Chapter Twelve: The Final Storm

The sunrises at Port St. Joe have been some of the best we’ve seen.  The last time Phillip and I left there the year before, it had been at sunrise, the boat was bobbing along in slick, pink water toward the ditch with pelicans just grazing the surface.

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As we motored away from the Port St. Joe Marina in Mitch’s Nonsuch the day seemed no different (although we were headed offshore this time as opposed to up the ditch), but the sky was still stained a pastel pink behind the marina, and the air felt crisp and cool as we tidied up the dock lines and prepared the Nonsuch for her last offshore passage on her way to Pensacola.

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While the winds were very light in the marina, Mitch did a good job of de-docking the boat and easing us away from all those treacherous pilings and docks.  (Marinas can be a very dangerous place for boats you know!)  Phillip and I could both tell Mitch was getting more and more of a feel for the boat the more we made him single-hand it (with us aboard as make-shift “training wheels,” mind you), but he was still virtually cruising along on his own without too much help from us, which was fun to see.

As we pulled out of St. Joseph Bay and back into the Gulf, it seemed the winds had decided it was not our lucky day to sail.  They were right on the nose, initially not enough, then too much.  We kept the motor going for momentum, but it was sail up, then sail down (to reef it), then sail back upkind of frustrating, particularly with the big Nonsuch sailbut we were still technically sailing across calm waters, so we had little to complain about.

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After seven hours of light winds and unfavorable tacking, though, Phillip finally decided to give it up.  Poor thing, he’d been wanting to sail for days on this trip and it just wasn’t happening.  While we never wanted rough seas and heavy weather, some nice sailing would have been, well … nice.  But, alas.  Such is life.  When we saw we still had 30 hours to go to make it to Pensacola and we had been going 7 already (on what was supposed to be about a 24-26 hour trip total), we decided it was time to drop the sail and just crank on again, relying solely on the Westerbeke to help chug this vessel home in hopes that she would someday do some great sailing in Pensacola Bay.

We were still out there in blue waters, enjoying the vast horizon and the calm surroundings.  Absent the fickle winds, it really was a beautiful day out in the Gulf.

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A little after noon, we heard a distress call come over the radio.  We had been monitoring Channel 16 for any distress calls and this was the first time we’d heard something significant come over.  We always find it incredibly interesting to listen to these types of calls: a) for learning purposes (as we learn more about how to respond to an emergency aboard our vessel) and b) because you often only hear one side of the conversation─that of the Coast Guard’s because their VHF reach is further.  We have heard such conversations before play out as follows:

USCG:  “How many aboard your vessel sir?”

       No response.

USCG:  “Where did the leak begin?”

       No response.

USCG:  “Are you able to bail water faster than the intake?”

*gulp*

Yeah … not really the conversation you want to hear out on the water.  What was the first cackled inquiry we heard from the Coast Guard this time?

USCG:  “Where did the fire begin?”

       No response.

At first we didn’t hear anything. We didn’t see anything on the horizon.  Then we saw a big sport fishing boat cross our bow a few miles ahead and the radio crackled back to life.

Fishing Boat:  “We’re approximately 10 miles from the burning vessel.”

The Coast Guard swapped him over from Channel 16 to 22─where we (of course) swap over as well to listen─before responding:

USCG:  “Sport vessel, if you are able, please respond to the vessel in distress, assist as needed and report back.  We’re an hour and a half out.”

All three of us perked up and began looking around the horizon.  Then, faintly after a few minutes, the tiniest cloud of grey began to appear on the horizon.  It then deepened in color and began to billow toward the sky.  It was right there.  We could see it!  A vessel on fire!

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I’m not sure I can imagine much worse on a boat than a fire aboard.  Thankfully─after ten pretty intense minutes─the fishing boat finally arrived to the scene and reported several people adrift behind the vessel in a life raft and others swimming in the water.  Finally the captain of the burning vessel got on the radio and told the USCG: “I’m the Captain of the vessel.  I’ll bet you want to speak to me.”  Ummm … yes!

Thankfully, the Captain reported that all the crew aboard were safely evacuated, including his eleven year-old son, but the vessel was a total loss.  *sigh*  Can you imagine??  Thankfully they were all safe, but what a sad thing to watch your boat burn on the water.  I don’t even want to think about it.  That said, while Mitch, Phillip and I were not thrilled to be motoring across the Gulf, we were certainly counting our blessings knowing our vessel was intact and chugging along safely toward home port.  Sometimes a little perspective can change everything.  When fire was the very real alternative, motoring wasn’t so bad.

