My wife Kelly and I spend our days with roomfuls of teens or pre-teenage kids in those enlightening institutions called public schools. Being freshman sailors, planning to spend Christmas vacation in Key West kept us excited throughout the remainder of the first semester. It also kept me from doing random acts of violence to students in need of institutionalization.
Actually, we started out last summer planning to sail our 25’ MacGregor, to the Bahamas over the Christmas break. Our vessel is named The Wild Hair, and oh, how aptly we named it. We bought the charts, read the cruising guides and watched the videos. Then we actually talked to someone who knows about the Gulf Stream in December. What is a square wave anyway?
This called for a change of plans. We decided to drive to Key West and make the best of it. After all, how hard could that be? Clear water and easy sailing was sounding good for our first sailing excursion. What could go wrong?
As I sat and pondered the upcoming adventure, I announced to my bride that we needed to buy another vehicle to pull the impetuous Wild Hair. Not a new vehicle mind you, just an old Jeep Grand Wagoneer would do. We put a down payment on one and picked it up two days before departure. It seemed to be adequate and we named the truck Woody. We like to name things. Woody pulled the boat right out of the lake in the midst of a sleeting downpour with temperatures in the mid-30’s. Somehow we dodged an episode of pneumonia and left the next morning.
The first indication that all was not right in the universe came when Woody’s oil pressure needle dropped to zero about 100 miles from home. My amazing powers of deduction immediately surmised this was not good. I pulled over at a convenient spot in middle-of-nowhere South Georgia. Great! The oil was not touching the dipstick. Miraculously, there was a store not a quarter of a mile away and we limped in there pulling a 25’ sailboat that was beginning to get a pretty good coating of 10W-30.
Now, what would Dale Earnhart do in this situation? No problem. I bought six quarts and put in three. We would just have to use a lot of oil to get to that tropical paradise just ninety miles this side of Cuba. We would just have to put up with that annoying smell of burning oil that was being deposited all over the engine, and of course the boat. As we pulled into Kissimmee, Florida for the first night’s stay, the delicious smell of gasoline began to join the rich, aromatic odor of burning oil.
The following day revealed a break in the metal fuel line right at the flange. Wait, here’s the punch line; it was Christmas Eve day! The only place to get the part was at a distant junkyard. Hey, no problem! The guys at the junkyard felt so sorry for how much I was going to pay the cabbie, they gave me the part for free. Forty dollars lighter and two hours later, we were off and running again. Well almost. We first had to tie up the fender on the trailer on the passenger side. It seems it had rubbed a half of an inch of rubber off the inside of the tire. Oops!
We planned to stay in the Navy Lodge the first night in Key West. We were thirty miles out and by my calculations, we would get there approximately 45 seconds before it closed. Not a problem. Imagine my surprise when we arrived ten minutes early! Now double that surprise level when I found out we were at the wrong place. Historians will say that I actually uttered a curse word or two.
Two days and twenty-five quarts of 10W-30 later, we drove into the navy marina at Sigbee Park. We had called the navy marina the previous week, and they assured us that they had a dock we could tie up to which was right next to the ramp. We had planned on sailing during the nice part of the day and doing some work on the boat at our leisure. I reasoned that I could work on a boat just as easily in the Key West seventy-degree weather as I could in West Georgia twenty-degree weather. I had not reasoned on moving a sailboat with a twenty-eight foot mast under a twenty-five foot power line. The dock we were promised was on the near side of the power line. They had neglected to tell me that. No problem. We were going to launch that boat and get the heck out of this marina!
As Woody backed the Wild Hair into the briny blue, I noticed a distinct film of oil beginning to spread across the lagoon from our boat, trailer and vehicle. Oh my God, I thought! All that oil off of Woody and the boat was everywhere! I was expecting cormorants to start dropping dead one hundred yards away. I think it was at this point that I started calling our Jeep “the Valdez.” The only thing left was for oily sea otters to wash up and members of Greenpeace to attack us for our environmental insensitivity.
We motored under the power line to the fuel dock and stepped the mast. At last! Our first saltwater sailing adventure was about to begin, with or without extreme sanction from the EPA. About two hours before dark, we motored toward the harbor entrance. As we moved into the choppy water pulling our hard dinghy, I began to have reservations if our dinghy and motor were strong enough for these rough seas. About thirty seconds later, I looked back toward the dinghy and something looked different. The dinghy was riding smoother. Hey, this is great! Wait a minute, WHERE’S THE MOTOR? Poseidon can answer that now, and he is not talking. Our dinghy motor sleeps with the fishes. My wife claims I may have uttered an explicative at this time also. My memory is a little cloudy on this issue.
