Most significant changes in life happen over time. As we grow up, we get bigger, smarter, more knowledgeable, more emotionally mature (with the obvious exception of Donald Trump), but those changes happen over our lifetimes. If we start doing Crossfit, we get stronger, leaner, and our endurance increases, but that doesn’t happen overnight. Our most special relationships with people – dear friends and life partners – typically grow over time, and sometimes, sadly, they decline, but also, it usually happens over time.
But some of the biggest changes in our lives happen in a single day, sometimes even a single moment. The day you become a parent for the first time, or even the day you find out you’re going to – those are life changing days. Some geographic moves, especially if they involve long distances and job changes, have the potential to bring on monumental change in the span of time it takes the moving van to get your stuff from your old home to your new one. In an instant, the sudden loss of a loved one changes your life forever. Often, you’ll realize these changes when they happen, but sometimes, it’s only later that you can look back on them and realize what a huge impact they had.
I’ve had several life changing moments and days in my 59 years. I’m going to bore you with some of them now, in fact!
The day we moved from Indianapolis (where I lived from age 7 to 17) to Mt. Carmel, IL, my life changed forever, and I knew it when it happened. A junior in high school, everything that mattered in my life changed as we drove that U-Haul truck over the Wabash River bridge and up Walnut Street. I was no longer around any of my friends, of course my school changed (at 17, those two things are pretty much your WHOLE life), and I would never again feel like I was from the same place as the rest of my family (all of whom stayed in Mt. Carmel until they died, or they’re still there).
The day I left Mt. Carmel for Indiana University was one, but I was so excited about it, I’m sure it didn’t hit me at the time. It was the first time I had ever lived away from home, and had almost total control over what I did and when I did it. It also put me back with some very good friends, which was especially important to me at that time. And it introduced me to the wonderful world of Accounting, as that was to be my major, and would become a driving force in my life. (Ha! Just kidding about that one!)
The day Maddie was born was one, especially since Terri and I had decided early on not to have kids. When we changed our minds, and Maddie popped into our lives, we were in our mid-thirties, so that was a huge life change. Suddenly there was a tiny, noisy, sometimes cute, sometimes stinky human living with us, who didn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time, and who seemed to need something from one of us almost constantly! (No offense, Bennett, but the second child, while special in its own way, is never as big a change as the first one. Been there, done that, got the puke stains on the tie to prove it.) Of course, twenty two years later, when I learned that she had died, it was the single most significant change of my life, and it happened in literally a few seconds, hearing a few words over the phone.
The day I met Joel Kozikowski was one of those days, but there’s no way I could have anticipated the enormity of it when we met. Joel and I would end up being business partners for about 20 years (Allen Jorgensen joined us about 8 years into that), and it was by far the most significant business relationship of my life. It has also been, and remains, one of the most rewarding friendships of my life. He paved the way for me to get scuba certified and become a pilot, and we’ve shared the big boat dream ever since we started making some money together.
Spending time with Fran, one on one, for the first time, ended up being four of the most important hours of my life, but I’m sure I didn’t know it at the time. I was too busy being amazed at how much I liked her, and how much we had in common, and how much I wanted to see her again the next day.
I’m pretty sure I had a life changing day on Thursday, a mere two days ago. (Fran, too, but she can write her own story.) Lemme tell you about it.
Unless you met me very recently, you know that Fran and I have been dreaming and scheming about living on a boat in the Caribbean for at least the past five years. And you know that, although we moved onto the boat well over a year ago, the “in the Caribbean” part of the dream has been elusive, to say the least. A two-week haul out for a bottom job last January turned into five of the worst months of my life (seriously). Then, just as we felt like we were about ready to go, Hurricane Irma (you remember Irma – big woman with a nasty disposition and a penchant for chewing up boats?) came to visit us in Key West. Nothing really bad happened to Smartini, but it was enough that we needed to haul out again for repairs, and yet another short term haul out (planned for about four weeks) went awry, and stretched to almost three months. But then (was that angels singing I heard in the background?), suddenly, on Tuesday, the last job being done by the last vendor* was finished! All we needed to do was a little shakedown cruise to try out all the systems, then get the boat ready for an early morning departure.
(* Vendor: from the Latin scumbaggus, meaning lying, thieving snake who never, ever, EVER gets anything done on time, or within budget, and whose primary talent appears to be making excuses.)
