Thursday, February 25, 2010

What happens on the Gulf of Mexico STAYS on the Gulf of Mexico!

Returning from Put-in-Bay Days at Key West last Tuesday, Tessa’s exhausted, cold, wet, and frustrated crew decided that was our story and we were sticking to it. We had no desire to relive the events of the last 28 hours. No one needed to know about the horrible weather, the engine troubles, and especially the fact that we were being towed into our port. When we were boarded by the Coast Guard, we had no motivation to capture the events on film. Even if we wanted to, Nick’s camera battery was dead, mine was m.i.a., and Greg’s was ruined by saltwater that found it’s way into the forward cabin and drenched his belongings. I was so tired Tuesday night that I forgot to report our delayed, yet safe arrival to Nick James. Wednesday, 48 hours after our departure from Key West, Nick considered calling the Coast Guard to report us missing, when I finally called him. What began as a weary, brief account of the trip turned into an emotional flood of details. Before I was finished, my director/producer was exclaiming “OHHHH, this is good stuff!! You need to tell this story in your blog!” “Please, Nick James!” I pleaded. “I want to forget about it, not write about it!” OK, OK, I’ll write about it……. Everything started out smoothly. Thursday morning, Tessa’s crew assembled, stowed belongings, and got comfortable for the anticipated 20 hour overnight voyage. Mike and Mary Moore narrowly avoided a brutal Columbus Ohio snow storm to join us. Nick Grillo escaped the same storm from Mansfield, and Greg Roberto was already in Fort Myers, ready for the Key West adventure. We had a good weather window, and the seas remained mostly calm as we scooted down the coastline of Fort Myers, Naples, and Marco Island, avoiding crab pots. As dusk approached, some playful dolphins put on a fantastic show, racing along beside us and frolicking in our bow wake. Our dinner menu consisted of panko crusted mahi-mahi, drizzled with red Thai curry sauce, accompanied with ginger saffron basmati rice. We enjoyed an awesome sunset, and soon the satisfied crew members were ready to crawl into their bunks. The guys worked out a four hour watch schedule, and the overnight cruise progressed uneventfully. It got a little choppy during the night, and I worried a bit about Mike and Mary’s reaction to their first sleep-over sail. Mike reported that they giggled a lot as their bodies bumped and rolled against each other…for all the wrong reasons. We arrived at the Westin Marina, Key West, early Friday morning, shortly after the Celebrity Cruise Ship. The port and marina were bustling with activity, and I proclaimed that we picked the most “happening place” in Key West to dock. Right next to Mallory Square, one block to the shops, bars, and restaurants that we intended to frequent. The dock master greeted us warmly, then added “You do know we’re expecting a big blow this afternoon?” And blow it did! There were reports of 20, 30, even 40 knot winds during the afternoon storm. Rain dampened Tessa and Crew, but not our happy hour spirits. Eggs Benedict were first on the agenda Saturday morning, before we began the Key West bar crawl toward Sloppy Joes for the sixth annual Put-in-Bay Music Festival. Bob Gatewood kicked off the event and the crowd rewarded his energetic performance with a standing ovation. Ray Fogg, Pete & Wayne, Mike Mad Dog Adams, and finally Pat Daily entertained the rowdy PIB and Key West crowd late into the night. Gary won two complimentary Boardwalk Lobster Bisques for being the first buckethead of the day. Mary Moore won Jet Express passes for guessing Big E’s waist size….on stage. Greg won a t-shirt, Nick won Miller Ferry passes. We saw lots of PIB friends and made some new Key West ones. Sunday morning, we evaluated the weather forecast to determine whether a Sunday or Monday departure was in order. Gary was inclined to leave Sunday. Nick, Greg, and I were in no hurry to get back to Fort Myers. Mike and Mary had a flight out that afternoon, so they had no opinion…other than they just plain didn’t want to leave. There was a chance of wind on our nose on Monday night and Tuesday. But when is the forecast ever right??? Gary conceded to stay. I voiced my concern. “I just don’t want this decision to come back and bite me in the… “It won’t” Gary interrupted. “We’re staying. I’m OK with it.” The weather Sunday was beautiful, and we enjoyed every single minute of it. Monday was equally as beautiful, and the Gulf was a welcoming, tranquil, turquoise. There was not enough wind to sail, but was a delight to relax and enjoy the warm sun and peaceful seas. I encouraged Gary to stretch out and take a nice long nap to be rested up for his night watch. As I began to prepare some angel hair with clam sauce, I heard a buzzing alarm, and Nick shouted down to me “What’s the normal oil pressure supposed to be?” Ummm, not sure. Better wake the Captain. “SHUT IT DOWN, SHUT IT DOWN!” our groggy Captain responded, meaning to shut down the engine immediately. There was plenty of oil on the dip stick, but it was a creamy, milky consistency. Not good, but not an emergency. The wind was building from the west for a close reach, so we put up full sails and gradually were charging along, due north, at seven to eight knots. A few hours later, everything drastically changed. The wind clocked around to the north and built to a steady 20 knots, gusting to 25 and 30. We were heeling almost 30 degrees. Gary reefed the genoa and main to try to steady the boat. Tessa confidently crashed through the waves, but she didn’t like it much when they built to 8 to 10 feet. As I tried to read down below, she would hit one of the big waves with a resounding “WHAM”, then shudder to nearly a complete stop before charging ahead again. These abrupt stops, combined with the heeling, made it very uncomfortable to move about down below as I tried to keep some semblance of order. Anything