Obviously he was “up” right now but the drunk swinging from the end of the mizzen boom on the passing ketch wouldn’t be up for long. He was wearing a Seminole Chief’s feathered war bonnet, a short gold raincoat and, what looked like, a tomahawk-patterned pair of garnet diapers. The only direction this guy was headed was straight down – either by falling into the water or, when the helmsman brought her over to a port tack, face first on to the aft deck!
“Where is everyone headed?” – I yelled out as he swung past me.
“Regatta man!, Regatta!”
Confused, I hollered:
“Where’s the race end?”
The ketch was probably 48-feet and flying a gigantic skull and crossbones off the stern. As she was leaving me in her wake, the swinger, yelled back:
“End – what end? There’s no end because nobody gives a crap about the race, this is the regatta man – the F…king Columbus Day Regatta,…….. Go Noles!
They kept coming and the procession of sailboats that had been both following and filing past me for the last hour wasn’t the only act in town. Every conceivable thing that could float had filled Biscayne Bay and was headed south: cabin cruisers, sportfish, head boats, ocean racers, run-a-bouts, open-fishermen, and even pontoon houseboats! It was the latter that caught my attention. Almost all of the houseboats had stage-like platforms built up on, and covering, their entire topside? The banner rippling along the side of one spelled out: Kathy’s Kat House Tavern!
……..Wrapped around each other, Trying so hard to stay warm, That first cold winter together, Lying in each others arms, Watching those old movies………
Turning the AM radio off, I thought to myself – No time for you Bertie. It ain’t cold and today I’m not watching, listening to, or even thinking about anything old! ….but now, …. The “Lying in” and the “Wrapped around” parts have some potential!
I could see the commotion a mile or two away. All morning long the boat traffic had been funneling toward green marker #3 and the cut through Featherbed Bank. After clearing the shallow water it looked like everybody was turning east and coming to a stop. From this distance it looked like a giant nautical yard sale but now, just ahead, something was happening!
What was playing out in front of me didn’t make sense. Just to the east of the greenie, a line tied to an open-fisherman was dragging a sailboat. What was strange was that the long towrope wasn’t secured at the sailboat’s Samson post or bow cleats – it came down at an angle from the masthead. The outboard’s pull had brought the, apparently grounded, vessel over on her side. With no sails up, she was being tipped over and slowly hauled along the bottom and towards the channel. Two people were standing in the water on the far side lifting and pushing near the sailboat’s bow with their backs to the hull. The obvious danger was that the tip of her mast was now only inches from the Bay. The water was too shallow to fully sink her but, at this rate, she was well on the way to becoming a laid over swamped barnacle farm!
All in an instant, it happened – the keel of the dragged sailboat reached and dropped off the shear coral face at the edge of the cut. Now free, she swung violently, dropping the wading and pushing crew butt down into the brine and then sprang upright. That was the good news! The bad news was that the torque created by the taunt towrope and the abrupt verticality of the mast had sheared the masthead pulleys. The towline had been secured to the main halyard and now both it and the one used to raise the jib were useless.
The only power evident on what, up until a moment ago, had been the “sailing” vessel was an old long shafted British Sea Gull outboard. It was bracket mounted on the starboard quarter of the transom with some sort of feeder fuel line disappearing into the fiberglass hull. The craft had obviously seen better days. The only teak trim was in the handrails and wench pedestals – both would challenge the definition of the term “bright-work”. The hull was dull and dirty and her name, one-hung-something, was amateurishly painted in Chinese like Arabic script just below the aft rub-rail.
Furling the jib, cranking up the diesel and dropping my main and staysail into their lazy-jacks, I coasted to about twenty feet aft and off the stricken vessel’s starboard. The soaked crewmembers were climbing back aboard using a portable ladder hanging off the rail. The first guy on deck was probably 5’ 10’’, thin but muscular, dark ponytail, a bleached tuff of beard just under his bottom lip and a tastefully small gold left earring. Wearing jeans, he striped off his thin white tee shirt to reveal an almost hairless chest. His right shoulder was emblazoned with a, probably barracks inscribed, globe and anchor above “USMC”. The next crewman out of the water was wearing a matching soaking white wet tee shirt but chose not to take it off. She didn’t have any tattoos!
