Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Same Old, Same Old

We have survived a horrifying, life threatening experience and I am only now able to write about it. I can
FRONT OF ME” off of my worst- fear- ever bucket list. Been there, done that.

Everything had been going smoothly after being released from the clutches of the flooded New York Canal
System on June 5th. Less than 45 minutes after I sent the pleading email to the Director of the Canal System
the Friday before that, Andy the lockmaster appeared at Tessa. “This is not up on the notice to mariners
website, but I just got a phone call and was told to tell the boaters they would be able to leave at 7:00 a.m
Sunday morning” he told Gary. As word quickly spread down the lock wall to the other thirteen boats, we
could hear cheers of joy. Gary looked at me and said “This could NOT be a coincidence. You kicked some
a#* babe!”

Minutes later, my cell phone rang. The Deputy Director identified himself and began with a flowery
apology for our terrible inconvenience, assuring us that everything in their power was being done to get us
moving as soon as possible. And by the way, they were on their way to meet with us that afternoon.

Sure enough, the dignitaries arrived later that day to shake hands and apologize to all twenty six of us! Gary
had phoned and invited our hero Joe, the Mayor of Baldwinsville, to join in the festivities. We first met
Mayor Joe a week earlier when we were all stranded on the lower lock wall with a lot of stinking dead fish
(who were apparently also stranded). He began making phone calls immediately and received permission to
open and fill the lock to take us all up to the beautiful upper lock wall where we had only live fish and, oh
glory, power and water.

Saturday night, we had a big bon voyage party to reminisce about shared experiences and celebrate our new
friendships. It is amazing what wonderful bonds we formed while enduring this exasperating situation. Our
family of stranded cruisers was about to disband in a flurry of fired up engines and tossed dock lines on
Sunday morning. No more leisurely coffees at the picnic tables, or cocktails at sundown. It was finally time
to pick em up and put em down and GET HOME!

Gary and I agreed that if we had a good weather window to cross Lake Erie, we could skip the mast
stepping in Buffalo and have Brands’ Marina do it back in Port Clinton. This way we could also make it to
work at Put-in-Bay by the June 10th weekend. The masts could remain down, secured in their wooden
cradle with hefty two inch ratcheting straps, as long as no big winds or waves were forecast.

On Monday June 6th, we cleared our final lock, the Federal Lock in Buffalo, and tied up on its upper lock
wall for the night. Gary checked the three weather sources we use, both Monday night and Tuesday morning
before departure. All three concurred that we could expect less than 10 knots of breeze, flat seas, and no
fronts or big storms for the 32 hour overnighter to Port Clinton. This horse was heading to the barn!

It was overcast and drizzling rain on Lake Erie as we began the trek westward. XM weather on our Garmin
showed a band of storms crossing from north to south far west of us on Lake Erie, of no real concern for us
departing Buffalo. Other than that, all was calm and peaceful. As Gary came up into the cockpit from
down below, I remember saying “Boy, the wind seems to be picking up all of a sudden.”

And then my worst nightmare began coming to real life. In an instant, we had six to eight foot waves
crashing over the dodger. The winds howled at what we later heard were reported up to sixty miles per
hour. The robust ratcheting straps began stretching each time Tessa’s bow was buried in a shuddering wave,
and I knew we were in trouble when Gary screamed “I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE AND TIGHTEN THE STRAPS!” I cried to him to please not go out there! His Captain instincts took over as he grabbed my
arms and demanded that I stay calm and get a hold of myself . If he didn’t tighten the straps, the masts were
going overboard and we could lose everything.

He already had a life jacket on, and I ran down below and grabbed the huge offshore type 1 pfd. For the
first time in my life, I came to the shocking realization that there was a good possibility that I might actually
end up in the water.

Gary struggled on deck and managed to tighten the straps as best he could, then crawled back into the
cockpit. Only a few more waves and a few seconds later, they had stretched again and we watched in
disbelief as the structure began heaving forward and aft with each wave. He screamed that he had to go
back out.

