Boo Hoo Hill, blowholes, a greeter shark … oh my! Warderick Wells was definitely our favorite stop in the Exumas this past spring. We only had time to visit a few Exuma islands before we had to move to get our boat back to safety before hurricane season began, but Phillip and I both are so glad we stretched our Exumas visit enough to let us enjoy this stunning Land and Sea park at Warderick Wells Cay. Here is where the island is located.
The natural deep channel that snakes through the harbor makes for some of the most stunning neon-streaked water views I’ve ever seen.
The snorkeling here was also some of the very best we’ve done to date. Being a Land and Sea Park it is a “no-take reserve” (meaning no fishing, poaching, or harvesting) making it a fabulous ecological preserve and wildlife refuge.
The whole island really is breathtaking. I felt like a super model when I saw the photos of myself walking out of the water. It’s amazing what a beautiful Bahamian backdrop can do. Bo Derrick look out!
But, the island had so much more to offer than views:
The legend of Boo Hoo Hill, with its haunted howls from the souls that perished on a long-ago ship lost to the reef is a fun hike up the island and offers a signing tree with an amazing view.
Emerald Rock gifted us with exceptional snorkeling just a short dinghy ride from our boat. I saw a baby puffer fish, a white speckled stingray, funky sea cucumbers, and a lion fish all in one dive. Sorry not sorry for the lack of underwater photos. I was living that moment! Not filming it.
A friendly (I’m going to assume) nurse shark comes to visit every new boat that hooks onto a ball in the mooring channel. It was a little unnerving at first, knowing we were about to go snorkeling. But, when we saw him swim up to every other new boat that came in, we knew we were safe. It’s just a new breed of shark they have in the Exumas: a greeter shark. : )
There is also a sunken boat near Mooring Ball No. 10 that was really neat to dive. While the channel graciously offers enough depth for 20+ boats to cruise in, grab a ball for a few nights, and enjoy all the island has to offer, it is still only around 15-18-feet deep allowing for easy free-water diving and snorkeling. You can see the channel here that curves around, kind of like a fish hook.
Underneath the sunken boat, Phillip and I saw the biggest grouper and lobster we had both ever seen. The grouper had to be about four feet long, from nose to tail, and the lobster’s body was bigger than a basketball. Antennae to tail, he was probably longer than the grouper! We had to dive down 3-4 times to fully take them in. And, it was fun to learn from other cruisers who were there, as well as the Land and Sea Park staff, that the grouper and the lobster are apparently long-time friends who have been living under that boat for years. I wonder if they get tired of the lookie-loos …
This is all just the tip of the Warderick iceberg. I could go on. But, when I was reflecting back on our time there—as Phillip and I are right now gearing up to kick off our cruising season this year, beginning again in the Bahamas—three distinct memories came back to me. One, I sent to Bob Bitchin in a fun “Annie-dotal” story he requested at the Annapolis Boat Show. Be on the lookout for that. It’s called They Don’t Answer Stupid Questions in the Bahamas. The other two I’ve written up for you below: 1) We Dropped the Ball; and 2) Our Time With a Turtle. : )
We Dropped the Ball
This was easily mine and Phillip’s biggest ever complete mooring ball FAIL. If you’ve ever felt like you have been “the show” in the mooring field, with everyone watching you miss the ball, lose a boat hook, trip on the deck, miss the ball again, curse, throw things, etc., don’t worry. We’ve been there, too. This was definitely our day to entertain the other boats already safely on their balls in Warderick Wells Cay. And, it was my day (of course!) to be Captain.
Since I got my USCG license in 2017, Phillip and I try to share all roles on the boat equally … well, except when it comes to contorting into lazarettes and engine spaces. I seem to be more suited for that. But, when it comes to helming, navigating, sail trimming, deckhanding, etc., we try to keep it equal so we always have a good understanding of what the forces on the boat are doing and what the other crew member is experiencing or dealing with. It has been a very fruitful, eye-opening exercise for us as we continue to learn the obstacles and challenges unique to the traditional roles we use to play where Phillip always helmed, and I always ran around on deck like a jackrabbit on cocaine fending off and catching/tossing lines. While the mere role of Captain does not (on our boat) make one responsible for any snafoos, I will just go ahead and admit our epic fail that day was 100% my fault. But, thankfully, there was absolutely no damage, 0%, so it is now just a fun docking debacle story we get to share. As Bob Bitchin will tell you: The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is what? Attitude. Love that guy!
So, after an unnerving exchange with Radio Lady, the Exumas Land and Sea Park gal at the headquarters who guided us in and assigned us our ball (you’ll read about her in an upcoming Lats and Atts issue), I was navigating our Niagara 35 along the narrow channel that I mentioned snakes through the harbor. It really is a fantastic, natural deep channel that—thankfully—allows us, on boats with a deep draft, to come in and enjoy this amazing place, but it was still a pretty tight little channel with a strong current pushing us toward our ball that did not have me feeling comfortable about turning around in it.
If I could avoid turning around in it, I was sure going to, which is why I told Phillip as we were approaching our ball to “Grab it at the bow.” My thinking being he would secure the ball to a bow cleat, the current would push and whip us around in a nice, tight little circle leaving us safe and latched on the ball once the boat got turned in the right direction. A great plan, right? Many of you more experienced helmsmen probably had the same reaction Phillip did.
“I think we should pass the ball, turn around, then try to get the ball as we’re approaching it, against the current,” Phillip said.
That would have brilliant. That’s not what I did. I told you I did not want to turn around.
“Try your best to get the ball at the bow as I come up on it,” I told him. And, he did, but the current proved to be too much for him to hold it. After Phillip dropped it, I saw the ball coming up near me at the stern, and my inner deckhand/jackrabbit took over. I left the helm and grabbed the ball. But, oddly, with the ball saddled up on our port stern and the current streaming by, it was just the right cocktail of forces to park us. The boat was just sitting. Happily stopped. Only problem was we were backwards, and not secure on the ball. I gave Phillip a funny “What now?” look when he made it back to the cockpit, and he gave me a “Well, you’re the Captain” look in return. Or maybe it was a “this was your idea” look. Yeah, that was probably it. And, he was right. This was my mess. So, I decided we would walk the ball up to the bow together and secure it. A great plan, right?
Wrong again, Captain Annie.
I could just feel all eyes of the anchorage on us. Rightfully so. If I were them, I would have plopped down on my bow with a drink in hand for the free show! Cruising is full of them! As soon as Phillip and I got the ball near the bow and the boat started to turn around, she had somehow gathered the force of a thousand horses. When the current caught her stern and slung her around, it was so hard and fast that the rope loop from the ball jerked out of both mine and Phillip’s hands at the same time (leaving me with blood blisters). Suddenly we were drifting back to the edge of the channel with no one at the helm. It’s deep in the middle of that channel, but it is super shallow on either side. There’s not much room to avoid running aground.
I flew back to the cockpit to grab the helm and throw her in forward to stay in the channel. Phillip was absolutely right. It became immediately clear to me that approaching the ball using the current as a pushback was the best way to do it. It’s like docking with a head wind, much easier than with wind that is shoving you into the slip. I just did not want to turn around in that tight spot with the current.
Funny thing is, I got my wish. Because I didn’t turn us around. The current did! Along with our masterful ball-handling. (Sure, go ahead. Make all the jokes you want to right there.) While we were thrilled to finally be safe on the mooring at Warderick Wells Cay, it was clear that Phillip and I had definitely dropped the ball.
