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Capt. Matt's Boating Adventure

Since none of my trusty Internet boating friends have provided any boating stories recently, I guess you will have to endure one of my own. Actually, this is such an involved story, I will have to tell it in three or four installments, and if that doesn't make you want to just sit right down and submit a story you may after you read the first one. Capt. Matt

It's Always Something
or
If It Can, It Will
Part I

I should have known when I arrived at the dock ... There was no jib in the roller furler, there was trash everywhere, the engine compartment was open, and pieces of machinery that belonged on the engine were strewn about the galley and main salon. Oh boy, . . . I have four students who've paid good money for a trip from Key West to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. They'll be showing up in less than two hours for final planning, provisioning and briefing. Four eager students, with whom I had just completed a training exercise from Florida to the Bahamas, wanted more. They now had as their goal a longer, more challenging offshore passagemaking trip, which included doing all the navigation celestially. I should have known when I arrived at the dock that this was going to be a trip to remember.

The plan was to meet in Key West mid-morning prior to departure and finalize the planning of our trip. Several things remained to be accomplished:

  1. We would do a thorough walk-through of the 44' sloop. I always have students make a layout diagram of the vessel so that everyone on board knows how to get around at night without lighting, how to locate bilge pumps, through hull fittings, shut-off valves, PFD's, flares, EPIRBs, radios, and any other piece of equipment the location of which might be valuable to know in an emergency.
  2. We would plan meals and provision the boat.
  3. We would set up watch schedules.
  4. We would set up abandon-ship procedures
  5. We would go over procedures in case of fire.
  6. We would correct sextants and plan the route.
  7. Finally, we had to clear customs.

After the preparation, we would have the last meal shoreside, turn in early and leave Key West at first light. That was the plan, but now the boat is nowhere near ready to depart. It is still in pieces. So plans changed. I finally found the dockmaster/charter company representative and she informed me that the boat we were taking, Rebel's Cause, got back a day late, but that she and her crew would work all night, if necessary, to get her ready to sail by first light. So much for turning in early, I thought.

When the students arrived we all assessed the situation. I tried to be positive even after the two hours of inactivity that I had witnessed while waiting for the dockmaster's words to be implemented. We thought about postponing for a day, but because of potential conflicts with some of the student's work schedules and the fact that we had a potential "weather window" problem, we decided to pitch in and help get the boat in shape - in addition to all the other planning we had to do.

Everything went fairly well and as sundown approached we started going over the final predeparture checklist. In order to speed things up we spread out over the boat and shouted as each item was to be checked. PFDs - "check," flares - "check," fire extinguishers - "check," fresh water tanks - silence, fuel tanks & extra fuel - silence. Although the fresh water was easy enough to obtain, we soon found out that the fuel dock was closed and didn't open until 0800 the next morning. Oh, and one more small thing, which turned out later not to really matter; our dinghy and its outboard were missing.

There was also one more thing that I had to do; plan a few challenges for the students to solve. After all, that is what the offshore passagemaking course is about - meeting the challenges of emergencies at sea and being able to handle them quickly and efficiently. In the past, I have done such things as remove the wheel and hide it so that students had to improvise another method of steering. There were other challenges in my arsenal, but since we were going to be late getting underway, I thought "I'll let them off for the first 24 hours." Little did I know that I wouldn't have to create any unusual situations for the entire trip.

We finally got everything in order, other than the fuel situation, around 2200. We happily adjourned to Pepe's, a local eatery, and chowed down prior to turning in for the night. (By the way, heavy, late night dinners are not conducive to offshore passagemaking as one of the students attested to before noon the following day.)

At the fuel dock by 0730 we waited for the attendant. At 0800 guess what? - a no show. At 0830, guess what? - a no show. At 0845, guess what? - a groggy eyed attendant appeared to ask if he could help. With absolutely no sarcasm in my voice, I politely asked if perhaps they provided fuel for boats. We pulled away from the fuel dock at 0930 with a borrowed dinghy in tow and Margaritaville playing on the stereo.

Since we would not be able to get a sun shot until noon, everyone relaxed and started to get into the rhythmic roll of Rebel's Cause as she slid gracefully under sail through the 2 to 3 foot swells. Everyone, that is, except Jonathan, who was hanging over the stern rail making funny gurgling noises at the dolphins who accompanied us out of the harbor. He didn't look so good! Could have been the nacho appetizer he had the night before or perhaps the fried cheese appetizer, or maybe the blue plate special, southern fried steaks (note the plural) covered with petroleum gravy. Of course, it could have been the double helping of Key Lime pie with whipped cream. Actually, it may not have been the food at all but the fact that after leaving Pepe's Johnathon said, "I think I'll take a little walk and burn off some calories." His walk ended about 0500 when he boarded Rebel's Cause just as everyone else was getting out of their bunks.

Although the students were familiar with classroom-style celestial navigation, they had never actually done a "day's work" while onboard. They were surprised at how difficult it was to stand erect holding a sextant and a watch and, at the same time, try to keep from falling overboard. I finally showed them how to wrap themselves around the mast for stability. They did get some fairly accurate noon sites. And they all attested to the fact that we were somewhere within 18,000 miles of where we should be. (All except Jonathan, who didn't have any idea where he was at the moment and quite frankly didn't care. He kept mumbling something about rather being dead.)

I had told them early on that it wasn't going to be easy using celestial and dead reckoning alone but they insisted "if Columbus could do it they could do it." So the rule was established. We disconnected and stowed the GPS that was onboard and I even confiscated a hand-held GPS from one student who had shown it off on the Bahamas trip the prior week. However, believing always in diplomacy and having heard the term "trust but verify" somewhere, I didn't let them know about the two hand-held GPSs that I had in my pillow case.

The students had done all the navigation planning using cruising guides and the appropriate charts. I questioned several times about any unusual phenomena which we might be concerned about but no one seemed to be too worried about the track that they had set.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully as we headed out on a course somewhat south of the Dry Tortugas. We got some great evening shots at both stars and planets. After reducing the shots and checking our progress the students discovered that after about 10 hours at sea we had covered almost 35 miles. "Thirty-five miles?" one of the students said puzzled. Hmmmm, I guess they had forgotten about the current coming out of the the Gulf of Mexico which joins the Gulf Stream in the Strait of Florida. No problem; a quick course correction and we turned to cross the current as quickly as possible and pick up the counter current off the coast of Cuba.

A beautiful clear night with stars everywhere, the sound of wind and waves surrounded us. The first break in the beauty of sailing was the necessary weather check on the single-side band radio. The second was entirely unnecessary and something we all could have lived without.

Continued...Part II

Stay tuned next week for such adventures as "When the Shark Bites," "The Whiny Helm Blues," "Compasses are so attractive" and "Gunships and Roses."

 

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