Chapter Ten: Everywhere We Look … Lightning

So … accidental jibes?  Apparently not much fun on a Nonsuch (and probably not much fun on any such).  After assessing the minor loss of the outboard tiller extender and choke, we were able to get that big ass sail settled over to starboard and get on a nice downwind run.  That also meant we could finally kill the engine, which was a relief.  She’d been running another twelve-or-so hours since we’d turned her off the evening before to check the transmission fluid and Phillip and I were eager to let her cool so we could check the level again to make sure she wasn’t bleeding out.  

While Mitch’s Westerbeke isn’t super loud, it was nice to have that industrial rumble gone.  It was still dark out, still cloudy, but just more serene with only the sound of the wind in the sail and water gently lapping along our hull.  It was almost 6:00 a.m. by then and the sky to the east was starting to bloom into a bright pink.  We knew the sun was about to rise.  Sleepy or not, there is no reason to ever miss that.  It marks the start of a new day, a new canvas for adventure and─in our case─another safe night passage behind us.  We were getting that boat closer and closer to Pensacola.  

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Neither of us said much as we watched this blowing pink ball start to peek over the horizon.  It seems slow when you’re staring right at it but if you look away just for a minute, to another point on the horizon, or some spot on the boat, or your own body, whatever, when you look back, you notice it has changed.  The vast expanse that was once a brilliant yellow-pink is now fading to purple and then blue.  It’s happening right before you and always quicker than you want it to but you can never stop it.  Time.  She just keeps passing right before you.  

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My Lorde-inspired “not done sailing” shift that night and the Mitch-silencing sunrise the next morning were probably some of the most memorable moments for me on this trip.  They’re just sights and feelings I have no way of replicating so I just have to remember them.  I think we all felt we had kind of made it over a hurdle that night, probably because we had.  This offshore passage was definitely the longest of the trip and the furthest offshore, not to mention the same passage that had cost Phillip and I a dinghy, an outboard and some busted davits the last time.  Let’s just say it was good to get those particular nautical miles behind us and wake to a new day with all equipment working and all signs pointing to the Florida panhandle.  Getting the boat across the big bend of Florida was certainly an accomplishment and now─just five or so hours out of the East Pass─we were getting close to achieving it.  

But (how many times have I said this?) just when you start to sigh and let your guard down, Mother Nature likes to scooch across the floor in socks and zap you.  Then she laughs about it.  Just as we started to settle in for coffee and a nice morning sail, the winds started to kick up, some gnarly clouds started to bubble up to the east, then we saw it.  A white crack of lightning across the sky.  

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“We need to crank soon,” Phillip said.  With the way the weather was building we knew we were going to have to drop the sail soon.  Yes, the big huge one that we had not thirty minutes ago raised.  Sailing is such fun.  The engine was still a little warm but I was able to get the transmission fluid dip stick off in order to get a peek.  She had a nice pink coat on the bottom of the stick, so we were fine there.  The oil was a little low but not dangerously so.  Phillip decided to forego topping it off this time so we could get the sail down in case the storm jumped on top of us.  

We were ready to crank.  Phillip tried once, twice, three times a lady, but no dice, which was baffling because she had been running solid for hours, days even, on end.  Phillip was stumped, irritated, frowning at the ignition.  He didn’t want to try again and have it not crank for fear of pulling in too much raw water and overflowing the intake.  

“I don’t think I can kill it again,” he said.  Crank? I thought.  You mean you don’t think you can crank it again?  But, it must have been a fortuitous Freudian slip because just as the words tumbled out of his mouth, Phillip’s face lit up in a bit of an “Aha!” realization and he lifted the lazarette lid to check the kill switch.  We had done this before many times on our boat─accidentally left the kill switch in the up position, so it prevents the engine from turning over.  It’s not a hard thing to do.  Like leaving a light on when you leave a room.  And, Mitch’s boat was still somewhat new to us and the accidental jibe had left us all a little flustered.  That definitely did the trick.  Once the kill switch was down, the engine roared to life and I jumped topside to get the sail down.  Yes, the big one.  (If it wasn’t already apparent, I, personally, am not a huge fan of the huge sail on the Nonsuch.) 

The winds were blowing a good 15-18 by then and it was definitely pushing us around as we turned into the wind to drop the sail, which pointed us right toward the storm.  I could see the boys back at the cockpit trying to sheet the sail to center.  It was clear they were having trouble.  Right when I saw it, I knew.  It was my fault.  I had put it there.

