We didn’t reach the mouth of Carrabelle River until around 9:00 p.m. on Monday night. It had been a very long day (and an even longer night). Nerves were worn and it was clear we were trying not to snap at each other but anything that had previously come across as an easy request or friendly suggestion (“Hey Mitch, can you had me that line?”) now seemed like a personal attack and was responded to in kind (“I was just about to give it to you” with a snare). We were just exhausted. We’d been at sea for about 36 hours, and the dinghy incident had really drained us. And, we were hungry. Which didn’t help matters. All we wanted to do was dock, shower, eat and rest. In that order.
We were able to find the entrance to the river on the Garmin, despite the sad excuses for markers. I mean, it’s usually pretty easy to see the red and green blinking lights at night, they look like Christmas trees on the horizon, but these must have been the Charlie Brown version.
They were blinking once every four seconds, at best, and were barely eeking out enough light that it you squinted and turned your head to the left, you could just make them out. We were like George Costanza without his glasses – spotting those dimes!
But, spot them we did and began making our way into the river. Phillip asked me to find a marina on the river, whatever was closest that had fuel, water and pump-out, get directions in, and get us a transient slip for the night. Sounds like a tall order, and for me, it was. That’s a lot to ask of a blonde (I mean, directions? Are you kidding?). But, remember what I said about the personal attacks. Phillip was in no kind of mood for questions. I just started Googling and hoped for the best. I got another Harry-Dick-Lou character on the phone. He was with The Moorings marina on Carrabelle River. And, I swear to you, these are the exact directions he gave me:
“Just stay ‘right of the river’ till you get around the bend, then you’ll see our fuel sign.”
Now remember who I’m dealing with – your average, everday dockmaster:
I asked several times for clarification (knowing this probably wasn’t going to suffice Phillip), but that’s all he would give me: “Just stay right of the river and you won’t have any problem.” Right of the river. I have to admit I was a bit confused. I was sure he meant stay on the right side of the river. Surely that’s what “right of” meant. But, I’d never quite heard it put that way (and mind you, I know a good bit of ‘country’ directional terms: up yonder, down yonder, past the ditch, up a ways, etc.) But, I guess I’ve never been introduced to nautical country, and I was clearly struggling. I came up to the cockpit and relayed the directions to Phillip, watching his face closely for what I was sure was going to be disapproval. His shoulders dropped and he looked me dead on and asked, “Right of the river?” He had the same reaction as I did. What exactly did that mean? Well, I tell you, we were about to learn.
We started into the river, trying to stay on the right side as much as possible, but Carrabelle River is about 100 yards across in some places, pretty narrow for a sailboat. The left bank was marshy and overgrown, and the right bank was littered with docks and piers and homemade sea walls. There were also plenty of boats docked up on the right side, jutting out and forcing us more toward the “middle” of the river, than the “right.” It was also hard to see in the river at night. There were just a few little pier lights and street lights casting a light glow on the water. We found a great spotlight on the boat only to find the DC inlet it plugged into wasn’t working. So, we relied solely on the ‘Costanza squint’ and kept checking the depth gage every few seconds. Mitch saw some other sailboats anchored up ahead on the left side of the river, which gave us some comfort, but apparently too much. Mitch was pointing and we were all looking ahead, trying to make them out, when the boat came to an immediate, gut-halting stop. We all lurched forward as a thick, muddy sound erupted from the river.
We had run aground.
I couldn’t believe it. I had spent hours (yes, hours, probably – all told) watching that depth gage and calling out readings to Phillip. I knew it was a concern. I knew it was a possibility, but it’s like I didn’t believe it could actually happen. Surely the boat doesn’t go that deep …
Apparently it does. I thought that was it, we were through, that was the absolute worst thing that could happen. Images of the boat looking like this the next morning flashed through my mind:
But, thankfully, it seems if you’re going to run aground, the best place to do it is in thick, soft river mud. Phillip threw her in reverse and she lurched out, with a loud, muddy smack. We all let out a monstrous sigh of relief and started looking around, apparently with new clarity, because it wasn’t until then that we noticed, right in front of our faces, was a string of red day markers (no lights), forming a line beyond the middle of the river, showing us how far out the shoal came, leaving only a narrow channel between the markers and the docks on the right side that was deep enough to travel. Lou really meant right of the friggin’ river. Phillip rolled his eyes and shook his head, but kept on.
We made it to the marina and, this time, docked with ease. The river was protected from winds and we were a bit more experienced at bringing her in. We got her tied up and buttoned down and hit the showers. If I had to describe them, I would call them … semi-functional truck-stop showers.
Although some ‘stalls’ had flimsy, torn curtains, most had none at all, so they were pretty much like gym-class community showers, but at least I didn’t have as much to worry about as the boys.
Truth is, though, we were exhausted and smelly and dirty and salty. Any rusty spicket that dribbled luke-warm water on us would have easily been deemed the best shower we’d ever had. It’s funny how uncomfortable conditions can make you truly appreciate the smallest amenities of your everyday life. A hot shower … it was like a Christmas miracle.
