Captain Dave Block, Gemini catamaran, sailboat and lightning, sailboat delivery, sailboat hit by lightning
Featuring Captain Dave Block
Two things come to mind when I recall The Last Draft delivery. One is the wise words of my ASA instructor: “If you have to be somewhere on time, do not take a sailboat”. The other is the sentiment of my good friend, Captain CH, regarding boat deliveries: “Do not trust anything and always pack a hacksaw”.
My trip begins with Barbs Burke’s innocent September 4th email to all NFCC (North Florida Cruising Club) members:
“One of the delivery captains for St. Barts Yachts is looking for crew, to bring a 35′ Gemini Catamaran from Tampa to St. Augustine this weekend. It’s not a payin’ job, but I do believe that expenses will be paid. If you’re free on short notice and up for an adventure, please contact him directly.”
Because I am always up for an adventure, I contact the captain on Friday.
“Hey Captain Dave,
I just received the email from Barbs Burke from NFCC (where I am a member) about your need of crew for a trip delivering a 35’ Cat from Tampa to St. Augustine.
I’d like to sign up.
I have limited experience as a crew member, never sailed on a catamaran, but own a 33’ French built single hull, have an ASA certificate for Bareboat Cruising, and I am available on a short notice. I am also a writer and photographer who would love to chronicle the trip, which might be mutually beneficial. I am flexible and easy to get along with.
Please let me know ASAP if you’d consider taking me along so I can make arrangements.”
Later I learn that Captain Dave stopped reading after “I’d like to sign up”.
I’m thinking, no way the delivery can be done over the weekend, but I can take Monday off, even Tuesday, if necessary.
Captain Dave (email): “Hedi, I have a crew driving from St Augustine tomorrow if you can make it.”
Not enough information.
Me (email): “Whom could I contact for details?”
Captain Dave (email): First Mate Steve, phone number ###.
I call First Mate Steve in Atlanta. He has never met Captain Dave in person, but has heard of him and has wanted to sail with him since their previous plan fell through. Regarding my other questions: no, he does not know anything about the 35 foot catamaran we are supposed to deliver. No, he has no clue where the captain is flying in from or what day and time we would depart from Tampa. But he plans to be at the St. Augustine Hertz rental at 11:30 the next day.
Great. I have 24 hours to make arrangements for the cat, the dog, the house, and of course, work, which includes instructions for my subs for an indefinite amount of days. I get on the phone.
Me (text message, hours later): “Steve, it’s getting late so I did not want to call, but I’ll be at the Hertz parking lot tomorrow at 11:30 a.m.”
Captain Dave (email): “Glad you can make it. Meeting at Hertz lot at Tampa airport confirmed.”
If everything were this easy…
Captain Dave Does It Badass
First Mate Steve and I hook up in St. Augustine, stash our cars and drive a rental to Tampa on Saturday. Steve is a gentle guy with a laid-back attitude and lots of sailing experience, and I enjoy his company and the conversation during the four-hour drive.
Captain Dave lands at 4:25 p.m., and we wait for him in the Hertz office. Neither one of us has met him before, but we both recognize him when he bursts through the doors, dragging his oversized duffels and bright yellow equipment case. The doors don’t slow him down: he marches on with a purpose. He walks right past me, but acknowledges Steve, who is coming from the bathroom wearing a grey t-shirt and shorts, looking like the symbol of a leisure-sailor. They shake hands and walk back to where I serenely stand. After introductions, we walk to the rental car. Within a minute I lag behind, trying to decide if the captain walks or talks faster. His head decked with unruly, sun-streaked hair is bobbing way ahead of me. I catch up as he says, “That’s a loaded question.”
I look at Steve, “What did you ask?”
Steve holds my stare and, with an apologetic half-smile, says quietly, “I asked him where he was from”.
Fantastic. As it stands, I’ll be stranded on a 35-foot boat for at least four days with a hyperactive captain and a first mate who’s the prototype of the elusive southern gentleman. Right on, Harrington.