“The chafe guard!” I hollered back as I made my way to the cockpit.  The sail on the Nonsuch is so big the main sheets actually run behind the bimini.  When we had first got the sail settled far out to starboard on our downwind run, I noticed the main sheet lines were rubbing hard on the corner of the bimini frame.  Worried about chafe (which I’ll grant myself is a legitimate concern), I had wrapped a towel around the lines at the chafe point and duct-taped it (a very unique method, patent pending).  But, lesson learned: do not put the chafe guard on the line, which needs to move, put it on the immovable fixture, which does not.  I should have put something on the bimini corner if I was worried about it because where was my chafe guard now?  After our accidental jibe, the heavy winds, the flapping around of the sail during our turn-around?  It had slid down the line and was now jammed in the pulley at the base of the cockpit.  I tried scooching it up the line enough to allow us to sheet in and get the sail centered but she wasn’t moving fast enough.  As I mentioned, we’d had the sail waaay out to starboard so there was a lot of line to pull in.  

“Get me a knife!” I shouted to Mitch and he grabbed the utility knife we kept near the companionway, for this very purpose I suppose.  I started sawing away on the duct tape and─for a brief moment─felt a bit like I had been transported back in time.  Back to that fateful night when the three of us were hacking the drowning dinghy off the back of mine and Phillip’s boat.  Phillip had been at the helm then, too, and Mitch had handed me a knife and watched as I sawed through lines.  I was struck by a strange reminiscent feeling.  Maybe I need a new sailing nickname: The Hacker or something like that.  

But, I finally made it through the layers of terry cloth and freed the line.  Like I said, it had been my fault for putting the guard on the line, so I deserved to deal with the aftermath.  Many lessons to be learned in sailing.  With the sail centered and another hack job completed, we were finally able to drop the sail.  Putting the sail cover on, though, was a bit challenging in the heavy winds.  She’s just massive!  Running from the mast back to the cockpit, I guess that must make her thirty feet at least, with a grommet and toggle about every two feet.  I was sure after Mitch got the strong track put in on the mast to make raising the sail easier, the very next thing he was likely going to want would be a stack pack to make lowering and covering the sail easier.  If you give a mouse a cookie …

When it was all done, the three of us fell into a heap in the cockpit and kept an eye on the storm.  I swear every time we seemed to get offshore in that boat, there was a lightning storm on our horizon.  I’m serious, they were everywhere!  Maybe it was the time of year (late June) or just that part of the state, but I can confidently say there wasn’t a day that went by that we did not see lightning.  Thankfully, though, it seemed this one was content to just eff up our sunrise sail and then back off.  It left us little wind, however, that was─of course─right on the nose, which meant we had to continue motoring.  

It was more favorable once we turned toward the pass so we raised the sails around 1:00 p.m. in order to kill the engine (remembering this time to push the kill switch back down) and check the fluids again.  Yes, those pesky things.  Trust me, if you see anything dripping out, you need to keep a close eye on them.  Recall the oil had been a bit low when we cranked right before the storm.  Well now, five-or-so hours later, it was really low.  And, so began the adventure of adding oil to the Nonsuch.  We had yet to do this and─this may sound crazy─but when Phillip and I first looked at the engine, we were a little unsure of how exactly you would go about it.  The oil cap is literally back about a foot and a half from the front of the engine with maybe ten inches between it and the ceiling of the engine room.  It would be difficult to get a funnel in there, much less a bottle of oil above the funnel to pour in.  We all kind of scratched our heads a bit then I offered up the one thought that always seems to pop in my head when we talk about catching, pouring or saving fluids.  

“Maybe use a water bottle?”  

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The boys seemed to be on board with this, so I began cutting the bottom end off of a water bottle.  Mitch insisted he could do it and Phillip and I decided he would need to get used to doing it at some point, so we handed him the water bottle oil bin with about a cup of oil in it.  I can’t tell you how many times we asked him: “You got it, Mitch?”  “You sure?”  “Can you see the opening?”  “You sure you got it?”  

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“Gees guys, would you shut up already.  I got this,” Mitch finally said.  And, turned out, he did.  I was a little surprised, but he displayed some real finesse wiggling into that position and gingerly dumping bottle after bottle of oil in.  We kept checking the fluid level and determined she looked decent after we had put about a half quart in.  Certainly a good bit.  The transmission was still slowly dripping around the shifter arm and we put a dash more transmission fluid in there too─for safe measure─then deemed her fit to travel.  The wind was still steady enough at the time, though, to allow us to keep sailing and, with all of us sweaty, sticky and dirty from the fluid ordeal, Phillip decided it was time for a dip.  

I have to say, I have never (knock on teak) fallen off of a sailboat when it was under sail, but nor had I been allowed to float behind one while it was under sail.  What a rush!  With the wind pushing us along at about 4 knots, Phillip tied a throw line behind the boat and we took turns letting the boat drag us along by that or the ladder.  

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It felt just like a roller coaster ride.  I cinched my wrist in right and tight in the line and let it tug me along, sometimes slowing so my body would ease toward the boat as a wave rolled under, then pulling me hard and fast with a swift tug as the boat coasted down the front of the wave.  I was all giggles and “Wheees!” the whole time.  It felt so good to let the fresh cool water wash over you.  I had never done that before and I was so glad Phillip had the idea.  

