After a beautiful sunset and a warm meal, we settled in and sailed all through the night on Thursday. If you’ve never done it before, never felt that feeling, it will be hard to conjure. I don’t know if I can really capture it but I, of course, am going to try. I remember before the trip I had asked Phillip, “How do you see at night?” Now, understand this question came from the same, silly girl that asked him when we bought the boat, “So … how are they going to ship the boat to us?” So I would have completely understood if Phillip had tilted his head to one side and patted me on the head slowly like I was a lame dog while he answered, but I really felt like this was a legitimate question. How could we travel across the Gulf in total darkness? What if another ship didn’t have their lights on? Or what if there was some other inanimate object out there – an unknown land mass, a whale … an iceberg?? Okay, an iceberg was very unlikely, but I was ready with my big one-line acting debut if it did occur (Brittish accent and all: “Iceberg, right ahead!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TAX0bgWIps). But, I really was unsure how we were going to be able to see to sail at night. And, while the answer Phillip gave me seemed impossible at the time, I now know it is true: by the moon. Without all the glare and reflection of city lights, the moon and stars and their reflection on the water, illuminate everything. You can see the entire boat, all the way up to the bow, and for miles out across the water. And, you can hear the boat, harnessing nothing more than the wind, gliding through the water, making way in the darkness. It’s incredible.
This may give you a glimpse, but it will never do it justice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG4zR46RpZE. I will never forget my first night sail.
Mitch shone that night, too. That night he taught me how to “sight sail.” To understand, I’ll have to give you a small sailing lesson. When you’re making a passage from one point to another (usually one marina or anchorage to another), assuming it’s a straight shot, you have to find your heading. Without highways, street signs or land markers of any kind, it’s kind of hard to know exactly where the heck you’re going when it’s just you and the horizon. Hence, your heading. This is a number, a degree between 1 and 360 that you need to hold to travel a straight path to your destination. Now, you can calculate your heading the old-school way with charts and a parallel ruler and compass rose, which would make you about as exciting as this guy:
Or you can new-age it by plugging your destination into your fancy, schmancy GPS and it will spit out your heading. Now, how exactly do you hold that heading? (Much like a reservation – it only works if you hold it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4jhHoHpFXc). Forgive me but I just love that bit and have been dying to find the perfect place to use it. And, if you don’t think this was the perfect place, I’m eager to hear your comments. Please be sure to properly log your complaint in my newly-created complaint box at www.idontcare.com).
So, holding your heading. It’s fairly easy. Every boat is equipped with a great big compass right at the helm. You’ll see it here in this pic just behind the wheel.
The compass has North, East, South, West on it, with the accompanying 360 degrees (North is 0, South is 180 and you can figure out the others in between – if you can’t, know that I thought much more of you and am thoroughly disappointed. East is 90 and West 270). One great big circle. The aforementioned GPS also tells you what “degree” you’re traveling on. So, you can watch the compass or the GPS to make sure you’re staying at or near your number. While this is great and very efficient, it can often make holding the helm seem like a bit of a chore. The boat is agile and eager to follow the seas. Much like a two-year old in Toys-R-Us, you turn your eyes for one second and she’ll slip right off in another direction. You have to constantly hold the wheel and make small, minute adjustments to keep her on course. This can seem particularly tiresome when you’re night sailing and your eyes are glued on the compass for hours on end (and these are the wee, early, you want sleep more than anything else on the earth hours). Unless you know how to sight sail. Sight sailing is probably how they did it in the old days. Think Christopher Columbus and his voyage to the New World. It’s sailing by the stars. You hold your heading and find a star in the sky that “rides” on some point on your boat, say near the edge of one of your sails or right on top of a rail, just some fixed point on the boat. Then, rather than stare at the compass or the GPS, you simply watch the night sky and keep that star on that fixed point on your boat and voila, you are now holding your heading my friend without use of a single instrument. Something about it made me feel connected, to the stars, to the night, to the old sailors that did that way hundreds of years ago.
It certainly freed me, from squinting and focusing on a number and, at the very least, from staring at the orange, aging glow of the compass and I will forever thank Mitch for it. It was a long night but we made it through our first night’s passage without any real issue. We toasted the sunrise Friday morning with steaming cups of coffee and made plans for getting into Clearwater.
The wind began to pick up mid-morning and we watched with excitement as the sails filled and pulled taut and powered us through the water. But the wind continued to build so we decided to reef them in a bit. While I was pulling in the furling line to reel in the Genny (the genoa sail up front) Phillip and I heard a loud “ping” in the cockpit. We both looked at each other sternly, asking without saying: What was that? And it was clear neither of us knew. I began looking around the cockpit for some kind of clue and there it was: a bolt head lying on the cockpit floor near the helm. And, I say a bolt “head” because the bolt had sheared right through, just below the head. The stem of the bolt was nowhere in sight. I held it up for Phillip to see and we again exchanged the same question in silence: Where the hell did that come from? I began looking around the Genny cam cleat and the winch and where I had been working when we heard the ominous ‘ping,’ but nothing. Every bolt seemed to be fully in tact. We were confused, not yet concerned, but without the luxury to worry about it at the moment. By the time we made it into the pass she was blowing about 20 knots, and our primary concern was finding the marina and getting docked.
