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.

Hurricane season began June 1st and ended September 30th (now October 31st) so by the end of October and into November and December the seas were full of boats heading south. This is why Cap had been so anxious, and I was probably told the reason but my mind was grappling with other issues.  I left the boat-stuff to him while I handled the purse.

We insured the boat, minimally, before leaving Oregon, and in Florida we were talked into additional local insurance on the waterways, like having AAA in case of a breakdown on the highway.  However, we wouldn’t be covered once we left Florida except for a premium, and then it would only be valid until May 30th, so we decided against.  We’d take our chances. Many insurance companies won’t insure vessels at all between certain latitudes during hurricane season, 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 in boating communities. 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 accommodations and trying to perform simple tasks while on a floor which never stopped moving.  I wore sneakers but still staggered much of the time.

It felt like vertigo.  Cap assured me I’d get used to the swaying, but just in case, recommended I pick up a pair of 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 while the other got in: Cap confidently tromping down the middle towards the motor; whereas I basically crawled in until I learned to walk.

For Czar, the dinghy was held steady against the swim platform with one foot and he'd learned to daintily step in, often sliding down the middle, toes spread. We tried different solutions but he managed to avoid them all. The dog and I had a love-hate relationship since Oregon, and Czar paid me back for my attitude towards him by stepping on my bare foot on the way in or out of the dinghy, without fail.  Never stepped on Cap's foot.  There was nothing I could do but grimace and curse, but God, he was a beautiful dog.

In the marina, many people began drinking early in the day and not everyone was cold-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 was afraid of a repetition.

Alcohol was the major contributor to the demise of my second marriage (I primarily smoked pot during my first). We both were compulsive in that respect and unfortunately liquor was dirt cheap in the Class VI store on post.  So even though he was a good-natured, likeable fellow I left him in Germany; for I wanted my life to be more than a succession of hangovers.

I returned to my parent's home in New Jersey and curtailed my drinking dramatically.  Even now I can slip back if I'm not careful, because I don't know when to stop and I can be a nasty drunk.  This isn't the easiest bit to write, but it's important to explain for down the road.

As the storyteller I have edited much of my past but forget you can't see inside my head.  I've considered some details irrelevant or planned on including them at some later point, like now.

Briefly, I was born in NYC and raised by loving parents, both children of immigrants. In the early 1960's we moved to New Jersey, near the Shore.  Dad was a graphic artist with his own firm in Manhattan, and Mom, who would have loved to become a school teacher or orchestra conductor, became a housewife by default. Both exhibited creativity, humor and sharp wit; and encouraged us to be curious, not to be afraid, and to do our best. They enrolled us in as many extra curricular classes as they could, for as Mom always said,

"Everyone has one special talent at which they excel. It's just a matter of discovering what it is."

A sense of fairness was instilled at an early age.  My parents stood up for their values, which didn't include much of a grey area, and their rules were strict and non-negotiable. Still, they expressed support and encouragement while reading (us) the riot act. It was obvious they loved each other as they did us, but unfortunately they argued, often and loudly, usually about money, so I came to believe that love and fighting went hand in hand.  One of Mom's favorite expressions was, "The opposite of love isn't hate; it's indifference."  Make what you want of that but it stuck.

Mom and Dad became Christian Scientists early in their marriage so I rarely saw drinking and smoking and knew virtually nothing about medicine. This knowledge, along with a mouth like a sailor, I acquired during my first two marriages to military men, along with a new sense of the world as we moved and traveled about, making lifelong friends along the way.

As it happened, immediately after I returned to 'Jersey, my father fell ill and passed away at home 6 weeks later. I finalized his accounts and closed up his office without having a clue as to what I was doing most days, but I'd worked for Dad during summers so had a better idea of his business than Sis.  I'd come home tired, worried about Dad, frightened; and Mom encouraged me day after day. Following that trial by fire I had more confidence, and after Dad passed I began my own career path which led to my transfer to Holland and Tino, Chapter 2.   Feel free to send me a note if something's unclear, please.  Now, back to our story.

Drinking wasn’t a problem in the marina because while we were friendly with other boaters, we pretty much kept to ourselves.  After all, we were still getting to know one another. When we finally found an empty slip in a marina I was disappointed because it looked run-down in comparison to Palmetto, but hopefully we wouldn’t stay too long.

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 (not his real name) 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 – a pig (Major!!).  The other guy, Don, has turned out to be a nice guy.”
I was revolted by Doug, a quite-elderly boater, whose companion was a very-young girl from down-island.  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, known as 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. At the time I never considered 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.”
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 led to 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 (very) semi-holiday dinner – chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans – but probably w/Hollandaise, rolls, and 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 don’t know which island Cap was heading for.  I was happy he wanted 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’d heard other cruisers on the radio 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 one 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.

Oh.  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. (Note: since our car was in storage, 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.”
The following will sound familiar because I am relaying the events, now in context, of Chapter One but in my original words:
“Cap looked out and saw the front of the boat looked ‘interesting’ – we had run into a sailboat – they had a rubber dinghy (which we hit) and their bar-b-que got caught in our boat. The anchor had broken loose, so we got off, moved and wound up dropping 2 anchors.  We stayed up for 2-1/2 hours then back to sleep, hoping all was well.  No such luck.  5am – I had heard the creaking of the anchor pulpit (inside the cabinet next to the bed), 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.
 "We got out of that and Cap slowly limped across the channel to another anchorage.  When he set the anchor it strained the pulpit and wham!! It broke apart right in front of me. I watched it happen, and proceeded to get the anchor.  No damage to me, but the pulpit was demolished.  Rotten wood.  Then a few hours later when we left, we headed back to the marina (for repairs).  Only problem – the dinghy was in the water but connected to both davits – it filled with water along the way then whoosh – it flipped over, sheared a davit off (it’s in the bottom of the channel) and we literally limped into the marina, disgusted, demoralized and dead tired.”
Which prompted the book's introductory queries from grinning dockside Captains, What the hell happened?  It was clear skies last night!
Sheared davit btm of pic
“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.  We have to - you never know when you might be in trouble."

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, which is what’s happening now.  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!!  But…we were close to shore; 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.  While Cap and Don repaired the boat 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.

I was terrified, and 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 an airplane ride home to Kelly.

“Buy that man a ticket,” I exclaimed while reaching for my credit card.

Don asked me, “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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