“It’s some of your best writing, that’s for sure. Magnificently written,” then Phillip paused. “But … there’s no way you can send this to SAIL, Annie. It’s too … too dark.”
That was Phillip’s response to my first version. I was trying to work up a carnage-and-community theme juxtaposing the savagery of the storm with the solidarity among our fellow sailors who all pulled together to help each other in the aftermath. But, apparently I—according to Phillip—had created an entire piece of carnage cinched up at the puckered end with a mere paragraph of community. So, I did a complete re-write. And, I cannot wait for you all to read it when it is scheduled to come out in SAIL Magazine in January, 2021! I’m so proud and humbled to share our tale of survival and the incredible story of two of our very close friends that forms the beating heart of my piece. And, while many parts of this tale are sad, know that they are connected by a thumping vein of love and kindness that can only truly reveal itself in a situation like a devastating storm. My goal is not in any way to make our wonderful friends re-live or mourn again, but, rather, to share with you all the unique hearts that beat in sailors which makes our particular community so strong.
September 16, 2020
I’m listening to the slush and squish of my boots, dreading what’s coming. Although Plaintiff’s Rest is floating, miraculously, in her slip while most of the other boats in Palafox Marina have been heaped in massive piles of fiberglass and twisted stainless steel, there is still a gaggle of boats that lunge at her with every wave and gust. There is no way to even tell what’s holding those other boats in place exactly. A barely hanging-on sliver of dock that might go any second? A line tied to a cleat that’s about to snap in half? A power plug that’s about to pop?
We simply do not know. Phillip and I can only hope everything holds on just long enough as the winds continue to howl in the upper 20s and 30s throughout the entire day. But, more potential damage to Plaintiff’s Rest is not what I’m dreading in this moment, staring at my wet, walking feet. Phillip and I are walking to our friends, Stephen and Beth’s, house to give them news they likely already know is coming, but this will be the first time it will come from a source they know they can absolutely trust: me and Phillip.
And, what we have to tell them is that everything they dreaded all night long, everything they’ve feared every time a storm came into the Gulf, everything they’ve worried about since they bought their rare, unique, suited-them-perfectly Manta 42 catamaran has happened. One of the worst things that can happen to people who love their boat has happened.
Phillip and I have to tell Stephen and Beth that it is true. Cattywampus has sunk. He and I have now been the first people who know Cattywampus to have seen her with our own eyes, half-submerged at the other end of the marina. She was torn from her slip, just one over from where Plaintiff’s Rest is currently riding, slung to the north and somehow impaled and sunk.
Even worse, it looked like she was one of the first to go down in the marina, which I know is going to feel to Stephen and Beth so incredibly and unacceptably unfair. I feel it for them as I’m walking. I know it would be equally hard for me to process if I saw Plaintiff’s Rest wrecked, submerged, done for, not 50 feet from other boats that are simply marred, or even seemingly untouched. The injustice of it angers me.
But, as I write this, remembering that moment and their feelings, which were also my feelings, they are overpowered by the tightness I feel in my throat right now at Stephen and Beth’s strength. Their love, for each other, for friends, for boats. Their humor and ability to laugh through tears. And, more importantly, their awareness and thoughtfulness.
After we told them the news and Stephen and Beth, a few hours later, found the courage to bring themselves to the graveside to bear it, Phillip I were at our boat doing what we could to best protect her. Moving wayward fenders that had floated away from their vessels or from foregone vessels and tying them around Plaintiff’s Rest in a pitiful deflated crown. It felt funereal. I saw several boats I knew personally, boats I had been aboard to tell tales and share drinks, boats I had helped to fend off when they were coming to the dock, now sat wrecked likely beyond repair. There was just so much loss in one place.
I saw Stephen and Beth, first, up on the concrete walk that leads down to the dock. At that time the only way to get down to our boat was to crawl, quite precariously, down a huge swatch of dock that had smashed up and into the concrete. I told Phillip that Stephen and Beth were there but we both decided to give them some space. Even as close friends there’s a time when you just need a moment alone with ‘your person.’ I watched as they crawled their way down and walked to the end of the last floating finger pier on the east side of the marina, that Cattywampus had previously been tied to, so they could actually see their Manta with their own eyes. Phillip and I were at our bow trying to move our boat deeper into the slip in hopes of avoiding more contact with her rudder and the boat that sunk underneath her—which had likely fended off so many wrecking balls aimed at her stern—when the water receded. Stephen and Beth finally turned to face us. With a mighty effort to chuckle, Stephen said “She looks a little Cattywampus doesn’t she?” before his head crashed into my shoulder in a big bear hug. COVID could stick it at that point. With rain and winds of 30 mph it likely couldn’t survive anyway, and that man needed an Annie hug. I felt a gush of tears spring from my eyes when I let him go only to hug Beth just as hard and felt her sobbing in my arms.