Captain Dave has an adverse reaction to the rental car’s GPS, so we turn it on only after we get lost several times on our way to the boat. But we find the marina (Snead Island Boat Works, Inc.), and before sundown we step aboard The Last Draft. The small catamaran seems to be in good shape and well-equipped with necessary instruments, including a working auto-pilot. We find a good-sized fridge and even a microwave oven in the main cabin, otherwise the boat is stripped: one pan left in the galley, and the berths are completely empty. No extra lines, not even a shore power cord (which is the first thing we scout out five slips down the row and plan to borrow later). In a drawer we find the owner’s manual.
After the initial walk-through, we decide to have dinner. Captain Dave is very particular about his evening meal: he wants to have seafood at the beach while watching the sunset. Nothing wrong with that.
After what seems hours of driving, we walk into a place that appears perfect. It’s right on the beach facing the already setting sun, and the live music streams out to the parking lot. We trot in, and Captain Dave shouts over the music, “It’s the blue-hair special tonight”. His voice echoes in silence as the music abruptly stops in mid-sentence. Without slowing down, he marches across the patio with Steve keeping up with him. I am, as usually, lagging way behind, and as I look up from my cell phone, I see about two hundred senior citizens sitting at the beach-worn tables, looking at me with sulking, glassy eyes. Not one of them is smiling. I cross the patio in embarrassing silence and can hardly keep from bursting into hysterical laughter. By the time I catch up with the other two, the captain is already pals with the young bartender, asking about more age-appropriate places to dine. Neither one of us is a spring chicken, but I guess we feel young at heart.
We drive around for another twenty minutes and find a place where Captain Dave feels comfortable.
The food is OK, the sunset is spectacular.
After a perfect dinner at the perfect place, we head back to the boat. On our way, a thunder storm hits. We dash into a Publix to get some food for the morning, and then hurry back to the boat yard. One of the main reasons for our rush is that we had left all hatches open to air the boat. Also, we want to “borrow” and hook up the shore power cord before it gets soaked in the rain. The roads are getting wet as we approach the marina, and blinding flashes of lightning illuminate the night sky ahead of us. I can’t resist asking, “How safe is it to be on a sailboat in an electrical storm like this?” A couple of weeks before, I had read an article in the Boat U.S. magazine about the damage lightning can cause to boats, and since then I have been preoccupied with the predicament. Considering that on a solitary trip your mast is most likely the tallest metal object surrounded by water, I think it is a valid concern. I had brought the subject up to my friend, Captain CH, but he brushed it off. “You just hope it won’t happen”, he said. Easier to go with the flow, I guess.
Captain Dave’s response is somewhat similar. After more than a couple of seconds of silence in the car while lightning illuminates his strong profile, he says, “You live in Florida, so you know that storms pop up at any time, especially during hurricane season.” Not exactly an answer to my question, but I let it rest.
We get to the boat before everything inside gets soaked, and we hook up to shore power. The propane-powered fridge does not seem to work, which means that the stove does not work, either.
“I will not eat protein bars for five days”, Captain Dave says vehemently. He studies the manual and then goes online to read more.
I go to sleep fairly early. I get the spacious forward cabin. As a principle, the captain wants to sleep next to the engine room, and the first mate gets comfortable in the port-side aft berth.
I fall asleep thinking we might not go anywhere for a couple of days, which means I’ll have to rearrange my schedule. I am lonely with two strangers on a small boat. But as I contemplate about whether signing up for the trip was a good idea or not, the gentle swaying of the boat lulls me to sleep. So happy I packed my blanket!
When I get up at 8 the next morning, First Mate Steve is already rummaging in the galley. I walk around the boatyard and find a bath house. Even though I don’t have soap or towel with me, I can’t resist hopping under the shower. Refreshed, I take some photos and get back on the boat.
The captain is still concerned about the fridge and stove. We start the survey and it’s done in 40 minutes. Now what? We need to get a repairman on board to fix the propane line, and the captain is not happy with the oil level, either. It is overfilled, and we need a pump to get rid of the excess. It is Sunday, so the boatyard is closed. We need to wait another day just to get in contact with people who can potentially help us. Time is precious only for me. I don’t see us leaving in the next two days, and I hate the thought of burning my days at dock. I am thinking of bailing out.
