Michael and CH, Happy Thanksgiving and Delivery Anniversary!
Fortunately my husband is out of work. This way it is easier to schedule the delivery of my new sail boat, the Labiris, from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida.
We have made a previous trip to take her for a test run. Only a couple of weeks after we have both completed the basic ASA courses 101, 103 and 104, we do not fully trust our sailing skills, so the owner’s presence is welcomed. I had sailed numerous times before, but never as the skipper. My husband is a total newbie; he still has the habit of listing being on a dive-boat in an all-inclusive resort when someone asks about his boating experience.
On our first meeting at the end of summer, the Labiris – a French-built, 33-foot Karate America sloop- looks perfect from afar, but when I step on board, I almost pass out. It is the most decrepit sailboat I have ever set foot on. The paint is peeling on the top side, the standing rigging is rusty, the lines of the running rigging are fraying, and the wood-work is grey like whale bones. The cabin reeks of diesel. Apparently the “rebuilt 24hp ferryman diesel in great working condition” (sales ad) is out of order. I know that the owner, Eben, has lived aboard with his young family, and I wonder how they managed.
“Let’s take her out on a spin”, my husband says optimistically, after scanning the sorry site, and Eben quickly ties his oversized dinghy with its oversized outboard motor to the port side of Labiris, and we pull out of the mooring field. My inexperienced husband with his colossal confidence steps behind the helm. We motor out to the bay, and Eben hops on board to hoist the sails.
“Is there any refrigeration?” M (my husband) asks.
“No,” Eben says cheerfully. “We use a cooler. The best place for it is on the bench in front of the engine room entrance.”
“Autopilot?” I’m wondering.
“We have an old fashioned wind-vane, but I never bothered hooking it up”, Eben says, presenting the original manual of the wind vane.
M asks about navigation tools.
“I have never used anything but a hand-held GPS”, Eben says, and with that declaration the boat is sold.
A couple of weeks later I am the proud owner of the Labiris.
My rationale for buying the boat is simple: I prefer adventure to luxury. I am looking for history and not technology. I want to learn how to sail like seamen of the past who did not have all the modern equipment they put on sailboats nowadays and still found their way around the globe. I wanna do it Rosie Swale-style.
Plus my budget is limited.
The Labiris seems like the perfect boat for me: thick fiberglass hull from the 1970s with a center cockpit and a 6-foot draft balanced by a lead keel and powered by a re-built 24HP Ferryman engine (painted mauve). Down below we find an unusually spacious V-berth and three other sleeping quarters with newly upholstered cushions, a drop-down table that converts to another double berth in the cabin, and a removable counter for extra space when cooking. A foot pump (love it) brings the water to the sink from the homebuilt, 45-gallon sectioned water tank tucked under the V-berth, and there’s ample storage space. Two 6-Volt batteries and a solar panel on the stern keep the juices flowing, and a 700W inverter hangs inside the engine room wall. Kind of jury-rigged but will take care of our electronics. The roller furling 150 Genoa and the second-hand whisker pole are way too big for the boat but come as extras, along with the storm sail, extra jib, spinnaker, and at least five different sizes and types of anchors with 70+ feet of chain and plenty of anchor rode.
The boat’s history is just as impressive. We discover a plastic tube with rolled up paper charts hiding under the navigation table, and we are more than excited. According to the charts decorated with hand-written notes of dead reckoning, arrows, numbers, and personal notes with exclamation points, the Labiris has sailed across the Atlantic, cruised south along the American coastline all the way to Venezuela in at least one documented voyage, roamed the Caribbean including the West Indies, and crossed the Gulf Stream numerous times. Unquestionably, she was built for ocean voyages and provided a home for a young, live-aboard family with a baby. Strong enough credentials for me.
CH, an old friend, responds to my email announcing the purchase of the sail boat about two minutes after I send it, and first he calls me a “crazy Hungarian”, then he signs up for the delivery trip. A life-long surfer and sailor who grew up in Florida, he knows the Bahamian waters like I know my backyard. I cheer: his experience, sense of humor, and Parrothead attitude will be definite assets on the trip. He immediately assumes the role of the weather specialist and calls us at odd hours to report surf and weather conditions in order to find the perfect 4-day window for the delivery. We decide on November 17th.