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But again, it was short lived.  I tell you, Mother Nature had some real fun with us on this trip.  As soon as we got dried off, we saw some big thunderheads rolling up on the horizon.  We were close enough to shore for cell service now and the radar showed a big green pile of crap coming toward us.  It was time to crank and get that big ass sail down again.  Yes, again.  

“What the heck was that?” Mitch asked right after Phillip cranked.  He was leaning over the back stern rail.  I’m going to presume he was checking to make sure raw water was coming out as we had taught him (points for you Mitch), but he also pointed out, behind the boat, at a huge blob of black floating behind us.  It was maybe two feet in diameter, with a rainbow-like sheen to it.  Obviously oil.  And, since we had just cranked, it had obviously come from us.  Now we knew where all that oil we had replaced went.  I can’t say I know exactly what happened or why such a big blob blew out but we didn’t take it as a good sign.  We made a mental note to pick up some more oil (along with transmission fluid) once we docked in Apalachicola.  But, at the time, we needed to keep motoring in order to get the sail down for yet another impending storm.  

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I could feel it in the air by then.  Fifteen minutes prior I had been hot, sweaty and thrilled to death to dip and be dragged in the cool water behind the boat.  Now, in my bikini, goose bumps began to form on my arms and my wet hair began to turn chill on my head.  The temperature drop was palpable.  I’m sure if the barometer on the boat was working, it would have shown a drop as well.  We all donned our foul weather gear and prepared to drop the sail.  Mitch insisted we all put on our life jackets as well.  Oh alriiight.  I’m not terrible about wearing mine, I’m just not super eager.  But, he was the Captain this go-round, so Phillip and I did as we were told.  It was probably for the best, too, because that particular sail-drop was the worst we’d endured.  Coming into the East Pass, the water was churned up and the Nonsuch was bucking and kicking over 2-3 foot waves, which made the sail flop and misbehave.  The wind had picked up too and was batting her and us around.  

“Hang on!” Phillip shouted from the cockpit, “but tie her good!”  Okay.  “I’ve got winds over 30!” he said.  Oh shit.  It seemed to have come up so suddenly, but that seemed to happen often with the storms we saw on this trip.  Mitch and I clung to the flinging sail, hugging her every 2-3 feet and working a sail tie around.  The salt from the sail ties filled my mouth as I clenched them in my teeth and gripped the sail.  After Mitch and I got them all tied, we decided to forego the thirty-foot, 15-grommet sail cover for the moment.  You can imagine why.  

And, two small gripes here about the Nonsuch as well, because I think it’s good to share.  There is a row of pointy nubs around the perimeter of where a dodger would go if there was one.  There is not, so that just leaves little spike-like stickey-ups (yes, that’s what I’m going to call them) along the top of the companionway placed just perfectly to step on if you’re trying to wrestle and tie the sail down, particularly over the bimini.  For barefeet, they’re worse than Legos.  And, while we’re on that─Gripe No. 2─the sail is really hard to reach in the center of the huge-ass bimini.  I’m a pretty sporty gal and even doing an acrobatic tiptoe on things I shouldn’t be standing on, I still couldn’t reach it.  Mitch, with some difficulty can, but he’s 6’4”.  Not all sailors are!  The big sail is just a bit awkward to man-handle.  That’s all I’ll say.  

With the sail finally contained, though, the crew thoroughly pooped, we hunkered into the cockpit and watched a wicked lightning storm brew to the east of us.  Lightning seemed to bubble up and percolate, until the cloud would finally boil over and a shocking white streak would jet out.  We watched in silence, and probably within just a two-minute time span, as three big bolts broke free and stabbed the ground.  Phillip told Mitch and I to go below and put all of the handheld electronics in the oven (another helpful trick he’d learned from his vast cruising/sailing resources).  If you do and the boat gets hit by lightning, it at least won’t zap your phone, laptop, GPS, etc.  He’s a smart man that Phillip.  It was strange to think not one hour prior we had been swimming and frolicking on a joyous sailboat amusement ride and now we were geared up in foul weather and life jackets putting the electronics in the oven.  It was shocking how quickly things sometimes changed.  But, we felt prepared.  The sail was down and lashed.  The engine was running strong and we were all tethered in.  The three of us sat in the cockpit and watched as the sky to the northeast grew a dark grey and wicked cracks of lightning continued to spear the shore.

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2 Responses to Chapter Ten: Everywhere We Look … Lightning

  1. Pingback: Chapter Eleven: Some Much-Needed Shore Leave! | Have Wind Will Travel

  2. Pingback: Chapter Twelve: The Final Storm | Have Wind Will Travel

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