Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The New River Exit

Crossing the Gulf Stream between Florida and the Bahamas is a considerable hurdle to recreational boaters. The secret to a safe and comfortable passage is picking the right weather window. Winds from the north, for example, are notoriously bad because the north-bound Gulf Stream beats against the south-bound winds and colossal, confused, and dangerous waves result.

By way of background, Dave and I had convinced the family (my mom, dad, brother, and our college-age kids) to fly out and meet us on the boat at a remote Bahamas out-island for the Christmas holiday. We knew the Gulf Stream crossing would take an overnight from Ft. Lauderdale to Grand Bahamas Island. In addition, we expected it to take three more days for us to work our way to the out-island of Elbow Cay with the quaint village of Hope Town. Knowing that we might have to wait for a weather window, we gave ourselves a total of 9 days for the 4-day trip. Our goal was to arrive in advance of family.

What we didn’t realize was that the winter winds between Florida and the Bahamas were considerably less favorable than the summer winds. Day after day our concerns grew as weather windows refused to open. At relatively the last minute, we spotted an “OK” 12-hour window beginning at 1 am on Tuesday December 16th. If we didn’t depart Ft. Lauderdale at 1 am, the window was predicted to shut and not reopen for at least another week. This unfortunate circumstance would have caused our kids to enjoy a “parent-free” Christmas, and my parents to wonder why they listen to us!

At noon Monday we decided to depart Tuesday at 1 am!

Dave and I kicked our preparation into hyper-drive. We filled water tanks, topped diesel tanks, rigged safety lines, adorned the tender spot behind our ears with anti-nausea scopolamine patches, made that final trip to the grocery store, and stowed gear. Most urgently, we literally begged the refrigeration expert to finish repairs to our unit by the end of business on Monday. I couldn’t imagine how we’d spend 10 weeks in the Bahamas without a way to keep food cold. Luckily, the refrigeration parts arrived from Miami at 3pm and he completed his repairs by 6:30 pm Monday! We set the alarm for midnight, called family to let them know the plan, and went to sleep immediately following dinner.

Groggy, Dave and I woke at midnight to ready ourselves and check weather one last time. As a new development, Dave began chanting, “The hardest part of the entire trip will be backing out of our boat slip.” Our marina was nine miles up Ft. Lauderdale’s New River. Stressing about the river’s strong tides and currents, Dave had visions of us backing out only to be carried into the boats directly to our rear. We’ve made that costly mistake before! The sounds of cracking fiberglass and tearing metal are not the sounds you want to wake to at 1 am. We came up with our best guess as to how to proceed safely and decided it was time to go.

We went to start the engine at exactly 1 am. However, when I pushed the electric start button, not a sound was made. There was no deep throated “vroom vroom” as there had been only hours earlier when we checked the refrigeration compressor; there was no "wannawannawanna" of a tired battery trying to catch; there was not even an electric “click” of the starter solenoid doing its job. There was only middle-of-the-night silence.

Dave and I scrambled in unison to pull troubleshooting manuals from every book shelf below decks. After a hurried "literature review," the only thing we could come up with was possible corrosion of the starter solenoid interrupting the electrical connection from the push button to the engine.

Sharing only 45’ of space with a newly retired surgeon, I’ve started to notice things about my mate that went undetected for almost 27 years. Dave mutters a lot. He gave up his chant that "the hardest part of the journey would be backing out of our boat slip” and began muttering, “I retired so that I could give up “middle-of-the-night” surgeries.” Upon inspection, the solenoid indeed was full of corrosion. The delicate parts were hand-filed so connections could be made. (Why the solenoid took that moment to demand attention, we’ll never know.) Once reassembled, “VAROOM”—the Yanmar engine sprang to life.

With the engine running, our hope was restored that we would indeed join the family for Christmas. But, checking our gages, we found that the auto pilot—what sailors lovingly call their third crew member—was dead. For weeks we had made a series of improvements to the boat, especially new navigation instruments at the helm. We strung delicate wires through the helm’s stainless grab bar to feed and power the auto pilot, GPS, XM audio and weather, radar, a VHF command mic, and chart plotter. Everything had worked perfectly on our journey from Georgia to Florida. The day before our departure, we had made our final installation: the cocktail table mounted to the helm’s grab bar. In that final action, we must have inadvertently decapitated the auto pilot’s wiring. Although we grieved the loss of our trusted assistant, and knew we’d miss the auto pilot’s convenience during our ten week voyage, we quickly decided the auto pilot wasn’t a deal-buster. We decided to press on the old fashioned way: hand steering.

It was now 2 am.

