The Last Leg
December 29-January 1
We leave the house at around 8 a.m., planning to shove off at noon. M does not feel like talking, so we drive the 2 hour and 15 minutes to New Smyrna in silence: an unbelievable ordeal for me, so when we arrive at the marina, I don’t want to get out of the car – which we plan to leave here in the parking lot. They charge us another $40 for the half day, which aggravates me even more, and I’m at the verge of crying. This is supposed to be my Xmas vacation.
Last week M drove down to the boat several times, hooked up with a diesel specialist, Merle, and they tried to fix our engine. According to Merle, our issues are fuel related, but his tank-cleaning guy would not be available for another 1-2 weeks. We cannot afford to stay at the New Smyrna Marina for that long: no time, no money. The two M&Ms changed the secondary fuel filter, and my husband tracked down four more filters in Jacksonville in case we have to do the filter-changing operation during the next leg of the trip, and that was it. The engine is not fixed. Plus we both worry about the wind. Mild N-NW winds are forecasted: neither the direction nor the speed is optimal, so we will have to rely on the engine. Nevertheless, we have to try. If we do not succeed, we’ll have to wait three months till spring break.
I call CH, who refuses to come with us. “You don’t need me”, he says. “This is your gravy run. Great weather, mirror smooth waters, and perfect wind. You guys did everything you needed to do, so now sit back and enjoy.” While I am wondering how “mirror-smooth waters” and no wind would be an advantage on a sailing trip, he promises to be on call and adds, “If you call me when you are passing Jacksonville Beach, I’ll swim out to your boat.” Déjà vu. He always says this. I know him well enough to know that he means it. Crazy.
The engine starts, runs nice and smooth. We get out on the ocean later than expected, because we have to circle in front of the New Smyrna draw bridge for more than 40 minutes. We miss the first opening by about 5 minutes. They won’t wait for us, even though we are right there when they start closing the bridge. We radio, then circle. Twenty minutes later, we head towards the bridge. They are late. 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes pass. M radios again, “We are here, still waiting”. The operator responds, “You missed the opening (HOW??), the next opening is 20 minutes from now”. We curse. We circle. 18 minutes later M calls back, and this time they open the bridge for us. I’m thinking, what else can go wrong. If anybody truthfully answered that question, I would have dove into the water, swum back to shore, and driven home.
Ponce Inlet is kind of scary. In order to stay between the markers, we have to get uncomfortably close to the jetty. We can clearly make out what the people fishing off the stones talk about. A sharp starboard turn puts us on track to open waters. Once we reach the ocean, we try to sail. M is unable to hoist the main sail; it’s stuck. We switch. M steps behind the helm, and I lower the sail and try again. This time it goes all the way up the mast, but there’s hardly any wind. Trawlers everywhere, coming at us from every angle. We count 15, all around us. I’m afraid we cannot get out of their way with the sick engine and low wind.
Hardly any wind. We keep the sails up, trying to rest the engine. The sun is going down and our sails are luffing. Hardly any wind… Our speed is about 2 knots… Trawlers in every direction… Hardly any wind…
And this is going on all night long.
During the night, I sleep for about twenty minutes in the cockpit, twice. M once. Twice I have heart palpitations from anxiety, once over 179 beats per minute, once around 154. We are both freezing. I haul out the comforter from the V-berth, and wrap it around myself over the storm gear I am wearing. M is from Massachusetts and tries to tough it out, but his teeth are chattering when he tries to talk.
Our plan was to sail all the way up to Jacksonville and get on the river at the St. Johns River Inlet at Mayport. We thought the N-NW wind would become an asset when sailing South on the river. If there’s enough of it.
The sun is coming up and we are still hours away from St. Augustine. The pearl-grey haze lifts from the surface of the water as the sun climbs over the horizon, and the silhouette of St. Augustine sharpens in the distance. The temperature becomes more comfortable, and we watch the slow swing of a couple of lazy dolphins as they break the surface of the mirror-smooth ocean. The Labiris floats in zero wind, and the silence is eerie and complete.
