CW’s Sailing Adventures

March 6, 1999

Macked II - Puerto Rico to Houston - #70

Last month I started the tale of one of my more eventful boat deliveries. You want to hear the second half? OK then. To recap, my friend Scott and I were helping to deliver a 65’ sailing ketch from Puerto Rico to Texas, under Cuba. Mack, our skipper was an old sailor from the big wars nearing the end of his career. Our fourth for the trip was a young socal kid who earned the name Foolio. During the first half of the trip we had endured the news that we would be at sea for weeks without beer, survived a very near miss with a large ship and barely escaped sinking our boat on a treacherous Cayman reef.

We were on our way home. We had departed our halfway point, the Cayman Islands and were headed west along the bottom of Cuba. On one particularly rolly night I was coming off watch and found Mack getting some shut-eye with his lee cloth down (no it's not that, it's the canvas tarp that keeps sailors in their bunks). It was just a matter of time. I asked if I could put it up for him. He refused. Later I was awoken by Foolio to have a look at Mack. ‘What for?’ I wondered. Mack had taken a major hit. He had rolled out of his bunk and hit his eye socket on the foot bar. It didn’t look so good. We cleaned him up. I took it as a compliment that he trusted me to redress his lacerations each day.

And then we made the turn north around the west end of Cuba and sailed into the Gulf of Mexico. The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was toss ... wait a minute, that's a different story. In this story the weather started getting rough and we sailed on through the night because we didn't know any better. We didn't have great weather info onboard. The only weather info we were getting was reports from passing traffic, which was a rare occurrence. 'They' say that what you don't know won't hurt you. I don't suspect that 'they' were on a boat at sea in the Gulf in the middle of hurricane season.

We didn't first hear about our Hurricane until it was too late. We were a day out of Galveston with the hurricane reportedly behind us and coming our way. We were in the hurricane’s bad quarter which is normally bad news. The bad quarter is where the winds are the worst but in our situation, the winds on the bad side were winds that were pushing us toward port. You never want to enter a port in a hurricane but Galveston was a big port and with the way our trip was going, I wasn't all that fired up about remaining offshore to do battle. Not that it was my choice anyway. Our ex-navy, power boating, half blind skipper decided we would press on.

There is another interesting thing about the approach to Galveston. For the last hundred miles the water is infested with giant oil platforms, each surrounded by webs of anchor cables. The nearby hurricane was making things squally. In thick rain you couldn't see anything. Even the radar couldn't see through the thickest rain. With four nervous and thereby very attentive crew members, we successfully (with some luck) navigated the giant mine field.

Just as we closed with the coast we heard the news that our hurricane was turning away, leaving us with a ton of wind aft and thirty foot swells pushing our big boat in. After doing battle with oil rigs, a hurricane, sleep deprivation and sobriety, we finally made it into the relative safety of the bay. We motored up the waterway and arrived at our boat’s new home, The Houston Yacht Club. The owner of the boat had arranged for us to “make ourselves at home” at the club. After some quick showers we partook of some fine dining ... and some catch up drinking.

This last part of the story is not really sailing related except that it demonstrates that to refuse a sailor his rations for weeks at sea and then cut him loose in Texas may not be such a good idea. After the yacht club closed up for the night and kicked us out, Foolio and I got dropped off at a local dive, a ways up the highway. I stumbled out of the dive a couple of hours later. I decided I’d walk home. Walking got boring after a while and so I decided I’d hitch hike. Apparently hitch hiking is illegal in Texas ... when you’re inebriated.

Once in jail I decided that I needed to call the boys to let them know that I would not be coming home ... 'til Monday. To do this, I would need to get the guards attention. I didn’t have a cup to ring across the bars so I did the next best thing. I whistled some of my favorite ballads. I was halfway through a rousing rendition of Brown Sugar and getting no response from my captures when I heard a loud low voice rolling out from a cell down at the end of our block. My new friend was announcing, in fairly rough and certain terms, his displeasure with my late night musical presentation. I had a sudden concern that silence from me would have indicated willingness to become someone’s bitch so I countered with equal resonance and foul tongue, a strong suggestion that my new friend keep to himself.

Bubba was having a bad night. I would later find out that he spent a lot of time in the La Porte County Jail for various drunken/violence related crimes. But I didn’t know this at the time. Bubba caught my eye as he came charging out of his cell. Like the large ship that we almost collided with in our previous episode, Bubba’s form grew to gargantuan proportions as he closed on my position. I never looked him in the eye. I never even turned to face him. I just dug in.
When we were kids, the guys who knew used to tell us that you had two choices when you found yourself in a to-late-to-talk-your-way-out-of-it fight situation. You could turn and run or you could make that first punch count. I was always too dumb to take the first option. In this case, I didn’t have the luxury of a choice. I planted my right foot and started motions to lean into that all important first swing. For a second I almost felt bad for the big guy. He’d never see it coming. It didn’t happen though. Out of nowhere came a guard who stepped between us, just in time and turned Bubba back. And I got my phone call.