My thoughts are justified when Captain Dave exclaims, “Let’s go to the beach!” Steve and I look at each other. Seeing our less than even mildly enthusiastic response, the captain disappears to take a shower. He comes back recharged and yells, “I got the solution!”
The solution is that we hurry with the departure even if we have to live without propane, and I jump ship at Ft. Lauderdale, so I can drive home and report to work on Thursday. I am happy.
Being at the bottom of the chain of command, I did not think that Captain Dave would give a hoot about my concerns. But he did. He took time to find a solution. Later on the trip, I realize that he finds a solution for just about everything that comes his way. He is a badass captain. His brain works like clock-work, and in spite of his tremendously loud presence and overstatedly relaxed attitude, he registers everything related to any given situation at hand, including the physical, mental, or emotional state of the crew. Smart guy, Captain Dave.
Anyway, all of a sudden, I am just as happy with his idea of going to the beach as he is. We find a biker shack that advertises the best burger in town on Anna Maria Island, and we try to relax. The bottle of Yuingling Steve and I have shared in the car helps, and, after a Monster and some Pepsi laced with rum, Captain Dave is on a roll, too. We come up with a plan (several, actually, but stick with one) regarding food for the upcoming five days at sea that does not require either refrigeration or cooking, yet is attractive for all of us. Then, we stroll over to the beach.
The lukewarm water of the Gulf of Mexico and the powdered sugar sand at the beach make up for all preceding anxiety, even though I have to buy a bathing suit. We spend an hour soaking, people-watching, and sunning, and then we spring into action once again. The usual mad runaround for provisions includes Walmart, dollar stores, an extensive hunt for dry ice, and a new acquisition of an oversized cooler. The tour ends with a genuine dumpster dive behind a Chinese restaurant for extra fuel jugs. “Discarded vegetable oil jugs are perfect. The diesel smells nice when mixed with vegie oil”, Captain Dave says.
We are at Ruby Thursday’s by 9 p.m., gorging on the fresh vegies of the salad bar, and we are all wiped out. Captain Dave orders a side of hot chicken wings, which proves to be more significant later than it sounds at the time.
Back at the boatyard, I walk down the path with the last cigarette for the day.
I want to consume it in solitude, but no such luck. Tom, the security guard, joins me almost immediately. He is driving his golf cart with his tiny dog on his lap. The dog just went through hip surgery. Sailor Tom tells me stories of his experiences that blow my mind while I walk the path to the shower. He tells me about his Alaskan solo sailing trip when he had pneumonia and wanted to end his life. He tells me about his boat, and his dog’s surgery in details. Way better than smoking a cigarette in solitude. Tom leaves me after he takes a wide turn with his golf cart in front of the bath house, and, once again, I face the squeaky clean shower without a towel or soap. Once again, I cannot resist.
During the night, Steve finds Captain Dave lying in the middle of the cockpit. Dave blames the chicken he ordered at Ruby’s. I say maybe the chicken, maybe the rum.
Our cooler is stuffed with dry ice, regular ice, and goodies that will last for at least five days. We are up at 7:30 on Monday and ready to leave. Captain Dave leaves to return the rental car, and Steve and I place bets on whether he will find someone to drive him back to the boatyard free of charge, as he alleged. Needless to mention, he did, bad-ass captain.
Ten minutes after he gets back to the boat, we are on our way. The wrong way, mind you, but we have to get fuel, and the pump at the neighboring yacht club is closed on Mondays, so we have to sail up the Manatee River to the nearest fuel pump. At 10:30 we turn south, and finally we are heading in the right direction. The wind is from the stern, but Captain Dave keeps the hoisted main sail in the middle of the traveler. “Don’t let it out”, he commands, “I don’t want to crash yet”.
Soon we are heading West on the Manatee River through Tampa Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. According to plans, we’ll travel through the Strait of Florida and reach the Atlantic in about four –five days. That means we will have touched on five bodies of water before we reach our destination. Exciting.