I unzipped the dodger front window panel so I could see him and hear him better, but the waves kept
slamming me in the face. Then I watched in horror as the wooden structure supporting the mast on the
forward deck collapsed and everything came crashing down upon Gary. He crumpled under the massive
weight, his head slammed down, and blood spurted across he deck. I was certain he was dead, but at the
same time I was frantically thinking of how I could possibly save us if he wasn’t.

To my amazement, he began struggling out from under the masts. I will never forget the look in his eyes as
he attempted to stand and looked back at me through the blood running down the side of his face. It was a
wide eyed combination of shock, but most of all determination. He was not defeated. (We will leave that to
the Coast Guard, but I’m jumping ahead.)

I kept screaming over and over again “CRAWL TO ME BABY! YOU’RE OK! JUST CRAWL TO ME!”
If he tried to stand in his weakened state, he would surely be knocked overboard by the next wave. I was
certain I could never find him or save him in the wind and waves with the mast hanging sideways across the

This is where his hard head came into play. Yes, it was cracked, but it was still hard. He kept attempting to

Stop worrying? Seriously, Gary? Okey dookey! Piece of cake! No problemo! I’ll just go on down below
and start chugging bourbon. You just take your good old time and let me know when you are BACK IN

A lifetime later, he did finally struggle into the cockpit and I determined that he was not in shock or about to
go unconscious. Hopefully. My next thought was that we needed help. If the masts did go overboard, and
damaged the hull, we could sink. We needed to call May Day May Day May Day. Captain Gary disagreed.
“If I’m going to die today, it will not be at the hands of the Coast Guard!” I quickly convinced him that we
needed help standing by if the situation worsened. We placed the call.

After running through all the bureaucratic Coast Guard b.s. several times, they established an ETA of 35
minutes. We were then hailed by Tow Boat U.S., who heard my transmission with the Coast Guard. He
advised he would be there in 5 minutes. How could that be? I asked “Could you repeat your ETA, Tow
Boat U.S.?” “FIVE MINUTES” he replied. We looked behind us, and there was our hero! It was so
comforting to have help within reach!

The mast continued to surge forward and aft with each wave. Luckily, it landed on the forward port lifeline
and wedged itself on our swim ladder on the starboard side, which prevented it from sliding off into the
water. But we had no idea how long it would remain on board.

Gary and the Tow Boat Captain discussed options and decided to head several miles into shore for
protection from the wind. There, Gary was able to secure masts with a line tied around the winch, hoping it
was strong enough to keep them from rolling overboard.

Next he decided we should head back to First Buffalo Marina, the place we were originally going to have
the masts stepped. The gash next to his eye continued to bleed as a huge knot formed. We advised the
marina of our distress situation, and they assured us help would be waiting at the dock.

It wasn’t until after the situation was under control and we were headed to safety that the Coast Guard
arrived, about an hour later than their promised ETA. They came along side and Gary advised that he was

Apparently, this aroused the suspicion of the nearby Border Patrol agents. They came rushing alongside
Tessa, Gary gave them a thumbs up, said he was OK, and advised where we had come from and where we
were now headed. At this response, the Border Patrol agent thought it appropriate to gun it and scream
away, creating a wake that could have easily sent the masts plunging overboard. We both screamed in fear
and frustration.

We continued our slow progress toward safety, and were shocked when the Coast Guard boat reappeared
along side, this time with the Border Patrol agent standing on the bow, screaming that they were boarding
our vessel.

“I am the Captain of this vessel, we are in a dangerous position here, and I DO NOT WANT YOU coming
alongside or boarding us at this time. Follow us to Buffalo!” Gary replied. This really got the power
hungry Border Patrol’s adrenaline flowing. He screamed “YOU MUST COMPLY! WE ARE BOARDING
IMMEDIATELY” as they surged alongside and began boarding.

So, Gary has just narrowly escaped death, we are still in a dangerous, potentially life threatening situation,
he is injured and struggling to get his vessel to safe harbor with masts precariously hanging sideways across
the deck, and they decide this is a good time to conduct a ROUTINE SAFETY CHECK! Could this really
be happening?

