Ch 11 - The Crossing

"SEE THAT?"  Chester pointed to a woman sitting on the edge of a nearby dock, legs dangling, preparing to push against the bow of her husband’s slowly approaching trawler, to soften the blow against the dock.

“Don’t ever do that,” Chester explained during one of our tutoring sessions. “I watched a woman do that once, and the boat took her legs clean off below the knees.”

DAMN, glad he told me.  I wished Chester was still around.  He always made me feel better, acted like my Dad, kind and never impatient.  Thankfully Don would be along to hold our hands, just as Chester had a month earlier.

It had seemed we were never leaving and suddenly the time had come. We called our mothers and added to our earlier stories:  Cap told Betty he found a boat to live on during breaks between his (fictitious) flying schedule; and he would take the opportunity to cruise the Caribbean with Czar.  She'd worry and pray every day, but he reminded her he’d come back from Desert Shield intact.

I hadn’t told my mother we were actually leaving Florida for ports unknown, but she knew most of the rest and took it in stride.  Cap’s brother and my sister knew more of the details, since they were our forwarding addressees and could help with any stateside business.  They were also the executors of our wills, not that we had much anymore.

We were to leave during the wee hours of the morning, when the winds are generally at their calmest.  We tried to catch a few hours rest but in no time it was midnight and time to get up. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the marina was quiet.  Stars twinkling.  Couldn't be better, I thought. While Cap did boat-stuff outside I grabbed my list of things to secure:  dowels in the dish cabinet grooves; cupboards and fridge latched; portholes closed; bedroom hatch shut; mini blinds rolled up; swim ladder bungeed; bathroom door rock'd. (Note:  most of these photos are from later years, and at different times of day.)

At the last minute a regatta of sorts in another marina announced over the radio they’d also be leaving.  The prediction was 2'-4' seas with a slight chop. Sailboats are able to take advantage of the wind and tack their way to their destination; while Ruff Life chugged along on a relatively straight course, vulnerable to seas from any direction.

Cap said that at 7 knots it should take us about 8 hours to reach the Bahamas.  We'd be having breakfast in West End.  I was hoping to spot the once-in-a-lifetime planetary show announced in the news, and with a clear sky, far from city lights, my chances seemed pretty good.  From the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 1, 1997:
"Appearing after dusk through Dec. 8, the planets will be lined up from west to east, beginning with Pluto and followed by Mercury, Mars, Venus, Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter and Saturn, with a crescent moon alongside." 
Czar had one last walk on land before Don showed up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, along with Kelly.

BrrrrUmmmm. If our diesel motor didn't wake up the marina, I don't know what would. Cap flipped on the bright lights attached to the mast's crossbar and lit up the boat. Czar began to pace. Don and Cap walked around making final checks, while Kelly said nice things to me: clear skies; hardly any wind; Don's made this trip dozens of times. Cap would, of course, drive from the flybridge. None of us wore life jackets, including Czar, who wouldn't keep his on.

"What do I do?"

"Grab the lines from Kelly," when she untied us.

One of the first things Chester explained was braided nylon.  "Yes, they’re all ropes; until they come on board, then they’re called lines. Tied to an anchor they're rodes. Learn to tie them together in case one’s not long enough You have to be able to do that in a hurry." Chester's words were never far from thought.

We didn't replace the sheared davit from our recent, hellish night in the channelwhich meant the dinghy would have to be dragged behind.  The outboard motor was removed and tied to the transom railing  Cap said we should have thought about getting a red light to use inside instead of being blinded by the dome ceiling lamp he'd installed over the drive station; so I grabbed one of our red paisley bandannas and thumb-tacked it to the ceiling.  Worked like a charm.

December 4th. By 1:30 am the wind had picked up, driving the current into the marina.  Cap put Ruff Life into reverse and slowly backed out of our slip; but almost immediately the current pushed us sideways.  Single-engine boats cannot maneuver as well as twin-screws; and no matter how Cap steered we were heading broadside towards the bow of a  larger trawler in its slip. I watched from the back deck as their anchor, hanging over the bow and poised to puncture, drew closer. 

Don, near the front, was shouting instructions over the noise of the engine up to Cap, since the current took him by surprise.  Their shouts, along with my, "Oh my God, oh my God's" alerted our sleeping neighbors, and Kelly and two others ran over and jumped on the vacant trawler to try to keep us away.

