Monday, May 31, 2010

Sailboat Shipwreck and Rescue: 5 Days, 15 Miles, and One Broken Ankle

Empty Pockets, back at dock, after the ordeal:

OK, so I don't think my ankle is broken, but I'm not sure. Probably just a severe sprain. I can walk, barely.
...Here's the story:

Last month (April), my deal to paint murals at this old yacht club/ apartment complex was canceled. Since I didn't have money for rent, and since my Watkins 27 sailboat, Empty Pockets, needed a lot of work to really be ready to sail way, I decided to do a quick sale of the vessel. Within 72 hours, it was sold, and I had a measly $875 in my pocket. The new owner put an outboard on the back of Empty Pockets, and motored it away forever... or so I thought.

My friend let me stay temporarily on his "extra" sailboat, and I looked for a cheap, small, and ready-to-go sailboat. I soon found an 18-foot open boat, brought it back, and started to get it ready to head to The Keys. In the meantime, the yacht club owner had me do some normal ol' house painting to pay for a little rent.

THEN, a couple of weeks ago, an FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) officer gave me a visit. He said that they'd found my boat.
"What boat?"
"Your Watkins 27 sailboat. It's washed-up on a sandbar on the other side of Tampa Bay, laid over on its side, and full of water. Sunk, basically."
"Oh, no, that's terrible... But I sold that boat last month."
"Really? Well, do you have a bill of sale?"
"Uh, no. It's just an old sailboat, and the guy paid cash."
"Well, you are the owner of record, and you are responsible. You're facing criminal charges and many thousands of dollars for salvage fees and fines."


Needless to say, I quickly contacted the guy who bought the sailboat, and he said he didn't have time for the whole situation, and that he would simply give the sailboat back to me. And he did just that. He brought the title back, and I was totally stuck with the wrecked thing. Great.

But then the St. Petersburg police got involved, and they said they were going to prosecute that guy who had bought the boat from me and wrecked it and abandoned it. (Actually, it had been "at anchor," but a storm pulled it away, dragging the anchor, and put the boat on the sandbar.)

So I was confused... A couple of days passed, and I got a ride over to where the boat was laid-up. I wish I'd gotten a pic. A sad sight, indeed. Empty Pockets was completely grounded and heeled over to starboard. It was completely full of water, with fish and everything else swimming in and out. But at low tide, it was in only a couple of feet of water. A salvageable situation, quite possibly.

Then, last Monday, the FWC said that they had consulted with the police, and they had all decided that I was the responsible party, since I was the owner of record. So that was that.

The next day, I arranged another ride, and planned on renting a big water pump. But, surprise surprise! I get a call from the guy who had bought the boat. Happily, he had taken responsibility and hired a boat and had, just the day before, pulled Empty Pockets off the sandbar and anchored it near a park about 2 miles away.
"So what now?" I asked.
"It's all yours, Tim. I'm DONE with the thing. Good luck!"

HA! I was off. I gathered together some necessary items, borrowed a rowing dinghy, got a ride over to that park, and rowed me and my stuff over to the boat. And... And.... I was officially living aboard my own cruising boat again. Suddenly. Wow.

First sunset, back aboard:

But there was one small problem. It was sinking.

OK, OK, I can handle this, I thought. I pumped and pumped the water, and, finally, about four hours later, I could see the leak. The drive shaft/stuffing box was lightly pouring water into the bilge. I called my friend, Radar, who calmed me down and guided me, over the phone, through an attempt at repairs. And eventually I got the leak down to a drip-drip-drip, and went to bed about 2 A.M.

The next day, exhaustion. All the stress of the last week, and then all that pumping... I was wasted. I took four naps during the day, in-between bouts of cleaning-up and organizing the big mess which was my new home.

I love being "at anchor." Being "on the hook" is wonderful. One thing, it's much cooler than being at a dock. And there's a sense of freedom. Just raise the sails, pull up the anchor, and GO. Anywhere. Any time. ...In a sense. ...But it's not quite that simple, of course. I have responsibilities, needs... Yet the whole experience is thrilling for me. Sure, boats will zip by and throw-up a wake, and I must row the dinghy to shore if I need anything, but think about it: no rent, no bills, and the freedom the roam around wherever I wish. If I like someplace, I'll drop the hook and stay a while. If I have problems, I pull up the anchor and "bugger off."

The reality is, and was, last week, I needed to get back to Apollo Beach and get all my stuff. Plus I have some loose ends. But buggering-off I shall be, soon.

But let me finish the story, and tell how I broke my ankle, or almost.

I actually had never sailed ALONE on a boat of this size. My Islander 24 wasn't really that much smaller, but, then again, moving-up to a Watkins 27 is a big move. The Watkins weighs twice as much, and takes a lot more sail area to move at all.

