Put me in, on or near the water and I’m happy as a clam. Unless of course, there’s a gale blowing and I’m hanging onto the edges of my bunk for dear life to keep from being flung to the deck while outside the cabin portholes an angry, tossed and foamy wall of ocean is going down, down, down past the porthole then rising quickly up, up, up to arrive at the precipitous lip of yet another gigantic wave, seeming much taller than the flying bridge of our 50 foot Hatteras motor yacht. A gust of wind blows sea foam and not a little sea water through the portholes, soaking my friend Anni’s bunk below. She won’t be pleased to discover a wet bunk, if and when we ever get out of this mess and make our way safely back to Miami and the relative calm of the dock space at the yacht club.
We were aboard the Sailor’s Hat, owned by my friend Anni’s parents. Some three weeks earlier Anni and I had driven down to Miami from Ocala, Florida to join her folks and the “fleet” from the yacht club on the annual Spring Cruise. This year, 1985, the fleet was to spend a month, more or less, cruising the Berry and Abaco islands of the Bahamas. Months of preparations developing itineraries, establishing which boats were leaving when, and deciding on rendezvous points and communications protocols led to the eventual leave-taking of around a dozen sailboats and motor yachts, heading out of Biscayne Bay and across the Gulf Stream to points east and south.
We spent a couple of days at the sprawling Coconut Grove home that Anni’s dad, Cap’n Pete, had built after WWII. I helped Mother Dunan cook and freeze food and pack linens and kitchen ware. Anni helped Cap’n Pete effect some last-minute boat repairs and schlep load after load of tools and all manner of gear needed to keep the boat afloat and self-sustaining for the coming weeks.
The fateful day for departure came, with a cooperative weather forecast promising a calm crossing of the Gulf Stream. As Anni and I gathered in the bow and stern dock lines and Cap’n Pete slowly backed the ‘Hat out of her slip, our little group waved goodbye to members gathered on the great lawn of the yacht club to see us off.
It certainly felt like a momentous departure, at least to me. For several years I’d been regaled with stories of previous Spring cruises, complete with photo albums stuffed full of terrific shots of people cavorting aboard boats and yachts, big and small, and exploring unpopulated specs of islands floating in turquoise shallows in various Caribbean island chains. I couldn’t wait to join my adopted family to spend several weeks in relative isolation aboard a boat with shared spaces equivalent to less than an 800 square foot apartment.
Actually, we got along very well together, which is a good thing, because we were going to spend a great deal of time in each other’s company. And along the way I was to be reminded just how critical teamwork would prove to our safety and well-being.
Once the ‘Hat was topped off with diesel fuel, ice, beer and the all-important fresh water, our first hurdle was the crossing of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes the crossing could be smooth as glass, others the waves could stack up to well above 10 feet. Numerous skippers’ wives, who had been through a crossing or two, opted to skip the crossing and instead meet their boat on an island with a convenient air strip. This meant that some boats would initially make their way to one of the islands in the Abacos or Berry islands that offered airports. Other boats with their full crew would make their way east to Hole in the Wall, then “around the outside” and north again to the inside, protected Ababco Sea passage threading the chain of islands.
I had applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear the day before our departure, hoping to ward off the evils of mal-de-mer. Once we hit the Gulf Stream proper, the waves towered to the point that we lost sight of a cruise ship less than 4 miles away every time we dipped into a trough. And this was a “calm” crossing!
My vision was getting blurry and my speech slurry from a reaction to the medicine, so off to the port stateroom I went, to lie on my bunk fighting off sea-sickness for the next five hours or more. At one point I staggered up the companionway steps leading from the galley to the salon, to find Cap’n Pete perched on his high-boy wicker chair, which was carefully lashed to the starboard bulkhead, his bare feet planted firmly on the edge of the steering console. Anni was perched much the same on the port side on her own high-boy chair, serenely looking out over a vast, wave-tossed watery domain.
Wind whipped massive gobs of foam off the tops of what appeared to me to be giant waves that churned willy-nilly, with no apparent pattern or determination, beyond that of tossing our little craft about like a bobber.