Don came down the side while I met him halfway at the likely point of impact (about where Czar's lying in this photo).  We sat in the tight space, backs against the cabin, legs raised over the side, ready to push back; "Took her legs clean off" ringing in my ears but I did as I was told.  No time to argue; we didn't have boat insurance.

Kelly's group did whatever it was they were doing, and everyone seemed to be shouting. The anchor, aimed above our heads, was almost upon us when Don screamed at me,

"DIVE," and we went in opposite directions.  Unable to get to my feet I fell flat on the sidewall, my cheek pressed against the deck.  I heard a THUD when the anchor touched the cabin wall and stopped; then a slow-motion, God-awful screeeeech above me as it  scraped its way towards the stern, across one plexiglass window, the wall, then the other window until, blessedly, it ran out of cabin.   Ruff Life looked as if she'd been keyed. Cap finally regained control and yelled down to me,

"Are you alright?"

I stood up.  "We're stayin', right?"

"Hell, no. We're leaving!" and we waved goodbye to the assemblage on the dock. I can only imagine Kelly's thoughts.

After that I wasn't feeling 100% and wanted to keep an eye on things downstairs, so Don went up to accompany Cap.  I looked out the front windows at the passing shore as Cap picked his way out of the channel.  Out the back door I watched us leave civilization as we knew it and head into open ocean.  It was dark except for the bridge and navigation lights: red, white and green, like Christmas.  The wind was even stronger once out of the channel and Ruff Life began its nauseating rocking from side to side.  I checked my anti-seasickness wrist bands to make sure the buttons were in place.

Running the length of our mast was a track for a stabilizing sail, which might have helped in times like this but we never bought one.  Cap figured out how best to direct the bow in relation to oncoming waves, but still, he didn't always have a choice.

Don brought along his own portable VHF radio for their use on the flybridge, and downstairs I listened to farewell chatter from boat after boat on Channel 16. I didn't actually speak on the radio and had no idea who or where they were; but I was relieved they'd be out there somewhere.

I tried to sit down, but kept having to jump up to shut a cabinet door, re-position the bathroom rock, fix the books or check on some other, new noise. The back door only had a clasp on the outside, so it kept sliding back and forth in its well worn track.  Czar kept wanting to dash outside but I was afraid he'd jump up on the sides and fall overboard; so for about an hour I tried this-and-that to keep the door shut.  Suddenly I heard a tremendous noise overhead.  From my journal:
"I opened the side door to check on the boys.  In the darkness I saw a huge, round shadow just off the flybridge.  First thing I thought of was the planetary lineup."

"What is that…the moon?" I yelled upwards.

“It’s the god-damned radar dish!” 
"Cap was coming to check on us and grabbed the mast to help stand up when a 2-foot piece came off right in his arms.  It was rotten, and whitewashed like the rest of the boat.  Needless to say the mast fell down, almost on Don's head, and they had to tie it down with rope.  I asked (several times) if we were turning back but they said no."  Cap said the wood literally disintegrated.
For the next couple of hours Czar and I were tossed around and into things, so finally I threw down some cushions and sat on the floor with him.  It was unnerving not being able to see anything but blackness out the cabin windows, and I couldn't wait for the sun to come up. This was hardly the 2-4-foot seas we'd expected; more like 6-8, I was guessing.

I propped my feet against anything within reach and looked up at the depth gauge: 900 feet; could that be right?  My stomach felt queasy so I lay down on the couch, keeping an eye on things.

Ruff Life
was being battered from all sides, and we'd lost contact with the rest of the fleet.  I gripped the frame of the couch to keep from rolling off while Czar cowered in a corner.

Ka-chunk; ka-chunk.  What the hell?  Lifting my head I saw the fridge/freezer/microwave tower rocking forwards then back again.  It wasn't secured or attached to anything; what did Dan do?  We long suspected he didn't move far from a dock; but it never occurred to us to check this.

The appliances were loaded with perishables we hoped would last a couple of weeks. I didn't know what to do; the guys had their own troubles up top; so I pushed against the monolith, gripping the mahogany trim and spreading my legs like a Sumo wrestler; staring out the window at nothing.

