Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Here I go again, piling adventures on top of adventures. We’ve just returned from a train adventure to sunny Southern California. Those tales will come soon — but in the meantime, I left my readers hanging about the trip from Florida to the Bahamas.

There’s an album of photos from this trip at http://www.mepsnbarry.com/pix/.
April Fools’ departure — three years after Cayenne

We left for the Bahamas aboard Vger on April Fools’ Day. We’d planned to catch a favorable tide and leave on Saturday evening, but just off the fuel dock, we went aground. Luckily, it was a “soft” grounding, meaning we were mired in sand, and TowBoat US was able to free us from our predicament. In the meantime, we provided entertainment to all the folks in the marina and at the shoreside restaurant. They gawked and pointed, and we felt foolish.

Once freed, we slunk back towards West Palm Beach with our tail between our legs and looked for a place to anchor and regroup. As the only able-bodied crew member (Barry having a broken arm and Kris having thrown his back out), I had to drop the anchor, then pull it back up and drop it again when it wouldn’t set.

Barry and I retired to our bunk, but Kris had a sleepless night, afraid our anchor would drag. It did. At 2 o’clock AM, he woke me to pull it up and put it back down again. Some nightgowns are better for that than the one I had on. Sorry, there are no photos of that.

At dawn, we headed back to the fuel dock, hoping for better luck the second time. Instead, we had two more mishaps.


Kris was at the helm as we motored along a narrow waterway almost under an enormous high bridge. The sound of gospel music and clapping caught my attention on shore — there was a sunrise Easter baptism under the bridge. I caught a glimpse of white-robed people being led into the water, and I ran below to grab the camera.

Suddenly, there was a horrible sound of stressed metal and splintering fiberglass. Had we been hit by another boat? Was the mast collapsing? Were we sinking? Was I being punished for blasphemy?

I dashed back up again, camera and baptism forgotten. The name of the Lord was definitely being taken in vain up there! We had somehow struck an aid to navigation, a steel I-beam marking the edge of the channel. Sinking was not imminent, but our skipper’s confidence was badly shaken — glare from the sun had rendered the steel piling invisible, and he’d run the port side right into it.

We continued on to the fuel dock, where we bounced off some dock pilings and added more damage to the port side of the boat. An attendant came out, filled our diesel tank, then returned to his shoreside office.

We took advantage of his absence. Kris quickly plugged in an angle grinder and removed three feet of twisted, mangled stainless steel trim. I unloaded a mountain of full garbage bags, probably not what the attendant expected when I’d asked if I could leave “a little trash” there on the dock.

And then we motored to the inlet at West Palm Beach and pointed our bow towards the Bahamas.

It was still not to be. Someone “up there” was playing an April Fools’ Day joke on us.

The waves that met us on the Atlantic that morning were big, ugly, and chaotic. A north wind had been blowing for days, in opposition to the southerly Gulfstream. Evidently, Mother Nature hadn’t been paying attention to weather predictions, for our southerly wind hadn’t materialized. It was blowing right on the nose, out of the east.

Vger crept up the back of each confused wave and then slammed down with a shudder. Kris struggled with the helm, keeping us pointed into the waves, but unable to make any speed. Finally, we gave up and turned back to Lake Worth. At Kris’ direction, I dropped the anchor once, pulled it up, then dropped it again in a new spot. Then pulled it up and dropped it again. I was getting plenty of exercise.

We spent the whole day anchored in idyllic Lake Worth under blue skies, with fleets of nimble sailing dinghies frolicking around us.

Second time’s the charm

The weather settled slightly, so we left the inlet again as darkness fell. Behind us were the bright lights of Palm Beach. Ahead was only blackness.

The seas were still rough, and the bulkheads and rigging creaked and groaned alarmingly. Motorsailing, it was hard to keep the boat on course The autopilot did the best job, until it stopped working. Then Barry had to give up and wedge himself into the v-berth forward and let Kris and me hand-steer.

