April 28, 2014:
It was time to say goodbye to the Keys. While we certainly enjoyed our time on that quirky little island (and the breathtaking ferry over to the Dry Tortugas), it was time to give our livers – and pocketbooks – a break and start making our way back north toward Pensacola. After a week on dry land, though, we were ready to make another passage, ready to find ourselves back out in the middle of the Gulf with nothing on the horizon but blue sky meeting bluer water, water gently lapping the hull, the sun warming our skin as we read on the deck all afternoon, and, yes, even the night shifts, sailing that beautiful boat under a smattering of stars. It was time to make way!
We woke early and started readying the boat for passage. We tossed the lines first thing and headed out (literally, bow first from our stern-in slip at the A&B Marina – which was much easier exiting than entering, I can assure you). We made coffee on the boat for the first time since we had docked in Key West, and we promptly decided the Cuban Coffee Queen Hut had “nothing on us!” There’s just something about making your own coffee on the boat in the french press, and sipping that first warm mug while you’re starting out on a long passage.
We waved goodbye to Sunset Key as we made our way out of Key West Bight.
We had a bit of a scare when a pretty intimidating law enforcement vessel started motoring right toward us.
Phillip and I watched them with furrowed brows likely thinking the same thing – “Is that Y valve in the head turned the right way?” We had heard they keep a pretty close eye on regulation compliance in the Keys and the Coast Guard guys won’t hesitate to come aboard for an inspection. We were sure it was, but it’s one of those things if you ask yourself twice – “Are you really sure?” – that you start to second guess. Thankfully, though, The Law motored on behind us and continued on their way. Whew! Disaster avoided … or so we thought. But the adventures that day were just beginning.
You ever have one of those days that starts out perfectly normal, you begin your typical routine, you go about your business – completely unaware that this day is probably going to stick out in your mind for the rest of your meager existence. Everything seems to routine, so mundane and then BAM! It happens. Whatever it is – a car accident, a fire, an unexpected encounter, you win the lottery (let’s all hope!) – but, whatever it is, it’s something that makes that day stand out among the hundreds of bland, uniform days that preceded it. I guess being on this trip – a daily adventure – sort of changes that equation (in that every single ONE of our days on this trip held something new, something that will probably stick out in my mind for decades to come) but, still, I thought we were just going to get underway and make passage back to Ft. Myers. I thought maybe we would see a shark, perhaps run into some weather, some “adventure” I was mentally prepared for – but not this …
My day started something like this,
but that’s not how it ended.
We were motoring through the channel out of Key West Bight. It was a beautiful morning, around 9:00 a.m., not too hot yet, a light breeze coming in. We were ready to do some sailing! We decided to raise the main while we were making our way out of the channel so we could throw the Jenny out as soon as we made our way out and catch the wind.
I hopped up on the deck to attach the main halyard (the line that raises the main sail) to the sail. We always detach it from the sail and clip it away from the mast so that it does not bang when we’re in the marina or on the hook. (But, I’ll tell you – as a direct result of this very incident – we have since formed the habit of connecting the halyard BEFORE we leave the dock so that we are not doing it underway.) But, that is now. This was then. This is how lessons are learned.
I loosened the halyard and hopped up on the deck to connect it. Unfortunately, the wind was on our stern so it caught the slack in the halyard and blew it around one of the spreaders. For those of you who are sailing newbies – just imagine an important line is caught on some of that stuff up there on the mast, so we can’t pull it to raise our sail. And, the wind is on our stern, so it’s holding the halyard firmly in it’s ‘caught’ position. I let out more slack and embarked in an ancient rope-whipping dance (do recall my country roots),
that thankfully freed the halyard. You would think the hard part is over, but I’ve got to move quickly to get the slack pulled out so the line remains free and untangled so we can raise the main. So, I’m now holding the shackled end of the halyard in one hand, and holding the slack taught down the mast in the other. Basically pulling against myself to keep tension in the line so it stays flush on the mast and cannot snag on anything. A fine practice, if you’re standing on the deck, doing nothing other than holding the line, but I get the brilliant idea that I can go ahead and climb the step up the mast and hook the shackle whilst holding both ends of the halyard taught in 2-3 foot waves. Looking back on it now, that’s probably a three-handed job, and I’ve only got two, so …
As I’m stepping up the mast, a light wave rocks the boat and I have to grip or I’m going to fall. My body takes over instinctively (I guess) and lets go of the bleepin’ halyard so I can grap a cleat on the mast to avoid falling. To avoid falling … yes that was the plan, initially. But, now you know I’ve committed the ultimate sin.
I LET GO OF THAT DAD-BURN HALYARD!!
I couldn’t believe it had actually happened until I saw it swinging playfully in front of me, taunting me, just out of reach. As you recall, we have only let go of the halyard a couple of times on the boat, but each time required a monstrous chore to retrieve it – climbing the 50′ mast. The first time, we were at the marina back in Carrabelle and we raised the halyard on the Jenny back up the mast not knowing it wouldn’t come back down with just a wiggle and a shake. A rookie mistake – but it meant a mast-climb (thankfully secure at the marina, though) for me. The second time was when we were making the passage from Dog Island to Clearwater on our way down to the Keys (you remember the attempt at the butterfly-net retrieval?). Since we were underway, that time meant another mast-climb for yours truly, only this time mid-sea. That climb was one of the scariest moments, so far, on the trip for me, and I was damn sure I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I was going to get that halyard! Nothing was going to stop me!
It was swinging around just out of reach, I didn’t even think the Captain knew what had happened yet, and I thought if I could retrieve it and snap it on the sail before he even knew — even better. I jumped up on top of the boom.
Yes, the boom. I told you — I was going to GET THAT HALYARD!
And, up there, I was eye-level with it. I had a fighting chance! I just needed it to swing my direction (in those random, bouncy 2-3 foot waves – it could happen!). It came so close several times, and I almost had it. Phillip had seen me up there by now, but all he could belt out was a forceful, “Annniiee” followed by a stern “be careful!”
I will try my best to depict this with my rudimentary sketch skills, so bear with me, but it at least helps you visualize. Here I am, up on the boom, going for that bleepin’ halyard!
I was standing on the main sail, holding daintily onto one of the port-side lazy-jack lines that holds the stack-pack up, just for balance. After we had snapped the one on the starboard side clean off the spreader during our first rough night into Port St. Joe, I knew it didn’t take much to rip one off, so I was just using it for balance. I was, I swear. Until …
Until the halyard came swinging toward me. Finally! There it was! I could reach it! I stretched a hand out toward it …
and then SNAP!
With the halyard in sight, my fingers finally feeling the threads on it, I am sure my dainty little hold and light pull on the lazy jack line became a full-on death grip and full-weight dependent tug. Just as I clinched my hand around the main halyard shackle, I heard a loud SNAP!, I can’t remember what I saw or how my body reacted, but I felt a sickening thud, and the next thing I remember, I’m raising myself from a crumpled position on the starboard deck (between the cabin and the lifelines) with the main halyard in my right hand. Phillip stepped out from the behind the bimini with a horrific look on his face, his voice commanding, “Annie, are you okay?”
“I, I … ” I couldn’t really form a complete sentence. I didn’t know how, or what to say if I even could.
“ANNIE, ARE YOU OKAY?” Phillip persisted, his voice now a stern shout.
“I don’t know,” I told him. Because I didn’t.