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Ch 10 - First Try

West Palm Beach was the destination to wait for a good weather window for the crossing to the Bahamas, we were advised.  Cap called each marina we approached but they were full or near to capacity; and then quite expensive.

“How long is your boat?”  For short stays, marinas charged by the foot.  Ruff Life was 33-feet including the swim platform and anchor pulpit but the boat itself was only 31; therefore, her length depended on whether we were bragging or paying.

In 1997, hurricane season began June 1st and ended September 30th so by the end of October and into November the seas were full of boats heading south. This was why Cap had been anxious and I was probably told the reason, but most boat-related things went in one ear and out the other.

We insured the boat, minimally, before leaving Oregon, and in Florida we were talked into buying additional insurance for waterways, like having AAA in case of a breakdown on the highway. But we wouldn’t be covered once we left Florida except at a premium, and then it would only be valid until May 30th, so we decided against it. We’d take our chances.

During hurricane season many insurance companies won’t insure boats between certain latitudes at all; so boaters would cruise the Bahamas and West Indies during winter months, always on the lookout for decent hurricane holes (safe havens to wait out storms).  Come April and May they'd skedaddle either north to the States or south to Venezuela to wait out the unpredictable Caribbean summers. Our goal was Venezuela.

I may sound like I know what I’m talking about, but the absolute opposite was true at the time.  I was terribly distracted and confused by our strange home, and performing even the simplest tasks on an ever-swaying floor was exasperating.  I wore sneakers but still staggered most of the time.

It felt like vertigo. Cap assured me I’d get used to the swaying; but just in case he recommended anti-seasickness wrist bands for the ocean crossing: grey stretchy fabric with a single white half-ball you position over your pulse points. He didn’t need a pair for himself.

Getting on and off the boat and in and out of the dinghy was challenging at first, until I learned to hang on to the davit.  One of us would hold the rope attached to the front of the dinghy, pulling the front up and on to the swim platform just enough to put a foot down to hold it steady. Cap went first; stepped on with confidence and tromping down the center towards the motor; whereas I basically crawled in until I learned to walk.

Czar would daintily step in then slide down the center, toes spread. We tried different solutions without success until Cap painted on some sand in spots, see Czar's photo below (helped us all).  The mutt and I had a love-hate relationship starting in Oregon, and Czar paid back my attitude by stepping on my bare feet getting in or out of the dinghy, without failNever stepped on Cap's foot.  There was nothing I could do but grimace and curse, but God, what a beautiful animal!

When we finally found an empty slip I was disappointed because the marina looked run-down in comparison to Palmetto, but hopefully we wouldn't stay too long.

Many, many things never occurred to me back in Oregon; including life in a marina, where not everyone was sober by Happy Hour.  Hell, we were gifted a complete set of Jimmy Buffet tunes – drinking was part of the image.  But drinking had been a real problem in my past and I feared repetition. In my younger days I couldn't handle my liquor and could become an unpleasant drunk.  This isn't the easiest bit to write, but it's important to understand this struggle in addition to everything else.

Thanksgiving, November 27, 1997 – Riviera Beach, FL
(Backtracking) “We moved to Riviera Beach (on Nov 22nd), where we’ve been making final preparations and waiting for a weather window to the Bahamas.  The day after arriving we met 2 guys, one of whom was heading our way so we agreed to hook up. Well, they came on the boat and I thought they would never leave.  Doug is the one going east, and what a pig.  It started off OK – he and Cap were BS’ing about old Army days, but in short order Doug showed his true colors.  The other guy, Don, has turned out to be a nice guy.”
Doug, in his 60's, had a very young girl from down-island as a First Mate.  The more Doug drank the more comfortable he became until his sexist attitude and innuendos drove me from the cabin.  He bragged about finding his companion while cruising the Caribbean, where he also met his Bahamian crew member, called Dr. Pepper.