Cap’n Pete had engaged the automatic pilot but was keeping a careful eye on our drift rate as the Gulf Stream pushed the boat northward. As he explained why he was having to correct our course, my brain had difficulty processing the information through a fog of scopolamine. Also, the lurching and corkscrewing of the boat was more pronounced in the salon, and pretty soon I was headed back down to my bunk. Along the way I passed Mother Dunan, who was comfortably jammed into the corner of the booth of the galley dining table, playing solitaire. Sympathetic to my plight, she assured me we would be clearing Customs at Chub Cay by 4pm. I was looking forward to solid land again and a quiet night tied to a stable dock!
My vision and speech problems persisted, even after walking about on dry land for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until that evening that I figured out I had a reaction to the medicine. I removed that damned patch. It took 2 more days for the stuff to finally wear off. I decided I would just bite the bullet and hope to develop sea-legs naturally, without the help of any medicine. Which worked, just fine. So well, in fact, that I developed the opposite problem – getting sea-sick on land!
After several lengthy days at sea, I discovered I couldn’t tolerate sitting still on a beach or in a building without the world spinning faster and faster. Luckily, the best food on the trip was Mother Dunan’s cooking aboard.
Although the itinerary called for different groups to meet at several restaurants on different islands throughout our trip, I never managed to sit for long without being assaulted by land sickness. I was much better off on the boat. Even if we were in a slip, the slight motion of the boat was just enough to keep me comfy, and I was fine as long as I had a cold beer and a good book to read!
Our “deserted island” adventures began on the third or fourth day, as I recall, at Frozen Cay. It was mid-afternoon and I was below, again, trying to develop those sea-legs by distracting myself listening to my Walkman, when I felt the boat shift course and I heard the distinctive sound of the twin diesels drop below a roar– no surprise, since our stateroom was located just aft of the port engine.
From previous weekend and week-long trips aboard the Sailor’s Hat, I had been trained to respond to any change in the boat’s movement or the pitch of the engines. In a matter of seconds we left the tossing of the ocean and entered protected water. I headed up to the salon to be met with my first experience of approaching a deserted, quiet anchorage in the dangerous shallows of the Bahamas.
I was quickly asked to put my eagle-eyes to work to help Cap’n Pete carefully pick our way up sandy passages in-between coral patch reefs and rocks that could hole the boat like the antique wooden craft that she was. Anni was doing her best to “read the water”, which for land-lubbers I might describe as the fine art of staring into the sun’s glare while attempting to make sense of the cat’s paw pattern of wind as it moves across the surface tension of the sea. Depending on whether the pattern was unbroken, or formed a swirl or any number of other esoteric shapes, one might suspect an obstruction, like a big rock, to be lurking just under the surface. Or, you could do like I did and climb up to the flying bridge and with my handy-dandy polarized sun glasses, I could actually see those patch reefs and big, dark rocks and shout down directions to Anni.
It must be noted that the flying bridge was just that—a bridge, complete with a steering station. But on this boat, it was uncovered, so the boat was driven from the steering station in the shade below, in the main salon, which was far preferable to cooking in the hot sun!
I soon appreciated there was more art than science at work here, but somehow we managed to maintain sufficient steerageway to dodge obstacles and bring us across more than a mile of water, deep inside the protected anchorage. Whereupon it was “anchor drill” time, when Anni and I got to do our thing.
Anchor Drill consisted of a little dance: lifting that damned giant Danforth anchor (with extra lead poured into the crown) out of its slot on the bow while avoiding crushing our bare toes. Using well-honed technique, Anni would pull out and carefully coil on deck quite a lot of line (depending on the scope Cap’n Pete wanted). Then, carefully grasping the chain attached to the ring at the top of the shank, she would dangle the anchor and a few inches of chain over the lip of the bow, awaiting Cap’n Pete’s signal from the bridge to “let go”.
My job was to stand about, close enough to relay messages between Anni and her father through the open salon doors, but not in a spot where I would obstruct Cap’n Pete’s view. Oh yeah, and of course to hector Anni to “be careful, don’t trip on that combing, don’t drop that anchor on your toe” or else make smart-ass remarks or dry observations about the anchorage if we were in a lull of time while Cap’n Pete was slowly driving us up to the absolutely ideal spot of sand for the anchor to be dropped onto. Whereupon the heavy beast was dropped with a big Splash. The coiled line would pay out, and Anni would lash the line to the cleat after Cap’n Pete signaled satisfaction with the scope of the line, then we’d scoot back to the salon (I always went through the starboard doors, Anni went through the port doors, we had it down pat after awhile) to await further orders from Cap’n Pete.
