It has been said that sailing is 90% boredom and 10% terror.
One day in early January, Adam and I were entertaining my mom and her husband in Key West. We were walking back to them, from moving their car, when a friend texted me and said, “there are boats in the channel by you, you’d better get out there, it’s blowing 35 knots!”
“It’s 35 knots!” I yelled at him and we began to run out of the building we were in, shocking a poor old lady by cutting her off as she was about to step onto the escalator. I apologized as we sped away from her. We ran toward the dinghy dock. Our cat hated living on the boat enough without being smashed up against the concrete wall at the Coast Guard station. As we got closer to the harbor the wind got worse and worse. My hair started whipping me painfully in the face. I threw it up in a ponytail as we got in our dinghy. I started the motor as Adam unhooked us from the dock. I knew this was way worse than we were prepared for. I began to feel sick with worry.
Once we came around the safety of the harbor wall and could see the open water I looked over at Adam. His wide eyes matched my own. How had we not known this was going on? That morning had been beautiful and in town it had seemed only a little windy. I looked back at the water as a wave broke over the boat and hit me in the face. The cold took my breath away. I gasped and ran a hand down my face to clear the salt water from my eyes. As we rode up the next wave the front of our little boat came up out of the water and we were vertical. Adam threw his weight forward and the boat crashed back down right side up. We were far too light for those conditions. The waves were huge, mere seconds apart and cresting right over us. We were immediately drenched and taking on water. I was trying to take the waves at an angle but the wind was so strong I had to point into it or it would push us sideways.
“Jesus Christ,” he yelled over his shoulder at me as he clung to the sides of the dinghy, “we should not be out here.” Wave after wave, we were crawling, the wind coming from exactly where we needed to go.
“What if we run out of gas?” I yelled. He looked at the gas can, then back at me, then back at the gas can. He grabbed the can and opened the motor to pour some in but it was too rough and we were going to flip if we didn’t distribute the weight better. “We’ll have to hope it’s enough.” I did some calculations in my head and didn’t think it was enough. Up and down the waves we went. We made painfully slow progress. We went up a wave and I felt us going over, I knew we were going to flip. But Adam threw his weight into the front of the boat again and again we didn’t. “Holy shit” He yelled looking ahead, his body rigid and bent forward as he held the sides of the dinghy near the front. “We just have to get past the Coast Guard station before we run out of gas, then the wall will stop us from being blown any farther.” I looked over at the station. The waves violently crashed into the concrete wall on this side which wasn’t even the windward side. I swallowed and looked ahead. Another wave crashed over our bow and over our bodies. It happened again and again and again. Every wave we took our little boat got lower, more full of water and slower. I couldn’t see. I kept wiping my eyes just in time to get soaked again.
We both, when we could see, had our eyes glued to the place in the sky, over the Coast Guard station, where we believed our mast to be. We couldn’t be sure. With the wind blowing so hard all the boats had swung around and the neighborhood looked different. When we got around the Coast Guard station we could see her. She was still there. We looked at each other, relief flooding both our faces. She was there but she was taking a beating. As is always the case, I thought about my poor cat. The cat who hates it when a fishing boat goes by and the Talisman rocks a little, side to side, from the wake. The same boat now violently smashed the water, was lifted and smashed down again. And again. And again. “I’m going to pull alongside,” I yelled, “it’s not safe to go up the swim ladder like that!” We finally got to the Talisman and I pulled the dinghy alongside her. He grabbed onto the toe-rail and pulled himself up just before I was blown away from the boat. I pulled alongside it again and he grabbed the line, again I was blown away. I shut the motor down as he pulled me in. The waves were outrageous. I was thrown down onto the seat. I grabbed the rope and began to pull myself back to the boat.
“Just sit down and let me get you here!” He yelled at me.
“I’m almost there, I’m fine!” I yelled into the wind as we both pulled ourselves closer to each other and argued. I grabbed the rail and pulled myself up, falling half a leg into the water as the dinghy sped away again.
100 yards to the east of us one boat had dragged into another. Both were dragging toward the Coast Guard station. Two boats, one for each, pulled them apart and towed them away.
The Talisman was riding up and down hard and the dinghy was too close. It was going to be destroyed if we didn’t get a longer line on it to get it away from the big boat. Adam went to work on that and I called my mom. “Mom we are going to be a little while, we had to run out to our boat and it’s crazy out here.” I said, in the relative quiet of the boat now that I was out of the wind. “I’m sorry but we have your keys.”
“You have our KEYS?!” she said. I heard yelling outside and looked out just in time to see a 28 foot sailboat headed right for us.
“Yes. I’m sorry. We’ll get them to you as soon as heavenly possible.” I said and hung up as I ran up the stairs. Adam had turned on the motor and I ran up front in the wind holding tight to the wildly rocking boat. I grabbed a fender and held it between the boats. Just in time, the other boat veered to miss us off our starboard side. The little boat, Mischief written along her side in blue, bubbly, comical font, caught on something (maybe the wreck below us) and held. She was very, very close to us but with the wind blowing so hard we wouldn’t swing toward each other much. Our neighbor Danny called and asked how we were fairing. He had taken that day to disassemble his motor, he told me and was completely helpless.
“If you see me heading for the station come get me,” he said. I thought about trying to pull in our very over-sized anchor in this wind.
“I’ll try,” I said. Adam came in and we both sat down.
Toweling ourselves off, we looked at each other. “What are we going to do?” I asked. We were at the very end of an anchorage of hundreds of boats. The wind was blowing every one of them directly at us.
“We sleep in shifts I suppose,” he said as he turned on the VHF and it immediately started squawking loudly. He turned it down.