Quickly I learned that I needed both the mainsail and the jib up if I wanted more than a knot or two of speed. The top speed of a sailboat like this is 5 or 6 knots, which doesn't seem like much to those not familiar with sailboats, but if you're sailing at 5 knots in a 27-foot boat, it means you REALLY have the wind going and the sails full, and the boat is likely heeled WAY over, and there's a A LOT of action and movement in and amongst the waves and current. It's beautiful and exciting. Tears come to my eyes, thinking of it... It's such a powerful physical and soulful experience.

Anyway... A couple of days pass. I'm enjoying being at anchor, and getting some rest, and I'm getting the vessel organized. I mean, first, besides saving the boat from sinking, I had to untangle one of the anchor lines from the rudder. ( They had put out 2 anchors. ) And the sails needed to be inspected and tested. ...I then sailed the boat away from the anchorage where'd it been left, and cruised about half a mile away to an isolated location off Indian Key in Boca Ciega Bay. Ahh, alone at last. I sail around a bit, feeling uncomfortable with the big sails and more cumbersome vessel, but knowing that it would only take a little time with the girl to learn her ways.

Day Four, Friday. Dawn. THIS is the day, I say to myself. Let's get back to Apollo Beach and get my stuff!

One problem. No wind.

So I wait. And wait more. The boat is ready to go. I made sure of that the evening before. I just need some wind.

Slowly the breeze begins and builds, hour after hour. I try THREE times to get going before I'm successful. You see, I had to cross under a bridge. The bridge was certainly high enough, but the tide had changed, and I had, by Noon, missed my chance for a favorable current. My first attempt had me pull up the anchor, sail back and forth a couple of times in the wide anchorage next the the Intracoastal Waterway, and give up, throwing the anchor back down. Damn. Around lunchtime, with more breeze, I pull up anchor again, sail around a little, a little better, a little more wind, and I said around for an hour or so, wishing for more wind. I even make a dry run directly down the channel toward the bridge, with the wind at my stern. No way. I turn hard to port and sail a couple of hundred yards away, and drop anchor. Again. Whew!

I eat lunch.

About 2:30 PM, I look at the situation. My food and water are getting low. (I was actually beginning to ration everything.) The wind EXISTS, and is steady. I need to get back. Go for it.

So I begin heaving-in the anchor line and chain AGAIN, for the third time. Let's go! I put-up all my sail area, and I immediately realize that the wind is indeed a bit better. I zip around, tack, and jibe, and head straight down the channel again for the bridge. Here I go!

Yeah, here I go, but slowly. The current is going the opposite direction. But I have steerage, and the breeze direction is perfect, directly astern. Let's just do it.

And it works. I slowly and surely slide under I-275, and then out the other side. HA! Here we come!

I cover the next four miles down the ICW channel in an hour. Only ten more miles! Me and Empty Pockets enter the wide expanse of Tampa Bay proper.

But then... but then... But then the breeze begins fading. And soon it's nothing. I wallow the remaining hours of the day two or three miles from land. Seeing my destination, but also seeing my origin.

Eventually I notice that the eastern shore of Tampa Bay is covered in clouds, and that smoke stacks are indicating a different wind direction than that which I've had so far. So I try to milk all the energy I can out of my sails, but instead of northeast, I head east, and get another half-knot of speed to go with the half-know I already had.

And soon, I think, I mean, I think this is happening, YES, I'm picking-up a southeast wind. A nice one! Woo-hoo! It is pure joy, man. Pure joy, as the sun sets behind me.

This new wind, however, proves more fickle than I would have guessed. But I manage to cross the ship's channel before dark. Five more miles!

Night descends.

No problem. No problem. I have already anticipated this, and have used duct tape to attach temporary red and green lights to the pulpit at the bow. But I need to go forward and turn 'em on. So I set the sails and steering wheel in as much a balanced position as I can, and I calmly dance forward. I am happy.

So I turn-on the lights at the bow, and turn-around to walk back to the rear of the boat, to the helm. But something strange happens. I stop. I look at the boat. I'm standing on the foredeck, and watch as the boat is sailing itself, just like I trimmed it, and I have this overwhelming experience. I see the boat, heeled over with the sails full, and me and the boat are jostling quickly over the light choppy waves, and the sun's light is still noticeable in the orange western sky, and the full moon is rising around to my left, and the fishy breeze is cool on my skin, and a dramatic opera of lights upon the sea surround me, and I wonder, very clearly, "How is it I've come to this point in my life? This spot, this time, this beautiful boat and overwhelming experience. How is this boat doing this? How am I doing this? ... Did I make all my decisions throughout my life simply to come to this point? It is perfect."

I sail through the deepening evening. The moon, completely full, meets me. And I can see the lights of Apollo Beach about two miles off my starboard bow.


