My dad had semi-retired and taken the boat from Chicago to Florida. He lived aboard for about a year, until a storm left his boat beached. Then he bought a house with a dock for the boat.
I would take the kids down every year to see him. The first time, while he was still a liveaboard, he wanted to take the boat over to the Bahamas. It was late February. The locals warned, “Never cross the Gulf Stream when the winds are out of the north!”
That stuck in my head.
We left Ft. Lauderdale and headed south on the ICW to Miami. When we arrived at the Government Cut I saw several large ships docked and a couple of cruise ships coming in. We motored out towards the mouth, right by one of the cruise ships. Some of the passengers waved at us. They looked like ants.
Once we exited the channel it became very apparent we would have to motor most, if not all, of the way. We had 4’ waves crashing into our bow and the spray was splashing back into the cockpit. While my 7 year-old son was sucking the salt out of his ocean-sprayed jacket sleeve, I was busy trying to figure out where I could put my 1 year-old daughter so I could help raise the main.
While standing in the companionway with my daughter in my arms, I peered out towards the horizon. I could swear I could see large breaking waves. I thought, “That’s probably where the Gulf Stream is!” I swallowed hard.
The wind was out of the northeast ~15-20 knots. I looked at my dad and asked him if maybe we might want to head down to the Keys instead, you know, to have a nice sail. He said no, we were just fine.
I went below and sandwiched my daughter in between pillows in the forward berth so she wouldn’t get tossed around. Then I went topside and raised the main.
I knew this trip was a bad idea.
I heard my daughter cry and ran down to check on her. The pillows weren’t holding her and she was being tossed around like a rag doll. I picked her up and resumed my place in the companionway with her in my arms, trying to figure out how to get my dad to agree we were doing exactly what the locals said we shouldn’t. My dad didn’t easily change his mind.
Then it hit me. I knew he needed my help, depended on it in fact. Then I said, “Dad, I’ll have to hold Jennifer all the way. It’s too dangerous for her down there. You’ll have to sail the boat yourself.”
He looked at me holding my daughter in one arm and using the other arm to brace myself in the companionway. Then he said, “Maybe we should go down to the Keys.” WHEW! Averted another hair-raising experience!
We turned around, had the most beautiful sail through Biscayne Bay and enjoyed one of the best trips on the boat we had ever had.
But every year we returned to visit my dad he talked about sailing over to the Bahamas. After that first turn around, he sailed over there several times and loved it. He wanted to share that with us. But each year the weather just wasn’t cooperating.
Once my oldest entered high school, we could no longer visit my dad during spring break because the grade school and high school had different vacation days. So we waited until the summer. My dad had told me many times it’s much easier to find good weather in the summer. And we did.
We left the Lake Worth inlet around 2200, with 3 kids in tow. The ocean was a mirror, reflecting the full moon. Not a ripple, not a hint of wind. Still, I raised the main, just in case. It was my security blanket.
It was about 0330 and I was at the helm. Everyone else was asleep. The drone of the engine, the bow slipping quietly through the glass-smooth water, was all I heard. Then I heard something. I couldn’t make it out. It sounded like it was behind me. Like something cutting through the water. I turned to look back and off the starboard I saw this huge freighter coming up on us. It was about 200 yards off our starboard quarter! I looked up at the radar reflector, back at the ship and almost screamed, “What the **** are you doing!!!”
As I saw the ship pass by and soon felt the wake rocking the boat, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were just lucky or if they saw us and felt such a close approach was prudent. I certainly didn’t think so. I was POd! It woke me up though!
We had a LORAN to guide us and around 0800 we arrived at where the chart showed some shallow shoals that you had to navigate between to get to the harbor in West End. The charts showed a 55’ tower with a flashing red light. All I saw was a 55 gallon barrel that had been painted fluorescent orange, floating right where I expected the tower to be.
When we checked in with the authorities in West End I said to him, “I was looking for a 55’ tower but all I saw was an orange barrel.”
