I read all the yachting mags, cruising rags and boating pubs—and am amazed to discover my fellow marine writers are geniuses who don’t make mistakes.
In fact, from what I’ve read… all boaters are Josh-Slocum-Reborn.
I am not. I make plenty of mistakes. In fact, this is about the only thing I and my wife Carolyn agree on. When she says, for the hundredth time in a day, “…I married an idiot,” all I can do is hang my head in honest shame.
Recently I hit a reef in the Philippines that a hung-over Helen Keller could have avoided.
I mean, it was as visible as a nun with a black-eye. It stuck out like an honest politician. Yes sirree, it was as blatant as a boy-scout-with-hard-on.
I could have avoided it as easily as a visit to my mother-in-law—but no. I plowed right into it. Dead center. In broad daylight. With the sun over my shoulder. During happy hour. Right in front of a sailor’s bar. With all my yachtie-snotty friends rolling in the sand, laughing their respective arses off!
How did it happen?
I’ve asked myself this question dozens of times since.
Here’s how it happened: I keep getting more and more ‘electro nav stuff’ to make up for the fact that my 56 year old brain is… well, toast.
I mean, I wouldn’t have done half the stuff I did… if I knew I was going to live this long.
…oh, why didn’t I use that glue for… well, to glue stuff together with?
…anyway, Wild Card now bristles with electro-amulets: four GPS units, for example. Even my Maximum wind speed is complicated: it turns yellow to alert me to shut off my wind generator, red to douse the mainsail at 25 knots… even relays-on a loud siren at the ‘kiss-your-butt-good-bye’ level of 40 knots.
Another contributing factor is my wife: I don’t drink any more and she has decided to take up my slack. A tasty cold beer is 40 cents here in the Philippines. Carolyn demands one a day—more if I don’t tie up her hands to prevent her from frantically signally the barkeep. Thus, every harbor in the world where alcohol is served is a ‘must stop’ for my wife.
And she tirelessly combs the Internet for coastal watering holes: this is how we ended up entering a small ‘hidden’ harbor at the south end of Negros Island in the Philippines.
Now, if I’d had no information about the inlet I’d have slowly motored up to it, looked, and entered carefully while avoid the reef to starboard and the sandbar to port.
Needless to say, that’s not how the deal-went-down.
Instead, we set up elaborate “highways” on our electronic charts (plotted to one-thousands of a minute). We put high and low water alarms on, off-course alarms on, ‘getting-close-to-your-waypoint’ alarms on… even alarms which would go off… if any alarms that SHOULD go off… weren’t set to! I mean, it is riDICULOUS! My wife sets nav-alarms to warn her of the possibility of getting repetitive-stress syndrome… from punching in nav-alarms!
And our waypoints were, like, every yard or so. And there was foot-by-careful-foot text instructions on the Web-Page-To Entice Sailing-Idiots-With-More-Money-than-Sense: “…avoid wreck to port… hug middle… drag a toe on the beach to starboard” were some of my favorite bits.
Which is all laughable because the waypoints were completely, wholly inaccurate—at least according to my three GPSs. But we didn’t know that—yet. So we started in confidently… radar a’whirling, depth-meter a’sounding, electro-charts a’scanning… wind speed a’twirling… GPS’s clicking away the micro-inches…
…and Carolyn was just starting to leave the nav station to go on bow watch when… an alarm went off.
“..bilge?” I said.
“No,” she said. “Off-course, I think… or maybe depth? Or maybe it is my bread timer… I’ve got two loaves of whole-wheat baking in the oven…” she mused.
Yes, we had a loaf or two in the oven… but we were both, alas, personally short a few slices!
As Carolyn pivoted back to the nav station to investigate what was electro-wrong, I happened to glance at the water alongside Wild Card. “Wow,” I mused to myself, “the water is AMAZING clear here!”
Then we struck.
I never get used to it. I mean, I’ve run a wide variety of watercraft aground in a wide variety of circumstance—and I’m always in initial denial. “…earthquake?” I queried Carolyn as she ass-over-tea-kettled herself to the cabin sole. “…struck by an errant torpedo left over from WWII, perhaps?”
Now our vessel Wild Card has had a hard life—and the nightmare never stops for the poor girl. The good news is she is flexible, highly flexible, and extremely flexible. Her bulkheads have been ‘untabbed’ from her hull so many times that… well, I’ve now taken to re-attaching them with Velcro… not strong, true, but easy to stick-back-in-pseudo-place. Her hull was once cored with balsa… before it rotted. And the gel-coat crazed. And the hull-to-deck jointed rented. Transom drooped. Bow sagged…
…come to think of it, my wife and my boat have a lot in common.
…but Wild Card is so soft and flexible she didn’t smash into the reef like a truck ramming into a chicken coop… more like a marshmallow, water balloon or rotten vegetable bouncing/bulging over a cringing flower bed.
There wasn’t much of a sea running but—just as we were about to clobber a large piece of brain coral dead center—a small, benign wave picked us up, turned us 90 degrees to port, and shot us back into deep water.
During the entire incident not-one-single rational thought entered my mind… nor did I use my tiller in any intelligent way… just sort of waved it around in my frustrated hands… like a magic-wand-without-batteries.
I’d say my seamanship was pathetic—but I don’t want to sing my praises too highly.
It was then I realized we had an audience—the local barflies on the beach at Sail Inn were laughing so hard it was difficult for them to put down their beers and dig out the telephoto lens for their digi-cams.
Horrified—after all, we ARE international role-models on some sleazy, sick level—I then leaned over Wild Card topsides and tried to obscure her name/port with my splayed-open hands… much to the amusement of the flashbulbs.
No, it wasn’t my finest hour.
Thus we entered Bonbonon harbor at 9 north and 123 east— where even the tiniest of Filipino children now dash up to me and say in English, “Hey Fatty! I’d like to ask you for some nav advice… NOT!”
Needless to say, I quickly dove over the side of Wild Card to inspect the damage. Luckily, it wasn’t too bad— mostly just scrapes on the port side of the lead keel.
If I squinted, I could almost imagine the coral scribbles to spell out the word ‘dumb’ in jagged, sea-weedy script.
And that’s the truth of it. I’d love to be able to pen one of those ‘wise skipper in tune with his vessel’ missives which are so popular in the marine press… but I just seem wholly unsuited to the task.
The pathetic truth will have to do instead. I once heard Carolyn quietly telling a girlfriend, “He’s as dumb as he is honest.”
Another time, when asked how we manage to support ourselves while endlessly circumnavigating, I heard Carolyn say, “…we just sail around and my husband dolefully reports on all the stupid things he does… and he never lacks for material, I’ll grant him that.”
Yes, it’s a strange life. But I’m too set-in-my-sea-gypsy-ways to learn how to screw up anew ashore… so I guess I’ll have to stick with the only incompetence I’ve ever truly mastered… that of an eager-if-incompetent ocean rover.
Editor’s note: The crew of Wild Card will next attempt to cross the dreaded Sulu Sea… while selling cheap eye-make-up to the local pirates. (“They LOVE Johnny Depp,” gushes Fatty.)