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Rob Writes
Master Wordsmith With Heart
Aboard the S.S. Rotterdam
Paddling the San Juans
Gawdy Time in the Gulf
Service 1
Gawdy Time in the Gulf

Toward midnight the captain went below just as a pile of ocean broke into the cockpit with a crash. The hatch flew open and he looked out, catching the surge of water retreating from my legs and slowly out the cockpit scuppers. His look admitted, yes, it was better to keep the hatch closed tonight. Maybe just tonight. Maybe tomorrow, too, if the seas were still running.

"Hang on,” he shouted.

I nodded and buckled in, running straps from the harness around my hips and snapping them into steel eyebolts at my feet.

“I guess that’s a good idea, too,” he said.

“Oh yeah.”

And it was. Even on a calm night it was a good idea. At night with no one abovedecks but you, no one could see you slip accidentally over the side, swept by a rogue swell. No one could see you thrashing madly after the boat in a futile effort to catch up, your only safety now speeding away from you at eight knots.

But tonight, hills of water swept up behind us, looming 15 feet over the gunnels and lifting us high into the black night, hundreds of tons of water passing every quarter minute. They came, we rose, they passed, and as the next swell came you could see the boat’s wake tilting upwards on it like a painted track.

“Hang on for just two hours,” he shouted. The cabin hatch slid closed.

The compass read 120. It had read 120 since two days ago when we cleared the mouth of Pensacola Bay.

We started from a marina deep within a Pensacola bayou on a pleasant bay. The channel ran just outside the docks, and the yachts and shrimp boats sharing it with us idled slowly past us as we left. Out of the bayou we cut south through Pensacola Bay, turned southeast to follow the road out and emerged into the land-bound sea of the Gulf of Mexico. And then it was 120 degrees for the rest of the trip. One hundred twenty degrees toward Tampa, 300 miles away. The coast followed a line that trended more north, leaving us to slant off into the deeper water without the companion of land at our side. As the sun went down on our first evening we watched the high rises of Pensacola disappear beneath the surge.

Then, darkness.

The first night the wind held steady out of the west. We sailed under main and jib, both of them new, both of them having arrived the day before from the sail loft in Taiwan. Not bad sails for not a lot of money, but that wasn’t the only thing the captain had purchased. We got food, we got coffee, we got a rubbery little dinghy and had its tiny outboard fixed. We got an extra GPS.

We got the fridge and cabinets stowed, the batteries charged. We had a great large chart showing the gulf coast all the way around to Tampa, though this would mostly be useless to us, as we would only approach the coast near the end. We were cutting straight across the gulf, no ambling along near shore. It was shallow near shore, and the captain detested shallows. That captain had not yet grounded her anywhere.

Besides, we had to move quickly. Upon completion of our trip, both of us had work to resume, he in Bangkok and I in the city of my residence, which lay up a river much narrower than the Gulf of Mexico. The captain had a flight to catch in four days. I had deadlines. Clearly the best course was the 300 mile straight shot across the gulf.

Here’s a saying I learned much later: The most dangerous piece of equipment on your boat is the schedule.

We had studied the weather. And though the crossing was the first for either of us, we had sought the advice of those who had done it before. We had looked them up in books and solicited them on bulletin boards. They gave us their knowledge and wished us happy sailing. But wait for the weather, they said. Always wait for the weather in January.

So we had. A cold front had gone through Pensacola the day before we sailed, predicted to leave a trough of fair weather lasting four days behind it, as they usually do. We left Pensacola immediately after this. No one, not even the weather service, had properly understood the Arctic air mass waiting over the midwest.

That was two days ago. Now we were running before a 25-knot northerly, gusting to 35. All that moved us was a shortened jib and a mainsail crumpled and heaped on the boom.

The compass light glowed steadily in the gloom, and the dial shimmered and waved before my eyes. She responded quickly to the wheel, dispite her size, though when we began falling to starboard--140, 150, 155—nothing seemed especially urgent about the error. Languidly I turned the wheel and the dial came slowly back to 120--and then headed off into the lower numbers to port. I turned the wheel again and the dial came back—and then back to the higher numbers. She couldn’t, she wouldn’t stay at 120. One twenty was the negative valance for her, the unfavorite direction.

