–So there I was (all good stories start this way, right?) in Jacksonville one night looking at boats on the Internet with my brother. We both have this addiction and were feeding it well into the wee hours–talking and dreaming. On a whim I decided to do some searching just to see what kind of deals were available down in the Keys, as we had been talking about all of the derelict boats and people down there and how there are some very good deals to be had if a boat comes up for sale before it is totally destroyed by the combination of neglect and tropical sun that destroys boats and dreams in warm ports. People sail to the tropics to relax, but once there they can easily succumb to the mañana syndrome where nothing ever gets done. They then wither and wrinkle under the hot sun, medicating themselves at the bar every evening while their boats grow barnacles and the varnish peels.
I found an advertisement for a fiberglass William Atkin cutter that looked interesting. I immediately assumed it to be one of the derelicts, as the asking price was low and there was a “must sell quickly” line in the ad. I told my brother that this was a good example of a boat that was probably already beyond saving.
But, my interest had been piqued because it was on the lines of something that I had been thinking of for a while–namely something with a little more elbow room than Cavendysh, my 25.5-foot-long Contessa 26. Life aboard the little Contessa was starting to feel like camping. OK, it had always felt like camping, but it had begun to wear on me in the hundreds of miles between Goodland and Jacksonville–the constant need to step on the dinghy; the fact that the sails are stowed on the head (toilet); and that I could never find even one thing without moving ten others. What really got me to thinking about a change was a waterspout in Key West. I decided to put out an extra anchor for insurance against the strong winds, and my extra anchors are all stored in the hanging locker opposite the toilet because the cockpit lockers are too small to fit the anchor through the openings. I had enough time to set the extra anchor that day, but in a real emergency… Well, the little Contessa just isn’t set up for things like that to happen and can’t be easily changed without major surgery.
A little more casual research on the web that night turned up an old listing with a broker for a boat of the same description as the free ad that I had found. Hmmm… This seemed a little more legitimate, since brokers usually won’t take the real basket-cases. There were pictures and the boat didn’t look too bad, so I decided to call the number listed in the free ad, since that is where I first found the boat, and maybe it had been de-listed. The next morning I left a message and decided that if the guy called me back that it would be a good excuse for a drive down to the Keys.
The owner of the boat called back a short while later and sounded sane on the phone. He wanted to sell the boat to raise money for a business venture that he wanted to go into. He sounded knowledgeable about the boat and had bought her while working in a boatyard. I made arrangements to see the boat with him thinking it would be a fun, spontaneous weekend drive. Oh yeah, the owner of the boat was staying with a friend who lives a few hundred miles away from the boat and he would need a ride down to the boat so that he could show it to me. No problem–I could pick him up on the way.
I found a compact rental car (cheaper than driving my brother’s truck 1000 miles at 17 mpg!) and was soon heading south on I-95. I met the boat owner in a Wal-Mart parking lot just off of the highway. We had plenty of time to get acquainted during the next 6 hours. He had bought the boat to live on while working at a boatyard, and had sailed it south for the winter a couple of times, following the seasonal migration of the group of boaters know as the “snowbirds”. But, it takes a lot of time to move the boat 3500 miles each year and he was tired of it, so he was looking to move out to Colorado for a drastic change of pace. There, he would go to work with a partner (the guy who dropped him off at Wal-Mart) making decorative steel holders for clay pots for houseplants. The partner had patented a design and sales seemed good at local home shows. He showed me a couple of pictures of the pot holders on his cell-phone. We passed the rest of the time talking about the boat, motorcycles, and work. The owner had a strong feeling that I was the right person for the boat.
We arrived at the backwater marina in Boot Key harbor at about 2230 to find the 5 of the neighbors out drinking on the dock. Sirocco‘s owner (who I shall refer to as “T” from here on) was immediately welcomed back with offers of cold beer and a reminder that he hadn’t finished a painting job that he had started on a powerboat nearby, the owner of which was becoming impatient. T would address that tomorrow, he said. I could see parts of the unfinished project on the dock and in the grass… The sailboat looked pretty good from the dock, though. It sat very low in the water and had awnings to keep some of the sun off–an indication that T had cared for her. The boat looked every bit an old, salty design that had been well taken care of at some point in the past, but had recently fallen on hard times. We sat on the dock talking with the neighbors for a few hours. T enjoyed a few rounds with the neighbors while I listened to the conversation. Everyone sat around for another hour or so before the gathering began to melt away. T was energetic, though, and got out his guitar. We sat on the dock and played until almost 0300, at which time I said that I would have to get some sleep for the drive back the next day.
