One magnificent sunny morning anchored off Key Lois (home of a hoard of free running research monkeys) while on a sailing vacation in the Florida Keys I suddenly realized that everything sounded funny. This had nothing to do with the granny monkey with two baby monkeys on her back waving from the beach after George and Amberley had toted fruit over to them – against my best advice. Voices, the aquamarine water massaging the hull, the breeze through the halyards did not sound right. “We need to get out of here – now,” I stated, “We’re in for bad weather.” The robotic voice (Egor) of the NOAA weather radio did not predict a storm anywhere between the Keys and the Dry Tortugas, but it was hurricane season and weather changes are abrupt. Because I am the captain, and the word of a captain is law, George begrudgingly weighed anchor and we headed toward a safe harbor in Marathon.
Half way to port the sky behind us turned black. The winds picked up and a water spout (tornado at sea) appeared. Amberley dozed off – a combination of mild sea sickness, anxiety (her mom had tied herself to the helm) and Dramamine while George just kept muttering, “This was not predicted.”
Sailors don’t trust weather predictions. Memorial Day’s forecast called for a 30% chance of scattered storms after 4 p.m. We left the harbor around one o’clock with friends. The wind died, the sails fell limp, and the boat listlessly flowed with the current. Ex Libris drifted so slowly (she’d caught on to the notion of acedia) that a water snake decided to approach the boat right up to the port hull and then aimed for the stern, followed the boat and tried to come aboard (“Sssssss-render the booty”). I fired up the engine until we caught an easy southwest wind on our beam and headed up the channel. I couldn’t shake the sense the Slitherin was still following us or that it was graduation weekend at Hog Warts and other snakes would be joining us for cocktails.
We picked up friends in the harbor. Ralph had obligingly been hoisted 52′ up a newcomer’s mast to help fix a broken halyard. We waited until he was safe on deck and then headed back out around two o’clock. We were sailing up the channel dodging barge traffic and scouting for snakes when Ralph asked about the time and the weather. I’d been watching the western sky and agreed that the emerging storm line was early, but the dark clouds were building to the northwest and would probably miss us. When we sighted rain upstream I made the decision to tack and head down river to dodge the storm. George asked if he should take the sails down. I declined and reiterated that we were putting the bad weather a’stern. He shrugged, obeyed the captain and grumbled, “The issue is putting all of this down – it’s a lot of work.”
Moments later the wind shifted and the sky darkened. I ordered the crew to furl the jib and then commanded that the mainsail be dropped – fast. We’d completely missed the thunderhead hidden by an island in the channel. The boat was suddenly broadsided with 28 mph gusts. The sails thundered as we pointed into the wind. George and Ralph climbed up to the mast, pulled down the sail and secured it – all the while the wind was howling and spray was hosing down the deck. The boat bucked through confused waves as the wind fought the current. It took all of my strength to hold a course into the wind and keep the guys steady as they wrangled the sail onto the boom. Going down with the ship was not mentioned in my daily horoscope, we stayed calm, followed our training, and were glad we’d ignored the friendly jesting of another sailor that all can’t be well if the captain leaves the harbor wearing a life jacket. We all had ours on when the weather went to hades in a nano-second. Between subsequent squalls we motored into the harbor, docked safely and sat in the rain under the bimini toasting our confidence and competence during the storm.
The captain of a boat is responsible for the safety of everyone aboard and all damages incurred by the boat. Passengers and crew are expected to obey faithfully the captain’s instructions. There is a pact between the captain and crew that safety is the absolute priority for any actions on a boat. That’s one reason skippers don’t sail naked.
We’d learned the previous day that a seemingly healthy guest can suddenly pass out, fall into the life lines and get hurt. During that emergency, as captain of Ex Libris my job was to appraise the situation, determine whether the guest was okay or not. What triggered the realization that our friend was not okay was his stubborn refusal to follow the commands of the captain, which at the time seemed rather simple, “Sit and don’t move.” Here was a seasoned sailor defying the captain and putting two other crew members at risk because of his limited mobility, lack of a life vest, and seriously compromised cognition. Like the air off Key Lois, he did not sound right. Something was very wrong. I turned the boat back to the harbor, gave George the helm put Ralph in charge of keeping our friend sitting in the cockpit and went below to call 911 and have an ambulance meet us at the dock. A trip to the ER determined that our friend had passed out due to a low sugar level and was fortunate not to break any bones or have a more serious medical condition.
Having someone injured on a boat more upsetting than a water snake attempting to come board without first asking the captain for permission. An accident on the water is more nerve wracking than being caught in a squall under full sails. A captain’s responsibility for everyone and everything aboard is more surreal than a family of rhesus monkeys sitting on a beach eating fruit and waving at passing sailors. A few hours later our friend was relaxing by a bonfire cheerfully crooning sea shanties and limericks. My post adrenaline rush lulled me to an early bedtime. I knew he was okay even though he sounded funny.