Our skipper was a retired Navy man, had been the Commodore of the yacht club time and again over the years, and was considered the most learned and senior of all the boat owners at the yacht club. Living up to his reputation for Safety First, he always came out on the bow to check his anchor, to feel the boat underfoot, to sense her movement in the wind and any current or tide that might be running. All this before he would ever shut the engines down. Anni and I would remain alert, rather like two hunting dogs waiting to be let loose, until those engines were shut down and Cap’n Pete, a man of few words, would give us a small wave or grunt “Ok, good” or something equally weighty.
I soon learned on this trip that the end of anchor drill didn’t exactly signal time to go swimming or crack that first beer. Rather, my job became that of window cleaner. Because we spent almost all day out on the open ocean, the boat would be coated in sea salt, so I got to sponge a little of our precious fresh water, mixed with Joy dish washing liquid, onto the massive acreage of glass encasing the boat’s salon. The job entailed being out in the broiling sun, with nothing on but quick-dry shorts and a tiny crop-top cotton shirt, sponging and squeegeeing until the glass shone like, well, glass. I soon learned to glop on sun screen, don a hat, and work efficiently. Eventually I reduced the task down to less than 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, as soon as we hit calm water, Mother Dunan typically started her stint as “Galley Slave”, prepping a tray of appetizers, which Anni would ferry up to the salon to spare her mom going up (and down) several galley steps, making the turn on the little landing, then proceeding up (and down) several more steps. Boating could be hard on one’s knees!
Sometimes Mother Dunan would begin dinner preparations, depending upon what time of day we arrived at the anchorage. Or, on numerous occasions, we might join, or be joined by, another boat of our little fleet, in which case the already-scheduled host boat would trot out the appetizers, ice and drinks while the guests freshened up, donned their nicest “among friends” evening boat attire, then would dinghy over to the host boat for cocktail hour.
One such occasion found us tied up at a slip in Hopetown Harbor, rowing the dinghy over to the evening’s cocktail boat anchored in the center of the harbor. The host boat, a 30-foot sailing vessel, served as a stable, if cramped, platform for the 20 or so guests, who perched on any available flat area, trying to balance paper plates of goodies and plastic cups of wine.
The sun was sinking into the west, setting the famous lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor aglow and bathing us in the last of the day’s heat. Anni and I were chatting about the name of a nearby boat, the Carpe Diem. I said something about the appropriateness of the name for a day-sailor when an elderly gent on a comfy cushion in the cockpit behind us said to his companion “Look, Carpe Diem. Doesn’t that mean Fish of the Day?”
I had just taken a hefty bite of a cracker balancing a tasty slice of sharp cheddar and nearly choked as I let out a sputtering guffaw. The gent’s companion said something like “Now there’s a young lady who must know her Latin. Tell me, Miss, isn’t Carpe Diem Latin?” I laughed and said “Yes—Latin for Live for the Day, I believe”. Silence from behind me. Anni lifted her eyebrows quizzically. I turned around, faced with two older gentlemen who looked surprised and, I thought, a bit pained. I didn’t understand why they were so obviously put off until the companion laughed and said “Of course! Live for the Day! How could we forget?” And here I thought I’d overheard a clever pun!
It wasn’t until later that evening, back aboard the ‘Hat, that I learned that the Fish of the Day gent was a recently retired director of the Smithsonian. And yes, he was quite serious and did really believe his version of the Latin translation. I don’t recall seeing that particular fellow again during the cruise. He may have been one of many who flew into Marsh Harbor to join the fleet for a leg or two of the journey, to return to Marsh Harbor to fly away again; apparently to a place where they don’t know their Latin.
Then again, he may well have been aboard the tres’ expensive, modern, fiberglass 60-something foot Bertram motor yacht, which joined us and another member of the fleet sometime later in the cruise.
