The new bigger boat can’t be trucked over the road. Too wide. Somebody has to sail her from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Naturally, I assumed it would be the XO and I, but it occurred to both of us that we don’t know anything about our new possession. Geez, we’ve only spent a couple of hours on her. Since the previous owner is retired, it made sense to ask him to go along. He readily accepted but said he’d need two weeks to settle into his new house in Wisconsin. A month went by. Suddenly it was late September and the Cape Cod nights were getting damn chilly. Something had to happen soon, so I called the guy. “We’re heading down to the boat to hang out until you get there,” I said. “I hope you left the keys at the marina office.” “You can’t,” he said sounding a little freaked. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. “We can. We are. We leave tomorrow morning. See ya there.” “No. I need another week. I have the keys,” he said. Oh great. This guy has the only keys to our new boat and he’s in Wisconsin. “Why didn’t you leave us the keys at the office?” “The boat’s a mess. I have to put stuff away,” was his answer. “We don’t care about the mess. We’ll clean it up.” “I have the keys,” he said again. “I’ll find a way in,” I countered. There was a long pause. I was getting a little pissed off. It’s like buying a house and hearing someone say, what? You want to move in? Was this some kind of elaborate scam? “There’s a way in,” he said. I waited for him tell me how, I mean, besides a brick. I could hear him muttering to himself, something about– gotta tell Sue (wife), need a flight out— then the phone went dead. It was so weird. All I could think of is maybe this guy has someone living on our boat, or he’s dealing drugs or something. It’s more likely that he just plain forgot.
We packed up the car and made the 850 mile trip in a day and a half. He was there when we arrived and the boat looked nice and tidy. I guess he dumped the bodies overboard. After going to the supermarket for provisions, the XO and I had our first overnight stay on our new boat. It seemed so luxurious. You can walk around the queen size bed! That’s a big deal on a boat. The next morning the XO left for home in our car PonyBoy, and the Old Captain and I left in our boat Jane Marie for the trip north. “You’re like Yoda, I will watch and learn,” I said to the Old Captain as I motioned with two fingers to my eyes, then pointing them towards his. It was more than just a common gesture, it was like sign language; he was hearing impaired. I took the helm shortly after we left the dock and drove for 34 hours straight! I learned quite a lot about myself and my companion, but unfortunately, nothing about this boat. I’ll tell you the story.
It was a lovely late September morning when we left the fuel dock at the Port City Marina in Wilmington, NC. Temps were in the mid eighties and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I had just put 200 gallons of diesel in each of the four fuel tanks and they all showed half full. Let me run that by you again. That’s 800 gallons and it’s only half full! I guess that’s why they call it a long range trawler. “That should last a while,” I mused. “About four years!” By comparison our old boat held about 200 gallons total.
All manner of boaters were out enjoying the beautiful weather, including the marine cops who politely asked us to move over so an ominous looking military spook ship could slink by. This huge vessel was muted grey and had absolutely no markings on it. Judging by all the flat panels at odd angles, it obviously employed the latest in stealth technology, probably obtained by reverse engineering all those captured UFO’S. I tried several times to take pictures, but every one came out blurred. Coincidence? I think not.
Okay, only kidding about the blurry picture, but let’s just say I want to believe. I had the helm as the Old Captain was busy deploying the stabilizing outriggers which made this boat look so much like a commercial fishing vessel that a dozen hungry pelicans flew along beside us. “We don’t have those in Massachusetts,” I said. I suspected he didn’t hear me so I repeated it louder. Still no response. “I bet you don’t have those in your neck of the woods,” he said, confirming my suspicions. Lesson #1: small talk will be difficult. Lesson #2: the stabilizing outriggers slow down the boat to about 5MPH.
We put the stabilizers away because 5 MPH is just too slow. The outriggers are a part of this boat that I never liked. They’re meant to keep the boat steady in certain unfavorable conditions by dragging 50 pound winged weights (birds) through the water at a depth of about 15 feet. Obviously, they can only be used in the open ocean or large bodies of water like The Great Lakes. The tethered birds have been known to fly out of the water and smash into the hull. The biggest problem is they have to be deployed manually while the boat is stopped. The XO and I don’t plan on crossing oceans and if the weather is bad we’re not going anywhere. We’re seriously thinking about removing them.
I followed the aids to navigation eastward out into the Atlantic a few miles to avoid the treacherous Frying Pan Shoal. The boat felt good, strong, responsive, and fairly quiet considering he had two engines going. Why was he running the 12 kilowatt generator along with the main engine? Seems like a terrific waste of fuel.
