Irie, or David's Title: "Mommy, are those sailors all going to die?"

 

When my friend Mark Gardner and I were young and stupid - which is to say: our early twenties - we were possessed by the idea of building our own forty six foot sailing catamaran. A set of plans from legendary designer James Wharram captured our drug addled imaginations, and we dreamed of sailing under the stars, nebulous libations and women clutched in our grubby little hands. After sitting on the second row for George Harrison’s 1974 Dark Horse Tour, we christened the project and our boat-to-be Dark Horse. It was more commonly referred to as Shitbird: Mark’s Irish Setter puppy, originally named Addie, had exploded all previous records pertaining to length of toilet training, and the name stuck - so to speak. The reality of inexperience and hard work brought us up short, but with the help of Mark’s brother Phil and friends David Downing, Garry Owen and Jon Perkins the project progressed. As did the drugs and dreams, tempered with large doses of reality: this consumed most of our time, energy and money for the better part of three years. Changes and the looming prospect of adulthood caused Mark to reevaluate his life, and against our deep misgivings he joined the army.


Dark Horse would never recover.

To his credit, and characteristically, Mark grabbed this particular bull by the horns and rode it for all it was worth. “I’m not gonna go in a grunt and come out a grunt,” he replied when I voiced my doubts. And he took the tests proffered as if he were downfield running: jump school and Ranger training at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina for a year was step number one.


I would drive from Atlanta to visit on weekends, my feet out the passenger window of my VW bus as I screeched falsetto along with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, headphones clamped around my head in violation of several laws. Then he was off to Fort Rucker near Dothan, Alabama, where he learned to fly the helicopters that would eventually kill him. He left to fly these wingless bugs in Korea for a year, and sent me one of the funniest polaroids ever taken. If you will follow me on a bizarre interlude, and I will tell that story:


As you may possibly know, canine is a delicacy in Korea. In the LA area, people in any proximity to Little Korea do NOT let their pets out after dark, in fear they will never see them again - other than over stir fry. Mark had a bent sense of humor that formed much of the glue that cemented out friendship, and he sent me a snapshot he had taken of a butcher shop window in which several mongrels hung by their tails from a horizontal rod. Underneath he had written (without musical notation) “How much is that doggie in the window?”


I travelled through Europe for nine months while he was gone: thumbing through England, Scotland and Wales, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, what was then Yugoslavia, and  three incredible months in Greece with better than a month on the southernmost island of Crete, in the Aegean Archipelago. I flew back into JFK International on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, 1978, but would not actually walk the magical streets of New York City for another eighteen years. Mark returned from Korea several months later, and we had a reunion with several of his fellow inmates at Phil’s house, before he returned to Fort Rucker. There he would instruct the upcoming pilots in the Bell UH-1 series Iroquois, built by the Hughes Corporation but much better known as Huey Helicopters.


While flying over power lines as an instructor and in the co-pilot seat, the rotor locked.


Seized.


Absolutely ceased all movement.


Helicopters behave exactly like rocks when there is no upward propulsion, but Mark somehow avoided the power lines below - which would have been like sticking a fork in a working toaster - and the whirlybird crashed to the earth. I was tending bar at a watering hole in Buckhead, inaptly (or ineptly) named Easy Street, when I got a call from Jill - Phil’s wife.


Welll,” she drawled, pulling out the syllables like taffy, “Mark was in a crash today.


My heart stopped momentarily, attempting to hear over the dull, drunken roar. My adrenal glands kicked into overdrive. “Is he OK?” I snapped.


Welll, he’s in the Army hospital in Dothan. Phil flew out an hour ago.


Tell him I’ll be there by midnight.” I dropped the phone and sprinted away.

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The doctor called us in: Phil, myself, Mark’s old girlfriend Nancy Bellamy, and Jon Perkins. “I think it’s all over,” said the man in the white coat, quietly. As we watched, the lines registering his vital signs descended slowly, like parachutes, to flatline at the bottom.


Blip.


Blip.


Blip.


I felt a howl well up within me - Phil would later refer to this as my primordial yelp - and I screamed Mark’s name one last time, as if I could summon him back.


At length we piled back inside the Green Caterpillar - my green 1966 VW bus, with brake lines that would rupture if you kicked the tires - and drove back to Atlanta crying and laughing, often coincidentally.


