Several years ago, Mila and I used to own the Yachting Vacations charter company and ASA sailing school in Burnt Store Marina in Punta Gorda, Florida.
Burnt Store Marina is the largest deep water marina on Florida’s west coast and is strategically located on Charlotte Harbor, the second largest bay after Tampa Bay. It is a great place to sail from with many attractive destinations nearby, like Cabbage Key, Useppa Island, Boca Grande, Cayo Costa, and it is an excellent departure point for sailing trips to the Keys, the Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades, the Dry Tortugas, St, Petersburg and so on. If you ever are in SW Florida, pay a visit to Burnt Store Marina. You will love it. Also, Check out this YouTube video to get a good idea of what a special place Punta Gorda is.
One day, I do not remember the date or the year, an acquaintance called me and told me he had a friend who wanted to learn to sail. The friend’s name was Fred and he was a very wealthy farmer from the Midwest. A few days later, I got a phone call from Fred who interspersed his sentences with quite a few expletives. He told me that he was well in his seventies and that he wanted to buy a sailboat and learn to sail on his boat. Could I help him with that? Well, of course, we could.
We agreed to meet at our base in Burnt Store Marina during the second half of March but, when I did not hear from him around mid-March, I called him and he told me that the reason he could not make it was that there had been a lot of (expletive) flooding in his area and he was building (expletive) levees around his (expletive) farmhouse. He suggested we meet in April.
On the agreed date in April, Fred showed up in our office in the marina. He was a tiny but wiry guy with a shock of white hair, dressed in a pair of jeans that was two sizes too big for him and a black T-shirt with sweat stains. A pair of suspenders ensured that his jeans would not fall victim to gravity. This is how he was always dressed. In all these years that I have known Fred, I have never seen him wear anything else. If you saw him, you would never have imagined that this guy was a multimillionaire. He was slightly bent over and walked shuffling his feet.
In his very colorful manner of speech, he described his sailing ambitions. He wanted to learn to sail singlehandedly and he wanted to buy a sailboat. We discussed his goals and the options, and he decided that he would like a Catalina 32, and not a used one, please… We made an appointment for that afternoon with the Catalina dealer in Palmetto, north of Sarasota, to look at a brand-new model at their dock.
During the drive to Palmetto, Fred gave me a lot of details of his life. He had a huge farm where he lived with his wife who had no interest whatsoever in sailing or in any of Fred’s other adventures and did he ever have some. He told me about the time that he thought he needed a vacation in Mexico. So, he took his crop duster plane and, basically only with a radio and a compass, he flew south. Just that easy, not complicated, fly by the seat of your (two sizes too large) pants. No big deal.
He also mentioned that the reason he peppers his conversation with lots of colorful expletives is that it was because he was a bit brain damaged. “I was dusting my crops flying my “GD” plane and hit a phone cable. The “GD” plane went down and I got a bad “GD” head injury. Haven’t been the same since”. He also has not flown a plane yet either after that. He sure was an interesting character.
We arrived at the marina in Palmetto and he fell immediately in love with the Catalina 32. When he went inside the main cabin, he stated that it was way nicer and more comfortable than his “GD” combine back at the farm. Yes, it even has air conditioning? The salesman told him this little beauty could be his for a mere $185,000.00. Fred told him that he never liked to haggle with car salespeople, and he was not going to do this with a yacht sales guy either. He told him to inform the owner that he would take the boat for $165,000 or he would go somewhere else. Ten minutes later, Fred was the proud owner of a brand-new Catalina 32 without even knowing what starboard was.
On the way back to Punta Gorda, my new sailing student mentioned that he liked the gated community of Burnt Store Marina and that he would not mind having a vacation home there. Did I know a good realtor by any chance?
One of my neighbors was a realtor and I called him from the car. An appointment was made for that same evening and, after I had dropped Fred off at the marina, he went house hunting with Alan the realtor. Twenty-four hours later, Fred had bought a $250,000.00 small villa near the docks where he would keep his boat. Alan was only too happy to receive an earnest money check for close to fifty percent of the price of the house.
