Maiden Mishap

Anyone who has read my bio knows that one of the activities I really enjoy is sailing. We’ve cruised several areas around Florida but have a couple of favorites. One is Charlotte Harbor, in the Southwest portion of Florida. This is the setting for my current work in progress, a story for Love Inspired Suspense that takes place in the aftermath of a hurricane and features a search and rescue dog. Although we weathered some pretty good thunderstorms on our little sailboat, we never faced a hurricane.

In spite of good weather, though, our first trip didn’t go at all like we’d planned. I recently came across this short piece I’d written years ago about our maiden voyage. I figured I’d share it with you.

Boat on tranquil water
Image by Mikele Designer from Pixabay

Clean air. White beaches. Blue water. Salt spray. Seagull poop. Boating takes a person away from the worries of the world better than anything I know. Anything legal, anyway. Just being on the water has a way of soothing frayed nerves and untangling the knots created by everyday life. It’s no wonder so many people hit the water every chance they get.

My husband, Chris, and I started our sailing days on a Compac 16, then moved up to a San Juan 21 and finally a MacGregor 26. We are now what some might consider “seasoned sailors.” But that hasn’t always been the case.

We purchased the Compac from Chris’s uncle, who gave us a short lesson on a local lake. Then we began planning our first overnight cruise, our maiden voyage. We packed our little boat with all the necessities—bedding, clothes, Port-a-Pot, plenty of books and games so we wouldn’t get bored, lots of extra food and water in case we got lost at sea, and the dog to protect us if we happened upon some drug smugglers.

Our point of launch was Burnt Store Marina at Punta Gorda, Florida, where we encountered our first problem. When Uncle Owen launched the boat, a gentle push had sent her floating free, but now that we were on our own, the boat seemed permanently attached to the trailer. We tugged and pushed until we almost ruptured something. Then some guy felt sorry for us (or maybe he was just waiting to use the ramp), and the three of us managed to get her launched.

Our next major task was to crank the motor, a 3.5-horsepower hunk of metal which had been resurrected from the scrap heap. After several minutes of cranking, it finally sputtered to life, and we were at last ready to begin our three-day cruise.

We motored out of the marina then set sail – and waited. It didn’t take us long to discover a basic law of sailing: Sailboats don’t work very well without wind. For the next several hours, we sailed-uh, I mean drifted slowly across Charlotte Harbor. As the sun sank low in the sky, I heated our supper, a favorite casserole I had prepared at home. I was almost finished when I had a disturbing thought.

Me: What are we having for supper?

Chris: Shipwreck. Why?

Me: Think about it.

By the time we all finished our shipwreck, it was just about dark, so we headed toward Devilfish Key, where we had decided to spend the night. Before reaching our destination, however, we experienced another basic law of sailing: A sailboat that has a fixed keel and a two-foot draft requires a water depth of two feet plus.

Our sailing lesson didn’t include the “What to do if you run aground” chapter, so we began discussing our options. Chris thought about getting out to see if he could push us free, but not knowing what lurked beneath the dark surface, preferred to keep his feet in the boat.

At last we decided that if we could heel the boat, our two-foot draft would become even shallower. So we moved the dog, toolbox, ice chest, captain, first mate and crew to the same side of the boat and started the motor. Our ploy was successful, but after running aground a second time, we abandoned our plans to reach Devilfish Key, motored about 100 yards off the shoal, and set anchor.

Our daughters, 7-year-old Kristi and 2-year-old Andrea, went promptly to sleep in a small bed in the bow under the anchor well, and I stretched out on my bunk. Chris, however, when faced with the task of unloading his bed, chose instead to sleep in the cockpit with the dog.

Thirty minutes passed. Then the wind, which had been conspicuously absent all afternoon, suddenly made an appearance, and we discovered we were anchored on the windward side of an island. The boat began to rock violently, and I looked through the open hatch at Chris who lay with one arm and leg over the side of the boat, trying to keep from falling off the cockpit seat onto the dog.

Kristi slept peacefully while several feet of anchor line uncoiled on her head, and Andrea sat up clutching her stomach. “Mommy, I don’t feel good.”

That was all the encouragement we needed to find another anchorage. We pulled up anchor, raised the sails, and found we had a pretty decent breeze. Andrea’s shipwreck stayed where it was supposed to, and I decided sailing might be enjoyable after all.

