|Mark's Trail, Part 2|
CHAPTER FOUR - Runaway Boat!
Ever since my first night anchoring, down in Boca Raton, Florida, I had wondered if or when I would have a runaway boat, and now I’m wondering when it will happen again. What I never wondered, though, is what I would do if my anchor ever broke free while I was sleeping, or how or why I would screw up and make everything worse.
Last night was unusually cold, but beautifully calm. We set anchor next to a small town, in the wide mouth of a river with no current and no wind. Depth was 7 feet at high tide and I let out 50 feet of line – ideal anchorage. The night before, we had anchored with heavy winds all night and didn’t budge, so I was riding on bolstered confidence.
I pulled up our exact position on my iPhone and captured the screen so I could compare to it later. Marley and I talked about the day for a while and got to know each other a little better. I noticed that she had this knack of keeping quiet at the most strategic moments, somehow speaking volumes without saying a thing.
We went to sleep at about 11, with Marley in the cabin and me on a few cushions I had moved down on the deck – no chance of crashing and splashing tonight!
I slept well, until the winds picked up. I’m not a veteran sailor, and I had always seen the winds stay calm all night, so tonight would be another christening for me – wow, what a christening! At about 2 a.m. the winds picked up and I woke up, but stayed down, feeling the rhythm of the wind and the waves and the boat swinging and bobbing. I thought pleasant thoughts about my new friend and the great day we’d had, I thought about what we might do next, and I thought more about life in general.
Then I thought about checking our location to see how our anchor was holding. It wasn’t, and we had drifted more than a hundred yards away, about 50 yards from a heavy retaining wall that protected the nearby town, but threatened to sink us. Panic set in as I put on my shoes and squall jacket. Marley might have slept through it had I not pounded on the cabin door.
“Anchor’s aweigh!” I shouted. “Get dressed!” I wasn’t sure I needed help - heck, I wasn’t sure of anything, so I pounded and yelled just in case. The waves were heavy and pushing us right to the wall. I switched on all our navigation lights and depth finders – we had plenty of water below, but were losing it every minute. We needed to collect the anchor, go find a calm spot and set it again - simple, except for the 15-knot winds and 2-3-foot seas.
Pulling the anchor up from the bow is a challenge even in calm water, as you have to hover over the edge of the boat and the knee-high rail and pull it up like a bucket from a well. I chose instead to haul that thing in over the starboard gunnel like a crab trap, and I started the engine to bring the line alongside. This is tricky even in calm weather, even in the light of day, and even in a good mood – I had none of those, nor the presence of mind to realize just how incredibly easy it is to hopelessly tangle the rope in my propellor.
Marley was getting dressed, or was still asleep for all I knew. I could see the anchor line off my starboard, and I put the Stolen Gun in forward gear to crawl up on the line. I could have used a geometry teacher to explain the math behind reducing the angle of the hull against the line, but he should team up with a physics teacher to include the mass and movement of the boat, a geologist for the strong current, waves and sea bottom, and a psychiatrist to straighten out my head. I lunged over the gunnel with my grappling hook, but couldn’t reach the line, and it was only moments after I saw it disappear under the boat that the engine died.
“What’s wrong?” Marley said, busting out of the cabin. “We okay?” We were not okay and it was all my fault, so, like a real man, I explained that first concept while completely ignoring the second.
“We lost our anchor hold and drifted,” I said, "and now the line is stuck in the prop.” I had to shout over waves crashing against our boat and the nearby wall. I had to look away to avoid telling her the whole story.
“What can I do?” she said. I needed to unsnarl that rope from the prop, but it had wound on there tight and would not loosen without a fight.
“Hold this,” I said, shoving a flashlight in her hand as I climbed onto the stern and reached over into the darkness. I looked down and saw nothing but black even with the light. Realizing I still had the outdrive down, I climbed back onto the deck, went to the wheel and raised the outdrive as much as it would go. Now I could see the black propellor wrapped in white rope, a sad testimony to my state of seamanship. All I knew was the wall was getting closer, and all I knew was that meant trouble.
“What happened?” Marley asked, aware, of course, that the rope didn’t wrap itself, and the propellor didn’t reach out and grab our anchor line. I answered truthfully.
“We lost our anchor hold and now the line is stuck,” I said, pretending that I had better things to do than to explain. I could get only one hand on the rope, as I had to reach way out and hold onto the boat with the other, and I would have fallen in had Marley not wrapped her legs around one of mine while holding the light above me. We looked like a pair of crazed circus performers moonlighting at Sea World.
