Sunday, May 6, 2012


Have you ever had one of those weeks that seems as if it both flew by in no time but in retrospect feels as if it lasted for ages? When you look back seven days and it seems like ancient history? When you feel as if you've forgotten how to do things that you've been doing nearly every day for decades because of a lengthy absence from doing them? That's where I am right now. Driving a car feels like an atrophied skill. Walking into a bathroom, I marvel at its immense size and the miraculous conveniences to human comfort that it provides. I'm amazed and impressed that I need not fear whacking my skull on low-hanging door jambs, as if I have spent my entire adulthood as a 7' tall NBA player and have suddenly shed 15% of my height.

Yes, I have been sailing.

My long-awaited sailing excursion is now history. At long last, I can honestly say that I personally have sat at the helm of a 38' catamaran and guided it through gale-force ocean winds while pounding through 6-8 foot waves.

I can also say, every bit as honestly, that I hope never again to sit at the helm of a 38' catamaran and guided it through gale-force ocean winds while pounding through 6-8 foot waves.

But that's getting too far ahead of the tale that I have to share with you, so allow me to rewind to the beginning of the story. Many of you are already familiar with the journey in question, but for those of you visiting for the first time I will provide a brief explanation in the form of a link. This link right here: Premature Spring.

Okay, now that we're all on the same page, I can begin the story. Last Saturday, I flew out on my favored airline for the trip down to Ft. Lauderdale. As per normal, it was a nearly effortless trip while I was dealing with the friendly and competent folks at Southwest. Both flights were on time, and the equipment worked flawlessly, or at least well enough that no mechanical delays were encountered. My luggage arrived at the same time and at the same airport as I did, although I did suffer through my normal period of anxiety as I nervously waited for my bag to pop out of the chute in the crowded baggage claim area. A lost bag on this leg of the adventure would have been a disaster.

As I settled into the taxi, I was reassured (sort of) by the cab driver's seeming understanding of our destination after showing him the printed page of directions provided by the school, which took the form of him asking "You go boats?"  With that confirmation that I was headed in the right direction, I started to relax and finally believe that I was going to arrive at the school in plenty of time for our departure.

Regular readers of this blog will now be thinking, "Uh-oh. It's never a good sign when he thinks things are going well." And they would be correct.

A few miles shy of the marina, we encountered a problem. On the plus side, this event yet again proved that I have a super power. Not a good, marketable one, mind you, like being able to fly or bend steel in my bare hands or run faster than a speeding locomotive, but a super power nonetheless. No, my incredibly potent yet utterly useless super power is the ability to find, at any location and any time in time in the world, a traffic jam.

We sat there, the driver and I, fuming at the delay, but very likely for different reasons. Me because I was impatient to be at my destination and was aghast at the continuous ticking of the meter, each tick drawing money from my relatively short supply of folding money, and he for undiscernible and (considering his dearth of English language vocabulary) incommunicable reasons. I could tell that he as frustrated, though, because he was pounding on the steering wheel and looking for an escape route in the manner of a teenage girl in one of those Hollywood "why doesn't she just get out of the house???" scary movies.

Eventually he looked over his shoulder at me, chattered a few incomprehensible syllables in my general direction, and threw us into a desperate U-turn. We then proceeded to take a running, un-narrated tour of the back streets of Ft. Lauderdale until we eventually were brought to a halt behind a different branch of the same traffic jam. It was at this juncture that he made a few pointing gestures in the direction of the line of cars in front of us and made a monumental effort to pull forth three words from his clearly limited pool of language:

"You walk now."

Well, you can't argue with that, I suppose. At least not without a common language. I grabbed my bags and hit the road. And sure enough, after a short walk made memorable by the unpleasantness of the heat, humidity, and heavy luggage, I arrived at the marina office, only to find it locked up solid. It seems that they were out to lunch. Which, considering that I was a couple of hours early, was perfectly justifiable, if not a bit of an emotional let down.

I piled my bags on a nearby picnic table and settled in for a wait.

I had been told to expect the use of a boat called an Island Spirit 37 for our trip, so I availed myself of the opportunity to search for said boat. It (well, "she," if I am to follow time-honored convention) was easily found.

After couple of hours of waiting, during which I was able to get myself a nice lunch at a local sandwich shop and meet a couple of people that would be sharing my class, we headed for the boat. I want to be careful not to under emphasize that by "couple," I am referring to a husband and wife couple. This was of critical importance to me for a reason that I feel I should share.

You see, during the months of eager anticipation of this trip I had been plagued by one burning question: if there are only four cabins/staterooms on the boat to provide space for four students and a skipper/instructor, how, in a world where 'four' is immutably less than 'five', are we going to arrive at a sleeping arrangement whereby I do not have to sleep with another man?? I have to confess that at my age and the number of years that have passed since having had to share living quarters, the very idea of it has become quite distasteful to me. The arrival of a married couple (who presumably would not share an identical distaste for sleeping with each other), was a huge burden removed.

