An important decision in a college junior’s life is where and with whom to spend spring break. In the days before “college kids gone wild,” when lascivious thoughts went largely unrequited, options that included members of the opposite sex were limited. So, it was without regret that four fellow juniors and I decided to charter a sailboat for the break. It was not a coed situation.
We hired a Morgan 39 named the Grand X, which, of course, was immediately rebranded as the Brand X. She was helmed by one Cap’n Joe, an ancient mariner, or so it seemed to us. He was probably in his late 50s, complete with a white goatee, a craggy countenance, a gravelly voice caused by too many cigarettes and, as it turned out, vast quantities of Myers’s dark rum. He was not particularly suited to hosting five rambunctious college boys in such a small space, but then, who was?
When we arrived, Cap’n Joe announced that the weather was dirty “out there” as he gestured vaguely in an eastward direction, which meant – now boys, now boys – we ain’t going anywhere for a couple of days even though the weather in situ was perfectly fine. Being greenhorns, or, more accurately, landlubbers, we did not understand. We had to settle for day sails around Biscayne Bay before we headed out for our destination, Bimini, some ninety miles off shore. The only highlight I can remember from this desultory time was gaining a nice view of Bebe Rebozo’s waterfront estate. Bebe, you’ll recall, was Richard Nixon’s best friend. Some highlight.
When, at last, it was time to shove off, it was sunset on our third day. We had whined enough at poor Cap’n Joe so that he, fortified by an estimated gallon of Myers’s, agreed, against his old salt judgment, to set sail. Among the instructions I remember him bestowing upon this green – how true that would become – crew was that in heavy following winds, make sure not to jibe, which would result in dismasting, followed by certain death. At least that’s how I heard it.
As the sun set, the winds and seas began to rise, and when we entered the Gulf Stream, that Mississippi River-wide current flowing north, the seas became confused and big. My thought then, as it would always be in the future when setting out in the Atlantic at night, was “What the bleep am I doing out here?” At about midnight, Cap’n Joe was tossed by a huge wave while he was below quaffing his Myers’s. He was pitched against the bulkhead and cracked some ribs and was immediately out of action. That left four inexperienced, highly nervous crew to sail the rest of the way to Bimini with no navigational tools except a paper chart and a course determined by dead reckoning.
Due to the heavy winds, we guessed we would hit the island sometime before dawn as opposed to our original ETA of six a.m. Which meant that we’d have to navigate the narrow channel into Bimini with coral reefs on both sides in pitch black darkness.
Then the plague overtook us. Four of the six crew became violently ill. Even Cap’n Joe was barfing from his bunk. With the winds howling, puddles of puke everywhere and a big jar of mustard broken below, the pitching, the noise and the smell rendered a situation of utter chaos.
Then we saw the light of Bimini. It was decision-time. Do we try to negotiate the channel or do we head away, out to sea. Before we could make that decision, when we tried to douse the head sail, we discovered it was stuck. The wind was blowing us toward the island whether we wanted to go or not. What to do? In an act of heroism, Tim, clutching a kitchen knife between his teeth, crawled up to the bow and cut the sail loose. We turned for the open sea.
The next morning found us in the middle of the ocean with no clue as to our whereabouts. Sick, bedraggled and exhausted, we called the Coast Guard for a tow. Instead, they contacted a German yacht in the area who sent two beautiful Aryan specimens over on a tender to see if we were ok. As these sleek blondes came aboard, I’ve never been so embarrassed as we felt helpless and incompetent. They led us to an improbable anchorage at a place called Great Isaac Light where we spent the night.
When we finally made Bimini the next day, I remember my friend Moffett looking me up and down and saying, “You look like I need a beer.”
The writer is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and is the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.”