Mark and I conversed at length about the death of a loved one: his grandfather who had raised him had died recently. I had no touchstone with which to empathize, and was unable to imagine what I would do or feel if placed in that situation. Mark is the first person I was really close to that I will never see again. As Steve Goodman said “To me, this falls under the category of ‘ it figures.’ ”


After joining the Army, Mark spoke about the beginning of Chuck Mangione’s Feel So Good, and how it triggered an association with Taps. At his funeral the Army band began to play this mournful piece, and I was suddenly overwhelmed. Sobbing, I dragged Chris through the red Georgia dust and drove maniacally home where I would hibernate for days.


This was a pivotal event that changed my life, and I brooded incessantly. With my car battery and a bilge pump I would drain swimming pools - nice, round figure eight bowls - at night, so I could skateboard them the next day, occasionally dragging a bewildered David Downing along for backup and moral support. In the beginning I was chased through the woods by police, but after a year the novelty had worn thin, and they would instead gather with neighborhood kids to watch me power grind the coping, running surf lines around the deep end. Europe and Mark’s death gave me a tangible sense of my own mortality, and I felt the pull of living my dreams while I was young and able. The ocean was beckoning imperiously, and I knew I must move to it’s calling. But - where? I visited North Carolina’s Outer Banks with my friend Mike Russell and his sister Pat, and Carolyn Fessendon who sang such beautiful harmony with us. Hatteras was stark and remote, with the best surf on the east coast, but bitter cold in winter and a hard place to find a bartending job. Or indeed a job of any description, so again I pored over maps.


With Jim Schwartz’s sister Sharon I visited Jacksonville Beach in Florida, and fell in love with the place. In those days it was a sleepy little beach town, much more agreeable in climate and lifestyle, and in cost of living. I rented a board to surf the south side of the pier, where a fisherman drawled down “There’s about an eight foot hammerhead just below you.” Hastily, I pulled my feet unappetizingly above my board and removed them from the food chain. I returned to Atlanta and began to make plans to move at the end of July, nineteen eighty. That story can be found here. (Not required reading, but it makes this narrative slightly more continuous.)

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After the purgatory that was Jerry’s I bulldozed my way into a job at Crustacean’s, the first attempt at a classy seafood establishment to appear in Jax Beach (which is to say “No, we don’t serve hushpuppies.”) abutting Beach Marine on the east side of the inter-coastal waterway, at the Beach Boulevard bridge. Here I discovered IQs cresting median room temperature (after Jerry’s, I had my doubts), made some lasting friendships, and met the love of my life. That story I hold for later.


With Tom and Scott Morton and Mark McBride, we found a giant two story, four bedroom house in South Beach, just two blocks off the ocean. Rent was absurdly tiny, split four ways, and the domicile was quickly dubbed Animal House for the insane parties that raged there, more or less continuously. Tom left first, to live with his wife-to-be Laurie and evade the encroaching brain salad surgery. Mark left later in obvious heartbreak, and embarked on what I thought of as a Jesus quest. The two of them were replaced on several levels by Bob Jensen, and eventually the bulk of the Jacksonville Beach phone directory.


I found a Boat Trader periodical and was transfixed by a 1963 Pearson Ariel: a sloop rigged sailboat with a full keel and cutaway forefoot. Like a dog returning to his spew, or a hallucinogenic flashback, my dream of living on this pocket cruiser roared back in full technicolor. I deprived myself of any luxury items and saved an insane amount of money in a short span of time, and at the end of November 1983 became a proud floating home owner for the first time.

I have always been attracted to new ideas, and the first time I became aware of reggae it sunk it’s hooks deep into my brain. (Thanks, Tom!) I examined the syncopated musical structure from this new perspective, and in typical hyper-focus fashion completely immersed myself. The concept of Irie entranced me - the highest plane of temporal, mental and spiritual existence - so I named the sloop exactly that. The term was hijacked by pop/pot culture to mean stoned out of your mind, which was easily as applicable.