Our Time With a Turtle
To date, this is still my #1 turtle experience ever, although I’m eager to collect more. Phillip and I were diving that sunken boat near Ball No. 10 that I mentioned, when he spotted a turtle on the bottom. Our entire time in the Bahamas, we had not yet had a good turtle spotting. They are just so fast … and shy. The minute they sense you are looking at them, the head pops down, and the turtle takes off. We chased many in our dinghy, but chase was all we did. By the time we had gone through Bimini, Andros, and Nassau, to make it to the Exumas, I was dying for a date with a turtle. And, boy did I get it!
This little guy was munching sea grass on the bottom, minding his own business, enjoying his lunch, when Phillip pointed him out to me. Well, and I say “little,” but he was the biggest one I’ve seen that close-up. His shell was probably 2.5 feet in diameter. A decent-sized turtle. I stopped kicking and wading, thinking surely he would high-tail it out of there the minute he noticed me, like most other turtles always did, and I watched him in complete still-mode for a bit. It was cute to watch his little head extend out from his shell as he would turn it to the side and get a nice big sea grass bite. I could even hear him chewing! I watched him munch and crunch for about two minutes, then he started to make his way to the top for a breath of air.
Phillip was about 5-6 feet away from me, watching the turtle and other things swimming around the sunken boat when the turtle stated to rise between us, putting him about 2 feet away from me, and 2 feet away from Phillip. Either one of us could have reached out and touched him! But, Turtle Guy was just slowly swimming up, not paying us any mind. Phillip and I were struck still with saucer eyes watching him. Then, a few feet shy of the top, the turtle stopped and waved his little turtle arms in a pattern to hold him steady. He turned and slowly looked at Phillip, holding his stunned gaze for a few seconds, then paddled his arms some more so he could slowly turn and look at me. The turtle and I locked eyes for another few seconds, then he kept on his path, making his way to the top, and we all broached the surface together to take a breath: me, Phillip, and Turtle Guy. Like we were some happy trio snorkeling together. That was a surreal moment we shared with a turtle.
The turtle kept his head above water in between us for five seconds or so, then he slowly swam on down the same path back to the bottom to get back to his munching. He did this two or three times, heading down to munch for 3-4 minutes then swimming back up to take a breath and the three of us would all broach together and breathe together. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had while cruising. Phillip and I decided later—when we were giggling and falling all over each other in the dinghy re-living our turtle experience—that when he turned and looked at each of us, he was just taking us in, deciding if we were enemies or friends. Phillip and I both decided he saw us as friends, which is why he was fine to keep doing his thing and letting us tag along. I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever gotten the nod of approval from a turtle, you feel just about as “one with the earth” as possible. And, even had my underwater GoPro been working, and had I captured a shot of him, I don’t think it would have done it justice, and it probably would have hindered my enjoyment. It felt nice to just be one with the turtle without the blinking red light. I will never forget that moment.
Hope you all enjoyed the Warderick Wells tales! I would encourage any cruiser heading anywhere near the northern Exumas to plan to pull into Warderick Wells Cay and stay on a ball for a few days. It is a “must-see” place.
Next up in blog time, we’ll head back to the Berries, to gunkhole one of our favorite groups of islands, before we tuck into a new marina to stash our boat for hurricane season. Stay tuned!
Man am I proud to tell this story. You all know what a stupidly frightening part of cruising docking has been for me. I’ve shared many times on this platform my worst fears in cruising. Number one has to be hurricanes—the sickening feeling that everything we’ve worked so hard for could be wiped out with one callous sweep of Mother Nature’s hand (although I could never blame her with the unforgivable way humans have absolutely ravaged this earth). Number two, however, used to be docking. And, I do hope you noticed the phrase “used to be” there. While I still think Phillip and I have a perfectly admirable healthy fear of docking, after this last voyage to the Bahamas, I think I finally knocked docking down a rung or two where it now resides under heavy weather sailing and running aground. Number five is running out of booze. Always has. Always will be.
Ahoy crew! When I last left you here on the blog, Phillip and I had just experienced our best and worst days on the trip in Bimini, Bahamas. Well, I have to admit this docking day would probably rank up there as well, at least in one of the top five best days of our trip for sure. It was when we de-docked after staying five days in Bimini. (And, I’ll admit I’m not even sure de-dock is a true word, but it’s an acclaimed one here at HaveWind, respected, revered, and used often!)
Phillip and I knew, when we arrived in Bimini, that it was going to be a while before we could leave. The GRIBS were telling us it was going to blow a hard east, southeast, upwards of 18, 20, even 25+ mph for days. As leaving Bimini to travel anywhere else in the Bahamas would be a no-fun bash to windward, all five boats on our finger pier decided to stay in Bimini for a week to let the winds die down. And, this was no setback by any means. Bimini is a fun, funky place with several little restaurants and bars, good grocery stores (I mean, good for the Bahamas). If an island gets a boat in every week with fresh produce, you feel like you’re in heaven. There was also a stunning bluewater shore on the north side of Alice Town.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention Joe’s Conch Shack in Bimini. The fun “friendly” place, the sign says with a huge conch pasted on some even huger boobs. Yes, very friendly. But, honestly, they were. We had the honor of meeting Joe, himself, who told us his tale of how he got into the conch salad business, the many years he spent making conch salad roadside as well as table-side at fancy events, and all of the “running around” he did. “I’ve got twelve wives and fifteen kids,” Joe said. “I did my running around.” Ha haaaaa. Love that guy. And, watching him dice an onion into pieces smaller than my pinkie nails without even looking at it will blow your mind. I’ll be he’s cut somewhere north of a million onions in his life.
While it was howling, Phillip and I were grateful for the time it afforded us to really explore Bimini and immerse ourselves in the island culture. And, thankfully, when it blows, we know we also have another fantastic activity option: kitesurfing. I will say, that is one of the best things about being a kite-surfing-cruiser. Usually sailors like to sail in winds of 10-15, often downwind in the direction they want to travel, but we all know it’s not very often those two things happen: wind in the right speed and the right direction. So, for many cruisers, days of winds of 20+ that would be on the nose, force them to stay hunkered down in their boats with little to do on the water.
This is one circumstance where being able to kite-surf truly gives Phillip and I an exceptional alternative. When the wind is too rough to sail, it often lends us the perfect conditions to tear it the *bleep* up on the kite! And, we do get a lot of looks from folks in the marina, biding time in their cockpits, wishing the wind would die down, watching us walk back and forth with all of our kite gear and, if they can see us on the water, watching us zip and slide while riding the kite—often with a face of envy. I will not lie in saying Phillip and I kind of like that face. It reminds us how much the work and investment we put into learning how to kite and acquiring the gear to be able to take it with us on the boat so we can kite while cruising was 100% worth it.
In Bimini, we were lucky to have an awesome dock neighbor, Justin, docked right next to us at BlueWater Marina who turned out to be a professional photographer with some high-end equipment. He and his sweet girlfriend, Rosie, spent a couple of very fun afternoons capturing photos of me and Phillip kitesurfing, offering us some of the best pictures Phillip and I have ever seen of ourselves kitesurfing, and we were super grateful. And, it seemed a fun way for them to pass the time on the dock while the wind was hammering us in Bimini. Many thanks to Justin and Rosie for these amazing kitesurfing photos!
But, when many cruisers are waiting for the winds to settle down so they can make the jump to the next location, they often all seize the same weather window to leave. When the forecast finally showed a lighter south wind day, all five boats on our finger pier decided to leave the following morning—some headed east toward Nassau and beyond, others headed west across the Gulf Stream back to the states. The next day we were all gathered and walking the dock early, ready to help toss lines and make sure each boat got off safely. I love that comradery and generosity among cruisers.
The first boat off the dock was a Catalina 42 on the farthest dock out near the channel. The winds were blowing a light ESE not expected to have much effect on the boats so we were all anticipating fairly easy shove-offs. That was the idea anyway …
The Catalina came off the dock no problem. With five hands on the dock helping to ease the boat out, everything was going very smoothly. The captain then began to back the boat up a bit further and turn his stern to his left (the north) so he could then shift to forward and navigate his way out between the two finger piers.
