Lightning is beautiful. It really is. When it’s far away and you can just watch it and wonder about the illusive static forces that are causing such shocking white streaks in the sky.
Just wondering how it occurs is fun. Wondering whether it’s going to come right up over your boat, however, is not. When I turned in for my first sleep shift around 10:00 p.m. our first night on passage from Ft. Myers to Clearwater on s/v Tanglefoot, the lightning storm was just that: beautiful and far away. Mid-way through my 2:00 a.m. shift at the helm, it started clocking around our port side and getting closer.
Mitch cracked me up when he finished his 12-2 shift and woke me at 2:00 a.m. I guess having sailed with Phillip for so long there are just some routines, some mutual unspoken courtesies that we fell into that Mitch apparently wasn’t privy to. But I guess that’s our fault. This was his first offshore passage with solo night shifts and we didn’t tell him. When Phillip or I are approaching a shift change, we generally go rouse the man coming on about ten minutes before our shift is over to give him time to wake up, get some water, brush his teeth. Whatever it is he feels he needs to do feel fresh and alert for his shift. Then we usually sit together for a bit, discuss the conditions, give a report of any notable events, sightings or observations and fill out the cruising log together (the time for which usually corresponds with the shift change). In general, we just have a routine of helping ease one another from dead sleep to alert watchman. It’s not anything Phillip and I talked about or planned out, it was just a pattern we flowed into.
But Mitch? He shook me awake on the starboard settee at 2:00 a.m. sharp, said “Annie, it’s your shift,” and started stripping gear off and heading back to the vberth. “Auto’s on. All’s clear right now. Holler if you need me,” he said on his way back. I blinked a couple of times trying to rouse myself quickly.
“Phillip’s on next, though,” Mitch was sure to remind me.
Thanks buddy, because I might have forgotten that part. But man I wish Mitch had the shift after me. I would have loved to have woken him in the same fashion: “Hey, buddy! Snap to. The helm’s unmanned. Get up there.” Now, to be fair, Mitch had not been indoctrinated in our slow-and-smooth method (patent pending) for shift changes and, technically, he had every right. It was my shift. My turn to hold watch. I needed to get up there. But … I was going to educate him next time. I like my ten minutes. I need it to clear my sleep fog. But, it was a minor transgression. Mitch had held his first solo shift─without complaint─and had done a good job of it.
It didn’t take me long, though, to ease into the atmosphere in the cockpit. It was so crisp in the Gulf, the moon lighting every little chop on the water, like the water was prickling with energy. The stars were so clear against the black sky. When you’re out on the water they don’t have to compete with any man-made light. It’s like everything is clicked into high definition. A view that was once hazy is wiped crystal clean and you can see, now, that all of the stars you could see on land actually have fifteen equally bright stars between them and five more little sparkling ones between each of those. It seems impossible to find a patch of pure black. I wish we could have dropped the bimini during the night but we still had the lightning storm on our stern, although it was far off in the distance─just a mesmerizing natural wonder to watch and wonder about. I hated that we were still motoring but the wind was still so light─blowing maybe five knots─right on our nose. The motor on the Nonsuch was chugging right along, though, impressing us all. And Mitch was blessed with a linear-drive AutoHelm 6000 on the Nonsuch. That thing held in twice the weather as the little wheel-pilot AutoHelm 3000 Phillip and I have on our Niagara. We had already been talking about upgrading our auto pilot for the past year but this trip on Mitch’s boat served as a stark awakening that we needed to stop talking and do it already. The autopilot on the Nonsuch was our champion on the trip. With the autopilot and the Westerbeke purring right along, the first hour of my shift was pretty easy.