Very well, she wouldn’t hold there. But even a course considerably to port would get us closer into land, where maybe the conditions were easier. The radio had announced small craft warnings when we were already 60 miles out, and at least a day from any likely port. Even considerable error to port wouldn’t soon close this 60 mile distance, but closer to land was good. The closer the better.

The hatchway opened and the captain looked out, his eyes taking me in and growing large with what he apparently saw behind me. For a moment he didn’t speak, and his composure returned.

“How do you feel about the engine?” he called.

“Oh, go for it,” I said. “As long as you get some sleep.”

We had started by changing watches every four hours, but the cold had altered that plan. Now we changed every two hours, which allowed the helmsmen to not become hypothermic, and offered the man below at least the possibility of a nap. This, too, proved harder than it seemed.

Because of the rain, every change of watch brought an accompanying change of clothing. For our preparation had extended to the fitness of the boat and stopped short at the fitness of the sailors. Thus when a new man took the wheel, the man relieved had to stand, shuffle off his rain paints, remove his gloves, and squirm out of his rain jacket, all wihle standing behind the wheel. These he gave to the man coming on, who followed the process in reverse, putting on the pants, the jacket, the only pair of gloves on the boat, and all while holding to sacred 120.

Then, once below, the man just relieved had to ditch his wet clothing and dive under a blanket, in the pitch and throw and jumble of 12-foot seas.

“Just get that engine on and It’ll be a lullaby to me,” the captain said. He could exhibit dash even under these circumstances.

I checked the gear shift and the throttle, then turned the key on the instrument panel. The dear old diesel started up with a clatter, a sound as comforting as music. In a moment, the GPS said we were moving forward a knot faster.

The captain withdrew and the hatch cover slid closed, and once again in my web of safety straps I remonstrated with the compass and allowed myself to believe that the spray coming up into the cockpit from the engine outfall felt as good as a warm shower.

The engine, the old clattering diesel, regular as a clock—if something should go wrong with such reliability you knew were in the zone of the improbable. She would pull us through, I had little doubt. We left with our tanks full and the captain, though new to the boat, had carefully measured the fuel flow. We would have more than enough for the trip. If he had measured right.

Water droplets on the compass crystal obscured the sacred numbers. I watched. I watched. There was nothing to do but watch. First the water droplets disappeared and the numbers came into view—130 moving to 135—then the numbers disappeared and the water droplets grew massive and intimidating. They slewed around the top of the dial and got in the way of the numbers. They pulled focus away from the numbers. They magnified the numbers beneath them like great thick spectacles and the numbers grew too big to be seen. One hundred twenty became entirely too large to follow, so great were its movements. One hundred twenty making itself invisible by hiding in obviousness, by being too very present. One hundred eighty was visible near the top of the dial, passing through the top of the dial. One eighty would have to do. One eighty was close to 120 and bore some relation to it. Other numbers, such as 240 bore a similar relation. Oddly enough, 160 did not seem to be part of the same number family.

Out in front there was nothing but blackness. If a floating barrel or a container lay before us, fallen off some ship, we would just have to hit it and deal with the consequences. And how would that sound? A shuddering blow throughout the boat and our way checked instantly. And maybe a trickles of water slipping in through a cracked hull. Better a big container than something thin and sharp. Something thin and sharp could come right through the hull. And where would we be then, 60 miles from the nearest land? The sound would signal it, the rushing crash and the rising of water. I tried not to think about it.

The swells came up high on the port side and the compass read 90, a comfortable course. Ninety was a comfortable course because at least the swells rode up on the quarter. And…but this was something I was not going to admit to the captain… 90 would plot the boat much closer inshore, much closer to land than their current course would take us. And granted it would take forever to get safely inshore at this angle, but closer to land was better no matter how you looked at it. Whether you looked at it from the point of view of a person in a boat or a person on land. Ninety still. Pursuing 90. A bucket load of warm water rode the breeze up from the water outfall and doused me. The water ran off the plastic clothing and down into the wool socks.

The weather radio was playing inside. The hatch slid open again and the captain’s silhouette appeared before me, blocking the bright lights of the cabin.

“Call for slower winds toward morning,” he said.