As, perhaps, you can imagine.

Eventually our Captain/Skipper/Instructor/Mentor arrived in the form of Capt. Ted, who looked as if he could have walked directly from the pages of any Hemmingway or Melville novel. With his windswept locks of stark white hair, accompanied by an equally nautical-esque white beard and creased sun/salt weathered skin, he exuded an air of naval confidence, competence, and demeanor that instantly established a no-nonsense approach to the business of learning to sail while simultaneously nodding to the reality that he was going to be dealing with a group of raw neophytes who would more than likely respond better to a congenial method of instruction over a more dictatorial, military style.

We gathered our gear and clambered on board our waiting sailing vessel, some more confidently than others. My ascent up the plastic stairs and tentative step across the gap between pier and deck was anything but graceful. We piled our bags in the limited space of the 'saloon', which is what the living area spanning the two hulls of a cruising catamaran is called. As we seated ourselves around the communal table, we went through the process of introducing ourselves to the group.

First up was Dave (who shall, for my convenience, be hereafter referred to as Tod, which is a shortened version of 'the other Dave') who had returned to the US from Scotland where he works for a bank. His stated goal from the class was to become familiar enough with cruising catamarans to enable him to safely and competently operate the boat that he had recently purchased: a beautiful boat called a Leopard 44.

It was then my turn to give my name and area of residence, which I described as "land-locked Ohio." When asked the reason for attending the class, I honestly stated that it was mostly for investigative reasons: at some point in the future, I may give up flying. It is in my nature to "do," and should I give up flying I will need something else to occupy my mind and free time. Perhaps it would be sailing; this class should provide a reasonable basis upon which to base such a portentous decision. I also shared that my previous sailing experience had been limited to my little 12' boat and whatever opportunities had arisen at resorts in lawyer-free, low liability-risk like Cancun, Mexico.

Next up were Tom and Donna, the married couple mentioned previously. They too are in the market for a cruising catamaran and thus also were attending the class with far loftier goals than I was.

It also soon became apparent that everyone on the boat had previous military experience, a fact that would pay off throughout the week through our respective qualities of discipline, work ethic, and the ability to quickly coalesce into a functioning team. All of those would prove critical to our success in what would prove to be a trying week. Running around the table, we have a former Marine with Tod, and the remainder of us having served in the military version of a country club, the US Air Force.

With introductions out of the way, it was straight to business, the first order of which was cabin assignments (I was assigned to the port side, forward cabin), followed by a quick tour of the boat and our assignments for preparations for the next morning's departure. Having had prior VHF radio experience (being a pilot and all), I was assigned to perform the morning radio check.

Then it was on to learning how to do our "business," nautical style. On a boat, you don't "go to the bathroom." Rather, you visit "the head." There are similarities between to the two, but they differ in a number of areas, the primary of which are size and function. As far as size, the head is a tiny, closet-like affair when compared to even the smallest land-side restroom. There is about one square foot of standing space in the entire head, and even that provides somewhat shaky, uncomfortable footing due to the fact that the head doubles as a shower and you are standing on the drainage grate.

There is a small vanity that provides a faucet with which to wash hands and, of course, a sink/drain. Interestingly, the faucet doubles as an extendable spray head, similar to the one you might have on your kitchen sink. Fresh water is a limited commodity on a cruising boat and is therefore rationed whenever possible, so the shower/faucet head has an on/off switch that is used to enable a judicious use of the water. The idea is to set the water temperature to the desired warmth, assuming that there is warm water available (water is warmed as a side effect of operating the engines, which is a relatively rare occurrence on a sailing vessel, so warm water is an even more precious commodity while at sea), then to toggle the flow on and off as needed. A shower, then, is really more of a "water on, spray an area, water off, lather, water on, rinse, water off" progression than it is the leisurely affair you would normally think of.

Then it was on to the more delicate discussion of voiding bodily wastes. Life on a small boat in a big ocean doesn't leave a lot of room for anything, including the dancing around of delicate issues. Note that I am going to carry that stark reality forward into my telling of this tale, so gird yourselves for some rather frank discussions of my physical responses to life aboard the "About Time."

So, that forewarning out of the way, I shall describe the operation of the toilet, or at least the theory of said operation which, in my personal experience, did not always have any bearing whatsoever on what actually happened. You will note in the following photo a device which to all appearances looks just like its shore side equivalent. It is not. It is roughly two-thirds the size of a similar ground bound throne, and has the added feature of an odd looking handle off to the side. It is this handle that was both the heart of the operation of the toilet and my own personal nemesis.

