Fish Off the Hook – MY Scariest Moment of the Trip

Do you see it in the photo? That fish is off the hook! Literally!  Looking back, I still can’t believe Phillip and I actually got that one into the cockpit, but the pics are proof: WE DID!

Ahoy followers!  After that stretchy sidebar, it’s now time to get back to our Bahamas saga.  When we last left our hapless crew, Phillip and I (well, actually I) had just accomplished my best de-docking ever leaving Bimini (and, don’t worry, there will be plenty more not-so-great dockings after).  We were heading out early in the morning after a five-day hunker-down (that’s a military term I think) in Bimini when we had some steady east winds upwards of 18 kts on us for several days.  While it did make for some great kiting in Bimini, after five days, most of the boats on our pier were ready to toss the lines and get going.  

The winds were predicted to be a light ESE, that Philip and I were hoping would turn more south than east. (And, I hope you’ll notice my clever “hope” foreshadowing here.  As is often the case when we try to predict the wind, we are wrong.  I would call it bad foreblowing as opposed to foreshadowing but I wouldn’t want to entice toooo many foul jokes : ).  The winds were nice enough to start.  We were hauling away from Bimini toward our entrance into the Great Bahamas Bank with plans to make an overnight passage to either the west harbor on Nassau or—if things were going well on the passage—all the way to the Exumas, which was our ultimate goal this first leg of the trip.  Always good to have planned “outs” and “plan Bs” at the ready.    

It was a brisk romp in about 18kts of breeze (not what we expected, so much for the foreblowing) but it was comfortable making our way toward the Great Bahamas Bank.  

Phillip and I are still very pleased with our decision to trade out our whopping 135% genoa for our 90% offshore working jib when we’re cruising island to island (or country to country) and know we’ll be doing a good bit of offshore cruising.  Unlike “Genny,” our little “Wendy” (aptly named by one of my HaveWind followers) is super sporty and rarely gets overpowered.  It was really a fun day sailing all the way into the Great Bahamas Bank and beyond.  

While I didn’t expect it, after spending only five days and four nights on the dock in Bimini, I had already missed offshore voyaging.  That may sound a little silly having just crossed the Gulf Stream to get to Bimini, I’m serious!  When you actually get going and find yourself weighing anchor (or tossing the lines) and getting the boat moving—to an entirely new location—every 3-4 days, 5 days starts to seem just one to many.  The moment you’re back offshore, moving again, you realize how much you missed it.  

And, it didn’t hurt that the stars over the Bahamas Bank that night were just decadent. A white smattering of them, like salt on the sky.  And, I remember seeing several shooting stars that evening (and making several wishes). That I cannot share!  (It’s a Star Pact.)

The next morning, I had the sunrise shift, which is totally fine with me.  I love the shift where the sky transitions from night to day.  It’s amazing to watch it change seemingly slowly at first and then so quickly.  It still stuns me sometimes—when Phillip and I are in work mode, doing all of our busy marketing and lawyer work on land, where we don’t see near as many sunrises and sunsets as when we’re on the boat cruising—that this still happens out there. Out there, every morning (when it is clear), the sky turns from this velvety purple, to mind-boggling magenta, to a warm welcoming pinkish-yellow.  Every day. Whether you see it or not.  It’s not like wondering whether a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound.  No. I’m confident every single sunrise is beautiful, exquisite, whether seen or not. 

But, that serene “Ahhh … life is wonderful” Annie-moment didn’t last long as we were coming towards the entry into the Northwest Providence Channel and the Tongue of the Ocean. In reality, it is a rather wide entrance.  But, when a barge is coming through at the very same time, it is a rather narrow entrance. Phillip had only been asleep about 40 minutes when I was debating waking him again.  Not that we try to be prideful, in not needingto wake the other crew member (known on our boat as the “other captain” : ) up—well, Phillip might be … a tad … he still is a Marine, or helpful, in letting the other person sleep more when we know they are tired.  

No.  On Plaintiff’s Restwe try to always follow the standing “When to Wake the Captain Rule” which I have written on before.  That rule is: It’s time to wake the Captain when you’ve thought: Maybe I should wake the Captain.  Standing rule.  Applies all the time.  