“Okay. We need a course,” I said. The Old Captain took out his dividers and parallels and laid them on the chart which was spread out next to the big steering compass. “Interesting,” I thought to myself. I was expecting a GPS coordinate. But what the heck, back in the stone age before GPS, Dead Reckoning was the only way to get anywhere on the water. It’s very cumbersome. On your paper chart you draw a pencil line to where you want to go, get out a tool called a Parallel, line it up with the pencil line, walk it over to the compass rose on the chart, and read the number. That’s your course. You’re supposed to write that number on top of the pencil line. You need another tool called dividers, and using the distance key on the bottom of the chart, set the dividers and figure out how far it is to where you’re going and write that number under the pencil line. Now you can use math to figure out how long it will take you to get to your destination based on your speed. Like I said, cumbersome.
Nowadays, a mariner can simply enter the latitude and longitude into an instrument and like magic, it will give you the direction, tell you how far it is, and what time you’ll get there. Or you can simply follow your chartplotter, which is a dandy instrument that shows your exact live location on a screen that looks like a navigational chart.
“Head three three zero,” he said. I looked hard at the chartplotter and the compass “Can’t be,” I said, shaking my head. “I checked it three times.” “Look, it’ll take us over the shallow part of the shoal,” I pointed it out on the chart. “That’s our bearing,” he insisted. I seriously wondered if he was looking at the same chart as me. Just for the heck of it, I swung the boat around to his suggested 330 degrees. Our heading was a deadly one. “Into the rocks? Dude, I’m not going there.” I pulled out my trusty handheld Garmin GPS and entered the coordinates for the nav aid that guards the Cape Lookout Shoal, which is, for the time being, the easternmost point I would have to go around. It’s located south of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. The display read 050 degrees NNE and a distance close to 300 miles. ETA of 30 hours. It’s going to be a long night. Lesson #3: Don’t trust the Old Captains navigational skills.
I have never cruised in the open ocean at night. There’s no reason to. It’s dangerous enough boating in broad daylight. The Intracoastal Waterway, which follows the eastern coast of the United States is so much nicer than the ocean because it offers protection from the wind and waves. Plus, it has things to look at. There are marinas and anchorages where you can park the boat before nightfall and do whatever you usually do before going to bed. So civilized.
As the sun dropped below the horizon, and the lights from the shoreline twinkled weakly and then faded away into the darkness, I regretted letting the Old Captain talk me into this ridiculous overnight crossing. “I will never, ever, do this again,” I vowed to myself. But there we were, all alone in the North Atlantic Ocean. There were no boats and no land in sight. There’s only the stars and the reddish glow of my instruments. I felt so small.
At 2:00 am it was still warm enough to have the cabin doors open on each side of me. Ocean in stereo! Looking forward from the helm, the inky Atlantic was indistinguishable from the horizon. That and the northeast current pushing us from behind at about ten knots made it difficult to steer in a straight line, so I was following a star that happened to line up with the mainstay (the cable that runs from the top of the mast to the bow). It wasn’t the brightest star, but it seemed to be going my way. I got to know it well by it’s position among its peers. Occasionally, it would wink out, maybe behind a cloud, and I would go off my course. Minute steering adjustments were needed or we could end up broadside to the waves. The concentration needed to do this was making me very tired. I cursed the broken autopilot and woke up the Old Captain who was stretched out on the day bed behind me. “Gotta crash,” I said and immediately regretted my choice of words.
Suddenly, I was startled awake by a violent shake that tossed me off the day bed like a rag doll! The microwave, pizza oven, toaster, and coffee maker crashed loudly on the floor next to my head. There was another violent shake and everything else that wasn’t nailed down joined the debris party on the floor. To add to the mess, four gallons of drinking water in plastic jugs toppled off the counter and spilled their entire contents. Everything was loudly sloshing around. “What’s the hell’s going on!? I yelled and jumped up. “We’re going backwards!” the old Captain croaked. “We’re 180!” He was fighting the wheel, and as the compass spun west I knew we were moments away from another broadside wave hit. I quickly sat back down but couldn’t find anything to hang onto. The next moment I was flying across the galley and into a cabinet. We leaned over so far I was surprised we straightened out. A lesser boat would have capsized. I quickly scrambled to my feet. Gotta get to the helm before we loop around again. “Here, let me take over,” I said, and put a hand on the wheel. He was incensed! “Don’t ever grab the wheel from me!” he screamed. His eyes were spinning in his head. I felt like knocking the guy over but then there would be two crazies on the boat. Instead, I took a deep cleansing breath. “Okay, sorry,” I said in a calm, even tone. “But I’m pretty good at this.” Thank God he finally relented.