As he was backing up, however, the wind and current was clearly impacting him more than he anticipated. The captain and his mate were waving and saying goodbyes not quite aware of how quickly his port side was nearing the dock. Then we heard him shout, “The wind’s got me!” when he realized how far his boat had drifted toward the finger piers and pilings he had just escaped.
Everyone on the dock immediately began running either to the stern of their own boat to fend off or to the end of a finger pier and we all began pushing on the Catalina anywhere we could—the toe rail, stanchion posts, the stern. It was like a human assembly line working the boat off the dock at each contact point.
And, despite a few light bumps, our team of five was soon able to get the boat moving safely back in the middle of the aisle between the finger piers.
Whew! we all breathed collectively.
Next up to leave was the Benneteau to the right (south) of Plaintiff’s Rest. This was the boat owned by Justin and his lovely girlfriend, Rosie, who had taken our kitesurfing photos. Phillip and I and the rest of our de-docking team were up on the dock and ready to help them with their lines. Thankfully, again, everything went smoothly as Justin exited the slip. He started backing up and turning his stern to the north to navigate his way out. I remember someone saying, “Alright, this one’s got it.” To which I responded: “It’s not over yet!”
I didn’t mean to jinx them but, unfortunately, just as the Catalina captain had done, as Justin and Rosie were farewelling and saying goodbyes, Justin’s Benneteau was drifting perilously close to the dock. When Justin realized how close he was, we all could see the whites of his eyes as the folks on the dock ran through the same drill we had just been through, fending the Benneteau off at every stern, finger pier, and piling we could reach and—again—it took a five-man team to keep the bumps light and get the boat moving safely again.
Having watched both of those boats de-dock, I knew I was in for it. Phillip and I had decided at the beginning of this trip that we were going to split helm duties 50-50. It didn’t matter the conditions or if the various entrances, anchorages, or docks seemed trickier than others, if it was “your day to helm” it was simply your day to helm. Sailor up and grab the wheel.
Well, today was my day.
After we saw the first two boats bump their way out of the marina, Phillip asked me if I wanted to let him take the boat off the dock that day and I said no. I had to man up. This was our deal. And, I did feel much more confident in my de-docking skills at that point. I mean, I haven’t side-skidded into a tiny slip with cross winds and current … yet, but I had done my fair share of some backing up and maneuvering—even in tiny spaces where the docking was not super easy. Marathon, FL was one example where I had to make several circles before I could get turned the way I wanted to and docked on the fuel dock, and I felt in control and calm the entire time. Primarily, I was now much better at using thrust, forward, reverse, and the rudder to move the boat the way I intended. There was no getting out of it. It was my day. But, I did have one condition: “I want that beefy guy on the dock helping when we leave,” I told Phillip.
That beefy guy is Scott. He and Heather from www.cheapasstravelers.com on s/v Amun-Ra, a beautiful 37-foot Endeavour, cruise with their incredibly well-mannered dog, Jetson.
They were a lot of fun to hang out with on the dock while we were in Bimini and they’re both cockpit-fitness gurus, which Phillip and I can appreciate. Cruising is a lot easier and way more fun if you’re fit, and they both definitely are. But, with the number of boats left on the dock dwindling and Scott having shouldered the brunt of the boat-shoving that morning, I definitely wanted to leave while he was still there. So Phillip and I checked the fluids, cranked, and readied the boat to leave while we still had some strong hands on deck for help. I didn’t want to need the help, but I darn sure wanted it there if I did happen to need it.
Thankfully, the docking debacles of the previous two boats that had just left had taught me a lot. They are both able captains and were just surprised by the swift force of the current in the marina. I definitely had the benefit of hindsight and experience. The lesson was: back way the heck up before shifting to forward and throttling my ass off to get out of there. That was my plan anyway. And, it was one that would have served me far better had I done that during my most memorable (and emotional) de-docking: my first one, where I almost ripped one of our shrouds off and suffered a teary come-apart afterward. If you haven’t seen that awesomely-raw footage, please feel free to view it, the first video in the article, here. You’re welcome.
I was not going to make that mistake again. Nuh-uh. No way. Not Captain Annie.
I kicked it in reverse and the 2-3 folks left on the dock helped our boat off and tossed Phillip the last of the lines. I kept backing up, backing up, and backing up, until I could see the whites of Phillip’s eyes worried I had gone too far. I could tell he was trying not to say anything, but he finally caved. “Don’t go back too far,” he said. But, I have to tell you I relished in this moment.
There have been many times where Phillip was at the helm, and I was at the bow, feeling unsure of the boat’s movement, what hold the conditions may have on it, or whether Phillip had the control I desperately hoped he did. And the reason I did not know any of that is because I was not at the helm. Holding the helm tells you everything you need to know about how the boat is responding. In that moment I knew. I knew I needed to go a bit further back and I could feel the minute I put it in forward, the boat was going to start lunging back toward the piers on my port side. It’s hard to explain, but I could just … feel it. “Just a bit more,” I told Phillip. “I see it,” referring to the boats and piers I was coming perilously close to behind me.
When I felt I had got as close as I safely could to the finger piers behind me on starboard, I then threw her in forward and gunned the shit out of that thing.
Brandon would have called me a “throttle jockey” and boy was I one that day! I’ve never throttled that thing so hard! I revved her up, threw the wheel over hard to starboard, and rocketed out of that marina without hitting a thing.
Scott, Heather, if you’re reading this: while I’m so glad I didn’t need you on the dock that day, I’m so grateful you were there. This one goes out to all the cruisers who have run to help a struggling boat while docking or de-docking, because you know that is going to be you someday and you will want every hand on deck possible to wrestle your boat to safety.
It was a pretty cool feeling that day to be the first boat that didn’t bump on the way out (thanks mostly to experience and hindsight, that always helps) and to be the only female among the boats that had left from our pier so far that day to do it. Rosie the Riveter would be proud. Phillip sure was too, grinning from ear to ear as we pulled out into the channel in Bimini, unscathed. Whew! Another de-docking behind us. And, Heather from CheapAssTravelers was conveniently walking around at the north tip of the island, where we kited, as we motored by, and she snapped a few pics of us heading out that day. Thank you Heather!
Despite my small accomplishment in successfully de-docking, however, I cannot claim the Most Badass Female Award that day. Ironically, while I thought it was quite a big deal I had got off the dock without a scratch—with five hands helping and a two-member crew—we later learned another female that morning had de-docked entirely alone, while traveling single-handed, AND sailed her boat solo across the Gulf Stream back to the states. I mean … damn.
It was such an honor to meet Jessie from Kate and Jessie On a Boat which was a very popular series in Bob Bitchin’s Cruising Outpost magazine in 2017. Jessie is now married to a right and witty English chap named Luke, and the two of them had just completed their first Atlantic circle as their honeymoon which they concluded in Bimini. Yes, you read that right: first two-crew offshore ocean-crossing + honeymoon. I mean … Yes, I had to keep saying that when I was around her. Jessie is just so stinkin’ impressive! While Luke had to ferry back to the states to check in, Jessie sailed herself ALONE across the Gulf Stream and into Miami. She cracked me up with her reasoning: “I’ve sailed across the Atlantic Ocean twice, and Luke was asleep half the time, so I’ve practically crossed the Atlantic alone. I’m sure I can do this.” That girl. This one goes out to you Jessie, and your incredible feat! You can follow Jessie and Luke’s continued adventures at www.instagram.com/jessiebrave and www.onaboat.net.