And, with a 600-foot barge coming toward the NW Providence Channel inlet the exact same time I was with a CPA (closest point of approach on our AIS) narrowing from 0.8 of a mile to 0.6 down to 0.3 in about 20 minutes, I knew it was time to wake my “other captain.”  While Phillip was not thrilled with his 40-minute-only nap, he is always very diligent in getting up and getting alert quickly when there is a potential issue. Although this one was a little embarrassing in that by the time we passed the barge just before the entrance, it was clear 0.4 nm apart is a perfectly safe distance in the daytime with everyone motoring along in calm seas.  The entrance to the channel suddenly felt monstrously wide leaving me plenty of room, which mighthave left me a little embarrassed for having woke Phillip.  But, I was not.  This is the very reason for the rule.  It alleviates the need to feel embarrassed or ashamed.  (And I like it that way.) 

But that little “adventure” was just the start of our harrowing day which turned out to be MY scariest moment of the entire trip.  I have written about Phillip’s before.  It was our “Auto Turn-Notto” dilemma before we left for the Bahamas (which, granted, was before we left for our trip) but that was Phillip’s answer when he was asked: “What was your scariest moment of the trip?”  That was his. This was mine.

As we started to make our way into the Tongue of the Ocean, things got a little bumpy.  The predicted “light” ESE winds were 18+ kts right on the nose.  While Phillip and I had been hoping they would turn south sooner as predicted, they had not.  And, ironically, although they had been blowing like stink dead out of the east for days, we would have welcomed an east wind now as it would have been more on our beam, rather than the nose.  But, nope.  We had those two kinds of winds that often occur together: winds of the wrong speed and in the wrong direction.  “My favorite!” said no sailor ever.

While we were … somewhat comfortable … it was a bit of a bash-around bumpy ride, and the thought of continuing in that fashion for another 6-7 hours to Nassau or (worse) another 18-24 to the Exumas was … not very appealing.  After some discussion, thought, and chart-checking, Phillip and I decided to pull into Andros.  We had never been there before, but a good friend of ours from back in Pensacola (Captain Jack if you’re listening – here’s your “shout-out!”) had highly recommended it as a more untouched part of the Bahamas and a great spot for kitesurfing.  Two things we love to find the most while traveling: tranquility and kite access. So, we decided to head for a new anchorage to us, a place we had not originally intended to go during this trip to the Bahamas, but NOT “going with the weather” was a lesson we had learned in the past.  

The wind and seas were telling us to get out of this mess, so that is exactly what we chose to do.  Morgan’s Bluff looked like a safe little harbor that would offer us awesome protection from the ESE and S winds for the evening while this stuff blew over.  

It seemed, from the info in the charts, there was not much to do ashore, but we didn’t care. Phillip and I can make a lot of fun out of “not much” if we need to, and that’s only if we need.  We are perfectly content to sip sundowners in the cockpit, cook aboard, and watch the sun go down.  So, it was Morgan’s Bluff or bust!

But, that also meant coming into a new, narrow entrance in some kicked-up seas with winds on the nose knocking the boat all around.  Good times. While the B&G chartplotter showed a nice little curve of an inlet with plenty of depth and very clear markers for it, that map was for FantasyLand!  In reality, there were no markers in sight.  Although this is common in many places in the Bahamas (they simply don’t have the government funding, or the need, to maintain navigation markers as rigorously as we do in the states), it’s often not a big deal because the Explorer Charts are soooo accurate.  If I haven’t stressed that point strongly enough, I’ll happily do it again: If you’re planning to go to the Bahamas, get and study the Explorer Charts before you go and use them while you navigate!  www.explorercharts.com.  

Phillip was at the helm while I was religiously trying to match the lats and lons on the Explorer Charts to what was showing on the B&G as we made our way into Morgan’s Bluff in Andros.  Maybe for some of you this is easy (following lats and lons on a diagonal).  Annie proved to be not so good at it.  To my credit, I asked Phillip to let me helm this time on the way in while he navigated (since I did such a piss-poor job of it when we made our way into Bimini) but he said he was “in the zone.”  I would have loved to have been in his zone, because I was totally screwing up my zone. I don’t know how else to explain it other than a brain fart.

