Friday, November 29, 2013

The Adventures of Captain Runaground and His First Mate

Old friends of Pope’s know that, being from a historically distinguished family, he is a big fan of titles and tradition.

Several years ago, on one of my very first sailing trips, Pope, his old friend Jack, and I chartered a boat in the Bahamas. Documenting the shifting sandbars and shallow water in the Bahamas would be like counting pebbles in an earthquake. So nobody bothers much.


Pope, being the last person to pay attention to any official charts, frequently tested the waters, deciding for himself whether he could cross certain sandbars in the rented boat with the 6-foot keel.


Fortunately, there are plenty of powerboat owners around to make sure you lose face by pulling your boat off the bar, accompanied by great glee and peals of laughter at the hapless sailboat skippers.
It was there that Pope earned his esteemed title, and established a tradition that, to this day, Jack and I respect and honor.

The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) resembles the Bahama banks in many places. Shoaling and sandbars build out into the channel, and sailboat skippers zigzag back and forth (sometimes in vain) seeking deep water.

This Thanksgiving (yesterday), Captain Runaground and I celebrated the holiday on a shallow sandbar, with pelicans for company. Back at the marina we had left at daybreak, boaters were enjoying sweet potato soufflé and grilled turkey about the same time we were listing to starboard and shifting our temporary anchor to prevent being blown farther into the marsh by the howling winds and rushing current.

We had one holiday visitor: a licensed captain aboard the boat titled “Towboat USA.” We had invited him to visit us via VHF radio, knowing he was employed by our boat-towing-insurance company. (Yes, it’s a lot like AAA for cars, though more expensive.) After exchanging the usual holiday pleasantries, he tied a yellow line to our bow and tugged, to the cheers of thanksgiving from Captain Runaground and his First Mate.

Later he kindly presented us with a holiday memento—a yellow invoice for a hefty sum, fortunately covered by our policy. 
We bid a fond farewell to our dear friend and savior, and continued down the waterway, successfully negotiating all the other sandbars, shoals, wrecks, weeds, marshes, and other hazards we encountered that day, finally arriving safely at an anchorage in the marsh--where the sunset and sunrise were picturesque, as usual, but the First Mate was sure we would be hard aground by morning, giving the proximity of the weeds and oyster beds.

After yet another freezing cold night, we awoke with optimism that the winds and weather would favor us for a change. Instead we had many close calls with powerful gusts and currents leading us astray into waters much shallower than described on the charts.

We  shivered our way into Florida, still bundled in ski caps and layers of fleece, only to hear on the radio the distress calls of sailboats ahead of us, stuck in the mud around green marker number 1, just past the town of Fernandina Beach. Welcome to the Sunshine State!

We crept up to the offending territory at low tide, about 11:30 am, watching our depth sounder fall from 8 feet to 7, to 6, to 5. Enough of this foolishness! the captain cried, rapidly calculating the consequences of reinforcing his title and reputation a second time in 24 hours. We promptly doubled back and dropped anchor near the town’s marina in 2-foot waves and white caps.
At 12:55 pm, securely tethered to the end of a 90-foot anchor line, we warmed up with hot soup and waited for the tide to rise, and larger sailboats to pass through, before we even considered making another run.
It's now 2:35 pm, and the winds have risen to 25 mph, howling through our mast and halyards and scrambling our already addled brains with their incessant whine. No sailboats have challenged the sandbar at marker 1 in the last few hours, choosing instead to follow our exemplary example and throw out an anchor. We gave it one more fleeting thought before we decided to give up for the day, place our trust in our anchor, and wait for fair weather. That could take a couple of days.

While you all enjoyed a sumptuous feast and the lazy lethargy of the day after, we endured punishing winds and floundered in shallow water, questioning whether we were completely out of our minds to attempt this trip, or just unlucky in our timing.

Oh, how we wish we were just out shopping on Black Friday like everyone else! Happy Day After Thanksgiving!


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