“The Landlubber’s Maiden Voyage”
And a Dolphin Rescue!!
We arrived safe and (sound?) in Ft. Lauderdale after an express run from New Orleans. Every one jumped out of the Enterprise and excitedly ran to the berth where our boat was tied up and waiting for us. I stood with my mouth agape, awed by the boat I was to crew on; a twenty eight foot tri-maran a vessel designed for stability and speed. With its’ sleek beauty I always thought of it as the 63 Corvette Stingray of sailing boats. (See chapter 1 for a picture of the boat)
I have to take a moment and explain the composition of our crew. The Captain’s original plan for the maiden voyage had only three mates; the Captain of course, one of his old friends and me. Well, his buddy’s girlfriend made it very clear that he was not going sailing without her. The Captain grudgingly agreed. Not wanting to be the only woman on the boat, she invited an old girlfriend (a professional escort from Atlanta) to join the crew. The Captain was not pleased. It was an arrangement fraught with awkward and uncomfortable moments. I sensed an urgent need for a whole lot of compatibility with a splash of harmony to make this a pleasant journey. We used a couple of days to stock the boat with provisions and familiarize ourselves with living in very close quarters.
Early one morning the former owner of the boat hopped on board to show us the ropes so to speak. He also made the crossing from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bahamas and gave us a “sailing 101″ crash course in the art and mechanics of sailing. Unfortunately, the calm weather did not provide a more realistic learning experience. With absolutely no wind and the water smooth as glass, we had to power it across which gave us no opportunity to get practical knowledge of maneuvering the boat under full sail. After an all-day crossing we finally reached Nassau and tied up to a reserved berth. The former owner and his girlfriend jumped out, wished us a safe journey and then quickly left the marina for their hotel in town. We were on our own now; five landlubbers who never sailed before. What could possibly go wrong, right?
Early next morning the Captain rang the bell for all to rise. After eating a breakfast at the marina and using its’ amenities we piled aboard Xochi (the short name for Xochipilli, the Aztec Goddess of pleasure and partying down). We untied and pushed off from the pier and I cannot think of a word to describe the whirlwind of conflicting emotions was sweeping me into a frenzy. First of all a tidal wave of euphoria flooded my stream of consciousness. This is it! I was embarking on a dream that’s coming to fruition. I was beside myself with a joy so pure and sweet I actually felt slightly queasy like from an intense sugar rush. On the other hand, the memories of my past experiences with the Captain had not been forgotten. With the thought of getting on a boat with him and sailing into the unknown unleashed an avalanche of apprehension, actually it was more like a powerful jolt of terror. The combination of joy and terror was an incredible high. Man, I’m so on board for this journey!
We cranked up the eight horsepower Saab diesel engine (powerful enough to get in and out of marinas and as we discovered not for much else) and putted out of Nassau Harbor. Reaching open water we hoisted the sails and pointed the boat on a course to the Eleuthera Island chain. I cannot begin to describe the exhilaration of gliding over one of the most pristine and clear bodies of water on the planet. I was perched on the bow as a spotter and had a commanding view of the world as it should be. Yes, everything was right in the universe, I felt quite comfortable and at home in the moment. I relinquished my post as spotter to one of the girls and took up a fishing pole on the stern to try my hand at trolling for a catch. The spotter yelled back at the helmsman “I think something is ahead”. We were warned about small waves lapping where they shouldn’t be. It was a sigh of shallow water or worse a coral reef. I pulled in the fishing line, turned to run up to the bow and see what the alarm was about. Too late! As the boat raised out of the water like it hit a speed bump we all heard and felt the sickening sound of wood crunching. Holy shit, we just ran into a coral reef. The Captain frantically ordered to drop sails and the anchor; a good call to make because if we had continued on the boat would surely have been shredded by massive coral heads. Upon peeking down into the center hull our worse fears were confirmed. Yikes! The hull had been breached! We all looked at each other with a touch of terror in our eyes. To get the gist of our situation here we were anchored in the center of a reef circle and taking on water. It took a moment to fully appreciate the dire predicament we were in; I then asked myself, “What could possibly happen next”? The answer to that question came quickly. The Captain and I donned on snorkeling gear and plunged into the crystal clear water to assess the damage. I was overwhelmed by the unfathomable beauty that surrounded us. Coral of every size and description, sea flora from another planet