I am not making this up. The following account actually happened last night here in Key Weird.
We woke to winds out of the north at 15 to 20 knots. We decided it was not too rough to take the dinghy into Key West Bight and spend the day on the town. By the time the sun began to set we found ourselves looking out over the harbor at huge waves. The wind was now a stready 30 with gusts to 35. The trip back to our boat looked impossible.
We spoke with some locals liveaboards who were all standing around the dinghy dock either waiting or preparing to attempt it. Some said, “No way I’m going out there.” We watched one single guy attempt it, only to turn around and come back in. I was willing to give it a try, but Kim said, “No way I’ going out there.”
As we walked the docks we decided to try to find someone with a bigger boat who might be willing to give us a ride and tow our dinghy behind. We found one taker only, Crazy Bruce. Bruce has an old barge type junker about 20 feet long. It sports 3 outboards on the transom. All are way too small for his boat. Turns out the starboard side engine didn’t run. The port side engine was “having problems”. Only the center engine actually ran properly. It was a 4 horse-power Mercury.
So…. we set out with our dinghy in tow, along with another dinghy that Captain Bruce had rescued from certain destruction after it broke free of its mothership. I wish I had pictures of this sorry sight, but all of this took place in the dark. As we cleared the sea wall at the Coast Guard station, the wind and waves hit us full force directly on the bow. We stopped! The engine was running and in gear, but we weren’t moving. Bruce gunned the little motor and we started making way at about 1/2 knot.
It was slow and laborious, but it looked like we’d make it eventually. We managed to get 3/4 of the way to our vessel when it all went wrong. A sailboat had drug anchor and was drifting into the channel. “That’s my buddy’s boat,” yelled Captain Bruce. “I gotta save it.” So we gave up all our forward progress and plowed over to the runaway boat. Bruce drove his barge right into the transom and rammed it hard. “What the hell are you doing?” I screamed. Bruce said he was going to push it up on the anchor and give it a chance to set. We rammed the boat several more times. Bruce asked if I was salty enough to jump aboard it. I was wearing flip-flops, I was cold and wet, and I’d had a few drinks. (recipe for disaster). I told Bruce I wasn’t about to try to board it.
Then his outboard came to an abrupt halt. It just locked up and quit running. Problem? We wrapped a lobster trap in the prop. We drifted away from the sailboat a bit but caught fast as the pot held us.Now we are stern-to and taking waves over the transom. Bruce yells he has a knife somewhere on board, Help! It’s pitch-black dark, blowing like stink, and we crawl on our hands and knees digging through assorted junk looking for a knife. Kim finds it. Bruce cuts the pot loose but some line is still wrapped. Now we are drifting free with no running engine. We are headed for the sea wall at an alarming pace.
Bruce switches gas tanks to the port side engine. He pulls and yanks and it doesn’t want to start. We are rapidly approaching a concrete wall in large seas, in the dark. We turn sideways and our dinghy comes alongside us. Kim and I grab it and prepare to abandon ship. the motor starts. Kim thanks Jesus. Bruce gives the motor all it can handle and we very slowly start putting distance between us and the wall. It looks like he’s heading back towards his buddies boat. I say “No effing way dude. Just get us to our boat.” He say okay, he understands. He alternately laughs maniacally and cusses the Gods. He threatens to kill a lobsterman. I thought he’d howl at the moon at any minute. We pass the sailboat that appears to have stopped drifting and the motor starts to cough. Kim prays to Jesus again. It revs up, it dies down. Bruce screams to the heavens.
He steers towards the closest boat with a plan to tie off, switch back to the good engine, and attempt to clear the line from the prop. We almost make it.
The little engine dies about 15 feet short of our goal and we are adrift again. Back we go towards the seawall. It was probably my imagination but it seemed like the wind picked up even more. Bruce is screaming at his motors like a madman. He is slashing and cutting at lines. Dinghy lines get in the way and he threatens to cut them loose. The wall looms large in the darkness. Once again we prepared to abandon ship, but the good motor fires and we veer away with 20 feet to spare. Back into the fray we go, pounding and bouncing and splashing once again towards our vessel.
As we finally approach, I ask how we are going to go about this. Bruce has me take a line up on his bow as he nears our transom. My weight up front causes waves to break over. Kim is in the floor on her hands and knees. He gets me close and I jump onto our swim platform with a bow line in my hand. I tie him off and now we have to get Kim aboard. She is terrified. Bruce times the waves. Kim tries to move and he screams at her. Wait. Not yet. Now! Go!! Jump!!! I’m there to grab her and we stumble together through the transom door and into our cockpit.
Bruce declares he needs to leave the other dinghy he’s towing with us, so he can rescue his buddies boat. I didn’t want it, but I agreed. No time to think or argue. We tie it off and untie Bruce and he wheels off into the maelstrom to do another good dead. We can’t see him for long. He’s obscured by the waves and the darkness. He had promised to return to pick up the extra dinghy, but he did not. I still have it.
I went for the rum locker but Kim had beat me to it. She was shaking and trembling in the salon. We were both drenched and beaten, but now safe aboard our own vessel. Once she settled down, I went to our bow and let out an additional 50 feet of chain to our anchor. It was a long sleepless night after that. The wind is still howling here. We are holding well though. Some of our neighbors were not so lucky.
When the wind dies we’re getting out of here. It really is not a good place for cruisers.
If something like this ever happens to you, don’t let Captain Bruce give you a ride. Lock up the dink and get a hotel room, sleep in the bushes, whatever.