Ch 11 - The Crossing

“See that?”

Chester pointed to a woman sitting on the edge of a nearby dock, legs dangling, preparing to soften the blow of the bow of her husband’s slowly approaching trawler 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 Barb he found a boat to live on during breaks between his (fictitious) Life Flight 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 tied; bathroom door rock'd. (Please 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 destinations, but Ruff Life would chug along in a relatively straight line, battered by seas in all 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?"  I hadn't a clue.

"Grab the lines from Kelly."

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 by a rope.  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.


I never claimed to be an expert and to this day cannot satisfactorily comprehend how different events happened; particularly weather-related. Occasionally I'll see something similar in a movie, but I can only relay my own understandings, right or wrong, as with the following:

By 1:30 am, December 4th, 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, as they're called; and however Cap was steering, we were heading towards a nearby trawler, port side broadside.  I was watching from the back deck.  Anchors not in use often hang from or are attached to the bow, and the trawler's which was closing looked enormous.

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 moved towards him, meeting at the expected point of impact; about where Czar's laying in the photo.  We sat with the cabin against our backs, 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 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 threw ourselves in opposite directions, laying along the sidewall.  My face was pressed to the deck as I heard a thud, then slow, God-awful screeeeech above my head as the anchor touched the cabin wall and scraped its way across both plexiglass windows towards the back until, thankfully, it ran out of cabin.   Ruff Life looked as if she'd been keyed.  Cap finally regained control and yelled down,

"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't imagine what thoughts were going through Kelly's mind.

(Photo note:  the photo above was the best I could find of the scratch.  It's dark because I did a bit of tweaking in order to better contrast where the damage occurred.  You can't see the scratches on the dark plexiglass, but please trust that they was there, and noticeable.  Also, in this photo the railing is missing from a later varnishing project.)

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 kept sliding back and forth in its well worn track.  It could be locked from the outside but not the inside. Czar kept wanting to run outside and I was afraid he'd try to jump up on the sides and overboard he goes, so I kept experimenting, unsuccessfully, to keep the door closed.  After about an hour 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 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!” 
"Turned out Cap had grabbed the mast to help stand up, and the bottom 2-foot piece came off right in his arms.  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."
The wooden mast was rotten and whitewashed like the rest of the boat.  Cap later told me he was coming down to check on us, but while climbing out of the bench seat he grabbed the mast to steady himself and it disintegrated in his arms.

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?

The refrigerator/freezer/microwave tower began rocking back to front.  Who would think to make sure it was attached to something? What did the last owner do?  We long suspected he didn't move far from a dock. The appliances were loaded with perishables we hoped might last a couple of weeks. I gripped the mahogany trim of the bridge, spreading my legs like a Sumo wrestler while I pushed against the monolith. 

Ruff Life rocked first side to side then SMASH, bow up in the air against a wave and BOOM, dropped unceremoniously back to earth, 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 ran and grabbed a stiff foam cushion, threw it on the floor and sat with my back pushing 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, smashing my back into the garbage can cabinet before landing on my left side in the space between the galley and living room.  I watched the refrigerator, seemingly in slow motion, topple onto 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 indentation.  Then, as if on cue, the ice maker toppled over onto 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, and 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 repeated the phrase, pointing to the floor.
"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.  So Czar and I stayed below the whole time.  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 up-righted.  I couldn't reach the sink for fresh water, and I had to jump over it to get down to the bathroom, which was not easy.

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

I listened to the swishing contents for hours, imagining broken eggs coating every item.  After the ice maker fell over I just stayed on the floor with Czar, rubber-necking to see 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 engine-hours, since its re-build years earlier.)

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 at 8-10 foot or greater seas.  There was nowhere to turn and not see the ocean churning up wave after wave.  From the floor I watched a wall of water alternating with nothing but vast charcoal sky, back and forth, swinging high up on one side, down and up the other like a pendulum amusement park ride. A box of spare parts helped wedge my 5'2" frame in place, and I began to make peace with God.

Made it!
"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 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.  Ooh, so close.  The owner tossed his keys, declared, "Never again," and caught a flight home. His boat was stripped in no time.

As soon as I hit the dock my legs buckled beneath me. "You realize we're never going back to the United States; certainly not by boat!"

Up next:    Cruising the Bahamas

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1 comment:

  1. OMG! OMG! Nothing you told me back then compares with this part of your story! I wonder what Don said after this journey, having made the trip dozens of times before. I'm truly lucky I still have a sister! This chapter alone would make an unbelievable movie! My heart is still beating a mile a minute...so-o-o exciting. OMG!

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