Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I Almost Died Like Sixty Times by Wayne Lemmons

I want to introduce the first (of hopefully many) guest articles on Florida Is A Verb. St. Petersburg Author Wayne Lemmons tells us the story of bringing his family's house (a 38' sailboat named the Kairos) home to St. Pete for the first time. -C.B.

I Almost Died Like Sixty Times 

This is a long one, so get ready…
I have had a very educational life, mostly due to my need to do incredibly stupid things about which I possess only a modest level of knowledge. Oddly, I keep living through these experiences and always learn some things that will help to preserve my skin on the next intellectually unsound exploration.
Did you know that you shouldn’t drink heavily the night before an eighty-foot dive and volunteer to do three descents because there’s an extra tank and a couple of people who only want to dive twice in the boat with you? That was a lesson that I will likely have to learn again.
Did you know that getting inebriated in Key West with a few of your best buddies can result in a twenty-foot drop from the top of a rented houseboat into a space surrounded by dangerous borders at three in the morning because a night snorkel sounds like an incredible idea? Well, there is video to prove it and we got to see some really cool stuff.
Lastly, did you know that going to Ft. Myers in order to bring your newly purchased sailboat more than a hundred miles north to St. Petersburg a week before Hurricane Matthew decided to cause all sorts of mischief can make for an exciting time? It really does the job when you don’t take anyone along to help you.
Yeah. I went by myself. Remember that remark about doing incredibly stupid things? I have proof of my penchant for them. Keep reading.
My lovely wife and daughter were kind enough to transport me on a Monday afternoon, even though the plan had been to start all of this on the Saturday just before, and it was an uneventful three-hour trip. Nice and easy, other than the sound coming from the underside of our Jeep Wrangler just before we made it to the boat.
There had already been issues with the drive shaft on the damned thing, so she was very careful on the way home. I, of course, was in the process of losing my mind with worry until I got a message saying they’d made it home without breaking down. Sweat was wiped from brow. Chest loosened. I was able to enjoy that first evening on the Kairos.
Oh yeah. The 38’ Irwin Center Cockpit we now live aboard is called the Kairos. We’re probably changing that, but that’s her name for now.
The first full day on the boat held surprises and wonders that I fully expected. There were electrical issues, motor issues, more wiring problems than I could shake a stick at, and a bunch of other boring stuff that only the mechanics and electricians that live deep down in everyone’s souls would be interested in. I found out pretty quickly that I was going to be staying another night in the Kairos’ former dock space. Come hell or high water, though, I was heading out on Wednesday, on a sailboat, with a bunch of wind that was blowing in the wrong direction.

Lovely. That inboard diesel motor was about to get tested in the best way possible.
On Wednesday morning I prepared for my trip. The plan was to leave Ft. Myers Beach and head out to the Gulf, turn north, and run that puppy home. No real navigation required. It was going to be an easy trip. I thought that as I pulled out of the dock. I believed that all was well as the Perkins 4108 purred down inside the boat all the way to the fuel dock. I was completely convinced that everything was going to go right as planned up until the moment white smoke began to billow from the companionway hatch and through every other orifice installed in my cozy little cockpit area.
At that point a small child with jet black hair, the miniature version of me, began to run in spastic mental circles around the inner confines of my skull. He was screaming about fire and sinking boats in a high-pitched voice that I easily ignored after a few seconds of running with him. White smoke wasn’t billowing. STEAM was billowing from my overheating engine. That was the only possibility. Rational thought won out and the little guy calmed down… a little.
I turned around, putting the nearly reached Gulf at the stern’s view, and headed back to the dock at a very slow crawl. I was babying the motor, talking to the motor, begging the tap-tap-tapping diesel engine to keep me going. I arrived in one piece, but I wouldn’t be leaving on Wednesday. Thursdays are more fun, anyway.
Did you know that the first thing you should do when taking possession of a marine engine is to change out the raw water impellor? You probably do. Everyone else I talked to did. I could tell by the way they looked at me. You know the look. It’s the one you give to the guy who just won’t stop shoving that penny into the light socket.
