AC on a boat … I’m still not sure that sits right with me. It just de-acclimates you. It took me a good ten minutes to thaw out topside after our first night on Tanglefoot. My toes prickled as I walked the deck, leaving my first dewey footprints on the boat.
Mitch must have slept about as soundly as I did because he wasn’t long behind me. 6:12 a.m. and the man is up, fiddling with things, looking again for his flashlight. I’ve never seen Mitch up so early but I’ve never seen him so excited either. He would ask me a question: “What was that last thing we needed from the store?” I would respond: “Trash bags. I already added it to the list.” And not five minutes later it had already slipped his mind: “Oh, here’s the list. What was that thing we needed?” He was like a kid with a new train set. He couldn’t wait to get the track all laid out and watch her go! But he would always forget the batteries.
Our plan that morning was to get the dinghy off the davits and secure her on the foredeck. We’d learned a hard and expensive lesson, the first time the three of us crossed the Gulf in our Niagara, in not securing our dinghy to the foredeck for offshore passages. There would be no clanging davits this trip, no hacking off of the dinghy mid-Gulf. Not again. While davits are a convenient, easy way to lower and raise a dinghy on a boat that’s cruising around in protected waters, they are not─in our opinion─secure enough to hold a dinghy for an offshore passage, no matter how heavy duty they may claim to be. The dinghy that came with the Nonsuch was an eight foot Walker Bay with a 2.5 hp outboard. Although an eight foot dinghy would generally seem plenty big enough for a 30-foot boat, for some reason, it still didn’t seem big enough for Mitch. But he got in there anyway, ass-up, and cleaned out the rainwater so we could flip her over on the deck.
I have to admit, at this point I was thoroughly impressed with Mitch. It had been an early rise, with some pretty hefty chores to conquer before 7:00 a.m. and Mitch was taking them all on with a smile, some light-hearted jokes and only the occasional “Okay, now hang on a minute.” So far, he was really stepping up … until it was time to check the fluids. I have said many times how glad I am that our Niagara is laid out and designed the way that it is─with the easy pull-back sink compartment that allows impressive access to the engine and all fluid check-points:
But when we began to tinker around the Nonsuch and locate all of her fluid bins, I was reminded yet again.
To check the fluids on Mitch’s boat, we had to access three different tight compartments. You have to remove the companionway stairs to access and check the transmission fluid.
The oil must be checked (not re-filled, though, mind you, just checked), by opening a storage compartment on the starboard side of the companionway stairs and then opening another access door in that compartment that allows you to reach the oil dipstick. But wait, there’s more! Once you’ve buttoned up all that mess, head up to the cockpit and the coolant bin is located down in the starboard lazarette. It can be checked (not filled) by leaning in upside down with a flashlight.
Filling it requires you─or your trained monkey─get all the way down in the lazarette and be sitting upright in order to pour coolant in.
I won’t say it was ridiculously inaccessible, but the fluid check-points were a bit tedious, particularly for a large man like Mitch. While he and Phillip were checking the fluids, I broke down all of our provisions (taking food and products out of their cardboard boxes and packaging) and took a load of trash up to the marina trash can. That whole process took about forty-five minutes and when I came back, Mitch was still checking the fluids. I’m sure he’ll get quicker at it over time. But─like I said─he did impress me by crawling into every tight hole, albeit it with some grunting, moaning and just a few more snaps: “Now, hang on a minute.” But he did it.
Once the fluids were checked, we headed out to make our store runs and grab those “last few items” we had jotted down while inventorying the boat the night before. The plan was ACE hardware for all that kind of trash bag-type stuff (cleaning brushes, sponges, shop towels, dust pan, hand-held broom, etc. along with propane), Publix for our perishable food items and West Marine for some back-up fuel filters. We had planned to grab our store goods and just eat breakfast back on the boat and go. I mean, why else had we hassled Mitch about buying all of that food the week before? But, it started to become comical when every store we pulled up to (ACE, Target, Publix) didn’t open until 8:00 a.m. It was just a few minutes after seven then so we deemed it a sign: Breakfast Break! We drove the main Ft. Myers strip a time or two looking for a Starbucks or Bagelheads or something easily recognizable as a standard commercial breakfast and, surprisingly, came up empty-handed. Our inability to find a Starbucks in a three-mile radius particularly surprised me. What kind of Americans are we? But each time we made a pass we kept eyeing this greasy-spoon diner with a packed-out parking lot and the savory scent of sausage enticing us in. “Marko’s Diner,” Mitch read the sign aloud as we pulled in. Being a traveler and an adventurer like us, Mitch loves to check out the local stuff when he’s in a new place. He wants to eat where the regulars eat, shop where they shop and do what they do. And, it always feels good to support local businesses, so Phillip and I were on board. “Marko’s it is,” we agreed.
