The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

If you are just learning about my sailing adventure, I’d recommend starting with the preface to how I end up spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met followed by part 1 of my stories at sea.  The following describes the final moments of mour trip when things looked bleak but some adrenaline, ingenuity, the right companion and a stroke of luck got me safely to share.  I’ll close with a reflection on jumping into the deep end of a new experience and how it relates to where my life is going next.

Dreary day at Boot Hey Harbor, Marathon, Florida

Dreary day at Boot Hey Harbor, Marathon, Florida

Setting the stage

Back before we even set sail, when we were preparing the boat back at Boot Key Harbor, Brandon dropped me off at the marina one day to catch up on while he ran some errands to fill up the propane tank and such.  In the middle of checking my e-mails in a the marina common room, some wild winds started racing through the garage-sized doors throwing around newspapers.  A few seconds later, a deluge of rain crashed on the ceiling and my phone beeped with a text from Brandon, “On the boat, waiting for the storm to pass.  I’ll come get you as soon as it does.”

As the rain poured and the winds blew, I happily typed away on my laptop for a couple hours before checking in with Brandon.  He picked up my phone call and briefly summarized, “Minor emergency.  Mostly taken care of.  I’ll come back to the marina when I can”.  An hour or two later, he arrived, dressed in a rain jacket with a massive appetite, “so just after I texted you, a gust of wind flipped the dingy, submerging the motor.  It took a couple hours but Fernando and I were able to recover most of the stuff that drifted down shore”.  Apparently word travels fast around a marina because as we stuffed our faces on creole rice AND a sandwich, everyone already seemed to know about the incident.  Brandon’s friend Joe arrived with some motor oil, other people were texting him with advice for reviving a submerged motor and everyone wanted to hear the detailed version of the story.  I watched the exchange of information with a smile.  Brandon always jokingly called his sailing buddies “a bunch of bums that just want to have fun” but honestly, I was incredibly impressed with the boating community.  Most of the people we talked to had left secure and stable jobs to pursue a life at sea, because they found dealing with the daily challenges and victories made life a lot more interesting and rewarding.  They were always willing to lend a hand, provide advice and share skills they picked up over the years because there’s no exact science to sailing and, no matter how nice their boat is, because everyone has been stranded at some point.

After our feast, we were able to get the dingy operable enough to get halfway back to the Aloha and one of Brandon’s Australian friends was happy to give us a tow the rest of the way, dispensing more advice as he dropped us off.  With a bit more tinkering, Brandon got the dingy working to escort us to a delectable enchilada party on his friend’s boat and back.  Since it was time to set sail the next day, we tied it to the foredeck and didn’t have to worry about it until we got to Dry Tortugas.

When we wanted to come ashore to visit the fort, we assembled the dingy but couldn’t get the motor to start.  We spent hours taking it apart, replacing the spark plug, cleaning the clutch, even lighting the fuel on fire to test our gasoline to no avail.  It wasn’t a huge deal when we were anchored at Dry Tortugas because we had oars to row the dingy to the Fort, friends on a James Bond boat to give us a tow during a miniature afternoon storm and we had a big boat with a working motor.   Our remaining goals for the trip was to return to Key West and find a way to get me to shore… the first part was relatively simple since the motor on the Aloha keeping us moving forward on a second, stormy night sail and working like a charm until we were in eyesight of the anchorage at Key West.

The "James Bond" boat who sent someone on a motorboat to save us when we were frantically paddling and getting moved backward during a storm

The “James Bond” boat who sent someone on a motorboat to save us when we were frantically paddling and getting moved backward during a storm

Anchoring Under Sail

After two days of empty ocean, entering the Key West channel is a shock. Party catamarans are packed to the gills with intoxicated tourists. Motorboats blaze through the waters, flying paragliders like flags. Jet skis blaze by fishing boats that try unsuccessfully to race. Dive flags mark large swaths of sea that you should not enter. I was behind the wheel and all this made me a bit nervous to begin with, but not as anxious as the sputtering of the motor as it died leaving us with the sole sound of the clanking of the jib and overheard catamaran party tunes. Brandon calmly got out the diesel can to refuel, praising the motor that had never given him the slightest mission. So we now had extra fuel but turning the key in the ignition failed to do anything. Brandon checked a few things in the cabin as the first five knot (aka significant enough to get us moving faster than a kindgergardener can run) winds of the trip blew us toward the anchorage at alarmingly fast speed, compared to what we had been traveling.