We were also trying to get Mitch’s boat back to the dock in Pensacola by 4:00 p.m. the following day so we could avoid bringing his boat back into a new port and new dock in the dark.  We cruised along into the afternoon, cleaned up in the cockpit around dusk and settled into a nice evening routine.

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But, that’s where we made our mistake.  We let our guard down.  Just as we got settled into the evening, we’d divied up the night shifts and decided we were going to have a nice, easy night motoring along, that’s when Mother Nature decided just the opposite.  Once again (I swear to you, we were haunted by thunderheads on this trip), big ominous clouds began to billow and build to the north of us and it was just after sunset that we saw our first slither of white against the sky.  It was lightning.  Again.

It mostly stayed at bay but we decided to put the bimini back up just in case it rained during the night and get our foul weather gear ready.  [One side note, I do love that the bimini on Mitch’s boat drops like a convertible.  While I know we can’t do the same on ours both as a matter of design and now, because of the solar panels, of which I am a huge fan, I still envy the ease with which Mitch’s boat becomes a cool, topless cruiser at the drop of a hat.]  But this was not going to be the night for us to cruise gently underneath the stars.  There would be no dancing on top of the coaming, belting out some incorrect Lorde lyrics.  None of that.  Not this night.

 

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This would be the night that the storms finally found us.  All of those evenings we watched as beautiful storm clouds brewed in the distance, enchanting us with sparks of lightning left and right.  

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This was going to be the night she decided to squat right on top of us.  Mitch woke me for my first night shift around midnight as he headed to the vberth to get some rest.  We still had hard winds right on the nose so we were still motoring along fine but the clouds to the north continued to build and blot out the horizon.  There was no longer sky and sea to starboard, it was just black.  I eased us off a little more to the west in hopes of avoiding it but it seemed to be bent on chasing us.  When it was time for me to wake Phillip for his shift at 1:30 a.m., it looked like it was about to drop on us at any moment.  I stayed up with Phillip until 2:00 a.m. to see if it would stay at bay or so I would be ready on deck to help him if it did not.  

Phillip and I were both hunkered down by the companionway.  While Mitch’s boat does have a huge bimini, it does not have a dodger so the only place to really hide from the spitting rain was curled up under the height of the companionway.  The auto-pilot was holding at the time and Phillip and I were keeping a constant look at the horizon.  Phillip would step back behind the helm every ten-or-so minutes to check the instruments and readings and then would come back and hunker down again with me.  I watched his face every time, as his eyes darting from instrument to instrument─comforted by the lack of change in his expression, which told me everything was running smoothly.  But just as I shifted my gaze back to the horizon, I heard him say it.

“The GPS is out.”

I blinked back at him through the rain.  “The what?” I asked, although I knew exactly what he had said.  I had heard the words.  I knew what they were, but I just couldn’t quite get my mind to comprehend to put them together and tell me exactly what that meant.  The GPS is out … 

“It’s out,” Phillip said again.  “It can’t seem to find our location.”

My gears finally started to turn and knock some rust to the floor.  “Is the compass still lit?” I asked, recalling during our passage in the Niagara across the Gulf that the compass light had flickered a time or two and I thought to myself at the time: What if both the GPS and the compass light went out?  I’m sure worse has happened to many out there, and I guess you could get a head lamp or flash light to keep the compass lit, but you don’t really ponder these things until your instruments start dropping one by one.

“Yeah, we’ve got a heading and the auto-pilot is holding,” Phillip said, “but the storm must be so heavy on us, we can’t get a satellite signal.  The GPS can’t pick us up.”

I just frowned at him. What else was I going to do?  The best person to be sitting in front of that gismo trying to make it work was Phillip.  I didn’t have any brilliant ideas other than restart it─like a goobered up computer.  Just re-boot it.  But, Phillip knew that was my go-to.  There wasn’t anything I could tell him he hadn’t already thought of or tried.  

“Well,” I said.  “I’ll keep a good lookout,” I told him, knowing the worst part of a lost GPS was the fact that we couldn’t see upcoming obstacles on the screen─bouys, markers, towers, and the dangerous like.  It was hard, though, to see anything on the horizon with the clouds and rain on us.  I could barely differentiate the water from the sky, but I kept squinting out, keeping my eyes level with where I thought the horizon was in case anything could stand out.  Phillip’s shift played out like this for another thirty minutes until he sent me down to get some rest around 2:30 a.m. 

I heard him rustle Mitch a little before 3:00 a.m.  I looked at the clock to note the time and figured everything was fine as it was just time for Mitch’s shift.  Then I heard Mitch and Phillip speaking loudly in the cockpit, likely to be heard over the rain and likely because Mitch is just a loud guy and was clearly worked up.  When I heard my name, I stuck my head out of the companionway to see what was going on.

