The sun peeked through the portholes and started waking the crew. We wolfed down breakfast before finishing the final preps. The moment was upon us to bugout of Ft Pierce and sail back to Miami.
In early December, we untied the dock lines then pointed the bow toward warmer weather. The course from Ft Pierce to Miami kept us within sight of land for the multiple-day voyage. Omar and Derek joined me for a mini-adventure. We packed the catamaran with food and supplies for the nonstop trip. A few parts that were already broken had us on our toes even before we started. Plus, a weather front changed at the last minute for a return to port. After we were finally making-way, we reflected on the earlier decision we had made as a collective to stay put. That little extra time gave us room for a sail repair and relaxation after the beating we received from the weather the night before.
Game Time- Derek received points for reaching top speed. Omar received points for being Omar. I received points for baking the lasagna.
Miami welcomed us with a beautiful skyline and colorful sunset. With the anchor firmly set, we crashed. We slept hard and apologized to our boat neighbors for the deep sleep snoring coming from all three cabins. So generous of sleep I barely even noticed the rain shower pass in the middle of the night. The sun cracked the dawn like an egg. With smiles and a pang of hunger, we headed to town to find breakfast in the city that Sapphire calls her home port. Welcome to Miami- Bienvenido a Miami Rise and Shine.
One lost writer’s reflections on the water. From recent Aquatramp initiate, Central Florida playwright Tracey Jane.
“Most beginners oversteer.” Sapphire’s Captain Gary turns the wheel until the heading reads 132, and wind snaps the sail taut again. “You’ll get the feel for it.” His eyes scan gauges, sails and sky. I fixate on the digital number before me, but the sea shushes all around, dark in the clouded moonlight, lulling me to introspection.
Maybe I’ve oversteered my life, too. Especially in the beginning, when I had it all figured out: Get good grades in school, get a good job, get married, get a house, have kids, do all you’ve been told to do, believe only what you’ve been raised to believe. My heading was clear. And I was always firmly focused on the number in front of me — but never on where I was actually going.
The busyness of life becomes the business of living. That’s how it was for me anyway, until one day I looked up and realized I was exactly where I was “supposed to be.” Yet completely lost. I wasn’t following my own inner compass, or whatever else you might call it: each person’s unique heart, spirit, energy … The number dances: 126, 128, 119. I spin the giant rim sharply to the right.
“Small movements,” Gary calls from the saloon, where he’s writing the last hour’s log entry. He never looks up, having apparently felt the boat’s movement more clearly than I could see it. “Give her time to adjust.”
It’s been twenty-two months since my divorce, after twenty-two years married. Half my life and nearly all my adult life. While I can’t worry about the weather behind me, it still chases me, the good as much as the bad. The failure looms, even if shared, even though ultimately without blame. The grief of that loss, of love — and even more, of the dream that it will last forever — still crashes over me sometimes, like an abrupt big wave. 138, 143 … I pull back left, and Gary reappears.
“This is distracting you.” He grins and switches off the illuminated gauges. “See where the moon’s hitting the horizon?” I mumble assent, only then noticing that the clouds have moved, revealing a glowing gibbous moon. Nearly centered over our bow, it splays light across the water. “Stay on this side of it.” I nod, setting my outlook to the shimmering triangle. Gary lies down on a cushion atop the cockpit and closes his eyes.
Like the other crewmembers he’s gathered for this venture, I’m here for a reason. Maybe he knows we’re each in deep need of something, even if it’s just this shared experience at sea …
Meg is the free-spirited gypsy who survived a rare aortic aneurysm in her early 20s. Another real-life badass is Omar. A veteran first responder haunted by the Pulse nightclub tragedy, he’s the gentle giant who’s turned his observant eye to professional photography.
David and Alice are the couple straight out of Eden. (Technically, she’s from Britain, but you get the idea.) Together, this tow-haired Adam and Eve have trekked the globe and faced the formidable, including a precarious collapsed lung and devastating family accident. Onward they choose to sail and are restoring their first boat, a classic monohull.
Gary also invited his longtime friend from their quintessential Southern hometown of Erwin, Tennessee. Easygoing Robbie and his flame-haired wife Nicole, our onboard firefighter and medic, are walking metaphors of everything to love about America: likable, tough, and even stronger united.
Then there’s our buoyant first mate. The brother of Gary’s best bud from Navy days, Dan is the likeable, knowledgeable wingman in every great sailing movie you’ve ever seen. You know, the ones where the adventure goes nothing like planned but changes everyone aboard as they rally together through adversity to the unexpected end. But I’m getting ahead of this story …
Dan takes the helm for our overlapping watch. In between the continued lapping of nighttime waves, I comprehend half of all Dan says as he freely dispenses wisdom about wind. Like how you can’t sail right into it. And how it’s more often in front of you and not behind you, hence tacking, approaching the wind from alternating sides. So, in fact, the fastest way to get from point A to B is never a straight line. Nor was our route from Titusville to Miami, which was our intended July 4th destination.
“Asshole,” Dan calls the wind when it shifts again. “It keeps clocking around on us.” The navigational relationship between clock and compass, time and direction, has always been a fascination to me. Movement is measured in degrees, minutes and seconds of the earth’s sphere. Or a person’s lifetime.
At the end of my shared hour with Dan, I go to the logbook, thinking of how I might verbally capture the conditions I had witnessed him contend with. I scribble some jumble about the wind clocking around a lot. Then I look at the line above and see Captain Gary’s perfect summary: CONFUSED SEAS.
The entry could just as well describe my post-divorce mindset. Or all the “unprecedented events” that have marked 2020. But like “these uncertain times,” the mysterious ocean has a way of revealing us, of distilling our brokenness to the surface.