Brandon said, “Katie, I don’t want you to freak out but this could get challenging. We’re going to have to anchor under sail, and with these winds, it’s possible. But it’s going to happen fast and we’re going to have one chance to do this, hopefully without hitting any other boats”. I harnessed my yoga breathing as he directed me to harness with speeding winds and land between two boats on the outskirts of the anchor. He went on the foredeck and instructed me to steer into wind then reel in the sails after he dropped anchor. “Now!” I successful steered us into wind, then pulled on the winch with every fiber of my being and reeled in about… 2 inches of rope. The sails whipped wildly and the ship rocked as Brandon tried to manually bunch them toward the pole in what looked like a drunken bear hug. I kept pulling, watched Brandon’s sunglasses leap overboard, waiting for him to follow and feeling like my mother, saying a prayer for my survival. Miraculously after dragging anchor for the length of the football field, Brandon somehow got the sail under control and we settled in a generally acceptable place to anchor.

He made his way to the back of the boat and weakly gave me a hug. “Do you know what we just did? That was the equivalent of bringing a ski jeep to a sharp stop at the bottom of an icy mountain”. I hugged him, grateful that the two of us and Aloha were ok, completely unfazed by the fact that I couldn’t even know ski jeeps were a thing. What was more telling is that energizer-bunny Brandon had run out of energy for more than two minutes, barely about to drink the water that I refilled for him. After about 15 minutes of staring blankly into space with an exhausted but triumphant grin, he stood up with determination to attack the problem of the broken motor. He identified the issue as a broken starter, which can usually be fixed by the tap of a hammer but when that didn’t work, he took more things apart, checked more electric connections and somehow shorted a circuit so the problem became even bigger than a broken starter. He looked exhausted, the situation was getting worse instead of better, so we skipped dinner, put on a movie but both fell asleep a few minutes into it.

“Life has a way of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen at once” -Paulo Coelho

Just What We Needed… Another Storm

A couple hours later, we were awakened by the sound of grinding metal (similar to what I’d imagine the Titanic sounded like when it hit the ice berg that caused it to sink) and the boat dangerously rocking back and forth. Torrential rain started flooding into one of the windows we left open for air, and through half-open eyes, I saw sky to sea lightening. It took Brandon a second to orient himself before he realized we were dragging anchor and he headed out into the storm to reground us. I anxiously listened for his footprints, worried that the bucking bronco of a boat would throw him overboard. He came in, shaking and soaked, and commented that he saw three other boats also dragging anchor (which meant even if we stayed stable, who knows what could crash into us). He dried off and crawled back into bed but was too nervous to sleep. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the noise reappeared and he was on the foredeck again, dropping the other anchor and hoping that the combination would hold us.

Getting Ashore

We activated the anchor alarm and tried to sleep.  Brandon didn’t sleep much and despite two sleepless nights, he hopped out of bed, rising with the sun, buzzing around and half-heartedly brainstorming ways to get me to shore, tow and/or fix the boat. We found out that a towing service would cost $700 and the AAA equivalent service wouldn’t activate until the next day, which meant I would miss my flight. We were 1.5 miles from shore and the current flowed strongly in the opposite direction, which meant we couldn’t swim or row. We tried paging nearby sailors on the radio with no response. Even the anchorage, which was busily abuzz with morning activities when we were here a few days prior, was eerily devoid of people.   As Brandon tried to plan sailing to the marina (which would have a lot of moving obstacles to avoid and no legal place to anchor and still won’t get me exactly on shore), I stayed on deck looking for movement. I spotted someone bringing towing a trial of jet skis and Brandon and I hooted and hollered to successfully flag him down.

