she is sitting afloat in her slip.  My feet pound the pavement as hard as my heart on my chest wall as I tell her, or myself, I’m not sure, over and over: Be okay, be okay, please baby girl, be okay.  I will admit I was not aware before you could cry over a boat.  I thought I would if we ever lost her, or the day that we sold her, but it was just a thought.  I had never done it myself.  I had never been attached to a boat before we bonded with our Niagara 35.  But, now I know.  You can absolutely bawl over a boat.  

Tears wet my lashes as I scream when I see her.  Plaintiff’s Rest is afloat!  She’s heeling and groaning, and fighting for her life with every gust but she is, from what we can tell, seemingly okay.  “HOLD ON BABY GIRL!” rips painfully out of my throat, although the wind is so strong I don’t know if she hears me.  I crush my wet face into Phillip’s shoulder as he makes it to me and we grip one another.  We both stand stunned looking at her.  Plaintiff’s Rest is one of only two boats on the Palafox side that remains tied to her original dock in its original location.  How … why … I’m still confused.  Happy.  Overwhelmed.  Sad.  And confused.  But, it was terrifying to watch her strain with every wave and slap of wind while a pile of boats and docks jumbled to the south of her roll and lunge at her.  They could break free any second I know and demolish her.  And, Phillip and I might be standing here to watch, powerless to help her from across the way.  I can’t imagine then what would be worse: coming to find your boat sunk or watching, powerlessly, her demise.  

But, I can’t think those things as I see her heel and buck in her slip.  All I can do is pray those other boats hold until the damn wind finally dies and we can get to the other side to try to help her.  Until then, Plaintiff’s Rest fights for her life, holding onto a dock that may fail.  I know, even at the time, this is one of those moments I’m going to relive on my death bed.  I just cannot believe it.  How … why …  But I clear those thoughts and channel to her again.  Hold on baby girl.  You’ve got this.  Hold on just a little bit longer.  

We later learned the heroic tale of La Nina and why it appeared to me to be in a parking lot, as it just about was.  Unfortunately, winds over 110 mph and 10-15 foot swells broke up the docks she was tied to on the sea wall in Palafox Marina.  The Nina was sucked out of the marina with the crew aboard, still attached a great length of broken dock.  The crew deployed her anchor in the basin.  Although it broke, it did slingshot the vessel past the treacherous rocks surrounding the condominiums (while several owners looked on from above, watching her brave journey) and sent her into the soft mud just behind the parking lot of the building we were facing when we noticed her from the parking garage.  Captain Stephen aboard the vessel published this write-up about the events of Hurricane Sally and La Nina’s courageous journey and crew.  

Photo a condo unit owner took during the hurricane, watching La Nina after she got sucked out of the marina. Captain Stephen posted this with a caption: “This photo says a thousand words.”

Ch. 2: Sally Wreaks Her Savagery, in the Dark

When the Tuesday 4 pm forecast hits, the heart of every boat owner in Pensacola thumps to a lurch.  What had previously forecast as a minor hurricane poised to make landfall on the Louisiana-Mississippi border, 150 miles to the west of us, is no more.  For whatever reason, the forecast is, unfortunately and unprecedentedly wrong.  It is now clear we are going to experience Cat 1 conditions in Pensacola and that we are unfortunately positioned in the worst, most unforgiving, northeast quadrant of Sally’s path.  Many boaters are calling each other, texting, asking if they should tie more lines, do more prep, try to move the boat, scream to the hurricane gods?  