I was second back to the boat. I climbed on board, every muscle and joint aching, deep, purple bruises forming on every bony prominence and just thoroughly exhausted, and I find Mitch stretched out on the settee. I mean laid out, the full length, arms behind his head, ankles crossed, totally kicked back and he asks me, “So … are you going to make that sausage for dinner?” It was a record-scratch moment. Time stopped, at least for a second. I wish I could have seen my face when he asked me that. Because if this is what Mitch was thinking:
Here’s what I was thinking:
I didn’t even know what to say. Thankfully Phillip walked in and I didn’t have to (because I don’t think Mitch would have wanted to hear it). I turned my back to Mitch, looked at Phillip and told him I was going to go check the dock lines while he got the sausage started for Mitch for dinner. I bit my lip and threw up an eyebrow as I passed him on the way out. I don’t know what conversation ensued while I went topside to emit some hot fumes but when I came back down Mitch was setting the table and pouring me a glass of wine and we all made dinner together and never mentioned it. There wasn’t any need. We were all tired, we were all hungry and I’m sure it was just his caveman instinct kicking in. “I am man. Feed me.”
Except this guy is way better looking than Mitch. Ooohhh … burrrnnn. Okay, now I feel better. (We’re even Mitch).
We inhaled our food, eyelids drooping and heads bobbing, and went straight to bed. I don’t think I’ve slept that hard since my last college bender. (Okay, my last bender – we all know it was well after college). We woke up a little disoriented and groggy, each blinking and looking at each other suspiciously wandering where exactly we were and why we felt like we’d been run over by a Mac truck. But, we rallied quickly, cracked some jokes about community showers and started readying the boat for the last leg of the passage. It was Tuesday morning. We were about a day and a half behind schedule, but we had crossed the Gulf. Our plan was to cruise along the coast to Panama City for a quick stop, overnight if necessary, before making the last leg of the trip into Pensacola Pass late Wednesday evening. We all moved with a little more spring in our step as we fueled up, pumped out and filled the water tanks. Phillip checked and filled the oil and we cranked her up and started back down the river.
I went down below to start some coffee and breakfast for the boys, making some light joke about sausage. But, just as I started to fill the kettle, a deafening blare filled the galley. It was the sound the engine makes when you turn the key just before starting it, and it was a somewhat familiar sound (in that I heard it often during the trip) but it was usually one sound in a series of several familiar sounds that ended with the cranking of the engine: click, beep, rumble, crank. This was just the beep. A shrill, lonesome, ear-piercing beep. Then it dawned on me (I know, I’m brilliant, try to keep up) that the engine wasn’t running. That’s why the beep seemed so loud and persistent. I heard footsteps pound overhead on the deck and Phillip shouted “Mitch, go get the … ” something. I couldn’t make it out, but the tone in Phillip’s voice was urgent. I climbed the stairs to the cockpit and saw Phillip looking frantically about, his hands on the key and ignition. Mitch shouted back to him, “Did you try to re-crank it?” Phillip looked at me and rolled his eyes. It was a legitimate question, but I mean, really?? Nope, I’m just sitting back here watching the wind blow. I could tell by now that we were having engine trouble, but I have to admit, as a sailing newbie that didn’t worry me immediately. So, the engine won’t crank. What’s the big deal? I know what you’re thinking. Remember, you heard it from me, first. I’m brilliant.
Then I looked out and the gravity of the situation set in. We were floating helplessly along the river. The narrow, shallow, expensive-boat-lined river. And, without the engine, we had no way to stop ourselves from crashing into any one of these options – the bank, the bottom, the half-a-million-dollar Catamaran that we were drifting effortlessly toward. It then dawned on me why Mitch had run up to the bow. He was trying to drop the anchor to stop us.
And, I know you boating enthusiasts and avid sailors are getting a big hearty laugh right now at my ignorance. Go ahead, laugh it up, seriously. Looking back on it now, I do too:
Golly jeepers Cap’n. The engine won’t crank? Are we in a pickle?
I was an idiot. I know this.
Phillip scrambled in the cockpit and asked me to help him get the other anchor out of the lazarette. We were both grabbing and throwing lines, jamming our hands in as fast as we could to get everything out because of course (of course!) the anchor was on the very bottom. I tore a huge chunk out of my knuckle in the process that I only discovered later by following the blood trail back to the lazarette. We finally got the anchor out and chunked it overboard. We fed out line frantically, hoping she would catch. We looked up to see where we were drifting and the owner of the half-a-million-dollar Catamaran, who, before, had just been gingerly polishing his boat, wiping away any small, unwanted spots and specks, was now watching a 35-foot, 15,000 pound unstoppable sailboat head straight for it. I gripped the line to the anchor and watched as the Catamaran guy stood up and stretched his neck tall like a crane, his hose now hanging aimlessly, splashing water loudly on his deck, and his eyes opening wide as we inched closer. There was nothing we could do. We were going to hit him.