16 January 2006

The sea was rough, my friends ... .

Saturday, 14 Janvier, 2006: I have never before had any symptoms of Dupuytiens Disease, but around 11 AM I was beginning to wonder if I had developed a new variation--not only was my ring finger permanantly curled, so were the other three. On both hands yet. The gradual straightening of the digits after docking at Bobby's Marina in Phillipsburg, St. Maarten, was the tip off: It was not Dupuytiens Disease, but the Bendix Syndrome.

The Saint Barthelemy Channel, separating St. Barts from St. Maarten is about 15 miles wide. Our crossing heading was 315 degrees, more or less. These waters are renowned for the their confused state. Rather than a consistent wave pattern, one gets what the locals refer to as washing-machine wave action. All waves, all directions, all the time. So if you are doing this in a 30' open center console, you pitch about pretty good and you hang on to whatever rails you can access with both hands, non-stop squeezing the 1.5 inch diameter stainless hand-holds with all your strength. Hence the curled finger syndrome.

Nobody with any sense went out that morning, sea conditions were well known. But this was not a fishing cruise. FishFaster was sitting in an ocean-freight yard in St. Maarten, I was in St. Barts, and Christian said let's go and we went.

Christian Audebert runs a marina/boat rental/ fishing charter business in Gustavia Harbor. He is also the local dealer for Contender boats, and I met him six months ago when I was inquiring about a Contender for sale in the harbor. Christian has "the look." As Pinks would put it, he is simply gorgeous-- big guy, big smile, as nice as can be. Christian speaks English well, knows everything there is to know about shipping boats in the Caribbean, knows everbody in the harbor, and he returns telephone calls promptly--not a universal trait down here; Rifkind Lesson Number One apparently does not get taught in France.

There are lots of details involved in getting the boat here: clearing the port, getting a permit to place a mooring in the harbor, getting the divers to do the job, etc. Christian guided me in all that, placing strategic calls to the Harbormaster, the divers, etc, after helping me get the boat here in the first place. He strikes me as a guy who is really happy with his place in this world.
My local boat dealer in Hampton Bays shrink-wrapped my 30' Grady White center console, secured it to the new trailer I bought for this purpose, and arranged trucking to the Bernuth Lines freightyard in Miami. Bernuth's freighter departed Miami on 6 Jan, and arrived Port Phillipsburg after a weather-elongated crossing on the night of 12 Jan, and the rest was up to us.

So London the Lawyer, Christian the Handsome, with the latter's friends who volunteered to spend a Saturday at sea, Eric the baker, and Jeanui the fisherman, set off for what turned out to be a 40 minute slam bang trip across the Channel in Christian's deep V 30' Contender, twin 225 Yamaha Four Strokes. To those readers to whom these details are indecipherable, the message is, "You are deprived."

Christian had made a special arrangement to make the pick-up on Saturday. We docked at Bobby's Marina in Phillipsburg, cabbed to Bernuth. The freightyard was quiet, just us and one other local ship taking on hand cargo. Fish Faster was standing by her lonesome on the lot in apparent perfect condition. ( I have since noticed a broken GPS antenna. No big deal.) The process from there was reasonably simple. We stripped off the shrinkwrap, turned on the battery switches, started each engine for a second, and that was it. A tug (as in the kind that pulls airplanes on the tarmac) pulled the boat, with the captain aboard of course, to the edge of the dock, a crane operator, with the help of some guys on the ground, positioned two eight inch wide straps under the boat, hooked them up, (watch the swinging hook! Now I know why construction workers wear helmets.) lifted the boat off the trailer and set her gently into the Caribbean Sea. We unhooked the straps, started the engines, and pulled away. (Okay Eric did, but I could have!)

One "fun" incident was just the kind of thing that keeps me up at night: When a boat is laid up for the winter, the mechanic removes a brass plug in the transom, at the very bottom of the hull. This, I take it, is to drain any water that might collect over the winter. I think it is called the garboard plug. When the mechanic removes the brass garboard plug in the Fall, he usually leaves it in some cupholder or recess near the engine. We of course looked for the plug before we put Fish Faster back in the water. More than one insurance claim has involved a vessel that sunk upon launching because of a forgotten garboard plug. We replaced THE plug, but we found ANOTHER plug in the cupholder. Four guys spent 20 anxious minutes scouring the boat for second garboard drain. Tweren't none. Bottom line , the mechanic, intentionally or otherwise, gave me a spare plug, and drove us nuts.