If everything goes according to plans.
Shallow shoals frame our route at the mouth of the river, but we cut trough. It’s easier with a catamaran. The captain admits that he would not take a keel boat through this route; the average depth is 6.9’.
The color of the water changes from charcoal to sunny grey, and then we slip into turquoise green: after cruising through the southern edge of Tampa Bay, we are in the Gulf of Mexico. We are motor-sailing with 5 knots. Everything is automatic, and I am bored.
Dave rearranges the jib’s rig (silently and annoyingly), and now both sheets of the jib are on the starboard side. He explains that with this method, you can extend the main sail on catamarans without a whisker pole.
We set up the watch schedule which begins with me at 6 p.m. We read and play till then. Dave has an epiphany at one point. He hops in the cockpit with his usual élan, and declares, “I know this boat. I have sailed this boat before. I know the previous owner, and I know which slip in the marina it was kept”, and he quotes the slip number. I look up lazily from my book and think, “good for you”. Ignoring my apathy, Dave briefs us about the standing order, shows us how to fill out the ship log, and then goes back to reading with his legs up in the air.
My watch, starting at 6 p.m., is an easy three hours: the others are up with me. Steve prepares a chicken salad dinner and we take photos of the sunset.
Finally, it’s cooling off. There are storms all around us, so the guys are reluctant to leave me alone on watch. Charcoal masses of clouds swirl vertically at our tail, closing up on us. Lightning zigzags over the land on port side, and we are heading straight into a storm that lights up half of the horizon. While we have dinner, the storm that was chasing us moves out to sea and dissipates, but the lightning ahead of us is getting more frequent. With the storm leaving us (relief), the wind shifts to south (pisses us off), and now we are sailing directly into the wind. The cat is not handling the situation with much grace: it screeches and shakes and keeps awkwardly slamming on the water which is getting choppier by the minute. Feels like we are on a wild ride, yet our speed is only 3.5 knots. Lightning splits the sky ahead of us; we are still heading into a storm. I cannot wait for my watch to be over. The wind shifts many times during the last hour of my shift, but the south wind keeps coming back. It’ll stay with us for the rest of the night.
Steve is next on watch. As soon as he takes over, it starts raining. As we close the hatches, he yells for his foul-weather gear. The wind picks up, and the head gives me a genuine rodeo experience. I’m trying to unwind. While looking for my phone in the forward cabin, I hear an earsplitting sound. I look up, and through the hatch I see arching fireworks splintering off the top of the mast. I run to the cockpit and see the captain lurch into motion. “We lost power”, he yells. Steve is standing behind the helm, dazed and shaky. “Are you ok?” I ask. He does not answer; he is just staring at me, his hands idle on his sides.
We’ve got hit by lightning!
Rain is pouring as we survey the damage. All our instruments are fried including the radio, depth sounder, running lights, and auto pilot, even the captain’s brand new, rechargeable headlights (they were plugged in). It is pitch dark in and around the boat. The rain is coming down relentlessly, and lightning keeps flashing: we are still in the middle of the squall. The lights are off on land, too. The storm cut the power lines, so we have no point of reference.
I am getting sick. I lay down in the main cabin, because here I can hear the other two. Not that it makes me feel better. I hear bits and pieces of the captain’s call to his agent: “trip aborted…boat has to be put on the dry…we don’t know the extent of damage…nothing works”.
We need to head for the nearest inlet and pull into a marina, but it’s going to be almost impossible to get in through the storm. It is dark, and we have no lights, radio, or depth sounder.
After getting hit by lightning, two more localized squalls sweep over us. Steve recovers from the electric shock and mans the helm. The captain is trying to reach help via cell phone while messing with the fried instruments. I am fighting nausea in the main cabin, hugging a bulging bag which – as later I realize – contains the life jackets. Good call, I’d say.