It takes some concentrated effort for M and I to make the arrangements that include provisioning, renting a car, secure our slip in the host marina, shop for insurance, and all the trims, but finally we have a plan I am satisfied with: drive down to Miami in a rental car, sleep on the boat after all paperwork and payment is completed, sail up in coastal waters to Jacksonville, and then sail south on the St. Johns River to Green Cove Springs. Home by Thanksgiving.
I am happy with the plan until CH, on the eve of our departure, calls.
“Have you packed a hacksaw?” he asks. I am dumbfounded.
“No”, I say hesitantly. “Why would we need a hacksaw?”
“In case we have to cut off the mast”, CH says cheerily.
I am tired and anxious, so I snap.
“You really don’t trust this boat, do you?”
“I don’t trust any boat on a delivery trip”, he says and hangs up.
M shakes his head and packs a hacksaw before we go to bed.
We arrive at the Knights Marina at around 6 am. CH is already there, doing yoga on the grass under a southern oak that has moss hanging down to the ground. He springs to his feet as we pull up in the rental car, and greets M. They have never met before. It starts raining, and the gear does not fit in the trunk of the rental. We tie pillows and bed sheets in black lawn bags on the roof of the car, and an hour later we head out. CH entertains us with sailor stories during the 6-hour drive to Miami, where Eben is waiting.
The Labiris is sitting pretty (exaggeration) in the mooring field, and we spend the afternoon with loading and paperwork. At our insistence, Eben makes an attempt to hook up the heat gauge (which has not worked for years) for the engine, and does minor repairs that involve soldering while the three of us are standing around giving advice and stuffing our faces with canned vegies. We fill up the diesel tank and all onboard cans, and Eben says good-night. CH has to play a Jimmy Buffet cd during dinner, but who cares? Early tomorrow we’ll sail out of the Miami mooring field. I sleep better than average after I convince M that the two of us will not fit comfortably in the V-berth. He insists on trying, learns his lesson, and does not bring up the issue for the rest of the trip.
At 7 am the next morning, I’m hanging on the port side shroud watching Eben approach the Labiris in his big gray dinghy.
“You look like a real sailor”, he yells in his Canadian accent. I grin. Don’t feel it, though. I am anxious to leave, but is the boat ready? Eben does a last-minute walk-through, then says good bye. CH emerges from the stern cabin, and spins into action. We are on our way before I can say “wait a minute; I have not even had my morning coffee yet”. Doesn’t matter.
A couple of minutes later we are cruising in Biscayne Bay, pass a team of suicidal windsurfers in colorful suits and acrobatic abilities, and then the channel narrows. Our main is up with an impromptu reefing system that weathers the strengthening wind; it took forever for M and CH to put it up after we realized that there’s no reefing system installed.
“Keep the helm steady”, CH warns. “Not much leeway.” The Miami’s skyline is on our left, and the red and green channel markers are so close together that I wish no other boats were coming our way. CH amps the newly fixed engine and we puff on, craning our necks in sightseeing.
When we have the inlet in sight, CH pulls out his famous home-made smoked mullets, wrapped in aluminum foil.
M does not eat seafood, but I jump on the fish. This is when the engine starts coughing. M pushes the throttle all the way down with his foot. The engine purrs and then chokes.
“We’ve just lost the engine”, CH says nonchalantly, munching on smoked fish. It’s been only three hours since our departure, and I can see the greenish color of the ocean beyond the mouth of the inlet.
“That can’t be”, I say, “We are almost there”.
“So what are you gonna do?” CH says, chewing.
We drop the main sail, pull out the jib and turn around. It’s getting dark, but the south-east wind with the partially unfurled genoa and M’s computer charts help us back to the marina. I am huffing and puffing all the way, but the calm determination of my mates eases my disappointment. We pick up the mooring ball in pitch dark, call Eben, and try to relax. Pretty soon we all turn in.
We are one day behind schedule.
When I get up, the boys are already working on the engine. Not a pretty sight after last night’s stress relief exercise, during which I took CH’s advice of “Let it all out”, mainly by cradling a vodka bottle. Being a visual person, the only memory I have about fixing the boat that day is the color that the first, admittedly lesbian owners chose to paint the engine: mauve. A pathetically illogical question comes up in my mind: How can an engine painted pink create any problems for us? I open a can of Southern Butter Beans and eat it cold, anticipating another sudden departure, depending on CH’s mood and energy level. And I am right: we are on our way within an hour.