We’ve got more fun Bahamas stories and lessons to share here with you next time at HaveWind. Next up, we make our way across the Grand Bank and have one of our biggest scares and wildest moments (of course they happen at the same time) outside of Andros. Stay tuned!
With Wild Phil Hickok at the helm, ominous rumblings in the distance, and magic wires and mysterious wildlife awaiting us in the midnight river, me and these adventurous three are about to get underway. Buckle up! Strap in! And let the tale of my first delivery (attempt) begin!
(Annie’s First) Captain’s Log
Saturday, 8:34 a.m.: Wild Phil successfully de-docks at the Carabelle Marina, docks at the fuel dock, fills up and leaves the fuel dock unscathed. Motoring through Apalachicola Bay at 4.8 knots with thunderheads building and rumbling on the horizon. The crew discovers the auto-pilot is not working.
By now, I’m a little irritated this man has now docked three times right out of the gate without issue but—hindsight being 20/20—I now know he’s got plenty of issues coming, so I’m cool with it. It did show me perhaps I freak out a little too much about docking as this man, a brand new boat owner, didn’t even flinch at it. I later learned Wild Phil is cocky as hell. Granted, it usually became a handy, self-fulfilling prophecy, but even when his confidence outgrew his abilities, it didn’t seem to get him into as much trouble as I imagined. Lesson Learned: Confidence, justified or not, is an asset.
No answer for you on the auto-pilot. Bob noted in the survey that it was working fine but we just could not get the darn thing to come on. It may be a wiring issue, but with all of the tight navigating we knew we would have to be doing in the ICW, we knew a good bit of this trip would require hand-steering, so we didn’t investigate the failed auto-pilot any further. Grab the wheel. C’est la vie.
Saturday, 10:27 a.m.: Typical Florida pop-up storm creeps up on us. The crew decides to let Captain Phil handle it solo, which he does like a champ.
Aren’t we nice? I mean, the man did say he wanted to gain as much experience as possible. Knowing what it feels like to hold the helm in driving rain is definitely high on the list.
Saturday, 11:02 a.m.: Storm passes within 15 minutes. Engine dies inexplicably. Crew throws out the head sail for propulsion. Captain Annie sails the boat around shoaling while Phillip and Phil inspect the engine and investigate. Phillip determines the engine overheated, adds coolant, allows to cool. Engine re-cranks and we continue under motor-sail at 4 knots.
When I “sails the boat around shoaling,” I mean puckered my ass and sailed the snot out of that thing! Eeking out what little navigation I could, with winds of 6-8 knots and 3 foot depths around the narrow ICW, was some of the most pinched sailing I’ve ever done. Definitely a great experience for me to be forced to sail in a narrow channel with light winds.
So, what happened to the engine? At first, we thought it had overheated because Phil noticed it was over 180 on the temp when it cut out and he recalled the previous owner told him the engine would automatically shut down if she overheats, which apparently she did. We had some trouble locating the overflow coolant bin (the hoses from the engine seemed to go into the bulkhead into nowhere), but we eventually located it in the port-side lazarette. Why is this a big deal? Because while we’re scratching our heads and chasing silly hoses, Annie is tacking and turning and trying to keep our keel off the ground. Lesson here: Phillip and I should have located all of the fluid fills sooner so we could have handled this problem more efficiently. But, we did still have to have to wait for the engine to cool before it would re-crank. A quick turn of the key showed the temp was over 200 and the level in the overflow bin was below the low mark, so we definitely thought she had overheated. A few more minutes of creative sailing by Annie while the engine cooled and she then re-cranked and we were back on our way toward the Apalachicola bridge under motor sail.
Saturday, 12:15 p.m.: Engine dies again. Annie takes the helm again while Phillip and Phil investigate. Crew believes not enough coolant was put in the first time, although the temp had not breached 180 this time. Bit of a mystery. Coolant added while engine cooled, re-crank and motor-sailed under St. George Island bridge.
The coolant was just above the “low” mark on the bin. When Phillip filled it the first time, he filled right up to this mark, thinking it was the “high” mark but further investigation proved the high mark was higher up. But, no one really had that “Aha, it overheated”-type revelation here because the temp never got over 180. To be honest, we were now a little stumped as to what was going on with the engine but the crew was glad to be making way and looking forward to stopping for a drink and bite in Apalachicola before heading up “the ditch” to Lake Wimico.
Saturday, 3:45 p.m.: Engine dies again just before Apalachicola Bridge. Crew is starting to think this is a fuel problem. Phillip and I note crud in the bottom of the secondary filter globe but the fuel itself looks clean. Phillip notices the two clamps on the hose leading to the filter are loose and have slacked down the line. He re-tightens thinking this may have been allowing intermittent air intake in the fuel system, and shutting down the engine. He tightens the clamps, engine cranks and Phil docks successfully at the Apalachicola City Docks.
Sorry, Mechan-Eric, you can’t get it 100% right every time. One of his guys must have forgot to tighten the hose clamps back after they changed the fuel filter. We were all hopeful the engine was just sipping air now and again and this was causing the repeated shut-downs. Only time would tell. For now, Phil had navigated his third docking with ease (the bastard!) and I was starting to get a little pissed off by it. When was he going to finally hit something? When you’re first learning, you have to bump a few pilings and docks, right? It’s required. Apparently not, for this guy. Proud new owner, Phil, docked safely in Apalachicola:
Saturday, 7:32 p.m.: Bellies full of Appalachian tacos, fries and beer (just one each, a margarita for me), Phil navigates us off the dock and up the ICW. Engine running fine for the moment. Crew plans to motor the ICW overnight.
Yes, another de-docking without incident. Whatever. I was over it by then. Things were just always going to work out for this guy. He even got duck fat fries that day. Any day that includes duck fat fries can never be considered a bad day. If you’re ever in Apalachicola, go to the Owl Tap Room and order these. That’s not a suggestion. Fries and cheese, smothered in beschamel and topped with bacon. They will change your life!
Saturday, 9:15 p.m.: Beautiful sunset on the river, but visibility is very poor in the ICW. Tight channels and turns and floating debris have to be constantly spotlighted for the helmsman. Two-man shifts begin with one crew member at the bow spotting, the other at the helm hand-steering.
This was one of those never-experienced-before moments for Phillip and me. While we had navigated the ditch (the stretch of ICW between Apalachicola and Port St. Joe) many times, it was always during the day. We had never motored any stretch of that portion of the ICW overnight and we could tell as soon as the sun set and darkness set in that this was going to be a long night. With cloud cover remaining from the afternoon storms, visibility on the water was almost non-existent. Also, the markers along the ICW are not lit; they have to “be lit” by shining a light on their reflective tape. So, each marker had to be located and lit, the borders along the river constantly swept with the floodlight, and floating logs and trees spotted for the helmsman. It was a bit of a surreal feeling steering solely by the light of your fellow crew-member at the bow.
The spotlight Phil had picked up also proved invaluable. You see? The ridiculously-long provision and supply list doesn’t seem like such a joke anymore. Thankfully, Phil had picked up a 600-lumen floodlight the day before knowing visibility in the river might be an issue. He also had the foresight to pick up a huge pack of batteries for it, which we burned through in its entirety (18 total) throughout the night, with each battery change affording us a few scary moments of blackness in the murky river.
While holding these shifts was tiring, what frightened me about it was the engine. She had been totally untrustworthy during the day, cutting out every couple of hours. If she did it again in the river, we would have only a minute or two to react, drop an anchor and hope it stuck before the boat would drift out of the ICW and run aground, at night. For this reason, I made a point during my spotlight shift at the bow to ready the ground tackle for an immediate drop in case the engine cut out anytime during the night. After several hours running solid, though, we all started to relax a bit and enjoy the cool, crispness of the night. The clouds started to dissipate around midnight and the stars came out. While Phillip and I have reveled at the view of the stars from our cockpit many times, it was a new experience for both Phil and Keith to be traveling by sailboat under the stars and was very fun for Phillip and I to be able to share with them. It was definitely a memorable night on passage.