The shakedown cruise went well. We motored about 3 miles north up the ICW to a familiar anchorage where we could operate the anchor windlass (the only hydraulic component we couldn’t fully exercise dockside), and on the way, test out everything else that had been modified or hadn’t been used since we motored up from Key West at the end of November. Everything worked great, but while we were sitting there at anchor, we got an alarm: “Rudder indicator lost”. Hmmm…. never seen that before. Maybe just an anomaly. Let’s hope so, because without rudder position, the autopilot wouldn’t be able to steer the boat. And trust me, you don’t really want to manually steer a boat for 78 nautical miles (unless your name is Steve Powers – and mine is not). Sure enough, when we started back to the dock, I engaged the autopilot, and there was the rudder indicator, right where it should be on the display. Whew!
We got back to the marina, but rather than go back into the slip we had occupied for the last 5 nights, we tied up at the fuel dock, on the outside of the marina. For one thing, we had told them we were leaving that day, and they had another boat coming into that slip in the afternoon. For another, if we positioned at the fuel dock, it would be easy to leave – we wouldn’t have to do any tricky maneuvering out of the slip with currents and wind and such. (If this were a movie, there would be some element of foreshadowing right here – maybe a slow fade to the giant ripples going under the fuel dock as the incoming tide smashes against it.)
While we were prepping the boat, I noticed that one of the two MFD’s (multi-function displays) at the lower helm was looking weird. It was displaying all the right words and images, but it was all white on green, like a failed attempt at coming up with the easiest-to-read computer screen way back in the monochrome monitor days, before most of you were born. The MFD’s display our charts, radar, night vision camera, sonar, etc., etc., depending on what you select. We have four of them – two at the upper helm, from where we operate the boat 99% of the time, and two at the lower helm, which is used only in the nastiest weather. Since this was at the lower helm, and we weren’t expecting any bad weather at all, we decided to ignore it, and try to find a replacement on ebay later. (No foreshadowing needed here, folks – while this was annoying at the time – almost unbelievable, actually, as we were within hours of departure – it didn’t end up causing us any trouble at all.)
We planned to leave at about 2:00 a.m. because of weather. It’s about 78 nautical miles (90 “normal” miles for the landlubbers among you), and at our speed (about 7 knots, or 7 nautical miles per hour), that’s about 11 hours. We don’t want to make that trip if the weather, and more important the sea conditions caused by the weather, aren’t favorable. After a pretty rough several days, the wind was forecast to shift around from the north to the south, and to calm significantly, resulting in a nice smooth ride across the Gulfstream. But the change was going to happen overnight, and last only into the next afternoon. We didn’t want to miss that window, so we got the boat all prepped and ready to go, went to the West Palm Brewery for one last good beer and some of their excellent pizza, then went back to the boat and to bed, with the alarm set for 1:30.
We both slept surprisingly well, given how excited we were. But we were both also pretty exhausted, both physically and emotionally, from the previous few weeks of trying to get vendors to live up to their promises. At any rate, we conked out, slept hard, and got up at 1:30. Made some coffee, re-ran every checklist, added one more tie-down to the dinghy (didn’t want a repeat of our last overnight adventure!), and at 2:37 a.m., I fired up the big Isuzu diesel and engaged the bow and stern thrusters to push us off the dock. And nothing happened.
That’s not true – I wrote it that way to make it more dramatic than it really was. But it SEEMED like nothing happened. What actually happened was that both thrusters engaged just like they’re supposed to, and they moved us about eight inches away from the dock. Not even close to enough to be able to pull the fenders out from between us and the dock. It was as if we still had a line cleated to the dock. The tide had started to come in, and the current pushing onto the dock was too strong for the thrusters to overcome. “Inconceivable!” I thought, in my best Wallace Shawn-as-Vizini accent. Our thrusters are BAD ASS! One of the modifications that had been made at this haul out – in fact, the one that had dragged out for well over a month longer than it should have taken – was to modify the hydraulic system to convert the stern thruster from electric to hydraulic, and to make the hydraulic system use all of the hydraulic power generated by both the main engine and the generator, for whatever hydraulic component you used. Our earlier dockside tests showed that both thrusters were now more powerful than before, even with both of them operating at the same time. And yet, after a solid 15 or 20 seconds of pushing that joystick to the left, we never got away from the dock.
OK, forget “walking” the boat away from the dock with both thrusters at once. We’ll just put all of the power into the bow thruster, and get the bow away from the dock, enough to then drive the boat forward. Nope – even with all that hydraulic power, the bow didn’t move more than a foot or so. But wait! The stern thruster is stronger than the bow, as it has two propellers as opposed to just one. Let’s see what that does! Not much, actually – maybe a foot and a half off the dock, but no more.