We approach the mouth of the Miami inlet (Baker’s Haulover) mid-afternoon, and the engine starts coughing again. I make it clear that we are not turning around this time. We adjust the throttle, and push on. The sun is low on the horizon as we leave the last marker behind. In a couple of minutes we can turn off the engine and finally sail.
The wind is perfect: South-East, not too heavy, and we are on open waters. With an easy broad reach we hop on the Gulf Stream. CH manically asks for speed readings every 10 seconds. We hit 11 knots. The Labiris heels and rides the moderate 4-6-foot waves like she was designed to; even CH is impressed.
Meanwhile night falls and, all of a sudden, interrupting the pleasant conversation, the horizon does a 360-degree turn around my head. I jump over the cockpit to the lee side and, in a matter of seconds, I am projectile vomiting over the foot rail. This is my first experience with seasickness, and I blame it on the cold can of Southern Butter Beans. According to CH, getting in the Gulf Stream at night has also contributed to my misery. I struggle for the next ten hours, but after about two I map the pattern: approximately twenty minutes of drained relaxation, then building nausea, and then explosion. At one point the vomiting is so violent that I am unable to draw a breath. I realize that my larynx is shut down in a defensive reflex (which is something to talk about, but not now). My husband kneels next to me and shouts, “Breathe through your nose. Breathe through your nose.” I follow his advice. On the third try, the cramp in my larynx eases, and I inhale. CH – a respiratory therapist in his “other” life – is stone-faced behind the helm. “Do you think now would be a good time to put on the wristband?” he asks. He stands by this simple device to prevent and ease motion sickness, but when he offered it to me at the first stage of my seasickness, I resisted. This time I put it on and feel the small jolts of the rhythmic electrical shocks hitting my vein right under the ball of my thumb. The panic is gone, and I know I’m in good company. I am hurling over the side of the boat, waves almost reaching my face, and I’m watching the fluorescent green sparkle of planktons light up the black water. I’m thinking: “I’m at the right place and time, exactly where and when I want to be”.
At daybreak the nausea subsides. CH is getting his beauty sleep; M is behind the helm. He has not slept since we left Miami. The wind is clocking, and then dies, while M practices keeping the boat on course, letting her spin around numerous times by mistake. I don’t care; the ocean looks fine to me from every angle. We are waiting for sunrise for different reasons. It comes reluctantly, but the beauty of it is indescribable. The water is mirror smooth, and the early morning mist covers all sight of land.
M and I smile at each other.
“Weather is coming in and your engine cannot handle choppy water, like going against tide or current. You don’t wanna get caught in North-East winds with a failing engine”, CH says. “Let’s shoot for Vero Beach”.
He is the weather man, so we have to take his advice. We change course and head for the Vero Beach City Marina. Tide is against us and we see whitecaps in the inlet. Watching a couple of boats struggling with the current, we realize that our engine would not be able to handle the entering, so we B-line towards the beach at the last minute and drop the anchor.
We look around.
“Wow”, CH yells and points. “A spinner shark!” I see the splash in the distance and shake my head. I’ve seen plenty of Manta rays flopping around. Nonetheless, I appreciate CH’s enthusiasm for wildlife. A sailor from childhood, he goes on 6-8-week solo trips to the Bahamas yearly, and still can’t get enough of the ocean.
The boat settles parallel to the waves and I am worried about the return of nausea. With no ambition to drop a corrective second anchor, CH showers and goes to take a nap, while M and I are killing time on the bucking boat, waiting for the tide to turn.
A couple of hours later we arrive at the fuel dock of the Vero Beach City Marina. We run aground only twice before docking.
At daybreak – as we promised the marina attendant who let us stay at the dock for the night – we hook up to a three-boat mooring raft, and grudgingly leave the Labiris behind, not knowing when we would have the time to come back and get her. Our plan of delivering the boat from Miami to Green Cove Springs during the Thanksgiving holiday is shattered, and the logistical discomfort of renting cars, paying slip fees, and organizing another trip is overwhelming.
As we drop CH off at his friends’ house where he had parked his car, M receives a phone call from his inside-and-out beautiful daughter. My husband’s laughter and fragments of the happy conversation drift over to us. CH looks up at the sky and points out a cruising hawk. Not much to say; life is beautiful.
M and I are home for Thanksgiving, and we even have time to roast a turkey.