Bob Marley has always been the default value for reggae and easily it’s crowned prince, but I remember  seeing The Harder They Come with Mark at an Ansley Film Forum midnight showing in 1974, and the impact Jimmy Cliff made. (I still wonder why he made no move for the throne after Marley’s demise.) Then I rediscovered Third World (when I sold stereos at Dirty Don’s Warehouse Audio/Whorehouse Rodeo we would play Now That We’ve Found Love at volume levels that would sterilize a horse), and fell in love with the musicianship, harmony and ideals they brought to the soundscape. Their live album Prisoner in the Street and specifically the song Irie-ites can recreate the entire year of nineteen eighty four in my mind, so Irie owed both her name and soul to that recording. I moved in at the beginning of December and found myself unable to stay awake at night to read - a habit of old - because the water gurgling by the hull, just inches from my ear, was so mesmerizing and soporific.


Sailboats this size are not designed as live-aboard’s, so I taught myself at least the rudiments of carpentry as I began gutting the interior. The value of trim and facing revealed itself to me in the proverbial nick of time, and I managed to create an illusion of some craftsmanship. Mike Castner and Robin Graham were my mentors as I redesigned the salon (bizarre name), and a black kitten I dubbed Rasta watched me in truely indifferent feline fashion. Rasta would never acclimatize to the heel produced when beating into the wind, but would stand proud on the bow, nose uplifted into the breeze, when running before. When Mary and I drove to Atlanta to meet my Mom, Rasta would sleep on our alternate laps or the dashboard, wander backstage to use the litter box, and was the perfect travel companion. Rasta was my roommate for life on my new floating home. Emphasis makes all the difference in that last sentence...
A small space heater would transform the winter interior from one large ice cube to a cozy cabin within a few short minutes, and I learned to leave the forward hatch barely open to avoid waking in a rainstorm of condensation. Fans circulated air from the forward cabin to the salon, and wind-scoops covered the hatch in summer to maximize any airflow throughout. My dry run would be a sail to the Bahamas, but I had to make Irie self sufficient before that could transpire. Here my interdenominational bibles were John Rousmaniere’s The Annapolis Book of Seamanship and John Fletcher’s Self Steering for Sailing Craft (courtesy of David), but my single minded focus was interrupted by a young woman named Mary Ellen Fisher. Despite her Cuban heritage, she hated the sun and claimed to be allergic to salt water, but she would be my voyage and life partner from that moment onward. It took a long time to satisfactorily explain why her first Christmas present was foul weather gear, and I’m still not certain she fully appreciated the implication...


I had it all planned: the leisurely sail to West Palm Beach/Peanut Island; the crossing to the Bahama banks; surfing the Abacos alone except for Mary, the Castners, and perhaps an occasional dolphin. The term shakedown cruise might have been coined to describe the reality...


Mary had to finish out her teaching year, so my two friends Phil Gardner and David Downing were to help with phase one: from Jax Beach down the inter coastal waterway to Saint Augustine. My Volvo Penta outboard - which had the wrong spark plugs, it turned out - would not start from moment number one. Only David’s encyclopedic knowledge of the gasoline engine enabled us to reach West Palm, at which point movement for it - other than downward - became impossible. My theoretical knowledge of anchoring was put on display for public entertainment in the harbor of Saint Augustine, where a small child’s voice was overheard asking “Mommy, are those sailors all going to die?”. I am guessing I gave the tot an unasked for education in creative profanity as the anchors caught and dragged on the bottom, and the rodes twisted into pretzels along with my nerves.


Phil left there, though he swears it had nothing to do with my seamanship, or lack of such. He drove with Mary back to Jacksonville and the so-called real world. David, the Castners and I took a day off, and then the next morning plowed out the Saint Augustine channel, roller coastering into a five foot swell that strengthened and funneled in the narrow passage. We discovered it was not advisable to leave the forward hatch open under these circumstances.


Once outside we pointed the bow south and ran before the following breeze, poling out the genoa in what would be my favorite sail configuration: wing and wing. Sailing south that night we quickly discovered just how long a two hour watch could actually feel, and would pull the outboard up and into the well to minimize drag. Diet coke and Snickers bars were the preferred stimulants - coffee was do-able but not advised under sail - and I awakened in the early Atlantic pitch dark to the clang of halyards and stays against the mast while we pitched and yawed, with no forward propulsion. Fog surrounded us, windless, and we panicked momentarily before the compass reminded us of our bearings. Having dropped the motor back in the well, we headed cautiously southeast under power to avoid the coastline and watched the sun creep over the horizon, as ships approached and left Port Canaveral. Stage two was over, except for anchoring in the thickest, blackest ooze I ever encountered. Endless buckets of seawater eventually cleansed Irie’s decks, and we piled into the dinghy to perform the same action on ourselves in an honest-to-god hot shower. What was probably a very pedestrian meal seemed spectacular, because we didn’t have to cook. Or clean up. Thirty six hours of sailing will do that.


