Cruising with the Swiss family Fuss

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A 22-foot sailboat named Sunset was a modest platform for adventure for a family of eight

A 22-foot sailboat named Sunset was a modest platform for adventure for a family of eight

For years my job kept me busy and required so much travel that I had very little time for recreation. Our family had increased faster than our financial resources, so we needed to come up with alternatives to expensive trips involving air travel or hotels.

My wife, Carol Ann, and I considered a modest-size sailboat. Our six skinny little “stick children,” who ranged in age from 5 to 15 years, really didn’t have a vote. After some serious scrimping we produced about $4,000, and with this mighty sum in hand, we went looking for a boat.

I could not as yet relive my fond memories of growing up in Tampa Bay, Fla., with wooden sailboats. In 1976 there were few wooden craft remaining in this subtropical land of the teredo worms. Of necessity, our school ship would have to be plastic. We found a 2-year-old, 22-foot Helsen pop-top.

It was possible to sleep six thin people below in berths and two not-too-long crewmen (in fair weather) on the cushions under the Bimini. Our stick-people complement would fit on board. The seller had an outboard for sale, but that was beyond our means. No matter — I was a traditionalist, and we would sail, paddle or pole everywhere we went. We bought the orange-hulled Helsen and named her Sunset.

We live in St. Pete Beach, though not on the water. Even in those days marina space was expensive. An old acquaintance operated a bait shop for FortDeSotoCountyPark and kept his little bay shrimper behind his quarters. Bill agreed to let us put down a screw-anchor mooring just off his place. At night his dock lights covered it. The spot was ideal and only a few miles from home. With the centerboard up, Sunset could sail in 18 inches of water. We had miles of grass flats to glide over and numerous small islands to explore.

A black Lab, christened Spar, had come into the fold a few months before we got Sunset. She was growing at an alarming rate and weighed more than some of the children. During sea trials we learned that a large dog on an already crowded boat was not going to wash. We towed our 9-foot dinghy on our overnight trips. A compromise was reached with the maritime union of our six children. Spar would ride in the small (i.e. smaller) boat. We mounted a little Seagull engine on the dinghy, and that worthy craft could be used as a “yawl boat” to push the Helsen.

A primary logistical problem of cruising with six children was water. We could carry enough to drink without a freshwater tank, but we insisted the kids had to be sponged off and salt-free before bed. We saved plastic gallon milk bottles — we went through a lot of milk — filled them with water, and lined the bilges and any other available space. The U-boats had nothing on us. Carol Ann also needed onions, celery, green peppers and various other foodstuffs to maintain her Cajun heritage using a small Coleman stove.

Sea trials were completed on high water over the grass flats, but we were ready for a real cruise. Our first great adventure was a cruise to Egmont Key. Egmont had the old crumbling FortDade, brick streets that ended in eroding sand, gopher turtles, a lighthouse and a pilot station. In other words, a fantastic place for kids to explore. The island was near our mooring, but to get there we had to cross an active ship channel with barges, tankers and other commercial traffic. I was a little concerned about that.

It was a hot Florida day with light, fickle winds and clear skies when we neared the dreaded Egmont Channel under sail. A 360-degree sweep with the glasses revealed a large bulk carrier bound down the channel and passing under the SkywayBridge, about 5 miles to the east of us. The channel isn’t very wide, and I figured we had almost a half-hour to cross it before the menacing, bulbous-nosed phosphate-hauling behemoth would be a threat. The fly in the ointment was Spar’s propensity to chase schools of fish.

As we entered the channel going south, a small, tight school of baitfish swam into view. I saw the black dog assume a “pointer” position, tracking the fish. Before I could yell for the dinghy to be pulled up, the fool dog leaped into the strong ebb tide. She floundered toward the fish.

The bulk carrier loomed large. The family or the dog? We make strange decisions under stress. I jumped into the dinghy with two of the boys and frantically set about trying to start the reluctant Seagull. After what felt like an eternity, it sprang to life and off we went after the marine mammal, leaving the Helsen drifting in the channel. We overhauled the dog and manhandled the struggling beast into the dinghy.

Without missing a beat, I closed with Sunset and took her in tow. The two dinghy hands were instructed to keep a death grip on Spar and hold her in the boat or risk being consigned to the deep themselves. I belatedly realized how close the huge ship was. Down came the pilot boat with siren shrieking and loud hailer demanding that we clear the channel immediately. The Seagull’s throttle was already two-blocked, and its thin blue smoke trail followed our snail’s pace. The frustrated pilot boat offered a tow, but we were almost in line with the red nun buoys, so I declined. We suffered a severe bashing from the ship’s bow wave but lived to tell the tale. It was one of many lessons learned. Capt. John Tremmer’s very informative little book “How to Avoid Huge Ships” was years away.

After our near miss with the monster fertilizer conveyer, we dropped the hook on the east side of Egmont. It was time to explore FortDade. We knew the crew would love it. All hands mustered at the lighthouse, then assaulted the fort. We scaled the eroding sand heights with crumbling mounts for two 6-inch rapid-fire rifles, which have since been salvaged from the advancing Gulf of Mexico. They are displayed at FortDeSotoPark.

It was a “diamond” day, but I should have kept a weather lookout to the southeast. In the summer, afternoon squalls came from that direction. Being a prudent mariner, I had purchased an oversize Danforth anchor for our little boat, and with an abundance of line we were ready for a gale. We enjoyed a good meal on the beach; Spar gloried in an illegal run in the sand. Loose dogs, fires and overnight camping were prohibited on Egmont because of the protected gopher turtles.