Fred did learn to singlehandedly sail his thirty-two-foot pride and joy and he was actually surprisingly good at it. During the next three years, once the crops at the farm were in, Fred would come down to Burnt Store Marina, stay at his house, shuffle to his yacht, throw off the lines by himself and go out on Charlotte Harbor for a few hours of sailing.
We always knew when he was coming back into the marina. Did I forget to mention that Fred was almost deaf too? When he motored back to his slip, the stereo would be blaring classical music for the whole marina to enjoy. It was mostly Beethoven but, the way he barged back into port, the Ride of The Valkyries would have been way more appropriate.
Getting the boat back in her slip was always a bumping experience and the poor yacht had the gelcoat and fiberglass scars to show for it.
Fred has passed away since and I have no clue where his yacht ended up, but he certainly was one of the more colorful characters that has ever passed through the doors of our business. He was also the cause of one of our memorable sailing adventures.
After he had bought his boat, we had to wait a few weeks to bring her to her new home in Burnt Store Marina. Some final paperwork needed to be done as well as some finishing touches of the commissioning.
As there still was no dodger or bimini and as the daytime temperatures were very high, I decided that we should make it a night sail from Palmetto, south along the coast, to Boca Grande Pass and from there to Burnt Store Marina. The weather forecast was good and should make for quiet sailing. Alan, the realtor, and Joe, one of our school’s sailing instructors, were going to come along for the ride.
The sun set once we were out of Tampa Bay and we set course, following the coastline, for the Boca Grande Channel. It was smooth sailing, nothing to worry about. I was standing watch when we were a few miles out, abeam of the Venice inlet, and that is also when the weather changed. The wind picked up with gusts around 30 knots, the seas built up, rain came down with thunder and lightning. We had already reefed the sails before the sun went down and we did not have to worry about that for the time being. My two crew members went down into the cabin and this is when, on a brand-new boat, we lost the steering. Suddenly, the wheel turned loose in my hands and the rudder did no longer respond to the wheel. I dug up the emergency tiller from the lazaret, removed the cover plate of the rudder post and, to my relief, saw that the rudder was still there, which meant the it had not fallen off. I put in the emergency tiller and regained control of the yacht.
We were still being tossed around and we agreed that it would be very uncomfortable to keep on going to Boca Grande Pass with an emergency tiller in this kind of weather. We called Tow Boat US to come get us and tow us into the Venice inlet. As a Gold Member, it would not cost us a dime, except for a tip for the towboat captain.
We were heading towards the Venice inlet under power, with bare poles, and steering with the emergency tiller while waiting for Tow Boat US to show up. About two hours later, we were solidly attached to the towboat and finally got into the inlet where everything was way quieter. The weather was still bad with thunder and lightning but at least, in the Intracoastal Waterway, the water was more tranquil. Tow Boat USA was going to bring us all the way to Burnt Store Marina. What a deal!
This was now a smooth ride and Joe and Alan took advantage of it to get some shuteye while I stayed at the tiller to help steer the towed yacht.
As long as we were in the ICW, everything was all right, except for the occasional thunder and lightning but, once we emerged into Charlotte Harbor, all hell broke loose again with high waves, heavy winds and the regular thunderclaps. At one point, I heard this crackling noise on top of the mast followed by a flash of light and a loud bang. I thought we were being hit by lightning, but it was a St. Elmo fire discharge. Still, it was a scary experience.
It was hard work for the towboat captain, and I was exhausted holding the emergency tiller to keep the yacht in sync with the towboat.
When we got close to the Burnt Store Marina channel entrance, I called the office and instructed our yacht technicians to be ready to receive us at the dock. We finally entered the channel and the flat water inside the marina and, before long, we were at the dock. I hopped off the yacht, told the dock hands to secure the boats and bolted towards the bar of the marina for a few beers and a burger, then home for a well-deserved siesta.
As far as the steering failure is concerned, the cables had come off the quadrant and got totally mangled. Catalina ended up sending someone from the factory to have this repaired.
Good old Fred and his yacht will always be one of those memories that make for a good story at the bar with fellow sailors. I hope to see you at a bar soon so we can swap more tall tales.
Stay safe and healthy!
Capt. Jean De Keyser