“No problem, man. No problem. You just crash and I’ll tidy up the boat so we can sail in the morning.”
“OK T. I’ll sleep up forward. Wake me when you’re ready.”
T woke me at 0330. He was ready to go. I thought, “Well, what’s the worst that can happen?” and got out of bed. I poked my head out of the hatch into the breezy, humid night air and surveyed the thunderstorms all around us. The engine was running minutes later and we soon loosened the lines and pulled out of the slip. We unrolled the yankee (forward sail) and cut the engine as soon as we were past the pilings. I had the helm, but no knowledge of the harbor.
“That’s OK. No problem, man. I’ll talk you out. Just stay close to the pilings. You know, close, but not too close. Not too far away either. We’re good, we’re good.”
I couldn’t see much other than the lights on shore–the sail blocked my view forward, and it was dark. There was no moon because of the overcast sky. The only other light came from occasional lightning in some not-too-distant thunderheads. We followed the row of pilings closely, but not too close.
“OK, man. OK, I’m going to set the main. I don’t know if we are going to have room, but when we are past the pilings I’ll pull up the main. Try to turn into the wind. I don’t know if there is room. We’re good. We’re good. Nah, I’ll hoist it downwind. We have to turn to starboard up here–hard to starboard. There is that mark over there (points into the dark) that we have to leave close to starboard. Close, but not too close.” At this point T went forward to loosen the sail gaskets. After struggling for a few seconds with the first one he returned to the cockpit and grabbed a knife. He then went back to the sail and cut the gaskets free. That loosened the sail so it fell all over the deck, leaving me with only a view of billowing dacron. “Ok, turn to starboard. Hard to starboard. Hard to starboard.”
I could see boats up ahead and figured that we were turning into the next section of a mooring field. Soon, though I felt the boat get sluggish as she touched the mud bottom.
“Which way, T? We’re out of water!”
“Hard to starboard, you’ve go to follow it around…(boat stops dead) Where’s the mark? No, we’re past the past the mark. Hard to port. Hard to port.”
“You’ve got to go hard to port.”
“We’re not going anywhere”.
“We got to go hard to port. I’ll set the main. It will blow us right off.”
“What’s the tide doing, T?”
Now, at this point, the sail was pulling us farther onto the shoal, so I knew that setting the main was a bad idea, but there was little harm we could do in the mud besides get more stuck, so I helped put the sail up. Once it was drawing, T came back to the cockpit to see how things were looking.
” I said hard to port, man. See? we’re past the marker.” I got a flashlight and could indeed see a marker, but still couldn’t tell where the channel went from there. I shone the light into the water and could see grass waving not far below the surface. The only deep water was behind us. “Hard to port, man. Hard to port”, T continued.
At this point T took the tiller. After a few minutes of sailing the motionless boat intently and finally realizing that we were properly stuck, he decided to start the engine. The next minutes were spent shifting the engine forward and astern; revving and idling, and all the while going nowhere and mostly using the engine to pull against the still-set sail. T cracked a fresh beer.
“What’s the tide doing, T?”, I asked. Eventually I got him to agree to take the mainsail down and find me a GPS so I could check the tide. Luckily, we had grounded near low water and would eventually float free if we didn’t drive ourselves too hard into the mud. Another 15 minutes later I convinced him to roll up the yankee, which was still pulling us onto the shoal. T continued to rev the engine and drive the boat first forward and then in reverse, carefully watching our progress against some landmark unseen to me.
“She’s moving. She wants to float free. She’s moving. Just a little more. We just got to get her turned. Hard to port. Hard to port.”
I sat in the cockpit and waited for the tide to come up. I thought of taking a nap, but T was constantly talking. After a while I convinced him to shut off the engine, turn on the radio, and wait a while. He cranked some tunes and returned with a fresh beer. We talked for a while and T kept returning to the fact that we had to turn hard to port. We located the rest of the unlit channel markers with a flashlight and I finally had a good idea of where we were. The only way to deep water was straight backwards, as we had grounded at almost 90 degrees to the channel. That would be easy enough when the water came back up.