I don’t know if she was in fact Mrs. Marko but this plump, vivacious, loud Greek woman clad in a shoulder-padded bedazzeled sweatshirt, her hair sprayed out on either side in sticky, jut-out wings was greeting customers the minute the bell on the door dinged. Most folks she greeted by name: “Hey Jim.” “Morning Claire.” But the newbies you could tell she spotted immediately and really put on a show for them.
“Well aren’t you a tall drink of water,” she said when Mitch walked in. “That’s what they tell me,” Mitch said running a hand through some pretend James Dean hair. That was all she needed to pull the rug out from under him. “Is it now? Well I’m glad you’re here Big-and-Tall. You made it just in time for the early bird senior special!” she said as she laughed, pulled one of many-a-pen from her hair and nudged her way by him with a pot of coffee in hand.
You have to love a woman who can hold her own, particularly a hefty, big-hearted Greek one. Mrs. Marko was great though, making sure us “out-a-towners” got good service, the whole schmorgas board (eggs, tomatoes, biscuits, grits, gravy) and hot piping coffee. It was just what we needed to fuel us up for the day. After our Marko’s feast, the store runs were quick and expertly executed. Three three of us took on ACE then the boys dropped me at Publix while they went to West Marine for the fuel filters. We were back on the boat and packed for passage by 10:00 a.m. With the fluids already checked, all we needed to do was crank and go! This was it. The big moment.
“Be sure to hold it 15-20 seconds,” Phillip said to Mitch as he got ready to warm the glow plugs and crank the engine. I was sitting next to Mitch and had to smile as he pushed the button in and started an actual, audible “one one-thousand, two one-thousand” count. He was so careful it was almost cute. But apparently cute wasn’t going to cut it. The engine tried to turn and sputtered a few times but would not crank. Mitch tried three times to no avail. Phillip was worried if he tried to crank one more time without the engine turning over we would pull too much raw water in and it would back up in the engine, so we took a moment to investigate. I had watched Mitch hold the glow plugs plenty long enough so I knew it wasn’t that. Phillip looked at the fuel filter which didn’t looked clogged or dirty and the fuel gage read three-quarters of a tank. Then he asked about the starting battery. Mitch had thought it was on, but it was clicked only to “house,” not “both.” Aha! Always takes a little time to learn a new boat. Once that adjustment was made and we gave it a bit more gas she fired right up. The crew let out a collective breath. For a moment, it had seemed our big adventure was about to putter out at the dock.
But she was running great now, purring actually. Mitch was a little anxious about backing out of the dock, but we told him to configure a plan (which lines would be released in what order) and we would execute it. We were there to help Mitch get the boat home, for sure, but we also wanted to let him get as much hands-on, solo-sailing experience as possible because he would essentially be handling the boat on his own once he got her back to Pensacola. So, as often as possible, we would have him do everything with us there merely to step in only if he was getting into some real trouble. Think of it like training wheels that don’t touch unless you start to tip over. Right out of the gate, Mitch got a great lesson in steering his boat in a tight marina.
We wanted to fuel up, pump out and fill the water tanks before jumping out into the Gulf so we planned to stop at the fuel docks. Of course, as luck would have it, there was a line and Mitch had to circle around a few times, back up, pull forward, turn around again. It was a great lesson in getting a feel for the boat’s reaction time. There was a good bit of “easy, gentle, wait for it, slow down!” as Mitch leaned a little too hard on the throttle but─with Phillip’s instruction─handled the whole three-time turn around and first fuel docking himself.