If you look closely at the pump handle (the horizontally oriented black thing), you will notice above it a black paddle switch, currently set to the right hand position from the point-of-view of the picture. That switch controls what happens when the pump handle is moved up and down. When the paddle switch is moved to the left hand position, an upward stroke of the pump will pull water from the outside of the boat through a hose and into the toilet bowl. The downward stroke of the pump will then evacuate water back out to the outside of the boat using a different hose. When the paddle switch is in the right hand position, the upward stroke does nothing but create a noise audible to everyone on the boat, while the downward stroke pushes the contents of the toilet bowl overboard.

More accurately, the downward stroke pushes the contents either overboard or into a holding tank, depending on the setting of a particular valve hidden in the area under the sink. That's not germane to my story, though, so don't worry about it.

So, in the event that one needs to use the toilet, the correct operation is as follows:

- move the switch to the left hand position.
- operate the pump to bring some water into the toilet bowl.
- add whatever it is that brought you into the head in the first place to the water in the toilet bowl.
- operate the pump until the contents of the bowl have been moved to their ultimate destination.
- move the switch to the right hand position.
- operate the pump until the bowl is dry.

That's the theoretical operation. It was ably demonstrated by Capt. Ted using a handy bottle of vegetable oil to provide a discernibly colored liquid to play the part of waste matter.

Now let me tell you what happened the first time I attempted to remove solid waste at 3am:

- move the switch to the left hand position.
- operate the pump to bring some water into the toilet bowl.
- add whatever it is that brought you into the head in the first place to the water in the toilet bowl.
- operate the pump while the water level and the contents of the bowl continue to rise to eye-poppingly high levels, threatening to create an embarrassingly large mess on the floor.
- move the switch to the right hand position, hoping to alleviate the potential flooding.
- futilely operate the pump while the dangerously high levels of water and waste refuse to acquiesce, making all kinds of noise while doing so, thus advertising to the entire crew that you are a clueless landlubber.
- repeat for twenty excruciatingly long minutes while praying to King Neptune's bastard child, King Commodius, for relief from this disaster.
- Subconsciously direct your bowels to remain motionless until further notice, thus building up a pent-up demand that will require the use of Lamaze techniques when a land-side toilet next becomes available.

But that was to come later. At the time it all seemed simple enough, so we pressed on to the next task, which was unpacking our bags in our cabins and making up our beds, which are known as "berths." These operations really brought home how crowded we were to be during the week, both in the common areas and in our staterooms. Spaces intended to be occupied by individuals tend to be no more than one square foot in dimensional area, and the standing space in my room was no different. It was quite a challenge to find a place for the contents of my luggage, the empty luggage itself, and, well, me.

If that was a challenge, it was nothing compared to trying to make the bed. The problem is, there is no access to the sides of the bed. Added to that is the fact that rectangular sheets are not designed to easily fit around triangular beds.

Finally, we moved on to the grocery shopping, or "provisioning" in the parlance we were there to acquire. We started out by doing an exhaustive inventory of the supplies left aboard from the last class. I was assigned to call out the items in cabinet I had been standing next to during the head familiarization:

"Urine Substitute."

"What??" cried the Captain.

"Oh, sorry, vegetable oil."

Well, he was bound to learn to live with that kind of thing from me eventually; might as well get started early.

We went though a length list of things we would want to eat for the week.

"You guys want steak?"


"Fish? How about some salmon?"

"Sure," said the group. "I'm not big on salmon," from me." "Mahi?" was the counteroffer.

"Sure! Dolphin is fine, as long as its tuna-safe."

That went on and on, and eventually the Capt. had his shopping list ready.

"Okay, see you in the morning," he said, and off he went.

After a pregnant pause and a few blank stares passed around the crew, there was an incredulous feeling of "Did he just say that he's not going to be back until tomorrow morning?" permeating the group. None of us really felt that we were ready to left to our own devices, but we recovered quickly enough. Tod and I went ashore and had dinner at a nearby Sushi restaurant, then it was off to bed where I spent some time relaxing with my newly provided ASA logbook and my daily ration of sea rum.

I didn't sleep well at all on the first night. We were docked right alongside a busy road and the noise of cars and drunks passing by all night was hard to sleep through. Worse, though, was the cloying smell of diesel fuel that tenaciously clung to the cabin air. Fortunately that was the only night when the smell was that overbearing, but it never completely went away. It's the result of decade old fuel lines that run through the hull on their way from the forward-located fuel tanks to the aft-located engines.