I’d thought of it, that freshly failed water pump impellor, but the importance left in a whirlwind of other stuff. Lesson learned.
Hours later, suffering the effects of a failed beginning and the cost of an Uber ride to West Marine, the boat was ready to go again. It was happy, cool, and ready for my journey to begin again. Sadly, though, it was dark and I wasn’t starting out at night. There would be a last normal meal that didn’t consist of canned food and a beer or two that came from a restaurant tap. There would be an easy night’s sleep. There would be coffee in the morning.
It was a good thing I got those. Really it was. At just past noon on Thursday I tossed the lines off and went with the tide. The diesel motor tapped happily along in its manic sewing machine way. The small waves slapped against the strong hull of my new home. The channel markers showed my path to open water and the journey home. It was beautiful and calm.
It was not, however, calm on the Gulf of Mexico. As I passed the final buoy marker, the one that told me I was really leaving the inter=coastal channel, I felt the boat rock for the first time. It was a soft raise and descent, something you might experience when another boat passes you and sends some light wake your way. That was just the first one, though.

By the time I’d made it fifteen miles from Ft. Myers Beach the water was well into beating me senseless. Three and four foot waves don’t seem like much when you’re watching them from shore, but I can tell you that the damned rollers really get a sailboat moving. When they’re only a second or two apart, you start to wonder if you should turn back. When you see storm clouds building over the area you just left, moving forward seems like the better idea.
So, that’s what I did. I kept going north and west at three quarter throttle. Have I told you the maximum speed of a 38-foot mono hull sailboat with a 50 horsepower diesel pushing it along? It’s seven. Yeah. I said seven miles per hour. If you hit eight by an odd stroke of luck, you’ve managed a sailor’s version of warp speed. Scotty was in the back of my mind, screaming about how he’d been giving her all she’s got for hours. It was probably true, too.
I was cruising along, jumping waves like a mammoth white dolphin, listening to the sound of my engine in hopes that it wouldn’t become angered by all the jostling. In its own way, that short time was beautiful for me. I was fighting with the ocean, not in the way that so many men and women have done so, but in my own small way. I was going somewhere when it didn’t want me to. That feeling is something I’ll always remember.
Seeing rain in the distance is one of the things that always amazes me when on the water. You can actually see the columns of water stretching from the clouds to the surface of the sea, their slightly darker imprint against a blue sky. I could see two storms raging in the distance, lighting tracking along them, and they were closing together. It was incredible to watch as these two wonders of our world danced toward one another, but frightening to realize that if I kept the same pace and they continued their course I would be caught in the middle.
A smart man would have cut the engine, thrown out any or all of the anchors available to him, hid in the cabin with blankets over his head until all was clear again.
I am not a smart man. I’m lucky, though. I turned the throttle up a bit more, turned on some tunes, and kept my course. I would go until I couldn’t anymore and damn the storm. Rain didn’t scare me. Lightning didn’t scare me. Being afraid scared me.
Here comes the lucky part, though it might not seem like it. The motor cut out. It shut down. It stopped functioning as it should, and by all rights, it left me to play sitting duck in the middle of some pretty angry water.
I could have tried restarting the thing, but decided that I should probably revert to intelligence. Two anchors, one of them a sixty-pounder, were tossed into the water and tied to the boat in quick succession. I scrambled around the boat, down to the engine, back up to the cockpit. I wasn’t frantic, but I wanted to make sure the thing hadn’t overheated again.
Luckily I read a lot about the equipment I work with. A snatch of some post on a sailor’s forum occurred to me. It had described what happens when diesel sloshes around in a tank due to rough water and warned that you should avoid such things when motoring your sailboat. Air gets in the fuel lines and your motor goes caput. Good thing I remembered that AFTER I anchored. I might have tried to keep going, tried to restart the motor and move my ass into the fury of two storms. Sound’s cool, doesn’t it?