Sunday, 4:32 a.m.: Engine cuts out again while Phil and I are holding watch. I was at the bow, spotting and Phil was at the helm, thankfully with some room to bob in West Bay, north of Panama City. After a few minutes, the engine will not turn over. It also sounds different upon re-crank attempts, like an electrical issue. I discover disconnected starting wire, re-connect, she cranks and we’re off.
We later called this the “magic wire.” It was ironically the very same wire that had rattled itself off of our starter right after Phillip and I docked at customs in Cuba in December, 2016. Here’s a picture from the video we made of it.
When Phil was trying to turn the engine over that morning, it seemed to be making the same sound our Niagara did when we were trying to crank and motor to our slip at Marina Hemingway. It’s like more of a clicking, electrical sound than a crank. For some reason, this made me think back on the issue Phillip and I had and I started inspecting the wires to the starter on Phil’s Catalina. Sure, enough, through a tiny hatch in the head, I found the very same wire that connects to Phil’s starter had rattled off just as it had on our boat. I popped it back on and “Voila!” the engine cranked and we were back in business.
This was, I’ll say it, my kind of “shining moment” as a newbie captain because it seemed like such a Kretschmer-style “hand me a piece of duct tape and a coat hanger and I’ll get this engine running” kind of fix. While the crafty sailing in the ICW to prevent us from running aground earlier on Saturday was definitely much harder and more impressive to me, it was really cool to see the look on Phillip’s face when Phil was mesmerized by my quick fix. I could tell he was so proud. That really did feel good. It’s funny, there’s not a lot of truly really-hard-to-fix problems you face on a boat, usually, it’s determining what’s causing the problem that is the hard part and the fix is really simple. And, the easiest problems to face are ones you’ve experienced before, just as this one was.
More importantly, this particular failure to re-crank—because it seemed so different (the sound and the cause) and had left us bobbing (thankfully in enough water at the time) for our longest stretch yet, about twenty minutes at night—was a moment Phil was just about ready to call Boat U.S. for a tow. He was looking up the number when I recalled the “magic wire.” So, for this reason as well, it was a very timely, fortuitous fix. I could also tell Phillip had much more trust in me when he rose instantly when the engine died (I swear that man’s body gets immediately in tune with any boat he does a passage on), he also immediately checked out when I re-connected the wire and the engine re-cranked. I don’t even think Phil and I were done Whoo-Hoo’ing by the time Phillip crashed back out, which is rare for him to check so easily out of a boat problem and leave it all to me. Phil looked at me and asked if I was ready to go. I said “Yep,” and manned my post back spotting again, with Phillip sleeping soundly again below and me, to be honest, feeling pretty darn cool at the bow.
Oh, and Keith slept right through all of that shit. Opening the engine compartment, bumbling around the cabin, lights shining everywhere, multiple attempts to re-crank and us shouting back and forth from the helm to the engine below—none of that phased him on the starboard settee. The man was out.
Sunday, 6:28 a.m.: Phil and I are rewarded with a beautiful sunrise. The engine had run solid for a couple of hours, then died again around 6:30 a.m. Crew believes it is a constant “crud in the fuel” problem. We wait a few minutes, re-crank and continue motoring in the ICW toward Destin.
This really was a stunning sunrise. I could take a thousand pictures. I love when it’s a glowing pink ball on the horizon. And, it was neat to see Phil experience this for the first time from the helm of his boat. Phil and I were also both exhausted, having held shift since 3:00 a.m. that morning, but the sunrise rejuvenated us and reminded us why we were out there. Tired, dirty, sweaty, and we didn’t even care. Even the intermittent engine failures didn’t bother us by then, they were so common and the engine always seemed to re-crank after a few minutes, we just shrugged it off. “Look at that sunrise, would ya? What bad could possibly await us?”
Sunday, 10:46 a.m.: Naked rower. Nuff said.
The naked rower! That’s what awaited us. After handing the helm over to Phillip and getting some much-needed post-sunrise sleep, I was perched up at the bow mid-morning, reading while we were motoring through another beautiful section of the ICW, an untouched river, and we saw a rower ahead off of our starboard bow. He was on a kayak with long paddles extending out both sides. Out of habit from the night before (anyone at the bow should be keeping a bit of a watch for things in the water), I looked back at Keith, who was holding the helm at the time with a now very-well-understood “You see that?” inquiry and Keith immediately clocked the boat a bit over to port to give the rower some room.
As we began to near him, though, I started to notice the highly-visible tan line on the man’s back, followed by a blindingly-white not-so-tan section below and below that, the very beginnings of a crack. I looked back to the boys in the cockpit to see if they were seeing what I was unfortunately seeing and it seemed they all were as the chatter had stopped and all eyes were on the rower. As he passed me at the bow, I could see he was probably nearing eighty, but in fantastic shape, with weathered, leathery skin. Well, everywhere but there, but you couldn’t really see much of his nether regions with his rowing hands in the way. And he didn’t seem a bit embarrassed or apologetic that he was, well, rowing by us naked. A bit impressed by his bravado, I gave him a little wave. He smiled, laid one paddle down and raised his arm to wave back. Lesson learned: Never wave at a naked rower.
I did not get a picture of the rower.
But, we did have a very fun morning motoring up “the river,” that day. Chef Phillip also grilled up some fabulous burgers for lunch (and only dropped one patty overboard.) Phillip called it a sacrifice to Neptune, “or whatever other Sea God inhabits the ICW.”
Sunday, 12:35 p.m.: Engine dies. Yes, again. Thankfully, in the rather large body of water in Choctawatchee Bay just before the Mid-Bay bridge to Destin. Crew knows the routine by now. I take the helm to do some “creative sailing” while Phil and Phillip investigate and eventually decide to change the fuel filters.
Thankfully the shoals in this bay weren’t near as tight as those in Apalachicola Bay, so this wasn’t bad sailing at all. We had light winds between 9 and 11 knots, enough to push around back and forth while Phil and Phillip disassembled the secondary fuel filter. The furling drum on the forestay was giving us some trouble. Phillip and looked at it and it seemed like it had dropped about six inches down toward the pulpit and was really chafing the furling line on the opening of the drum when furling. It didn’t seem like a really big issue at the time—the sail was out and doing its job—so it did not supersede the faulty fuel system on our “stuff we gotta deal with first” list. Keith read up on Nigel Calder’s diesel engine maintenance book and actually picked up a few good pointers on how to bleed the fuel system of air once we got the new filter on. Phil learned how to hack up a plastic water gallon, Annie-style, to catch fuel from going into the bilge, and Phillip had fun watching this newbie boat owner get all sweaty and grimy in the cramped aft berth. Been there. Done that. Soiled the t-shirt.
But Wild Phil was a trooper, getting down there elbow-deep in diesel and fumes, holding back sea-sickness while we were bobbing around. He and Phillip were able to change the filter on the fuel pump, but they were struggling with the secondary filter, so Phil decided to just dismount the entire globe from the bilge wall. When he pulled it out and sent it topside for cleaning, Keith and I were both surprised at the amount of crud in the bottom. It was thick and grainy and likely causing all of our engine problems. In addition to the grime in the bottom of the globe, the filter itself (which we understood had just been recently changed in Carrabelle) was already a deep black and in need of changing again. Good for Phil for getting spare fuel filters! Bad for Phil for getting the wrong type. Granted, it didn’t sound like it was really his fault. He had ordered them through Mechan-Eric’s Marine Services office gal in Carrabelle, simply asking for fuel filters for his Catalina, assuming, having just changed the fuel filters for him, they would pull the right type but, for whatever reason, they were not the right type. So, Wild Phil was armed with four spare secondary fuel filters that didn’t fit and facing a dismembered fuel system that would need re-assembly and manual bleeding, only to continue sucking dirty fuel and likely shutting down every couple of hours during another night motoring up the narrow ICW. It was about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon that he made the call.