Four days prior, when Sally was predicted to be only a storm and to shoot on a straight path across the Gulf to the LA-MS border, Phillip and I had been forced to decide on that day, Friday September 11th, whether we wanted to haul for the storm.  Our decision not to, as with many when it comes to predicting storms and preparing the boat, now sits on our chests like a lead vest.  Over the weekend we had seen boats coming to our marina from Louisiana trying to get out of the storm’s expected path.  Most owners had tied a few extra lines and removed some canvas anticipating we would see moderate winds, heavy rains, and a possible 2-3 foot storm surge that was not exceptionally worrisome with our floating docks.  In slip E14 on the west side of the marina, our dock neighbor to the south, a sportfish, is, luckily, in Destin having maintenance done.  Our dock neighbor to the north, a tall Sea Ray is buttoned up and removed his iso-glass.  The next slip over sits Cattywampus, an impressive, rare Manta 42 catamaran, doted on by her new cruising owners and very good friends of ours, Stephen and Beth.  They had taken down their dodger and headsail and tied what Stephen defined as “umpteen hunnerd lines.”   Is that the right amount? they had asked us via text the day before, when the banter was light.

Now, Tuesday, 4:00 p.m., the mood is much more somber.  We only have a few hours of daylight left before Sally is set to strike.  Most sailboats can only travel around 5-7 mph, tops, in the best of conditions, and Sally is 250 miles wide, on a shifting path.  Which way do you even go?  East or west?  In order to get far enough east to get out of Sally’s path, bridge heights force most sailboats out into the Gulf, were Sally is howling, chewing up the surf, and beating her mighty chest.  She would eat any boat that tested her.  The truth guts us.  Sally is coming.  And we are all tied to docks directly in her path.  

The last photo of our girl before Sally struck, taken Tuesday afternoon, September 15th.

Although it has been wrong up to this point, we cling desperately to whatever forecast that might get us through this sleepless night.  

Data from the reconnaissance aircraft indicate that maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 85 mph (140 km/h) with higher gusts.  Although little change in strength is forecast until landfall occurs, Sally is still expected to be a dangerous hurricane when it moves onshore along the north-central Gulf coast.  

NOAA Advisory 7:00 p.m 9.15.20

85 mph was the worst we expected.  That’s not what we got.

Wednesday, September 16th, 4:00 a.m.:

As Sally swirls around, winds now out of the south lash the wall of our house with such force I am afraid to stand in front of a window.  I don’t know what 85 mph winds should feel like on the blunt face of a house, but these feel stronger.  Tree limbs the size of small vehicles crash raucously to the ground.  Transformers explode like bombs.  The power goes on and off.  Our worry for the boat is overtaken when wind-driven rain starts to push its way in.  Phillip and I are, mercifully, distracted while pushing towels against leaking door and window seams, placing pots to catch drops.  There wasn’t really time to think about the boat, which was over a mile to the south of us.  Until we made the call.  

After Stephen sends us a text update he received from a marina dock-hand—“Not good man.  I believe the marina is gone.”—we call him.  My throat tightens as I hear the tears in his voice.  “We just got a call from the Coast Guard … our EPIRB on the boat went off.”  Every sailor knows what that can only mean.  The truth of knowing a device that was once was sitting high and dry on a top shelf in your salon is now underwater can only be described as crushing.  Stephen told us they spent the night watching the updates and watching footage of massive waves crashing over the Wahoo’s Stadium sea wall, which is just a couple hundred yards from our marina.   He then sends us a grainy photo he received of the marina.  It’s Ivan all over again.  A mighty hand has come down and swept and piled docks and boats like toys in a bathtub.  Already sickened, an impossible fact then settles on us.  Hurricane Ivan struck on the exact same day: September 16, 2004.  So much carnage created in what felt like a second.  The paralyzing thought strikes Phillip and I simultaneously: What about our boat?

I can honestly say I did not “fear the worst” in that moment.  I couldn’t comprehend “the worst.”  The reality of that having just happened, without us even there to try to stop it, to help her, to save her!, was a truth my mind simply would not entertain.  Our baby girl?  The boat we spent three filthy, itchy months on the hard repairing, the vessel that galloped us to Cuba, the Keys, the Bahamas!  Our girl?!  We have to know.  

Phillip and I do not think.  We just run.