“That makes me glad,” I said.

“And then slightly warmer. But colder toward evening.”

It could hardly have gotten colder without killing us. That would be a trick, wouldn’t it? To get hypothermic in the middle of the gulf? Of course we had dry clothes, down in the…. But no we didn’t have dry clothes. Nothing in my bag but a couple cotton T-shirts. And the big pullover fleece would prevent the worst of the hypothermia, if it didn’t get wet. But everything seemed to be getting wet. I didn’t see the captain’s eyes last time he came out and maybe he didn’t notice the great gray swells rising up behind me this time. And maybe they weren’t rising up behind me. But if they were, sooner or later everything would be wet. Just then a swell collapsed against the port gunnel and a surge of sea fell into the cockpit. Nothing to sweep a guy over, especially one so well strapped in. And soon after the cold dousing came another warm dousing from the engine outfall. The water ran down to the cockpit floor and out the scuppers and in a moment was all gone. The wonderful design of boats. If only she could hold on.

The first night had gone well enough, with both of us pulling our four hours in lonesome sleepy silence. It was a long dark night with the gulf water restless, and apparently nothing to avoid out front. And the night went on and the night went on. Not only did no freighters appear, no vessel of any kind appeared on the horizon. No lights shone at night. And just when sunrise was supposed to occur, the sun did indeed come up and another day began. I went below at 4 a.m., came up at 6 unslept, and at 10 a.m. the wind hit.

It was as if a gate had been thrown open. In one moment we were moving smoothly along under main and jib, and in the next we were thrown forward with a pounding 20 knots at our stern. A "clipper system," the weather service would call it later; the Arctic mass ir over the midwest sent cold fronts ripping down the river lowlands and into the gulf. They came nearly twice as often as ordinary cold fronts, which meant we might as well have waited in Pensacolo all winter. The troughs that usually lay between the fronts in January contained only more fronts this year. Our waiting only assured we were 60 miles out when the next one hit.

Shortly the seas began to rise and a tension I had hoped not to feel settled into my gut. The passage was become a toboggan ride across the walled sides of swells. We brought the main partly down in an attempt to reef it, but it went too far down and wouldn’t come back up. Now it lay abandoned on the boom, with a few hurried cords thrown around it to quiet the flapping. All that day we hung on, surfing backwards up face of each swell as it passed and lifting stern first on the next. Finally night came and all the the demons came out. All the monsters from underneath the bed and the dark back part of the closet came out and waited not more than an arm’s length outside the dull little nimbus of our running lights. This was away out at sea all right, with no lights to the left, no lights to the right, no stars overhead and nothing but the wind in the stays for soundtrack to this...to this arrow flight in one direction, this homage to 120. (The droplets had made the numbers too big to read again but they looked to be indicating 180 or 190, and that was all right, there was that family resemblance.) No lights to the left, no lights to the right, no stars overhead and a momentous churning of invisible seas just away from the sides. Dauphin was the name of our tentative shelter on this mess, our little shack on the shock. And, yes, that could be the sort of name you’d hear in Unsolved Mysteries and Bermuda Triangle stories. Just keep going Dauphin, with your mighty jib and unkillable diesel, and the many oceans already passed beneath your counter.

We seemed to be at a limit now so that not too much of a nudge would tip the scales to tragedy. Just the breaking of a shroud, how would that sound? A twanging crack, followed by the sudden canting of the mast to one side. Or the falling of the mast backwards over me. But it probably wouldn’t happen that cleanly. No, first there would be the deck to clear of broken stuff, a mess to clean up in this awful sea, with one or both of us going forward out of the cockpit—the captain, no doubt disdaining to wear life lines—and perhaps going overboard. Good god. We could not even turn around in this brutal sea if someone went overboard. You could almost see it. The little body separated from the fast-moving boat, the shouts for help—would they even be heard? The body born up on the heave of those billows and down into the trough and up again. And the stern of Dauphin running rapidly out of sight. The yelling useless. The two objects getting further apart, and then the last moments of life in the black water alone alone alone alone alone alone.

It could happen fast—a single sweep of water over the cockpit. There were only two of us. How could we hope to rescue anyone who fell over, especially if one of us was below during the two-hour break, trying to get to sleep?