"What the--?!" I exclaim. I've hit something in the water, under me.

I look back, but don't see anything. I shine the flashlight all around as I keep Empty Pockets on course. Nothing. But then I wonder... I step forward and shine the flashlight down into the cabin. Water everywhere! Oh my god!

I set the steering wheel and sails again, pointing toward Apollo Beach as close as I can. (The wind is coming FROM that direction.) I scramble down the companionway stairs and into the ankle-deep water. (The bilge is already full and is spilling out onto and over the floor, the cabin sole.) Soon the problem is identified. That same drive shaft is leaking again, but this time it's SPINNING, throwing water all around. My repairs from before have broken loose. The prop is obviously spinning on the other end of the shaft, outside the hull. I grab some line and tape and tie-off the shaft to stop the spinning. This greatly helps, but it's still leaking pretty bad. Two steady streams from below the shaft.

Wow, I must get back to the helm! ...I skip up the companionway and into the cockpit, over the starboard lazarette hatch, and to behind the wheel. Everything looks all right. Back down now. I jump back down there and start pumping. Whew, I didn't know I could pump so fast! Soon I have the water level down below the sole, and I jump over the companionway, into the cockpit again, and place my right foot on that starboard lazarette hatch and--CRACK!--the hatch has suddenly given way and slipped off, with my right foot along for the ride. The crack sound is my ankle breaking, obviously. Or the shout that went out from my lungs.

In a flash, I realize that I'm lying on my back directly behind the wheel. I'm holding my knee with both hands, and I may or may not be screaming. Another moment passes. I sit up, look around, and notice that I've accidentally tacked the boat, turning into the opposite direction as I had grabbed the wheel for support when I feel. Or I assume that's what happened.

I reach down with apprehension toward my ankle in the dark, expecting to feel bone marrow exposed and warm blood gushing freely. But... nothing. I grab the flashlight, which has suddenly appeared beside me, and shine it done to my ankle. Wow, it's really swollen, but that's it. I stand up, grabbed the jib sheet (control line) and try to tack back around to put us back on course.

Amazingly, I realize that I can put plenty of weight on the injured ankle and foot. I reset the boat's travel, and I shine the light below to see the water level holding steady. Sitting down again, I simply steer the boat toward shore, still a mile or two away.

Of course, the wind is dying.

10:30 PM... I call my friend and tell him I may need his help the next morning. He says he'll be ready.

I sail for another hour or so, before giving up with virtually no breeze, and still a half-mile from shore.

Then again, there was no chance that I would have tried to sail in the dark up the narrow channel which leads to the canals of Apollo Beach... against the wind, no less. So I drop sails and drop anchor. But then, a wind! Let's go! I raise sails, despite limping really badly now, and noticing an occasional crunch-crunch-crunch sound coming from my ankle. I pull up that damn heavy anchor line and anchor for the fourth time this day, and get back to the helm and... and... and the wind drops to nothing.

I think, "I must be crazy. My ankle is broken, my boat is sinking, and I want to get a little closer to the beach before I drop anchor for the night?!!!!"

So I anchor and I secure the sails. I go below and make more repairs, dragging my bum ankle and foot around like a useless appendage of wood or silt. The repairs work, and the leak is reduced to a drip again.

I take two aspirin and go to bed. Unconscious in the middle of Tampa Bay, you might say.

The next morning, I expected my foot to look like a footBALL, but the swelling was about the same as the evening before. The leak repairs are holding, and I go up into the sunshine as Empty Pockets rolls lightly in the pleasant breeze. Memorial Day weekend has begun, and this Saturday morning welcomes many boaters. Beercan Island isn't far away from me, and several boats are already there, readying for a weekend of partying. I call my friend, Radar, again, and, surprise-surprise, he is already in his boat and headed my way. I was going to tell him not to bother, but I don't have the courage. "Thank you," I say, and then wait.

After he tows me back to the Dolphin House, I tie-up, go take a shower, and Radar takes me to the store for groceries. It's good to have friends.

Thus... I have my boat. It's a mess, really. All the cushions are soaked, and lots of stuff "floated away" while it was aground over by St. Pete. But Empty Pockets is obviously a tough old Watkins sailboat. I may keep her. She seems to want me.

Finally, I don't think my ankle is broken. I did a little researching online, and am confident that, since I don't have constant pain, and since I can wiggle my toes and MOVE my ankle in all directions (with difficulty)... I am confident that I have very badly sprained my ankle, not broken it. Yet, as is, I may not be mobile for at least a couple of weeks. About the time my rent expires. ... Great.


Esly Carrero said...

Tim! This is a crazy story man. Long but crazy! lol.

total said...

That is a very good story, and hopefully you learned a lesson... stay with your boat. It sounds like you need each other. Besides, where else are you going to have the freedom to come and go, and do what you want?