and the fish, oh my God, fish that I had only seen in aquariums were parading around in the hundreds. I had more pressing issues at the moment and had to avert my attention away from the mind-blowing scenery. Checking the main hull again confirmed our worse fears; about a foot below the water line a softball sized hole had been punched in. Fucking Hell! What now? We came up for air and gave each other a resigning stare, no words were needed to convey the glaring truth; yep here we are in big trouble. He motioned for us to go aboard and alert the crew to the tale of woe. As we swam towards the stern the Captain stopped and pointed down. We had been hovering over conchs perhaps thirty or more laid out in a staggered spiral formation. The Captain surfaced and yelled for two buckets; what is he up to now? He handed me a bucket and said, “Let’s go get us some conch”! What? Was this the proper time to pillage a village of conchs, I thought not but I did as requested and dove down about fifteen or twenty feet and began gathering them like Easter Eggs. With our buckets full we surfaced and handed them to the waiting girls. The Captain was the first to try and climb up the rickety rope ladder. Treading water waiting for my turn I noticed a dark shadow moving into the inner circle of the reef. I got a sudden sense of urgency and started to clamber aboard. One of the girls let out a blood curdling scream; just a few feet under my dangling legs a monstrous shark sped by. I shot out of the water like a Polaris missile and landed on deck with a thud. Looking over board the girls gasped, “Oh my God, there’s more of them”! True enough, a school of sharks were now circling around the boat. Did they sense our predicament and were now waiting for an opportunity to feast? OK then, we had some brain storming to do. We had only one rational option at the moment and that was to stay put. The sun was going down for the day and the angle of its’ light made it difficult to look for a passage through the coral. Even if we did find an escape where would we go in the dark, bump into more reefs perhaps? Because of the boats’ design we were theoretically not in any immediate danger of sinking. Even though the main hull was half full of water the two outer pontoons were keeping the boat afloat, so far. Darkness fell on us like a heavy black blanket. In spite of our current situation we did eat well that night. Conch was the dish of choice. The wind picked up making the boat sway back and forth giving us another concern; if the anchor didn’t hold we would drift into the coral and sink. I was sure the sharks would be waiting there licking their chops. Sleep did not come easy that night. I had dreams of sharks gnawing away at the hole to make it bigger; I woke up a few times with such a start I bumped my head on the rafters over my bunk. The morning light shined on a boat that was still floating. That was a major relief, but we still had more hurdles namely how to get out of the coral corral that held us captive. Another bright moment, the sharks had given up their siege and disappeared. We waited until the tide seemed to be at its’ highest level before trying to find a safe passage through the reef. Taking on so much water had lowered the boat to about a foot below the natural water line. That meant our normal draft of two and a half feet was now more like three to four feet making for a dangerous way out of this quagmire. I was positioned on the bow as the lead spotter with the responsibility of guiding us to freedom. Shit! I had no prior experiences with this kind of task. One slight miscalculation and we would be in an extreme set of circumstances. We cranked up the engine, hoisted the anchor and with due caution approached the reef’s rim. Several attempts had to be aborted, there was just no way the boat could safely pass over the coral heads. After about an hour of prying for a passable passage one finally appeared. We would have to barely clear two massive coral heads and then make a hard port turn to avoid three more off to bow and starboard flank. It was our best chance of getting out. Fortunate for us the wind had died down and the water was still. OK then, the Captain gave the nod to go for it. We had two crew members stationed on the two pontoon bows armed with gaffs to if necessary push off from the heads. I was shouting directions back to the Captain at the helm. There was a lot of “easy to port, now to starboard, straighten it up, Fuck, slow it down”! Our spotter on the port side yelled, “Oh shit! We are getting to close over here. “Same here screamed the starboard spotter”! From my vantage point I could see the boat sliding through with maybe a couple of feet clearance. Some mighty tense moments, golf ball size sweat was popping out of my forehead. As soon as the stern barely cleared the heads I screamed, “hard to port, full speed”! The Captain turned to port and slammed our poor little Saab two stroke engine into overdrive. We cleared the coral with just feet to spare and were now in open water again. A spontaneous cheer erupted but before we could celebrate our escape the next hurdle was as daunting. What do we do now?
