Great Bird Poop Island
Everybody wants to be the captain until it’s time to do captain stuff.
The life of a sailing charter captain appears glamorous to the uninitiated. Guests arrive to a sparkling clean sailing yacht with red carpet on the dock and their favorite cocktail waiting on a polished mahogany tray. The captain (that was me) is clad in his perfectly clean, brilliantly white linen shirt, sailor’s cap, and blue shorts, looking a bit like Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island. The beautiful first mate (that was my bride) is dressed similarly, but somehow, she makes it look sexy. Every piece of equipment on the vessel functions flawlessly, and the crew makes everything look easy while the guests lounge, drink, eat, watch dolphins, and snap pictures of everything in sight.
This is what the guests see, but it’s all a lie. Sometimes, things go horribly wrong, and this is a story about just such a time.
Gitana, our 37’ Cherubini schooner, was shipshape — or so I thought — for an overnight charter from Panama City, Florida, to Destin. The plan was to depart Panama City on Friday morning, overnight in Destin Harbor, and sail back home after sleeping in on Saturday morning. Ah, the best laid plans o’ mice and men.
We departed just before 0900. (That’s 9:00 a.m. for those of you who only have twelve numbers on your watch.) The sailing was superb, with fifteen knots of wind out of the southeast. Gitana loved sailing on a beam reach. If you don’t know what a beam reach is, there’s a glorious description in The Opening Chase, book #1 in my Chase Fulton Novels series . . . or maybe it’s in book #4. The westbound leg was perfect, but the homebound journey was best described by a collection of words I’m not willing to try to spell.
We awoke on Saturday morning to a summer storm. Rain poured in sheets, and the wind howled for two hours. We enjoyed ourselves in the dry, protected confines of Gitana’s roomy, climate-controlled interior. That was one time I was thankful I’d spent the extra money for central heat and air aboard. By the time the storm passed, it was early afternoon and far too late to make it back to Panama City while the sun was still on our side of the planet. Our guests needed to be back in PCB no later than Sunday morning, so our options were to hire a driver for them and let them ride for an hour in the back seat of a Town Car or weigh the anchor and sail into the night. They chose option two.
Behind the storm, winds were light at around 7 to 10 knots. Sailboats aren’t speed demons in 20 knots, and at 7 knots, they’re downright sloths. We lumbered our way eastward, making 4.5 knots. As the sun sank over the western horizon, the radar showed another storm approaching from the southwest, and the National Weather Service predicted winds up to 40 knots and seas greater than ten feet. Ten-foot waves aboard an aircraft carrier are meaningless but reduce that thousand-foot-long warship to thirty-seven feet, and things get weird. My beautiful first mate isn’t afraid of anything and never gets seasick, so I had no fear of briefing her on the coming conditions. The guests, on the other hand, weren’t seasoned seagoers. I briefed the situation and said, “It’s going to get a little windy, and the waves may get a little rough, but don’t worry. Gitana is a sturdy boat, and we’re a competent crew. Have another cocktail, and enjoy the ride.” Behind my confident smile, I was thinking, I’m having a cocktail and jumping overboard now. Good luck.
The weather guessers got one almost right. The wind picked up to a steady 28 knots, with gusts up to 42. It was dark, so I couldn’t see the waves well enough to judge their height, but ten feet would’ve been a conservative estimate. The wind was on our stern quarter, so our sails became kites, and Gitana became a twenty-thousand-pound surfboard. Conditions were too uncomfortable to sail, so I furled the sails and motored onward at a blistering 7 knots. We occasionally made better than 10 knots while surfing down the front side of what felt like a mountain of water, but needless to say, we were still a long way from home without much in the way of speed on our side.
The rain never came, and for that I was thankful. The wind and waves made the autopilot useless, so by the time we reached the buoys marking the entrance fairway to Saint Andrews Pass, I was exhausted from hand-steering for hours in the dark in storm conditions. I was, however, relieved to be almost home. The protection of the bay was less than two miles away. All I had to do was make a ninety-degree left turn and follow the lights straight through the pass, just as I’d done hundreds of times. I shot a glance into the heavens and silently thanked God for bringing us safely back to the channel markers, and then I turned the wheel hard to port and waited for the stern to come around. Instead of a nice, leisurely turn to port, Gitana let out a horrific crack that sounded like a shotgun going off inside the hull, and she darted to the right as if yanked by a gargantuan beast of the deep.
There was no beast, but that’s not all there was none of. There was also no steering. No matter which way I turned the wheel, she continued her turn to starboard. I pulled the throttle back and the transmission into neutral, thinking I may have picked up a piece of commercial fishing net in the propeller and wrapped it around the rudder, causing the steering issue. I quickly decided that was a ridiculous thought because the wheel was spinning freely with no resistance, and the engine hadn’t complained from a fouled prop. The instant I realized we were broadside to the waves, I reengaged the transmission and hammered on the throttle. I could only turn right, but that was better than having a ten-footer come crashing over the starboard rail. I was a few seconds late, and that wall of water came. When I could see again, I began searching for my guests, who, in seconds, had gone from charter guests to potential victims. Thankfully, they were still where I’d put them with their lifejackets snuggly fastened and looks of terror on their faces. My first mate was drenched but also safe and still aboard. I gave the order, “Everyone stay in your seats and brace your feet against the gunwale. We’ve lost steering, but I still have control of the boat. We’re going to be all right. Is anyone hurt?”
