There was a preacher from Missouri, or someplace like that, who got some supporters to outfit a missionary project, and he built a big pirate-ship-looking thing to sail down the Mississippi to the Caribbean to save the heathens down there. He had already made it down the Mississippi and east as far as he could go and still stay out of the open ocean. You know, just that he had come all the way says something for the man and his ship. Errol Flynn would have been right at home on that thing. It looked like the boat was almost fifty feet long, but it was hard to tell where the actual boat stopped and the decorative part started. It had all sorts of filigree and dolphin strikers and chicken beaks and stuff up by the head and some sort of balcony and extra transom and windows back by the stern enclosing the enormous head of what would normally have been an outboard rudder. The kitchen was way up in the forecastle …. on deck with full standing room and a regular-size cast iron, combination L.P. and wood-burning range. The living quarters were in the poop and had the rudderhead protruding up through the roof with a twenty-some-odd-foot tiller way up there seven or eight feet off the deck. It was worked by hauling tackles to a homemade spoked wheel, at least seven feet tall, mounted on a preaching pulpit in front of the forward bay windows of the living quarters. The well-lit cabin must have been a delightful place with all those windows and all those Bibles and hymnals and prayer books in shelves lining the wall, their spines gleaming with gold. There were two huge masts that looked just like pressure-treated utility poles with varnish on them. I noticed an ingenious use of semi-truck mudflaps as chafing gear for the gigantic yards lashed to the masts and secured at the ends by braces and the sheets that would normally be made up to the clew corners of the sails. The preacher was even kind enough to take me below to show me the stores and the engine room. I noticed hundreds of canned hams stored under a grating in the dry and spotless bilge, and boxes of spaghetti in racks along the sides of the hull. Big agricultural liquid tanks gleamed palely up in the bow. There were cardboard boxes of even more Bibles, hymnals, and prayer books secured with big rope netting. The immaculate engine room had a little Perkins diesel engine…heat exchanger cooled, three-to-one “Velvet Drive” gear, 1 3/8-inch stainless shaft, patent, “never-drip” hard-seal well-pump-style stuffing box. There were at least two fuel filters and a sediment bowl. A big old polished bronze and glass raw water strainer glistened like jewelry in the fluorescent lights. I was able to catch a glimpse of the dull but expensive gleam of no-telling-how-many genuine Rolls batteries under the stainless steel expanded metal of the engine room deck. There was a paper towel holder handy to the dipstick. Bounty paper towels — there was nothing second rate down there. Errol might have fit in pretty good on deck, but you could tell, that preacher wouldn’t have let him penetrate ever so slightly into that engine room with his slap-dash self. I even felt a little out of place, but I was glad to get a chance to marvel at it.
I liked his engine room and agreed with him about his mission. Somebody needed to do something about all those heathens down in the Caribbean islands. I told that preacher that I thought the way to do it would be to clench a Bible, hymnal, or prayer book in his teeth and swing over onto the heathen yacht on a halyard with a canned ham under his arm. I hope I don’t give the impression that I am making fun of the man. His boat might have been something of a show, but I guess that is what he thought it would take to accomplish his mission. It was obvious that he knew exactly what he was doing, so far, and I’m sure he knew exactly how to deal with heathens without me. Unfortunately, I had to come back to our shop in Georgia to try to build a boat for a man and was unable to supervise the crossing of the open water of the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico…too bad.
The way I heard it from my islander buddy, the preacher listened to the droning, on and on, of the National Weather Service, and looked at the weather fax until it looked like it would be good for a while and then motored out the pass between St. George and Dog islands into the open Gulf, heading for where the Intracoastal Waterway resumed at Anclote Key about a hundred miles away. He was planning to motor the whole way like he had been doing so far and save his sails for “the trades” He listened to the radio too long, though, and missed the tide in the pass, and by the time that little 4-108 had pushed that behemoth out past all that water coming in, it was getting late. Later he told my buddy, one of Dog Island’s hard-bitten permanent residents, that he was counting on the land breeze to give him a nice lee of the island and the shoals east of there to make it an easy cruise. It probably would have been a nice trip in a more predictable season of the year. After the preacher got outside the pass in the nice easy swells of the big water, he activated the autopilot and went into his house and got a chair and his bedroom slippers and sat there watching his great big wheel turning ever so slightly in tune to the flux gate and watched the Floridians turn on all those electric lights that they use to demonstrate their dominion over nature. I guess he was thinking about opening up one of them canned hams when the wind started breezing up from the south a little like it does around here when a cold front whips a little farther down than expected and begins to draw the weather in from the Gulf. By the time he got the chair and the bedroom slippers secured, it was blowing pretty good. Too bad it wasn’t the expected land-breeze and there wasn’t any lee. The preacher said that it was blowing about fifty with fifteen- to twenty-foot swells. The data buoy anchored eighty miles out in the Gulf said eighteen with gusts to twenty-two and four- to six-foot waves, but you know, things are real variable in the Gulf of Mexico.