Sunday: 4:38 p.m.: Phil decides to call Boat U.S. for a tow. Fuel system is disassembled with no secondary replacement fuel filters onboard and not enough wind to sail safely under the Mid-Way Bridge or to an available marina. Boat U.S. responds and advises tow boat will arrive in 45 minutes. Plan is to be towed to Bluewater Bay Marina in Niceville.
Phil took this like a champ. Coming up sweaty and stinky—not to mention a little green from his engine work while bobbing around in diesel fumes in the aft berth—but he was still cracking jokes about it. “Well, I did say I wanted experience,” he laughed as he punched in the number. And boy was he getting it. Phillip and I have never had the pleasure of being pulled by Boat U.S. or Sea Tow in our boat yet (knock on freaking wood!) and I’d never been towed period. While that experience would be new, in and of itself, to me, what I was not expecting was the “experience” we got when the Boat U.S. Captain almost took off our … You know what? I’ll save the experience of my first sea tow for another post. Captain Mo (we’ll call him) deserves a post all his own. It was a damn rodeo.
Sunday, 5:48 p.m.: Phillip holds the helm while Captain Mo with Boat U.S. tows us into the Bluewater Bay Marina. We dock the Catalina, wash her down and secure the boat for the night. Phil and Phillip make plans to return the following day with the right fuel filters, change them out and get the fuel system working properly and Phil would then bring the boat the rest of the way another day with a fellow sailor.
Captain Mo … that man. I can’t wait to tell you about him. But, first let’s talk about this tow to the dock. That, itself, is not an easy thing to do. I had heard friends who had been towed in by Sea Tow before say “they kind of slingshot you in,” but I had yet to experience the pleasure of “being slingshotted” myself. It’s a bit of a dance and, I can imagine, not one that always ends up with a perfect entry into the slip. Thankfully, this time, with Phillip at the helm (his first time holding the helm while being towed to a dock) and me at the bow ready to throw the tow line off and make a five-foot leap when the moment was right, we were able to bring Phil’s Catalina in with just a light smack of the rub rail on a piling. Nothing to it!
What was funny, though, were the marina’s instructions on how we were supposed to find our spot on the dock. We were coming in after the marina closed at 5:00 p.m. so they had told Phil on the phone, “We put up a flag at your spot on the dock.” While being towed in by the delightful Captain Mo, we thought this sounded like a fool-proof plan. “Perfect, just look for the flag.” Do you know how many flags fly at marinas? I had never really noticed before until I found myself at the bow trying to find whatever was to be considered “our” flag. Just about every boat has a flag. Many have them on the stern and on the flag halyard. Some have them all the way up and down halyards like a used car tent. It seemed like there were a million flags! All flapping and snickering at us. We were looking at any available slips, flag or no, to “be slingshotted into” just so we could secure the boat, then move her or coordinate afterward if need be. While looking, we did spot one available dock with the tiniest little orange flag you’ve ever seen licking the wind. Seriously, this was probably a 9” flag compared to the dozens of 4-footers waving behind each stern. It was laughable, but we deemed it “our flag” and signaled Mo to shoot us that way, which he did. It did feel good to at least have the boat secure, tied up to the dock—not aground or adrift or heading into a bridge—as we all had imagined often each time that darn engine cut out. Wild Phil’s Catalina wasn’t home, yet, but she was safe and closer.
The Catalina docked safely (again – whew!) in Niceville.
While I may not technically be able to call that a delivery (seeing as how we didn’t actually deliver the boat to its home port in Pensacola), I’ll still call it a success. This also marked the end of my time on the boat during this delivery. Phil and Phillip planned to come back to Niceville in the next couple of days—this time with the right fuel filters—change out the fuel filter and get the fuel system working correctly. Why didn’t I join? All evidence to the contrary, I do work, and I had a few design projects that needed my attention and, luckily Phillip had a free day he could offer. I hate that I missed this experience, though, because Phillip’s re-enactment of it that night over drinks was nothing short of an Oscar-worthy performance.
Phillip was standing in the kitchen, legs spread wide, arms on either side out, pulling imaginary lines. “I was up on deck, with the furling line in one hand and the sheet in the other,” he told me, “trying to sail with whatever little puffs of wind we had, blowing into the sail myself to try and get her to go.” And he would then do a mock, pull-and-blow. It was hilarious. It took half the day, but the report I got was that Phil and Phillip were able to replace the secondary fuel filter, bleed the system and get the engine running again a little after noon. Afterward, Wild Phil decided to pop out for a “quick sea trial” and run the boat around in the bay to make sure the engine would continue to run for the last leg of his delivery, which he was planning to make the next day. That’s when things got wild.
Apparently the engine ran fine for a bit, letting Phil and Phillip navigate safely out of the narrow, shoal-lined inlet to the marina. They cruised around and did some circles in the bay. Life was great. Then the engine died. Of course! You were totally expecting that, right? The boys inspected some things. Everything looked good, Phillip told me. They waited a bit and tried to re-crank. That was Phil’s go-to. “Just give her a few minutes she’ll be fine.” Not this time. They bobbed around some more, knowing they didn’t have much time to decide to either sail her in or call Boat U.S. again. I don’t think Phil could stomach another embarrassing (and, frankly, a bit dangerous in and of itself) tow from Captain Mo, so he made the command decision. “Sail her in,” he told Phillip and Phillip manned the sails.
All was going well until they started to near the channel entrance, a challenging little dog-leg to maneuver under sail. With shadowed wind, they were creeping dangerously close to a marker when Phil decided to re-crank at the last minute. The engine roared to life, he throttled her up to 2,000 rpm “and slammed that baby into gear!” Phillip told me, imitating Phil’s hot throttle move. Now Phil is faced with the decision to motor safely out of the channel, back into the bay and call his buddy Mo or keep making way through the narrow channel to the marina. I’m sure you know what he chose. We call him “wild” for a reason.
They cruise along another twenty feet or so and … Say it with me. The engine dies again. Yes, again, this time with docks and waterfront homes to port and a stiff 6 knots of breeze coming over their starboard beam. Phillip was now doing the same “pinched sailing” I had been eeking out back in Apalachicola Bay, but he said they weren’t going to make it. The boat was inching closer and closer to collision when Wild Phil again, cranks on a wing and prayer, throttles her up and slams her into gear for another tiny little “turbo-boost” forward before she sputtered out again. But, Phillip told me it was just enough to let them coast back toward the dock, where Phillip lunged for a piling and Phil docked his boat under sail. Not a lot people can say they’ve done that. Phillip and I have, once, and only because Brandon goaded us into it—and very rightfully so, that’s a skill any sailor should try to hone.
Phil called the mechanic there at the marina and he sent one of his guys out to the boat to help figure out what the heck was going on with the fuel system on the Catalina. Phillip told me this guy, Scott, was great, and took an hour looking over everything, inspecting the filters the boys had replaced, checking the connections at each juncture, bleeding behind Phillip and Phil but finding they had bled the air at every point. Except for one. One Phil and Phillip had not seen and one Scott said is kind of rare, on the injection pump. Sure enough, Scott opened her up, a little whiff of air sputtered out, then a spray of pink fuel and that was it. One tiny little bubble of air made the difference between Phil’s boat safely docking and crashing into a pier. Boats … such fun!