I set about filling the water tanks and handling the pumpout while the boys fueled her up. The water was no problem. While she did take on a good bit, we got the tanks filled to the brim and the caps secured back down. The waste, however … was causing some real issues.
“I need a hammer,” I told Phillip as he walked up on the deck to see what I was struggling with. I could not get the cap off. No matter how hard I turned and groaned and grunted. That one little sliver and a boat key was just not going to cut it. I was starting to imagine what this trip would look like if we started out with a mostly-full holding tank and no way to pump out. While I was sure they had checked the macerator during the survey/sea trial, I would rather not be the first one to actually try it out. What if it didn’t work? What would we do then? Things could get shitty. These were the thoughts that were running through my mind as I’m beating on the back end of the screwdriver, the head wedged into that stupid little sliver when the cap finally clicked free. My guess is the previous owner just never went on the boat (I envy the fact that men can easily piss overboard) or never pumped out at the dock because it felt like the waste cap had not moved in a decade. Luckily, though, she finally spun free and were able to pump out. Whew. While I was glad to help Mitch sail his boat back to Pensacola, I was secretly hoping that offer would in no way involve head repair or maintenance.
Finally, with all of our chores done, it was time to get out of the marina and get that boat moving. As we were making our way through the channel, another boat─Miller Time─came along side us and hollered over: “Is that Wade Alexander’s boat?” (The previous owner). “Yeah!” Mitch hollered back. “I just bought her!” he beamed. “Oh, congrats!” Miller Time shouted back. “Have a great trip.” It was clear Mitch was going to get a lot of looks with the cat rig (and that he was totally loving it already).
Once we made it out of the channel Phillip decided it was high time we threw up this big ass sail on the Nonsuch. I stationed myself at the mast, pulling the halyard manually, while Phillip set up on the winch and Mitch held the wheel. While it was difficult to pull by hand at first, it was moving along until we got to the reef points. Unfortunately, the last time the boat had been sailed─on the survey/sea-trial─they had practiced reefing her to make sure all the lines worked properly. Recall Mitch’s eloquent description about the monkey and the football. That meant the sail was still reefed as we were trying to raise her which always makes it tougher. Our first time raising the sail, we got a crash course on the reefing lines, which one was reef one and reef two as well as their particular hang-up and pinch points. Once we got all the reefing lines loosened, though, we still had another three or four feet to go to fully raise the sail. That’s when the real fun began.
I was working the halyard at the mast while Phillip was cranking on the winch back in the cockpit, but I had done all I could do on my end. The rest of the sail just had to be muscled up using the winch and─my God─that thing shrieked and cried with every turn. I watched as the halyard grew tauter and visibly thinner before me. I gave it a light tug a time or two to see if it still had some bend but after five or six cranks on the winch it wouldn’t budge at all. It was as tight as a steel cable and we still had another two or so feet to go at the top of the mast. I hollered to Phillip to keep cranking and the winch continued to wail. I didn’t dare touch the halyard after that, I thought just my light fingers on it and the whole thing might explode. I couldn’t stand the sight or sound of it anymore. I backed away from the mast and just stood near the cockpit, my hands ready to come up and protect my face if there was an all-out halyard explosion. Mitch was watching from the helm, staring at the top of the mast to see when the sail finally made it to the top. “Keep going,” he shouted to Phillip who looked to me topside for confirmation.
“It’s still got some bag in the bottom, but who cares? We’ve got plenty of sail up.” I was not in any way inclined to push the gear any more than necessary. I was literally afraid to go anywhere near the mast with that much tension on the halyard. We had squealed her to her limits. Phillip gave it just one more crank and said, “That’s good.” Mitch looked up through the bimini window and started to say something but I heard Phillip’s voice over whatever he tried to mutter out: “It’s good.”
Thank God, I thought. This may sound silly, but it’s the truth: raising that sail was frightening.
But it was now up and we were finally sailing! Motor sailing but that still counts. We were making 6.2 knots.
