THE OLD FARTS AND THE SEA (With apologies to Papa Hemingway)
A bad selfie of Mario and me, “The Old Men and the Sea”
As two “seasoned” citizens, whose minds still think like forty-year-olds, but whose bodies tend to bring them back to the brutal reality of their physical age which we will not disclose, Mario, a retired doctor from Chicago – but originally from Argentina – and I had decided to make a passage sailing trip to the Keys.
Thirty-five hours of sailing from Punta Gorda later, we reached the Dry Tortugas, due east from Key West, and the USA’s most unusual National Park.
On Garden Key, you will find Fort Jefferson, the largest brick fort in the United States.
Of course, we had to have the wind on our nose for most of the trip, on our 32’ ETAP 32S sailboat, “Promise”. We were the only crew on the boat, and were looking forward to dropping the anchor, put up our Magma grill and prepare some steaks with a few Yuengling beers. We had deserved it. The trip was mostly motor sailing with only three hours of engine-off sailing at about six knots. A mishmash of no wind periods and some bouts of up to 20 knots.
A cloud in the shape of a shark. Bad omen?
The wind for the night was forecasted to come from the south and we decided to drop the hook in the North Channel of Fort Jefferson. Across Bush Key, we could see the masts of the boats anchored in the South Channel and exposed to the strong winds blowing in from the south.
The first job after anchoring though, was to haul our dinghy inside our small cockpit and find a stubborn leak that kept bugging us. The dinghy had deflated during our trip, and we had ended up dragging a shapeless blob of half inflated PVC behind us.
After our steaks and beers, we crashed for the night but, around 23:00 hours, all hell broke loose and a storm with gusts up to 50 knots blew straight into the South Channel. Heavy rain, thunder and lightning kept us inside our boat, and I used my Navionics App as an anchor watch. With an all-chain rode completely out, our boat held safely, and we did not have a worry in the world. The yachts in the South Channel did not fare as well as we did and two of them landed on the beach of Bush Key.
The circled blue line show how well Promise held during the storm.
The following morning, Monday, April 17, the wind was forecasted to clock from the north, and we opted to pull up anchor and move to the South Channel around Fort Jefferson. Conditions were deteriorating rapidly, and we had to hand crank the windlass to haul in all that chain. Mario was at the wheel, moving the boat around while I was furiously cranking the windlass to get out of here.
The anchor was barely out of the water, and I had given Mario the thumbs up to move the boat when we got broadsided by a rogue wave and a heavy gust that pushed Promise on the shoals, where she came down on her starboard. No way of getting her off.
Our home away from home for four days and four nights.
We hailed the Ft. Jefferson Ranger Station and were told that they had their eyes on us. We took our most important belongings, dropped them in the dinghy, abandoned ship and motored to the swimming beach, with water constantly splashing inside the dinghy. We dragged the tender on shore and went to the visitors’ center where they told us that we would get a tent, a pad and blankets so we could spend the night. There was no way that we would be able to stay on the boat. We had salvaged some jugs of water, protein bars, some fruits and nuts from the boat and that was the menu for the night.
Such a beautiful, yet treacherous paradise.
The park rangers allowed us to go back to the boat to get more provisions, but we could not possibly relaunch the dinghy from the northside beach, so we had to drag it to the one on the southside and motor from there to the boat around Bush Key. As soon as we turned the point, we got really beaten up by the waves and took on a lot of water, but we made it to poor Promise who was resting on her starboard side and being pounded by the waves. It was obvious that the rudder had been damaged and was now useless.
We climbed on board to secure everything when suddenly we heard a hard bang and I saw that the rudderpost had been pushed up through the transom. My first thought was that she now was a total loss. I almost burst into tears but, with the waves pounding hard, we had to get off the boat. I left the anchor light on so we could see her during the night.
We could clearly see her mast in the twilight.
A few hours later, I noticed that the genoa had come partially loose and was flapping in the wind. I did not want it to unfurl completely and get shredded by the next storm. The rangers gave me permission to dinghy back to my poor baby but that was the beginning of an even more frightful adventure. I had decided to go alone without Mario.
I had barely rounded the point of Bush Key into the northside that the waves pounded me towards the shore. No way my 2HP Honda could keep me off the beach and soon I hit bottom which damaged the prop. I had to paddle back but the current took me towards the reef. I was in deep doodoo now. Next landfall, Havana… Fortunately, I had my airhorn with me and sounded the five-burst distress signal. No reaction… I did it again about three or four times and then decided to sound the SOS morse code. Thank goodness, Skipper Marion from catamaran La Reina came out to save me with his RIB to drag me ashore where Ranger Dustin was waiting for me. He told me in uncertain terms that I would not be allowed to go back to the boat until TowBoat US was here to refloat us.
My pride and joy on the beach at low tide.
Before heading to bed, I glanced a last time at the anchor light and saw that the boat had moved again and that the mast was now upright. That meant she was in deeper water and floating but, when we woke up the following morning, there was more bad news. She had drifted further south and was now laying on her starboard side on the beach of Bush Key. I went to the top wall of the fort and saw that she seemed to be OK. There were a lot of bird watchers on the island and one of them let me use his scope to get a really close look. Promise seemed OK and I could not see apparent damages from afar.
Hard on the beach of Bird Key.