Then Stephen and Beth did something that will forever burn them into my mind as people I will always admire. Friends who will always lift me up and inspire. There was no cries of injustice in that moment. No wails of “why me!” Stephen and Beth saw immediately what Phillip and I were trying to do to save our boat. They both wiped their faces and said:
“How can we help?”
I will never forget that. And I can only hope I react with equal generosity, awareness, and kindness when I find myself in some moment where I, too, have suffered a great loss. Because we all know that’s coming. It’s called life. And, the joy of it can’t exist without pain caused by loss. I will think of Stephen and Beth in my “moment” and try to emulate the courage and selflessness it must have taken them to turn their backs on their sunken heart and offer their hands to us. They continued to showcase their strength in the weeks that followed Hurricane Sally as they helped other boaters move or salvage their boats. They helped friends clean their homes and yards after they were smothered in falling debris. Then they wrapped those tough weeks of recovery by combing their own filthy lost love after she was raised up, with humor and hope of finding gems to save. And, Stephen and Beth did recover one amazing treasure: the cockpit table they had only recently made with a resin-coated map of the Caribbean to inspire their travels. Although that voyage was supposed to take place on Cattywampus, Beth and Stephen have already began opening their hearts and minds to the thought of a new used boat. And, they have vowed never to give up on sailing, cruising, or caring for friends in need.
Stephen, Beth, this one goes out to you.
Sally may have taken many things from us, but she also opened us up and showed our solidarity.
With Stephen and Beth’s help, Phillip and I were able to move Plaintiff’s Rest forward, just a bit. It was terribly hard in those winds and still cresting waves. The marina on the Palafox-street side was an absolute slaughter.
It was amazing to see what our baby girl had survived in, but wildly strange to see a massive power boat sunk beneath her.
Phillip and I were sure our rudder had likely made contact with the boat beneath us at some point as I had seen, when I went below to make sure we weren’t taking on water, the rudder stop had been hit so hard it cracked and broke free from the engine room ceiling.
Mercifully, however, we were not taking on any water. You could feel when you stepped onto the boat, though, that she wasn’t floating freely. Her rudder or keel was grounded on something. No one could surmise the carnage that might, at that time, be lying beneath our boat.
Phillip and I honestly wondered whether we even still had a rudder down there. We knew it had been struck and the proximity of the sunk boat was like an illusion, telling your mind there could be no rudder in the space between the two. We could not tell visually due to the thick cloud of debris and awful-smelling diesel that coated the top of the water. All Phillip and I could do was scooch Plaintiff’s Rest a bit forward and hope, when the water receded, she didn’t sit down on that boat in some unfortunate position that caused her rudder to break further or snap clean off and allow water to come in.
We had left our bimini on for the storm as it houses the solar in hopes that it could give her juice for her bilge pumps in case something very much like this happened. As I’ve mentioned many times, up until hours before nightfall the day before, all anyone expected from Sally was tropical storm conditions. But, our 110-watt panel had blown off entirely in the storm, and the our remaining two 50-watts were so marred and cracked, likely from flying projectiles, we were sure they weren’t working either. Meaning, Plaintiff’s Rest would only have whatever power was in her battery bank to fight incoming water if she began taking any on over the course of the night.
Phillip and I went to bed that evening with weary, worried hearts, hoping we would return the next day and find Plaintiff’s Rest still sitting floating and not slowly sinking. I gripped her bow before we left the marina that day and tried to make sure she knew just how much we loved her before I left. Looking back it pains me to think it may have come across to her as a plea to remain afloat when I truly meant it as a message telling her no matter what happened, we would always be proud to have owned and sailed her and that none of this was her fault. I hope she interpreted it as the latter. I’ve now experienced that moment three times—the first when we hauled with Hurricane Nate pointed straight for us, the second when we left Plaintiff’s Rest for the season in Great Harbour Cay in the Bahamas, and now this time, as she continued to hold on for whatever Hurricane Sally and her aftermath might continue to dish out—and I know no feeling can quite replicate the helplessness of having to walk away from your boat not knowing if you’ll find her in the same place and condition when you return.
Because you just can’t wrap your arms around her and keep her safe. It is only she who can do that for you in a storm. And, that is the very reason all sailors toil and sweat and bleed and curse, yet continue to sail our boats, as they truly are vessels to so much more than just the next shore.