Next day we again headed south, past Cocoa Beach. Somehow we managed to avoid being boarded by the Coast Guard, as were the Castners off Fort Pierce. Several pod of dolphin joined us at irregular intervals, playing dodge hull with us, and we would alternate going below to listen to their whistles and squeaks as they played in the bow wave. Running at night I managed to snap the topping lift (which gives shape to the sail and raises the boom), but that was merely an annoyance only when the sail was furled. We played a game of severing the painter to the dinghy (painter is the typically bizarre maritime term for rope by which you drag things), then circle back to grab and secure it with spring lines. At least the first time was a mistake...


The shoals at the entrance to Lake Worth Inlet alerted us before the depth sounder, and with perfect timing we approached the harbor entrance at five in the afternoon on a Friday. It had a lot in common with the mixmaster on the LA freeway at that hour. And, of course, at that moment the outboard gave it’s last gasp and became eighty pounds of inert metal. So we sailed into the inner sanctum of Peanut Island, dodging moving and anchored boats alike, searching desperately for a likely place to drop the hook. When that was finally done and all relatively clear, we dropped the aft anchor and dove to make it secure. To celebrate, we popped two giant Ngoma Aoowoo beers (malt liquor, if you are a government representative) from Toga East Africa, that we kept on ice in the bilge. We went ashore to the Marina restaurant for dinner and to scout out the area; we would have to replace the outboard and the topping lift that had exploded. But those things would have to wait, because Mary would finish her teaching year today and drive to West Palm in the morning, to dive headfirst into the brave new world of cruising aboard an absurdly small sailboat, with a captain of precious little experience. Then David would drive her car back to Jacksonville, while she and I would cross tomorrow morning to the Bahama banks.


David and I had dinner at the restaurant and then another Ngoma on deck, talking quietly. Afterwards I motored the dinghy to the docks so I could call Mary before she went to sleep, the two of us giddy with anticipation over the phone. Reluctantly I hung up, cranked the Suzuki outboard and headed out into the darkness, and back to my floating home. From Irie’s bow a flash of light caught my eye, but I could hear nothing over the growl of the motor. As I approached I could see David’s glasses were the reflective surface winking at me - his head was just above the surface of the water and he held onto the bow pulpit with one hand, so I cut the motor within shooting distance and glided to Irie’s prow.


What are you doing?” I asked, with some concern.


Take this,” he responded with more than a little asperity, and handed me the end of what I recognized as the anchor rode.


Hang on to the dinghy,” I grunted, and hauled some more of the rope out of the water. Pulling in a bit more slack I stood up and took a turn around Irie’s bow cleat to secure it. We lashed the dinghy to the mother-ship and scrambled back onboard. After a brief rest, and dry clothes for David, we hauled the rode’s scope within safe distance and double cleated, organized the slack on deck and reduced the remaining Ngomas by two. David began to giggle.


It’s tempting to call his giggle infectious, but retroviruses would aspire to his level in that category. Lethal would be nearer the mark.


OK,” I laughed, “Tell me the story.


Well...” he paused.


While David gathers his thoughts, I’ll explain the basic operation of anchoring a vessel in an inlet: water moves into and out of an estuary with the tide. So in an ocean or any extremity thereof, you must set one anchor against the (hideous pun warning) current water flow, ascertain it’s security, and set an aft anchor against the opposing tide using the motor - assuming you have a motor. Ours had effectively become an oddly shaped anchor as we entered Peanut Island. Which is why I dove to set it and make sure it didn’t drag when the tide changed. Anyway...


David: “I wanted to untwist the anchor rode. So I uncleated the bow line, and it went through my hands faster than I expected. It was almost gone before I realized there was no way to make it secure. I didn’t want to let go of the rope cuz’ - it’s your anchor, y’know?” Somehow this seemed much funnier at the time, possibly because David is the smartest person I know and I don’t ever think of him being trapped in just one perspective - which so often happens to me. I’m left with this image of him: unwilling to let go of the anchor rode and being pulled off the boat as he lunges for the bow pulpit, and somehow manages to avoid being turned into a human wishbone.