During nesting season, Bush Key is closed to the public. Sooty terns, brown noddies and other seabirds lay their eggs in the sand and nobody, except for conservation staff, is allowed on the island. Theoretically, we could walk on the beach to the boat but that was not allowed. Ranger Dustin was in deep conversation with some sailors, and I asked him if he had heard from TowBoat US when they would arrive to help us, but he had no news. They were still working on a plan as far as he knew. One of the sailors who was from Key West mentioned that he knew the owner of the salvage company. That is when I found out that the sailor in question was no other than my Key West colleague, Scott Mayer of Bluesail Yachting who is one of the Key West – based brokers for the same yacht brokerage that I work with in Punta Gorda, Pier One Yacht Sales. Small world indeed! He is a regular here. I mentioned to the rangers that I had left my blood pressure medication on the boat, and they finally relented and allowed us to walk to the boat. A cheerful young scientist, Kaylee, who works here studying the birds and sea turtles, volunteered to go there with us and while carefully avoiding stepping too close to the nests of the terns, she told us a lot about her work her. It was fascinating.
The lovely Kaylee with Ranger Dustin.
Another friendly sailor on a Jeanneau, named Ocean Infinity, gave me the password of his Starlink Wi-Fi account which allowed me to contact my worried wife a few times and communicate with the outside world. There is no cell phone or Wi-Fi service on Fort Jefferson.
The Dry Tortugas are very popular with campers, who come here by seaplane or ferry. The seaplanes fly in and out twice a day, but the Yankee Freedom ferry arrives daily around 10:30 with day trippers and campers who are allowed to stay a maximum of three nights. The ferry leaves around 15:00 but, in the meantime, we could use its showers and get some food and drinks on board.
Campers have many things in common with sailors. One of them is a willingness to help. They allowed us to use their charcoal grills, brought us hot water for coffee and even rum.
If ever there was an ideal place to be marooned or shipwrecked, the Dry Tortugas is the place to be. The National Park Service people, campers, crew on the ferry, fellow sailors, they all were fantastic.
We were not killing time waiting for news from the insurance adjuster, we were assassinating time. Apart from walking around the fort, climbing on top of it to look at Promise in the distance and chatting with anyone willing to listen to us, there was nothing to do. It was hot…
Keeping our spirits high.
I tried to communicate regularly with my wife, Mila, via my Spot satellite device. I could send out and receive short texts and was able to keep her informed and receive updates of the insurance situation for the salvaging.
On Thursday, we got the word that TowBoat US would come the following day to pull Promise off the beach. Finally, some great news! I convinced Mario to leave Friday morning on one of the seaplanes. There was no use for him to stick around for the salvage operation and for the boring ten-hour tow back to Key West.
The Key West seaplane. Promise is on the top-left point of the beach.
Friday morning, around 08:30, I met with Capt. Sean of TowBoat US and his two-man crew. The funny part was that he remembered meeting me from the Miami Boat Show when he visited our Med Sailing Adventures booth there. Small world…
The salvage operation was done rather quickly. Dig out the keel, put two airbags under the boat and pull her afloat. I don’t believe the whole operation did even take two hours. I even managed to take a short video of the refloating.
Ready to refloat her at high tide.
I said my goodbyes to all the friendly people from the National Park who had helped us. Officer Dustin Martin, Kaylee the lovely biology scientist, Bill Mason, who runs the bookstore and visitor’s center, Sean Dunn, the friendly camper from Ohio, who had brought us a bottle of rum the night before and others, whose names now escaped me.
Towboat US got me on Promise who was waiting for me at anchor. I checked her out, lifted the anchor and we were on our way for the slow tow to Key West.
Nothing to do during the ten-hour trip than to wait to get back in cell tower reach. I turned the engine on in neutral to recharge the batteries, so the fridge could work and keep my Gatorade cool and, once I had hot water, I took a shower. What a luxury!
Passing Boca Grande Key and Man Key, I finally got bars on my cell phone and had a long conversation with Mila, telling her all about our adventure. At 23:18, we finally reached the fuel dock of Perry Marina on Stock Island.
Perry Marina is a beautiful and luxurious marina belonging to the Perry Hotel and Resort with all the facilities, like restaurants, pool, etc.
At the fuel dock of the Perry Marina.
My poor Promise not having propulsion, had to stay until Wednesday at the fuel dock. That dock only has 50 Amps shore power. I was not allowed to use my 50A to 30A adaptor and had to regularly start the engine to keep the batteries charged and the refrigerator going.
Of course, without shore power and generator, I had no air conditioning on the boat which made for miserable nights but, during the day, I could spend time in the air-conditioned room of the Captain’s Lounge, work on my laptop and make phone calls to find out what our next step would be.
While working on the boat, I also got the surprise visit of Barry Sroka, the American Sailing Association Master Instructor, who made me a sailing instructor back in 2008. Small world indeed. He could not believe he found me here and what a story I had to tell him.
I had thought about having Promise towed all the way to the boatyard in Port Charlotte but found out that it would be less expensive to have her trucked. To do that, we would need to take down the mast. With the help of Matt, one of the employees of Scott Mayer’s Bluesail Yachting company, I took down the sails and disconnected the boom.
Wednesday, at 13:00, Towboat US brought Promise to Robbie’s Boatyard, where she was hauled. I took some pictures of the hull and rudder and, after a refreshing shower, climbed in the truck of Mike Mullinger, the owner of Pier One Yacht Sales who happened to be in Key West, for the six-hour drive back to Punta Gorda.
Ready to be loaded on the truck in Key West.
Arrived in Safe Cove Boatyard in Port Charlotte.
A local rigger took her mast down and she was trucked to the Safe Cove boatyard for survey and repairs on Wednesday, May 3. Promise will sail again. It’s a promise. After all, like me, she is Belgian made and, like me, she is unsinkable… Stay tuned.