So, after Dasani bottles and duct tape, what do you think the next most important item on a boat is? A plunger? No. Unfortunately, if the head stops working, that glorious contraption of wood and rubber is not going to save you. Try again. Something incredibly important, like transmission fluid or oil? The infamous ” Johnson rod,” maybe?
George Costanza: [about mechanics] Well of course they’re trying to screw you! What do you think? That’s what they do. They can make up anything; nobody knows! “Why, well you need a new johnson rod in here.” Oh, a Johnson rod. Yeah, well better put one of those on!
You’re right. I’m sure it’s something incredibly important. But, during those early morning hours of May 27th, as we were coming into the marina in Pensacola, I’ll tell you what it was. Paper towels. Strong and brawny ones!
Mmmm … ain’t he a beaut?And, just for fun – it appears they cleaned old Mr. Brawny up over the last decade. Apparently today’s “modern woman” just wasn’t digging the 70’s ‘stache and blonde shag, so we get the preppy, shaved, PC version. Sad times.
But I digress. So, we were nearing the marina and our Dasani catch bin was full to the brim with pink fluid jostling around, just waiting to drip over and spill into the bilge. While transmission fluid in the bilge is not a huge deal, it’s certainly not an ideal one. If it gets down there, it’s got to be pumped out and cleaned up and otherwise dealt with. Needless to say, it was best for us to catch the fluid if we could. So, I wedged myself down near the open engine and held up a wad of the old Brawnies under the transmission shifter arm to catch the drip until we got just a few minutes away, then I wadded up the biggest bundle of paper towels I could (about the size of a basketball) and shoved it down in the bilge to catch whatever dripped while we docked. A mighty fine ‘sorbant pad if you will.
And, you laugh, but I now know that the standard-issue oil absorbent pad, which we now keep under the engine at all times, really does look just like a wadded-up Depends undergarment.
So, with my make-shift “Depends” in place, I was ready “get back into life” and get topside to help Phillip. But, now we’re docking again, and we all know how exceptionally great I am at that. So, of course, my heart is beating and thumping out of my chest. My hands are all sweaty and I keep stubbing my toe on things as I’m scrambling to tie lines and hang bumpers. We were coming in here to the Palafox Pier in Pensacola:
Here’s the birdseye view:
We were planning to just tie up at the fuel dock while we got our things together and wait for the dockmaster to find us a temporary slip for the day. Our first plan once we got the boat to Pensacola was to have it hauled out for a bottom job. That’s where they pull it out of the water with giant straps and set it up on jacks in a shipyard to sand and re-paint the hull. We knew that would mean a couple of weeks out of the water, so we didn’t have a permanent slip lined up yet. If you recall from the survey, we knew we were going to have to have a bottom job on ours done as soon as we got her home as our surveyor (you remember the ever-charming Kip):
“Every gal loves a good banging first thing in the morning!”
had found the potential leak in the core where the strut is fastened to the hull as well as several blisters in the paint on the hull that were allowing sea water in (http://havewindwilltravel.com/2013/05/12/april-3-2013-the-surveysea-trial/). Saltwater is just rough on everything, and every sailboat needs to have its bottom work redone once every 3-4 years. We knew it was time for ours so we had scheduled her for a paint a polish as soon as we got back. But, if you’re checking the calendar, you’ll see the day we pulled into that fateful dock was, unfortunately, Memorial Day (May 27, 2013), so she was scheduled to be hauled out the next business day – May 28th. As luck would have it, we had arrived a day ahead of schedule this time but if the initial Crossing taught us anything it was to never try to sail anywhere in a hurry. Always build in a few days’ cushion for weather, wind, boat problems. transmission leaks, complete engine failures, you know – the usual boat stuff. So, we just needed a temporary spot at Palafox Pier for the night. A transient slip they are called. But, the guys that run the marina don’t tend to open up shop at 5:30 a.m. just in case some rogue midnight traveler needs a transient slip, so we planned to tie up at the fuel dock while we waited for the dockmaster to arrive at 8:00 a.m.
This was our path in to the fuel dock:
Now, while I’m sure you may have tired by now of my many harrowing tales of our numerous docking debacles (docking is scary!), I will try your patience for just one more, because the true hero here was Phillip. The wind was strong that morning (of course!), blowing about 12-15 mph right out of the east:
Which meant it was blowing our nose right off the dock:
As Phillip began pulling the boat up alongside the dock, the wind kept pushing us off and the gap between the bow, and even the midship, and the dock kept widening. I just couldn’t make the leap (without losing a limb or two or my teeth when I hit the dock on the way down – and, to be honest, I’m kind of fond of all of those appendages – particularly the teeth). I had a line clenched tight in my hand, this time, but it was just too far to jump. I didn’t know what to do, but thankfully Phillip did. He was still close enough to the dock at the stern to leap off, stern line in hand (smart man!) and tie it quick to a cleat. He then ran forward and shouted at me to throw him the bow line. I wadded a few loops in my hand, gritted my teeth and tossed it up in the air. Phillip and I watched breathlessly as it snaked out, slowly unwinding and floating toward him. It was like Rookie of the Year pitching the famous “floater”:
You can imagine the dramatic Hollywood score playing in the background and the bright clang of the cymbals as Phillip caught the tail end of the line. Trumpets blared! He pulled the bow of the boat to the dock and told me to go back to the stern and kill the engine. I did, and the silence of the moment suffocated us. Everything was suddenly so inordinately quiet. There was no motor running, no shouting, no water or waves. Just silence … and safety. Phillip and I just sat for a minute on the dock, staring at her in disbelief. There she was, our boat, tied to the dock in Pensacola. She was safe, secure, home. We had finally done it.