Linda Toner-Santos was about 5’3” and 105 lbs. with olive skin and raven black hair. She had changed into a bikini with, what looked like, a homemade beach cover up. Turns out, her father was Portuguese and had left her mother soon after Linda was born, thus the hyphenated moniker. She smiled at me and, almost immediately, began to ask questions with personal connotations. This was no yelling across waves exchange, she was relaxing not six feet away as I sat on the starboard transom corner steering Le Esperance by pressing the tiller with my left leg. We were under power but the way she was acting made me feel like we were alone in a canoe on some mountain lake. All we were missing was the picnic basket.
She was filling me in on what had happened before my arrival. Seems Bert, her boyfriend, had waited too long to try to start the outboard and, having not dropped the sails, when it failed to crank they had drifted out of the narrow channel. Heeled over by a gust of wind, they had run aground on the sandy bank. They could pivot the boat around if they got in the water and pushed but the only way to get her off the bottom was to lessen the draft by heeling her even further and bringing up the keel. That’s when a Good Samaritan had offered a 200’ line along with instructions to attach it to the main halyard. The rest I had seen.
In being drug off the Bank, Linda and her boyfriend had not only lost their masthead pulleys, they had also let the Sea Gull be submerged on its mount and now it certainly wouldn’t start. Seeing their dilemma – and her in her tee shirt, I had heaved-to and asked if I could “be of assistance?” What I had in mind didn’t include a tow but after hearing the situation – here I was. Linda was on my boat because, after running aground, they found their battery was dead and without the VHF radio they couldn’t contact Bert’s older brother Abner.
Abner, it turns out, was a cab driver in Dania. He lived on his boat and had brought it down to Elliott Key yesterday to set his anchors and get an early start. It was some kind of Chinese boat he had picked up when a local sightseeing outfit had filed for bankruptcy. Linda and Bert had been in touch with him as they had worked their way south on the Inter-coastal Waterway. All three of them were from Georgia but Abner had been down here for about 3 years. Bert’s plan was to raft up with his brother and, in Linda’s words, “get a little crazy at something called the Columbus Day Regatta”!
Linda settled in, making periodic attempts to raise Abner on my VHF but she didn’t seem too enthusiastic. I was beginning to wonder what the story was with this lady but, with the dung-ho-who or whatever it’s name was in tow, it would just have to wait – I was headed to…..?
The Coast Guard passed on our port side. She was a standard 25’ RHI Defender Class with five or six guys on board. I waved – they didn’t. The patrol boat turned out to be one of the three or four such vessels assigned to direct traffic and keep the drunk Regattateers from drowning or running over each other. Linda was still trying to hail Abner on the radio but, with all the traffic, she would have had more success using smoke signals. The Cubans were still walking all over each other on channel 16 and we had no idea where to start looking for him or his boat, even if we knew what it looked like. There was some semblance of order amidst the chaos. Hundreds of craft were roughly lined up, either as a single boat anchored fore and aft or in rail-to-rail raftings with only one of the group tied to the bottom. Roadways, of a sort, had been left open in a southeast to northwest orientation between the lines at anchor. There appeared to be five or six “blocks” of these raftings, each being one vessel deep and ½ to ¾ mile long. The “roads” were filled with celebratory semi-naked commuters swimming or floating in all directions while the Coast Guard RHIs threaded their way cautiously through a human bouillabaisse, bullhorns helplessly giving oral primers on laws against alcohol on Federal Property and public nudity. Mixed all through this congregation, but primarily in the middle, were the bedecked houseboats I had seen earlier. They had gone through a decadent metamorphosis. The upper-deck platforms had all become bandstands, fast-food restaurants, sports bars, discos, even a “float in movie theatre”! They were decorated with flags and bunting and elaborate light shows for evening enticement and entertainment were franticly being set up.
Twenty minutes later Linda had given up on trying to contact Abner on the VHF and we were wandering aimlessly around the southern edge of the anchorage. With Bert in tow, I didn’t want to chance heading into the bowels of the beast. We had gotten almost to the far end of the southern-most row when, that had to be it!
I say “it” because no one could ever refer to what I was looking at as “her” or “she” or any other customary nautical feminine pronoun. It would be an insult to all women!
The Bamboo Buda was a cheaply constructed replica of a 17th century Chinese junk. It had three bamboo masts, a big one amid-ship and one each fore and aft that both looked like after thoughts! The sails, now lowered but laying in the piles where they had been dropped, looked like those I had seen in harbour photos of Hong Kong and Macao: lateen rigged, bamboo-gaffed, fully battened and ugly as sin! The wooden hull was brush painted some God-awful shade of burnt red and its gold trim was peeling off. The thing was probably 65 feet long and had, at least, an 18’ beam. This wasn’t a boat – this was a Ming Dynasty floating slum!