“-ention all stations. Attention all stations. U.S. Coast Guard sector Key West. Report of a male kayaker lost his paddle and drifting. Last seen near [unintelligible]. All watercraft requested to keep a sharp lookout. Please contact Coast Guard channel 16 with any information. U.S. coast guard sector Key West out.”
“We have to get moms keys back to them,” I said, “how the hell are we going to do that?”
“I’m just going to have to go and do it.” he said.
“No way. That’s insane.” I replied from under my towel.
“I’ll fill up the water tanks with salt water for ballast,” He said.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, running a hand through my wet hair. I thought about my poor parents standing at their car… “Fine, but you wear a life jacket.”
He changed into a swim suit.
There was more shouting outside. I ran upstairs to see our neighbor dinghying over to us.
“Hey,” he yelled. “You guys ok? That boats awfully close to you.” He motioned toward Mischief as he wrestled to keep his little boat near ours.
“We’re ok Eddie, but Danny doesn’t have a motor right now. We’ve all got to watch him.”
“Ok.” Eddie said.
“Where are you going?” I asked. “You’re not going in right now are you!?”
“I have to go get my daughter,” he said, nonchalantly. The poor girl was visiting this week.
“Oh god.” I said as he did tight circles to stay near our boat. Someone on the other side of his boat starting shouting and jumping up and down frantically. Adam had come up while we were talking and was putting gas in our dinghy and filling the water tanks. It wasn’t easy. I went to help him. When I looked over again Eddie was still fighting with his dinghy and the yelling became more insistent.
“Eddie, someone is yelling at you.” I pointed as I undid the line for Adam. We all looked over just in time to see Mark’s big sailboat crash into the front of Eddie’s boat, which was right in front of ours. I cupped my hands and yelled to Adam, who was already a good distance away, blown by the wind.
“If they drag, they drag right into us!” He dinghied over to see if he could help. Eddie and Mark were trying to untangle their boats. They seemed to be holding well on just Eddie’s anchor but I was at the wheel ready to swing us away from them lest they both break free. A jet-skier, a good samaritan, zoomed up and pulled Mark off of Eddie and took him away. I had no idea where all these people were taking the boats that were breaking loose.
Adam came back. “I’m fine.” I yelled. “Go get the keys to mom. Please be careful!” I watched him ride up and down the waves and felt more worry then I have since the gulf stream. I watched until he was around the Coast Guard station and I could no longer see him. I looked back at the hundreds of boats in front of us. Another boat was floating by but I knew it wouldn’t hit us. I thought it might catch Danny so I called him. It didn’t hit him either. It is very eerie to see a boat floating away with no one at the helm. I looked over at Mischief. Still holding strong on whatever she had caught on. As she bobbed roughly up and down in the waves I could see that her bottom was clean. Someone loved her.
Eventually the boat that had just gone by got to the Coast Guard station and hit the wall. I’m not sure if the guy was asleep or what else he could possibly have been doing during all this but after he hit the concrete wall he got up, started his motor and drove away.
Danny told me later that our closest neighbor Levi had broke his mooring before we had gotten out there. He was sitting in his cockpit having a beer and listening to music bobbing his head when Danny yelled, “Hey dude, you’re floatin away.” Levi looked around frantically, jumped up and started his motor. So the story goes. He was back in place when we got out.
One after another, boats flew by as the Talisman was flung up and down roughly on her anchor in the swells. She held like a champ. Indeed two weeks later when we wanted to pull the anchor up to go sailing we had to get scuba equipment to dig it out. Adam said his arm was all the way down, up to his shoulder, into the hole he dug and he still couldn’t feel the end of the anchor.
Eventually I saw our dinghy making crappy headway pushing against the wind to get back. You never realize how much you love someone until you see them in a dangerous situation. I went back and forth between watching out for boats and watching my husband fight the waves and try not to tip over backwards.
We spent the rest of the night listening to channel 16. One after another reports came in about boats breaking loose, boats smashing against things and boats getting hit by other boats. We heard them radio for help trying to find the kayaker every half hour for many hours. I’m not sure they ever found that poor fellow. Every little bump or sound or yell would send us flying outside. There wasn’t much sleep to be had aboard the Talisman that night. Not to mention I had to sleep with a frightened cat on my face.
The next morning we heard Eddie yelling my name. We ran upstairs to see a boat heading straight for us. Adam jumped into the dinghy and was off. The wind had died down slightly. The boat had a small length of rope left from it’s ground tackle so he grabbed onto that and lead it away from us. We yelled back and forth as he was only 10 feet away or so. We didn’t know if we should tie it to us or where to take it. Then it didn’t seem to matter because it was too much boat for our little dink in that much wind. I watched him struggle and struggle and eventually give up. To the navy station it headed. Then another dinghy drove up and together they were able to drag it to the channel marker and tie it to that. The other guy didn’t know who’s it was either.
Now whenever someone yells my name when I’m inside the boat, even on a beautiful windless day I immediately think some unmanned vessel is baring down on my position. I don’t see this going away anytime soon.
I realize that these stressful times are certainly at least part of the reason why lots of people don’t want to live on boats, but I downright love them. I have never felt more a part of a community then when preparing for a storm or riding one out with my neighbors and the strangers around me. Everyone looks out for everyone else. Everyone is going through exactly the same things. We all have the same fears, the same hopes and the same agendas. We are together for better or for worse.
How often, in this day and age do we really get to feel like a hero? To do something scary and intense and conquer it. Maybe tying a boat to a channel marker doesn’t make a man a hero to everyone but I bet it did to the guy who owned the boat.
Yes, living on a boat can be terrifying at times.