By Michael Carr – “You should deliver yachts! Really, its good money and you will always have work.”
“I’m not sure,” he replied to his friend’s recommendation.
He was not a “yachty” at heart and was not sure about sailing rich people’s boats from place to place. But he did like to sail and certainly needed to work.
“Just give it a try,” his friend encouraged. So he did.
But now, close reaching across the Gulf of Maine, heading towards the Cape Cod Canal from Southwest Harbor Maine, he was having serious second thoughts.
He and the boat’s owner had departed Southwest Harbor that morning, in a snowstorm. It was the day after Thanksgiving. Dock lines were frozen, and there were no well-wishers on the dock as they departed.
“Since we have departed after noon I should only have to pay you for half a day, don’t you agree?” were the first words spoken by the owner as they motored slowly east toward the Western Way, where they would turn south.
Snow was swirling and visibility was only a few hundred feet. He was intently looking for Red Gong #8, which should be left to port. He was hand steering, while squinting at the radar, which was under the cockpit canopy.
“What?” he thought to himself. But his answer was non-committal. He did not have time to discuss this bizarre request now; he had to focus on getting them off soundings and into the ocean.
A gale was forming to their east, over Nova Scotia, giving them north and northwest winds. This was one good aspect of the voyage; the winds were abaft the beam. But it was bitterly cold and he was aware of the dangers this entailed; limited daylight, fatigue, exposure and sure death if he or the owner fell overboard.
His work was cut out for him, and the owner was inexperienced. The owner had ordered this custom sailboat several years ago, and had been making changes ever since her hull was laid down. Add this; subtract that, new colors, new wood, new cushion material.
This is why they were departing in late November; change order after change order had delayed completion. But now they were underway, and he focused on getting the boat south, below the gales and winter weather of New England. He laid a track line for the Cape Cod Canal. Once through the canal they would check the weather and head directly for Bermuda if there were no lows forecast to develop along their track, but if the weather was not conducive for heading offshore they would hug the US East Coast until they could get far enough south to cross the Gulf Stream and make Bermuda without tangling with winter storms. That was the plan.
Once they cleared Great Duck Island he locked in the autopilot for Cape Cod. Rhumb line for the next 170 miles. He raised a jib and reefed mainsail and they were soon making 8 knots. As most sailors do, he started computing ETAs.
“Ok, at 8 knots we should round Cape Cod in 21 hours, around 1400 tomorrow. He settled in a rhythm now. Check the sails, check speed, check autopilot, sip some coffee, check radar, check boat voltage, plot fix, rest. The owner, feeling a “little queasy” went below and crawled into a bunk.
He would be alone all night. He checked his harness, and double-checked his harness. This was a sound boat, well built and strong. It was powering down wind, making good speed without groaning or creaking.
“Pay attention to details,” he told himself. “Pace yourself,” and then he added, “Ignore the owner”.
He catnapped through the night, listening to FM radio through cockpit speakers as the lights of Cape Ann and Boston twinkled in the west. He wondered about all the people in Boston and what they were doing.
They left Cape Cod to port, and sped through the Cape Cod Canal, hitting the tide on an ebb current. As they moved south through Buzzards Bay he checked the long-term weather forecast. When they reached Buzzards Bay Light tower they would need to commit to either easing off to port and heading to Bermuda, 635 miles to the southeast, or heading to the west along the US East Coast.
Within minutes he knew they could not head offshore, a new low-pressure system was forming over the Gulf Stream, with winds forecast to gale strength and greater. This was an obvious no go. When he informed the owner, the response was not what he expected.
“My wife has plane tickets to arrive in Bermuda next week, I told her we would be there to meet her, we need to go there, how bad can the weather get?”
There was a long pause in their conversation. He had been in gales and huge seas before. There was that search and rescue case in the Gulf of Alaska when he was in the Coast Guard, winds of 65 knots, seas of 30 feet. They had gone out, launched a small boat, put a distressed sailboat in tow. Really, he thought, you think we can sail through a winter gale to Bermuda, just the two of us?
“No,” he answered. “We cannot do that, we have to hug the coast until we get a weather window, sufficient time to cross the Gulf Stream between storms.” After a bit of back and forth debate the owner relented.
“OK, but as soon we can we need to head to Bermuda,” the owner reasserted. I am the owner.
They continued down the coast, still being propelled along on NW winds, which slowly began to diminish. Soon they were off the New Jersey coast under light and variable winds.
“Look the winds have died down, we can head offshore now,” the owner said excitedly.
“No, we cannot,” he replied. “Look at this weatherfax chart, it’s light winds here but 100 miles to the east this low pressure is developing. By tomorrow it will be at full gale force. If we head east now we will be sailing into a mess.”
“It’s not about what is happening here, it’s about what is happening over there, “ he added, pointing to the big “L” on the weather chart.
As a compromise they agreed to pull into Ocean City, and moor until the weather improved. He started the engine, doused the sails and laid a course west towards the Ocean City inlet.
A diesel engine runs on air and fuel. When either one is missing the engine quickly looses rpms and stops. Clunk. And that’s what happened, 2000 rpms to zero. They were out of fuel. Fancy electronic gauges showed fuel, but the tanks had not been designed for manual sounding. The tanks were empty. Now they were drifting 20 miles east of Ocean City.
“You should deliver yachts!” came back into his mind.
He sat for a minute, the owner had no idea what to do, he wanted to call the boat builder and ask for help.
“Coast Guard Ocean City, Coast Guard Ocean City, Coast Guard Ocean City, this is….” He made the radio call, there were no other options, other than drifting waiting for the next winter storm to bring them wind.
Soon the Coast Guard arrived, and put a towline on them, but only after instructing them to “Don PFDs”. Ugh, now embarrassing he thought.
Once tied up at the empty Ocean City marina he and the owner sat down to talk. They decided to go to dinner and discuss options.
“You know the problem with you Americans”, the owner said as their waitress poured mugs of beer, “You don’t know how to pour beer, you always leave too much foam. In Europe we know how to pour beer.”
That was it, he was done. He looked up at the waitress, who was befuddled by the owner’s comments, and tried to apologize. He thought of his father who had served in the US Navy during WW II. He looked at the owner, and heard those words again in his head, ”Problem with you Americans.”
He stood up. “You need to find another delivery captain,” he said, and walked out. That was his last “yacht delivery”.