Just a short three hundred yards away, I find a nice spot for an anchor to land and commence to make it happen. I have read anchoring articles until they are coming out of my ears. How hard can it be? Well actually real damn hard. The boat was like the pink bunnie that kept going and going and going. There was just too much grass. One hour before dark, I made the command decision that any rational person would make – back to the marina! And there we spend Christmas Day minus one dinghy motor and no clue how we were going to stick a hook in the ground.
Now, being a proud member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I firmly believe that I can overcome any obstacle that may be put in our way. The first logical thing to do was row to the short stretch where the dinghy motor was lost. After all, Key West has clear water and all that, right? Yeah, right. Except in December when the winds are constantly over twenty miles per hour. We didn’t see it, but my how exciting the dinghy ride became in the wind and chop. Especially when one of the oar locks fell out of the boat. It probably landed on the motor. Who knows? I rowed the dinghy back to the dock like Tonto rowing a birch bark canoe. This was not going quite as planned.
After a night on the town, I was in high spirits the next day. We motored out of the marina and headed toward the south side of the island. Oh yeah! Things were working out now! We anchored amidst a pack of floating vessels and settled down to do some serious fishing and sampling of malt beverages. As I was rearranging things at the back of the boat to minimize line entanglements, and pulling up the motor, my lovely wife was helping me by telling me to watch my head and be VERY careful and other VERY helpful snippets of information. I noticed later on that night that I had these funny looking cuts on my right arm. “Of course you do,” she said, “the bait knife was cutting you. That’s what I was trying to tell you.” Oh well, I’ll pay better attention to her next time. Squid knife – two, Captain Giles – zero. Battle scars from our first real night at sea.
The next day brought glorious twenty-five mile an hour winds. On my home lake we get a little giddy at fifteen mile an hour winds. This was going to be great! I motored forward up to pull the anchor, and piloted us west out of the watery field of moored sailboats. We hoisted the jib only, just to get the feel of the winds. The only problem was that the damned sheets kept popping me in the legs as I was standing up front cleating off the jib halyard. Those lines were striking at my legs like a pet cobra going for a lab mouse. “Good God, what is going on? I thought.”
Not to worry though, the crew who will remain unnamed, pulled the jib sheets tight to prevent them from whipping my legs. Another problem immediately surfaced. Actually it was the surface of the sail, now full of mighty wind trying to put me under the surface of the water. I did the only thing a reasonable man could do. I yelled and hung on and eventually the boat swung around. After I limped back to the cockpit and regained my composure, we got underway. At this moment in time, I remembered the outboard was still in the water.
Now normally, I would just snatch that thing right up by the rope, but the squid knife from hell was hanging in its place on the table attached to the stern rail near the snatching area. I grabbed the rope and throttle handle simultaneously and gave them a mighty yank. They just don’t make throttles like they used to. The plastic handle came right off of the motor tiller arm. Parts galore from the throttle assembly fell out, and gravity took over. Like little hairless lemmings, the parts one by one dove into the agua right in front of my eyes. Now we were really screwed. I lost one motor and broke the other. Only the two wires to the kill switch held the handle on.
I started up the motor and it was stuck wide open. Well, that sucks. Hey, no problem! Turn off the motor and let’s sail! That’s what we came here for and by God that was exactly my plan to get us back to the marina. Away we went, two free spirits riding the sunny waves of South Florida! Catching the breeze in our faces . . .then we stopped. That’s right, we stopped moving but the sail was full of wind! What was it, a crab trap caught? Oh no! The damned anchor has disappeared from where I left it neatly laid on top of a neat coil of anchor rope!
Anchors will indeed set if you drop them out when you are moving right along. No problem! It’s just the Key West channel. Probably the Love Boat and a Coast Guard cutter will be coming through soon and plow us over. I did the only thing I could do under the circumstances of extreme duress – I had a beer right then and there.
I conceded to the gods of canvas and devised a clever plan to motor in. You may recall the motor was stuck wide open. This posed no real problem, except when we entered the harbor and marina. Our grand entrance was most exciting. I had already briefed Kelly on how we would go screaming into the marina, cut the motor and gently glide up to the fuel dock, like a feather floating onto a soft pillow. Well folks, that’s exactly what happened. Amazing how when you do something like that no one is around to see it.
The attendant came out and surveyed the situation and concluded that we were far to content where we were. He asked us to move it to another dock. After a very exciting one hundred foot journey followed by a controlled crash into a navy dock with plenty of people watching this time, we were home for the night. Oh well, beats being in twenty-degree weather at home.