Instead, I drank whiskey and smoked cigarettes. I watched the storms come together and split again. I watched until the dark of night took the day away from me as waves continued to shove me around. I couldn’t cook on the boat’s grill and didn’t feel much like eating anyway. I managed a pop tart as my dinner and drank some water before switching back to whiskey. I knew the stuff was in limited supply, but I needed to calm my nerves. It was more frustration at stopping than anything, but there was definitely a bit of fear there.
Sleep was broken by my dolphin-like boat, slinging itself all over the place because it didn’t want to be where it was. I was awake when the sun rose, ready to do more, hoping to get closer to home.
I managed to get the motor started, but the Gulf was still massively pissed off, and felt like telling me all about it. I knew that getting to the inter-coastal waterway was my best bet, but the nearest entrance from the Gulf was more than ten miles to the north. I could have chanced it, could have tried my luck and gave my engine more of a workout than it had ever had on the rough chop, but felt a little smarter and a lot saner than I had on the previous day.
So I cheated. I called the ocean’s greatest hero. Aquaman? No. Poseidon? He’s awesome and might have helped me if I had his cell number, but no. Who, you might be wondering, did I call?
Boat US.
They towed my happy little boat back into the calm waters of the inter-coastal and patted me on the butt with a good luck grin. If you don’t have a membership with those folks, then you don’t know how well you can spend less than two hundred bucks for a tow any old time you need it without a cent taken from your wallet.
I was really on my way after that. The water was peaceful and happy to see me, spreading its surface to allow my safe passage, as long as I stayed between the green and red navigational markers, which I tried my very best to do at all times. The sun was shining down upon me warmly, and reminded me that sunscreen could be put to good use.
There was only one problem: I had no idea where in the hell I was going.
“Stay between the markers and keep the red on your right,” you might have said.
“It’s a channel that leads to only one place,” you might have said.
“Didn’t you look at your charts before you started all of this crazy stupid shit?” you might have asked.
Yeah. I know the first two and definitely looked at my charts before, during, and after the trip. My only defense to your accusation that getting lost is really hard in a channel is the declaration that there are like five billion off-shoots from the inter-coastal. I could have screwed the pooch in any number of ways, but I didn’t. I never got lost, never really even came close, but I was scared shitless quite a few times that I would end up somewhere I really didn’t want to be.
There is one other thing that you have to watch out for when taking a sailboat along the route I’d decided upon. Actually there are way more than one of them.
Bridges. Swing bridges, draw bridges, fixed bridges. All three are along the path that leads to home and few are easy to manage. Fixed bridges are easy as long as they’re tall enough to allow your passage. The other two types, though, can prove difficult in certain situations.
Like, if you’re by yourself and the radio you have to use when calling them isn’t right next to you. The damn radio is installed in the cabin.
My first bridge, a swing bridge that goes by a name that I can’t remember and don’t feel like looking, was an exercise in acrobatics and set the routine for every one that followed.
I saw the bridge, checked my heading, ran from the helm to the companionway, launched my body into the cabin, said a bunch of nonsense on the radio, ran back up to the helm, didn’t hear the reply from the bridge, ran back down to the radio, slurred a bunch more nonsense, freaked out when I saw that the boat had veered toward either a channel marker or a boat before correcting my bearing, and approached the opening bridge at a low speed that probably aggravated the living hell out of every car that wanted to cross the length of asphalt that had been parted to allow my safe passage.
I did that a lot. I’m not sure how many times, but I’m going to find and keep a list for my next trip along with a person to either steer or talk on the radio.
I spent Friday night anchored in a nice calm area just off the channel. It was perfect there. The temperature was just right, and the evening was so quiet that I could hear only water moving beneath me. I decided that a hot meal was in order.
My version of a hot meal consisted of either rice and beans, which would take entirely too long to cook, or canned pasta rings with meatballs. Spaghettios were in my future.
What, one might ask, could prevent me from having my well-deserved hot meal after having only a pop tart in the past eighteen hours? I told you that I missed some stuff when prepping for the trip, right?