With this last point bled, Scott recommended they tie the boat with extra lines on the dock, throttle her up and put her in gear so she could run under load for about an hour to make sure all of the air was out of the system. The boys did this and Phillip told me the boat ran fine. Phil made plans to motor the boat the rest of the way (about 12 more hours) from Niceville up to Pensacola the next day with another buddy. Phillip and I were planning to be on stand-by when Phil came into Bayou Chico to help him get docked up that evening, but Phil called us early, around 5:00 p.m. the following day, to let us know … (can you guess?)
Yep, the engine had died. Who knew at this point what the heck was going on. I think we were all so sick of trying to figure out why that darn engine kept puttering out on a consistent basis, we just wanted to get her home. Phil told Phillip he was out in Pensacola Bay at the time (thankfully with a lot of water around). We are very lucky in Pensacola to have a large, naturally-deep bay to sail around in. Apparently, Phil had tried to re-crank so many times, he believed the batteries no longer had the juice to turn the engine over. Phillip also told Phil if he tried to crank too many times without the engine turning over, raw water could back up in the manifold and get into the engine, causing him way worse problems than the suspected bad fuel.
So, there Phil was again, without an engine and facing the decision to sail in or call for a tow. “I’m sailing in,” he said. I told you he was wild. The right kind, too. That guy should be the confidence poster-child for new sailors.
Phillip and I ran down to meet Phil at the Palafox Marina, the closest, most easily-navigable marina to him, thinking he could plug in there to recharge the batteries perhaps or stay a couple of days while he got the fuel problem solved. We didn’t know, but either way, Phil was coming in. Thankfully, he had a nice, light breeze from the west pushing him downwind toward the marina. Yet, again, day three in his boat-owning career and here he was about to dock under sail for the second time.
He also told us over the phone as he was coming in that he had run aground that morning trying to get out of the marina in Niceville, but he was able to back the boat up, ease off the shoal and keep going. He also continued to fight with the furling drum and it eventually chafed through the outer barrier of his furling line and stripped it to the core. (He learned later from the rigger that the halyard was too loose, which caused the drum to drop and had gotten snagged on the swivel shackle up top, causing the tension and chafe.) So, two more notches in Phil’s “shit happens” belt.
I was amazed at this guy. Phil really made me feel all of my blubbering and worrying over docking our boat UNDER ENGINE POWER was truly ridiculous. And, trust me, it was a good feeling. I’m not saying, plow around in your boat all cocky-like and run into stuff just for fun, but it was a bit of a revelation for me to see a guy so un-phased by it all. I mean, he probably had the right amount of adrenaline keeping him focused, but there really wasn’t any feat in his boat Phil wasn’t willing to try, accomplishing most of them with impressive skill. Or luck, either way!
Here Phil comes, sailing into Palafox Marina!
When I asked him how he would rate his second docking under sail, Phil gave me an “eh” hand wiggle, saying he’d do it better next time. Ha!
But, here’s the kicker. After Phil docked, under sail, very well I might add at the Palafox Marina, with little help on mine and Phillip’s part, he decided to try one more time to re-crank the engine before plugging in and making a new plan. And guess what happened? I’m sure you can.
It’s a boat, right? I honestly do think they love to f&*k with you. She cranked right up. Purred actually. Phil huffed, laughed, and said “I’m going!”
I was shocked. This man had some serious sailing cahones. Surely, that engine was going to die in two minutes, probably right before he could round the concrete seawall and he would now be facing a headwind so light it wouldn’t allow him to navigate under sail. Also, the Bayou Chico inlet he would be motoring into is super narrow with super shallow shoaling to the south and very-forgiving boats and docks to the north, and Phil was going to trust his very-trustworthy engine to navigate that? This man was crazy! I was sure of it. But before I could tell him that, him and his buddy were off, motoring out of the marina.
Phillip and I were laughing about it while driving over to meet Phil in Bayou Chico. It’s hard to ever say what the right decision in when cruising. I just know, now, that Phillip and I definitely fall on the conservative side and Phil, well, he’s a renegade.
About thirty minutes later, though, we saw him rumbling in, just a few slips down from his boat’s new resting place and the engine was still going strong!
For the moment at least. As Phil neared the slip he hollered to Phillip about whether he should go bow in or try to back the boat in. I scoffed.
Really dude?! I’m sure you just spent every last one of your “good luck points” (those are a thing in Annie Land) motoring that tiny little treacherous channel with your funky fuel and now you want to try to back your boat in for the first time ever just … because it would be nice to be able to get on and off easily via the stern? You do know if something goes awry and we can’t save you, you may no longer HAVE a stern. You know that right?!
But Phil didn’t seem to pick up all of that, which I was saying with my drop-jaw face. “I’m backing it in,” he shouted and proceeded to drive past the slip, throw her in reverse and start making his way in, which of course did not go well. This was probably his first time trying to truly navigate in reverse and we all know sailboats back like a drunken elephant. Phil started to get the boat cock-eyed and guess what happened? I swear every bit of this is true.
The damn engine died.
“Son of a!” I heard Phil shout from the cockpit. I told you luck points were real. I hopped on the boat his bow was about to hit (a very nice, very new and very much more expensive 45′ Catalina) and fended him off there. His buddy fended him off a piling mid-ship, and somehow Phillip got a stern line from Phil and was able to wrestle the Catalina into the slip. It’s a very good thing there was no one right next to him on port or I’m not sure how that would have played out. But, Phil had done it! Brought his boat home. The delivery was done. And while it does make for a very good tale (and I haven’t even told you the best part yet, just wait for the Captain Mo saga!), what amazed me about this delivery, which didn’t even involve any offshore time, was that it did force new-boat-owner Phil (the wild man) to suffer and overcome many of the things we all fear can and someday will happen to us on our boats. Within Phil’s first few days on his boat, he:
Had the engine cut out on him in narrow, dangerous channels
Had to navigate tight channels under sail alone
Had to dock under sail (multiple times)
Had to disassemble, diagnose and attempt to repair his engine while underway
Had to deal with a faulty furling drum
Ran aground, annnddd
Had to call for a sea tow
Many of those things I have yet to experience and I’ve been sailing for years. My best takeaway from this was how experience on your boat, no matter whether it’s good or bad, is really the best thing you can accumulate because the best problem to face on your boat, or any other, is one you’ve faced before. I know I will never achieve quite the level of bravado of Phil (because frankly, I think a healthy dose of fear helps in making good decisions), I realized many of the things I fear handling are not quite as scary as I had made them out to be. And for that, Wild Phil, I thank you.
What do you think I’m going to say? What would you say, those of you out there cruising? I’m really curious, so please share. For me, it’s docking. Yes, dammit, still docking. Granted, with practice I am getting better and I am intensely pushing myself to be brave and try and just say “It’s okay if you bump something, we can fix it.” Those things are easy to say, but not so easy to act out in real life. I hate that I get all jittery and panicked. My hands and leg muscles shake. My eyes become stupid huge saucers. It’s like I’m having a mini-heart attack. Why?!
I really am just venting here because it irritates me that I get myself all worked up into such a state of terror at the sight of pilings, piers and other boats. A part of it is the thought of damaging our Niagara because that would royally suck. But a bigger part (I believe) is damaging someone else’s boat. Wrecking my dreams is one thing, but wrecking another’s by plowing a huge hole in their stern makes me sick to my stomach.