Backing out of the slip was indeed tricky. Without pictures, it is nearly impossible to describe the looping, convoluted, ridiculous, backwards route the boat took in the current. Like breaking in a wild animal, Dave redirected powerful forces of nature just enough to avoid smacking into the mega-yachts to our rear. Only once did we lever noisily against an especially proud dock before entering the more open waters of the river. It was a unique contortionist experience trying to fend off in the pitch black without waking anyone up!

We got out of the marina but we could not yet breathe easy.

Along the way, Ft. Lauderdale’s New River has five bridges that must open into wide yawns if our 61’ mast is to pass. Also, the river is lined with boats, piers and other structures easily seen during the day, but lurking with seemingly evil intent at night. As part of our preparation, I had called ahead the day before to every bridge tender to make certain they were prepared to open in the middle of the night. They all confirmed that someone would be on watch and respond to our radio call as we made progress. To avoid other obstacles, Dave armed me with a spotlight that I suspect had been decommissioned from Alcatraz. Trying desperately not to shine the light into people’s homes, we began quietly picking our course with the out flowing current down the river.

As we approached the first bridge, I called the Bridge Tender on the radio to request an opening. Like the engine, there was only silence. I tried a second and then a third time. Dave at the helm slowed the boat so we wouldn’t hit the fast approaching closed bridge, and—immediately—the current took over. In a poor impersonation of Linda Blair from the Exorcist, Wild Hair had a mind of her own sweeping sideways into a bank of pilings. Giving up on the radio call, I found myself running through the bookshelves below decks again, this time looking for the guidebook providing local phone numbers for each bridge. Finally, I connected with the first bridge tender via cell phone. Embarrassed, she apologized profusely and explained that she was “asleep on the floor downstairs.” Within moments, horns blew, gates came down, sparse automobile traffic stopped, and the bridge reached slowly skyward. Dave powered Wild Hair off of the pilings and we moved through.

Switching back to VHF radio communications, I noticed our sleeping bridge tender remained non-responsive. Because the radio was a recent boat upgrade, I wanted to be certain that the problem wasn’t on our end. With great patience, the bridge tender worked with us, going back and forth between cell phones and VHF radio, until I realized I had the radio set for “weather” and not “calling.” Oops.

Surely, I thought, now that our radio was working properly we’d have no more problems raising the bridges. I was wrong. As we moved down the New River, it was necessary to wake every bridge tender along the way with a cell phone call first. Armed with phone numbers and expecting the openings to take longer, we were able to avoid additional collisions.

Then, we arrived at the intersection of the New River and Florida’s Intercoastal Waterway, the ICW. Routes through this high-traffic area with dangerous shallows are marked by a series of red and green sign-posts. Unfortunately, a red signpost in the ICW has the exact opposite meaning as a red signpost in the river. (I don’t know why this is but it is true along the coast.) In our sleepy confusion, we got mixed up. Taking a marker on the wrong side of the boat we ran Wild Hair aground. Did I mention that we were on a falling tide which would make us tilt precariously as the water slipped away over the course of 6 hours? I had visions of being a laughing-stock obstacle, or the source of long strings of cuss words from type-A power boaters, as the sun came up. In our current position we would completely block recreational and commercial traffic.

Dave had no such visions. Plus, he was not about to miss Christmas or be the butt of jokes. Gunning the engine, we slowly rocked and bumped our way forward, eventually making it to the center of the boat lane.

Thankfully, the opening of the last bridge was uneventful. It was now 3 am.

In the main harbor of Port Everglades we made final preparations for our Gulf Stream crossing. The spotlight was stowed, life jackets put on, and sails rose. We were practically giddy with excitement—exhausted, but giddy.

Motor/sailing out of Port Everglades, we pointed straight for the red and white “safe channel” marker. Red and whites are at the entrance to every harbor along the east coast. They mark deep water, the place from which outbound sailors are free from all navigational concerns. As we approached the marker, it began to look a little odd. Then, the red and white flashed a bright Alcatraz-style light directly into our eyes and we in instantly realized the marker was actually a VERY large freighter. We were pointed straight at it!

In the end, our Gulf Stream crossing was relatively uneventful. The promised 2 to 4 foot waves were actually a more nauseating 6 to 8 feet, and the wind was directly on our nose forcing us to motor across. But, hand steering in 1-hour shifts at the helm, we arrived safely to West End on Grand Bahamas Island at 4:30 in the afternoon. We arrived just in time to clear customs and tuck in at the marina for a good night’s sleep.

People may claim that the Gulf Stream is difficult and dangerous. But, in our book, the Gulf Stream doesn’t hold a candle to the dangers of the New River.

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