There we no lee cloths to keep us in the bunks when the boat was heeled. I tried sleeping on the port side, but the cushions were soaked with salt water. I moved to the starboard settee. When we tacked, I fell on the floor, whacking my head so hard that saw stars. I was terrified of the creaking bulkheads, afraid that the mast would fail and Barry would be trapped in the v-berth and I would be trapped in the head.

Dawn was a welcome relief, a chance to see the foe, those waves that kept slamming into the boat. It was not long after that the depth of the water dropped from unfathomable to about 15 feet. The color of the water was magical, like jewels — aquamarine, sapphire, emerald. We were in the Bahamas.

We still had hours to go to reach a proper anchorage, but the bashing and crashing of the Gulf Stream were done. We stopped the boat and let it drift. Kris and I leaped off the deck for our reward, a swim in the crystal-clear water.

When night fell, we still had a few hours to go to reach our destination, Great Sale Cay. Barry returned to his nest in the v-berth, and Kris was yawning. “Get some sleep,” I urged, “I’ll wake you when we get close to our anchorage.” Alone on deck for a couple of hours, I kept our course with a light hand on the wheel.

Finally, when we were about a half hour away from our destination, I went below to wake Kris.

An ominous noise in the middle of the night

He sprang up instantly. “How long has it been making that noise?” he asked. I cocked my head and heard it, too. It was a new sound, a rattle I could just make out over the loud roar. He started poking around the hot, smelly engine, which had been running non-stop for almost 28 hours. I returned to the helm.

When he joined me, he was worried. Peering ahead, where a few scattered anchor lights marked our anchorage, he said, “I think it’s going to die when we throttle back.” That meant we had to anchor perfectly the first time, with no chance of re-anchoring. It also meant we were about to be stranded in the middle of nowhere without an engine.

Kris took over the helm and I moved to the bow and readied the anchor. As he’d said, the engine died with a “klunk” when he throttled back. Even up on the bow, the silence seemed loud.

I waited patiently by the anchor. By starlight, I could just make out the ripples of water gliding past our bow. The boat moved more and more slowly, until finally, the ripples were still. Then I eased the anchor over the roller and let out the rode.

In just over 48 hours, we’d had a grounding, an anchor dragging, a collision, a docking incident, bad weather, a dead autopilot, and a rough crossing. Now we were anchored off an uninhabited island with a dead engine. But we were secure and protected, and we were in the Bahamas.

I climbed into the v-berth with Barry and curled against him. “Mmmmm…everything OK?” he murmured in his sleep. “The engine’s dead, and we’re safely anchored in the middle of nowhere. Good night.” And we went to sleep.

Challenges on the Challenger

As I write this, I am in the lap of luxury at my Dad’s house. We have not just refrigeration, but a double-door refrigerator that dispenses crushed ice, cubed ice, and chilled water at the touch of a button. We have a microwave, a 4-burner stove and a self-cleaning oven. Cold? Take a hot shower. Hot? Turn on the air conditioning. Dark? Flip a light switch.

Best of all, we have not one, but two toilets that flush.

I find all this stuff amazing, because we were content on Vger without any of it.

We arrived in Stuart, Florida in the middle of March and moved aboard Vger, the 1974 35-foot Challenger that our good friend Kris had found on EBay. Kris was in Capetown, South Africa at the time, and he managed the purchase with the indispensable help of his Miami friend, Donnie.

When we arrived, the boat showed promise. Kris had already spent several months in the boatyard at Indiantown, but the to-do list was still lengthy. We disregarded the peeling and faded paint and jumped onto more important projects. Kris had a couple of pieces of stainless steel to make new aft chainplates, but they needed to be bent, drilled, and installed. We needed to hook up the stove and oven, install batteries, and clean and sterilize the icebox. The diesel in the tanks dated back to a 2001 trip to Guatemala, so we could only imagine the sludge in the bottom. The bimini zippers had died, so the bimini was pressed into service as a tarp over the leaky companionway. Kris needed me to haul him up the main mast to investigate the rigging and navigation lights.