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.
After a beautiful sunset and a warm meal, we settled in and sailed all through the night on Thursday. If you’ve never done it before, never felt that feeling, it will be hard to conjure. I don’t know if I can really capture it but I, of course, am going to try. I remember before the trip I had asked Phillip, “How do you see at night?” Now, understand this question came from the same, silly girl that asked him when we bought the boat, “So … how are they going to ship the boat to us?” So I would have completely understood if Phillip had tilted his head to one side and patted me on the head slowly like I was a lame dog while he answered, but I really felt like this was a legitimate question. How could we travel across the Gulf in total darkness? What if another ship didn’t have their lights on? Or what if there was some other inanimate object out there – an unknown land mass, a whale … an iceberg?? Okay, an iceberg was very unlikely, but I was ready with my big one-line acting debut if it did occur (Brittish accent and all: “Iceberg, right ahead!”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TAX0bgWIps). But, I really was unsure how we were going to be able to see to sail at night. And, while the answer Phillip gave me seemed impossible at the time, I now know it is true: by the moon. Without all the glare and reflection of city lights, the moon and stars and their reflection on the water, illuminate everything. You can see the entire boat, all the way up to the bow, and for miles out across the water. And, you can hear the boat, harnessing nothing more than the wind, gliding through the water, making way in the darkness. It’s incredible.
Mitch shone that night, too. That night he taught me how to “sight sail.” To understand, I’ll have to give you a small sailing lesson. When you’re making a passage from one point to another (usually one marina or anchorage to another), assuming it’s a straight shot, you have to find your heading. Without highways, street signs or land markers of any kind, it’s kind of hard to know exactly where the heck you’re going when it’s just you and the horizon. Hence, your heading. This is a number, a degree between 1 and 360 that you need to hold to travel a straight path to your destination. Now, you can calculate your heading the old-school way with charts and a parallel ruler and compass rose, which would make you about as exciting as this guy:
Or you can new-age it by plugging your destination into your fancy, schmancy GPS and it will spit out your heading. Now, how exactly do you hold that heading? (Much like a reservation – it only works if you hold it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4jhHoHpFXc). Forgive me but I just love that bit and have been dying to find the perfect place to use it. And, if you don’t think this was the perfect place, I’m eager to hear your comments. Please be sure to properly log your complaint in my newly-created complaint box at www.idontcare.com).
So, holding your heading. It’s fairly easy. Every boat is equipped with a great big compass right at the helm. You’ll see it here in this pic just behind the wheel.
The compass has North, East, South, West on it, with the accompanying 360 degrees (North is 0, South is 180 and you can figure out the others in between – if you can’t, know that I thought much more of you and am thoroughly disappointed. East is 90 and West 270). One great big circle. The aforementioned GPS also tells you what “degree” you’re traveling on. So, you can watch the compass or the GPS to make sure you’re staying at or near your number. While this is great and very efficient, it can often make holding the helm seem like a bit of a chore. The boat is agile and eager to follow the seas. Much like a two-year old in Toys-R-Us, you turn your eyes for one second and she’ll slip right off in another direction. You have to constantly hold the wheel and make small, minute adjustments to keep her on course. This can seem particularly tiresome when you’re night sailing and your eyes are glued on the compass for hours on end (and these are the wee, early, you want sleep more than anything else on the earth hours). Unless you know how to sight sail. Sight sailing is probably how they did it in the old days. Think Christopher Columbus and his voyage to the New World. It’s sailing by the stars. You hold your heading and find a star in the sky that “rides” on some point on your boat, say near the edge of one of your sails or right on top of a rail, just some fixed point on the boat. Then, rather than stare at the compass or the GPS, you simply watch the night sky and keep that star on that fixed point on your boat and voila, you are now holding your heading my friend without use of a single instrument. Something about it made me feel connected, to the stars, to the night, to the old sailors that did that way hundreds of years ago.
It certainly freed me, from squinting and focusing on a number and, at the very least, from staring at the orange, aging glow of the compass and I will forever thank Mitch for it. It was a long night but we made it through our first night’s passage without any real issue. We toasted the sunrise Friday morning with steaming cups of coffee and made plans for getting into Clearwater.
