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Two Types of Boaters

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

I was once told there are two types of boaters: those who've run aground, and liars. I don't think I'd ever considered myself part of the latter group, but a sailing trip years ago left no doubt which one I belonged to.

My family had planned a vacation on Pensacola Beach, and my stepfather and I decided that their sailboat had to be a part of the festivities. I only lived 15 minutes from the condo where we'd be staying, but because bringing the boat over was partly my idea and because there was no way I was missing that trip, I made the two hour or so drive to my hometown so I could help bring her over. My brother and brother-in-law decided to join us, and even though none of us had ever captained a sailboat for that long of a run, between us we had over fifty years behind the helm of various boats, and that included my stepfather's single year as a mariner. (Side note, he and my mother bought this boat--a 30 footer capable of circumnavigating the globe--on a whim and sailed it home the day they sea-trialed it, but that's another, albeit quite good, story).

The day of our departure arrived, and the scene could not have been scripted any better if Jimmy Buffett himself had written it. We left the Pascagoula Yacht Club under a cloudless sky and headed towards Dauphin Island with a light breeze blowing across our bow and one simple choice to make. When making this trek, you can either go inside and take the Intracoastal Waterway, or you can go outside and cruise in the Gulf. The Intracoastal is a longer route, but is scenic and offers protection. By the time we approached the island, we'd made our choice. With no weather in sight and a breeze that had kicked up and would take us much farther and faster than we'd originally calculated, we cruised past the west tip of Dauphin and headed east into the Gulf.

Now back to Buffett. I don't know whether we actually had his music playing, but it would have been fitting. Our sails were full and trimmed perfectly, and the Gypsea Wind barely rose and fell in the gentle swell. The conditions were so steady, it left little to do but hang onto a line as we glided along, Dauphin Island barely visible to the north. During our planning, this had been our first choice--sail in the Gulf for as long as we could, and it appeared we'd be able to cruise right past Mobile Bay and enter instead at Perdido Pass to find safe anchorage for the night. That was the plan, until, you might have guessed, we ran aground. In the Gulf of Mexico.

I mentioned that the sailboat they'd bought was a 30 footer. What I didn't mention that she drafted over six feet, which meant in the shallow waters of the Mississippi Sound and its approaches, you really had to be careful. But in the Gulf? In a moment that's still surreal to me, the boat began to shudder, skipping along the sandy bottom until finally grinding to a halt. With land hardly in sight. As it turned out, we'd run into the spoil from the dredging of the ship channel, which made the area unnaturally shallow. But that knowledge wasn't much help that afternoon. Our only help was coming from Sea Tow, and even that was barely enough. I can still remember the look of exasperation on the captain's face, like he was working up the nerve to tell us that despite the services they promise to offer all their customers, we were screwed. Given the weight of the sailboat and the sheer physics at play, I'm still not sure how he got us off. By the time he did manage to get us afloat, we'd lost a lot of daylight and had to change course and head into Mobile Bay instead. Which was not a huge deal. Like I said, the Intracoastal offers a scenic route and is protected. If you can get to it that is. And stay in it.

I'll be the first to admit I'm not a very techy guy. The watch I'm wearing right now is the same one I was wearing back then, and it's so old I get asked about it all the time as it catches watch aficionados' eyes. My brother, on the other hand, is a jet mechanic and definitely techy. But because my father-in-law had made this trek many times in his trawler, I was tasked with borrowing his GPS, which seemed like a huge score because it already had his route marked so that all we had to do was follow it. Unfortunately, his GPS didn't come with a disclaimer that we should take into account his boat only drafted half of what ours did.

Luckily the second time we ran aground, we were barely outside the channel, the boundaries of which had been nearly impossible to gauge because of how far apart the markers had been, especially since we were now trying to spot them at dusk. Despite my stepfather's fear we would burn up his engine, my brother and brother-in-law's mechanical prowess prevailed, and as night fell, with his tiny inboard begging for mercy, we managed to scoot ourselves inch by inch back into the channel, out of Mobile Bay, and into safe harbor. To the dock-owner whose power we borrowed that night, I apologize and hope I can buy you a round one day.

Even though the afternoon had gone south and found us heading north instead of east, and in spite of a restless night's sleep in close quarters, the next day brought gorgeous weather and renewed optimism. As unlikely as running aground in the Gulf had been, we'd put that episode behind us and were now in a channel that would provide deep water all the way to Pensacola. Or so we thought.

Turns out in certain areas when you draft more than six feet your navigational leeway shrinks exponentially. It also turns out that when you approach Perdido Bay, the channel markers are approximately ten miles apart and are only visible with a telescope, which we didn't have. We only had binoculars, and while we were still following our GPS track, because of the previous night's incident, we were leery of trusting it entirely. And with good reason. I remember standing on the bow frantically scanning the area for our next marker when, instead of shuddering and skidding, the boat just slid to a stop this time. We found out the hard way that day that the depth around Bear Point Marina drops from twenty to two in an instant and that the bottom doesn't care whose GPS track you're using when you hit it. Fortunately, the mud around that point had a consistency resembling the bushwhackers they serve at nearby Pirate's Cove, and we were pulled off easily by a bay boat captain who'd watched us come to yet another unplanned stop.

Freed for the third and final time, we set sail, and by that afternoon, we'd completed the 90 or so mile journey and were tied up safely inside Little Sabine on Pensacola Beach. We spent many hours that week recounting our mishaps to family members and friends, and for reasons I can't recall and that don't really matter anymore, after the week-long reunion, my brother and brother-in-law had to return to reality sooner than I did and couldn't make the trip back on the sailboat with us. Perhaps they'd had their fill. Who knows.

What I do know is that I had had my fill of my father-in-law's GPS. And when it came time for our return voyage, I told my stepfather we were going back to basics. While he was at the helm, navigating the first stretch (easy even for us as Pensacola Bay averages 4o feet or more depth and is a pretty hard place to get in trouble), I was down below plotting our course with a good old fashioned chart. I still had to use the binoculars once we reached Perdido Bay for the aforementioned reasons, but it was only to double check that our heading was correct. And as much as the old school approach to navigation appealed to my minimalist side, especially once we could boast of our return to the Mississippi Sound unscathed, I must admit, the trip there was way more fun.

I can't imagine lying about running aground, especially with how many hours we spent in the years after that trip laughing about doing just that. The misadventures were the most memorable, and now that both my stepfather and the Gypsea Wind are gone (the cover image is from the hurricane that did her in), I wouldn't trade those stories for anything.

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