Captain's Log: 9 July, 2014; Hour: 2349
The loopers will tell you you're fine making the 160-mile trek across the gulf as long as you pick your day. We picked ours and it happened to be the wrong day.
We checked multiple forecasts. Each predicted gusts of 7mph and relatively calm seas. When we left Turtle Cove Marina in Tarpon Springs, FL for the 16-hour trek across the gulf at hour 2045 it was a gorgeous night. There was a thunderstorm off to our port side but it was far away and moving to our stern. I sat on the bow for the first hour or so and enjoyed the beautiful evening.
Captain Bob asked me to take the helm at hour 2306. He went below to get some much-needed rest. Within thirty minutes the sea swells were 6 feet or more. The wind was blowing so hard it was almost impossible to stay on course. The clouds had completely shrouded the moon so there was no light. It was pitch black out the windshield and we were running completely on instruments with no way to see what might be in front of us.
For the next 5 hours I fought the seas and the wind to keep us on course as first mate Alex took the watch shift. Water was breaking over the bow every few seconds. When we weren't plowing into the waves we were being cast from side to side so vigorously that the toe rails on either side of the boat were almost touching the water. Anything that wasn't tied down was thrown about the boat with such force that a gallon jug of water was smashed halfway flat. The coffee maker, with a full pot of coffee, was scattered in pieces all over the galley floor. The ship's bell was ripped from the wall and thrown across the aft deck. A coffee cup on the map table flew across the helm and smashed against the wall.
Captain Bob came to relieve me from the bucking bronco at 0430. He panned up our projected route on the nav system to check our coordinates for landfall, still projected to be 9 hours in the future. When you scroll on the navigation system your heading and plotted course disappear temporarily from the screen. Normally, I can keep us within 50 feet or so of our course. It took Bob only about 45 seconds or so to check the waypoint he had set for our entry into St. George Sound. In that short period of time I simply held the wheel steady, waiting for him to finish so I could try to keep us on course. When he returned to the navigation screen showing our current course we were completely turned around 180 degrees and almost a mile off course. That's how vicious the wind and the waves were.
I had been told by the old boat builder who recently made repairs to the bottom of the boat before I bought it that we should never put that boat in anything close to 6-foot seas. An old wooden boat like that was never designed to take such punishment; especially one 46 years old. Not only were we in 6-foot seas but the boat was being pounded for hours like that. I feared the boat might literally break in two.
When Bob relieved me at 0430 the seas were still raging and they didn't let up until the morning was almost gone. At around hour 1030 I was asleep in my stateroom and I was startled awake by the eery sound of silence. The engines had been cut. As I bounded out of my bed, first mate Alex was doing the same. We both ran topside to see what was the matter. The 12-volt system that powers, among other things, all of the instruments on the helm, was dead. We were bobbing violently in the middle of the gulf with the nearest land at least 50 miles away. Without the navigation system we were blind. The old compass on board worked but it was seriously off and there was no telling where we'd end up if we relied on it.
Bob instructed Alex and me into the engine room to run jumper cables from the generator's battery to the 12-volt system. If only the folks in Fort Pierce had fixed the generator we wouldn't have been in this fix. The 12-volt system consists of two 6-volt batteries set up in series to create 12 volts. It's not simply a matter of hooking positive to positive and negative to negative because the series connection goes from positive to negative. We tried the first logical way and nothing worked. We tried another alternative and nothing worked. Keep in mind, not only was our nav system out, our radio was out, too!
But that wasn't the worst. The engine room was filling fast with water and the bilge pumps were on the 12-volt system. Normally water is in the bilge area at the very bottom of the boat. We were looking at water lapping up around the engines. We had no idea where the water was coming from but we needed to act fast. Alex peered over the starboard railing at the aft deck. A shark was circling. I guess even he could sense a disaster in the making.
That's where we were. No navigation system. No radio. And the boat was filling fast with water. All at least 50 miles from any shore.
Bob started the port engine and instructed me to turn a lever on the engine to engage the emergency bilge pump. Thank God there was one of those! It started to do the trick. Then Bob figured out the 12-volt dilemma and our navigation system was back up and running as was our radio. He cranked the starboard engine back up and continued our heading to St. George Sound. The seas had calmed only marginally and didn't resemble anything close to normal until very late in the morning.
Once we docked this evening around 1830 I had missed my radio show. Not only that but the pounding waves of the Gulf had literally sheered paint from the side of the hull at the bow. Apparently, water was being forced into the bow from the relentless seas because once at the dock there was no sign of leaking.
We got very lucky. I vowed that once we get this vessel back to Tennessee it will never see the Gulf of Mexico again. As for me, that my first and my last gulf crossing.