The big steering compass was not properly lit, and the electronic compass on the chartplotter is displayed digitally. Just numbers that change rapidly making it hard to follow. I prefer a digital arrow, fortunately, my hand-held Garmin GPS has one. I fired it up and began the slow process of getting this boat back on course. The biggest danger is overcorrecting, but it was a clear night and I was able to steer from star to star, again, using the mainstay as a pointer until we were back on course, and whatta ya know, I found my little star I’d been following all night. “Hello old friend.” I said. “Welcome back, Rick,” said the little star. “So now I’m talking to stars?” “Apparently, Rick. This is what happens when you only get an hours sleep.”
“Dammit!” I said. “The depth sounder is out.” This is a huge problem in a boat that needs four and a half feet of water to float. In the melee, something could have fallen on a wire, or maybe a connector shook loose. I opened the access door to the area that held all the gauge wiring and started poking around. “Hey! Don’t touch that!” The old Captain shouted. I shot him a look. “I mean it!” he snarled. “You know this is my boat, right?” I said. I’m an easy going guy, ask anyone, but this not the first time that bastard has talked down to me like some wet-behind-the ears greenhorn. Hey, I’m a wire guy! I know something about wiring and electronics. I was wicked ticked off and the resulting jolt of adrenaline was better than three cups of coffee, which was good because my brand new Mr. Coffee lay in pieces on the floor. I started thinking, he hasn’t shown me anything about this boat that I couldn’t figure out myself.
“Hello Mister Sun,” I said softly as he crested the horizon. “Good morning Rick, How was your night?” Oh boy. Delirium had set in, but what the hell, if I can talk to a star I can talk to a sun. I’m an equal opportunity nut job. I slapped myself hoping I’d return to sanity, but what I really needed was a cup of coffee. I checked the fridge for a Coke or something. “Excellent!” The XO had left behind a bottle of her homemade cold brew! A choir of angels sang as I held up my prize.
Daylight at last. With still no land in sight, I discovered I could stay on course by keeping the sun centered in one of the portside windows. It worked well until it rose above me, but by then my marker was in sight. Yay! We were approaching the Cape Lookout Shoal. The Old Captain was busily studying the chart with his parallels and dividers. “You’re not where you think you are,” he said. “What?” I got a scared rush. Could he be right? “We’re over here somewhere,” he said. His finger was pointing to a spot about a foot off the chart! “No way,” I said. “I checked it three times. We’re way over here.” Now his hand was two feet off the chart. “I’m exactly where I know I am,” is all I said. I wasn’t going to argue with the guy. This boat has two chartplotters, radar, and two GPS units. They’re all telling me the same thing: the Old Captain’s wrong.
There was a storm racing north from the Bahamas. It’s hundreds of miles away but I could feel the ocean’s unrest when we rounded Cape Lookout. The waves were hitting us at an uncomfortable angle. “We should use the Intracoastal,” The Old Captain said. “On it,” I said and opened my laptop to Active Captain, a greatest website for boaters ever developed, and it’s free! “Ooh! We just passed Beaufort,” I said. “I’ve been there. It’s a nice deep water port right on the Intracoastal Waterway, but it’s 30 miles in the opposite direction. Not so bad.” I said it aloud, but it still felt like I was talking to myself. Funny how easily I got used to that.
I banged a yooie but the wave action was worse. No way could I do 30 miles of that. I turned back around and a quick phone call secured us a slip at the Anchorage Inn and Marina on Ocracoke Island. I set a course for the closest inlet through the North Carolina barrier islands.
I’ve never docked a single screw inboard boat. Most of my experience has been with twin screw inboards, single screw stern drives, and single outboards. This new boat is a different animal all together. “Show me how it’s done,” I said with a hand flourish so the Old Captain would understand. He got my meaning and slid behind the helm. When I radioed the marina to announce our arrival and get a slip assignment, I got an urgent message. “If that’s you at the inlet you’ve got to hug the greens!” the voice on the radio said. “I repeat. STAY LEFT NOW!”
The Old Captain failed to hear the warning. I waved my arms like Carlton Fiske right in front of the guy but it was too late and we came to a rather abrupt halt. After some aggressive maneuvers involving the bow thrusters and then flooring it in reverse, he somehow wriggled us free then approached the tee dock way too fast for my liking. My number one rule for docking is: nevergo faster than you want to hit something. He came in for a port side tie-up and things got ugly fast. The ass end started sliding away but the dock hands held onto the bow line and the big boat completely flipped around. So now we had a starboard side tie-up. Hey, what the heck, any landing you can walk away from… Lesson #4: Don’t trust the Old Captains driving.