My rescuer! Matt who brought me to shore on his jet ski

My rescuer! Matt who brought me to shore on his jet ski

After checking to make sure that we both had food and water and weren’t going to die, Matt dropped off his jet skis and returned to pick me up. I burst into tears, simultaneously relieved to be rescued, worried about how Brandon would get back, sad about saying goodbye to him and our maritime adventures but happy to be alive.

I bid Brandon farewell with a snotty-nosed hug then piled on the jet ski with my carry-on suitcase precariously balanced between my rescuer and I. He dropped me on shore, dazed and confused, in dirty pajamas, electrified hair and red eyes. The owner of a hotel nearby snuck me the code to the shower room and I emerged cleansed of sea grime for the first time in a week, dressed in a presentable clothes and infinitely more calm and collected. I looked in the mirror, surprised at how easy it was to wash away the evidence of the crazy week I just had. After doing a happy dance to release some of my glee at using a normal toilet, I took a deep breath then tentatively joined the rest of the tourists on the streets of Key West.

On the shores of Key West as a land-loving tourist

On the shores of Key West as a land-loving tourist

Implications for South Africa and Beyond!

While all it took was a shower to wash off the visible evidence of our endeavor, and aspects of our trip will continue to fade as my tan and the bruises from bouncing around the cabin in the storm like a pin ball disappear, there’s major life lessons that I will carry with me.  The whole experience is one I undertook, jumping into the deep end with no prior experience or expertise.  While much of my life for the past year has been spent in foreign lands with strange people and minimal knowledge of what I was doing, what was different about this sailing trip is it required a degree of commitment.  Once we said goodbye to Key West on our way to Dry Tortugas, we bid farewell to cell reception and even radio reception for weather information.  Despite scary moments and many moments where I felt like I had no idea what was doing, there was no turning back which turned out to be a good thing.  Sometimes the best way to learn to sail is getting on a boat and having to figure things out. People may help when you really need them but most of it is just trying to stay moving forward, smiling through the chaos and solving problems creatively.

I can eat strange foods all day, hop on random people’s motorbikes and sleep on stranger’s couches… things that terrify most people.  For me, this has become normal, familiar and I always have the freedom to leave.  I’ve spent the last year moving on when things got boring or difficult, instead of spending the time to struggle with something that was challenging.  Being on a sailboat, where there’s no easy escape, made me confront my fears head on, and I realized that with the right preparation, attitude,  companion and some luck, anything’s possible, even when the future looks bleak.  And once we emerged victorious, despite the storms and the broken things, the sense of accomplishment was incredibly fulfilling.

“It’s good to do uncomfortable things. It’s weight training for life.” -Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

In a little more than a month, I’m going to arrive in Johannesburg on a one-way ticket with a backpack full of summer clothes with a job offer that I don’t know if I’m going to accept. From the beginning, I knew it would be a challenge being the only one from my field, undertaking a kind of research that no one at the University of Johannesburg has experience doing.  I knew I would be in a very foreign setting wherethe aftermath of the apartheid still has very real implications on those living and getting educated In South Africa.  As an outsider, what qualifications do I have to understand and combat such ingrained societal challenges? To top off all those challenges, the university is incredibly disorganized and the whole application process has been ambitious and my ‘stiend’ is still too be determined but it sounds like I won’t be saving any money.  In my heart, it felt like the right place to me and I’d be OK with the ambitguity if it’ll allow me the opportunity to make a difference. It’s hard to know.  I know if I do sign on, it will probably be a year mostly of grasping around in darkness, trying to figure out how to do things, and probably without the company of someone as awesome and knowledgeable as Brandon to keep me smiling.

The scariest part about starting a permanent job is I won’t be able to put on my backpack and leave when things get tough.  I feel like I face near death situations on a fairly regular basis, between crossing the streams of motorbike traffic in Hanoi to these storm at sea, but I almost always have freedom and flexibility.  I feel like I’m ready to sacrifice some of that for a more stable existence but it won’t all be smooth sailing.  As I turn 27 next week and have to make decisions about where life will take me next, I hope I can face the inevitable issues with the same kind of perseverance and positive attitude that made our sailing trip such a success.

Songs of the Moment: Broken Things– Dave Matthews Band & I’m Alive– Kenny Chesney (featuring Dave Matthews)

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