I had only a propane grill to cook on. It’s one of those awesome stainless steel jobs that clamp to the handrails of a boat. It would have worked great! There was no place to screw in the small propane cylinders that would have heated my meal. That also meant that there would be no coffee in the morning. The little port, the one I’ve been using to grill all sorts of good stuff since getting back, costs forty bucks at West Marine. I never even thought that I needed to look for such a thing when I was at that very store picking up my impellor.
Cold Spaghettios is punishment for not paying close enough attention. I have to admit, even if it makes you cringe a little, that those Spaghettios eaten directly from a can were incredible at the time.
Come morning, after a bottle of wine to top my dinner, I woke to a sunrise made of glory and grounding. I was lacking a depth finder in my arsenal of equipment and knew that my newest challenge was a definite possibility. The tide had dropped and my keel was lodged in the mud that lay where I’d anchored for the night. That meant that I would have to either call my friends at Boat US again or wait for a kind and patient passerby to tow me back into deep water.
Luckily, someone stopped by after a few minutes and felt sorry enough for me to catch a line and drag me off the seagrass. I was on my way again, traveling the great channel and heading toward home. The breeze was nice and fluttered against the line I’d haphazardly placed on the head after catching it back from the boat that pulled me out. It would have been smart to drag it to the center of the boat where it had started, but steering was more important. A second person on the boat would have yet again proven useful.
That line was an omen. A bad one.
As I chose between an accidental passage to the Gulf or the continuation of my ICW journey, I ran into a bit of a snag. All of those green and red markers appeared at an odd fork, making me decide which way was smarter and I screwed it up in an impressive way. I was bright enough to know that I needed to get back onto my route, but not bright enough to understand where I should have made a turn.
A hard tilt to starboard was bound to put me back on track, or so I thought. The bow actually dipped as I hit something below the waterline and I frantically reversed to get away from it. This resulted in two very important things.
The first thing was positive. I was able to keep from going aground again. That was very good. The second thing was less good.
I can envision the way that untidy line fell to the water, though I didn’t actually see it at the time. I can visualize the way it floated back toward the propeller of my boat. I can actually see the damned thing wrap around it and stall my engine.
At the time, however, my thoughts were simpler. Holy shit! I stalled! Try to start! Nope! Try again!
The little raven-haired boy was running around again, but this time I threw off all ideas of staying calm and chased him, ran with him as if we’d truly become intertwined in panic. We screamed. We laughed. We danced the dance of fear and manic undertones while flailing our proverbial arms in the wind. That lasted for a good two minutes. I could do this. I could do something to make whatever had happened alright. Honestly, I didn’t really have much of a choice. It wasn’t about whether I could or couldn’t. It was about having to fix whatever I’d let happen.

There were, fortunately for me, a few people standing on a dock not far from where I was floating. They were watching my boat as I frantically ran back and forth, looking for some remedy for the newest of my long list of bad moments.
I waved my arms, asked if there was a diver among them, hoped.
“My motor’s shot!” I shouted.
“Can you get it over here?” one of them asked, having obviously gone to college for a degree in the subject of magical propulsion.
“Not without a motor.”
“What happened?”
“Line’s caught on the prop, I think!”
“Yeah,” he allowed, “I see it pulling.”
I am not a man of infinite patience. I have little strength in the way of not saying what runs across my mind, but at that moment I found myself able. I didn’t call him an idiot for asking questions to which he already knew the answers. I simply turned to another of the lookers-on.
“Anyone have a dive mask?”
One of them nodded, a young man with some sense about him, and ran into his boat. He threw a question out about whether I was in possession of a sharp knife as he did this. I moved to the cabin to retrieve my pocket knife, one that would accomplish the task of severing the bind that held my propeller.
I need to quit smoking. This is an obvious thing, but that short period of time really found a way to prove the fact.