We left Wilmington, NC. 34 hours ago! Boy! Did I ever need and cold beer and a hot shower. When the Old Captain chewed me out for not having his back at the inlet, and not having the fenders ready for the docking debacle, the seeds of discontent were firmly planted. He wasn’t teaching me anything about the boat, and in fact, he kept everything a secret. One time he was working on some wiring. I was curious and walked up to him. “Whoa,” he said. “So now you’re gonna come up behind me?” “Want me to solder those wires for you?” “I’m perfectly capable of soldering wires,” he said rather bluntly. I thought he was gonna bite my head off.
One day when there was no dockage available in our cruising range, I announced we were going to anchor out for the night. “Right here,” I said and put my finger on the chart. “It’s good depth, and not too far off the channel.” “Good protection from the northerly winds if you tuck it in right over here.” He said, his knobby finger traced the shoreline. I thought we were in agreement, but when I pulled up to the anchorage, and faced the bow into the breeze, he gave me a weird blank look. “This spot looks good,” I said. He just stood there. “Please go to the bow and deploy the anchor.” I said. He looked perplexed for a second, then obeyed. I shut down the main engine and joined him on the bow for a look around. “Well, here we are,” I said. “You are not a hero,” he said, obviously miss-hearing me. “There are things I could have done to prepare if I knew we were anchoring.” I couldn’t believe it! It was bad enough that he forgot we were anchoring, but now he was chewing me out again. I lost it. “WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM, ASSHOLE,” I yelled right in his face. “WHERE DID YOU THINK WE WERE GOING WHEN WE LEFT THE CHANNEL BACK THERE?” I swept my arm towards the line of boats anchored nearby. “WHERE THE HELL DO YOU THINK WE ARE?” I stormed off and immediately began charting a new course.
The next morning was as grey as my mood, but I was buoyed knowing my plan will soon be enacted. “Where we goin’?” the Old Captain asked. “Havre De Grace,” I answered. “What. Why? It’s only 10 miles away.” “It’s a big enough city for you to rent a car and go home,” I said.
I texted the XO about what was happening and she arranged for an Uber to meet us and take the Old Captain to Enterprise to rent a car. We weren’t at the dock ten minutes when the Uber car arrived and he was gone.
After looking around a bit, I discovered that both alternators attached to the main engine were disconnected. The Old Captain was running the huge 12 kilowatt diesel generator to power a dinky old Sears battery charger. I reconnected the alternators and started the engine. No output, they were both junk. It was baffling. Replacing them is so easy even for a novice. I also noticed the inverter– the gizmo that changes 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC– was disconnected as well. At anchor, this particular inverter can easily power the fridge, microwave, TV, lights and other stuff that doesn’t demand too much amperage. And finally, the water heater was not plumbed to the engine cooling system. Hot antifreeze can be circulated to heat water cheaply and efficiently while underway. Well, now I know why he was constantly running the generator. The so-called professional surveyor we hired failed to mention any of these very important things. Geez! It’s his job to notice! While I’m on the subject, the survey stated the beam (width of the boat) was 16’2″ but at the Salt Pond Marina in Hampton, Virginia, I couldn’t fit the boat into a slip that was 17’6″ wide.
Two days later the Old Captain called and apologized for being such a jerk (his own words.) I asked him why he disconnected the alternators. He said he thought they were dragging the batteries down. That answer didn’t make any sense at all, but I let it go. “Sorry I flew off the handle,” I said. “No hard feelings Rick. Call me if you need anything.” “Will do, Take care.” I lied. I’m not calling him.
I felt good about my decision, he absolutely had to go, but it bothered me that I failed to keep my cool. Swearing and yelling is just not like me. I pride myself in my ability to let things roll off my back. I should have been more compassionate, after all, he was giving up this beautiful boat that at one time held all of his dreams. He talked about how he was going to cruise the Caribbean with his wife, and how happy they would be living the romantic life of vagabond Gypsy sailors. But life caught up with him and he couldn’t fulfill his dreams. Hey, that would damn well take a chunk out of me. I’d be a total dick after that too.
The Old Captain possessed the bearing of a man who’s had some hardship in his life. His personal story, as interesting as it may or may not be, remains a mystery, but I would have loved to learn more, and talk with him about his life on the water as a professional delivery captain. I’m sure he had many adventures to talk about, and I would enjoy laying some of mine on him, but as I mentioned before, small talk was difficult. It’s too bad.
The unforgiving sea, relentless and full of dangers, is no place to become surly and absentminded, yet many of us are drawn to it regardless of the perils or our state of mind. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere, but sometimes it’s not about what you’ve learned, it’s about whether you wear your scars, or your scars wear you. Lesson #6: Always be kind.