that wasn’t attached to a bulkhead was thrown about the cabins. The tremendous force of the waves allowed saltwater to permeate the slightest weakness in a port or hatch. Later, during clean-up, we wiped a layer of salt off the table and even the walls in the main salon. Of course, some rain squalls had to jump in on the action during the dark night. It was like Mother Nature was standing above us swirling a broomstick and cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. Since the wind howled directly out of the north, right on our nose, we had to tack back and forth to make any headway. For twenty four hours. The sun rose, but the wind and waves did not fall off. Nick woke from a brief nap, looked around down below, and commented “I saw houses in New Orleans destroyed by Katrina that looked better than this.” I laughed for the first time in 12 hours. Greg was such a trooper. During watches, he could rest in his top, starboard bunk only while on a port tack, so it was necessary to wake him before we changed directions to avoid tossing him across the cabin like a rag doll. Later on Tuesday afternoon, when the end was in sight, Greg asked Captain Gary how much further to go. Gary replied “17.4 nautical miles.” About a hour later we tacked. Greg, even more anxious, asked “How much further now, Captain?” Gary replied “17.5” The look on Greg’s face made me laugh for the second time that day! My Captain, as always, remained cool, calm, collected and steadfast in his mission to get us to our home port safely. Approximately ten miles out, he made the call that all Captains dread, to TowBoat U.S. He made the call to not try bringing Tessa into Matanzas Pass with the milky oil. There is a feeling of impotence when a Captain cannot bring his vessel to port under it’s own power. But enough was enough on this day, time to throw in the towel and put an end to our misery. Captain Gary needed some rest. Tow Boat Captain Ed responded immediately and suggested that we make one more tack in his direction, as we were moving at 7.5 knots and he could not even tow us that fast. Greg, stay with us now, just one more tack and it’s over….. After Ed hooked up and began the slow tow in, he hailed us on the radio to warn that a Coast Guard boat was heading straight toward Tessa. Sure enough, the next transmission we hear is the Coast Guard advising TowBoat U.S. that they will be boarding the vessel in tow. Captain Ed later told us this was a first of this happening in the twenty four years he has towed vessels. From the look on Gary’s face, I thought he may just crumble to his knees in defeat. He had navigated for nearly thirty hours, through wind and rain and waves, only to complete the day being BOARDED BY THE COAST GUARD?????????? He could not disguise or conceal the major stink eye he gave them, but he remained calm, answered all their questions, produced all the documentation and safety equipment, and passed their inspection with flying colors. There was one tense moment when he couldn’t find the tube of flares that are usually on the port shelf in our stateroom. “Lori, do you know where are flares are?” I know exactly where they are. When they flew across the cabin and struck me in the head last night, I tucked them under the mattress for safekeeping. Even after producing the flares, the Coast Guard said they were all expired. Confused, Gary pulls out every other flare on board stored in various compartments. All expired. More confused, Gary goes back to the original tube, where he locates the flares that are not expired. “Ooops, my bad“ the Coastie apologizes. No, he didn’t really apologize. All he did was check flares off the list and announce that we passed inspection. Fine, now take your big messy boots off our boat and let us get the heck home please!!!!! (not spoken aloud) The rest of the tow in was uneventful, aside from the many inquiring glances from our fellow mooring ball neighbors. There is nothing like a good break down to excite sailors, as long as it’s not their own boat being towed! Gary thought that Greg was so anxious to get off the boat that he could and would have inflated the dinghy by mouth instead of pump, but Greg fooled him. Instead, he threw himself and his luggage on the TowBoat U.S. boat and had his best friend Captain Ed drop him at the dock. Now that the ordeal is behind us, we have all been able to find some redeeming aspects of the voyage. We are all still friends. Greg still loves Tessa but is not inclined to hit the high seas again soon. Nick Grillo had another boat trip scheduled back down to the Keys but decided a Budget Rental Car sounded a skosh more comfortable. He has, however, volunteered to crew again on the journey back down to the Keys when we depart Fort Myers. I learned two important things. My confidence in Tessa had not been tested since the trip up the Atlantic last spring. This trip proved that I, and Tessa, passed the test. I honestly, truly, was not scared for one moment. I was miserable, uncomfortable, and pretty much hated it. But I was not scared. Most importantly, I learned to always, always, always, trust my Captain’s first instinct when it comes to a weather window. Even though he did the honorable thing by not even once saying “I told you so” about leaving Sunday instead of Monday, he had to be thinking it over and over again as the sleep deprivation set in. Ultimately, he is responsible for Tessa and her crew, and he is the one struggling at the helm through wind and rain and whatever else the Wicked Witch throws at him. The next trip we take, Captain Gary makes ALL the calls. That’s my story and I’m stickin to it! Unless he wants to do an overnighter…or there’s the slightest chance that the wind will be on our nose…or there is any chance that the wind will go above 20 knots…or there’s a chance it will storm. How about there needs to be a 100 percent chance that we will have sailing breezes and sunshine? That sounds good, doesn’t it Captain?