Another half-hour passed before I could feel the boat starting to rock with the little waves in the harbor. T started the engine and went to spot the channel markers. I drove for a little while and we eventually worked the boat free in reverse. Once we were floating I gave the helm to T and went to spot markers. T put it in forward and turned hard to port, but we were still too close to the edge of the channel. We went back aground. More waiting. This time we were more parallel to the channel and after T gave up trying to power us off I was able to rock the boat forward and get us free again. I gave the helm back to T and this time we stayed in deep water. I went to spot markers with a light.
“Red marker? Where are you, red?” T called out. I lit the red with my flashlight. “Thank you, red.” It continued like this the rest of the way out of the harbor. Near the harbor mouth we passed an old man sitting on a dock beneath some florescent lights. It was about 0500. T called out to the man and asked if his store was open, even though it seemed too early on a Sunday morning. The man said to check back later. “We’ll be back for some beers when you’re open,” T replied.
We got out of the harbor without further incident and set the sails again. The wind was strong, and there were some thunderstorms around. It was obvious that we were going to have more wind as we went farther from land. T wanted to sail out to a reef about 6 miles offshore and tie up to a mooring ball out there. He went below for another cold one while I steered us towards the reef. At least we were finally in waters familiar to me! I had been past here two weeks before in Cavendysh and anchored right where we were now passing. As soon as we cleared the point of Boot Key, the wind came on full-force–about 25 knots. We were overpowered with all sail set and T soon went forward to pull down a reef while I steered. The boat felt heavy in the short chop, and moved along at a good speed. As soon as the first reef was in the main and we had rolled up the yankee some, the wind increased to 30 knots and we were again overpowered, but we continued on because it was only a few miles. One of the thunderstorms overtook us and we were soaked in seconds in a driving rain. I gave the helm to T and sought cover, shivering, beneath the dodger.
We approached the mooring soon after the false dawn after some confusion about where the lit tower was (hidden in a rain shower) and struck the sails to pick up the mooring under power. T drove while I went forward with a line and a boathook. We approached the moorings, which were bobbing around on 3-4 foot waves, and T carefully lined us up with the one that he wanted to pick up and turned us into the wind. I pointed at the mooring with the boathook and T carefully, slowly brought us to within 25 feet of the tossing float. Very slowly, we inched forward. Very slowly. We sat out there for several minutes within 15 feet of the ball. It was just out of reach and we were holding station (not getting closer). I looked back at T–lots of concentration back there. I could almost see an aura of focused effort radiating from the cockpit. He was doing his best through what I was pretty sure was a pretty good buzz at this point. We held station perfectly in the sloppy chop. Finally, he pushed us forward all at once. I caught the mooring ball with the boathook, but the boat was pushed back by the strong wind before I could get a line secured. We came forward again and I was successful in looping a line through the top of of the mooring ball. I got the line through and was getting it cleated when T came forward to help. He got his hand pinched between the line and the chock somehow as he helped to pull it in. I could see a little blood on the fingers on his left hand, but it didn’t look too bad, so I didn’t say anything.
Now that we were tied up we both went below to get some sleep. I went forward while T slept on a settee in the main cabin. I would have rather not been up forward because it was a bit rough out, but I was comfortable enough to sleep thanks to Sirocco‘s easy motion. I would not have been able to stay forward on my Contessa in those conditions, for sure! Soon I heard a revving propeller nearby. Some boat had come by to check on us and ask if we needed assistance–a center-cockpit boat about 21-23 feet long crewed by three men in full orange survival suits. They looked official, but I didn’t see any markings on the boat. They weren’t fishing, that’s for sure. They must have thought that anyone out there in those conditions was having trouble. T assured them that we were OK and they left.
We prepared to head back in not long after the visit by the men in orange suits. This time we didn’t put up the mainsail, as it was still plenty windy out, even though it was calmer than on the ride out. The ride back was uneventful. T kept telling me how he felt that I was the right person for the boat and what a good boat she is. We did stop for cigarettes and beer at the store we had passed earlier. T expertly backed the boat into her place in the marina. We were moored in the slip just after noon. I poked around the boat for the next couple of hours–inspecting all of the lockers and systems. I found only little problems: nothing horrible, though neglect was taking its’ toll. The engine was dirty, but ran well. I had arrived prepared to make an offer, but now wasn’t so sure. I would be giving up some of the simplicity of the Contessa and had to think about what I really wanted to do next. I thanked T, gave him a ride to McDonald’s so he could grab some lunch, and then headed home. The drive back took almost 12 hours because of all of the traffic leaving the Keys on Sunday afternoon.
Well, I ended up buying that boat and am glad that I did! Now for the real adventure!