As soon as we had signal, Phillip told me to call the marina and get directions. I got on the phone with a man named Lou. His voice was thick and garbled like he either weighed 300 pounds or was talking through a mouth full of marbles. I assumed the latter and it turned out to be true. He was the dockmaster, and I swear they must all be cut from the same cloth (at least down there in South Florida) because I talked to many during the course of this trip and they all had similar one-syllable, car mechanic names (Jim, Bob, Lou, Joe), spoke with the same garbled dialect and looked something like this:
Minus the goggles. Wait … scratch that … some of them wore goggles.
And, they gave directions just like my Dad would, not with precise streets to turn on and miles to travel before you’ll see your exit. No, they use obscure, only locally-known markers like “take a left after Briscoe Hill and head toward Johnson’s barn and then she’s just right up the road on the right.” Thanks Dad, big help. These dockmasters were exactly the same. Lou told me to: “Come in through the pass until you go under the ‘big bridge,’ then hang a left and you’ll see our marina there with the fuel sign.” Yep, that’s as clear as it got. And, I even asked him, like a dumb blonde asking for directions, “the BIG bridge??”
Lou said “Yeah, honey, the big one. There’s only one big one.” I knew I wasn’t going to get anything else out of him, so I did all I knew to do. Relayed the message exactly as it was told to me and hoped Phillip could make sense of it. Thankfully, there was only one “big” bridge (although I don’t think it required the “honey” prefix), but it was huge and noticeable and we went right under, preparing to “hang a left.” I know, now, how stressful docking can be in a new marina, but I did not know at the time. I just knew Phillip was tense and stern, all business, and focused entirely on the GPS and the depth readings. I knew our primary focus was not to ‘run aground,’ but I didn’t know what else to do to prevent it other than shout out depth readings periodically to Phillip. Mitch was up at the bow looking out for the “left” we were supposed to be hanging and he saw a marina just off the portside of the bow, but it was far more “dead ahead” than left. He swore to Phillip: “That’s it. That has to be it. That’s the marina – head that way.” But, thankfully, Phillip wasn’t satisfied. He turned us around and had me hold the helm and make a few circles while he checked the paper charts and, sure enough, the “marina dead ahead” was just on the other side of a very shallow shoal that would have run us aground for sure and wreaked havoc on the boat. Phillip eventually found the inlet we needed to get into to get to our marina (the “left” we were supposed to hang) and we headed that way. But, the marina certainly wasn’t protected and we had 20 knot winds coming off our stern as we headed into the slip.
We tried to toss a dock line around a pole near the stern but we couldn’t get it around. And when I say “we,” I actually mean me, and I’m still mortified by it – but I did try very hard and know, now, that is not an easy thing to do – even for a salty sailor. Without a line to keep the stern in place, there was nothing Phillip could do in the cockpit to keep the boat from moving forward. The wind was just too strong. Thankfully, Dockmaster Lou apparently had a brother, whom they called Red, and he was even bigger than Lou. With those big boy hosses holding the bow, it looked like we had two sumo wrestlers pushing the boat off of the dock.
They held us off while we scrambled to tie dock lines and drop fenders and get her secured for the night. We were all exhausted at that point and in desperate need of a shower, shave (yes, me too) and, most of all, sleep. Our sail groupies (Phillip’s parents) met us at port and engaged in a fun photo op.
Thankfully they had also rented a hotel there near the marina and we unapologetically took advantage of the facilities. We dipped in the pool:
And commandeered the shower and finally made our way back to the boat for an easy snack dinner in the cockpit and some wine.
We were ready to get a good night’s sleep but we certainly had some decisions to make. The 20 knot winds we had faced in the pass were the beginning of a nasty front that was coming in. The sea state on Saturday was predicted to be very rough: 20-25 knot winds and 5-7 foot waves. Phillip was inclined to wait it out but he knew that might take days and we all, unfortunately, had jobs and deadlines to get back to at some point (and that was putting it lightly – Mitch’s magazine was actually scheduled to go to print the day after we were going to get back (Tuesday), and I had a jury trial starting the following Monday – it was just hard to take any more time off). It was already Friday evening and we were still a good four days away from home. But, this storm looked bad. Phillip knew better than the rest of us how rough the passage would really be and I could tell he was struggling with the decision. We decided to rest up for the night and make the call in the morning. The crew was tired and in need of a solid eight hours of sleep. I put the sheared bolt head in the companionway tray and we shut her down for the night.
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