I had taken the wheel as soon as we were away from the dock. Now the fun really begins. By 1 PM, we were gassed up, and the two boats head 135 degrees toward SBH. The seas are no longer confused. Indeed they are now quite purposeful: 6-8 foot waves head on the bow. No washing machine here--just plain Roller Coaster. Engine noises tell the story: The engines strain as the boat climbs the eight-foot hill, and either mutter softly as you coast down the other side, or roar as the props bite nothing but air as the boat keeps its horizontal orientation, drives off the cliff-edge top of the wave, and simply free-falls into the hole in the sea on the other side of the wave-top. Not good for the fillings in one's teeth.

Navigation is line of sight, except when you are in a hole and all you can see is water. Christian was running alongside me-- about 200 yards off my starboard beam. I looked at him frequently. I would say that about 1/3 of the time he was gone--one or both of us was in a hole. Sightlines to SBH suffer a similar problem. When the island disappears, one checks the compass. Hey, I can do this.

Next time I'll take the cellphone out of my pocket and put it somewhere dry. I cannot imagine where that would be on my boat in that kind of weather. We were soaking wet, the sea overcame the seals on every hatch cover. I guess you could say the topsides of boats (the parts that are supposed to be in the sunlight while under weigh) are made to be water resistant, not waterproof. Need to get a waterproof pouch, I guess. But the wonderful thing is, whether it was the water temp or the adrenaline, being soaked again and again was part of the excitement of the trip. A blast. Anyway, the phone has since dried, and the speaker part of the phone works again--for now. I don't imagine salt water is good for its innards, buy hey, it's a St. Barts phone, not one of those darling little things carried by NYTimes travel section writers. More on that subject when I calm down.

We were still rocking and rolling past Columbier, and even Corossol. Gustavia Harbor had its usual gentle swell, but by then there was so much salt water on the windshield I could see only by leaning out to try to see the around the windshield. That's like sticking your head out the car window at 50 mph. It might be okay if you can see and know what you are doing, but I did not qualify on either count. Moreover, I couldn't have parked her anyway in the complicated front and back mooring system in Christian's marina where FishFaster will live for a day or two until my mooring in Corossol harbor is completed. The boat will be moored to a two-ton concrete block sitting on the bottom in about 20 feet of water, about 150 yards off the beach. I get back and forth via an eight-foot dinghy--oars, no motor.

Ahh, it ain't over till its over. Divers who are supposed install the mooring are nowhere in sight, and I am going to have to move the boat because the huge northwest swell they are expecting will make the Gustavia marina uninhabitable. I'll have to put Fish Faster on the hook in Corossol Bay--a anchorage that is quite protected as long as the wind does not come out of the west. My experiences on the hook are nightmarish. Anchoring is an art I have not mastered. The last time I anchored, I did such a poor job I almost wiped out the entire fleet in the harbor at Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgins.

Yeah, divers have come, and with help of Olivier, who either works at or hangs out at, Christian's Marina, I am now moored to the two-ton concrete block sitting on the bottom of Corossol harbor. There is a three point attachment to keep Fish Faster secure in anything short of a hurricane, and she will not be in the water in THAT season!
Wanna guess how one can order a two ton concrete block at 11 AM and have it installed by 5 PM? Are you, as did I, imagining a small ship like a Coast Guard bouy tender, with crane, etc? Actually, they always have a couple of these concrete blocks in reserve, sitting on the bottom somewhere in the harbor. The diver attaches a deflated airbag to the steel ring at the top of the block, inflates the bag with an airtank thereby floating the block off the bottom, and they tow the thing away. When they get to my spot, they let the air out of the bag. Voila! What could be simpler? Who'd a thunk it.
After Fish Faster was securely moored, I gingerly worked my way into the dinghy without capsizing the thing. Good thing I let Spellmans Marine in Hampton Bays talk me into the dinghy with the inflated collar. I will need to work on getting in and out of this tiny thing. Graceful I ain't. Put 100 kilos anywhere but dead center in an eight-foot dinghy and you're a swimmer.
The Captain rowed the dinghy ashore, his beloved waiting on the beach taking pictures of this historic event. Dragging the 85 pound dinghy at the water's edge, having my own personal photographer record the landing, I felt nothing at all like Douglas McArthur. Besides, he didn't row anywhere and his pictures were POSED, and re-shot over and over. The pictures of me are genuine unretouched one-of-a-kind contemporaneous recordings of history. I need to describe these pictures to you because I still do not know how to SHOW them to you. I will learn that before the end of 2007. For now, trust me, the sun was setting, it was Golden Hour, Pinks' pictures are beautiful.

The dinghy, by the way, lives on narrow Corossol beach, bow secured to a ring in the seawall. Had to move it to the top of the wall when the locals told me a major swell is in the offing. Hey, I follow orders.

Okay, this blogging is hard work and I am exhausted. Gotta go.

A bientot.

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