The wind began to pick up mid-morning and we watched with excitement as the sails filled and pulled taut and powered us through the water. But the wind continued to build so we decided to reef them in a bit. While I was pulling in the furling line to reel in the Genny (the genoa sail up front) Phillip and I heard a loud “ping” in the cockpit. We both looked at each other sternly, asking without saying: What was that? And it was clear neither of us knew. I began looking around the cockpit for some kind of clue and there it was: a bolt head lying on the cockpit floor near the helm. And, I say a bolt “head” because the bolt had sheared right through, just below the head. The stem of the bolt was nowhere in sight. I held it up for Phillip to see and we again exchanged the same question in silence: Where the hell did that come from? I began looking around the Genny cam cleat and the winch and where I had been working when we heard the ominous ‘ping,’ but nothing. Every bolt seemed to be fully in tact. We were confused, not yet concerned, but without the luxury to worry about it at the moment. By the time we made it into the pass she was blowing about 20 knots, and our primary concern was finding the marina and getting docked.
As soon as we had signal, Phillip told me to call the marina and get directions. I got on the phone with a man named Lou. His voice was thick and garbled like he either weighed 300 pounds or was talking through a mouth full of marbles. I assumed the latter and it turned out to be true. He was the dockmaster, and I swear they must all be cut from the same cloth (at least down there in South Florida) because I talked to many during the course of this trip and they all had similar one-syllable, car mechanic names (Jim, Bob, Lou, Joe), spoke with the same garbled dialect and looked something like this:
Minus the goggles. Wait … scratch that … some of them wore goggles.
And, they gave directions just like my Dad would, not with precise streets to turn on and miles to travel before you’ll see your exit. No, they use obscure, only locally-known markers like “take a left after Briscoe Hill and head toward Johnson’s barn and then she’s just right up the road on the right.” Thanks Dad, big help. These dockmasters were exactly the same. Lou told me to: “Come in through the pass until you go under the ‘big bridge,’ then hang a left and you’ll see our marina there with the fuel sign.” Yep, that’s as clear as it got. And, I even asked him, like a dumb blonde asking for directions, “the BIG bridge??”
Lou said “Yeah, honey, the big one. There’s only one big one.” I knew I wasn’t going to get anything else out of him, so I did all I knew to do. Relayed the message exactly as it was told to me and hoped Phillip could make sense of it. Thankfully, there was only one “big” bridge (although I don’t think it required the “honey” prefix), but it was huge and noticeable and we went right under, preparing to “hang a left.” I know, now, how stressful docking can be in a new marina, but I did not know at the time. I just knew Phillip was tense and stern, all business, and focused entirely on the GPS and the depth readings. I knew our primary focus was not to ‘run aground,’ but I didn’t know what else to do to prevent it other than shout out depth readings periodically to Phillip. Mitch was up at the bow looking out for the “left” we were supposed to be hanging and he saw a marina just off the portside of the bow, but it was far more “dead ahead” than left. He swore to Phillip: “That’s it. That has to be it. That’s the marina – head that way.” But, thankfully, Phillip wasn’t satisfied. He turned us around and had me hold the helm and make a few circles while he checked the paper charts and, sure enough, the “marina dead ahead” was just on the other side of a very shallow shoal that would have run us aground for sure and wreaked havoc on the boat. Phillip eventually found the inlet we needed to get into to get to our marina (the “left” we were supposed to hang) and we headed that way. But, the marina certainly wasn’t protected and we had 20 knot winds coming off our stern as we headed into the slip.
We tried to toss a dock line around a pole near the stern but we couldn’t get it around. And when I say “we,” I actually mean me, and I’m still mortified by it – but I did try very hard and know, now, that is not an easy thing to do – even for a salty sailor. Without a line to keep the stern in place, there was nothing Phillip could do in the cockpit to keep the boat from moving forward. The wind was just too strong. Thankfully, Dockmaster Lou apparently had a brother, whom they called Red, and he was even bigger than Lou. With those big boy hosses holding the bow, it looked like we had two sumo wrestlers pushing the boat off of the dock.
They held us off while we scrambled to tie dock lines and drop fenders and get her secured for the night. We were all exhausted at that point and in desperate need of a shower, shave (yes, me too) and, most of all, sleep. Our sail groupies (Phillip’s parents) met us at port and engaged in a fun photo op.
Thankfully they had also rented a hotel there near the marina and we unapologetically took advantage of the facilities. We dipped in the pool:
And commandeered the shower and finally made our way back to the boat for an easy snack dinner in the cockpit and some wine.
We were ready to get a good night’s sleep but we certainly had some decisions to make. The 20 knot winds we had faced in the pass were the beginning of a nasty front that was coming in. The sea state on Saturday was predicted to be very rough: 20-25 knot winds and 5-7 foot waves. Phillip was inclined to wait it out but he knew that might take days and we all, unfortunately, had jobs and deadlines to get back to at some point (and that was putting it lightly – Mitch’s magazine was actually scheduled to go to print the day after we were going to get back (Tuesday), and I had a jury trial starting the following Monday – it was just hard to take any more time off). It was already Friday evening and we were still a good four days away from home. But, this storm looked bad. Phillip knew better than the rest of us how rough the passage would really be and I could tell he was struggling with the decision. We decided to rest up for the night and make the call in the morning. The crew was tired and in need of a solid eight hours of sleep. I put the sheared bolt head in the companionway tray and we shut her down for the night.