Once my new friend reappeared from the cabin of his boat, jumped into the water without hesitation, and swam over to me with a dive mask on and another in his hand, I was faced with the idea that I’d have to hold my breath for long enough to get to the prop and cut the line away.
I put the mask on, checked the seal against my face, and sucked in a lung’s worth of air before dropping below the water line. I could see very little, almost nothing in fact, and had to feel my way along the bottom of the hull and find the object of my unhappiness. I resurfaced only a minute or two later.
“I see it,” I announced after gasping and sputtering for a moment.
“Wrapped up?”
“That sucks.”
I dove down again, hacked at the line for thirty seconds or so, and came back up. Back down. Hack for a bit. Back up.
Soon we were taking turns with the knife, holding ourselves under for as long as possible, and within an eternity, the obstacle was removed. I thanked the man and he accepted. We exchanged names, which neither of us likely remember, and I was climbing onto the Kairos again. I waved my goodbye and told him if he ever needed a hand in St. Pete that he should look me up.
I was on my way again.
More bridges showed up in front of me. More frantic runs between the cabin and the helm were executed. More miles were shoved into the past by my happily chugging Perkins. I was back to the routine and hadn’t massively screwed anything up in a few hours. Life was good.
The Sarasota Bay was coming up, which I’d looked at on the charts but knew little about. I stopped for fuel at a marina on the southern edge of it and geared up on water and beer. I don’t normally drink much beer, but the idea of a cold one was attractive at the time. Once everything was loaded onto the boat and I’d taken on much less fuel than I’d expected I took a moment to stare at the fixed bridge that stood between me and the final leg of my journey.
“How tall is that bridge?” I asked the kid working the fuel dock.
“I don’t know.”
The Kairos has a fifty-four-foot mast. I was looking at the bridge from a half-mile away. It looked a bit short to my unsure eyes.
“Sailboats go through it?”
“Like this one?” he asked while craning his neck to look at the top of my mast, “I don’t know.”
I pulled away from the dock, eyeing the next barrier, the next portal in my journey and headed toward it. Either it was tall enough or it wasn’t. I wouldn’t know until I got closer. Google was up and on my phone and proving to be completely useless in this instance.
I was getting closer, the bridge waiting for me with either an open form or an angry shield. I could get under it if the thing was taller than my mast. If it wasn’t…
One hundred feet away now. It looked short. Closer.
Oh God.
Fifty feet. My stomach was roiling with the fear of a man who has little idea as to what in the holy hell he’s doing. It was too short. I was sure of it.
Twenty feet.
I turned the wheel hard to port, avoiding the structure, scared shitless beyond any possible description. There was no way I would have made it. What would I do if I couldn’t continue along this path. There would be backtracking and loss of time. I’d have to stay out another night and adjust my plan.
A boat, a little power boat, was coming through the bridge as I spun the bow back toward it. I shouted to them.
“How tall is this bridge?”
“Can I get through there?”
My throat was sore from the yelling after not speaking much throughout the last couple of days.
“Yeah! That’s why they built it!”
Good enough for me.
I headed back to the opening, still worried and paranoid, and watched as my mast cleared the bottom of the Siesta Key Bridge by only a few feet. It was high tide and I was lucky it wasn’t higher.
Shit. Where was that beer?
I could tell you about the rest of the trip, really only six more hours of boating joy, but I’ve embarrassed myself enough, already. It was uneventful after that last situation and I got home in one piece. I’m actually writing this from the cockpit of the Kairos, and enjoying the living hell out of my new home, my new adventure.
There were plenty of moments that I’ll admit were less than enjoyable, but all in all I’d probably do the same things if I had to do them again.
Life is about learning and I learned plenty on that trip. I even plan on taking the family back down the same route soon, so that we can all enjoy the scenery and wonders I’ve experienced but haven’t had the chance to truly enjoy.
Soon. It’ll be great. It’ll be an adventure.
I can’t wait.

More work by Wayne Lemmons, including his novel The Dark Roads, and his most recent book Way Home, can be found HERE

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