Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jamaica: Part 2

Beaufort to Miami

        The sea rolled gently under the bow as we sailed offshore, but within sight of the coast. As Ollie and Ed oriented me to the various lines and gauges, tools and hazards of Elska, I looked up to see familiar landmarks, seeing them for the first time in several years from five miles offshore, looking back from a place which I usually looked toward, leaving behind all that was familiar.

      Ollie was jovial, almost happy-go-lucky and talkative. Ed also liked to talk, but was more taciturn and suffered spells of serious cynicism. Ollie just laughed at Ed's bitter moments; they had been friends for 20 years, so Ollie got away with making light of Ed and his carping. While Ed seemed the more intellectual and technical of the two, Ollie was filled with the wisdom of common sense and practical application. Ed committed himself to celestial navigation, precise and mathematical, with complex tables and scientific formulas; he would hang his reputation as a captain on accurate calculation and proof of position. Ollie would navigate by dead reckoning; he was quick to understand the relevant landmarks on the coastal charts. And, when there was no coast, he felt his way across compass points, current, drift, and apparent speed. He logged our daily progress in his mind, tracking our course over the charts without the need of noon sextant shots. He always knew where he was.

       Elska was a thirty-five foot Dickerson ketch with six tons displacement. She wore a white deck and navy blue hull; the hull had a hard chine (I later learned this as we slammed hard, instead of slicing, into large seas). An attractive, classic wooden yacht, but with no special features to distinguish her, she was solid and tracked fairly well with a shallow draft keel, but she would win no races. Her interior was comprised of saloon with starboard berth and convertible dining table to port. There was a forward V berth just past the head. The galley was conveniently located just at the foot of the companionway steps to starboard, where the crew on watch could reach down for a cup of hot tea in the chill of pre-dawn.

      She had few modern amenities. The dinghy was fiberglass with a 5-hp outboard that did not work. She had only a CB radio, no VHF or SSB: the radio barely worked. None of the sails was self-furling, and Elska carried no self-steering gear. We contrived self-steering the old way, by tying off the wheel to the aft mizzenmast. She did, however, boast the basic gauges for wind speed, boat speed and depth below keel. At the time, few pleasure boats were equipped with LORAN or any sort of satellite navigation system; nor was Elska. 

      My first night in the bow berth I slept poorly, but rested well. I could not help but listen to the sounds of the sea rushing past the hull, the clank and slap of rigging and sail, the soft breathing of the wind. I listened and reveled in the noise of being afloat, of travelling by wind over water. I was tired and sore from my first day as crew of a small yacht, but I also was too excited to feel like I was missing anything. Ollie woke me for the 2 to 6 watch. I crawled up the steps to the cockpit and said goodnight to Ollie as he disappeared into the pitch darkness of the cabin. I felt very alone.

      I surveyed my world. Waves and swells, invisible, lifted and splashed the boat. I could feel the pull of the sails and the dampness of the salt spray hanging on the wind. In the extreme distance, I made out the darkest edge of my world, the horizon, where the brightness of a star-dusted sky collided with the total blackness of the sea. I thought I could see all the stars in the universe; never had I seen such a sky. I paused to be sure that the sky was not in fact smothered in stars, that there were constellations beyond the cloud of Milky Way that draped over the night.