Hurricane Sally Ch. 1: The Forecast

It’s time to talk about Hurricane Sally.  And, I believe the best place to start that discussion, because that storm was such a shock to many lifelong sailors in Pensacola, is with the forecast.  After Sally ripped through, so many people asked Phillip and I—along with I’m sure just about every other boat owner in Pensacola: Why didn’t you leave?  Why didn’t you haul?  Why did so many leave their canvas up?  I even overheard a guest at a restaurant overlooking the wreckage of our once-beautiful Palafox Marina ask her friend: “Why didn’t they just go out in the Bay and ride it out there safely?”  

‘Ride out’ 15-foot seas and 120+ mph winds pushing you to shore … and do it … safely?  Psshh!  

But, I understand people who do not own a boat or who do not sail or cruise, simply don’t understand a few unfortunate truths about marine weather forecasts and storm prep:

  1. A forecast is just that, a prediction, an estimate. Nothing is truly certain until 24 hours out.  
  2. The decision to haul must be made 3-5 days in advance, when nothing is certain.
  3. Moving the boat in the last 24 hours is dicey, dangerous, and no guarantee.  

Why?  Because hurricanes are generally a few hundred miles wide, traveling on unpredictable paths.  Even if you think you should move the boat in the final hours, deciding which direction to go is incredibly difficult. And, most sailboats can only go 5-7 mph, at their top speed, which requires the winds and seas be favorable (conditions in a storm are rarely favorable).   Sailors can’t get anywhere fast, much less travel the likely hundreds of miles it might take to get out of the cone of uncertainty, which is constantly shifting anyway.  But, the cone and the NOAA forecasts are the best predictions we have to go on. In our opinion, even if you are in the cone of uncertainty, choosing to leave the dock to sail in a storm when you don’t have to (i.e., when the only goal is to save the boat) is just an unnecessary bodily risk.

While I’m on the topic, I’ll include a word about NOAA’s cone of uncertainty, a bit of which I learned myself in researching to write this piece. The cone (sample below) represents the probable track of the center of a tropical cyclone and is formed by enclosing the area swept out by a set of circles (NOAA has calculated over decades) along the forecast track (at 12, 24, 36 hours, etc.). The size of each circle which forms the cone is set so that two-thirds of historical official forecast errors over a five-year sample fall within the circle. The cone has been enlarged over the years to reduce the error rate. Thus, despite the name of the cone, its highly calculated and time-tested goal is to be as certain as possible. You can learn more about NOAA’s Cone of Uncertainty here.

Sample NOAA Cone of Uncertainty

Unfortunately, NOAA’s prediction for Hurricane Sally in the final days before the storm was the most inaccurate many of us sailors in Pensacola can remember. We were never encouraged to leave our marina, under even a voluntarily evacuation or a mandatory one, which is very telling. We had several boats in our marina who had travelled in the 3-4 days before the storm from Louisiana east to our marina in an effort to get out of Sally’s expected path. The bottom line is, Hurricane Sally just stunned us all.  No one expected it to come to our shore, our marina, with such ferocity until it was simply too late.  It wasn’t until within 12 hours of her vicious landfall that we realized where her sights were truly set and that we were about to be hammered by her most unforgiving northeast quadrant.  What was an expected tropical storm brought us 120+ mph winds in our marina and 15-foot waves in the Bay crashing over the marina seawall. It was an attack the boats and docks in the marina simply could not withstand.

I write this to share with you all and let you see what Phillip and I, along with virtually every other boat owner in Pensacola (many now devastated by the loss of their beloved girls), saw as Sally approached.  This was our weather timeline in the days before the storm:

Friday, September 11:

Sally is a tropical depression only, rolling over the southern tip of Florida.  She is predicted to turn into a tropical storm in the Gulf and go straight toward the Mississippi-Louisiana border.  If Phillip and I are going to haul Plaintiff’s Rest out for Storm Sally (which NOAA did not predict at any point to become a hurricane), this is the day it is offered under our hurricane haul-out plan.   The option is: confirm we will haul tomorrow or stay in the water.  As our most extreme measure for protecting the boat from a storm, hauling out is something Phillip and I are inclined to do only when there is a likely threat a hurricane will make landfall. As that was not the forecast at the time, we decided to stay put.