About midnight or so, my buddy, the permanent resident of the island, was coming home across the bay. I guess I better explain that situation. This island where I live most of the time has no bridge or public transportation to it. Because of that and certain other characteristics (like intermittent electricity), there are only a few people who live here all the time. Most of the folks over here just come on weekends when the weather is good and the FSU “Noles” ain’t playing. It takes a special person to be able to handle this place. So, this friend of mine was coming back to the island in his motor whaleboat from checking in at the Tiki Bar (a little bar right on the river with roaches in the palm-thatched cabanas – to enhance the ambiance) on the mainland, which he sometimes visited for a little while, when he noticed eleven very bright flares from somewhere around the shoals east of the island. He knew that a vessel was in distress — big-time, from the quantity and quality of those flares — so he headed to the rescue and found the preacher and his boat washed up sideways on the sandbar (called “Dog Island Reef” on the charts). Turned out that, while he was skirting the windward side of the shoals watching his GPS and Loran and radar wondering when the land breeze would start up, the beam sea began rolling those telephone poles around in the holes until they wallowed the wedges out and then they really went to flopping. Before long, the yards had snatched enough slack in the lines securing them so that they were trying to sweep all that tophamper off the deck. There was nothing the preacher could do but hold on to the wheel and try to give the autopilot and that little Perkins all the help he could while he dodged those spars. He would have probably managed to slide by the shoals if one of the canned hams hadn’t hopped over and popped the nipple off the “state-of-the-art” plastic (I ain’t gonna mention no names but I am a bronze-age man myself) raw water intake through-hull fitting to the engine. After that, it didn’t take long to boil all the coolant out of the heat exchanger. The preacher was too busy to notice until the engine ran hot and seized and the whole mess washed sideways up on the bar. The preacher dove for his emergency cabinet and all those (not out-of-date) SOLAS-approved flares. Would have shot an even dozen but he dropped one while he was side-skipping the sweep of the main yard. My buddy says he was amazed at the spectacle of just eleven of those things. Said, “You know them little shotgun-shell flares like go in the plastic pistol, just ain’t in it with the real thing.”
When my buddy got there, the big boat was lying over on its side with its bottom to the breakers in about four or five feet of water. My buddy eased the whaleboat around to the lee side and tried to hold a conversation with the preacher about what he wanted to do. Turned out that he should have just told him to hop on board if he wanted to go back to Carrabelle because the man refused to abandon all those Bibles. While they were trying to shift the good books from one boat to the other in the surf, that one-inch fitting in the bottom of the big boat was equalizing the inside water level with the outside water level (both well above the batteries), which killed all three radios (single-sideband, VHF and CB) and left only the meaningless drone of the dry-cell-powered weather radio. The wind shift from the cold front came, the tide turned and took the wreck off the reef, where it sank down to where the spars and part of the preacher were all that were sticking out.
It took a while for the preacher to convince himself that it was all right now to give up the good fight and get out of that cold water. Unbeknownst to both of them, during the decision-making process, the whaleboat was winding up six hundred feet of half-inch nylon line with it propeller. My buddy finally figured it out when a big inflatable boat appeared, coming rapidly up from astern. The cold, the Tiki Bar, and the frustration of trying to be subtle with this preacher had dimmed his wits, and at first he thought this thing was just coming to see how things were going when, in fact, it wanted to dive under the stern of the whaleboat, explode, and wrap all up in the wheel in a knot as hard as a truck tire. He and the preacher spent a long time trying to cut the damn thing loose, but they were frustrated by the coldness of the water, the roughness of the fabric of the top-notch dinghy, and by a five horse British Seagull outboard motor that was also wrapped around the wheel and shaft of the whaleboat. By the time they gave up on trying to clear the propeller, the Seagull was all they could get loose. Too bad the “stopped lark’s head” the preacher had tied around the mast of the ship to make up the whaleboat didn’t hold like that knot around the propeller, and they had been drifting rapidly toward the Florida Middle Ground all this time. They tried the old trusty 12H Danforth which had held the whaleboat so faithfully for so many years in the rough anchorage at Dog Island, but it wouldn’t find the bottom with the line that they had close to hand. Of course, they had the six-hundred-foot dinghy painter spooled up between the wheel and the strut, but that was unavailable. My buddy estimated that they would end up somewhere down around Ft. Myers if they were really lucky. If they were just sort of lucky and the wind came on around more east like it usually did, it would the Keys or Cuba. If they weren’t lucky, they might get to work with the heathens after all. Hard to predict on the first day of a four- or five-day Norther.
This is the first of two parts. You can find the full story, and many others, in “Flotsam and Jetsam,” a book by the late, great Robb White. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Thanks to the good people at Breakaway Books for letting me post this here. You can find the book through your local bookstore (recommended), and of course through Amazon.
Next week: The thrilling conclusion, in which grit, maritime MacGyverism, and a bit of luck save the day.
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