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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Weather reports are a sailor's best friend...

Against my better judgement, I pulled up anchor and set sail for Marco Island without duly heeding the weather forecast. My first clue should have been when the power boaters alongside of me, while negotiating the narrow channel, were overheard to have said, "he's going the wrong way". Was he talking about me perhaps I wondered?

Soon after daybreak that morning I opened up the sealed packaging containing my snorkeling gear and most reluctantly dipped into the water with a wide plastic paint scraper and proceeded to scrape the barnacles off the hull of the boat.

The water was murky and scraping barnacles off is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind of what I want to do in the morning. Coffee is certainly the first thing that comes to mind and second is a quick rollover and ... oh hell, I'll let you figure this one out for yourself.

Anyway, I simply couldn't stand the thought of sailing some forty miles with a lot of crud slowing down my hull speed. I'm thinking that I scraped most of that crud off. The keel will simply have to wait until I reach clear, tranquil waters.

The overcast morning skies were a welcomed relief from the usual oppressive hot sun. However it wasn't long before I could hear some distant thunderstorm rumblings off on the horizon. It isn't without reason that Tampa named one of it's sports teams the "Lightning".

I was sailing south at a pretty good clip en route to Marco Island with Boot Key Harbor in Marathon being my next destination when the wind started gusting. I reefed the sails as the first of many "scattered thunderstorms" approached. The storm hit hard and it hit fast.

It was all that I could do to maintain steerage. There was a good two to three foot chop in the water by now as the boat plowed through one wave after another. I kept my wits about me and kept sailing ahead. It was one cold rain shower after another. My white long-sleeve shirt, worn to protect myself from the brutal sun was now soaked through and through. I did later find a moment to swap it out for a dry sweat-shirt and life jacket.

The rolling swells kept slamming the starboard side of my boat. I had to make an emphatic effort to concentrate on every movement made while reefing the sails. This included grabbing the toe-rails as hard as possible in case I were to be slammed by another unexpected swell. Donning the life jacket was, needless to say a prudent thing to do in case I should get swept off the deck.

By nightfall, I was exhausted and somewhere off the coast of Naples according to my GPS. There was no way I was going to risk running aground in the dark and there was no way I was going to attempt to continue sailing in that stormy weather. I therefore, dropped the sails and watched my drift to ensure I'd be drifting out away from shore. I secured the tiller with two long bungee-cords and went down below for some much needed sleep.

After a restless night of sleep with me continually climbing out into the cockpit to check my location relative to a distant radio tower, I once again set sail for Marcos Island at five in the morning. Curiously enough, the night skies had cleared somewhat to reveal a bright full moon.

Sometime around eight in the morning of day two, clouds started gathering once again and soon enough I'm once again being pelted with rain. It was one storm after another. It was a brutal day of sailing. I later came to the realization that it was insane to be sailing in this kind of weather and decided to turn on back to Ft. Myers which in hindsight was the wrong decision since I wasn't all that far from Marco Island.

There was one thunderstorm extending from one end of the horizon to the other. It was massive and headed my way. At one point I could see nothing other than a demarcation line dividing the clear green ocean water and the dark grey angry storm front making its approach. It was a surreal moment. I couldn't see anything past a hundred yards or so it seemed. It felt as if this just might be my last day on the planet. I was indeed apprehensive but not scared in any sort of crazy way.

A moment later my eye catches the sight of a dorsal fin swiftly gliding along the surface of the water... and no it wasn't the friendly curved shape of a dolphin's fin either. That was most certainly a shark. I watch the thing as it swims behind my inflatable dinghy that I was towing and then watch as it turns on a dime and speeds back towards the dinghy and then just like that it was gone and out of sight.

It occurs to me that my life vest is but a measure of false security since I'd simply be swept out to sea and most certainly be made a meal out of at some point before anyone would think that something was amiss.

I'm now serenely frightened with tears having welled-up in my eyes and talking to "god" of all things... not making any excuses of any sort and not asking for forgiveness of any kind but rather asking him to tell the mother of my children that I am sorry for not having been a more loving husband and to tell my daughters that I'm sorry for not having been the devoted father that they deserved and that I am sorry for not having "brought joy into the lives of others" as explained by Morgan Freeman's character in the movie, "The Bucket List".

As the storm engulfs me I'm once again pelted with rain coming at me sideways. Lightning is now striking everywhere within my vicinity and all that I can think about is of a bolt of lightning striking the mast and traveling down and out through the boom and then reaching out to strike me while I manned the tiller in the cockpit.

The storm lasted fifteen minutes by my count... not fourteen or sixteen but fifteen. I know because I had switched on the chronometer on my Ironman Timex watch as the storm hit. I could deal with the gusting winds, the ocean swells, and the pelting rain but the incessant lightning was absolutely terrifying.

As this thunderstorm began to finally subside, and the winds no longer gusting to what seemed hurricane strength, a small break in the thick cloud cover briefly opens up to reveal the sun. It was a surreal feeling to have what seemed like a heavenly spotlight beaming down precisely over my boat. It made me wonder whether someone was indeed watching over me for some unexplained reason.

Overhead I later observe what appears to be a military aircraft flying into the storm clouds... possibly collecting weather data or even possibly conducting a reconnaissance mission to see whether the sailing vessel that was showing up on some remote Coast Guard radar screen was still under sail.

I finally make it to Fort Myers Beach and dock at the nearest transient marina but not before misjudging my approach into the slip and aborting my entry after coming in too fast and then suddenly finding myself coming to an aburpt halt in the mud. Yes, I'd run aground of all things.

I gather my wits about me, and with my boat hook I grab onto the stern cleat of an old beat up fishing boat next to the slip I had intended to dock into and with all my might pull my boat back out of the mud and into deeper water.

That river mud certainly was not going to get the best of me after I having to endure two nerve racking days out at sea.

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