No one was hurt—just scared and wet.
A thousand things run through a captain’s mind in a moment like that. My first thought was to drop the dinghy into the water, send my first mate and guests aboard the rubber boat, and watch them motor into the bay while I wrestled the ten tons of fiberglass in the waves well over my head.
Ooh, waves over my head and a twelve foot rubber dinghy. Nope . . . that’s a terrible plan.
What I failed to mention was the rocks. The jetties at the entrance to St. Andrews Bay are made up of automobile-sized, fiberglass-boat-eating rocks. I had to keep Gitana off of them. As terrible as things were at sea, they would’ve been much worse on the rocks. As panic pounded on the door to my head, I suddenly experienced a moment of lucidity. (Lucidity is a good word, right? I hope it means what I think it means.) I heard a small voice saying, “Work the problem, Captain.”
I looked around, hoping to find someone who suddenly wanted to be the captain. No one volunteered, so I worked the problem.
Sailing and flying have a great many similarities. In the cockpit of an airplane, the golden rule is to “aviate, navigate, then communicate” . . . in that order. Never stop flying the airplane; nothing is more important. Second, don’t get lost. And third, talk about it with people on the ground. I figured since I’d applied that rule for thirty years in cockpits, maybe it would work in the dark, flooded cockpit of my beloved, albeit broken, boat.
Believing the steering linkage had failed, I grabbed the emergency tiller handle from beneath a seat and shoved it into place. Just like the wheel, the emergency tiller had no effect on the rudder, so I managed the boat with the only tools I had left: the engine and transmission. With the engine running and the transmission engaged, I could turn the boat constantly to the right, so that’s what I did. As we continually turned right, I pulled the power off while pointed away from the rocks and reapplied full power as the bow turned back toward the boat-crushing mounds of granite. This made the boat spend more time pointed out to sea than toward the rocks. Coincidently, it slowly propelled us farther from the deadly shoreline. I liked that.
My GPS chart plotter was still functioning, and I could occasionally catch a glimpse of a lighted buoy, so I wasn’t lost. I took a breath and tried to remember what came next.
Oh, yeah . . . Communicate!
I was definitely in need of help, so I keyed the mic and said the phrase no captain (or pilot) ever wants to say: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”
I wanted to hear the voice of some brave Coast Guard captain saying something like, “Have no fear”—insert trumpets blowing fanfare—“the Coast Guard is on its way to save the day (or night).” But that’s not what happened.
Instead, a Sea Tow captain’s sleepy voice crackled through the radio. “Keep her out of the surf and off the rocks, Cap’n, and turn on all your lights. I’m on my way.”
Some captains would’ve been disappointed that a Coast Guard armada hadn’t been launched, but I would’ve been happy with a Boy Scout troop of kids working on their seamanship merit badges. I just wanted somebody with a rope and a boat strong enough to pull mine.
The bright yellow Sea Tow boat came roaring out of the St. Andrews Pass five days later (okay, it was probably ten minutes). Help had arrived, and I was happy to see him.
He laid his powerful boat alongside my crippled, much larger boat, and handed up a nylon bridle. I rigged the bridle, and he motored forward. When the line came taut, my knees felt like noodles. I wanted to be the brave captain and proclaim how I’d kept my word and everything worked out just as I’d planned, but instead, I plopped my butt down on the closest horizontal surface I could find and offered up another “Thank you!”
As we entered the Pass, the water, wind, and my heart rate calmed. The looks on the faces of my guests said they were just as happy as me. I suppose, technically, the skipper of the Sea Tow was the captain at that point, but I still felt I owed my guests the entertainment they’d paid for. Also, I wanted them to forget about how close we came to dying in a pile, because I was still working for the tip, baby. Okay, honestly, I just wanted them to feel relaxed and safe for the remainder of the trip, being dragged sideways behind the powerboat with our rudder stuck hard over. There was very little for me to do nautically, so I turned into Captain Storyteller.
I told the story of a tiny island, just a couple hundred yards off the commercial port of Panama City, with brilliantly green grass, and how a small-town sheriff during the Great Depression planned to use that island as a place to hold prisoners who’d clogged up his small-town jail. I told horrifying stories of how the sharks patrolled the waters around the island the sheriff called “Little Alcatraz.” I went on to describe the multitude of aquatic birds that called the island home, and how the ruthless criminals would capture, torture, and eat the birds on Little Alcatraz until the Audubon Society claimed the island, forcing a lawsuit against the sheriff, and ultimately ending the terrible confinement of those poor, mistreated prisoners on Little Alcatraz. After the prisoners left, the birds consumed the island, depositing massive amounts of . . . uh, well, you know . . . excrement, thus the brilliantly green grass.
I was able to drag out the story long enough to end with a mighty moment of revelation as we were being dragged (still sideways) behind the Sea Tow, past the island of my fictional story, and I declared with a mighty voice and arms outstretched toward the source of the nastiest smell in Saint Andrews Bay, “And today, the sheriff’s beloved Little Alcatraz is affectionately known as Great Bird Poop Island!”
And the moral of the story is . . .
There is no moral, and you don’t really want to be the captain.