Around 3:00 a.m., though, the beautiful, bewildering lightning storm that had stayed on our stern all night now started to drift over to my port side. Every once in a while I would see a crack of lightning out of my peripheral on the left, then every once in a while became every few minutes. With only the iron sail pushing us along, we had pretty much free reign over what direction we wanted to go. I picked the one that would take us away from the lightning storm. I clocked us over about thirty degrees east to try and head away from it. I hated to take us off course but if there was a lightning storm on our previous heading, an earlier arrival time was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make to avoid a storm. When I roused Phillip around 3:45 a.m.─yes, with the obligatory ten-minute wake-up routine─I let him know the status and he remained on my east heading as I fell back into the dead zone.
It seemed the Gulf just wanted to toy with us this time, though, because the lightning storm never fell on us. The crew woke to still waters and a stunning sunset off the starboard side.
Mitch seemed to be faring pretty well. Whatever queasiness had come over him the night before seemed to have subsided. We all had fun talking about the evening and the unique experiences we had during our solo night shifts. Mitch told us with the lightning storm threatening us from the stern and only the chugging engine capable of pushing us to safety, he admitted he was a little worried, a little scared. Which is justifiable. If the engine quit for whatever, a hundred totally possible reasons, we wouldn’t have been able to sail away from that storm with the light wind on our nose. The engine was our only ticket to safety and Mitch told us he just sat in the cockpit checking the engine temp and patting the the coaming saying: “Tanglefoot. You got this.”
It was cute. And totally understandable. But, Tanglefoot proved herself steady and true, chugging us right through the night, away from the storm and into a beautiful streaking sunrise. It had been a slightly frightening but also awe-inspiring first night on passage. The only bummer was the motoring but that engine, I’ll tell you, was solid as a rock. Never a hiccup, never an issue (that wasn’t a result of operator error). Thankfully, the breeze freshened up around 9:00 a.m. We hoisted that huge ass Nonsuch sail (again with the same halyard explosion threat but we did finally get her cranked up) and finally were able to sail without the engine.
There’s just something about moving through a vast body of blue water by the sheer power of the wind. It sparks a soothing at-oneness with the world around you. We all kicked back in solace and just appreciated what the boat was doing. I will say the ability to easily drop the bimini on the Nonsuch was nice. It makes you feel so open and connected with the salt air and sky.
Sadly, it didn’t last long. If I said the breeze was fresh around 9:00 a.m., it had grown a little stale and flat before noon. And, without the wind, it was scorching under the hot, overhead sun. We knew we were going to have to re-crank but Phillip wanted to check the fluids before we turned the engine over again. All told, she had been running a little over twenty-four hours straight through the night before we shut her down. Having experienced a rather unfortunate engine failure on our own boat due to lack of fluids after a solid thirty-hour run, Phillip and I were a little sensitive about the fluid situation. Again we made Mitch do most of the heavy lifting in checking all the fluids to be sure he knew how to access each one and identify issues. And, do recall all three─transmission, oil and coolant─are located in three separate areas on the boat. I’m not saying I could check them all in under five minutes but I will say it wouldn’t take me a damn hour! Oh, alright forty-five minutes but still.
Mitch did check them all himself, though, and assured us we were ready to re-crank and carry on. But, first things first. I did mention it was hot! We decided it was time for a quick dip. We dropped the sails and let the boat bob for a minute so we could go for a swim.
My God the water felt good. It was just the refresher we needed. And there must have been some strong current outside of Clearwater because we were still doing 1.8 knots with no sails and no engine. Mitch was struggling a bit to keep up with the boat so we threw him a line and all got a big laugh out of his “Tanglefoot!” re-enactment.
I was using the swim break to rinse our breakfast dishes and that current must have been stronger than I thought because when I looked back to make sure Mitch was still lassoed behind the boat, it seemed the water had sucked his britches clean off. We had a man overboard minus his drawers!
Oh, alright. He didn’t actually lose his britches. It sure looked like it, though, seeing him splash around in drawers the distinct color of bare bottom. And I wouldn’t have put it past him. After a quick, refreshing bathing-suit-clad dip, we piled back in the boat, cranked her up and set our sights on Clearwater. We were just a few hours out and this crew was ready for some shore leave!
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