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.