How had this happened? When we left the boat for dinner, it was about 7:30 p.m., and I noticed that there was almost no current pushing the boat either towards or away from the dock. “That’s good”, I thought, knowing that six hours later, we should have the same situation, since tides change about every six hours. Well, 2:37 was more like SEVEN hours later, and by then, the incoming tide was strong enough to push us against the dock, and to hold us there like a redneck holds onto his AR-15.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that even a small amount of current could hold us against the dock and overpower the thrusters. The boat weighs between 85,000 and 90,000 pounds, depending on fuel load, water load, etc. We were fully loaded, so around 90,000 pounds. In order to float, a boat has to displace its weight in water. At 8.556 pounds per gallon of saltwater, Smartini displaces a little over 10,500 gallons. 10,500 gallons of water moving at only 1.2 feet per second generates around 4.65 hydro-juells of power every second, which is equivalent to the driving force of the front lines of the Indianapolis Colts, the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots, and several other crappy NFL teams combined. (OK, I made almost all of that up, but the lesson we learned is that our thrusters are not going to overcome a full broadside tidal current, and we need to plan accordingly in the future. This is a rarity – to learn a very valuable boating lesson first hand, without having to write a check for several thousand dollars to have something repaired or replaced.)
There was no point in continuing to try the thrusters at this point, so we shut down the engine and generator and started looking at tide and current info. It seems that we truly had missed our opportunity by about an hour – ugh! But tides and currents are tricky – tide tables are for a very specific location, and often, not very far away, the currents are quite different from the tides, due to the shape of the land that the water is moving around, including the depth of the bottom. So we decided to wait 30 minutes and see if it was any better. It wasn’t. So we tried again 45 minutes later, and 45 minutes after that, and so on, until about 5:30 when we said “Fuck it! Let’s make breakfast and wait for high tide”. (Which was going to be about 7:00.) So we had breakfast (fried Spam on English muffins, a Smartini favorite), watched the current, and when it finally seemed like it was down to almost nothing, we gave it a try. Yay! We could move the boat off the dock! It was finally time to go!
Except, it wasn’t. Because as I walked onto the flybridge to leave, we hear this on the VHF radio: “Securite, securite, securite. Cruise ship Grand Celebration is entering the Port of Palm Beach. No outgoing traffic for the next 15 minutes.” WHAT?!!?!?!? SERIOUSLY!?!?!?!?!??! Is there some force in the Universe that’s telling us not to go on this adventure? Screw that – neither of us believes in that crap – we’re going! What’s another 15 f***ing minutes, anyway?
(15 minutes later, during which we’re both thinking how nice it would have been to have slept until 5:30): Fran says “It’s been 15 minutes, let’s go.” So we did. And at 7:07 a.m. on Thursday, March 1, 2018, our lives changed, as we left a dock in the United States, bound for the Bahamas and beyond over the next several years.
Almost. Because that damned cruise ship hadn’t decided not to come into port, they just did it 15 minutes after they said they were going to. So as we rounded the end of Peanut Island, we could see the Grand Celebration finally coming in the inlet, and every other boat was getting out of the way. There was nowhere for us to go, so we TURNED AROUND, and went back into the port to get out of its way. !@#$%^&*()+#$&$%^&&^%%$ (big breath in) #$%&^%##%$^&*%$!!!!! (See the picture of our track, lest you think I’m making this shit up.)
But finally – FINALLY – the ship passed us, and we pointed for the open ocean. And I’m exceedingly pleased to report that, after 10 ½ uneventful hours of cruising across very comfortable seas, we pulled into Bell Channel (which is, coincidentally, right at Smith Point) on the south side of Grand Bahama Island, and a few minutes later, docked at the Grand Bahama Yacht Club.
And an hour or so afterwards, when the fenders were down and the lines were secure, and we had beers in hand, it occurred to us that, yes, now, for sure, it had happened. The Big Adventure had truly begun, and our lives were going to be very different from this day forward, for the foreseeable future.
I promise to write about it. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about it, and some of you will become part of it!
P.S. In case you’re wondering, May the Cat did fine on this trip. She holed up in the VIP cabin for the entire voyage, but was out walking around within minutes after arriving at the dock, none the worse for wear. Just don’t tell anyone she’s here – we didn’t want to go through the hassle of legally clearing her into the Bahamas, so we didn’t tell them we had a cat onboard. But hey – they didn’t ask!