David’s typically hilarious version:


It was a dark and lonely night. Trapped onboard ship while Cal went ashore to call Mary. The seas were calm. The moon was out. Silence ruled the night. And I couldn’t think of anything reasonable to do. Wandering the deck, I noticed what a mess the ropes were in - there was no safe place for a drunk to walk. The boat had twisted and turned with the changing tide and angled the ropes all over the deck. I noticed that this one rope seemed to have bound up all the other ones, so I decided to loosen that rope, unthread it from the others, and quickly re-tie it. The first part went well, but once it was untangled it started to pull and, though I didn’t know it, the boat began to drift with the tide. All I could tell was that it was pulling me along the side rail, while I frantically looked for a cleat to lash it to.


Unfortunately when I passed a likely cleat I didn’t have more than a foot of rope in my hand. It pulled me to the front of the boat, under the rail, and slowly, inch by inch, out over the water. I hung with one hand on the rail and one hand on the rope until I had to make a decision: stay with the boat or stay with the rope. I chose the rope, on the grounds it was attached to the anchor and would sink, and if I could get back to the boat I could re-lash it. For some reason it didn’t occur me the whole problem was that the boat was drifting away, and it is very hard to swim holding onto an anchor.


So there I was, treading water, holding a rope in one hand and thinking about sharks that love moonlit nights. I half-hearted called for help, since I didn’t want to alarm anyone, I just wanted to wake up Mike and Donna or Hugh who were sleeping in the neighboring boats and see if they had any suggestions. I believe I did get their attention, as in “wha’ the hell you doin’ out in the water?” when I heard Cal motoring up in the dinghy. Over the rasping sound of the motor and the general confused commentary from the other boats, I tried to tell him what happened. For some reason, this led Cal to believe someone had untied the boat and then thrown me overboard. After a bit more discussion it was decided a rescue was in order.


So eventually, I ended up back on deck, the anchor was recovered and the boat secured. At first I felt great shame, mortification and even a bit of hypothermia. But with a little understanding from all concerned, and some more beer, I began to realize what a stupid twit I was and there was nothing I could do about it. You just had to laugh.


Epilogue: a few years later I ran into Mike at a wedding party. His first comment was, as I remember “have you learned how to anchor a boat yet?


We tried to convince David to do the crossing with us, which would have made the seemingly endless two hour watches much more beara
ble. But he was unshakable, possibly unnerved by the prospect of entrapment on a small sailboat during Mary’s and my reunion after a week at sea. Which was negligible, as it turned out. He assures me he will one day tell me the entire hellish story of his bus ride to Atlanta after he drove Mary’s car back to Jax Beach.





(In David’s photo of me <, you can see in the reflection of my sunglasses the companionway and the cockpit, and the curvature of the horizon in my left lens.)










Mary and I left Peanut Island at dusk equipped with a brand new Yamaha outboard, and a used topping lift David and I had unearthed at a sailboat graveyard disguised as a shop, on the west side of the inlet. It may have been the other side of the planet: certainly another story for another time. Pointing the bow fifteen degrees south of West End to allow for the Gulf Stream, we would approach the Bahamas just at dawn. This gave us some visibility to negotiate the visual markers entering the banks, and hopefully avoid grinding to a stop on the barrier reef. We motor-sailed into the twilight and watched the stars begin to wink on. After a couple hours I handed the tiller to Mary.


Just keep the compass pointed there, at 105 degrees,” I suggested. “I’m gonna grab some sleep below - gimme a shout after a couple hours, or if you need anything.


She stared at me: Bambi watching her mother die, aghast. Wisely, I reconsidered. “OK - let’s sit and talk for a while, but we need to sleep before long. It will stun you how long a two hour watch can feel.


True to our predictions, we watched the sun emerge from the ocean beyond West End on Grand Bahama. We carefully lined up the visual cues according to the the chartbook, all in a row behind the Castners on Primo and Hugh “Where’s ma boat?” Verkerk on Trekker. Sailing east by northeast all day we eventually approached Great Sale Cay, north of Grand Bahama and away from both the larger island and south-west of the smaller out islands. It was late afternoon when we dropped anchor, poured ourselves huge Appleton’s Dark rum and pineapple juice, and prepared to dive the sporadic outlying reefs.