For some reason I was watching and monitoring the lats just fine, counting each degree as one, but stupidly my brain decided to attribute ten degrees to every one on the lons so I had us coming in almost dead from the north straight toward Morgan’s Bluff as opposed to making a wide curve to the east and coming in inside the inlet.  

This is the actual, natural channel you should take into Morgan’s Bluff.
This is the haphazard path I had us on which was littered with little “x’s” on the chart to mark rocks. : O

Once I realized my mistake I could see we were weaving through some rocks along our path toward the harbor with no seemingly safe space to turn around, so there was just nothing we could do but hope the rocks were deep enough not to cause any problems.  That was one of the worst gut-wrenching moments I’ve had on our boat, feeling the boat rise and fall with the waves and thinking I might be the cause of our keel striking a rock.  It literally made me feel sick, and I hope I never have that feeling again (although I’m sure I will).  The only other time I’ve felt physically ill because of something that might happen to the boat was when Hurricane Nate was seemingly making its way to Pensacola in 2017.  Yuck.

I will also go ahead and admit here I didn’t disclose the full gravity of our situation to Phillip at that time for two reasons: 1) I knew we couldn’t change or improve it at that point so why worry him further, I thought; and 2) I became too distracted anyway when right as we were bashing through the hairiest part, we got a

FISH ON!!!

Isn’t that when it always happens?  Phillip and I had been trolling the entire time since we left Pensacola, all the way around the Florida Keys, across the Gulf Stream, and once again when we got into the Tongue of the Ocean, and that entire time fish after fish had bitten off our lure.  Phillip and I joked often—when people, in person or on Facebook asked whether we’d caught any fish on the trip: “Of we’ve done plenty of fishing,” we’d say.  “We just haven’t done any catching.”  And, it’s true.  We lost lure after lure to those feisty fish in the Gulf.  I had to laugh thinking all those hours we spent when we were sailing over tothe Bahamas, in calm seas just watching the fishing line hoping for a bite, reeling it in time and again “just to check” we’d say, and throwing it back out. Any of those times would have been the perfect time to snag a big fish.  But, no, Neptune has to throw one our way when we’re beating and bashing along, off of the safe path (thanks Annie), making our way into a new, unknown harbor.  That’s the perfect time to be hauling in a fish!  

So, haul we did!  I took the helm and Phillip started pulling slowly and steadily winding our hand reel in.  I will say I was grateful for the excitement of the fish in that moment to dissipate some of my boat nerves.  In that sense the fish was a blessing.  But, boy was he a monster?!  Here’s one quick little video of him popping out of the water.

The first time I saw him zip to the outside of the boat, breach the surface and sink back down, I knew he was big.  Phillip could tell by how hard he was having to pull—using his entire body to arch back to get some length in the line so he could then fold the hand reel over to get another 10 inches on the guy.  

It was a slow and steady fight but Phillip finally brought him close enough where I could try to gaff him, which can be very hard to do with a fighting monster three feet below you, on a bobbing, swaying boat.  But I finally got him right under the gills and by some wicked twist of fate it was at that very moment the hook came out of his mouth, which meant my gaff was the onlything standing between us and the biggest fish we’ve ever seen behind Plaintiff’s Rest.  I was terrified he was going to kick and flail and fight his way off—and, believe me, he tried—but I kept turning the hook in hopes it would hold—and, thankfully, it DID!  When I hauled that bloody beast over the lifesling (leaving a nasty bloody trail on it but I didn’t give a you-know-what) and flopped him into the cockpit floor, Phillip let out a “Holy crap, that guy is huge!”  And he was.  That was the biggest fish we have caught to date on Plaintiff’s Rest.  He was as long as my leg!  And, that’s not a tall fish tale.  We have proof!  

That photo, however, was the second picture I made Phillip take because I wanted to capture the full length of that guy before I hacked him up and, in trying to do so the first time, the fish flipped off my gaff right when Phillip clicked the camera. So, we captured a fish in mid-air!

