Sailor sees the light, heads for the isles

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Southern waters serve as an antidote for the overregulated life of a former communications director

Southern waters serve as an antidote for the overregulated life of a former communications director

Of course, I noticed the blue light of the sheriff’s boat as we headed ashore at Fernandina, Fla., to enjoy a restaurant meal. It was nighttime, and we were in a typical cruiser’s dinghy — 10 feet long with a 5-hp outboard. We had oars and PFDs. I was holding a flashlight in my hand the way I’d done in a dozen skiffs over the past 40 years.

The blue light couldn’t be for me. I ignored it.

I was wrong. With an angry blurt of their siren, the two deputies pulled alongside me. Why didn’t I have nav lights on my dinghy, they asked. Nav lights? I’ve got a flashlight, I said. Not good enough. To be legal, they said, I needed to have a red and green sidelights and an all-around white. They issued me a $64 ticket and ordered me to return to my sailboat in the anchorage.

“Would it be all right if I rowed?” I asked, unable to conceal my contempt. Yes, I could row, and I should be happy because I was actually getting a break. They were not going to ticket me for failing to carry a whistle.

I understand that a strict interpretation of the light regulations applies to dinghies, but the authors never had dinghies in mind when they wrote them. Of this, I am certain. An all-around white light on a 10-foot dinghy will destroy the driver’s night vision. There’s no way it couldn’t. One glance at the all-around white and one’s night vision is gone for a half-hour or more. Because being able to keep your best lookout is paramount for safety, for decades no one enforced the navigation light regulation on dinghies. Until now, on Florida’s over-patrolled waters.

That’s the best example I can think of for why I’m sitting here in Bimini in the Bahamas on an old 41-foot sailboat with a woman, a cat and an old shipmate.

Prelude to an escape

I have had a succession of careers: newspaper editor, magazine writer and, lately, marketing and communications for a trawler yacht manufacturer. Sometimes the money was good, but I was never as happy and never so free as when I had taken a couple years off and cruised around the Caribbean in my previous (and even older) 30-foot sailboat. So what if I suffered from a chronic shortage of dinero? My allergies had disappeared along with the extra pounds that come with office work and overindulgence.

I’ve been sailing for 41 years, and that Caribbean interlude convinced me I never wanted to base my cruising in New England again. Only Down East, Maine, still had the remote feel that I love, but Maine’s boating season is shorter than the half-life of a gnat. Florida has the weather, but is following California’s lead in its determination to parse all behavior into that which is either mandatory or prohibited. I’m no America-hater, but as a scruffy old sailor it was clear to me that I could love the USA more from afar.

Somehow I convinced Kelly that she, too, would benefit from an extended term of wandering southern waters. She was between marketing jobs and, like me, has no children to tie her to American soil. She did, however, have Lena the Cat, with whom she could never part. When we were planning our getaway two months ago, Lena the Geriatric Cat was sick and obviously had but a few days to live. Of course, Lena could go, I said. So what did Lena do? He surprised us all by making a complete recovery. As I type this, Lena is alive and snoring happily in a clothes locker in the aft cabin.

Chef Charles has been sailing with me for nearly my entire life, and with no children and a tolerant wife, he has had the personal and professional freedom to accompany me on a number of voyages and yacht deliveries over the years. One of the most memorable was a 2002 trawler yacht delivery from Florida, through the Panama Canal to California. He has come along to crew on some of the more challenging early passages.

Two nights ago we “enjoyed” one of those passages. We spent the best part of the day repairing our old motor’s water pump, a process that took altogether too long, then headed out of Government Cut as the sun was setting. Eastbound, we motor-sailed into an east wind strengthening to 20 knots, and seas building to 6 feet. To me, there was an upside. Easterly conditions meant that seas would diminish the closer we got to the Bahama Bank, and thankfully they did. By 6:20 a.m. we had dropped anchor in the lee of Gun Cay for a three-hour nap.

That morning we sailed the boat — Rio’s her name — the six miles up to North Bimini, achieving 8 knots at times, a gratifying experience after our 3-1/2-knot slog crossing the Gulf Stream. As we anchored, a giant ray leaped out the water next to us, three times flashing his broad white underbelly. Bahamian Customs was gracious enough to clear us into the Bahamas even though we had anchored, instead of docking at a marina as proscribed. After a perfunctory lecture about my anchoring, the customs lady asked if we had any guns or pets aboard. “We have no guns whatsoever,” I said.

Our roaming home

Rio is a ketch-rigged MorganOutIsland 41. Boat designer Charley Morgan is a Florida boy and knew what kind of boat would do well in the Bahamas and the Caribbean Sea. He built a fat boat with shoal draft but with surprisingly little windage for her LOA. Her ample lockers are filled to the brim with canned food and beverages, but we really hope to learn how to catch fish in southern waters. We have every spare part except the one we’ll need next. Rio has a well-rounded, if modest, complement of modern electronics, including radar. For the first time my own boat has gear approaching the stuff on the trawler yachts I’ve delivered.

The mainmast has new steps all the way to the top — for maintenance, eyeball navigation and taking photographs.

The presence of Chef Charles guarantees we will eat very well indeed. Last night, in the absence of fresh fish, Charles prepared Slavic-style braised pork over noodles. Lena roamed the deck in his new kitty life-vest, emblazoned with the boat’s name and sat-phone number. Now the poor guy will die of exposure or starve to death instead of drowning, I had argued to no avail.

Our plan is flexible, our destinations tentative. We hope to eke out a living by writing articles such as this one. This formula has its good and bad points. Good because adventure will keep us engaged. I’ve always found adventure (adversity?) easier to write about; I’m not a sufficiently deep thinker to distill the interesting bits from routine life. The tradeoff is enforced movement. Seeking adventure for the purpose of telling tales means having to keep under way — even when you might prefer to drop the hook somewhere for a month or two.

From Bimini our plan is to cross the Bahama Bank to Andros to find out why few cruisers visit the biggest of Bahamian islands, as big almost as Puerto Rico but without the mountains. We have talked about taking the shoal draft route inside the 140-mile barrier reef that guards Andros’ eastern shore, the third-largest barrier reef in the world. From mysterious southern Andros we hope to cross over to the Exumas in time to report on curious behavior previously observed in Georgetown, the cruising capital of the world. After Georgetown, we plan to nip down to the Dominican Republic to visit friends, reprovision and fill our fuel tanks. Then it will be back up to the Bahamas, eventually landing in the Abacos for summer.

We leave after dawn tomorrow. Tonight we’ll dinghy into Alice Town for a little rum punch. Not a soul will care that our little dinghy carries no navigation lights. And that’s the way it should be.

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, grew up on Cape Cod never wearing shoes in summer until he shipped off to college. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-tonCoast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net.