by John Buchanan, author of Tiller Tales eBook
“This tale describes a single-handed sea voyage when NEREIS and I leave the sanctuary of Florida’s waters in 1995 and travel into the wild and wooly cold North Atlantic, ostensibly to help a new friend but experience near disaster prompting thoughts of a lifestyle change.”
I first met Howard one June morning as I called for passage through Ortona Lock on the Caloosahatchee Waterway fifteen miles or so west of Lake Okeechobee in South-central Florida. He was a half-mile behind and wanted to share the transit. We were both single-handing and chatted while fending off the lock’s timbered walls. We agreed to meet that night at Clewiston to discuss mutual plans of sailing to New England. His boat was faster and was soon out of sight. (See Map page 13.)
I saw him next as he was tying up with some difficulty I thought at the town dock in Moore Haven for lunch. We waved as I went past toward Moore Haven Lock, the western gateway to Lake Okeechobee.
I reached Clewiston at 1300 and decided to continue on taking The Rim Route around the southern end of the lake. It was before they cut down or killed all the so-called exotic trees. It was a beautiful pre-century vista that now is a wasteland of stumps and deadfalls. At sunset I tied up at the dolphins east of Port Mayaca Lock on the St. Lucie Canal between the lake and Florida’s Atlantic shore.
Next day was an easy hop past Indian Town to the anchorage west of St. Lucie Lock. I was sorry to have skipped our meeting and didn’t want to miss Howard again, as he’s had many years sailing offshore in the tropics and I wanted to learn all I could from his greater experience.
In mid-afternoon I began calling Sunflower on VHF radio and shortly Howard answered agreeing to spend the night at my anchorage. He was seventy-four that spring and spent winters in Fort Meyers Beach, Florida and summers in Rhode Island. He spoke about years of sailing and of his love of single-handed ocean voyages. Relating glowingly of finding the axis of the Gulf Stream and riding to North Carolina. In recent years his long distance voyages consisted of taking Sunflower north in the spring and south in the fall. He clearly treasured these adventures, similar I thought to a salmon driving upstream to spawn. He suggested I follow in my boat.
I hadn’t planned to go all the way offshore as having last traveled the east coast’s Intracoastal Waterway in 1975 I wanted to revisit old memories. Besides I had no small-scale charts of the Eastern United States. “Easy to get in Fort Pierce,” he said. I still wasn’t convinced but agreed to travel in tandem the next day. When leaving to row back to his boat that evening Howard stumbled on the lifelines.
I had fouling problems with my very tired Atomic Four engine and shortly after going through the St. Lucie Lock it stalled again. I called Howard on the radio and he in his salmon-spawning mode said he’d see me in Fort Pierce. I had much practice in changing sparkplugs and fifteen minutes later was underway again, knowing I had no chance of catching up.
A few minutes later, I heard Howard’s voice again on the radio crying, “Gimmie a wake! Gimmie a wake! I’m aground! Gimmie a wake.” Then two large powerboats careened past, giving me a wake. One of the drivers shouted that someone was aground ahead of me. My first thought was, “Why didn’t you help him?” I guess they were in a hurry.
I readied a line and tossed it to Howard as I drifted by. One quick wrenching tug and he was off the snag. He gratefully stayed with my slower speed the rest of the day.
While idling along waiting for the Roosevelt Bridge to open in Stuart, Howard almost hit me at six knots on autopilot. His reflexes seemed to me in my comparatively youthful arrogance to be somewhat slow. I decided at that moment to go with him offshore to North Carolina. Perhaps to make sure he didn’t get into trouble. Did I mention arrogance?
The next afternoon after cleaning the carburetor again and helping Howard load his dinghy aboard I set out with the outgoing tide course 90 degrees magnetic. Howard felt he needed ice so he followed later. “No problem,” I thought, “His boat’s faster.” We never saw each other until late July when I met him on Block Island, Rhode Island. So much for protecting him he was off like a shot or maybe a salmon. We did talk for two or three days on VHF radio however and with two other sailboats, Appledore and Imaginess. And then it happened.
There seem always to be thunderstorms a hundred-fifty miles off Georgia in the axis of the Gulf Stream several at any one time. At night it looks like some gigantic Star Wars-type battle silently going on until we passed through one of them and it was no longer quiet.
It was the morning of the third day I think, fatigue makes you forget. It’s something conscientious single-handers live with. I had been hove-to half the night with storm jib and single reefed main. NEREIS was still laboring in the morning and I put in a second reef leaving the jib up. I re-hove to, went below, put all five-hatch boards in place, tied the hatch down and took off my soaked clothes. While drying off with a towel looking out the starboard window I marveled at how peaceful it all seemed below, dry, quiet, my bunk calling seductively. Sailing a boat you have confidence in lends a great sense of safety in extreme conditions, even in violent motion there’s a strange peace and a seeming quiet compared to what it’s like on deck.