The sea tests us. This pandemic and its destructive wake are testing us. But maybe in the end, these trials that force us to change course will prove to be the unwanted events that also help us change ourselves.
I climb to my cabin bed and close my eyes, exhausted, feeling the waves. They rise and fall in equal measure. Some pass soft and gentle, others sharp and jarring, but with an endless balance that in itself is reassuring.
It was several months before Hurricane Irma hit the coastal town of Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and I was flying from New Orleans to inspect a catamaran for a possible purchase. At the time, I was in the market to acquire a late model catamaran in the 40′ to 50′ range. The BVI and the USVI are home to several large charter fleets. The yachts in the businesses are shined, maintained, and regularly used by folks on holiday and vacation. The two main reasons to charter a new boat are A) It’s cheaper than owning a new vessel, especially if you are only available to enjoy sailing a limited time each year. B) Folks who will be buying a new boat may want to test drive a similar model to compare before taking the plunge.
Lagoon and Leopard both make quality products. They are built in France and South Africa, respectfully. On this specific trip, I arranged to meet up with a broker from one of the famous charter groups on the island. He and I had been in communication via email over several weeks before the trip on a modist Lagoon 420. The broker was always punctual with answers to questions and sent extra photos when asked, even making travel and accommodation suggestions.
On a three day weekend with an Airbnb booked, flights arranged, and a backpack slung over my shoulder, I traveled to the islands. New Orleans to Ft Lauderdale, to San Juan, to Tortola. With each flight, the planes were smaller and smaller until the last aircraft had seats for six passengers. Early the next morning, I woke with an island roster outside my window, crowing to announce the Saturday sunrise. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I ran down the stairs, and in this case, halfway down the mountain. The marina was still asleep when I arrived but lucky for me a bakery was nearby. Loaded up with fresh pastries, I waited eagerly.
Two hours later, the broker and I had preformed our walk around on the boat. Peeking under floorboards and behind engine parts, we were ready to untie the dock lines and go for a sail.
The sail and inspection did not disappoint. It was a beautiful day, the boat handled as expected, and the broker was respectful. We returned to the dock and secured the small ship. The rest of the day, I wandered the town taking in the sights, sounds, and flavors. A famous establishment most sailors visit is Pusser’s. The name comes from the historic British Rum once rationed on HMS ships. Notably, the Painkiller should be on your drink bucket list.
That night as I pondered of the possible purchase, I danced and made friends in town, I was even introduced to and shook hands with the BVI’s Premier, The Honourable Orlando Smith. Everything seemed right, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on a feeling that was in my gut. It wasn’t the plantains that I had for dinner, it was something else.
A week later, back in the states, it was time to decide on buying the boat. Still, my gut was telling me to wait. I phoned the broker and passed on the deal. Remember I mentioned Hurricane Irma? Not many weeks after my decision to explore other boats elsewhere, the weather system took a violent turn slamming all of the northern islands and leaving destruction from the infamous Irma. Who knows what the fate of that vessel would have been if a different decision would have been made? Note to self, always trust that inner intuition.
Seriously? A guy was sitting behind me on a bus to Lisbon, Portugal, and this pickup line was his final attempt to pick up a girl across the aisle.
But this isn’t where the story begins. Let us go back five weeks and 3600 nautical miles to Jacksonville, Florida, USA. We were loading stores onto a private yacht that would soon be making way across the Atlantic Ocean. The owner had asked a friend, who in return asked me to join in the trans-Atlantic crossing, four of us in all would be on the 47-foot sailboat during the voyage.
Every journey has its pulse. I have commented before that long-distance sailing is 90% boredom and 10% panic, but this trip was of note to be different.
The First Leg
Bermuda, Isle of Devils
After finally leaving the mainland and out of the sight of land, we had the perfect sail to Bermuda. Along the way, dolphins rode our bow waves, Gin and Tonics let us know before dinner was ready each evening, and the stars, the night sky while at sea, always impresses.
The first leg took five days. We planned to stop long enough to replenish the fresh galley necessities. However, the weather had us cautious due to a hurricane possibly crossing our path.
The storm came and went while we made friends at places like the Swizzle Inn listening to Bil Krauss’s talents, and enjoying Dark and Stormy’s at The White Horse. This was the last time we would see land for the next thirteen and a half days. Next stop, Azore Islands.
Cold drinks, Whalebones, and more Friends
Horta, Faial, is a port city on the western part of the Archipelago of the Azores, and a rite of passage of sailors making a West to East trans-Atlantic crossing. The first mission was to find a historic pub named Peter’s. The pub was serendipitous with burgees lining the walls and ceiling, live music wafting out the front door, and beer flowing to yachtmen from around the world. We smiled, laughed, made more friends, took turns buying rounds of drinks, but most importantly knew the accomplishment that we achieved.
Sadly it was time for a crew change with my close friend Dave flying back to the states for business. Dave is a sailors’ sailor; he is a racer. One who is always watching the wind and tweaking the sails to squeak out another fraction of a kt. I learn from Dave every time I sail with him.
“Uncle” Rick, Owner Tony, and I welcomed the new Brit on board for the final reach to Lagos, Portugal.
Mainland Europe, Dryland
We arrived in Lagos during daylight hours and tied up to a dock at a marina downtown. That night Portugal won the World Cup. Horns blasted through the city after the win. I joined in the festivities and helped the locals celebrate in a proper sailors manor. The next morning with a sizable hangover, I said my goodbyes to the crew and boarded a passenger bus heading to Lisbon. Sitting around me were travelers from different points of the compass. During the two hour trip, I listened to a guy behind me try over and over to start a flirty conversation with a girl across the aisle. During the last fifteen minutes, he asked her the question that still makes me smile, “What is your fondest memory of Spanish meatballs?’