Other than my open water scuba certification at Florida’s Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, my

previous diving experience was in the Agean archipelago. There I lived in a cave for three weeks in an attempt to evade tourist mobs, and every morning would dive off the front ledge, avoid the sea urchins adorning the walls below, and realize every dream I’ve ever had in which I could fly. This was Mary’s initial underwater experience, so while she got her feet and entire body wet, I combed the bottom looking for conch, which were plentiful. I picked a likely one and cruised up to the Castner’s Primo. As I neared her hull I noticed movement within the shell, and alight with curiosity, placed it upon the sailboat’s transom. A baby spotted moray eel squirmed out of it’s temporary home and away to freedom through one of Primo’s scuppers.


We relaxed for a day: dove, drank, laughed and explored, and then headed northwest along the coast. The inside passage led between Grand Bahama and the out islands, protected from the open Atlantic and eventually to Allans-Pensacola Cay above the northern tip of Little Abaco. After a hugely embarrassing object lesson in how to anchor on a rock bottom with a storm approaching - the correct procedure is to dive and look for something immovable - we fueled up the dinghy and headed to the outer reefs. Armed with Hawaiian slings (think spear gun mated with a slingshot) we bagged several

triggerfish, a few lobster, and armloads of conch. I cornered what proved to be a porcupine fish under a rock overhang. Unable to see it clearly, I shot it between the eyes - which seemed only to annoy the thing. While I was chasing an angelfish, Mike grabbed me by one flipper and pointed upward. Fifteen feet over our head cruised a blacktip reef shark, maybe ten feet long. Resisting the impulse to scream - generally a bad idea when snorkeling - I calmed myself until the predator was out of sight, shot to the surface and clambered back in the dinghy. There Mary awaited me. As my heart returned to it’s normal rhythm we watched as as a dark cloud over the Gulf Stream extended one, two, then three tendrils to the water below. The ocean erupted in a haze as the waterspouts connected, and we started the Suzuki to put as much distance as possible between the spouts and us.


(Once when I was surfing in Atlantic Beach, one of these touched down and came ashore in a swirl of sand, between me and Mayport. A tourist couple stopped me as I exited the water and asked “What is that? Is it dangerous?” I waved dismissively and responded “Nah. It’s just a tornado over the water.” People amaze me sometimes.)


From Allens-Pensacola we sailed to Powell Cay, where every time I entered the water I saw at least three sharks. Certainly there were more hospitable places to dive, so we mostly motored to Green Turtle Cay: home of Miz Emily’s Blue Bee Bar, and the most vicious Bahama Mama’s known to man. I was tending bar at this stage of my protracted adolescence, and  Miz Emily poured just like me: bottles upended, straight up and down - but she didn’t use pourers. Open bottles gurgled out approximately four ounces each of rum, dark rum, orange curacao and creme de noya into each libation. They tasted like snow cones, but melted in your mind, not in your mouth. Predictably, I don’t remember much about Green Turtle, specifically Miz Emily’s.


Another establishment on the island was Rooster’s Rest with their house band the Roosters, and the best conch sandwiches on the globe. The Roosters were a great reggae/soca band, and did the first version I ever heard of the Island classic Shame and Scandal in the Family: an O. Henry story set to reggae. Green Turtle was much more populated - meaning there were bipeds - than the other out islands we had seen. It took some time to get used to civilization, such as it was. After three days of

borderline alcoholism we hoisted sail and headed for Marsh Harbor, the hub of the Abacos. I ignored the chart book suggestion to run outside the Whale Cay passage, as the inner channel shoals unpredictably. Dumb luck and an incoming tide were with us, and only one time did we grind, plow agonizingly over the bar, and slog onward. (More recently, it looks noticeably different: http://bahamaspress.com/2009/08/29/caribbean-tourism-hit-by-recession/)


Marsh Harbor, at the eastern extrusion of  Great Abaco, is a perfect hurricane hole. At least you would think that until you actually experience a hurricane, or even everyday bad weather on a sailboat.  Open from the south to a tranquil anchorage, this is truly the hub of the Abaco chain: great restaurants, stores, bars and entertainment in one circumscribed stumbling distance. There is a true community of sailboats anchored there, or was at that time. Elbow Cay, Hopetown, Man o’ War Cay and a spectacular abundance of lobster were all within a two hour sail. Even now I cannot bring myself to pay for lobster.


