The wind was easy from the east. Starlight cast silverhighlights on the skin of the sea. Astern, the land had been swallowed by a darkbank of cloud traced by thin golden veins of lightning. We were alone now, Betty Sue and I, in our little 24-foot yawl Allegory, in the middle of a vast and empty sea.
Betty and I had long dreamed of crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas,and in the years to come we would make the crossing many times, but this was the first time. We had heard all the horror stories. First, that our boat was too small. Then warnings of terrible seas if the wind veered to the north, the danger of freighters crossing our course, unexpected storms, of being swept north off our course by the powerful current of the Gulf Stream.
But now we were trading turns at the tiller through the night, watching thepale light of the compass, plotting our course, drinking coffee, watching the wheeling of the stars. At about 3am, we picked up the red flashing light at West End. Fearing to navigate onto the Little Bahama Bank in the dark, we circled until dawn. Accompanied by a glorious sunrise, we worked our way into the Jack Tar Marina after a nine-hour voyage as trouble-free, yet thrilling, as we had always dreamed.
But not all of our crossings were so easy. Many years later, after waiting forseveral weeks for a weather window, we departed from the Palm Beach Inlet in our 32-foot sloop Fandango, bound for West End. Although ten feet longer than Allegory, we were reminded how small we were when we passed into the inlet and met the QE2, among the largest and most famous ships in the world, coming in toward us. At 66,000 tons, and as long as the Empire State Building is tall, she dwarfed our little sloop as she passed us by. Later, we learned that she was on one of her last voyages before being retired as a floating hotel in Dubai.
Beyond the Sea Buoy, the seas were very rough. Although the wind hadveered to the east, the seas had yet to settle from weeks of winds from the north. The old salts say you should never cross when you see elephants on the horizon, a sure sign of a rough crossing. But as young salts, eager for the crystal seas and lazy days of the Bahamas, we ignored the pachyderms. In the light winds and heavy seas, the sails did little good, and so, to make progress against the Stream, we were dependent on our Kubota diesel.
It was terribly uncomfortable, our old Fales Navigator pilothouse yawl,leaped and bucked and creaked and groaned in every joint. The engine drummed faithfully along until it didn’t. Suddenly, it stopped. We had left long before dawn. It was still dark. There was not enough wind to fill the sails. We were dead in the water, being swept north toward Ireland.
We checked the fuel filters and everything else that could have gone wrong,but couldn’t find the problem. Then, we realized that maybe something had fouled the prop. I got a mask and snorkel, strapped on my dive knife, tied a safety line around my waist and climbed overboard. It was cold. And dark. I took a deep breath and ducked beneath the surface, felt my way along the hull to the prop. And, sure enough, we had run across a huge fish net and it had wound around the prop and shaft. I knew these illegal drift nets, some miles long, had been abandoned and have floated in the sea for years. I tried cutting it away with my knife, but the sodden, twisted mass, was too tough.
Back aboard, we discussed what to do. There was enough wind to sail backtoward the coast. But, by the time we were free of the Gulf Stream, we would have been pushed far to the north and we would have had a long slog south against the wind toward home. Also, we hated to give up our summer cruise in the Bahamas. Finally, Betty Sue came up with the idea of the kitchen shears. Sharp and powerful, maybe they could free the prop. We dropped the mainsail and with Betty at the helm, she steered so that the jib steadied the boat while I worked below. The southeasterly course also kept us from being driven too far north by the Stream.
And so, I went overboard again, armed with the shears, and began thelaborious job of cutting away the drift net. Trouble was, I could only work for a short time before I had to come back up for air. Time and again I swam below the keel, ripping away small pieces of net. Time and again, I climbed back aboard where Betty Sue wrapped me in blankets and plied me with hot coffee. There was progress, but it was terribly slow. The more dives I made, the shorter time I could stay below without coming up to take a breath. But the net held firm, the prop locked in its muscular grip.
We had begun to despair, when suddenly, as I pulled on a fragment of net Ifelt it begin to give way. Then it was a matter of unreeling the net from the prop and shaft until it fell away into the deep.
I came back aboard just as the bloom of dawn rose on the eastern horizon. Iwas shivering with the cold, light-headed and as exhausted as I had ever been. I looked at Betty Sue and said the only thing there was to say, “Let’s go to the Bahamas.”
I had always thought the sound of an engine had no place on a sailing vessel.But as Betty Sue started the Kobota, and it rattled to life, and she steered into the sunrise, the sound it made was a symphony.
Marshall Riggan has been telling and writing stories for over half a century,many of which have been made into movies and television productions. He has enjoyed going on sailing adventures for more than four decades. His books Sulu Sea and The Last Traveler can be found at www.marshallrigganstoryteller.com