I originally planned to do a “feel good” kind of story this month about a great trip with a really nice bunch of people. Kelly Nelson runs “Gale Wins,” a great Key West “6-pack” cruise/snorkel/sightseeing/dinner boat at the Hyatt, under the business name “Yacht to Sea Key West.” His sister Dawn, brother-in-law Butch Sharpe, and some friends were in town from the Houston area. They wanted to do some offshore fishing; had gone with us in the past at Kelly’s recommendation; and called us to do it again. We had a great day – caught several fish, including a bunch of mahis under a pallet. They’re such nice people that I thought it might make for a good article. It would have, but something that happened subsequently made another story more compelling. However, if you ever need a beautiful boat for some relaxation, give Kelly a try. You’ll have a great time!
We had a trip on April 28 with another great group – Jamison Laguardia (is that a cool name or what!), his wife Lani, and their friends Lance and Julie Cote. Both guys have unique jobs. Jamison, a former Miami guy, is the regional director for Royale Complex in Boston, which includes three unique bars – Royale, Guilt and Candibar, advertised as Boston’s most exclusive venues. Lance owns Christmas Decorating Specialists, LLC, located in Gofftown, NH, the largest commercial/residential Christmas decorating company in New England. If those jobs make these guys sound like fun people, take my word for it – they are! Some of the nicest, easiest-going folks we ever had on the boat. They let our mate Jerry bring his fiancee Susanna along on their trip and – despite very trying circumstances – they were all great friends by the end.
Jamison and Lance had booked the trip a couple of day before, Jamison saying he had seen our boat previously and always wanted to try it. Because they wanted to include a little sunset watching and because I had to do oil changes on our engines and generator beforehand, we scheduled them for a 2 to 8pm time slot. The forecast was for good weather, with rain/thunderstorms arriving only late at night, and that remained the forecast through the time we left the dock. Even then, radar was showing that the bad weather was way to the north of us, moving east to northeast, i.e., not toward us, and it did not appear to be any immediate threat. As we were scheduled for 6 hours, we decided to run to about 600’ of depth – about a 50 minute ride – and start there. On the way, however, we saw a sargasso grass line with nice patches laying with the SE wind in the 500’s, so we put the lines in. We got one bite very quickly but lost it.
For the next half hour, we bounced around between scattered weed lines with no more bites. In the meantime, I noticed that my radar had stopped sending a signal, i.e., the screen was on but it wasn’t showing any images or “blips.” Couldn’t even see the Keys land mass on the screen. So, just to play it safe, I kept my radio tuned to the NOAA channel to monitor the weather situation, and they just kept repeating that the afternoon weather was supposed to have winds around 10 knots and a possible shower. However, at about 3:15, they reported a band of strong thunderstorms in the Gulf, about 15 miles to the north of the Keys, moving east to northeast. Again, not toward us, but they expected those storms to build to the south “over the next several hours”. So, out of an overabundance of precaution, I told Jerry to tell our guests that we would angle back toward home, fish in closer and would run for port if the radio or our visual sense made it appear that the bad weather was about to hit.
As we got back into about 400’, about 8-9 miles out, the sky over Key West had an ominous, bleak, dark grey look. It reminded me of what it looked like up north when a big snow storm was about to strike. No big clouds, not black, just BLEAK! Almost simultaneously, the radio announced that a special marine alert was being issued for the ocean side of Key West with the immediate expectation of severe thunderstorms, heavy rain and winds exceeding 35 knots. I instantly told the mate to clear the lines. We were running for home!
The wind increased dramatically shortly after we began running and our course was taking us right into it. When we got inside the reef area about five miles out, the sky looked even more ominous. Still, it appeared as if we’d make port before it got real ugly. WRONG!! About 3 miles from home all hell broke loose! Suddenly! It went from just strong wind – 25 knots – to a mini-gale. The radio announced that wind speeds at Sand Key had been clocked at 30 knots gusting to 50! Yup, that’s right – 50. Trust me, it felt like every bit of that and more. Rain came down in torrents and the wind was blowing it so hard it actually hurt my face when it hit and made it almost impossible to see clearly. Jerry had the presence of mind to don his foul-weather gear and come up to the flybridge, telling me he didn’t want to leave me alone at the wheel in that mess. That helped a bunch, as he could stand off to the side, protected by the bridge Eisenglass, and act as a set of eyes for me to see what I could/might not. The real bad part was that, with my radar not functioning, I couldn’t see how big the storm cell was. Therefore, I had no idea how long we were going to have to deal with it or which direction, if any, would get us out of it the quickest. So, we just continued toward home at reduced speed, relying on our GPS to show us what our eyes couldn’t. Finally and fortunately, we found our way to the entrance to the harbor, at which time the weather simultaneously and miraculously broke. The wind and rain stopped; the bleakness lifted; the sun came out; we were feeling safe again; and that nasty knot in the pit of my gut eased!
Despite the fact that no one had predicted the weather we encountered before we left the dock, as we eased back to the slip I felt guilty that I had subjected our clients as well as Jerry and Susanna to such an ordeal, while simultaneously feeling dramatically relieved that we all came out of it OK. I’m normally overly cautious about such things. As a matter of fact, that morning, before we even left the dock, I had already told our clients for each of the next day’s two trips that it wouldn’t be prudent to go, the forecast being for high winds and thunderstorms. One group immediately postponed. The other wanted to wait for the morning to decide. (I cancelled that one first thing the next AM as soon as I saw the radar!)
While not totally disappearing, my feelings of guilt were eased somewhat when my customers began to thank me profusely for insisting on terminating the trip early and for what they characterized as the “very professional” way I handled the circumstances and got them home safely. They even called it a “life experience” that would be a great tale to tell their friends and family. By the time we pulled into the slip, several of the employees from the bars and restaurants that surround our boat were out waiting to see that we had survived. Our customers were again nice enough to compliment our handling of the situation to them and to the other passers-by who gathered, buying Jerry and me a beer while doing so. I can’t tell you how good that beer tasted standing on solid ground looking at our customers safe and smiling.
I guess the lesson is: You just never know. Weather can turn bad in a hurry and the best you can do is be as prudent before you leave the dock and keep yourself as informed about the weather as you can after that. It also helps to know you have a sturdy boat, and we do. The Buddy Davis boats were built to withstand the daily rigors of the harsher environment of their home seas – North Carolina – and the boat demonstrated that sturdiness well when that storm cell hit. Mother Nature gave it a tough punch, and it didn’t flinch. It’s a great feeling to know I have a boat that can take that kind of a pounding and more, but I just don’t know if I want to test it that way again. Given the choice again, I’ll take “Gale Wins” over “gale winds” anytime! To paraphrase the old song title: What a Difference a “D” Makes!
Comments will be approved before showing up.