There was also the problem of the water pump. In order to have running water on the boat, there needs to be a source of pressure to drive it. In the case of About Time, that pressure was provided by an electric water pump located somewhere under the deck floor on the port side. The idea is that the pump will run only when there is a need for running water. Thus, when ever a faucet was turned on anywhere in the boat, the pump would activate and maintain the pressure on the water. The problem was that there was a leak in the system somewhere, so the pump would start up every minute or so and run for a couple of seconds. Eventually we learned to turn the pump off at night, but that first night we didn't know any better. Every minute or so for the entire night the port side of the boat would be treated to the sound of the water pump moaning in what was probably a very good impression of the final moments of a pair of whales mating.

After a few hours of fitful sleep and the aforementioned Adventure with King Commodious, I resigned myself to the fact that further sleep was going to be impossible to come by; I got up at roughly 0530 to make some coffee.

I had my iPad with me, which ended up being one of the most useful things I could have brought. At this point in the trip, it was useful as a pass-time in playing Words With Friends while sipping my morning cuppa.

While there is a distinctly quaint ambiance to be had in brewing up a pot of Folgers in an old percolator, there is most assuredly not a tasty cup of coffee to go with it when done.

Good enough, though. Good enough.

Right after my coffee, I got started on the morning chores. I started with topping up the water tanks. This was as simple as grabbing the garden hose from the dock, removing the cap for the tank, feeding in the hose, and monitoring the tank vent for an indication that the tank was full. An even better indication than the trickle of water coming out of the vent hose that I had been instructed to watch for turned out to be the gusher coming out of the filling port, but I learned that just a little too late.

Some time during the filling of the two tanks (one on each side; balance is important in a catamaran), it started to rain. As it turns out, the rain would be an almost constant companion for the next three days, but as it was a nice, warm rain, I wasn't too concerned. I sat there getting drenched while the tanks filled.

I had brought along some nice quick-dry shirts and pants (which I called my "safari gear") along with my regular clothes and they worked great for situations like this. Had I known then what I know now, that's all I would have packed as far as clothing. The neat thing about the pants was that the legs were removable simply by unzipping them. I took them off the first day and never needed to put them back on.

I had also bought a set of heavy duty foul weather gear from Walmart, but on the day before I left for the trip I decided it was actually too heavy for Florida and made another trip to Walmart for a cheaper, lighter weight set. That also turned out to be a very good idea. I would have been miserable (well, more miserable) in this stuff:

Once I was done with deck duties, I changed back into my regular clothes, which ultimately turned out to be a mistake. Capt. Ted showed up as promised and we unloaded and packed away the provisions.

Before I could cotton on to the fact that we were getting ready to depart into a torrential downpour, we were off and I was stuck getting soaked to the bone in clothes that would not dry off until the following Thursday. I had also left my side hatch open in my room in an attempt to air out the diesel fumes, resulting in a large wet area of my bunk that also remained damp for the next four days.

To get to Miami, and from there to the Florida Keys, we would have to sail out in the Atlantic and head south for twenty miles. To get to the Atlantic, we would first have to motor a few miles down a channel to get to the sea. And prior to that, we had to plot a route. This requirement led to a couple of hours or so of training on the subject of plotting a course, correcting for magnetic deviation, taking and plotting bearings to update our position, measuring distances, calculating speeds, and updating the estimated time of arrival. Much of this was familiar to me as a pilot, so the theoretical aspects of it were quite easy for me to understand. We will see, however, that much like the operation of the head, the theory does not adequately prepare one for the performance.

Since we were still rank amateurs, Capt. Ted took the helm for the trip down the channel.

It was good that he did; as we progressed down the channel, the ostentatious displays of wealth increased in inverse proportion to the quality of the weather. In other words, as the things we could damage got ever more expensive, the weather got ever worse.

My job as we went down channel, again based on my ostensible competence with the VHF radio, was to contact the draw bridges that we would be passing through. The bridges have scheduled opening times, but if no one requests that they open at any given time, they won't. The first bridge was easy enough:

"Los Olyos Bridge, Los Olyos Bridge, Los Olyos Bridge, outbound catamaran About Time requests scheduled opening."

Somewhere between Los Olyos Bridge and the next one, we were overtaken and passed by the other beginner class. Rather than sailing on a catamaran, they had opted for the monohull, the 51' Gitana.

As we neared the second bridge, I made the call:

"Seventeenth Street Causeway, Seventeenth Street Causeway, Seventeenth Street Causeway, outbound catamaran About Time requests schedule opening."

This one wasn't as easy as the first.

"Sorry Captain, it doesn't seem like you're going to make it in time."

Huh. Now what? I leaned out of the saloon. "Hey, Capt. Ted, the guy says he doesn't think we'll make it there in time."

"Tell him we think we will," he instructed. I did so.

"Well, Captain, I don't think you will," was the reply from the bridge guy after I had relayed the message.

