"How would you like to help me deliver a yacht?"
Dennis was a marine surveyor, which to me meant that he was in the military and worked with a transom. However, Dennis was a teaching colleague of mine and about as military as my dog, so I had to rule that out. He did live at the Jersey shore and owned a boat, so being a marine surveyor surely had to be related to something aquatic. But then I have a friend, Lisa, who majored in marine science, and she is a wrangler at a ranch in Colorado.
My experience with marine activities was limited to swimming, scuba diving, canoeing and a one-time water skiing attempt that taught me how hard water can be. A few years earlier I had gone to a party at Dennis' house and he took us out on his boat. We were promptly pulled over by a harbor police speed boat, red lights flashing, and Dennis got a ticket for operating an unlicensed boat. That was my only boating experience. Dennis was now requesting my help in crewing a 42' ketch from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Essex, Connecticut. I should have been suspicious since to me a 42' catch meant a very large fish and I didn't know the difference between a boat and a ship – and I still don't.
Being college professors, we both had free time in the summer, so I was soon on a flight from Philadelphia to Miami and wondering just what I was going to be doing. At Ft. Lauderdale I met Dennis and the other two guys who were to help crew the yacht. One of these guys was the yacht owner and the other guy was an old sea captain type who looked like Captain Hook. I suddenly came to the realization that I was going to sea with three guys who currently looked like fish out of water and were probably taking me on the marine version of a snipe hunt.
We spent the next two days stocking the boat with supplies for our trip. The plan was to sail out into the Gulf Stream and head north with the current, wind and sun at our backs. The best laid plans of ...
I believe it was a Tuesday morning when we "pulled up anchor" as they say in the nautical world. In actuality we were not using an anchor, so I guess we "cast off." For technical reasons we had to motor up the intercostal waterway to Fort Pierce where they had a facility to get our loran repaired before we could head out into the Atlantic. At the dock at Ft. Pierce we retired to the local restaurant/bar for lunch and to wait the five hours it was estimated for repairs.
Around 4:30 in the afternoon we headed back to the dock, only to find our boat listing 30 degrees to one side. Apparently the depth of the water where we docked was only adequate for our yacht during high tide. Now that the tide was going out our boat was resting on the bottom. I thought it was pretty funny, but the old sea dogs I was with were both embarrassed and angry. The yacht's owner was especially angry. Another eight hours in the bar was sufficient to float our boat (so to speak), and around midnight we motored out into the harbor and put down our anchor for the night. The idea of a bunch of drunk guys sailing out into the Atlantic at midnight was even too risky an idea for a bunch of drunk guys.
By morning we were headed out into the Atlantic and listening to storm warnings. Rain and high winds were forecast. The yacht had a diesel engine that allowed a speed of 5-6 knots, so the decision was made to continue that way and not put up sails until we saw what the weather was going to do. It was already rather windy.
As the day wore on a light rain was added to the windy conditions, and by dark there was a strong squall in progress. The boat was pitching and yawing to the extent that walking and standing were difficult. Constantly holding on to something was essential. The only things I was not able to hold on to were my breakfast and my lunch. The Dramamine I had taken was overwhelmed, and the motion sickness patch Dennis gave me to wear behind my left ear seemed to be making me list to the left.
Each of us was assigned a four-hour watch period, so it was 4-hours on and 12 hours off for each of us. Being the novice, I got the midnight to 4 AM watch for my initiation while everyone else slept, or at least tried to sleep. My instructions were to keep us on a particular heading and watch for other ships because we were out in the Atlantic shipping lanes. At sea at night, in a rainstorm, is not conducive to seeing anything. Visibility was about 5', but fortunately we had a small radar set that supposedly worked. I wondered about how adept it was at picking out surface targets in a heavy rain storm.
By the time my watch began we were in heavy seas with lightening all around us. The main mast that I was sitting next to was aluminum and seemed to be a perfect lightening attractor. I still don't know why it never got struck or what would have happened if it did. At the time I was too sick to care.
For two days we motored along at about five knots in rough seas, wind and rain. During this time my misery had spread to my colleagues, although not to the extent of mine. I'm certain if it had they would never have acknowledged it. At least they continued to eat and gave some appearance of sleeping. I was unable to eat or sleep. Sleeping required that one be strapped into a bunk much like being strapped onto a rodeo bull.
On the morning of day three the weather broke. (I had broken on the first day.) The sea swells continued at a moderate rate but the wind and rain subsided. We were joined by a school of porpoises that provided my only pleasant experience of the trip. They swam and leaped along side of the yacht for about an hour. I think they were laughing at me.
Dennis made a popular decision to pull into Charleston, South Carolina for a brief reprieve even though we were about two days behind schedule. I took this opportunity to jump ship. Three days of puking my guts out were more than enough nautical experience for me. I took a taxi to the train station and boarded a train for Trenton, NJ. Of the remaining three guys, the owner abandoned ship at Norfolk, and the other guy took refuge at Atlantic City. Dennis had to take the yacht on to Essex by himself.
A few weeks after the trip the owner refused to pay Dennis the agreed upon price for ferrying the yacht, and Dennis went back to Essex on a midnight requisition that yielded an alternative, but equivalent, compensation. I got paid nothing for the trip and expected nothing. But I had acquired a wealth of experiences. Before I went on this trip Dennis always liked to tell me that, "Sailors get blown off shore." Now I know what he meant.