Gary blotted a towel against his bleeding face while I scurried around down below complying with their
demands. Once they concluded that Captain Gary had properly posted the ‘Garbage Management
Procedure’ and complied with all other vital safety requirements, the Coast Guard guy thanked Gary and
said to me “I hope this hasn’t soured your opinion of the Coast Guard Ma’am.” At my wits end, I replied
angrily “Just get off our boat!”

We made our way ever so carefully back to First Buffalo River Marina, where Kathy the office manager
advised an EMT would be waiting at the dock. But Dennis Adams is not just an EMT. He was Gary’s
Guardian Angel.

He calmly took charge upon our arrival, which was just what I needed. He evaluated Gary’s condition and
at first wasn’t sure he needed to be rushed to the hospital. Something we were trying to avoid since we have
a mere $5000 deductible on our personal insurance. Ten minutes later, after helping us to secure our
injured Tessa at the dock, he reevaluated and told me “Get him in the truck. We’re going to the Emergency

Several hours, x-rays, and ten stitches later, Gary was patched up. Dennis, this man we had known for five
minutes, waited hours for us while entertaining and cheering up other emergency room patients. His
calming comfort unleashed my pent up fears, and I sobbed in the backseat as he drove us back to Tessa.

Oddly, I wasn’t embarrassed. It already felt as though we were family, and it was OK to just “let it out” like
he suggested. After a quick dinner at his favorite KFC, we got Gary back to Tessa and determined it was
time for him to rest. My instructions were to wake him every two hours to be sure there was no concussion.

This wasn’t the last we were to see Dennis. Bright and early the next morning, he was again there to take
charge and supervise the removal of the masts. He doesn’t work for the marina, but considers himself more
of a friendly consultant. We all inspected the masts and were relieved that there was only cosmetic damage,
nothing structural seemed affected. Gary couldn’t keep himself from participating, but soon began to show
signs of exhaustion. We suggested he stretch out for a little nap, which evolved into a six hour one. While
he slept, Dennis took me to pick up Gary’s prescription and to do some provisioning. Then he and his wife
Debbie took us out for a fun, get-your-mind-off-your troubles dinner.

As we climbed into our bunk that night, Gary commented that he doubted he could sleep after sleeping all
day. I suggested he just close his eyes and see what happens. He was immediately snoring, and slept all the
way through the night.

Dennis knocked on the boat bright and early again the next morning, all smiles and jokes, ready for the next
big endeavor…mast stepping. I honestly don’t know how we could have pulled these arduous tasks off
without his help and support, both mentally and physically.

Once that mission was accomplished, Gary was again down for the count. Dennis and I ran some errands
around town, then later the four of us spent another fun-filled evening including a private tour of the City of
Buffalo fireboat.

During our stay, Kathy, the marina office manager, encouraged me to march right over to the Coast Guard
headquarters just a block away and file a formal complaint for their late response and blatantly
inappropriate actions after they did finally arrive. I did just that, to no one’s surprise they admitted to no
wrong. Everything they did was “standard procedure.” How wrong it is that this is now the focus and
misguided mission of the USCG.

The kindness of Dennis, Debbie, Kathy, and the crew of First Buffalo River Marina were heartwarming and
so comforting during this frightening ordeal. If we call back to the marina looking for Dennis and they claim
that he doesn’t exist, it would not surprise us in the least. That’s what Guardian Angels are all about!

A few days later, once I was finally able to look at my injured Captain without crying, we were relaxing in
the cockpit. “You know, honey” I began “If other couples went through what we did, they would probably
experience some kind of life changing, renewed love and appreciation of each other. But I could not love
you or appreciate you any more now than I did before. You & I, we’re just same old, same old.”
He smiled at me through his swollen, stitched up eye and said “So that’s what we are , huh, just same old,
same old?”

“Yep.” I replied. “That’s what we are.”