No one could fix the motor for at least two weeks. We were truly screwed. I used some good old-fashioned ingenuity and devised a way to take an ordinary hammer and turn it into a throttle. Actually, you just use a hammer and bang on the thingie that holds the semi-frozen throttle cable on top of the motor. Think what you may; it worked. We went roaring out of the marina a day later with me banging a hammer on the motor like a man possessed.
We found a sandy anchorage off the Sigbee Park Navy Annex and mostly stayed put for the rest of our trip. We played cards and read and ate. It was an excellent trip, except for the night I was coming in from outside the cockpit and laid my forearm on the hood of the lantern. I received a huge crescent shaped burn on my left forearm for my trouble. This burn was at least five or six inches long and nasty looking. Sure to leave a scar. I reminded my lovely bride of a saying from my teenage days – “bones heal and chicks dig scars.” I think she likes me just like I am, sans future scars.
The next night, we tried our luck fishing again. After an hour of no luck, Kelly went down into the cabin and I began to clean up the cockpit. As I moved near the gas tank, I felt pressure on my shin. I assumed it was a fishing rod or something and kept moving my leg. I had this strange sensation that something was sawing on my leg and was actually in my leg. Oh no, the squid knife from hell! It had fallen from the table and wedged between the gas tank and seat, pointing up. It had sliced open my shin, and blood was going everywhere! It looked like I had butchered a hog back there. And it was dark. The thoughts running through my mind were not good ones.
I said in my best, most calm emergency voice, “Sweetheart, bring me a bandage and make it a big one.” I cleaned up the cockpit, which looked like the set from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I then filled up a bucket with salt water and put my leg into it. If it bleeds into the bucket, it won’t look so bad. The true comical moment came when Kelly brought out the world’s largest bandage. This thing could stop a sucking chest wound on a manatee. I swear it was six inches wide and a foot long. I sent her back for a smaller big bandage. That squid knife now sleeps with the fishes, just like the dinghy motor.
The very next day, we left to sail over to the big cruise ships. No problem. Maybe three miles round trip. I checked the chart and off we went. After grounding the boat twice on stuff that eluded my cartographer, we wound our way through the busy Key West Channel and by the cruise ships. Cool! This is really getting fun, despite the personal injury received and mental anguish suffered so far. As we turned to head back, I handed the crew the chart. The crew rolled it up and stuffed it in her shirt, but this was no safe haven. As she made her way to the front, the chart flew out and into the water. With much élan, I attempted a sailing maneuver that I can only describe as a hopelessly failed figure eight. Oh yeah, we came with thirty feet of it, me poised with boat hook in hand, but to no avail. As we sailed away, I remarked, “Good thing it was waterproof.”
Well, our trip was coming to an end and I suffered no more injury. OK, that’s not entirely true if you count that big gash I put on the top of my head going down into the cabin one night. I guess that hatch was a little to low that evening. We loaded the boat up with much fanfare, since the boat ramp would did not extend into the water far enough to just drive on to the trailer. Archimedes would have been proud of the way I looped and lashed lines around the boat and cranked it up to the winch. No problem, once an engineer, always an engineer.
With the mechanical problems of the trip down just a distant memory, we took off heading north. We actually made it all the way to Key Largo. A very helpful chap in an auto shop helped us rip the fender off of the trailer. Remember the scrubbing problem on the way down? Multiply that problem by two. Oh yes, another tire. Did I mention that? Next stop somewhere far north! Yeah, right.
We decided to take Alligator Alley across the everglades and go up the west coast of Florida. The accident occurred in the geographic center of our nation’s largest swamp. Sometime in the middle of the night, I felt a vibrating sound as we motored along. Then it happened. The whole boat and Valdez shook with a might jolt. I looked back and we were dragging the boat trailer, rather than pulling it. Sparks lit up the night as I dragged the boat off of the road. The tire the friendly chap in Key Largo had sold us had blown out and the force of the impact of the rim on the road broke the axle.
Three million miles from nowhere, stuck on the side
of the road in the swamp at night, and running out of clever solutions, I made
an assessment of our situation – no problem!
One day and six hundred dollars later, we had found a mechanic in Naples
who would travel out to the trailer and fix it. Lesser mortals would have committed hari kari over lesser
So the final chapter was coming to a close uneventfully with our departure of south Florida. OK, that is not entirely true either. The Valdez was starting to act up and we had to leave the boat in a storage yard in Tampa. Fifty quarts of Quaker State later, we arrived home, triumphant and well rested. We don’t regret one single thing. We learned from our mistakes and the rest is categorized, “experience.” The next trip is to the Bahamas and we are beginning the planning process now. Remember, who dares- wins!
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