Macked – Puerto Rico to Houston – #69

The statute of limitations has run out on this one. Out of respect for a kind, older, fellow delivery skipper, I have never put to keyboard events that occurred during an epic voyage that I survived back in the late ’90’s. For the benefit of my currently cruising friends and future cruisers everywhere, I will endeavor to tell these tales from which I hope, we can all learn. The ex-Navy skipper, whom we’ll call Mack, had class, he had cool, but he had lost his edge.

A friend of the magazine had contacted Bob about helping to save his boat. The vessel in question was a 65′ club-footed stays’l ketch-rigged Formosa. Blah, blah, blah; it was a big, good-lookin’, two-masted boat. The ketch had been used for chartering way back when and had more recently been run onto a beach (on purpose, another great story) during a hurricane. The boat was repaired and dragged off and was lying in Puerto Rico, in not too bad a shape. The owner and Bob had worked out some preliminary details of how to get the boat back into charter, with the two of them as partners. Bob sent me down to help deliver the boat back to the US for a refit, Houston to be specific. I packed up my stuff and my good friend Scott and we got on a plane.

I wasn’t to be the skipper on this trip. I was being sent to check out the boat and I suspect, to keep an eye on Bob’s soon to be investment. This was the last time I would agree to participate in any extended voyage as a lowly crewmember. Did I mention that it was peak hurricane season? It’s one thing to throw yourself in front of a train, it’s another thing to let someone else do it.

Our fourth for this expedition was a surfer kid from Newport Beach, CA whom we would later nickname Foolio (say fool-leo). Scott and I loaded our gear and helped to put on the provisions. I didn’t see it go onboard and so I asked about it, “Have you guys loaded the beer yet or do you want Scott and I to go pick it up?” You could hear a cotter key drop. The skipper frowned while Foolio explained that under no circumstances was there to be alcohol of any kind onboard. My first thought was, ‘Isn’t that back luck?’. Not afraid to try something new, I decided to go along with the bizarre concept. Scott wept.

The voyage turned out to be an epic sea story from start to finish that, unfortunately, I don‘t have the space to detail in its entirety. I’ve room for just a few of the highlights. And so … We were a few days out. I came up before my noon watch with a bowl of cereal and joined Scott in the big pilothouse. Something was up, I could just tell. I asked Scott what was going on. “It’s a Mack watch,” Scott answered. We had found that our aging skipper was partial to napping … on his watch. Scott had previously coined the phrase ‘Mack watch’ and we had conspired to overlap different parts of his watches to make sure that we didn‘t hit anything big. This was made difficult by the fact that Mack had insisted we leave the covers on the pilothouse windows to ensure that we kept our watches out on deck. Scott continued with, “And that’s not all.”

I went out to have a look around and discovered a large ship on the bow. It was closing fast. Have you ever seen a large ship coming straight at you? It looks like a giant square … that is doubling in size every few seconds. “What do you wanna do?” Scott asked.
“20 degrees to Starboard,” I ordered. Scott turned the little autopilot dial. Ten seconds later I followed with, “20 degrees to Port.” Scott hesitated and gave me the big eyed ‘are you serious?’ look. He must have thought it was too soon. I repeated the command. Scott turned the knob back to where it was. This was gonna be close.

Mack awoke with a jump as the bow wave from the ship slammed into us. I thought he was going to have a heart attack when he looked to port and saw the ship careening by, 50 yards off, at 20 knots. Mack tried to compose himself as he fumbled his way into the pilothouse. As his eyes adjusted to the dimmer lighting below he found Scott pretending to be asleep and me eating my cereal. To save him the indignity of a foiled explanation, I offered, “I’m up in five, Mack. You want I should take over now?”

It was a few days later. It was a black moonless night and we were all excited about making landfall the next morning at our halfway point, the Cayman Islands (and I was in dire need of a coldy). We were on the course set by our skipper and sailing along nicely. Things didn’t look right though. I conferred with Scott and he agreed. I went down and had a look at the chart and then I had a second look, just to be sure. I came back up to the pilothouse where everyone was hanging out and talking about hamburgers and Cayman Island babes and stuff. “Hey Mack,” I started, “how about double checking the next waypoint for me.” But that didn’t go over well at all.

“The waypoint’s right Woody.” Mack had had enough of, well … me trying to survive the trip. “Scott,” I said, “why don’t you and Foolio go down and whip up a lil sumpin to eat?” Foolio didn’t get it but Scott did and took the kid below. I looked Mack in the eye and did my best to conjure up an air of Navy respect for procedure. “Mack, I am officially going on record in declaring that we are about to run aground. I am asking you again to please go down and check the chart.” Mack slipped below. The seconds ticked by as I watched the ground come up on the depth sounder. At about 40 feet he reappeared, head hung low, and gave me the nod to change course. You see, Mack’s waypoint was right on. It was right in the center of the entrance to the bay that we wanted to anchor in. The problem was that the bay was on the other side of the island.

The sun rose as we pulled into the bay and anchored up safe and sound in the beautiful waters of Gran Cayman, the halfway point of our precarious voyage. Tune in next month when, if I can’t think of anything else to write about, I’ll tell you about the fun half of the trip on which we encounter my first hurricane, our skipper nearly loses his left eye, and I lock horns with 280 pound Bubba, a fellow inmate of Texas’ La Porte County jail.

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