A 4-second green marker flashed just about due east of us, and we set a course for that. Some time later, we saw a white light flashing every 2 to 2.5 seconds a good distance away on our rear starboard quarter. The chart showed only red and green beacons, no white, so we decided our mysterious light was a new channel marker. Then it sailed past us on our starboard side.

“Must be some kind of boat,” Chris said.

When we looked for the light again several minutes later, it had moved to our port side. It was circling us. At that moment I found that the presence of the dog wasn’t quite the comfort I had anticipated. Chris continued to study the chart trying to find out where in the heck we were, and I kept sailing toward our green beacon. The next time I found the mysterious light, it hovered eerily above the water directly behind us.

“Chris,” I whispered. “Look!” I closed my eyes and waited for the command-“Beam ’em up, Scotty.” Chris, though, saw a shaft extending from the light to the water and decided it had to be a submarine periscope. (When alone on the water in the middle of the night, the mind plays tricks.) We held our breaths as the threatening object loomed closer. Then Chris realized with relief that we were not being circled by an alien spaceship, nor were we going to be attacked by a Russian sub. We were in the middle of Charlotte Harbor in a shipping channel, and our roving white light was actually a stationary mid-channel marker. The closer we got to the middle of the channel, the stronger the current and the less forward motion we made. Near the center, we were actually sailing backwards. Relieved to have the mystery of the roving white light solved, but disappointed to find that we had been diligently sailing for almost two hours and hadn’t really gone anywhere, we changed course and headed for the nearest island.

The next morning, we awoke refreshed and ready to face another day on the water. After a quick trip to shore for the dog, we set sail and headed for the mouth of Charlotte Harbor. Our plans were to sail to the Gulf side of Cayo Costa and spend the day at the beach.

We had almost reached the mouth of the harbor when we saw two barges moving toward us from the Gulf. The closer they got, the bigger they looked, and we decided that it might be to our advantage to get out of their way. Since we had almost as much wind as we had the day before, a hasty retreat under sail wasn’t likely. I kept my fingers crossed, and to our surprise, the motor roared to life after only two pulls on the rope. Our relief was short-lived, however, when we realized we weren’t moving. Chris killed the motor and leaned over the back of the boat. The propeller was gone. Fortunately, both barges passed without incident, but we decided we would be pushing our luck if we didn’t turn back.

Two hours later, it was mid-afternoon, and we still sat at the mouth of the harbor. At that point, we knew we couldn’t put it off any longer – it was time to break out the paddles. When loaded with two adults, two children, one large dog, and three months of supplies, a 16-foot Compac seems incredibly small. When paddling one, it feels huge.

The next two hours, we built up our triceps and made very little progress. I won’t elaborate on what Chris had to say at this point about the wonderful sport of sailing, but I will say that he was able to think of a hundred places he would rather be – at work, at the dentist, behind the lawnmower, under the lawnmower…

At last a small breeze began to blow, so we put away the paddles and cruised along at the blinding speed of one knot. At dusk, we reached a peaceful little cove and anchored with two other sailboats, 40-footers whose dinghies were almost as big as our boat. We enjoyed a quiet dinner, then a bedtime snack of popcorn and hot chocolate.

The next morning, we paddled out of the anchorage. Once away from the protection of the island, we were hit with 20-knot winds. Several other sailboats moved about the harbor, a sight we hadn’t seen the prior two days. Perfect sailing weather. However, the sensation of suddenly tilting 25 or 30 degrees seemed more terrifying than fun. We took down the jib, stuffed the dog into the cabin next to the Port-a-Pot, and continued to sail. I began making plans in the event we should capsize.

“I’ll get the kids,” I said. They, of course, wore life jackets. “You rescue the dog. She’ll be trapped in the cabin under 30 pounds of you-know-what.”

We never did capsize and, over the next three hours, gradually gained confidence, though not enough to venture outside of Charlotte Harbor. At noon, we turned back toward Burnt Store Marina. Our “cruise” wouldn’t be over until we reached the ramp, something that was going to involve two hours of paddling, maneuvering around all the other boats.

We were just coming into the channel to the marina when a sailor with a new F-27 was motoring out. He looked over at us, working industriously, paddling our Compac 16.

“Need a tow?” he hollered.

He didn’t have to ask twice.