Barry and I joined in the work, but Kris encouraged us to keep a fairly relaxed vacation pace. We hung around the marina while he rode an ill-fitting bicycle to a far-flung welding shop that fashioned the chainplates. The bike ride left him so sore that I took the bike the next day and went just as far looking for adhesives and stainless hardware. The bike didn’t fit me much better.

Meanwhile, we were making the boat into more of a home, finding places to stow things and cooking amazing meals on a one-burner camp stove in the galley sink. By the time my Dad, who lives about an hour north of Stuart, and my sister Daisy, who was visiting from Oregon, arrived for a visit, we had room for them to sit below. But the pervasive smell of diesel and the over-ripe head were not very welcoming. Daisy fled to the cockpit after just a minute or two down below.

A few days later, our sailing friend Brett came to visit. He was enjoying a two-week vacation from Seattle, visiting relatives and watching baseball games. As with Dad and Daisy, we took him out to the boat in the inflatable dinghy. He stayed a lot longer, swapping sea stories and enjoying a barbecue with us.

A big part of the to-do list was simply shopping, something I remembered well from our days on Cayenne. We used Dad’s car for one round of errands, and Brett took us to the grocery store. He seemed both surprised and amused when Barry and I broke into two-part harmony at one point, singing our favorite Uncle Bonsai song in the Velveeta aisle.

Kris and I hitched rides with other cruisers, too. One fellow, a gentle Canadian, had run into some conflicts with the family members who shared a sailboat with him. He and one of the two loves of his life, his oversized-puppy Portuguese water dog, had left the boat and moved into a rental van. The two of them were sailors without a boat, hanging around the marina at loose ends and glad to run errands around town with us.

We completed another set of errands with a mild-mannered fellow with a battered truck and an independent income from the tattoo parlor he owned. He was nervous about being away from the marina too long, because he had a lady friend visiting, and she was known for her temper. Our errands took longer than anticipated, and he started to fret. “She’s going to be angry,” he worried out loud. When we returned, he tracked her down by cell phone at a local bar. “She’ll be OK,” he told me, “after she’s had a case or two of beer.”

After a week, we decided the list was short enough to start heading south. It was time to say farewell to Buzz and the great folks at the Stuart South Point Anchorage. We would miss them, miss the camaraderie, coffee, and wi-fi. We’d miss the clean restrooms, where Barry’s broken arm meant I had to assist him with his showers. In the men’s room, I thought my scarlet-painted toenails would give me away under the stall door. A couple of guys assured me this wasn’t so, that the appearance of two pairs of feet, painted or not, in one shower stall meant there was a woman in the men’s room.

We’d planned to put the dinghy on deck and mount the motor on the stern, but then crisis struck. Kris was lifting the dinghy motor, and suddenly he started swearing, the kind of thing that’s written as #!@@$%!! in the comics. He’d thrown out his back.

For about four days, I had not one, but two gimpy guys on board. I had to haul up the anchor, launch the dinghy, and put the motor on. I was the only one on board who could crawl around on the floor and clean out the lower fuel tank. I especially hated opening the floor boards to pump the bucket under the prop shaft. (I could just envision my unruly braid getting sucked into the shaft at a dizzying 2000 rpm.) There were even a couple of days where I seemed to be the only one capable of cooking or doing dishes.

One of the easiest things for disabled boaters to do is steer, so we took turns at the helm as we motored south along the Intracoastal Waterway. There were long narrow canals lined with expensive houses, idiots in powerboats making huge wakes, and the ever-present bridges. Woe to the boater just passing through — if the bridge tender deigns to recognize you, he’ll still make you feel like an uneducated dolt if you don’t pronounce his bridge’s name perfectly.

After a long day, I dropped our anchor amidst dozens of other cruisers in Lake Worth. The high-rises of West Palm Beach dotted the horizon. We spent a few days there, running errands and installing final systems.

Finally, we pulled it all together and headed to the ocean. After two weeks aboard Vger, she seemed like a sturdy boat, old but reliable. The engine had run fine from Stuart, and I’d personally seen how clean the fuel tanks were, so I trusted our auxiliary. We were pretty well rested, and I had confidence that all would be well for our crossing to the Bahamas.