Man o’ War Cay was God’s biology experiment gone south. We entered a narrow channel led by a spotted leopard ray - the first and last vindication of Darwin we saw. One white family, the Johnston’s, had obviously lived on the island for several generations without outside...interference, shall we say? Irrefutable evidence the gene pool was hopelessly polluted abounded: all the women had discernible beards; not one white person had a chin, and I got the distinct impression everyone was otnay ootay ite-bray, if you catch my drift. I do not have FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test) tests to back me up, so we must consider this to be a value judgement.


Here Suzanne Simmons, who left with us on Hugh Verkerk’s steel hulled Trekker, was replaced by Sherie Powell. She flew into Marsh Harbor on one of the terrifying commuter flights from Florida, which then carried away Suzanne. The Castner’s, Mary and I made a day sail to Tiloo Cay where we made a valiant if futile effort to surf. The swell was perhaps two foot over less than two feet of water covering the living coral bottom, and I felt slightly retarded for bothering to lash my board to the forward lifelines. Still, any surf is always better than no surf, but we won’t talk about Band-Aids. Or betadine.


The July storms were spectacular in the protected anchorage of Marsh Harbor, and bow lights on the masts would swing in dizzying forty-five degree arcs, as if attempting to dodge the constant lightning flashes. As an undertone to the clang of the shrouds and stays, there was a constant babble of voices on the VHF, detailing the electrical blow by blow for surrounding friends and neighbors. Then, one night as we lay sprawled in the cockpit drinking what we dubbed Trade Winds (rum, amaretto and pineapple juice), the sky suddenly exploded. A fireball, atomic in proportions for the first terrifying minutes, illuminated the harbor in stark relief and then gradually - taking upwards of forty five minutes - faded back through negatives to darkness. We were so far removed from civilization nobody knew the space shuttle had launched, and the fireball was the first stage separating overhead. Audio spectators on the VHF went berserk.


As July plodded on, the heat became unbearable. I have an inherited Irish sensitivity to the sun, but spending my life surfing and sailing had spawned a hallucination of adaptation - possibly a defense mechanism. Alcohol based Bullfrog 18 has been a necessary staple on my face for the last twenty years, but the Bahamian summer sun caused my forearms to blister, which had never before occurred. I began wearing long sleeve white shirts while sailing, and the two fans below decks coupled with the wind scoop were insufficient temperature control to allow adequate sleep. Mary and I would flounce all over the forward cabin, summersaulting in vain for comfort. We read voraciously, even for us: devouring John D. McDonald’s Travis McGhee novels; everything by James Clavell; Rachel Carson environmental treatises; rereading Beagle, and Sagan, and Twain, and Walt Kelly’s inimitable Pogo. When one day in Hopetown we began salivating at a hamburger stand, it became apparent we were homesick, so we began to plot our homeward voyage.


Our first overnighter was again Green Turtle, where Hugh got so egregiously plowed - even for him - we began to doubt his continued survival. Staggering out of Miz Emily’s and howling at the moon, he crawled into his dinghy and peered myopically about. Several attempts to start the small outboard left him on his bottom, on the bottom of his dinghy, legs kicking bug-like in the air. Eventually the motor caught and he began a series of deranged zig-zags through the anchorage, Hugh roaring at the top of his lungs “Where’s ma BOAT!?!?!?!” With one final bellow he pointed the nose of the dinghy skyward and raced full out directly into the mangroves. Silence ensued, except for our howls of laughter.


After a day of rest - recuperation, in some cases - we mostly motor-sailed back to Great Sale Cay and anchored, resting for the crossing. There was one irregularly shaped coral colony, maybe twelve yards across under about ten feet of water. I attempted a misguided arm wrestling contest for a trigger fish caught inside a coral jail cell, but retreated when a luminous green moray eel argued it was not my territory. Every cranny we peered into had at least two pair of antennae protruding, and with admirable self control we took only three each. Massive plates of lobster over linguine with key lime butter were washed down with the precious remaining Ngoma for our Goodbye Abaco feast, narrowly avoiding where’s ma boat malady in our enthusiasm. Next day we rose well after noon and had lobster for breakfast, made lobster salad and sandwiches for the crossing, stowed and secured everything, and hoisted sail.