The hum of the diesel dipped lower, then rose, then dipped low again. Behind the clatter of the engine could again be heard the crashing of surf. The engine came back up and the hatch cover slid open.

“Are you doing that?” the captain called.

“I’m not touching it.”

The engine went off.

“I didn’t touch it,” I said.

I sat my wheel. He stood in the companionway. Cold spray struck me on the left. The engine was gone and now the warmer spray would be gone.

“Could be a filter,” said the captain.

I turned the key and the engine started again, and ran for about 10 seconds and went off.

“Gas?” I said.

“We had all our tanks full,” he said.

“Sounded like an engine running out of gas.”

"Couldn't be," he said. “It’s gotta be the filters."

And he looked absently at me awhile, while we let the feel of the situation settle in.

"I hate the smell of diesel fuel," he said, "but someone’s gotta go into the filters.”

"Are you sure it's the filters?" I said. It didn't seem right that dirty filters could choke an engine so suddenly.

The captain proposed to take apart the companionway stairs, open the engine compartment, get in there to the engine and take the fuel filter apart. It seemed like a niggling detail to name as the culprit, a clogged filter.

“Okay,” I said.

“Which means you’ll have to drive for another hour.”

I took a deep breath.

He got into the engine compartment. Work went slowly because he had to take time out to go forward to the head and vomit. The boat was pitching madly, making every movement of the arm and body a matter of intense effort. And still we were racing on. Every now and then the top of his head appeared in the companionway, and twice his body went forward into thehead. Eventually the filter came back together and gave me the go-ahead. I turned the key. Again, she ran for 10 seconds and quit.

“I don’t know what else it could be,” the captain said.

But there wasn’t much point in investigating further, as it was the middle of the night, pitch black around us, and the wind was pushing us in the right direction anyway. What we really needed was sleep. Sleep more than any engine.

He disappeared below and half an hour later was up to take his place at the wheel after no sleep at all. I gave him the pants, the gloves, the jacket, and fought my way inside the pitching cabin to the sleeping birth where the only other life aboard, my dog, lay awake.

Out of the wet shirt. Out of the wet pants, out of the wet shoes and socks, Andrew watching all the clothing hit the floor. There was a sleeping bag there that I had been using, only too cool now to warm me up enough to allow sleep. I got in and pulled Andrew in with me.

What seemed like minutes later there was knocking on the boards of the companionway.


Into the wet pants, into the wet shirt, the boat pitching and rocking. Into the wet shoes and socks. And over that—the fleece pullover! If ever I needed fleece it was now.

In the cockpit the captain looked as gray as the water behind him, the mountains of water rising against the blackness. No words spoken as we exchanged the plastic clothing once again and I sat down behind the wheel and pulled us back from the far wandering adventure the captain had been steering—he was away up by 200 and 210. That was not the right direction at all. That would take us further from land.

There was nothing else to do, no escape. You had bundled the threads of your life together and they all ran through here. No going backwards. Impossible to quit and go home from here. All there is is forward. As if by commitment alone we might prevail. The only safety is despair of safety.

Just keep doing it. Just settle into the status quo and ride it.

By the third morning we had travelled 200 miles. Considering the force of the wind and the fleetness of the boat it should have been more. By 7 a.m. we were still more than 100 miles from Tampa and it was clear we had yet another night before us. I listened to the weather forecast, then went on deck. The boat was pitching mercilessly.

“I don’t know how they got a lessening of wind last night. I just heard a strengthening, a steady 30 with gusts of 45.”

The captain looked grim.

“Also,” I said, “temperatures down into the 30s tonight.”

For a moment we said nothing, once again letting the feeling of the situation sink in. The feeling was all bad, and had no light places anywhere within it, no passageways out. I didn't have to tell him what I was thinking. And then he asked the question that had repeatedly, on three separate adventures, in three different forms of transportation, gotten us into serious trouble.

"How hard could it be?" he said.

He had said this twice before in our friendship, and each time I had succumbed to the bonhomie of it. The goddamned swashbuckling devil-may-care of it. There was the auto tour through Portugal at well over 100 miles an hour, with me helpless and sweating in the passenger seat. There was the long-distance impromptu driving tour of the Azores, begun at his insistence when we were already many miles from our ship, which was scheduled to leave in less than an hour. And there was this trip, a simple movement of his new boat from one coastal town to another. Simple. How hard could it be? Oh, how I hated being the cautious one.