"Don't worry about it," from Capt. Ted.

And me in the middle, without a clue. Capt. Ted knew something I didn't, though. The bridge operator had already promised an opening to Gitana, and he couldn't renege on that. He also knew something that the bridge operator didn't: Gitana was monitoring the radio and had heard the exchange. They slowed down and waited for us to pass.

Under the bridge we went, having gotten one over on "the Man."

As we emerged on the other side of the bridge, I leaned out and asked the Captain how long the appropriate delay would be before I called the bridge operator back to deliver a smug "Told you so."

By this time, the weather was getting truly atrocious and warm rain or not, it was getting pretty miserable.

There was worse to come.

As we neared the end of the channel, Tod was at the helm.

Tom was sent forward to raise the main sail. Meanwhile, as it was my turn to fill the role of navigator, I went below to get ready to plot our position on the chart and record our time of departure. I thought I had the better of the two assignments, considering.

Once we cleared the breakwater, all hell broke loose.

If I had thought things were bad in the channel, there was no comparison to what it was like out in the actual ocean. The first thing I knew was that the entire boat started banging and shaking like it was coming apart at the seams. What was happening was that we were banging straight into six to eight foot tall waves. There is only a foot or two of clearance between the bottom of the bridge deck and the water, so the waves pound against it like Thor's hammer. It's like a three ton belly flop - it pounds through the entire boat.

Also, we had quite failed at the task of getting the boat seaworthy. Groceries were flying everywhere, as was I. A big bottle of dill pickles landed on a plastic jar of horseradish mustard, shattering the mustard bottle's lid and spraying mustard everywhere. I picked up what I could and tossed it all into the sinks where it would at least be restrained, then tried to make my way out of the saloon and out to the cockpit. As I grabbed the edge of the heavy glass sliding door, it popped of its rails and crashed to the deck with a sound even louder than the enormous cacophony of the waves brutally pounding the boat. The Captain and I did what we could to get it into the cabin and wedged in place in the galley to keep it from flying around causing damage to boat or crew.

In what would ultimately be the understatement of the week, the Captain told me that navigational duties might have to wait for better weather.

I wholeheartedly agreed. For the next hour, I planted myself in a seat, found something to hold onto, and just held on for the ride.

Finally, it was my turn at the helm. By then I had become accustomed to the shrieking wind, the sting of the ocean spray in my face, and the pounding of the boat through the waves. Now I had to figure out how to hold a decent course. At one point, Capt. Ted yelled out to me to ask if we were on course one eight five.

"Yeah," I yelled back, "every now and then!"

We worked our way through the crew rotation so everyone got a chance at the helm while Capt. Ted stood by to provide moral support.

Eventually the entrance to the channel at Miami hove into view, and a welcome sight it was!.

It was still raining, but the trip down through the channel and across the front of downtown Miami was interesting, if only for the sightseeing that was in it. Container ships being loaded and unloaded, tugboats and ferries running around, and the city itself were all worth braving the elements to watch.

Just outside the tight confines of the channel, we pulled up in the lee of a well-treed sand bar, just outside of a small protected area called the Marine Stadium in Virginia Key.

The Miami Marine Stadium is a marine stadium on Virginia Key, Miami, Florida, United States. The facility, built and completed in 1963 on land donated to the City of Miami from the Matheson family, is the first stadium purpose-built for powerboat racing in the United States. On April 18, 2012, the American Institute of Architects's Florida Chapter placed the stadium on its list of Florida Architecture: 100 Years. 100 Places as the Ralph Middleton Munroe Miami Marine Stadium.

The 6,566 seat stadium was built in 1963 on land donated for "water sports," and designed by architect Hilario Candela, then-a 28-year-old recent immigrant from Cuba. It was dedicated as the Ralph Munroe Marine Stadium opened, completed at a cost of around $2 million ($15.2 million, adjusted for current inflation). A speed boat racer, James Tapp, was killed on opening day. The venue, located just south of Downtown Miami, was revered for its scenic views of Downtown and Miami Beach, hosting motorboat events, and events featuring the likes of Mitch Miller, Sammy Davis, Jr., and U.S. President Richard Nixon (whose seasonal winter residence, dubbed "the Florida White House," was on nearby Key Biscayne).

From its opening for nearly 30 years, the stadium was used for its intended "water sports" as well as concerts, sporting events such as boxing, which began in 1972. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, it was declared an unsafe building under Miami-Dade County building code on September 18, 1992. In 2004, $3,000,000 was pledged in a municipal bonds by county residents for the restoration and renovation of the facilities.