“We have to motor”, M says quietly. We are hours away from the inlet which is quite treacherous. We know the hidden dangers; this is where we learned to sail. It seems almost impossible to enter with a failing engine and we somberly recount the many spots where we would not want our engine to die. Nonetheless, if we don’t want to blow another day, we have to do it. We crank up the engine and get going. Two hours later I am optimistic about the smooth run, but M’s ominous expression sobers me up. Yeah, we are not there yet.
To our great relief, the pink engine takes us through the inlet and under the bridge into the Intracostal. Time to celebrate. We are both extremely tired but ready to push on. We are in the marshes between St. Augustine and Palm Valley, and we have been motoring for about 7 hours.
M checks the charts and says, “If we don’t anchor within the next ten minutes, we will have no place to drop the hook. The channel will narrow down so much that we cannot pull off it”.
It’s only 3 p.m., and I am furious that we have another emergency. But M is right. We drop anchor. The marsh-sounds and the mosquitos are overwhelming, and the boat is almost motionless. We throw the mosquito nets over the hatches and sleep a healthy 11 hours.
It’s pitch dark when we wake up. I get up anyway, and by the time I make my coffee and brush my teeth, it’s dawn in the marsh. The scenery is breathtaking: heavy-bodied pelicans dive through the mirror of the water getting their breakfast. The dark stems of the marsh grass indicate low tide. M checks the oil and pulls the anchor. I head back to the channel which is not more than 200 feet away. The depth sounder is not on – we forgot -, but the GPS shows 11-16 feet water all around us. We run aground within two minutes. The channel marker is only two steps away.
M tries hard but cannot get us off.
A motorboat with four fishermen approaches and we hail them. They try to pull us into the channel, but after 10 minutes of whiplashing off the bow of the Labiris, they give up and leave. “Wait for the tide to come in”, they say.
At 9 a.m. we try again, and this time we inch off the bottom and float into the channel. We have wasted a couple of hours and have strained the engine. The oil pressure is lower than any time the day before, but we are on our way.
The ditch along Palm Valley is quite scenic, and I have a new appreciation for M’s decision to anchor the previous day: no way would we have found an anchorage before reaching the river, some 15 miles away.
We motor on.
At 1 p.m. we are still not at the river. I can hear the engine becoming irregular. We are motoring against the current and the wind that comes directly from our bow. We are at the little jetty at Mayport, right next to day-marker #1, when the engine quits. (CH says later: “That’s the worst possible place to break down. Do you know how far in that jetty goes under water??” I say: “Haha, wait for the rest. I know an even worse spot.”)
We anchor in another emergency. Changing the filter takes about an hour and a half, and involves three separate bins contaminated by oil, diesel, and fresh fuel. Messy. We sweat and curse and listen to fathers teaching their young sons how to fish from the jetty. Family time, hardly a kiss away from us. We clean up, the engine is running, and we get on our way so hastily that M almost forgets to pull the anchor. We want to get through downtown Jacksonville and the six damned bridges as soon as possible, so we can sail down to our home marina, even overnight if necessary. Time, tide, and wind are against us, and soon it becomes clear that we cannot make it through downtown in daylight. We need to make decisions.
The traffic on the river unnerves us. Giant freaking ships all around. CH said we would not have to worry about traffic. “It is unlikely that at this time of the year, around the holidays, you would see any ships”, he said before the first leg of our trip. Well, I managed to take a picture of two ships going in opposite directions and a tow-boat between us and the port side riverbank.
We cross under the Dames Point Bridge and the engine starts cutting out again. We wheeze across the very wide river towards the left bank. The average depth of the commercial channel is 39-40 feet, but on the chart I see an area with 11-16 feet depth close to Bartram Island. We have to get there. M places the computer with the charts in front of me and goes to the bow. The engine quits three times before we reach the anchorage I have in mind. I am hopping between the helm and the ignition, while M holds the anchor, ready to drop it.
“One more minute”, I yell.
M grunts. I restart the engine.
“Just a couple of more feet”, I shout. M snorts.