Saturday, September 12:

At this time, Storm Sally is predicted to become a Cat 1 hurricane and strike the LA-MS border, almost 200 miles to the west of us, on Tuesday evening.  Pensacola is in the far east edge of the cone of uncertainty and is under a tropical storm watch (not warning) only.  A Tropical Storm Watch is issued when sustained winds of 34 to 63 kt (39 to 73 mph) or higher associated with a tropical cyclone are not certain but possible in 36 hours or less.  You can learn more about the National Weather Service’s storm warnings here.

Sunday, September 13:

Storm Sally is still on track for the LA-MS border as a Cat 1, showing a hook to the east after she makes landfall.  At this point, Pensacola is entirely outside the cone of uncertainty.  The city is under a tropical storm warning. In increasing from a Watch to a Warning, the National Weather Service changes the prediction from a possibility of tropical storm conditions to an expectation. Meaning, at this time, we are to expect winds of 34 to 63 kt (39 to 73 mph) or higher that may be accompanied by storm surge.   Some boaters expect we might get winds of 40-50 knot winds in the marina, perhaps.  Phillip and I spend the afternoon taking down the dodger and tying additional lines.  We leave our bimini on as the marina typically shuts power down for a storm and we wanted to make sure the bilge pumps could perform in case the unexpected happened.  Our head sail is already down. We secure the halyards and the main sail in her stack pack.  We fasten chafe guards on our additional lines and help other friends in the marina prep their boats for an expected tropical storm.  Although Palafox Marina is notorious for urging owners to leave the marina with just the slightest hint that a storm may come (they are very conservative in their weather predictions, with a strong desire to evacuate in the event of a possible storm to preserve the docks), we receive no encouragement to leave, not even a request for voluntary evacuation.

Monday, September 14

Storm Sally is still on track for the LA-MS border, predicted to hit as a Cat 1 and then hook to the east and travel to the north of us heading northeast.  Pensacola is just outside the cone of uncertainty and under a tropical storm warning only.  No additional prep is undertaken as we are expecting only heavy rains and winds of potentially 30-50 knots in the marina, at most.  Several feet of storm surge is expected but does not worry us as we are on floating docks.

The wind prediction for Monday shows a 50-60% chance of winds between 35-74 mph (tropical storm) in Pensacola. 

Tuesday, September 15:

Sally slowed down considerably over Monday night and is now crawling at 2 mph, no longer moving on her predicted track toward LA but sitting in more of a stall pattern in the Gulf.  The 4:00 p.m. NOAA forecast was the one made every boat owner’s stomach in Pensacola drop like a seventy-pound stone.  

The rapidly-changing forecast has us all concerned that this storm may come with much more force than we had anticipated.  Sally was now predicted to hit as a hurricane on the MS-AL border followed by a sharp turn to the east.  For the first time since Sally’s development, Pensacola is put under a Hurricane Watch, which means hurricane force winds in excess of 74 mph are not simply possible but expected.  Hurricane Sally was then 250 miles wide poised to strike anywhere from Gulfport, MS to Fort Walton Beach, FL, a span of 180 miles.  

Everyone was worried.  Many boaters were calling each other, texting, asking if they should tie more lines, do more prep, try to move the boat, bury their heads, pray, puke, cry?!  Pensacola only had a few hours of daylight left with no place any sailboat owner could safely move their boat to in that timeframe.  In addition, many of us have to travel in the Gulf to go east (because of bridge heights), which wasn’t even an option with Sally out there churning.  With fifteen-foot tall waves that came to our marina early the next morning, we can only imagine what ferocious conditions would have awaited any sailor in the Gulf at that time. Winds in excess of 80 mph? Waves twenty-five feet tall? Whatever the condition, it was not a situation many of us could or would put ourselves in in order to move our boats east. The marina did not issue an evacuation order Tuesday evening as it was simply too late.  When the Tuesday 7 pm advisory was issued, it was clear: Hurricane Sally was coming, and we were all tied in our slips and locked in her path.