The Stadium was host for many world class powerboat events including Unlimited Hydroplane, Inboard, Outboard, Performance Craft, Stock, Modified, Grand National divisions as well as other special event races. The Stadium was also the site of a number of nationally televised events including the Bill Muncey Invitational and the ESPN All American Challenge Series. The last major race in the Stadium was the 1987 Inboard Hydroplane national Championship.

Since its condemnation in 1992, the stadium has become a haven for vagabond graffiti artists, but remains an attraction for its photographic panoramic view of the central business districts and barrier islands of Miami.

On April 28, 2009 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Commodore Ralph Middleton Munroe Marine Stadium to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
It is apparently also a good place to abandon a boat.

Dinner that night was fish, cooked by Capt. Ted. There is a little propane grill mounted to one of the safety rails on the port side, back by the cockpit, so that's where he grilled up the fish. It was quite tasty, but I wasn't able to eat the whole thing. The long day on the water had done in most of my appetite. The progression of our assigned duties had me doing the dishes that night. I wasn't due to cook until Tuesday night.

Later that evening I made my first and only attempt to take a shower in the head. I have mentioned before that water management is a big issue on a small boat at sea, but it seems that management of the amount of water used is only half of the equation. You also have to be very careful to manage the direction the water goes. Unless you are alone on the boat or intimately familiar with your co-boaters, you have to take your clothes into the head with you. The issue then becomes how to shower yourself without also getting your clothes wet. In such a small compartment, that's more difficult than you might guess. I quickly decided that it wasn't worth the hassle.  I didn't survey the rest of the crew for their opinion on the matter.

The next morning dawned with weather conditions actually a little worse than those of the day before. The weather conditions reported on the marine radio were for gale force winds off the coast and plenty of wind and rain even for those in the more protected areas in the keys.

The plan for the day was to do some more navigation practice, then to weigh anchor and work our way further down the coast. We would also do some docking practice at a dock that we had passed on our way to our overnight anchor in the stadium.

I actually enjoyed the navigation stuff quite a bit. I'm not sure about the rest of the crew, though. I suppose these days most people don't bother with the charts and the plotting in much the same way that I seldom plot out a course on sectional charts before flying anymore. It's much easier and just as safe to plan the flight on a computer and track it with a GPS. But, there was something about laying out the course lines with the parallel rulers and the compass that made the whole thing feel so.... authentic.

I was tagged for helm duty for the first leg, so Tod and Tom headed up to the bow to weigh anchor. We were all much better prepared for the elements this time around.

After the anchor was up and we were ready to sail, we motored over to the dock where we would practice docking. I completely botched my first effort, actually ending up against the pier completely perpendicular to where the Captain had intended us to be. I had simply failed to compensate enough for the stronger than normal winds and tides. The Skipper decided that docking practice might best wait for calmer weather, so we set a course towards the Rickenbacker Causeway bridge, which we would cross under to enter Biscayne Bay.

The weather in the bay was terrible and it was immediately apparent that we would be better served finding a place to wait out the worst of it. The Skipper had me motor along the length of the bridge and make a turn to run along parallel to a beach until we reached a calmer area next to the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science where we dropped anchor less than half an hour after raising it.

With the rest of the day left to fill, we took the first of our written tests. Just after registering for the course way back in February, the school had sent me three books to read and study. I did so, but there were a few intervening months between then and now that I had productively used to forget nearly everything that I had read. Fortunately I had had enough time to refresh my memory on the flight down to Florida, so I was able to pass this first test. The remaining three would require more study, though. Each of those would see me awake and studying in my room until midnight on the night before each test.

Donna made dinner that night - we had grilled chicken, asparagus, and leftover potatoes and rice from the night before. It was all delicious. In fact, all of the meals were good, and the homemade aspect of them added a lot to the experience.

The next morning saw us gathered around the table again to discuss man overboard drills. One of the easiest ways to get dead on a sailboat is to fall off of it. It's not the fall that will kill you, of course, but the time spent in the water. Drowning is an obvious risk, but perhaps less obvious is hypothermia. With even moderately cold water, it doesn't take long for the water to sap away enough heat to leave the man in the water in a very bad state.

The most important thing to do in a situation where someone has fallen overboard, then, is to get him back on the boat as quickly as possible. This puts a lot of pressure on the helmsman. There may not be a whole lot of time to spend putting together a plan; the response on the part of the skipper or helmsman needs to be quick, and it needs to be correct. There are quite a few factors to be considered: where is the wind in relation to the person in the water? Would it be better to turn the boat into the wind or away from it in the initial turn back to the person in the water? How will you go about approaching the person in an upwind direction? After all, if you end up approaching downwind, you won't be able to stop the boat to pick him up.