Then there’s the thought of disappointing Phillip. I know this is all internal because he is immensely proud of me and I am a very lucky gal because he tells me this often, but that doesn’t mean a huge part of everything I do is still intended to impress him. The thought of me turning to starboard when he says “Turn to port!” and crashing our bow into concrete makes me feel so embarrassed and sad for him. What a crappy mate he has! And, why would I turn to starboard when he says port? Because I am literally in that moment an absolute nervous wreck. Port is starboard. Forward is reverse. I’m panicked, remember? A babbling idiot. It really is quite embarrassing. And almost inexplicable. I’ve been in some pretty gnarly stuff out in the Gulf and the Atlantic—winds of 43 on the nose, 15-foot seas—but it has never made me feel like docking does. This instant on-set, heart-pounding dread.
Many of you may have already seen this candid, unedited video we posted to Facebook of my first de-docking that—in my mind—didn’t go so well. But, as Phillip says: “If we didn’t hit anything and nothing’s broke, it went well.” But I had not yet published it on the blog, so I wanted to share it here, as well as a few other docking incidences we’ve racked up in the last couple of weeks while putting me more on the helm as I believe each one is a lesson and a confidence builder.
Here is my first (very scary, very harrowing, shockingly near-miss) de-docking out of Key West:
Undeterred, we continued to put Annie on the helm and let her try her hand at docking against the fuel dock in Venice in some rather calm conditions. Thank goodness! The winds were light and I had a moderate tide pushing against the boat and keeping my speed down along with some great instruction from Phillip about making sure to err away from the dock because the wind would easily and quickly push me toward it. (Oh, and some fantastic dock hands that helped us as well. I will never be ashamed to ask for hands on the dock to help grab lines. “Save my baby!”):
So, Annie did good there. We didn’t hit anything and nothing got broke. Gold star. But, our next docking opportunity was a very telling one. A thankfully-successful, but rather-difficult docking by Phillip. The winds were blowing about 15 kts with a very strong current pushing in the same direction. Phillip still wanted me to try it because “You’re going to have to dock in these conditions someday.” While that is most definitely true, I was a little reluctant but was willing to try because Phillip is right (and, remember, I still want to impress him). After about a ten-minute discussion with the dock hand talking us through all of the dangers, the conditions to pay attention to, the best approach and how quickly the boat could get sideways in the slip if I “undershot it” (which I wasn’t quite sure what that even meant), I was—needless to say—more than nervous. But, I was still going to do it right? Right, let’s go.
You’ll see, however, in the video, that just backing off the fuel dock, I’m completely petrified, shaking hands and legs, not sure which way to even turn the wheel to control the stern in reverse. I throw it all the way over hard to port then back to starboard, then back to port again. I’m a mess. Phillip was initially on deck, but when he made his way back to the helm, he could see the terror in my eyes and the lack of focus and confidence to truly handle this docking, so he took the wheel. And nailed it!
Five thousand gold stars for Phillip. Another successful docking! We didn’t hit anything and nothing got broke. Again! So, I should now be all rainbows and sunshine, right?
I’m not. I’m pissed. Furious. In a fuming cloud of funk.
Why? The answer is embarrassingly stupid. It’s not because I got too nervous to do it. This was a very tricky docking situation with winds and current pushing in the same direction, up against the pier in a narrow, short finger-piered slip. While I will have to handle those conditions someday, I know I am not yet experienced enough to handle that one confidently just yet. Giving up the wheel wasn’t the issue. I was totally comfortable with that. I’m infuriated because we’re docked, everything’s fine, and I’m the only one who’s all Petrified Patty about it. It is only my heart that is beating through the bones of my chest. Only my hands that are shaking like a junkie in detox. I’m the only one who’s freaked out. Me. Annie. Everyone else is all: “Great, we’re here.” “Good job Captain.” “Where did you guys come in from?” And I want to scream: “From the fuel dock just over there and we almost crashed! Didn’t you see?! I can’t just chit-chat with you right now!” I hate that I’m a nervous, frustrated wreck and I’m so mad at myself about it. But that is what I feel in the moment, when we have a hairy docking—even a successful one—and it takes me a while to calm down.
Perhaps this is just a personal venting, or perhaps many of you feel this way. Do you?
All I can say is: It’s frustrating and embarrassing, but I’m working on it. Annie Raw. Out.
“I figured that was the best reason to do it. Because I was afraid to.”
This was something a very good friend of mine told me years ago. (Sonnie, if you’re reading this, thank you!) She was talking, at first, about starting triathlon training because she was afraid to swim long distances, but she found the principle so inspiring she applied it to many other “obstacles” in her life—becoming a single parent, moving to another state, starting a new job—and she succeeded in all of them. The theory always stuck with me. So simple. So true. If you’re avoiding doing something you want to do because you are afraid, that is the very best reason to do it. Conquer your fears!
That’s what I am doing this summer. As many of you may have seen in the announcement at the end of my most recent YouTube video, I will be joining in the Pensacola a la Habana race this April with SailLibra in order to get more days on the water for a goal I have set for myself this summer. While the big goal is to get my Captain’s License, the bigger accomplishment I seek to achieve is to get over one very big fear I have had for a while. One I have had for too long. It frustrates me, frightens me and makes me want to do just as Sonnie said: Do it because I’m sick of being afraid of it.
What am I afraid of?
Steering the boat. Not so much when we’re out there in the big blue. (There are many, hundreds, of reasons why I love offshore sailing, but one is … there’s not many things to run into out there.) And not so much when we’re on a steady tack and just holding a heading. But I am terrified of steering our boat in and out of the dock, through tight channels and around shoals and other obstacles. I have a huge fear of crashing her into pilings, other boats, rocky bottoms, big concrete sea walls. I’m seeing this all in my mind as I write this, just as I always do when I think about docking our boat. And, that’s awful! I want to travel the world by sailboat. I want to go cruising! While it’s great that Phillip is an excellent helmsman and I’m a pretty kick-ass First Mate, I shouldn’t let that fear get the best of me. Something could happen to Phillip. He could fall overboard. Become incapacitated. Or heck, maybe I will want or need to single-hand at some point. Just to give him a break or because, whatever, life happens. Some of my very best friends are single-handed female sailors because their husbands passed away immediately and unexpectedly and they inspire me to no end because they still get their boats out and go. (Bridgette, Pam, I am so proud of you!) All of that to say, you never know what the future holds and there is no excuse for living in fear. This is the year I conquer my fears.
So, this summer Video Annie is going to sea school! We’re focusing on education, training and, most importantly, sticking Annie behind the wheel. Even when she’s scared. Even when the boat is nearing the bock. Even when it’s a difficult situation and she wants to throw her hands up and have someone else take the wheel. Captains Randy and Ryan with SailLibra have been gracious enough to offer me time on their day charter boats (an Irwin 37 and Beneteau 35) while our Niagara is still down in the Keys. Phillip and I are planning to bring her home in April and I’ll plan to take the helm the majority of that trip and our many trips this summer. I am docking our boat dangit! And then I’m de-docking it (Annie term) and docking it again. I’m sick of getting this nervous knot in my stomach every time I take the wheel. I want to look like this behind the wheel. All kicked back and confident.
“Yeah buddy!” my Dad would say.
While the helm work is the pinnacle for me, Phillip and I also want to increase our training and education. We have signed up for an STCW class (Standards for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) in April and I will also begin Captain’s School in May. After counting my days on the water (I can’t believe I have racked up so many in just over three years!), I only need a few dozen more to be able to apply for my license so I will be gathering Sea Service Forms and all of the other elements necessary to apply. While I am excited and will be so proud to obtain my Captain’s License, it is all part of a bigger goal to become a more educated, knowledgable and a confident sailor. I will be way more proud when I pull our beautiful Niagara into the slip and dock her all by myself. Then de-dock and dock her ten more times in a row not because of luck but because I know how and can do it in all kinds of conditions, comfortably and confidently. That is a day I will be incredibly proud.
So, my time has come. I’m going to push myself and bring guys along for the ride. Watch, learn and grow with us.