“Good, get up here,” Mitch said as he grabbed one of my elbows and started to pull me into the cockpit.  I looked around and then back at Phillip to get some reassurance.  The storm was still rolling and churning on our starboard side.  Closer now, but no more intense than when Phillip and I had been watching it some thirty minutes earlier.

“No,” Phillip said.  I didn’t know what they had been arguing about so I just stood still for a moment to see what Phillip wanted me to do.  Then it dawned on me.  This was Mitch’s first time, on his boat, in a storm.  The clouds had been ominous when he had gone down below around midnight but they hadn’t been this threatening.  Phillip and I had watched them build and Phillip and I had sailed through worse so, for Mitch─and particularly for the first time facing something like this on his boat─this was a bit frightening.

“If the storm’s going to hit, we should all stay up and weather it together,” Mitch said.  I remained silent.  While I didn’t mind staying up another shift if it was needed, I wasn’t sure it was and Phillip’s was the cue I was going to follow.  In situations like this, it always is.

“Why are you going to do that, huh?” Phillip said to Mitch a little sharply.  “You’re going to keep us all up and exhaust us all so that no one is fresh and ready to take over the wheel when your shift is over?”

Mitch sat kind of still for a moment, just blinking and looking at Phillip.  I knew he was a little frightened.  This was going to be a pretty big notch in his sailing belt, handling his own boat offshore in a storm.  I completely understood why he wanted help.  But, Phillip was right.  If we all stayed up, we would all be exhausted.  If the boys could handle it, they should, so that I could sleep and take over fresh the next shift.  I just looked at Mitch, pulled my elbow gently away and told them I was just a shout away if they needed anything.

“We’ll let you know,” Phillip said.  “Put the electronics in the oven and shut the companionway up on your way down in case it starts to rain.”

As I did, I watched Mitch watching me.  His eyes were kind of pleading like a dog who doesn’t want to be left outside.  A part of me felt bad for him but a bigger part did not.  This was just part of it.  It looked to be a pretty tolerable storm, but there’s nothing you can do but be as prepared as you can and then just be as smart as you can, which includes ensuring your crew is as rested and well-managed as possible.  Phillip was taking one for the team by staying up with Mitch during his shift, and that meant he would really need me to be fresh when my time rolled around.  Besides, I knew if the storm hit at the end of Mitch’s stint, my 4:00 a.m. shift was going to be hell on black water so rest was the best thing I could do for myself.  I closed the top to the companionway and tucked back down on the settee as I heard thunder rumble in the distance.  I hadn’t heard Phillip mention anything to Mitch about the GPS being out and I was pretty sure he just wouldn’t tell him.  Mitch didn’t need anything else to worry about right now.

“Annie!”

I heard his voice straining through a little crack in the companionway.  It was Mitch, which didn’t mean I was not worried, but had it been Phillip’s I probably would have sprung out of bed and busted through those little companionway saloon doors in two steps.

“Yeah,” I said as I sat up on the settee.

“It’s your shift,” Mitch said.

I hate to admit but I’m sure my shoulders kind of fell and I know a little huff found its way out of me.  I was just tired.  I’d gone to bed around 10:00 p.m., woke around midnight to hold my shift, gone back to bed close to 3:00 a.m. and now it was just 4:00 a.m. and I was about to be back on deck till likely sunrise.  Now I know, when it comes to hearty tales of boats at sea─leaking all the way across the Atlantic with a crew that has to stay up around the clock for three days pumping water and holding the helm just to get the boat home─that my little “I’m tired” spiel this particular night means nothing, but at the moment it meant a lot to me.  It’s just honestly how I felt.  Like I wished I could have rolled back over and just kept sleeping.  But when I blinked myself awake and really took in my sights and sounds my adrenaline started to wake me up.  I could now see Mitch’s head was dripping into the companionway.  His hair was wet and I could now hear rain outside on the deck.  I hear a gust of wind rip through the cockpit and I heard Mitch’s feet scramble as he balanced himself over a wave.  I then thought about Phillip who had been up there since 1:30 a.m. and I cursed myself for entertaining my little pouty tired spell even for one minute.

I peeked up through the crack Mitch had made in the companionway opening to see Phillip still at the helm, which I’m sure he had held the entire time.  The man does not like the give up the wheel in a storm.  He was eyeing the storm still to the north of us and guiding the boat through 3-4 foot rollers.  I pulled myself into my sweaty foul weather gear and made my way topside.  Mitch seemed to be keen on the “crew needs rest” idea─now that it was his turn to go below─and he passed me with a quick, “Holler if you need me,” on his way down the companionway, which was fine.  It was his turn to sleep, but I was worried about Phillip, who was now going on his third shift in a row.