We exited the banks at dusk and pointed due west, since the Gulf Stream would push us north, Cape Canaveral out eventual destination. Dolphin led us away from the archipelago, dancing in our bow wave and squealing goodbye. Long before dark we were profoundly sick of lobster, but once the sun was gone the phosphorous in the water shining from the outboard lazarette became our  running lights, and entertained us better than any light show. We plowed into the darkness with our natural nite lite, enduring the endless two hour watches, and justifiably paranoid about tankers: we were in the shipping lanes, and a five hundred foot tanker wouldn’t even know we were there till they docked and found our mast mangled on her bowsprit. Kennedy/Canaveral had the string of ships to mark her location and after thirty eight hours of sailing we anchored in the ooze of the harbor, washed Irie’s decks and piled into the dinghy for our first shower in what felt like weeks.


Signs marked Men and Women marked the doors, but the showers were empty. Giggling like children, we locked the door of the Mens room behind us, and pranced around the gymnasium sized room, opening every one of the eighteen shower heads wide. Had the floor been anything other than irregularly shaped pebbles, I know we would rolled on the ground like puppies. We lathered each other, shampooed and rinsed in an orgiastic luxury of steam. Finally sated, we leisurely toweled each other dry, exited and motored back to Irie to regroup. Meals are wonderful when you don’t have to cook.


Or catch it.


Or wash up.


From this distant vantage point, our mad dash to St. Augustine is mostly a blur. I didn’t get gas at Cape Canaveral for some disremembered lack-of-reason, so off Cocoa I launched the dinghy and prepared to invade, Normandy beach style, while Mary ran in circles offshore. We could see the signs for the gas stations on A1A inland, and feeling like Thor Hyerdahl I motored toward the coast. I cruised though a pod of surfers enjoying the thee foot swell and waved, timed the sets reasonably well and pulled the propellor out of the water just as I ground out. I dragged the dinghy (which I somehow resisted calling Joint, or Doobie) above the high tide line and set out for the gas station. Returning with ballast in the form of fuel, my return process was not as pristine. I could see Mary making wide circles offshore, but I mistimed the sets and remember watching my wallet float out of my back pocket and eventually down. I could have gone back for it, but I know a set when I see one, and was not interested in overturning or swamping. Maybe there’s a shark somewhere, drinking underage and using my driver’s license to buy drinks for his buddies.


There was an ugly storm off Daytona, looming ominously to the north and east. We were running wing and wing with the genny poled out, which is very tricky when the wind is anywhere but directly behind. If it veers even a tiny bit abeam, you risk what is called a goose-wing jibe: the pole attached to the genoa suddenly has more pressure in front than behind, and it swings like a massive baseball bat across the cockpit with no warning and in no measurable time. There is easily enough force to bring down the mast, or remove any vestigial protuberances from shoulders. The storm was almost upon us: we were screaming along at hull speed with four foot following seas, so I handed Mary the tiller and scooted forward to reef the main. Accomplishing that, I inched around the mast to drop the genoa when we suddenly jibed.


Go easy,” I howled into the wind. Mary glowered at me.


I managed to uncleat the foresail when the pole swung across again. “Ma - ry!” I screamed.  Another less than loving scowl.


Fuck this, I thought, and began to lower the foresail. The pole again attempted to remove my worthless head.


Can’t you hold this thing STILL?!” I bellowed.


“What do you think I’m doing back here?”  screamed Mary. “Picking my NOSE!?”


I held on to the halyard and laughed till my stomach hurt. A big wave picked up Irie and sat me down hard on deck, and I clutched the lifelines and laughed some more. I finally managed to stuff the genny in the bag and drag it back to the cockpit, hand over hand along the cabin top.


Didja save me a booger?” I asked    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


I don’t remember much about the trip up the inter-coastal from St. Augustine to Jax Beach, except long periods of silence. And running aground in the last stretch, just north of the J. Turner Butler bridge. I just pulled on my tennis shoes (no idea how I found ‘em), jumped over the bow and pushed us off. I thought the booger episode was funny, which is probably a defense mechanism, but I still think it’s funny. It was, however, a long three days. Looonngg...


But here’s the lesson: if we can stand each other on a twenty six foot sailboat for three months, we’ve passed the acid test. We are divorce-proof - I hope to god - as much for that reason as it is because we are best friends. Life would much less bumpy if I learned when not to laugh, and when to keep my opinions to myself.


Good lessons to learn.


Fat f___ing chance, bozo.


























 
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