We headed straight for a small island about a mile away. After a short search of the shore line we found a likely spot to ground the boat and attempt to repair the damaged hull. At full throttle we ran her up on to a small beach then jumped out and pushed it as far up as we could. We anchored the boat to prevent it from slipping back into the water as the tide ebbed. A search party was dispatched to explore and find help but we had beached ourselves on a small uninhabited island. We were stranded with our own devices. Meanwhile, the tide had dropped below the puncture in the hull and as the water poured out of the hole the enormity of our situation became ever too clear. Instead of becoming paralyzed with apprehension we rallied and in kind of an instinctual survival mode rushed into action. With the combined efforts of a bucket brigade, hand pumps and a less than efficient bilge pump we managed to just about empty the flooded hull. The next glaring problem to solve, plugging up the gaping hole. Fortunately we found a piece of plywood and cut it into two matching square pieces which served as patches. Using a very liberal amount of underwater epoxy we glued the two patches together with one on the outside and the other on the inside of the hull. A stick was used as a wedge to hold the outside plate in place and an oar for the inside. While waiting for the tide to come back in and see if our desperate fix-it job worked we finished the rest of our conch.
All right, the moment of truth had arrived; the tide was coming in and almost up to the patch. We had to give the boat a gentle heave-ho and slide it back into deeper water. We all held our breaths and I’m sure everyone was praying to their favorite deity. The Captain stuck his head into the hull and with a flashlight looking for any signs of leakage. He emerged with a thumbs-up and exclaimed, “Looks good so far”! Another spontaneous cheer erupted. Of course the real test would be when the boat was under way. We promptly pulled up anchor and set out for parts unknown.
There was a celebratory air on board and well deserved after all we did manage under duress to tap into basic survival instincts and devised our own rescue. Quite an accomplishment for clueless landlubbers, no? The jubilation was short lived though. Just minutes from the island we started to run aground. We had penetrated a maze of underwater sand dunes. The water being so shallow and clear made visual depth perception impossible. Every time the boat ran into a dune we had to jump into the water and push off. This was disconcerting because of the knowledge that sharks were in the area. It was maddening to see the aqua green of deeper water about a quarter mile away. We had to find a way out of this labyrinth before the tide dropped out from under us leaving the boat high and dry with no chance of escaping. Perched on the bow as the point man I was beginning to feel a deepening sense of gloom. Had we just gotten ourselves out of one dire situation only to wander into an inescapable trap? Just as a heavy cloud of doom settled on me a dark figure swam between the main hull and the starboard pontoon. Holy Hell! Had the sharks again sensed our plight and were closing in on us? Lord have mercy, it was a dolphin! It positioned its-self right in front of the bow and made unmistakable gestures to follow him. I shouted out the directions to the Captain and after several hundred yards of twist and turns the dolphin guided us to an open channel leading to deeper water. I began to shed tears of gratitude and awe at what just happened. The dolphin seemed to be just as happy by displaying corkscrew leaps out of the water. We were suddenly surrounded by his pod maybe twenty or more. Word must have gotten around about his good deed for they all gave us a show of pure joy by jumping and frolicking around the boat. Below are some pictures that chronicles the encounter.
Below is the very dolphin leading us out of the dunes. My hero!
A mother dolphin and her baby joining in on the fun.
Our rescue dolphin would swim in between the main hull and the starboard pontoon like it was a water tunnel. I leaned over the deck and stroked it with my hand as it passed through. The dolphin circled and returned many times to receive my attention and adoration. The last few passes it turned on its’ side so I could pet his belly. This was another one of those moments that changed my perspective on everything. When we were safely in deeper water the pod of dolphins swam off leaping into the horizon. Holy fucking shit! If the events of the last few days were any indication of what could be expected to occur, man I was on board and beyond jazzed!