“I’m fine,” he said, anticipating my first inquiry as I settled into the cockpit, followed by, “it’s not too bad,” anticipating my second.  “It’s just spitting rain at us and pushing the boat around a little but, really, it’s not too bad.  I think it will pass in a couple of hours.”

I nodded at him.  “Oh, and the good news,” he said.  “The GPS is back up.”

Ahhh …  I had almost forgot, which sounds terrible but Phillip had just been manning everything so well it was kind of easy to forget.  Feeling guilty, I tried to get him to go below to get some rest but the man is stubborn, particularly in a storm.  He agreed to let me keep primary watch, although the auto-pilot was doing pretty well, while he sat and rested his eyes a bit with me in the cockpit.  We both kind of hunkered down across from one other, tucking up close to the companionway where it seemed to be the most protected and driest.  We were lucky it was the end of June and warm out there.  Had it been cold wind and rain spraying us, we would have been miserable.  It wasn’t fun, but it was intolerable and I guess Phillip and I could say this was just the type of experience we were hoping to get volunteering for another offshore passage.  We were definitely out there, battling the elements and facing Mother Nature head on.  That was part of what we wanted to get out of this trip, so in a sense we were getting just what we’d asked for.

For the most part it remained like that, just stinging rain and an uncomfortable sea state.  There was about a twenty-minute spell of hard, driving rain that made Phillip and I both a little uneasy.  We could barely hear each other shouting through it, confirming no obstacles were visible on either side (although confirmation was a bit shaky with visibility being so poor).  And the GPS went out again during this downpour, but it passed pretty soon, the GPS came back again and the storm seemed to ease up a bit afterward.

We woke Mitch up at 5:30 a.m. to hold his shift.  While it was still spattering and pushing us around, it wasn’t too bad at that point and Phillip and I both decided Mitch needed to get a feel for the boat in such conditions.  I stayed up in the cockpit with him, while Phillip crashed hard on the settee below.  Mitch was a little jittery at first but after twenty-or-so minutes behind the helm (just monitoring the auto-pilot mind you but still “second in charge”) and the storm easing off, his nerves seemed to calm and he was handling the boat well.  The true champions that night, though, were the engine and the auto-pilot.  That night would have been far more intimidating and exhausting without them.

I was in and out of sleep in the cockpit until the sun rose.  The storm had dissipated by then and we were all grateful to finally once again be able to differentiate between the sky and the water.  Ahhhh … the horizon!  

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And, it was nice to see something recognizable in our sights.  There’s Destin!

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Phillip woke around 7:15 a.m. and decided we should cut the engine to check the fluids.  Good idea boss!  We were all surprised to see they were in fine shape.  Somehow we hadn’t burned near as much oil the evening before as our last two passages.  We chalked it up to knocking the rust off, brushing off the cobwebs and getting the Nonsuch dialed in a bit tighter.  This is what she was meant to do─travel!  And, she seemed to be liking the adventure.  As the crew neared the Pensacola Pass, spirits were soaring!  We had done it!  Brought another Hinterhoeller safely home across the Gulf of Mexico.

Some egos were getting bigger than others:

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But these two were pretty proud as well.

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We were thrilled to see Mitch’s Nonsuch make its way to the dock and be tied up for the first time in Pensacola.  He had done it.  Really done it.  Mitch, While-You’re-Down-There, Roberts had bought a boat.  And here she sat─having chugged her way across the Gulf to her new home─ready for new adventures in our local anchorages.

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While watching Mitch learn the ropes (literally) and learn to handle his new boat on passage, Phillip and I knew the real show was about to start, i.e., watching our friend become a new-boat owner.  Open your wallet and let the fun begin!  I’m pretty sure half the reason we agreed to make this trip with Mitch is so we could have full teasing rights anytime he started griping about boat projects, because there were plenty in store.  When you have a friend that gets bit by the boat bug, often your first instinct is to try to steer them away: “It’s too much work, buddy.  It’s going to cost you a lot of time and money, and did we mention the work?”  But, if they keep fighting you and pushing for it, a seeming glutton for punishment, a small part of you starts to develop a little sense of pride and kinship with them because you know they’re just like you.  No matter how costly or time-consuming the project, having a boat that can take you to blue horizons will always be worth it.

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“Believe me my young friend there is nothingabsolutely nothinghalf so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.  In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter.  Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it.  Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it, there’s always something else to do.”

─ Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows

 

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