Queen’s Bath Recovery: “Dat a Bit Big Dere”

2020 … what can we say? So many weird, scary, painful, odd things have happened to us this year, it’s hard to believe. I had planned to finish up this Queens Bath saga weeks ago and then … Sally stalled, turned, strengthened and before we could respond or believe it, an unexpected, vicious Cat 2 hurricane ripped through Pensacola destroying our marina. So many friends lost their beautiful boats that day. We went from worrying about a tropical storm to trying to identify boats from their hulls or masts sticking out of the water. It’s been heartbreaking here for the boating community. But, somehow, inexplicably (although I will share many posts here trying to explain it), s/v Plaintiff’s Rest miraculously survived. This is how we found her as soon as Phillip and I could hike our way to the marina Wednesday morning, September 16, 2020.

She is one of only two boats who remained in their same spot with their docks intact. The remainder of the docks on Palafox broke up entirely and beat and bashed their way to the north end of the marina.

I have shared more photos here on Facebook so you can see how we fared. We have rudder damage and some serious bangs and gouges, for sure, but our baby girl is floating, she’s hauled out, and repairs have begun. That’s more than we can say for many in our area who are, right now, making the immensely painful decision of whether to repair or retire their beautiful vessel. But, we have all pulled together and we do feel incredibly lucky. Plaintiff’s Rest will sail again!

Now, since we’ve overcome that horrendous event, let’s share another. What else could 2020 possibly bring but the funkiest injury I’ve ever endured. Buckle up folks, it’s time to get … funky.  This leg wound of mine took some interesting turns while mending up.  Warning: If you don’t want to see open scabs and big weird wounds, feel free to read a text-only version here.  But, for those of you who LOVE to see weird things (like me!) read on and know that now, a good eight months after this injury, I am fully healed, fully functional, with a leg not near as freaky as it once was, and with just a somewhat-noticeable scar to prove I survived this whole ordeal.  I’ll also share our experience seeking medical care in the Bahamas—not anything Phillip or I had done before—and how that compared to medical care in the States.  

December 1, 2019:

I’m sitting on a rock by the Blue Sapphire Hole which is beckoning me to jump in, but I can’t.  I’ve got a heart rate that is through the roof, beads of sweat popped out on my forehead (although I feel cold), and a rock hard thigh the size of a watermelon I’m not even sure I could or should swim or climb with.  

When Phillip finally saw (or I should say I finally revealed to Phillip) the size of my leg after I was rolled on the rocks by a rogue wave at Queen’s Bath, he shut our whole excursion in Eleuthera down.  Phillip stopped at a small grocery store to get ice for my leg.  They didn’t have any ice for sale at the time, so he improvised and grabbed a couple bags of frozen corn which I plopped on my melon-thigh as he drove us back to the ferry that would take us back to our boat in Spanish Wells.  After an awkward hokey-pokey (right leg in, right leg out) attempt at a shower, Phillip sat me down in the saloon to assess and doctor my wounds and take the first round of photographs in case we needed to send them to a doctor for advice/treatment.  This was my status the afternoon of the event:

While I had a series of scratches on each chin, my hips, and ankles, it was clear my face and right thigh wounds were the worst.  While my thigh was painful, a dull, deep ache, it wasn’t in any way unbearable.  It hurt a bit to walk, and I think running would have made me yelp, but I was grateful my leg was mostly functional.  I believed at the time time that I had not broken any bones and I was incredibly pleased with that.  As it was after 5:00 p.m. by the time we got me cleaned up and worked over and I was, by all accounts, injured but totally fine, we lubed my wounds and wrapped my leg with an ACE bandage and decided to call the clinic there in Spanish Wells as soon as possible the following morning.  

I spoke with a “Nurse Gibson” who was super friendly and attentive.  This was our first encounter, however, with the Bahamian perception of the Queen’s Bath versus how unknowing tourists see it.  While we thought we were visiting an idyllic site where “natural pools are filled with crystal clear water, warmed by the sun, and perfect for soaking,” when I told Nurse Gibson I was injured at Queen’s Bath, she immediately piped up with an “Ahhh … you are lucky.  Many people go and do not come back from dere.”  I didn’t even have to explain what happened, she already knew a wave had rolled me.  