It was such a wild, heart-pumping moment pulling that guy in while bashing our way into Andros, scary but fun, frightening but exhilarating.  Cruising often feels like that.  All the times between the leisure, lavish cocktails-and-bikini days.  How did my friend Pat define cruising?  Oh yeah: Serene, tropical days interspersed with moments of sheer terror.  Yeah, that about sums it up.  Oh, that and the fish!  I made a bloodbath of our cockpit cleaning that big boy up.  

But look at that filet. It’s bigger than my thigh!  (And I’ve got some meaty thighs!)

As Phillip and I often do when we catch a fish that big, we cut up equally-sized (to the best of our ability) filets and bag some for the fridge, but more for the freezer so we can enjoy fresh fish at any time during our travels.  The Mahi we cooked up that night, was probably some of the best fish we had during our entire trip to the Bahamas.  (I’m sure the sheer terror of the moment combined with the monstrous fight getting him into the boat, followed by the hour-long cleaning of the fish, then the boat had some impact on the flavor, but it was a well-earned reward).  

And, I kid you not, that fish fed Phillip and I, two filets each (at least, sometimes 2-3), six dinners over during our Bahamas trip.  It had to be 8-9 pounds of edible fish.  That guy was such a blessing!  A long-awaited one, and certainly a wildly ill-timed one, but a blessing all the same! 

Thank you Neptune!!

Next up, we’ll share one of our favorite new places in the Bahamas.  A spot Phillip and I never thought we would stop at this trip but one we cannot wait to go back to explore further: the beautiful, untouched, but well-resourced, Andros.  Stay tuned!

Back at Sea! Me, Phillip and the Mackerel Makes Three!

Yep, a mackerel!  Which we originally thought was a wahoo, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Back it up.  Rewind.  Bzzzwwwhooop.

April 22, 2014:

We woke to a beautiful sunrise on our last morning in Ft. Myers Beach.  While we love being on anchor (or on the ball, or at a marina, or however we find ourselves stopped and secure for the time being), what we really love is sailing.  Getting that boat going!  She loves it too.  It’s what she was built for.  We brewed our coffee, filled our mugs and tossed our line off of the ball.  We were going to do some sailing today kids!

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See how we smile?  Like Donna Summers at a disco!  Just doing what we love!

We expected about a 30-hour passage to Key West.  We left Ft. Myers Beach around 8:00 a.m., and we expected to arrive in Key West around mid- to late-morning the following day.  While there is a mooring field near Key West, the Captain had booked us a few nights at the A&B Marina in Key West Bight.  He figured since it was our first time there by boat, and the expected highlight of the trip, might as well splurge a little, huh?  Go big or go home!  Isn’t he great?  He called the marina that morning to confirm our reservation and learned then that we were going to have to back in to our boat slip.  *Gulp*  I’ll save that nugget of a story for another day!

For the time being, we were thrilled to find that the motor cranked that morning on the first turn, using the engine battery.  After the issues we’d had the night before with the dead starting battery and the engine overheating, we were incredibly pleased to see everything charged and running so well.  After we got to thinking about the overheating a bit, we figured it might have been one of those freaky amoeba-like snails we’d seen swimming around in Ft. Myers Beach.  Have you guys ever seen these?

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They’re hard to capture on film but I kept trying.  They look like some strange slimy Darwinian organism that hasn’t quite evolved yet.  I imagine it’s what a conch looks like once it’s spilled out of its shell, and they swim by flapping their wing-like … things.

Some riveting “flapping footage” for you:

Some were tan and spotted, others black and splotchy.   They were just so weird.  Phillip first spotted them when he spent a solid three hours changing the oil of outboard on the dinghy.  You remember the day the car wouldn’t start

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Yeah – he got up close and personal with the water that morning and said he saw like fifteen of them swim, or flap, by – whatever it is they do.  With so many of them in the water, we started to think perhaps one of them weird snail things got sucked up against our raw water intake through-hole the night before, causing it to clog and the engine to overheat.  It was totally possible, likely probable.  I have to say I derived a small bit of pleasure imagining the little snail turd, panic-stricken, stuck up against our hull, unable to flap away.  Serves him right trying to screw with our boat!