We are approximately 20 minutes away from the Ft. Myers inlet when the captain pulls the plug on getting in. There is no chance of docking safely with the disabled boat at night. The water is choppy and there’s no protection from the wind, but we drop anchor at about 1 a.m. anyway. We go down below, and Steve wraps his fingers around the bottle of rum the captain had bought before shoving off. I am rummaging for cups when we hear Captain Dave from the cockpit, “Let’s drop another anchor”. Steve lets out a hoarse sigh and pries his fingers off the bottle. We scramble to the bow to get the second anchor. The boat is bucking, and wind and rain splash into our faces. The rode is tied into a giant knot, and Steve is unsteady on his feet. “You carry the anchor, I carry the rode”, I suggest, and Steve complies. I start making my way back to the cockpit on the port side, and suddenly remember that Steve prefers the starboard side. “I’m going this way”, I say. “Are you coming?” Steve, hunched by the weight of the anchor, stops and looks at me. Rain wets his tired face as he says evenly, “No, I’m going the other way”.
I laugh. Ok, stupid question. We are both exhausted.
The captain tries to turn the boat and hook the second anchor to ease the violent sideway swinging, but the cat resists. After about 15 minutes, we give up. We make rum drinks and sit in the cabin sharing horror stories, just like in the movie Jaws. Turns out, Dave’s boat (also a catamaran) was hit by lightning once, and it sank three days later. The lightning exited through the rudder and poked hundreds of tiny holes in the bottom of the hull. Hearing this, Steve and I squirm. We kind of know that the lightning came in through the VHS antenna. As Captain Dave put it, “A: it’s the highest point up on the mast. B: it’s gone”. What we don’t know is where it exited the boat. Is it possible that we are going to wake up in water up to our necks?
At 3 a.m. I crash and have to go to bed. The other two stay up and their talking and laughing is comforting as I drift to sleep.
The First Mate and the Captain are already up when I wake the next morning.
“The rocking all night was a little rough”, I say. Captain Dave is behind the helm. He says, “Guess what woke me. Crabs crawling all over my legs, up in my trunks.” That shuts me up. Apparently, he slept in the cockpit again, because the storm had flooded his bunk the previous night. We find a couple of the little crabs hanging on the fenders we pull out of the lazarette when it’s time to dock at Ft. Myers.
All of us are on edge when we finally tie up at the marina. No way can I wait another couple of days for the extensive repairs, and the captain knows he lost me. Steve wants to leave too, but his loyalty overrules his personal preference for the moment.
I go to explore the Ft. Myers boatyard with the explicit purpose of finding a shower and calming down. The bartender in the club reluctantly slips me a key to the bath, and after a quick shower I return to the boat refreshed but still depressed. Steve and Dave are sitting in silence in the cabin. “There’s always the beach…”, the captain tries. We smile, but we all know that I am going home today.
Both guys come with me to rent a car and make sure I am set up for the five-hour drive to St. Augustine. I hate to leave them. We hug in front of the Hertz office, and, being born in May, I say, “I guess the Gemini could not handle another Gemini on board”. As they reverse out of the parking lot, Steve rolls down the window and yells, “I’m a Gemini, too”.
Well, that explains it.
Five hours later I return the rental at the abandoned St. Augustine Regional Airport. With the help of the town’s most patient taxi driver, Heather, I find my car – in my confused state of mind I can’t remember where I left it – and drive the forty minutes to Orange Park in relative peace.
As I learn later, the saga continued. Steve jumped ship the next day and drove home to Georgia to attend a family function: he kept his promise to his wife and kids. Captain Dave called one of his old buddies and safely delivered the boat to Ft. Lauderdale. He and his new first mate abandoned the plan of going around Marathon Key and cut through the Okeechobee Canal instead, enduring its 11 bridges and 5 locks operating only 7 to 7. They poked the Atlantic at Stuart, and were done with the delivery on the 19th of September.
Steve (text message): “So glad u made it. Going to Maui on Tues.”
Captain Dave (text message): “Possibly BVI Thursday.”
Me (text message): “On parent night, my school’s east wing got hit by lightning. All electronics out, conferences in the dark.”
Captain Dave (text message): “It was you!”
Captain CH (telephone): “You and your sea stories!!!”
Long Live the Nomads of the Sea!