It was unusually cold for Florida, or so they told me. I’m a New Englander myself. Born and raised there. Specifically, Massachusetts. My wife and I were just passing through Carrabelle on our 32 foot Trojan cabin cruiser Ginger Lee. One day in late December, this little town received its first ever winter storm warning. Naturally, I assumed I would wake up to a winter wonderland, just like we do in New England. Everything would be blanketed in pure white snow that would cling to the pines, weighing their branches down, and sparkle like diamonds in the morning sunlight. The familiar sound of snow plows scraping the street would reach my ears as I lie in bed. “Get up Rick. Put on your boots, your coat, mittens, and that warm wool hat. Grab a shovel. You know what to do.” But that never happened.
The sun had already breached the horizon when I got out of bed. The old alcohol heater was a doing a good job keeping us toasty warm inside our floating home. I started the coffeemaker and padded up the companionway stairs. Outside, everything looked the same as when I went to bed. I don’t know why I was disappointed. “I hate snow,” I thought to myself. “It’s such a bother.” But it was cold out there, even by New England standards. Our outside thermometer read 19 degrees. The marina people had a fire going on the great porch where the local folks would gather for coffee, donuts, and cigarettes. Everyone was wearing camo. I guessed that when it got cold, these northern Floridians donned the only warm clothing they owned, their hunting gear.
Ginger Lee rocked slightly in her slip as my wife and I moved about in preparation for departure. We will be crossing the Gulf of Mexico, a trip that will take longer than there are hours of daylight. It was our very first night passage, and we were both a bit apprehensive about it. We never boat at night. There is no reason to. Not normally. But there are no ports for a boat this size on the northern edge of the Gulf. In order to continue our Great Loop voyage, we must cross over to the western Florida coast.
The wind was light, the water flat, and visibility was better than we could have asked for. I backed the big cruiser out slowly as the XO (my wife) gathered the fenders and lines and returned them to their proper places. I tuned the radio to 78 and keyed the mic.
“C Quarters Marina. This is motor vessel Ginger Lee vacating slip nine. Thank you so much for your hospitality. We had a nice visit. I hope we can make it back here sometime. Merry Christmas. Ginger Lee out.” After a beat the radio crackled back.
“Well you’re certainly welcome here anytime Ginger Lee. Safe travels and Merry Christmas to you too. C Quarters over and out.”
Twelve miles out of Carrabelle, we left Dog Island to port and set the GPS. It’s screen began slowly counting down the hours and miles to the one and only waypoint that matters today: Tarpon Springs.
At first it was spooky cruising in the darkness, totally relying on electronic instruments, but even that wore off after so many hours of listening to the drone of the engines.
“I wish we could fly,” I said aloud. “We’re so slow, and there’s nothing to look at.”
“Boring is good on a boat,” the XO reminded me. And she’s right. No drama is good.
“Oh oh,” she said, right on cue. “Fog bank.”
“Can’t see anything anyway,” I said as we were engulfed. “Pea soupah!”
“Radar’s clear,” the XO said. “AIS too. We’re alone out here.” Again, as if on cue, the radar screen blanked off. I reached behind the old CRT monitor and wiggled the connection. Sometimes that works, but not tonight.
“AIS is out too,” the XO said. “We’re flying blind.”
“We still have GPS.” As soon as I said that, the darn thing shut down. Suddenly, everything went dark. We had nothing. No electric power. It was pitch black, but at least the engines were still running.
“Talk about flying blind. Now nobody can see us.”
“We still have the compass, and paper charts. Stay on course.”
“The gauges are all on zero. We can’t monitor the engines. I don’t like this.”
That’s when the port engine wound down and petered out. The starboard engine followed suit, then there was utter silence.
“Well, no more worries about monitoring the engines,” I cracked.
With my volt meter in hand, I opened the access door and touched the leads to the battery. The sulfur smell of burnt circuitry made the diagnosis easy.
“Battery’s fried,” I said. “Looks like there’s a short right here. I separated two wires that had crossed. You got any cell service?”
“Nope. Try the hand-held.”
“Any vessel, any vessel, any vessel. Come back to Ginger Lee. We are disabled. Exact position unknown. Over.”
“We’re way outta range. We should drop anchor.”
“Can’t power the windlass. I’ll drop the spare.” I made my way to the foredeck in the eerie darkness. There was neither a puff of wind, nor a ripple of wave. It was like standing in a cloud. My face and hands dripped. I swear I heard bells.
“Honey, did you hear that?” She whipped open the window and stuck her head out.
“Yup. Sounds like bells.”
“We need a light up here, there may be a boat nearby. Try the radio again.” The XO handed me the flashlight. I turned it on and its beam travelled about a foot and a half. Bells again. Louder this time. I stood perfectly still, listening intently. Suddenly, a blazing red light lit up the entire boat!
“What the…!” There was something above and behind us, about a hundred yards away, and coming fast! The XO saw it too.
“What is it?” she yelled, her body stuck halfway out the window.
“I dunno! Must be aircraft, and it’s coming down!”
“Rick! It’s gonna hit us!” she screamed and ducked inside.
I literally hit the deck, covering my head, waiting for the impact, but there was none. No crash, no splash, no big whoosh, nothing but silence, and a whole lot of lights. I slowly stood up, rubbing my eyes in amazement. Right there in front of me, drifting in and out of the fog, was sixty feet of bright red, jaw-dropping, hot rod motor vessel. Sexy enough to rouse Don Aronow from his grave. Trimmed in white pinstripes and lightning bolts, shiny chrome hardware, and extra bright red and green running lights, it glowed like a wonderful apparition. K. Kringle was written just below the cockpit enclosure. On the transom, above the two stainless steel, surface piercing props, in gold and silver drop-shadow script, was the name Santa’s Little Helper. North Pole the hailing port. It was truly a go-fast to end all go fasts. In front of this gorgeous boat floated nine jet-skis, tiny by comparison. Four green ones on the right, next to four red ones on the left. The one in the very front shone the brightest red spotlight I have ever seen.
“Honey, what day is it?” I asked. Not such an unusual question for two non-working mariners on a year-long trip.
“Sunday. I think.”
“But what’s the date?” She paused a moment, then answered.
“It’s the 24th. Christmas eve!”
“That explains a lot,” I stammered. “C’mere and check this out. You’re not gonna believe this.”
“You’re not gonna believe this,” she answered.
On the swim platform sat two brand new marine duty batteries. Each neatly tied with red ribbons and bows. Next to them sat a small, potted, pine tree with a note that read: For being so nice, Santa.
“Look, he’s still there. I think he’s waiting to make sure we’re okay. We shouldn’t keep him waiting too long,” the XO said. “Got a long night in front of him.”
“Right,” I nodded, and got right to work, quickly replacing the batteries and hooking them up. It wasn’t until Ginger Lee was running, and all her lights were on, did we hear the rumble of twin, turbocharged, 454’s. He was gone in a flash of white light. Rising so quickly into the night sky, he actually took the fog with him!
For the next seven months on our Great Loop adventure, we lovingly cared for that little tree, and decorated it with shells and other small mementos. We even gave it a name: Santa’s Little Helper. When we got home, we planted it in our front yard for all the world to see, and to remind us for many years to come, to never forget the magic of Christmas.