But, we watched the engine temp closely that morning and found she was holding just fine, so whatever had happened, we figured it was a fluke and counted our lucky stars.  We made our way out of the mooring field and headed out to sea!  (Or the Gulf … same thing … to me, anyway.  Whenever we head out to go sailing, anywhere, we go to the SEA!!)

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It was nice this time to have a boat buddy along for the passage – our friend Johnny Walker and his son, Jeremy, on Johnny’s 38′ Morgan, s/v Windwalker.  They were making the passage as well from Ft. Myers Beach to Key West.

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There’s the Walker – coming under the Matanza’s Bridge!

It was a gorgeous morning.  Blue waters, a bright sky and big billowing sails.

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Yeah … billowing.  Unfortunately, the wind was a little lackluster that morning, so we had to motor for a few hours, but we were thankful to see the engine purring right along, running just fine.  It was right around noon, though, that the wind kicked in, and we found ourselves on a perfect beam reach for the afternoon.

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There’s Johnny up ahead!

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All you could see was beautiful blue water to the edge of every horizon.

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It felt incredible to be back out in the Gulf!  Otto (our auto-pilot) was holding great, we were making good time and the sea state was perfect.  We tossed out our fishing line a little after noon and kicked back to enjoy the sail.  Around 2:00 p.m. Phillip decided to cook up our “big meal” for the day – broccoli and beef stir-fry – as we figured if you’re going to eat a big meal and get sleepy, better to do it during daylight hours so we would be refreshed and ready to hold our respective shifts that night.

But, of course, right when we decide to cook something we brought, we find food from the sea!  (See, again with SEA!).  We had a fish on the line!!  Who knows how long he’d been on there.  The stretchy band we used as our “indicator” had broke clean off and the line had been taut for, likely, quite some time.  Phillip was occupied with lunch below so I started to reel him in.

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Yes, it took that long …

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But we finally got him up to the boat, and MAN, what a beast!

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It took a team effort to get him hauled in to the cockpit, but we got him in there.  We bagged him up mafia style, but I swear he kept trying to eat his way out and nab Phillip’s toes!  Chomp, chomp!

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He had some wicked teeth!

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That’s actually what helped us identify him.  We looked through the fisherman’s guide to try and find some identifying characteristics to determine what he was.

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The spotting on his back and body looked kind of like a wahoo, but his teeth and upper dorsal fin gave him away.

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We had caught ourselves a king mackerel!

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A thirty-seven incher, too!

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How’s that for royalty!?  But, then the fun began … Guess whose job it is to clean the fish we catch on the boat.  Go on.  Guess!  That’s right … it’s the First Mate’s.  I busted out my fileting tools and set to it.

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While the Captain …

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Well, he was hungry.  And, to be fair, he had cooked us up an awesome lunch.

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One of our go-tos on the boat.  Broccoli and beef stir-fry.  Recipe HERE.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure how he could find the scene in the cockpit very appetizing …

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It was a bloody mess.  (No British accent intended).

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But, it seemed I was getting better at it.  I carved off some pretty sweet looking filets.

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Trying hard to get every last morsel of meat off.

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If I had to guess, I’d say we carved off about 9 one-pound filets total.  Quite a bit of fish.

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Yum!

But, also quite a bit of work.  From the time of the catch-and-bag, then the gut-and-clean to the dreaded wash-and-scrub of the cockpit, the whole fish debacle turned into about a three-hour chore.  But, I mean … what else are we doing, right?  It seemed our buddies on the Windwalker smelled the blood, sweat and toil and they ventured over to have a look at our spoils.

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That Morgan sure looked great glistening in the afternoon sun.

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And I sure wish we could share the pictures they took of us while we were underway, but let’s just say I don’t have them yet … (Jeremy – you know who you are, and what you have not yet done!).

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In all honesty, though, it was a great day sail.  A lot of fun with the big fish catch and nice to have boat buddies sailing along beside us.  After the big meal and the boat chores were done, we settled in for a nice evening of leisurely reading as the sun dropped down in the sky.

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We were still on a perfect heading easing into the night.  Our bellies were full.  Our hands were finally clean (albeit still tainted just a bit with that distinct fishy smell).  But our hearts were content.  We were really out there.  Sailing across the Gulf.

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When the sun rose again, we would finally be there — the Florida Keys!