It was late in the afternoon, once again, when we approached a tricky, narrow anchorage between two of the dozens of tiny, low, scrubby islets that make up an area of the Abacos called Double-Breasted Cay. The only protected anchorage there is quite narrow, with a typically high current at tide change. Knowing this, Cap’n Pete determined to arrive ahead of other boats to secure a safe spot for the ‘Hat. He explained that, due to the likelihood of significant tidal currents swinging the boat onto exposed reef/rocks on either side of the narrow passage, we’d set two anchors off the bow so that we could swing a bit on either one in such cramped space.
As Designated Diver, it was my job on this occasion to don snorkel gear and dive some 30 feet down in the (luckily) crystal clear water to the sand, reposition the thousand-ton (it felt like) anchor and dig the flukes well into the sand—in the correct direction, of course. Only after the main anchor was set to Cap’n Pete’s satisfaction would the second anchor be placed in its proper position.
This was one of the more challenging assignments I was given. There I was, feet planted firmly in shifting, fine sand at 30 feet, using the weight of the anchor to steady me as I craned my neck upward, trying to see Cap’n Pete through my fogged mask and the patterns the wind was making on the surface of the water. He was hanging over the stanchions at the bow, gesturing for me to move the anchor “over that way”, holding his arms wide to indicate the distance the anchor needed to be moved. Ok, I thought, I can do this. But I need more air. So back up I went, floating in front of the bow while Cap’n Pete gave succinct directions. Back down, plant my feet, lift that big-ass honkin’ anchor, grunt out a precious large bubble of air, glance upward, see him gesturing again, move the damn thing once more then back up, in a hurry now, for more air. More discussions ensued. Back down. This went on for far more time trips to the bottom than I had bargained for. Not to mention my breath-hold capacity was dwindling precipitously each dive.
One last galvanic effort and the thing was set. Anni was at the transom, watching me crawling, exhausted, onto the swim platform. While I caught my breath, she quipped “Hey, wanna go snorkeling before dinner?” Very funny. The only thing I was ready for was a brief fresh-water shower and a cold beer.
About this time here came that big Bertram, barreling into the narrow passageway. Cap’n Pete observed something dry and not too complimentary about the careless approach. Sure enough, as we watched and Cap’n Pete predicted, the boat’s skipper was positioning his boat to be anchored way too close to us for any margin of safety, especially if either boat dragged anchor or even swung more than a bit on an anchor. Much discussion ensued between the skippers. We left it to the men to work things out, as Mother Dunan shooed us below to help prepare for the group cookout slated on a nearby islet.
A third boat, and perhaps a fourth (my memory hazes) joined the line-up, and our little group crowded the protected anchorage. Too bad if some other group showed up, we had the prime spots. Now, off to the cookout!
The four of us crammed into the 12 foot Jon Boat-cum-dinghy. And now a word about that much-rightfully-maligned boat. Usually, the Sailor’s Hat was the largest boat in the fleet. You’d think she would sport a lovely little Boston Whaler, complete with electric start engine and steering console, but no. The utilitarian and humble little aluminum Jon boat perched on the after section of the fly bridge, sitting out in the sun and baking in temps hot enough to cook meat, her white paint oxidizing so that every article of clothing or strip of bare skin that came in contact with the surface would come away with an almost-impossible-to-wash-off white chalk!
The dinghy further endeared itself to those who had to balance on the often slippery deck of the bridge while wrestling with the somewhat rusted and recalcitrant tackle used to winch the thing over the side. Next, the single stroke little-engine-that-could would be brought out from its storage area, bolted onto the dinghy’s transom, topped off with precious fuel and cranked. Or so we hoped. Actually, the thing needed work during the cruise, and I believe it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth island stop that we finally got a working engine to save on the rowing duties, which I was exempt from, having had absolutely no experience in the fine art of rowing. I could paddle a canoe through the proverbial eye of the needle, but rowing left me confounded, describing ever-widening circles or sketching a snake-like course over any distance I attempted to traverse.
So, there the four of us were in the dinghy, Mother Dunan perched precariously on top of a coffee table cadged from the salon, gripping a large bag of foodstuffs. A group of a dozen or more people were making energetic preparations to clear flotsam from the only narrow strip of sand on an island otherwise covered with thorny, low scrub. The resident sand flies waited to strip the flesh from the unwary who wandered a few feet away from the water, which proved a problem as the tide began to come in.