     Alone, I settled into my first watch at sea, absorbing all that I could hear, feel, taste or see. Alone, my confidence began to emerge as I gripped the wooden wheel, occasionally checking my course by the compass' red night light, feeling the course by the motion of the boat over the swells and the tracing of the mast against the sky. I was alone, but in no way lonely; the boat was my friend, something at once new and familiar, a relationship of mutual care and responsibility. The night passed quickly into my first dawn at sea, another new world that carried all the wonder, excitement and beauty of coming home after a long journey to a place that is different, but again familiar. Of course, the change was all in me.
      At sunrise, when Ed came on watch, we tacked back toward the coast and began to estimate our location, trying to match towers and other landmarks on shore with our charts. We were off Topsail Island, having made less than 60 miles in 15 hours; the loss of directional mileage due to tacking at night was greater than I had anticipated. We eased through another pleasant day of clear skies and moderate breezes as we sailed south, searching for Cape Fear inlet and the channel into Southport; Ed had decided that our progress offshore was too slow, so he wanted to return to the ICW for a while. The marker for the inlet was Bald Head Island with its nineteenth century lighthouse, now defunct. We would know we were close when we recognized Frying Pan Shoals, one of the three great hazards on the North Carolina coast (the others being Cape Lookout Shoals and, of course, Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras). 
       I have seen and fished the shoals off Lookout and Hatteras. I had seen Lookout's from my father's fishing boat. These shoals were avoided easily enough; you just motor up toward the choppiest water and look for the bottom; when you can see it, you are too close and back away outside the severest chop. I had no fear of Cape Fear; I knew that we simply looked for a change in the swells of the ocean, the small, random whitecaps of short, steep, breaking waves. Then we would tack toward deeper water and just miss the outer reach of the bar. I was still ignorant of the ways of sail. The wind and sea are gods; they are not always gentle gods.
       We recognized Bald Head and made way for open sea, close-hauled on a reach, trying to yield as little distance as possible while gaining depth away from the shoals. The wind freshened; inland I detected a faint tracing along the clouds, the slightest hint of a squall. I pointed to the line, but neither Ollie nor Ed took any interest. They believed it was just a cloud. We studied the depth meter closely, switching from fathoms to feet. The depth held anywhere from 26 to 31 feet, so we had plenty of water. Ahead, we saw the water begin to churn, the chop of the waves steepening with occasional whitecaps. Was it Frying Pan? We disbelieved what we saw because we were at least five or six miles offshore. Eyes scanned depth meter, waves, then clouds, constantly reviewing, evaluating, seeking affirmation that Elska was safe in her depth and outside the reach of the Shoals. I still thought the clouds over land were threatening; they seemed to approach quickly and moved contrary to our breeze.
      Suddenly, the depth dropped from 27 to 21, then 19, then 16, and 13.
     "We're running over the Shoal!" someone screamed.
      But we could not reverse our course. 11 feet, then 9, then 7. (We needed 4 feet for the keel.) We bucked wildly in the rough water that seemed to surround us without warning, steep waves rising, lifting the bow as the stern sank, the pull of the water seeming to seize Elska in its grip. We were losing steerage.  The squall line became clearly visible, now a black-edged cloud rushing toward us from the west, heavy rains dropping in metallic gray columns, the shore behind the squall now lost.
       "Ollie, look!" I pointed to the squall. "It is a squall."
       Then the wind slapped us with a cold snap of its fist, wind and rain mixing with the spray of waves lifted and thrown with all the wild fury of an unrestrained sea. It was as if Neptune himself rose beside our boat, scooped a mighty handful of salty sea and hurled the cold gray waters into our faces.
       In my initial fear, I just wanted start the engine and power out of the danger. But we were truly making headway and soon found ourselves in stormy seas, but south of the shoals, sailing briskly in the remainder of the squall. The rain passed and we again could see the coast, and the lights of Southport, so we turned toward the inlet, grateful to have left the storm behind.
      It was dark when we entered Cape Fear River approaching Southport. The buoys and channel markers were difficult to locate despite having charts of the area. Although a couple of the buoys were lit, none of the entry markers were. Unfortunately, we missed a sharp bend in the channel and ran aground on a falling tide.  As Elska listed further and further, we resigned ourselves to a long uncomfortable night waiting for the tide to rise again so that we could grapple her off the bar. In the end, a passing fisherman cast us a line and pulled Elska back into the channel, and we continued to the marina in the dim, red light of sunrise.
        After a shower at the marina, I called my parents.
       "Where are you?" they asked.