February 5, 1999

Macked - Puerto Rico to Houston - #69

The statute of limitations has run out on this one. Out of respect for a kind, older, fellow delivery skipper, I have never put to keyboard events that occurred during an epic voyage that I survived back in the late '90's. For the benefit of my currently cruising friends and future cruisers everywhere, I will endeavor to tell these tales from which I hope, we can all learn. The ex-Navy skipper, whom we'll call Mack, had class, he had cool, but he had lost his edge.

A friend of the magazine had contacted Bob about helping to save his boat. The vessel in question was a 65' club-footed stays'l ketch-rigged Formosa. Blah, blah, blah; it was a big, good-lookin’, two-masted boat. The ketch had been used for chartering way back when and had more recently been run onto a beach (on purpose, another great story) during a hurricane. The boat was repaired and dragged off and was lying in Puerto Rico, in not too bad a shape. The owner and Bob had worked out some preliminary details of how to get the boat back into charter, with the two of them as partners. Bob sent me down to help deliver the boat back to the US for a refit, Houston to be specific. I packed up my stuff and my good friend Scott and we got on a plane.

I wasn't to be the skipper on this trip. I was being sent to check out the boat and I suspect, to keep an eye on Bob's soon to be investment. This was the last time I would agree to participate in any extended voyage as a lowly crewmember. Did I mention that it was peak hurricane season? It’s one thing to throw yourself in front of a train, it’s another thing to let someone else do it.

Our fourth for this expedition was a surfer kid from Newport Beach, CA whom we would later nickname Foolio (say fool-leo). Scott and I loaded our gear and helped to put on the provisions. I didn't see it go onboard and so I asked about it, "Have you guys loaded the beer yet or do you want Scott and I to go pick it up?" You could hear a cotter key drop. The skipper frowned while Foolio explained that under no circumstances was there to be alcohol of any kind onboard. My first thought was, ‘Isn’t that back luck?’. Not afraid to try something new, I decided to go along with the bizarre concept. Scott wept.

The voyage turned out to be an epic sea story from start to finish that, unfortunately, I don‘t have the space to detail in its entirety. I’ve room for just a few of the highlights. And so ... We were a few days out. I came up before my noon watch with a bowl of cereal and joined Scott in the big pilothouse. Something was up, I could just tell. I asked Scott what was going on. "It's a Mack watch," Scott answered. We had found that our aging skipper was partial to napping ... on his watch. Scott had previously coined the phrase 'Mack watch' and we had conspired to overlap different parts of his watches to make sure that we didn‘t hit anything big. This was made difficult by the fact that Mack had insisted we leave the covers on the pilothouse windows to ensure that we kept our watches out on deck. Scott continued with, "And that's not all."

I went out to have a look around and discovered a large ship on the bow. It was closing fast. Have you ever seen a large ship coming straight at you? It looks like a giant square ... that is doubling in size every few seconds. "What do you wanna do?" Scott asked.
"20 degrees to Starboard," I ordered. Scott turned the little autopilot dial. Ten seconds later I followed with, "20 degrees to Port." Scott hesitated and gave me the big eyed 'are you serious?' look. He must have thought it was too soon. I repeated the command. Scott turned the knob back to where it was. This was gonna be close.

Mack awoke with a jump as the bow wave from the ship slammed into us. I thought he was going to have a heart attack when he looked to port and saw the ship careening by, 50 yards off, at 20 knots. Mack tried to compose himself as he fumbled his way into the pilothouse. As his eyes adjusted to the dimmer lighting below he found Scott pretending to be asleep and me eating my cereal. To save him the indignity of a foiled explanation, I offered, "I'm up in five, Mack. You want I should take over now?"

It was a few days later. It was a black moonless night and we were all excited about making landfall the next morning at our halfway point, the Cayman Islands (and I was in dire need of a coldy). We were on the course set by our skipper and sailing along nicely. Things didn't look right though. I conferred with Scott and he agreed. I went down and had a look at the chart and then I had a second look, just to be sure. I came back up to the pilothouse where everyone was hanging out and talking about hamburgers and Cayman Island babes and stuff. "Hey Mack," I started, "how about double checking the next waypoint for me." But that didn't go over well at all.

"The waypoint's right Woody." Mack had had enough of, well ... me trying to survive the trip. "Scott," I said, "why don't you and Foolio go down and whip up a lil sumpin to eat?" Foolio didn't get it but Scott did and took the kid below. I looked Mack in the eye and did my best to conjure up an air of Navy respect for procedure. "Mack, I am officially going on record in declaring that we are about to run aground. I am asking you again to please go down and check the chart." Mack slipped below. The seconds ticked by as I watched the ground come up on the depth sounder. At about 40 feet he reappeared, head hung low, and gave me the nod to change course. You see, Mack's waypoint was right on. It was right in the center of the entrance to the bay that we wanted to anchor in. The problem was that the bay was on the other side of the island.

The sun rose as we pulled into the bay and anchored up safe and sound in the beautiful waters of Gran Cayman, the halfway point of our precarious voyage. Tune in next month when, if I can't think of anything else to write about, I’ll tell you about the fun half of the trip on which we encounter my first hurricane, our skipper nearly loses his left eye, and I lock horns with 280 pound Bubba, a fellow inmate of Texas’ La Porte County jail.