I told her I had a rather large lump (swelling I thought it might be?) that had formed at the greatest point of impact as well as multiple cuts and lacerations elsewhere but our primary concern was my leg.  Nurse Gibson asked about signs of infection, of which I had none, and she confirmed I did not have any deep or open wounds that were actively bleeding.  After that she told me what had formed on my leg was a hematoma that would simply have to be absorbed by the body over time (like a bruise).  It is not something they typically drain.  It started to sound like there was nothing Nurse Gibson could do for me, which got me a little nervous.  While I don’t, in any way, love going to the doctor (I’m quite stubborn about it), I do love the peace of mind you get when you’re worried and unsure about some troubling symptoms or unknown condition and a doctor looks you over and says “No, you’re fine, it’s just X.  Not a big deal.”  I didn’t want a simple phone call to be the end of it.  

“Maybe I could just pop in to be sure, or send you a photo of it, perhaps.  Would that be okay?” I asked Nurse Gibson.  

“Sure, send me a picture,” she replied, which I did to the cell number she gave me while she put me on hold.  Phillip and I sat, staring at my phone on speaker on the saloon table, wondering if what was going on inside my leg was “not a big deal,” or something that might need draining or surgery, or who knows what.  

Tick.  Tock.  It felt like an hour.  It was probably a minute and a half.  Nurse Gibson came back on and said:

“Dat a bit big dere.”

It is a quote Phillip and I have used many times since to describe both my leg and anything “a bit big dere.”  After viewing the photos, Nurse Gibson said she wanted me to come to the clinic so she could have a look.  Phillip and I immediately packed our party up and shuffled over to the clinic a few blocks away.  I could walk on it just fine.  It wasn’t 100% comfortable, mind you, but it was doable.  This “Public Clinic” is the clinic we went to.

If Nurse Gibson was surprised when she saw my wound in person, she hid it well.  She pushed around a few spots and did say it was the largest hematoma she had ever seen.  But, she was pleased that it did not have any heat or other signs of infection.  She wanted me to get an x-ray to make sure I had not broken my leg and to make sure the hematoma wasn’t putting unwanted pressure on something or was not likely to cause any other problems.  Nurse Gibson advised with the risk of infection from re-opening the wound to drain it, it would be better to allow my body to simply re-absorb the blood over time.  I saw her on Monday, December 2, 2019 and she scheduled me for an x-ray appointment on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at a facility across the road from her clinic.  

It was about that time Phillip and I started talking about leaving the boat for a bit and flying home to Pensacola, FL.  While we’d had a friend (shout-out again to BaBaLu!) who had ordered us up a new fresh water pump for our Westerbeke 27A immediately after ours failed during our attempt to sail to the BVIs, it seemed the shipping was going to take several weeks to get curried through Nassau and out to Spanish Wells.  And even that was no guarantee.  With our boat busted, and Captain Annie banged up, hobbling, and in need of x-rays, many signs were pointing us toward home to take some time to heal, work, and make a new decision for hurricane season 2020.  (And, with hindsight we thankfully now know flying home was the absolute right call as our pump shipment saga is an entertaining story in and of itself.  It took us months to get that pump … just you wait!).  Phillip called Delta the next day, Tuesday, December 3, 2019 and booked our flights home that Saturday, December 7, 2019.  

Although I went to the x-ray facility in Spanish Wells on Wednesday at the time Nurse Gibson advised, there was a note on the door that said “Closed this week.”  This is not at all surprising for the Bahamas.  They operate on “island-time.”  The thought that a business might be open this week and closed the next (for no apparent reason) is a completely normal occurrence there.  There was nothing I could do about it.  And, at that time, we did not suspect any broken bones, nor was my hematoma causing me any issues.  While my leg was certainly starting to bruise up nicely, that didn’t bother me. My main issue then (and this would continue for weeks) was keeping my leg wrapped in a way that didn’t pull the scab off of my wound every time I removed the dressing or that wasn’t too wet/moist to allow a scab to form.  This white pussy patch was a problem area for a while.  I can’t tell you how many times I re-opened it.  Yuck.