We’d barely managed to distribute food stuffs, and the portable charcoal grill was still warming up, when everyone decided to abandon the island for the comfort of our boats. Darkness having fallen, we splashed through shallow water, loaded up the dinghy, got Mother Dunan back aboard her coffee table, waved goodnight to everyone and high-tailed it, as fast as Cap’n Pete could row, back to the ‘Hat. Yet another case of a land-based mishap, as far as I was concerned.
Fast-forward to the end of our Abaco and Berry Islands trip. We were met with glassy, calm waters as we cruised west most of the day across the Gulf Stream back toward the east coast of Florida. It was late afternoon and we were miles away from the coastline when we first spotted the tops of thunderheads just above the horizon. Throughout the afternoon, as the twin diesels worked to move us steadily to the west through the eerily calm, deep aquamarine blues of the Gulf Stream, the thunderheads grew into severely-bruised appearing massifs, arrayed in a towering wall as far as we could see across the horizon to our front. The weather reports went from bad to worse. The closer we got to the coast, the more lightning we could see firing from cloud to cloud. After awhile, it looked as if there was a massive artillery barrage as far as one could see, with colors ranging from deep magenta to orange to a sickly, too-ripe banana yellow to shades of greens, purples and blues.
I was awed and increasingly alarmed as I watched the Florida land mass appear infrequently at the bottom of the cloud wall. It eventually disappeared altogether. Only my faith, or dread, of knowing the coast was There lent reality to the scene.
The obvious question is, why in the world did we keep going? Why not just turn back or head north up the coast and away from the storm front? Well, going back wasn’t possible – we had only so much fuel and Cap’n Pete calculated that the return trip back to any close port in the Bahamas would mean an almost head-on push against the Gulf Stream, which would consume a helluva lot more fuel. Not to mention he would need to be at the helm of the boat for likely most of the coming night. At 70-something, with eyes that were scheduled for cataract surgery, our skipper determined that a return to the Bahamas was a foolish and very dangerous option.
A change in course to follow the north coast of Florida and duck into the intra-coastal waterway at, say, Cape Canaveral or Jacksonville, might be a likely choice, considering our present course and fuel consumption. However, the storm front stretched virtually the entire length of the state; we had stumbled into a late spring cold front, one that was rapidly developing into a very dangerous storm for all residents of the east coast of the state. Tornados, flooding, downed power lines and wind damage reports soon frequented every radio station we tuned in. The marine weather forecast had been trumpeting small craft advisories since we’d first spotted the thunderheads.
So after listening carefully to every snippet of weather information he could get, Cap’n Pete’s best judgment was that we should go for it, drive under that massive, anvil-shaped storm front and into the gloom of the looming wall of rain. We were just a few miles offshore, and once we ducked into the intra-coastal waters, we should be able to safely navigate “the ditch” down the coast to Biscayne Bay and, eventually, the home slip for the Sailor’s Hat. However. First we had to get the boat, and ourselves, through what was likely to be a very hair-raising couple of hours of boating.
As Cap’n Pete monitored the weather reports, Anni set to checking the lashings on the dingy and securing every moving thing in the salon. Mother Dunan and I scurried about the galley and checked the staterooms and heads, securing movable items in every storage space available and stuffing pillows, blankets and clothing into the galley cabinets where glasses and crockery were stored. I tried to secure the portholes in the stateroom I shared with Anni, but two were so corroded that they wouldn’t batten down.
As soon as we came under the anvil storm front, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. We were headed inexorably into a maelstrom that looked like the end of the world to this gal, who got bug-eyed over 5-8 foot seas on our first Gulf Stream crossing. I could barely keep my feet, even though I was hanging for dear life onto the rails of the stairs leading from the salon to the galley. I peered fearfully across the steering console, where, over the bow, that dark awfulness loomed. The seas all around us were tossed and turned, churning will-nilly. All thoughts of sea-sickness flew from my brain. I remember feeling like we were so small, so tiny, and being literally swallowed into the gigantic maw of a massive beast that would never, ever let us go.
Cap’n Pete had closed the windward salon door but lashed the lee salon door open – a ready escape route, I figured. None of us had life jackets on, although we all knew where they were stowed, under seats on the afterdeck. Of course, if anyone ventured out there now, they’d be washed overboard.