Finally, we drop the hook. The sun is going down, and the Napoleon Bridge is about a mile behind us. Its angled cables shoot up and slice the darkening sky. We are stuck. Breathless, we sit down in the cockpit. Giant mosquitos attack us immediately. We cover the hatch with the mosquito net and spray everything with repellant. We pour 5 gallons of clean diesel into the fuel tank. After changing the filter, we motored only for 2.5-3 hours. The filter should not be clogging up yet. But the dirt at the bottom of the tank stirs up every time a motorboat passes, and the lower the fuel level, the higher the rate of contamination is. Plus, motorboats are one thing, commercial ships are another, and we encountered both.
During dinner we listen to the marine forecast. It promises dense fog for tomorrow. Great! That we have not tried before.
After anchoring, I realize that it’s New Year’s Eve. Soon we hear the explosive clatter of fireworks. No champagne this time. The Dames Point Bridge is hardly a mile and a half behind us; it’s triangular twin spikes etch narrow stripes into the night: common bridge design, yet impressive.
I hear the dolphins’ rasping blows around us again, and at ten o’clock I am ready to go to sleep. I crawl into the V-berth, and ask M to come in with me. Periodically, the boat moves in an alarmingly and randomly violent way, although there are no vessels in sight. I’m thinking some kind of a commercial pump working ashore is stirring up the river (later I learn that we are at the territory of DMMA, Bartram Island’s Dredged Material Management Area). Fireworks crack in the background and M tells stories for more than an hour while I am tucked in the king-sized comforter: the happiest New Year’s Eve I have ever experienced.
I drift to sleep. M goes up on deck at midnight to greet the New Year with a shot of spiced Jamaican rum.
The forecast was right: impenetrable fog envelopes us when we wake the next morning. We cannot see either the Bridge, the thin slice of the sandy beach of Bartram Island – last night it seemed we were too close to it -, or the green day marker that signals the sideline of the channel. We look around, laugh, and then go back to sleep.
There is no way we can fix the engine before we get to Knight’s Marina. Our only strategy is to wait for it to cool down and hope for the best.
In two hours the fog is easing up, and when we can see the bridge behind us, so we pull anchor. The engine is running, but I can hear irregular beats within a couple of minutes. We choose denial and get on the course that worries me the most: I don’t want to be disabled under the downtown bridges.
The outgoing current is very strong, and the engine is rebelling. We hear it halt, so we head for the right side of the channel, in case we have to anchor again. I look behind us and still see the green marker next to our last night’s anchorage, plus a gigantic ship heading towards us.
I am scared. We are still only hallway across the channel, the ship is closing in, and our engine might quit at any minute. To make matters even more hair-raising, a small dinghy with 2 fishermen is hopping from one buoy to the next on the right edge of the channel. The fishermen wave to us, oblivious of the fact that we have engine trouble and that they are in our way. As soon as we point our bow in the direction that would allow us to reach shallow waters to anchor, they motor up to the next buoy and stop to pull up a crab-box. Finally, M curses and turns the Labiris 180 degrees, ignoring the ship that is bearing down on us.
Somehow we reach safety, and as we anchor, he screams, “I want this horseshit to end!” Only 40 minutes passed since we had pulled anchor.
We start changing the secondary filter again. We are getting better at it, this time it takes only about an hour and twenty minutes. We understand that this is not solving the problem, but there’s not much else we can do. We are desperate. I have to go back to work the day after tomorrow, and the forecast is unfavorable for the next day: heavy winds and possible storms. We need to deliver the boat ASAP.
At around 11 a.m. I notice that the tide is easing, so we start up again. Five bridges are ahead of us, after that we are hoping to sail. But we know that even with good winds, we are not going to reach Knight’s Marina in daylight. We’ll worry about that later.
We motor about 3 hours on New Year’s Day. Our average speed is 3 knots, because, although the tide is with us, we are heading into a SW wind after the dramatic turn of the river beyond Bartram Island. Three bridges under our belt, two to go, and one of them is a draw bridge. The engine is running but we hear the up and down surges. The jib would not help; the wind is from our bow. We call ahead for the Main Street Bridge opening. We are way too far, but cannot wait. As we pass downtown Jacksonville, we hear the announcer and the cheering crowd of the Sunday afternoon Jaguars game in the stadium.