We were surprised the boat pointed as well as it did. I guess with the massive surface area of the sail that the wind has to travel around, it’s got more suction into the wind than you would think. I will say, though─just as Mitch had predicted─tacking the boat was astonishingly easy. What do you do? You turn the wheel. That is all. The sail handles the rest. Not that letting the Genny out on one side and cranking her in on the other is super exhausting, but it can be a bit of a chore in heavy winds or when you’re trying to kick back, eat grapes and read a book. On the Nonsuch, though? You just turn the wheel. That’s it. You could tell Mitch was getting a real kick out of that. He tacked far more than he needed to that morning just because he was having such a good time doing it. It was fun to watch him enjoy his new boat. We had a nice day motor sailing. The sea state was nice and smooth. It would have been perfect for sailing had the wind not been right on our nose. For that reason, we kept the iron sail going to make headway but even with the motor running, we were only making 3.8 knots trying to tack into a light headwind.
We were still debating whether to point toward Venice for a sooner stop or just push on through to Clearwater. With the motor running solid and the sail and rigging all fairly tested and proving seaworthy, the crew decided to just keep trucking to Clearwater. Everyone was in good spirits and enjoying the passage so far. We figured we might as well capitalize on our fresh morale and cover a good bit of a ground our first offshore passage. We dropped and secured the sail (a bit of a chore with the cat rig) and throttled her up to 5 knots. That put us on a heading to reach Clearwater the following afternoon so we divied up the night shifts:
Me: 8 p.m. ─ 10 p.m.
Phillip: 10 p.m. ─ 12 a.m
Mitch: 12 a.m. ─ 2 a.m.
Me: 2 a.m. ─ 4 a.m.
Phillip: 4 a.m. ─ 6 a.m.
Mitch: 6 a.m. ─ 8 a.m.
With three of us, it was going to be nice to get at least one solid four-hour stint of sleep. The first and last shifts we called the “gravy shifts” because everyone is usually up with you during those times so you’re not alone at the helm. Phillip wanted to take the short straw this first leg of the trip and get his two-crap-shifts night over with right out of the gate. Looking back on it, it was a smart move─take the worst leg while we were all still fresh and excited on our first passage. But Phillip must have played us well, because Mitch and I happily signed up for one gravy shift and only one solo shift during the night. With that settled and entered into the log book (so there could be no debate later), we decided to put the bimini down and enjoy the sunset from the cockpit. We watched the sun turn into a hot pink ball on the horizon. I love when it does that. Blazes so bright you can hardly look at it but you can’t look away either, as it drops down beneath a denim blue horizon. She put on a stunning show.
Phillip and I cooked up a hot batch of red beans and rice and salad for dinner and dished out some hearty portions for the crew. We watched Mitch curiously, though, as he merely pushed a few beans around, ate a sprig or two of lettuce and then said he was full. We didn’t want to say it (because sometimes just saying it makes it happen) but we suspected Mitch was getting seasick. Recall during our first offshore passage with Mr. Roberts he got monstrously seasick and was put down for twelve hours after taking some allegedly non-drowsy Dramamine. Phillip and I were hoping, for our own sakes so we wouldn’t have to man the helm as much, that wasn’t happening this time. We didn’t want to say it, though. It’s like a jinx. We just asked: “You getting tired, buddy?”
“Yeah, tired.” Mitch said, seemingly thanking us for our courtesy pass and taking it straight to bed. “I’m just going to get some rest for my shift,” he said as he headed down the companionway stairs. Phillip and I were hoping we weren’t going to lose him again to seasickness, but if so I certainly wanted to be fueled up for a more trying, two-person only offshore trip. I grabbed his unfinished bowl of red beans and rice and scarfed it right up.
Phillip sat up with me during my first night shift. You see? Gravy. Phillip and I were breathing and basking in the feeling of being back out on blue waters with an unfettered horizon, crisp night air coming in. God it felt good. But, just as she starts to sense you getting all comfortable and cozy, she likes to remind you whose in charge. Right after the sun dipped we heard an ominous rumble behind us. Phillip and I turned around to look out from the stern and saw big, rolling thunderheads on our horizon.
We watched in silence for a moment more, expecting our suspicions to be confirmed. She rumbled a time or two again, then we saw it: a shocking white crack of lightning that branched out and traveled the sky. There was no denying it now. But there was no point in saying it aloud either. It was clear. We had a massive thunderstorm on our stern, chasing us into the Gulf.
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