The rope was seriously tight, and I had all I could do to pry a little off here and there as waves crashed onto the swim platform and all over my arms. The water was cold, and pretty soon so were my arms and chest. I briefly considered stripping down and jumping in the water, but as much as that might have been a solution, I knew it would change everything and take away a lot of assets I was holding, like, first of all, body temperature and, second, access to everything in the boat, including any control I might have over what was my whole world at that moment.
“Turn the wheel!” I shouted, and worked in the dark for a while as Marley put the flashlight down and cranked the heavy steering wheel with both hands. I had hoped this would help, but moving that outdrive just sent the waves right up into my face. “No, no,” I shouted. “Move it back!”
I had finally loosened a few turns of the rope when we hit the wall, nearly throwing me from the boat. This was not Game Time; this was the final minute, down by two.
“Hold on to me!” I shouted, and Marley ran back to me, grabbing my belt with one hand and a hunk of my shirt with the other as I reached out for the propellor. “Where’s the light?” She let go of me to get the flashlight and I rolled off the stern deck onto the swim platform, drenching one leg and arm and jamming the others onto the outdrive. To add to the panic, I suddenly had the delusion that I had lost all my ground tackle, and I worried about the hundred dollars it would cost me to replace it. I am amazed at the things a drowning person can entertain himself with.
I clamored onto the deck and looked around. The breaker wall loomed over the Stolen Gun and seemed to enjoy the audacious hits our small boat was flailing on it. The quiet thuds our hull made against the wood pilings sounded like the groans of a dying man. I don’t know what took me so long, but I had a brilliant idea – well, brilliant to me – and I started the engine, and for the very shortest time I could manage, I pulled back on the throttle and put the propellor in reverse, and then jammed it back into neutral.
“Okay, Marley, this is it,” I said. “Grab hold of me the best you can.” I climbed back on the stern and reached toward the outdrive, feeling a little brave with her wrapped tightly around my legs, and bold with the thought that maybe I was about to win this game. Marley shone the flashlight on the outdrive and I could see the rope had loosened. I reached out with both hands and grabbed whatever I could, pulling fists of rope in and around the propellor and drive shaft. After a few minutes I nearly had it free, but it became tight all of a sudden as I struggled against the last jammed length, which was being pulled tight by the anchor that had finally taken hold of the bottom.
I wrapped the rope around my right hand and grabbed hold of the propellor with my left and gave it a hard pull. This freed it, but caught me by surprise. The anchor had been holding the boat in place and now I was holding it, or trying to. The rope was wrapped around my hand and now around my wrist and I wrestled to flex my hand to loosen it as my body slipped out from under Marley’s and toward the water.
“What are you doing?” Marley shouted.
“My hand’s caught!” I said, and let out a scream that was far less manly than I wished, and that’s when everything went dark. Marley dropped the flashlight, and then I felt the full weight of her slender body on top of me as she reached out over the stern for my hands and the line. I twisted around and pulled my right leg over and wedged my foot into the swim ladder. Marley grabbed my wrist with one hand and the line with her other, and moments later I felt it lose its grip. I pulled in a little, and she took in the slack and we loosened the line from my hand and let it go free.
“Grab it!” I shouted as the remaining line flew from the deck, surrendering it and my precious ground tackle to the sea. She gave me this crazed look, and I lunged onto the deck, chasing the end of the rope. I grabbed it with a few fingers and then a hand and then both hands, and started pulling the line in.
Pulling the line in, but actually pulling the boat toward the anchor and away from the wall. When I had collected just enough line to get us a safe distance away while keeping the anchor set in the river bottom, I turned to Marley.
“Start the engine,” I said, realizing as I said it that she likely had no idea how to start a boat engine. I wrapped the line once around a cleat, which gave me control over it, and with the line in my hands, I worked my way forward and started the engine.
The rest of the night was pretty boring. Cold, wet and tired, we cruised to a quiet cove, set the anchor again, went to our quarters, shed clothes, wrapped blankets and fell back to sleep.
“Thank you,” she had said before closing her cabin door. “I bet you saved my life tonight!” As is so typical of men, I had gotten us into a pile of trouble and then acted like some kind of hero getting us out. Was she aware? Did she figure out that I had poorly set the anchor in the first place, and then panicked and snagged the line in the prop? Did she know that, without her help that evening I might – would – be swimming in these cold, dark waters? Something tells me that she knew the truth all along, and as is so typical of women, she spoke volumes without saying a thing.