I have to be honest here: I had no more idea how I'd go about it after an hour of talking about it than I did before the class. There is just so much to think about. Consider that a catamaran is much faster to jibe (turn away from the wind) than it is to tack (turn into the wind), but if you jibe while the sail is hanging way out in the wind, as it would be if heading downwind, there is a very real chance that the violent swing of the sail from one side of the boat to the other could cause debilitating damage, and a broken boat isn't going to be of much use to anyone, let alone someone freezing in the water. But if you get stuck in the wind while tacking, precious time will be wasted.

Well, we had yet to even perform a tack or a jibe on the boat, so for the present all I could do was try to make sense of it all in my head. The weather was much better and it looked like we'd be able to commence with our trip down south, hopefully all the way down to Key Largo. Raising the anchor was done under sail for the first time and as I had helm duty, there wasn't much for me to do other than to start the engines and be ready to maneuver if the operation went awry in some way. We were, after all, sitting pretty close to a very solid looking sea wall and while the worst of the storms had passed, it was still quite windy.

All went well and we were soon making our way down Biscayne Bay. We had spent a bit of class time talking about rights-of-way, so we practiced identifying who had the right-of-way in various scenarios as we sailed along. We found that we pretty much had none ourselves as we seemed to be overtaking almost every boat out there. There was one that ended up being quite perplexing. Just as we were catching up to it, it started maneuvering in all sorts of strange ways. As we got closer to it, we found that it was Gitana again, and that the strange gyrations were the result of the other beginner class practicing man overboard drills, of all things. Gitana's mast is too high to allow it to pass under the bridge at Card Sound (located at the southern edge of Biscayne Bay), so they wouldn't be able to get as far down south as Key Largo like we would.

We would do our own overboard drills later in the day, after we had made up the mileage we had lost by staying anchored the day before. Instead, we spent the morning having an enjoyable ride down through the bay.

Not surprisingly, our own overboard drills were somewhat of a fiasco. In the benign conditions of the protected bay, we would have successfully rescued anyone unfortunate enough to become separated from the boat. Had we been required to perform a similar operation in rougher and/or colder water, on the other hand, I'm not sure the outcome would have been as favorable. Having actually tried the drills and more or less seen them in action helped me to understand how it's supposed to work, though, so it wasn't an entirely wasted effort.

We finished our drills at the very southern edge of Barnes Sound. All that remained between us and our southernmost stop was the navigation of Jewfish Creek.

Motoring down Jewfish Creek was the very antithesis of the ride down the channel out of Ft. Lauderdale. The wide channel lined with stunning opulence was replaced by a narrow channel crowded on both sides by thick stands of mangrove trees, populated with God knows what kind of wildlife. It was very reminiscent of the river scenes in the movie Apocalypse Now. All I could think was that there was no way I was getting off the boat. "Kurtz got off the boat."

At the end of the river, we crossed under a bridge and there we were: we tied up to the dock and got off of the boat for the first time in three days.

Dinner that night (which was, by happy coincidence, the night I was scheduled for dinner duty) was in the fine restaurant hidden back behind all of the Tiki huts. The special was blackened Hog Fish, which I was more than happy to try.

It was fantastic!

The restaurant wouldn't accept Visa for anything under $20 and my cache of folding money was getting kind of thin, so I added a nice slice of Key Lime pie. It too was very good.

Figuring this to be a good opportunity to take a "real" shower, I headed to the marina facility to do just that. I had to share the shower, of course, but it wasn't too bad. I figure he's probably seen more unattractive nude bodies than mine. Or so I hope.

I slept well that night, but was still up early enough to take some nice pictures before we had to start our sail back up towards Ft. Lauderdale.

I had been worried that I was going to go the entire trip without fulfilling my wish to see some dolphins, but it turns out that in certain areas dolphins are more common than squirrels in the woods or nuts in California.

I think this particular group was sleeping. I had become curious about that; dolphins are mammals, and mammals have to sleep. But how do dolphins manage to sleep without drowning?? I grabbed the iPad and did a little research. The simple answer is that they sleep one half of their brain at a time. The other half sort of dozes. Dolphins are "conscious" breathers, which means that breathing is not an involuntary reflex as it is with us; they have to consciously breath. While they are "sleeping," they will get into a cluster of two or three dolphins and swim very slowly, periodically popping up to take a breath. I think that's what this group was doing.

We had a lot of sailing to do, and we would also be using this opportunity to try our hands at docking again, so after a quick breakfast at a diner on shore we all got back aboard for another day of work.

This was our first opportunity to do any extended time practicing steering with the engines. Because there is an engine in each hull and each engine is controlled with a separate throttle lever, it is possible to steer the boat quite well with nothing but the engines. When differential thrust is combined with the use of the rudder, it is actually possible to turn the boat around in its own length. Having just learned how to control a zero radius mower, this came quite naturally to me.