The Gulf Stream during the summer thunderstorm season is a beautifully serene, vast, chaotic, and eerie place. Its storm-driven waves never seem to have specific direction jumbling together in great lumps. Small hills 20 feet high rise up, some close, some far, some right under you! It’s hard to reconstruct exactly what happened next but I think at least two lumps, two 20-foot hills coalesced and erupted in front of my eyes or maybe it was something else. Who knows? After all this was the Bermuda Triangle.
There was no violent motion, jerk or slam. It was as if God had gently touched a finger to the masthead and slowly tilted the boat over to starboard. A wall of water, very deep offshore water rose over the deck and began moving ever so slowly, creeping up the window as you might expect in a submarine during a leisurely descent. We weren’t going down however but over. Soon I could see STRAIGHT DOWN! I was standing at the sink actually laying on it looking out the window. Down, down, down into the depths of the ocean. Then conditions really deteriorated.
I’ve built two seven-foot bookshelves along the port side where a dinette style table is permanently attached. Below the bottom shelf rested two sextant cases along with fourteen-feet of books I thought safe behind shock cord as they had never moved before.
Directly below the starboard window where I looked down into an abyss is the galley sink, which has always been comfortably above the waterline and water has always gone down the drain. The first really awful thing that happened is the sink drain suddenly transmogrified into a fire hose. Water! Warm Gulf Stream water, saltwater, abyssal-depth water, way-offshore water shot up in front of my face and hit the ceiling, which was not the ceiling anymore but the side.
The sink's seacock is inside a cabinet below it. Naturally lots of things are stored there blocking the handle. Opening the doors to the cabinet was a chore as they were NOW the floor below my body! Just as I got them open the second really bad thing happened.
Everything on the port side with the exception of six books crashed on top of me into a steadily rising bathtub-full of water that was still blasting in through the sink’s drain. While trying to free the seacock I threw books, sextants, navigational equipment, galley stuff, my nautical life onto the usually vertical window. AND THEY STAYED! Piles of books lay serenely on the window, pencils, dividers, parallel rules, calculator, eyeglasses, sextant cases, dish soap, light bulbs all rested in wet splendor ON THE WINDOW! Now that got my attention.
The pleasantly warm salty Gulf Stream water had made several circuits through and around the engine compartment picking up oil and other assorted delights. It was nearly a hot-tub experience. It felt rather good actually as below-deck wavelets caressed my body.
Finally the cabinet doors were open and after freeing the handle I closed the seacock. Water still remained in the boat however sloshing merrily about AND we were still knocked down. I had to bail into the bilge with a saucepan and then pump out with the below-deck pump. This took some time and NEREIS still remained in that unnatural mast-in-the-water position. This was NOT good. It was about the time I found we were not coming up that I mentally wrote the following advertisement.
FULLY EQUIPPED SAILBOAT FOR SALE
MUST SEE, NO ATTENTION TO DETAIL HAS BEEN SPARED,
ELECTRONICALLY LOADED, WIND VANE.......
As this went through my mind I began to speculate on what to do with a life after living aboard. The following is not embellished except for the last part. I actually thought this.
“I’ll buy a motor home. Lord let me get free of this. PLEASE! Where should I drive? I’ll go to the center of some continent. But how will I know where to stop?” (This is the embellishment.) “Strap a pair of oars to the top of the motor home. When someone asks, ‘What are those long wooden things?’ That’s the place!”
You can imagine I was upset at the time however being very very tired I fell into the quarter berth and slept four hours. I don’t know when NEREIS decided to stand up. When I woke the sun was out, ALWAYS a good sign. Opening the hatch I saw two orange Coast Guard planes circling, perhaps checking out the disheveled boat below in a confused sea usually NOT a good sign. They moved off when I crawled out of the hatch.
Moving forward on deck with harness and tether I found the storm jib’s hanks ripped off, filled with water IT had kept us over. I now heave-to with two reefs in the main without a storm jib.
Now I was scared, a little sleep restores your sense of priority. I was alone, over a hundred miles offshore; I NO longer wanted to be there. The GPS was already programmed for intermediate inlets and I headed for Savannah, Georgia. Thirty-six or so hours later thanks to the Gulf Stream’s drift I arrived at the Charleston, South Carolina breakwaters.
It was late afternoon. A sailboat passed going for an evening's sail and its crew enthusiastically greeted me. I surmised they were admiring the intrepid solo-sailor arriving from the open sea.
“WOW I’M ALIVE I’VE SAILED SEVERAL HUNDRED MILES IN THE GULF STREAM I SEE LAND!”
Oh what a great sailorman am I. I’d be a fool to quit. Besides I’ve got this fully equipped sailboat. Honestly I really did think that. I’m NOT making this up only that stuff about the oars.
Last words: “This piece is dedicated to Howard Robinson who at this writing still sails north. In the spring of 1998 he went offshore nonstop and single-handed from Fort Pierce, Florida to his homeport in Rhode Island. HE IS that great sailorman that I can only aspire to be.”
Last, last words: “In the spring of 2006 Howard is now in his eighties and no longer sails but will always remain a template for me. God looks after the great ones.”
John's eBooks include: Tiller Tales, Cafe News & Hurricane Survival Guide