I’d assumed Doug’s case was rare for it was the first time I’d met such a dissimilar pair; but unfortunately I subsequently witnessed more of these couples.  Your heart aches for these optimistic girls who, aching for any escape from their lives of poverty, climb aboard a stranger's boat.  Stories of abuse aboard vessels were not uncommon, and I heard of more than one Skipper who stepped in to help a gal escape, running the offender out of the anchorage.  But without means the gals are lost on another island and become easy prey to similar arrangements. I never thought of human trafficking.
“Although Doug’s a pain, we did learn from him.  He showed Cap stuff about the motor and I copied his engine manual at Staples.”
We couldn’t believe our luck in finding someone with a similar Ford Lehman motor, since Cap had nothing to use as a guide.

(Photo note: four large, heavy panels in the living room floor opened to access the engine compartment. They were supported by cross beams, and if you weren't careful re-positioning a panel it would give way and you'd fall through the floor. Cap didn’t have that problem as often as I seemed to, but he got hit in the head plenty when the boat rocked and a panel would fall.  I especially hated it when he balanced his Bubba Mug on either a cross beam or another part of the floor, because more often than not the coffee-chocolate concoction would tip over. Cap was handy but clumsy.)
“The first thing Doug said coming aboard was that we needed to pack weight in the bow (to keep us from flying up in the waves) and to pack everything away.  We already saw how much we could rock from just a passing power boat so it didn’t take much convincing.  Cap tied down the spare propeller in the lazarette and the swim ladder was bungee'd to the back rail.  I repacked canned foods.  Now, after all that organizing, I can’t find a thing, but once we’re across we’ll repack – again.  Soon we’ll see how well we’ve done.
“Since today’s Thanksgiving, we’re having a semi-holiday dinner: chicken, instant stuffing and mashed potatoes, green beans with Hollandaise, rolls, chocolate pudding and ice cream.  Czar wandered off – he won’t get on and off the boat by himself (dock’s on the wrong side), so Cap let him stay on the dock and boom – gone.  Cap went to get him and found some old guy trying to coax Czar into his car in the parking lot.  He got lucky – really have to keep an eye on him.”
November 29th
“Yesterday we left that slum of a marina and went out on the hook – just the other side of Peanut Island.”
This was a popular staging area, or jumping-off point, for boats heading for the Bahamas, a mere 50 miles away.  We did own charts through part of the Bahamas but I didn’t know where we were heading.  I was happy to go out on the hook for a day, and if the weather remained as predicted we'd head out the following night, when the winds were calmer. We heard on Channel 16 other cruisers  talk about leaving, so we were comforted knowing we’d have company out there.

We waved goodbye and slowly motored through the channel in the afternoon.  The depth gauge on the flybridge didn’t work, so Cap asked me to keep an eye on the gauge below and let him know if we were getting into a shallow area.  Ruff Life’s draft was under 3 feet, and because Cap repeated not to worry about this or that, I hadn't paid much attention to the gauges thus far.

I watched the digital reading:  9.2; 7.4, etc.  Suddenly we were in 2 feet of water, so I screamed to Cap to STOP before we ran aground.

“We can’t be in two feet of water.  We’re in the channel!”

"I’m sure, I’m sure, STOP!"

Cap put the engine in neutral and came downstairs.  “That’s 20 feet.  It stops using the decimal point at 10.

This did nothing to alleviate my anxiety or instill confidence.  We’d made one last grocery run so by the time we reached Peanut Island the best spots had been taken. (Without a car, to provision we either used taxis or shared rides; sometimes close enough to walk from a dock.) We anchored carefully, and kept the dinghy in the water behind us.
“At 12:30am it felt like something hit the front of the boat.  Cap poked his head through the hatch and saw that something was strange about the front of the boat:  we had apparently dragged into a sailboat, and their bar-b-que got caught in our bow.  Our anchor had broken loose, so we got off the BBW, moved and dropped 2 anchors instead.  We stayed up for 2-1/2 hours then back to sleep, hoping all was well.