The docking practice itself went well too. It takes a little while to get your head around using ropes (called "running spring lines) tied to various corners of the boat and/or dock to make the boat leave the dock in just the way you want it to, but I think with a little more practice I'd be able to do it on my own.

It was pretty much a routine day of sailing, although it was the first time that I had to raise the main sail. That left me quite winded - it really gets tough there towards the end, even with the help of the winch. The skipper pretty much left us to our own devices on this leg, apparently believing that we were ready to sail the boat on our own. There came a time when we determined that we'd need to tack the boat and the skipper was down below somewhere, so we just went ahead and did it. Measure that against the trepidation of simply being left alone to sleep on the boat just a few days ago and you'll get a sense of how far we had progressed.

Just after we anchored off of Harbor Point just a few miles outside of the Rickenbacker Causeway bridge, we were offered the chance to take a quick swim in the bay. I went and got the snorkeling mask that I had brought with me and jumped off the back of the port hull. Where I came face-to-face with a fish that at first glance looked like a small shark! I was out of the water and back on the boat in about 1.03 seconds. It turns out that it wasn't a shark - it was a Remora. That calmed me down a little, but as I got to thinking about it, I wasn't too keen on the idea of a Remora mistaking me for a shark and latching on for a ride. Think that can't happen?

Think again:

(photo purloined from the internet)

As we were sailing out in the morning on our last leg, which would take us back through Miami and up to Ft. Lauderdale, we swung past the stern of La Bamba, another of the school boats so the skippers could have a chat with each other.

Miami is very pretty from the water. I believe that if the sea birds didn't naturally flock to the channel markers on their own, the Miami Chamber of Commerce would install some plastic ones just for tourists like me.

The weather was a whole lot better than when we passed through before, and it wasn't a Sunday this time. That, I think, is why we saw a lot more activity on the docks this time through.

In fact, there was quite a bit more activity than we were comfortable with. We had to get right over next to the sea wall to stay out of the way of these behemoths.

The waves weren't pounding against the rocks as they had been before, but it was still a rough, bouncy ride once we got out into the ocean.

We went much further out this time, far enough to see the blue water of the 500 foot deep Gulf Stream. Other than banging through the waves, it was a very pleasant ride. I enjoyed watching the flying fish skitter across the top of the waves.

Once back to the Ft. Lauderdale channel, we stopped to replenish the fuel tanks.

I had the helm for the remainder of the trip up the channel. That started with driving off the refueling dock, an operation that probably gets easy with experience but still remains a mysterious black art to me. With plenty of direction from the skipper, I was able to get the boat back out into the channel and pointed appropriately in the direction we wanted to go. No mean feat, that, especially when you consider that I was working under the very close observation of a well-to-do looking guy who was standing at the stern of his very expensive boat watching every move with the abject focus of someone who was somewhat concerned about the outcome of the endeavor.

As we were pulling away, he gave a thumbs-up and shouted "Nice job, Captain!"

The skipper returned a "Thanks," to which I quickly pointed out that he was talking to me!

As we neared our final stop, I readily gave up the captain's seat to the skipper - this was to be a rather tricky docking maneuver and I was no more interested in trying it than he was in letting me.

We were all tired and ready to hit the shore for a hot shower and a nice dinner, but there were two more tests to go. We were no sooner tied up at the dock than out came the test booklets and pencils for the catamaran test. This one broke from the mold in that it had a few essay questions mixed in with the more routine true/false and multiple choice questions. Once that was done, we all headed out to dinner.

I was dog tired and ready to turn in, but there remained the final test, scheduled for early the next morning. That meant another late night of studying in my room, struggling mightily to learn and remember dozens of esoteric facts about cruising sailboats.

The next morning we took the test. Despite making a couple of mistakes caused by not thoroughly reading the questions, I passed just fine. So, where does this leave me? I will be awarded the four certifications that state that I am qualified and capable of acting as skipper of a sailing vessel like About Time. Am I? Would I? If I'm honest, I have to same no. I don't think I would even consider such a thing without a lot more practice on a more forgiving boat in a less demanding body of water. That said, I think I would be comfortable with taking a smaller, simpler boat out onto one of the inland lakes here in Ohio, with light winds and calm waters to deal with rather than the stormy, difficult conditions we faced in Florida.

And for now, that's good enough.


Steve said...

Quite the adventure, for sure. Great write-up... makes a lot more sense out of all the random Facebook photos from last week. I'd let you sail me across Caesar Creek Lake any time!

Scott Kuhar said...

Kinda puts my youth sailing lessons at O'Shaughnessy to shame. I do know of a rarely used 35' monohull though.

Anonymous said...

Great story. Another page added to my vocabulary list. Anybody get sick?

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