Superstitious sailors never leave port on a Friday. Luckily, it was Saturday, March 31.

But I have my own personal superstitions. One of those is based on our trip aboard Cayenne, where we left on April Fool’s Day and things never went right.

You can guess what happened: We missed our departure date and left on April Fool’s Day, three years to the day after our Cayenne departure.

I wouldn’t be writing this if we hadn’t survived. There were some problems, but nothing we couldn’t fix.

Except the head. You know that comment about toilets that flush? I won’t ever take that for granted again.

How did you meet?

One of my favorite things is when I introduce someone to a third party, and that person asks, “How did you two meet?” Very occasionally, it was something mundane, such as working together. But more often, we meet fascinating people — kindred spirits — through almost-freak circumstances.

We’re in Florida now, having just completed a grand adventure aboard our friend Kris’ sailboat. The voyage wouldn’t have happened, if we hadn’t been in a laundromat in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, at the same time.

We were putting our clothes in the washer when the ubiquitous spiral notebook Barry and I carry caught Kris’ eye. He identified us as sailboat cruisers, and the three of us were immediately on common ground. We then had some crazy adventures that involved sea stories, bluegrass music, and a rotgut rum from Newfoundland called “Screech.”

A while later, we headed west to Seattle, and Kris made his way home to Capetown, South Africa. Shortly afterwards, he was knocked off his feet by the woman of his dreams. We’ve stayed in touch by e-mail and Skype. I love talking with someone on the other side of the world for free.

When Kris called to tell us he’d bought a boat in Florida, I was excited to hear that it was just down the road from my Dad’s house. So we hatched a plan to sail with Kris to the Bahamas to meet Lorraine, his fiance, and her 4-year-old son, Aidan.

Pretty cool, given that the three of us met in a laundromat because of a scribble on my notebook.

Taking this chance meeting theme a step further, we met another kindred spirit, Brett, at a party in Seattle. Brett has a beautiful 26-foot Thunderbird sailboat on Lake Washington. One beautiful afternoon last fall, I got a text message from him. “Wanna go sailing?”

That afternoon, I was playing hostess to my Dad, who’d flown out from Florida. Brett was happy to take Dad out for an evening on the lake.

The weather was perfect, and we drifted by Bill Gates’ house and watched the sunset and moonrise. Sometime along the way, Brett said to my Dad, “I have a cousin in Florida who you’d really like. Her name’s Mitzi.”

Dad was curious. He wanted to know about Mitzi, where she lived, what she did. So Brett did the logical thing. In the middle of Lake Washington, he whipped out his cell phone, called Mitzi in Florida, and introduced them.

The result is, when we arrived in Florida, Dad immediately introduced us to Mitzi, a lively traveler with friends all over the world. Mitzi admitted that she had traveled around the world for many years, until one of her children was so embarrassed by his homeless mother that he insisted she buy a house.

Dad also introduced us to his friend Julie, another world-traveler, who was visiting him from Asheville, North Carolina. Not only did we hit it off with Julie and Mitzi, but the two of them found lots to talk about.

To make matters more interesting, Brett was coming to Florida during our stay, as well as my sister Daisy from Oregon. Kris also introduced us to his Miami friend Donnie, who made the boat purchase possible, and who he had met while running a bar in St. Martin. When we arrived in the Bahamas, the introductions were not over — we had a lovely visit with Bob, who lives on his sailboat, Pellucid, in the Bahamas, and takes groups of Boy Scouts on sailing trips. We met Bob because of our Seattle party friends, the same folks through whom we met Brett.

Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I’m aware that there might be a new friend nearby. Life-changing friendships can be found at ice-skating rinks (you know who you are!) or laundromats or parties. There are convergences of sea rescues, parties, and cell phone conversations in the middle of lakes that lead to dozens of new friends. Keep your eyes open, and keep on smiling. There are amazing people out there, kindred spirits, just waiting to be discovered.