The boat bucked like a bronco, struggling up one side of a wave, tottering at the pinnacle, then rushing down the other side, to come crashing down in the trough with a massive “Boom!” that caused my teeth to snap together until I learned to anticipate the blow.
Mother Dunan was laid out on an air mattress, in the middle of the salon floor, on her back with her arms and legs splayed but planted as firmly on the deck as possible. The ship’s bell on the afterdeck clanged like a fire engine bell. In the gloom of the salon, Anni and her father’s faces were mirror images of each other, tensely peering through the now-slamming rain to try to determine any hint of a pattern the waves might offer, any indication of which course to follow to reduce the rocking, tilting, slamming and wild gyrations the poor old boat was going through.
I heard a loud “thump” from below and Cap’n Pete told me to not try to discover the source of the racket, but to go down to my stateroom, jam myself into my bunk, and stay there. Which brings me full circle, to the opening of our little tale of a spring cruise.
Cap’n Pete managed to drive us through that wet, dark hell straight to the mouth of the river at Fort Pierce, some 130 miles north of our final destination. Once we hit the intra-coastal, the relative calm and silence were startling, and as the darkness of the storm was replaced by the late afternoon light, we made our way slowly south down the intra-coastal. Waiting for bridges to open was lengthening our trip home to another 6 or more hours, so as evening came on, Cap’n Pete took us through another cut to the outside, where the storm-tossed seas had settled down to a steady chop. We hauled butt down the coast, heartened by the lights of homes, businesses, traffic and civilization off our starboard side.
I remember slowly savoring the sandwich Mother Dunan had made, grateful for a quiet passage and the steady, reassuring thrumming of those powerful diesels, shoving us further south, toward the Port of Miami and eventually, home. But first, we had to again maneuver in the narrow confines of the intra-coastal waterway, dodging small craft that failed to consider that a 50-foot boat can’t stop on a dime and a large tour boat that did it’s best to jam us into an old bridge jutting out from land.
Anni and I spent a good deal of time out on the bow, doing our best to spot the lights of channel markers that were lost in a sea of colors and lights against the Miami skyline. After hours of picking our way along, we finally reached the familiar lights of the yacht club. It was after midnight, and the place was locked down tight. Customs was long since closed, so we left the yellow quarantine flag flying and everyone fell gratefully below to our bunks. It had been a long day, some 18 hours since we had set out from our last port in the Bahamas.
We spent another day in Coconut Grove, schlepping gear back to the house and cleaning the boat. It took me another four or five days to get my land-legs back, and the boat movement remained in my head for another couple of days beyond that.
I was very glad I had come along on the cruise and realized it had been, for me, the trip of a lifetime. I look back at the photos and slides we shot and recall scenes like being dive-bombed by sea birds as we stomped through a large nesting colony on Frozen Cay, making our way to the windward side of the island to catch a glimpse of the sailboats in the fleet approaching the anchorage. Highlights included visiting Revolutionary War era ruins and a large blue hole on yet another deserted island, and walking around Man-O-War Cay early on a Sunday morning, buying freshly-baked Bahama bread from the window of a lady’s house while listening to the choir from the little church, music wafting down the narrow lanes between the gaily-colored homes and cottages lining the harbor.
I got some snorkeling in, as well, on a reef off Green Turtle Cay and some fantastic snorkeling in the currents ripping through and among the shallows surrounding the many tiny islets of Double-Breasted Cay.
But of course the most memorable thing about that trip was the people—spending time with my adopted family, meeting many members of the fleet, and sharing memories. Like the morning we and another boat were anchored in a small bay near yet another deserted island: Anni got up at the crack of dawn, took the dinghy ashore and spelled out a giant Happy Birthday, Janie with seaweed on the steeply sloping, sandy shore. When the folks aboard the other boat in the anchorage arrived topside for their morning coffee, they laughed, called across to us, waved and generally made their delight known.
I also learned about many things nautical, and how to be useful and safe aboard large and small boats alike. Not to mention a great deal of history about the Bahamas, the Berrys and Abacos, and how to read The Cruising Guide and, yes, eventually how to read the water. It was, indeed, a memorable trip, simply messing about in the Sailor’s Hat!