I had spent the previous month washing, fixing, replacing, installing, testing, and cursing my Catalina 34, Ukiyo. I was getting ready to sail from the boatyard at Green Cove Springs to Nassau where I would meet my family for Christmas. We were committed for Dec. 20. I had just seven days to complete the 592-mile journey. To make matters even more serious, all the Christmas goodies had been stowed on board.
We began the journey down the St. Johns River. My brother Dan had agreed to fly in early and help me sail the boat. His presence made all the difference.
Riding the last of the ebb tide, we cleared Mayport at sunset and began the first offshore portion of the voyage. I had hoped for a gentle first night as my brother is new to ocean sailing, but the wind blew in our faces and made for a slow and uncomfortable trip to St. Augustine. We opted to spend the next leg on the ICW.
Now it was time for the final run to Nassau. At 0230 we cast off and headed out Government Cut on an ebb tide and an east wind — not the best conditions, but we were behind schedule. Almost immediately we were met with barn-sized breaking waves that made travel slow and uncomfortable. We lumbered along, rolling and pitching doing two knots. At 0800 the water turned cobalt blue and the depth sounder went blank. We had entered the stream. At 1400 I put up the reefed mainsail. By sunset we were several miles northwest of Bimini and, turning farther south, made way for Gun Cay.
Another long night passed in the Straits of Florida. We found the unlit lighthouse at Gun Cay. Gingerly we transited the pass, hoisted the Q flag and carried on, still hampered by that damnable east wind.
Finally, after 47-non-stop hours, we dropped anchor on the Great Bahama Bank at 0145 for a few hours respite. At dawn we wearily prepared to depart for the last leg and the wheel had no purchase. The cable had parted: we were dead in the water.
Would we miss Christmas? Out came the rusty emergency tiller. We placed it into the rudder post and got underway, albeit with great difficulty. The headwind and waves required muscle and concentration to stay on course. We took 15-minute watches and wore gloves. We reached the end of the bank where the large waves of the Northwest Channel stopped us. We were now officially overdue and our families would be worried. The masthead VHF had shorted out and the handheld had paltry range. We tried the cell phone, but no luck. Several times during the day I had contacted eastbound boats to relay a request for a tow, but got nothing more than, “we’ll see what we can do.”
Hitchhiker’s guide to the NW Channel
Assistance came shortly before sunset; a power vessel named That’s It. The captain agreed to take Dan into Nassau if I could bring him over in our dingy. When I saw Dan on the transom I had my first good feeling in three days.
After another uncomfortable night on board, a Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association (BASRA) plane flew over me in the morning. He had talked with Dan, who had made it to Nassau. But the BASRA pilot didn’t have good news. “I’m sorry captain, but there’s too much wind to tow you today, tomorrow will be much better.” And off he went. Dec. 23 passed without respite; it was hard not to worry that the Santa boat wasn’t going to make it for Christmas.
Dec. 24 dawned warm and calm, and after a cup of java I had a disturbing epiphany: there would be no towboat coming; it would be up to me to get the boat and presents to Nassau. I cranked the diesel and off I went.
Before long a light breeze filled in from the northeast. I hauled up the sails and maintained a steady five knots and, without the pounding of the waves, steering was easier. I stayed on the rhumb line for the entire day. At 1300 the wind veered and I hit the “sweet sixes.” At 1400 I spotted the western most hotels of New Providence popped over the horizon. Now I could start singing Christmas songs!
With the last rays of the day, I furled the sails and requested permission to enter Nassau Harbor. I dashed over the bridge to our condo and reunited with my incredulous family.
The next morning as my girls unwrapped their Christmas presents, they asked me, “what about your Christmas present Daddy?” I replied, “I got it last night when I walked in the door.”
Robert Beringer holds a USCG Merchant Marine officer license.