       "Southport." I replied, a bit nervous, excited and anxious. I had been overwhelmed at times during the prior two days, but did not want them to know it or hear it in my voice.
      "You've been sailing for two days and only reached Southport?" my father questioned, somewhat incredulous.
      "Yep." I tried to explain the effects of having to tack away from the coast at night and avoiding Frying Pan, but then changed the subject. "I was hoping you might be able to come down and bring me some clothes and other stuff I need."
        "You know we want to see you. Just tell us what you want us to bring."
       A few hours later, as Ed, Ollie and I rested in the cockpit, I looked up and saw my parents walking down the dock. I called to them, at the same time wondering how they were going to react to meeting my shipmates. Introductions went smoothly; I know my parents were as charmed by the British accents as I had been. I spent the afternoon with my parents, telling them everything I had experienced in the previous two days. They were visibly reassured that I was safe and travelling with trustworthy gentlemen. After dinner, they drove home. The next morning, Ed, Ollie and I departed Southport and motored down the ICW. It was the first of many still and humid days of listening to the engine instead of the wind, of smelling gas fumes instead of salt air.
       South of Southport, the ICW passes through open sounds between the outer islands and the mainland. The channel cuts through shallow waters marked by shoals of marsh grass, the black mud of which is exposed at low tide and smells like the primal ooze where life began. The channel is generally too narrow to permit sailing and tacking, so a motor is essential though tiresome. Still, the scenery was nice enough to alleviate some of the tedium of listening to the motor droning its monotonous song.
       As we entered South Carolina, the open water ended and the channel followed what appeared to be more of a canal than a channel. And the canal had been cut through a rough and overgrown swamp with gray murky water and air as still as death itself. Hot, lifeless, stifling. A haven for all that torments us. Bugs, stinging insects, snakes and worse. In the heat of a mid-summer day, I could not imagine the ecological beauty hidden behind the tangled screen of vine and scrub. We suffered through, dreaming of shade and cool breezes, blue water and fresh air.
       By late afternoon we were docked somewhere near North Myrtle Beach beside an old junk-style yacht. We each drank a cold beer and enjoyed the slightly cooler air of early evening before locking ourselves in the cabin behind the porthole and deck hatch screens. The whine of mosquitoes was constant after sunset. Sleep was hot and without rest. I lay sweating on my clammy berth, wishing for the slightest movement of air that never came. Dawn was heavy and humid, but brought the illusion of cooler air until the sun rose over the trees and the baking began again.
       The next day was worse. Hotter, more humid, as still as roadkill two days dead. We muddled south down the dull, colorless channel, seeing nothing but tidewater marsh and swamp, breathing engine fumes, sweating every drop of water we drank and more. Having endured a nearly endless day under a scorching sun, we anchored for the night in a small cove off the main channel. There was no land in sight, only still brown water, brown marsh grass and the smell of decay. No one could eat. With the setting of the sun, the whining mosquitoes surrounded and besieged our tired ship. We suffered another long restless, claustrophobic night hiding behind small screened portholes. We listened to the insects cry and prayed for blue seas with fair winds.
       By midmorning the next day, we spied signs of civilization, a dilapidated fishing dock. We had reached Charleston. Without pausing to explore the pleasures of this historic seaport town, we motored past the freight docks, the Battery and into the bay, past Fort Sumter and back into the ocean.
       How glorious and refreshing to have returned to open ocean! The maternal roll of the swells, the seductive caress of the wind and the complete liberation of the senses unfolding to a boundless horizon. Our spirits rejoiced. We were sailing!
      A few days of good peaceful weather followed.
     Then, the first afternoon off the coast of Florida, a big squall with thunderstorm formed over the mainland and swept to sea with a leading edge that was arched in the angry curve of a tornado. The funnel never closed, but the winds tossed us mercilessly, threatening to rip our sails from the masts before we could reef them. The fury quieted within the hour and we sailed relieved into nighttime. First dolphins! A pod of five joined us, playing off the bow wake and reassuring us that the storm was gone.
       Night and the next day were again lazy sailing under clear skies and pleasant winds. But, again in the afternoon, the same kind of storm formed and rushed seaward to thrash us about. The scenario repeated for another two days until we yielded and decided to seek shelter on the ICW again. We needed provisions anyway, so we entered Ponce de Leon Inlet beside its magnificent nineteenth century red brick lighthouse. The water was clear, and we were fascinated by the stunning electric colors of the large jellyfish that floated beneath us.