He laughed with a big smile and said in his Bahamian accent, “Oh! That tower blew down in a storm years ago! We put the barrel in its place.” I guessed we had heard right about navigational aids in the Bahamas being less than reliable.
We were there for almost a week. The weather was gorgeous! But every night, when I was on deck enjoying the night sky, I would see flashing lights, as lightning from nearby storms lit up the horizon. I figured one would come our way. I just hoped it wouldn't put too much a damper on our trip
We left from Lucaya early in the morning to head back to Florida, never having one damp day while in the Bahamas. Once again, the weather was very mild but a bit overcast. We had to motor but I had my trusty main up just in case the wind picked up.
I kept expecting rain or maybe some winds. At one point I could see raindrops falling on the water. As it approached us slowly I prepared for a light drizzle. Then it seemed to stop just before it hit the boat. The rain was still falling, just not on us. I could see the drops splash in the water right next to us but we were dry. At one point I reached out and felt the drops hit the palm of my hand. Yet not one fell on the deck.
I thought, “We waited all these years to sail over to the Bahamas. I guess the sailing gods are smiling on us.”
I was feeling blessed.
It was dark, around 2200, when I saw the lights at the entry to the channel of the Lake Worth inlet. I had been doing frequent checks on the charts and marking our location on the chart as we made headway. My dad was at the wheel, still wearing only his bathing suit. I told him, “Line up those lights and we’ll be right in line with the channel. The LORAN has us about 4 miles out.” The charts showed the next marker to be a buoy located a mile from the channel. It was marked “LW” on the charts. The lights onshore were glistening, inviting us home. It was so peaceful. All was well. It was good to be sailing but I was sad it would soon be over.
Suddenly, like the rapid closing of a sliding door, the lights on shore vanished!
Then BAM!!! The boat heeled violently to port. Everything below that wasn’t tied down went crashing. I looked up to see the wind pressing against the full main. I knew we were in danger of either capsizing or the mast snapping. I moved as carefully as I could to the main outhaul winch, located on the deck, to the stern of the cockpit. I eased out every last inch of it. I saw the end of the boom slide over the water only inches from it. The wind had not yet been able to build any waves.
My dad yelled out, “We’re going to run aground! We have nothing under the keel!”
“WHAT!!!” I cried out. “What are you talking about?” I knew we were in the shipping channel where the minimum depth was well over 30’. I had seen nothing on the chart that told me we were anywhere near shallow water.
“The depth is reading .5 feet! We’re going to run aground!” my dad screamed. “I’m in reverse and we’re still doing 6 knots!”
Still sitting on the aft deck watching the main and the end of the boom, I cleated the main outhaul and attempted to walk to the cockpit. I immediately slipped and grabbed on to the winch before I slid off the deck and into the water. I knew if I went in there was no coming back. On my way to the cockpit, I saw the anemometer pegged at 70. I told myself it must be broken. We couldn’t be in near hurricane winds, could we? We were.
When I got to the companionway, I saw my kids huddled at the settee with fear in their faces. “It’s okay. We’ll be okay.” I looked down toward the strange sensation at my feet and saw the water running off my body, overflowing my deck shoes and pouring down onto the cabin floor. I was drenched. Behind me I kept hearing my dad screaming, “We’re going to run aground. We’ll have to run with the storm!”
I went below and checked the charts. No way we were running aground. The water was plenty deep. And no way was I going to run with this storm! NO WAY!
Then my dad screamed, “I’m freezing! Get me a coat!” My oldest son ran to the locker to help.
When I got topside I told my dad, “We’re not going to run aground! And we’re NOT going to run with this storm! I checked the charts. Stay on course and we’ll be okay.” He looked me and realized I was taking charge. He didn’t argue.
Just then, my son handed my dad a pink women’s raincoat. It belonged to my dad’s wife. He could only get one arm in it. He was still in his swimsuit and was shivering.
I looked to port and saw the end of the boom bouncing off the water. I grabbed the winch handle and cranked in the main outhaul until the end of the boom was safely clear. The boat heeled farther. I took a few seconds to catch my breath when I saw my watch, sitting on the deck, now at over 45 degrees. Somehow it had popped off my wrist and landed on the deck and by some miracle it just stayed there.