We get alarmingly close to the Main Street Bridge before we see the traffic stop and finally the wings of the bridge start to slide upwards. At this very moment our engine dies. As a desperate measure, I pull out the jib, and it immediately starts fluffing in the wind we are heading into. Another sailboat is crossing from the other side as we slowly turn into the wind. The bridge is all the way up now, and the Labiris is pointing in the opposite direction with a disabled engine.
Adrenalin kicks in. M hops to the ignition and turns the key. I keep mumbling, “We are gonna get through this”. I think I mean the bridge, but who knows. M restarts the engine three more times as we inch under the bridge. Three more times the engine quits. At this point, I am calm and want to laugh. What else can go wrong?
Miraculously, we get through. Using the same method – restarting the engine several times – we pass under the fixed Acosta Bridge, and we are on the wide waters of the river South of downtown Jacksonville. I cannot describe the relief we feel. We turn the engine off and pull out all sails. The river seems wide and open, but we soon realize that the navigable channel is rather narrow with shallow waters on each side. We keep to the middle and sail, waving to the day-sailors around us. The SW wind finally is on our side, and we reach 6 knots. We are ecstatic. The river is friendly in spite of its grey waters: rolling, bending, and alive.
Two hours later the wind starts dying down. 3 knots, 2 knots, and then we lose it altogether. 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and total calm. The sun is going down leaving orange brushstrokes on the horizon. We try to run the engine, it dies within a minute and the boat is turning around.
We are so close! Tomorrow’s forecast predicts very strong winds and we don’t want to be stuck on the river. We have to finish our mission today.
It’s getting dark. Thousands of white birds create an island on the left side off the channel. To the right, the sky is jewel-colored by the setting sun. The water is like a mirror. We are bobbing in paradise. We see our last day marker in the distance before the entrance of our marina.
M decides to change the oil, thinking that cold, clean oil might help the engine. While he is sweating and getting dirty down below, I experiment with the sails. I pull the 150 Genoa all the way out, and start zig-zagging. I get 2 knots. If I tack at the last day marker, the light wind might just take us into the marina. I enjoy the center cockpit arrangement; I can do anything I want to with the sails all by myself, while manning the helm.
It is pitch dark now, and I am nearing the last green marker. M is hyperventilating in the engine room which is a cramped crawl space. He is losing it, and I am aware that if he keeps breathing like this, I might have another emergency at hand soon. We need to pull the plug. We are just behind the last day marker when we anchor, 1.9 miles from our destination. The lights of the marina are beckoning from across the channel like mocking mermaids.
I recommend that we call a tow boat. The waters around the marina are treacherously shallow, and we are at extreme low tide. Plus we both are exhausted. I don’t want to spend another night on the boat, but it seems impossible for the two of us to finish our journey safely. Once the decision is made, we are fine. We make the call, have dinner, and wait for the tow. We pack everything up so we do not have to spend an extra minute on board.
By the time the Boat U.S. towboat arrives, the water is choppy and the wind is stronger than any time before during the day. The tow boat’s steering is malfunctioning, so we have to use the Labiris to navigate over the shallows. Every five seconds, spray washes over us rhythmically as we go over 4-foot waters without getting stranded. This tells us that our depth sounder is located at the very tip of our keel; just another tidbit we learned about our new boat. Completely soaked, we pull in the marina and find our prepaid slip. It’s past ten p.m. on New Year’s Day, and we don’t have cash even to tip the towboat captain.
We take our time to tie the boat, and then walk through the dark, deserted marina to meet the taxi we had called. Two tiny, odd-looking dogs follow us. They look like gargoyles, an eerie sight under the oaks covered by Spanish moss. Or was it just a trick of our exhausted minds?
The next day I call CH. He listens to my story, holds his breath for a moment, then says, “How could you jam this much adventure into a simple delivery trip?”
Gravy Run my ass, CH!