“No such luck.  at 5am – I had heard the creaking of the anchor pulpit; anchor’s holding OK.  But then I felt a bump unlike the water hitting the hull. It seemed we hit a small pontoon (in fact a catamaran), confirmed when their lights went on."

It was embarrassing, being yelled at in the dark.  Cap finally moved us a safe distance from everyone else. Once more I tossed the 40-pound anchor over the side, followed by 15 feet of chain and yards of rode, or anchor rope.  Ruff Life's electric anchor winch didn't work, and because I couldn't actually drive the boat, my job was throwing the anchor, chain and rode over the side and then hauling it back up, every time we moved.  Sis, familiar with sailing, gifted me a pair of weightlifting gloves in her Care Package, but even so, my hands burned as the braided cotton slide through them yet again.

At his driving station up on the flybridge, Cap called, Enough and I secured the rode by looping it Figure-8-ish several times around a metal cleat which ran through the 4" wooden Samson Post.  The connecting Anchor Pulpit, also wooden, protruded over the bow of the boat, and a bracket at the end kept the anchor rode from sliding around.  The Post went through the deck, attached inside a compartment in the bow.

Once tied off, Cap backed up Ruff Life to sink the prongs of the Danforth into the grassy bottom, but it hooked something that didn't budge.  I stared helplessly as the Samson Post, straining against the force, exploded into a cloud of rotten splinters before my unprotected eyes.  No damage to me, but the Pulpit was demolished.  I screamed to Cap before lunging for the anchor rode disappearing over the side. After tying it to a side cleat we turned in once more, too exhausted to speak.

As soon as it became light, Cap, already annoyed our plans were so horribly thwarted, hollered for me to raise the anchor.  He threw the engine into gear to head back to the marina.  Unfortunately, I forgot to mention that before going to bed I'd hooked the back end of the dinghy to the second davit so it wouldn't swing into anybody else's boat.  It sat peacefully in the water behind the boat, parallel to the swim platform.

Sheared davit btm of pic

No sooner had Cap increased the throttle that there was a roar like a jet engine as the dinghy became a 10-foot fiberglass scoop, flipping completely around.  The force sheared the top half of one of the aluminum davits cleanly off.  Cap put the boat in neutral, scrambled down and dove in to save our 8-horsepower motor, heading for the bottom.  We lost other items but he was in no mood to go back down.  We limped back, disgused, demoralized and dead tired; prompting the story's original question from grinning Captains, "What the hell happened?  It was clear skies last night!"

“Don helped all day and he and (wife) Kelly were a great boost.  We got a post from him and a perfect mahogany board from Doug (who refused a dime and) who left this morning with Dr. Pepper and Sue."

"Boaters help one another," Doug advised.  "We have to - you never know when you might be in trouble out there."  I was humbled by the night's events and ashamed of my earlier thoughts.

The night's events had humbled me and I was ashamed of earlier thoughts. We couldn't leave, of course.
"The pulpit has to be completely rebuilt.  The boat’s totally trashed – tools everywhere, sawdust, just junk, but I don’t care.  The boat’s being fixed, and I don’t have to worry about the damned anchors for a while.  My hands are healing.  What a night!!  At least we were close to shore, so if the pulpit was going, it’s better now than in a storm.  We have help and materials became available.  All is OK.”

I clearly remember sitting on the couch, writing those words, absolutely numb psychologically but trying my damnedest to build up some courage. We’ll never survive this, I just knew.  Kelly worked in the marina's office but came by as often as she could, repeating, Things will get better.

I distracted myself by studying Chapman’s, another nautical reference Bible, fascinated with how to tie different knots, identify lights and markers, and read cloud formations.  The more I learned the more terrified I became, and was therefore thrilled when Don, an experienced captain who'd made the trip many times, offered to come along to help navigate to the Bahamas in exchange for a flight home to Kelly.

I reached for my wallet.  “Buy that man a ticket!”  

Don asked us, “Which island do you want to head for?”

“The closest one.”  What a stupid question.

Up next:  The Crossing

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To read from Chapter 1:  A Rough Start

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