By sunset the crew was back aboard, fed and sponged off. The dinghy was brought up on a short stay, and the dog was allowed on board. An ominous black squall line was advancing from the southeast. I considered moving to the Gulf side of the island, but the underpowered auxiliary ruled that out. Trust the ground tackle, says I.

Just after dark, the squall tore into us with a vengeance, accompanied by a spectacular display of lightning. Why do so many bad things happen at night? We were on a lee shore, and the dinghy was almost in the breakers. Would the hook hold? The children were frightened. My repeated shouts of “Stay away from the aluminum mast,” a potential lightning conductor, were hard to obey in the confined space.

We plunged violently near the breaking waves. Spar started to whine, either from fear or the need to urinate. The mates looked at me over the writhing little mass of humanity and the 70-pound, fish-chasing carnivore with a “what have you done to us” stare. Imagine two adults, six children and a large dog jammed together in a rocking orange bedlam.

The anchor held, despite one belated attempt at the height of the blow to put out a second anchor with the dinghy. It would probably have resulted in the drowning of my eldest son Mac and me had we not been driven back into the black hole by the hurricane-force winds. As they usually do, the storm passed. We took Spar ashore for a run. Inside, things were a wet mess. The next day we went home, making an uneventful crossing of the dreaded ship channel.

There were more lessons to learn. A little mangrove island with a grove of Australian pine trees and a dry spot in the middle wasn’t far away. It was a favorite overnight destination and close to the Gulf. The only disadvantage was that the trees blocked our view of approaching summer squalls. One memorable afternoon, we had left the oldest ashore. Charlotte had a part-time job in a local ice cream parlor and the promise of a ride to the bait house after work. We would send Mac, the next in line, to fetch her with the dinghy. It was only a mile row, and good for his biceps. The Seagull was in for repairs. Sunset was snugged in against the mangroves, her stern almost touching dry land. The pop-top was up, and Carol Ann was ready to cook dinner. Spar was watering the trees. Mac left with a good steady stroke of the oars and was soon out of sight.

Swiss family Robinson bliss reigned. The two youngest, Mike and Chris, were taking a nap in the V-berth, and Cindy was doing galley duty with her mom. Frank and I were adjusting the mooring lines. We noticed the top of the trees begin to dance. Old man weather had us again.

We were in a good position to ride out any squalls, but our 14- and 15-year-olds were out there. I told the chief mate/cook and the galley utility girl to secure the stove and get the top down. In the rush, the top fell on Cindy’s head and almost knocked her senseless. Spar was running around in circles in the trees, but the two junior cadets somehow continued to snooze below.

The rain came in torrents. Frank and I were letting go the lines. We were hell-bent on rescuing the senior hands. We almost had the jib up when the dinghy appeared out of the driving rain. It seemed bound for the Gulf of Mexico. One youngster frantically rowed while the other waded neck-deep, pushing against the wind. We held our position but were ready to slip in an instant if they stopped making headway toward us. It would be a downwind run if we had to let go, but a hard tack directly into the squall to get back.

They made it with a wild tale about jumping out to push the boat and realizing they were almost in BuncesPass, where the only recorded catch of a great white shark on the Florida west coast had occurred a few years earlier. Charlotte looked the heroine in her drenched white uniform. Mac said later he would never again be afraid of a line squall as long as he was ashore in a well-constructed house. The lesson learned was never to moor against vegetation that blocks the horizon, especially when your landing party is out in a dinghy.

There was a treeless island north of our garden spot that had a shallow anchorage on the lee side where we could keep an eye out for squalls. It also had a nice beach. We decided to try that next. The two older boys, Mac and Frank, convinced us to let them take along a small tent. They would sleep ashore with the dog and give the rest of us more room in the boat. It seemed like a good idea. We were tired of transporting Spar of the weak bladder ashore at night.

Secure in our anchorage, we watched an outstanding sunset. The “marines” could be seen in their tent by the glow of flashlights. All was well with our world. C.A. and I had drifted off to what was supposed to be a good night’s sleep. The two girls were bedded down in the single berths, and the little guys were secure in the V-berth. We slept peacefully as Sunset rocked gently in the light breeze.

Around 10 p.m. we awoke to yells from the beach, continuous barking and the halyards beating a tattoo against the mast. The wind had come again, without rain or thunder, and uprooted the boys’ tent, sending it flying. There was nothing to do but take the landing party aboard. All hands were soon nestled again, including the dog. At least there was no lightning or thunder.

I awoke in a sleep-deprived daze, falling slowly out of our bunk. Things weren’t right; there was no wind or waves, but we had a decided list to port. Carol Ann groggily inquired why the boat wasn’t level. If it ain’t the wind, seas or huge ships, it must be the tide. Tide wasn’t a big factor in our part of the world, but I had failed to exercise “due care” while responding to the nocturnal flying tent. We were anchored on the shallow side of the island. It was embarrassing, but no critics were around. The next morning, we aired clothing and bedding in a decidedly “non-Bristol” fashion and waited for the tide. Some of my colleagues later swore that a patrolling Coast Guard aircraft had reported what appeared to be an “immigration event” in lower BocaCiegaBay.

I relearned many forgotten lessons since my days with a little wooden boat on old TampaBay. Our close-knit crew remember the hazards we survived, but mostly they remember the idyllic days of ghosting over the grass flats in Sunset. They learned a lot growing up together and depending on each other. That carries over to this day. They also absorbed some lasting lessons in seamanship, mostly from our mistakes.

Times changed for us in the late 1970s. The kids got jobs and had more school obligations. Spar got crippled in her hind legs. Once again, I had more job responsibilities. Two of the children needed braces at the same time. Our only liquid asset was Sunset. She had to go. Carol Ann missed her most. The boat had been a means of temporary escape from the day-to-day burdens of motherhood. We all remember the little orange sailboat with great affection.