Then my son yelled, “We’re flooding!”
I scrambled down the ladder and went into the galley. I looked at my son. He pointed to the sink. The valve to the sink drain was open and the sinks were filling up with water, and starting to overflow. I quickly closed the valve and told him if he sees anything else, let me know immediately!
Then my dad yelled below, “Where are we?” I looked up through the companionway and saw him at the wheel with the translucent pink raincoat sheltering one side of his body from the biting rain. His hair was sideways. I looked up at the LORAN. I saw the readout flash several times then go blank. We had lost it.
I went topside and told my dad the LORAN went out. The wind was blowing so hard we had to scream even though we were only a couple feet from each other.
“We lost the LORAN?" he asked, with fear in his eyes. "We’re in trouble! I can’t control the boat! We’re still doing over 6 knots and I have the engine in full reverse!" I looked at the lever and saw it wasn't full reverse but probably half. "We need to call the Coast Guard! We’re going to beach this thing!” The depth sounder was still reading between 0 and 1 foot. Nothing was making sense. Brain synapses were firing but it was utter chaos in my head.
Then it hit me.
“Dad, the transducer for the depth sounder is out of the water!” He looked at me as if he wasn’t grasping what I was saying. “What you’re seeing is the waves pounding against it and scrambling the readings.” The rain was biting at my flesh so hard it felt like needles piercing my skin. “That’s the only reasonable explanation.” My dad’s lips were blue and he was shivering badly now, but I knew I couldn’t take the helm because there was no way he could respond to emergencies the way I could. I could get around the boat much faster than he could. He looked disoriented. I felt terrible I couldn’t relieve him but there was no other option. “Just keep an eye on the compass and stay on course.” The adrenaline was pumping so hard I too was having a hard time thinking straight.
“Look! A light!” My dad pointed off the starboard bow. “I’m heading for it! We need to see what it is!”
“No dad! Stay away! You don’t know what that is! It could be anything. If we hit it, we’re DEAD!” We were on it in seconds. Thankfully it was a buoy. Then I saw “LW” on it.
“Dad! That’s the Lake Worth inlet buoy! We’re right on course! Keep your heading due west and that will take us straight into the channel!”
At that point in time, we could have been in the middle of the ocean for all that mattered. The wind blew ferociously. I feared losing the mast. I kept looking for any signs of imminent failure and imagined in my mind what I was going to do if it snapped. Every scenario I imagined was pure hell. And any thoughts of going forward to drop the sail without any safety gear on board was out of the question. We’d have to hope for the best. I tried to trim the main in such a way as to allow the wind to blow evenly on both sides of it. With our heading, that wasn’t always possible.
I got a taste of the rain as it poured off my face and into my mouth. It was salty. I looked at the churning waters over what was now the highest part of the boat, the starboard rail, and saw foamy whitecaps and the wind whipping the tops off the waves. Then I realized, some of the “rain” was coming from the sea.
My dad continued to yell his concerns about running aground. He couldn’t accept the depth sounder was lying to him. I stood my ground and insisted he remain on course. My kids, in the meantime, dealt with this all by remaining huddled below. Their bulging eyes told of their terror.
Suddenly we saw it. Lights! A red buoy! Then a green buoy! We were almost there! A power boat blew by us and disappeared into the inlet. I tried to imagine what they had just experienced.
And just as soon as it began, the wind completely stopped. All there was left was a slight drizzle and an eerie calm. I turned around and looked back on the dark waters we had just left and thought to myself, “Did I just imagine that?”
It was if someone had just turned off the terror switch. I had no idea how long we were in that, all comprehension of time had been completely paralyzed, but I was glad it was over.
We slowly motored into the channel and as we approached the Coast Guard station I asked my dad, “Are we going to check in?”
My dad, still half dressed in that pink raincoat but no longer shivering said, “Tomorrow. I’ll call them tomorrow. Let’s go home.”