     Thus began many days of motoring the canals of the Florida ICW. We watched coconuts drifting by and eventually developed a game of catching them with a bucket as they slid along the hull. More afternoon storms, but the wind and rain did not bother us in the quiet and protected waters of the ICW. The only thing that broke our journey was the periodic drawbridge that opened only at predetermined times, so we would wait as long as an hour or so for the next opening. At night, we docked or anchored. By the time we reached Fort Lauderdale, I was ready for some action.
      At Fort Lauderdale, we discussed our next move. Crossing the Gulf Stream took some planning to avoid being swept northward in its current while trying to make a landfall on the western side in the Bahamas. Neither Ed nor Ollie wanted to lose the time it would take to stop in the Bahamas, clear Customs, and be distracted by the sights. So, they decided we should plot a course that skirted the southern edge of the Grand Bahama Bank, a massive sandy shoal extending west of Andros Island 25 miles or more that varied in depth from 0 to 25 feet. They wanted to reprovision in Miami, then sail open water without landfall from Miami toward Andros, turning south and east to pass through the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba, then turning west for Jamaica. They estimated a week of hard sailing if we had good wind.
       I met a gentleman topping off the gas tanks for his daughter in her 21-foot center console outboard, the Little Damn.
       "Where are you headed?" I asked.
       "My daughter's running over to Bimini."
       "By herself?" I queried. It seemed to me a long way for a teenage girl to go alone.
       "Oh yeah. She'll be fine. It's a clear day. And it's only 60 miles; take her four hours at the most."
       That close, I thought to myself. I never realized that the Bahamas were so accessible. Sixty miles and I could be in another country, a tropical island paradise (I had not yet seen the islands, so I had my dreams). These people could run over for the weekend. I began to regret that Ed and Ollie were in such a hurry to reach Jamaica. Maybe they lived on a tropical island, but I had yet to see one, much less visit one. I wanted to go, but I had no vote. They had been away from home for more than a month and were very anxious to return as quickly as possible.
        We motored down to Miami and docked in the municipal marina beside a city park in the middle of what appeared to be downtown. The three of us walked into the city, grabbed a greasy burger at a lunch stand, then wandered through the streets listening to the Latin culture overwhelm things English or American. Ed wanted to go into a K-Mart, so we browsed through as he looked for batteries or something. Then, over the crackling speaker, a blue light special was Spanish. Somehow it all felt too foreign, too isolating. My mind disconnected; I was not in Florida, I did not know where I was. I could not understand the people or recognize the culture of the streets. What was supposed to be familiar was strange; I had wandered too far. I began to fear that I could not return to the place where I began, could not find the park, the marina, or anyone or anything that would connect me with my past, my own culture, my homeplace that I did not know I had left.
       I hurried along the sidewalk looking for anything that I might remember. It was hot; there was no longer any shade on the streets. The stone walls of the buildings, the concrete of the sidewalks, the asphalt on the streets all combined to magnify the heat, the humidity, the unbreathable hotness of air that lay deathly still in the middle of the crowded city. I needed space, color, room to walk and air to breath. I looked for the park and eventually saw trees, palm trees, green fronds waving gently on fresh breezes against the pure, rich blue of a perfect sky. Then I saw the water, its blue also a reflection of the purity of the sky. I began to relax, to recover, to feel no longer lost or alone.
        I wandered about the park, enjoying the shade, the breeze, the sights; Ed and Ollie returned an hour or so later. They were snickering about having purchased some Quaker Instant Grits.
        "Do you really eat grits?" they asked.
       "Sure. They're good. Though the instant grits are not as good as the kind that cook for a while. Best with sausage and eggs, but I've eaten them alone," I replied.
       "Good. After we are at sea, we want to see you eat some," Ed said, daring me.
       We stowed the provisions, food for a week, and motored out the channel toward open sea once again. Ed plotted a course aiming farther south than we wanted to go, but allowing for the northward drift of the Gulf Stream. When we cleared land, we set sail as the sun began to settle its warm evening glow over a rolling ocean. I was excited but also a bit nervous as I thought about being offshore for at least a week; I was excited that the next landfall would be our destination, Jamaica.

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