Ruff Life rocked from side to side then SMASH, bow up in the air against a wave and BOOM, dropped unceremoniously back to sea, over and over, with no end in sight. I was drenched in sweat because the front window was closed against the storm which wasn't supposed to happen.  After half an hour everything ached, so I dashed for a stiff foam cushion, threw it on the floor and sat with my back pushing against the fridge.  That worked well for awhile, until I craved a cigarette.

Just as I rose to get one, Ruff Life was hit broadside by a rogue wave, tossing me across the galley like a rag doll. I spun as I flew towards the side door, smashing my back into the edge of the garbage can cabinet before landing on my left side in the space between the galley and living room. Momentarily stunned, I watched the refrigerator, seemingly in slow motion, topple on to my outstretched legs, landing hard on my right thigh and pinning both legs. Luckily, the cushion on the floor cushioned the blow.

My cries for help were masked by the wind, so I channeled heroes of old disaster flicks and shimmied out from under the beast. I couldn't believe nothing was poking through the skin (I wore shorts) and it didn't seem to hurt like it was broken. God, what would we do? My thigh started turning black and blue immediately and in the center was a 3" dent, literally, which remains to this day. It's as if the fridge hit my meaty thigh and pffft - split the fat, leaving a lasting impression. Then, right on cue, the ice maker toppled over on the floor beside me.

"Did you hear a scream?"  Don asked Cap, who butt-scooted across the deck and climbed down to check.  I was lying on the floor when he opened the door, teased me about playing with the dog then asked how I liked the ride.

"The refrigerator fell on me."  He thought I was joking so I said it again, louder this time, pointing to the floor.  Continuing my journal:
"He checked to see if I was OK, shocked that no bones seemed to be broken, but he had to leave because he was green around the gills. Czar and I stayed below the whole time.  At least I didn't have to worry about the fridge falling anymore.  I was so demoralized, watching everything we own getting trashed.  Czar finally lay down on the settee and I spent the rest of the trip on the floor, propped up against the ice maker.  Poor guys - I couldn't get them a thing - not even to drink."
"I thought this was supposed to be fun!" I yelled after Cap.  Don, no doubt hoping for some sustenance a couple hours later, came down to ask if I wanted the fridge uprighted.  I couldn't reach the sink for fresh water, and I had to jump over it to get down to the bathroom, which wasn't easy.  Men are so lucky.

"Why bother?  It'll just fall down again."

I listened to the swishing fridge contents for hours, picturing broken eggs coating every item.  After the ice maker fell over I just stayed on the floor, rubber-necking to read the depth gauge. It was blank now, which meant HOW deep?  Czar's panting and drooling only added to my panic, and not being able to see anything outside but the rain lashing the windows was terrifying.  The sky never seemed so black, completely opposite to the picturesque glow of moon and stars when we left West Palm Beach.  I didn't know how the fellows could remain upstairs in that weather, but they said that even with the rain the fresh air felt better than a stuffy cabin. (Log note: the long numbers represent the engine's-hours since its re-build years earlier. That's how I know how long future trips took.)

This trip certainly wasn't what I'd imagined.  I longed for the dawn to end my nightmare, but it only intensified as first light peeked through the newly-scratched windows and provided me a front-row seat to the cauldron in which we stirred. By this point we were in 8-10 foot seas, or greater.  There was nowhere to look without watching the ocean churning up wave after wave.  I was terrified.

We weren't just rocking, we were swinging! Through the windows I saw nothing but water; then swing up to with nothing but charcoal sky, back and forth,  high up one side, down and up the other like an amusement park pendulum ride.  A box of spare parts helped wedge my 5'2" frame in place, and I began to make peace with God.

"We're gonna die, we're gonna die," my mind screamed; but once I realized there was nothing I could do to stop the inevitable, I began to relax.  When you know your number's up, what's to fear?

We finally reached West End at about 2 pm. Almost half the boats that originally set sail had turned back to Florida, and the rest got their asses kicked like us.  There was even a new wreck on the rocks just outside the entrance to the small Bahamian anchorage. Its owner tossed his keys to a local hanging about the docks, declared, "Never again," and caught a flight home. His sailboat was stripped in no time.

Don and Cap tied off while I climbed over the rail, my legs buckling as soon as I hit the dock.  On hands and knees, I refrained from actually kissing it.

"You realize we're never going back to the United States; certainly not by boat!"

Up next:    Cruising the Bahamas

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To read from Chapter 1:  A Rough Start

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