Phillip and I just decided I would go get x-rays as soon as we got home to Pensacola.  Other than my thigh wound, I seemed to be healing alright and I was roughly 75% functional. (I wasn’t going to be doing any swimming any time soon with my open wound or any rigorous physical activity that would bounce my hematoma painfully around, but that was tolerable.)  But, it was during those last days in Spanish Wells that I entered my strange “Avatar phase.”

The impact site on my forehead puffed up and the bridge of my nose flared out.  It sure hurt to sneeze or blow my nose during that time, but I still thought it was just a reaction to the impact (not a fracture).  But, over the course of the next few days whatever fluid had accumulated in my forehead started to drain out into my eyes causing weird puffiness and bruising around my eyes, almost like someone had punched me in the nose and given me two black eyes.  I guess someone did. The Queen!

I swear I looked just like an Avatar.  

My close friends and family, whom I had told about my injuries (it wasn’t many), got a real kick out of seeing these photos.  And, I was glad we could all laugh about it because thankfully I was still HERE, walking my Avatar-self around Spanish Wells, and not washed up ashore somewhere on the Atlantic coast.  While Nurse Gibson only gave us a glimpse of the Bahamians’ opinion of the Queen’s Bath, the many, many locals I encountered during our last days there, who often asked what had happened to me, gave us the low-down, dirty truth about the Queen’s Bath.  

“Ahhh … what ‘appened to you?” they would ask. 

“I got rolled by a wave at Queen’s Bath,” I would tell them.  These are just a few of the verbatim responses we got: 

“Ooohh many have died there.  One guy wanted to propose there and he was taken by a wave right before he proposed.  His body was never found.”  

“Uhhh … a 19-year old was killed there not many years back.  His body washed up a’few days later.”

“One guy from the States and his brother went there in a rage.  The brother’s body was never found.”  

“I am too scared to drive over the Glass Window.  My friend’s father was swept away there.  His body found several days later.  The clothes ripped completely off.”  

I can’t tell you how many independent stories we heard about death at Queen’s Bath and virtually every local told us “you should not go in a rage.”  It was anything but a rage when we went, low tide on a calm day, yet it was still dangerous.  I’m telling you, I cannot stress this enough:

BE CAREFUL AT THE GLASS WINDOW AND QUEEN’S BATH!!

Okay, rant over.  Back to the funky pics!  When I got back to the States, I booked an appointment with my primary care physician immediately and scheduled an x-ray.  This is what my leg looked like the day I went to the doc’s.  I call this my “morgue photo.”  It literally looked like the leg of a dead person!!  

The physician’s assistant (“PA”) who saw me said she had never seen a hematoma as large as mine so she called the doctor while she was in the room with me to ask whether it needed draining or other care.  Like Nurse Gibson, my doctor at Baptist Health Care advised the best course of action was to allow my body to reabsorb the blood that had pooled.  I was given instructions for frequent icing and elevating, then it was off for my x-rays.  I found a long flowy dress (down to my ankles) was the best thing for me to wear during those weeks so no one could see my fatly-wrapped thigh, but when I would pull the dress back to show the medical personnel my wound, many dropped their jaws, as I would have too if I wasn’t so used to seeing my Zombie leg every day.  I was surprised, however, to learn after the x-ray that I had suffered a hairline fracture to my forehead and nose.  That definitely explained my body’s Avatar response!  

Over the course of the next few weeks/months, my leg slowly began to heal.  The bruising trickled away in weird purple rivulets and the mound that was my hematoma started to re-absorb centimeter by centimeter.  