“One hundred miles yet and colder temperatures tonight, and not a dry pair of pants between us,” I said.

He looked straight ahead and gripped the wheel as a mighty great hill of water pitched beneath our stern.

“They come out here after us they can take my boat,” he said. “And even if they don’t, god knows how much it’ll cost me to get towed 100 miles.”

I shivered. I realized I had been shivering for a long time.


"They don't have salvage rights unless we abandon it," I said, "which we won't do. And whatever it costs we can split it.”

He turned the wheel this way and that while I stood in the companionway.

“Because once we get hypothermia we really make some bad moves,” I said. I knew that was true because we had already made some.

At that moment I was thrown backwards into the cabin by a powerful lurch, and landed with a crunch on the cabin floor. The microwave and the contents of the aft cabinet landed with me. For a moment I lay there, with broken bottles and jelly spread around, and the shattered glass tray from inside the microwave. After about a minute I heard him calling.

Yes, I was all right, I called, climbing up the companionway ladder. He looked me over carefully for signs of broken bones. He looked a long time, studying to see if the fall had changed my idea. It was my turn to drive anyway.

For the next hour while I sat watch he emerged from the cabin carrying broken dishes, plates, dented pots and the smaller pieces of the microwave oven. These all went overboard. Then he came out with the main part of the microwave and threw it over. I watched it sink about 20 feet before it disappeared in a filter of green, on its way to the floor 110 feet below.

The cabin floor was still littered with debris, and all of this might indeed have gone overboard if a great lurch to port hadn’t sent the captain right over on his face in the cabin, his shoulder striking a decorative pillar by the nav table and snapping it right off.

The wind had gone yet higher and was now blowing positive coldness. Here before noon that predicted no good thing at all.

My next watch below I was on the radio.

“Any vessel within hearing, this is sailing vessel Dauphin, come back.”

I repeated the call several times.

"Vessel Dauphin,” came an answer, “this is fishing boat Yoki. What’s your situation.”

The voice was a warm light filling the cabin, the first voice we had heard in three days.

I gave our situation, our course and speed, the condition of the sea, also the minor fact that we were without dry clothing and an engine. I didn’t need to tell him about the worse weather coming in.

“I just wanted to be sure there was someone else out here,” I said. "Just in case, you know."

But the next I heard from him, he had called the Coast Guard. He had only reported to them what I had said, he told me. They made the decision themselves.

So it was not just the occupants of our boat who smelled danger.

“They’re on their way from Tampa,” he said, “so it’s going to be a bit of time. Do you have a sea anchor or some kind of drogue?”

“The Coast Guard might come for us?” I asked. And I was going to say I wasn’t sure that was really necessary.

“They’re already out,” said the captain of Yoki. “Do you have a sea anchor?”

I told him I would veer out the longest hawser I could find and get us head to wind if possible.

“Good,” he said. “You just be as quiet and comfortable as you can and we’ll be over to keep you company.”

They were 20 miles away. Four hours at least.

“But I can’t ask you to come all that way just to watch us,” I said.

“We’re commercial fishermen,” came the reply. “We are happy to have something to do.”

Four hours later a small blip appeared on the horizon, the fishing boat Yoki, which never grew bigger than a blip. Four hours after that a huge bulge appeared over the surface of the earth and slowly took the shape of a cutter.

With the boat still pitching crazily it was hard work moving out to the bow to catch the thrown line, harder still getting it secured to the forward bit. But after that we had six hours to rest in the cabin. This we did, clearing space amid the debris to sit and even to lie down, though the motion of the boat barely permitted sleep. The long hawser thrown off the stern prevented the tow line from jerking us, and perhaps from yanking the chocks off the bow.

After six hours we again went out forward to throw off the cutter's line and attach a new one, this from a smaller vessel designated for inshore towing. And then, three hours after this we did it again, to fasten ourselves behind the third rescuer in this sequence, a commercial salvor, who would take us all the way in to the slip waiting for us.

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