A little worried about the slow process, I went to see my doc at Baptist again after about a month.  This time it was not the PA but my actual doctor who got to see me and his eyes literally bulged when he saw my leg for the first time.  But, he did not hesitate in telling me news I probably already could have guessed, but still did not want to hear.

“It will probably take six months or more for that to re-absorb.”  

Six months?  I thought.  He told me that on February 11, 2020 which meant I was going to have to live with my “lady lump” (another name Phillip and I came up with for her) until July at least!  But, what could I do about it?  Nothing was the answer.  Keep icing and resting and carry on.  

I often sent friends progress photos of my leg during this time and I had one write back and literally say “Please stop sending these. Your leg is horrifying!”  I kept sending them anyway … : )  That’s the price you pay for being my friend!  And, my followers!  This was my progress April through July:

April 2020

One of my close friends (whom I texted the pic above to) said: “Looks like abstract art.”

April 2020
April 2020
May 2020
May 2020
July 2020
July 2020

I am thrilled to share this is what my leg looks like now:

August 2020
August 2020

The tanner I get during the summer, the harder it is to even notice the scrape scars on the my thigh.  There is a slight blue/purple around the ring of my hematoma and it is still hard and numb in the center, but it is no longer a bulbous lump protruding off of my leg, thank goodness!  And, my little lump actually sits right on my vastus medialis muscle, so the slight protrusion kind of looks like I’ve bulked that muscle up a bit.  I got lucky in that regard.  

Here is a pic of me just a few weeks ago at the beach, and from afar, you can’t even see any scarring or lump on my right leg.

August 2020

As for my face, those scratches did start to heal up nicely even before we left the Bahamas and the Avatar drainage quickly subsided.

December 2019

However, I definitely have three new, visible scars on my forehead.  You can really see them when I’m tan and flushed (from a workout or something).  

August 2020

They were pinkish-red in the beginning and I had to cover them with makeup but that worked well enough.  

January 2020

Over time they turned more white and are hardly visible when I’m more white too, in the winter. 

Say hello to Lawyer Annie! February 2020

Overall I have very little to complain about or bemoan considering the severity of what I now know happened in those harrowing seconds as I rolled over the rocks and how well my tough little body handled it.  I think she deserves a whopping high five.  On a final note, this was an interesting takeaway from our experiences seeking medical care in both the Bahamas (which, I mentioned, we had never yet done) compared to in the States.

Comparison of the Available Care in the Bahamas Versus the States

We learned when talking to many people after my injury that had I suffered a severely-broken bone or some other serious injury that needed immediate emergency treatment, Phillip and I would have found ourselves in a very bad place.  It would have cost somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 to get a helicopter to fly out to Eleuthera or Spanish Wells to fly me to an ER in Nassau if I had needed it.  The gal that worked the desk at Yacht Haven Marina told us when her little brother broke his leg jumping off the infamous bridge connecting Spanish Wells to Russell Island and they learned it was going to cost $15,000 to fly him to Nassau on an emergency medic chopper, the family buzzed him across instead on a neighbor’s power boat.  “That ride was not com-turble for lil’ Davin, I’ll tell you dat,” she said.  I couldn’t imagine bouncing around on a power boat with a cracked tibia.  Uggh.  So, the availability and cost of emergency care in the Bahamas is hard to come by.  I’m incredibly lucky I didn’t need anything of the sort.  

However, the difference in the time it took to get care and the cost was astonishing.  Phillip and I sat in Nurse Gibson’s clinic for ten minutes, maybe, before she brought me back for an immediate, personal inspection and the visit cost me a total of $35.  Back in the States, however, I sat about forty-five minutes after my scheduled appointment time before I was called back to the examination room where I sat another fifteen before the PA came into see me.  That visit was over $100 with my co-pay costing me $25.  I then spent a good two hours being shuffled from desk to desk in the hospital before I was sent up to the third floor for my x-ray, where I sat another forty-or-so minutes before they called me back.  The x-rays I was going to get in the Bahamas I was told would cost $160.  The cost of the very same x-rays the States?  $380.  I wonder why that is.  

Things that make you go hmmmmm ….