The Unexpected Storm


The Charter Business on Marco Island was very slow due to the Gulf War.  We had to take on other work in order to financially maintain. A local boat repair facility called Yacht Services hired me on to keep their books. The same company hired Michael to be acting captain on their Yacht Rescue Boat.  When the weather got bad the U.S. Coast Guard in Fort Myers or Key West, would call Yacht Services to assist boats in trouble that were somewhere in between those two locations.

It was a Sunday in February.  Our boat was tied up at a friends dock.  We had been washing the decks and doing light maintenance on the boat when we heard on the VHF radio, calls to the Coast Guard requesting assistance in navigation, weather reports, and towing assistance.  The calls kept coming in.  Michael and I were surprised to hear of so much going on with clear blue skies. We weren’t aware of the storm brewing all around us.  To think of it now, the storm must have been “C” shaped due to the fact that Fort Myers to the North of us was affected as well as Key West to the South of us. Marco Island was untouched by any bad weather. About an hour later Michael received a call, from Doug at Yacht Services, requesting towing assistance for a sailboat that was heading north bound for Marco Island but decided to turn West for a smoother sail. At that time the boat was 15-20 miles south of Marco Island.

Doug was a long time veteran of Yacht Services.  He  knew the Rescue Boat mechanics inside and out. He would have been the paid skipper of this Rescue  Boat, all he needed was to sit for the Coast Guard Exam.  He already had the hours needed. So when the call came in, Doug checked the boat to be sure all was in order and then drove over to pick up Michael. They invited me to come along and foolish me  still had visions of the beautiful day and calm waters, agreed to go.  The moment we started out the Marco River Inlet and I spotted the water out in the Gulf of Mexico,  I should have bailed out of the boat and swam to shore.  The horizon looked like palm trees with the zig zag, raggedy outline.  The inlet was filled with breaking waves over seven feet and  as soon as the first wave of green water crashed OVER the length of the boat, I knew it was going to be a rough ride.

It stated off choppy as hell and farther from the shore the water turned into tall climbs to the crest of the wave and then deep progressions to the bottom of the wave, over and over.  Each time the Rescue Boat contacted the boat in distress by radio, the boat in distress was further out to sea.   In those days we were equipted with a Loran C , VHF Radio and an RDF (Radio Direction Finder).  The Loran C’s TDs or time delayed radio waves could get us close but nowhere near as close as today’s GPS.  Once we were in the area we would have the distressed vessel give us a slow count on the VHF Radio and use our RDF to guide us the last little bit.  By the time we reached them, they were 40 miles out to sea.

 It seemed to take us several hours to finally reach the sailboat. As Michael took the wheel, Doug prepared the line to toss to the sailboat.  But it was not going to be an easy toss. As I mentioned before, the waves were tall and the approaches downward were steep.  We would be at the bottom of the wave when the sailboat would be at the top of the wave. This seemed to be rhythm of things until the line reached the sailboat and each end was properly tied off and the towing began.  I believe the trip back to Marco Island was more rough for the sailboat than what they experienced all day.  The motion of us on top of the wave and them at the bottom progressed all the way back to Marco Island.  When the line got slack between both boats, one boat would pull with a sharp yank, jerking the boat being towed, causing slack yet again, jerking the boat again.  It wasn’t until we began towing, that I really began to feel sea sick.

My fingers started to feel numb and my hands and arms were going to sleep.  There wasn’t much I could do to make the feeling go away.  We didn’t get back to Marco Island until 3:30 AM and right before we pulled into the Marco River, another call came in from the Coast Guard requesting another rescue for another boat out in the Gulf of Mexico.  As soon as we tied off at O’Sheays Docks and got the sailboat safely tied off, I took the opportunity to jump ship as well.  The guys wasted no time in fueling up and heading back out into the Gulf of Mexico for another rescue. They didn’t return from that run until around 9 AM.

When I went into work that morning, I was instructed to go down to the docks where the rescued sailboat was located and deliver the bill for services rendered. The morning was another beautiful Florida morning with the sun shinning bright as ever and in my sleepy eyes.  As I made my way down the docks I saw an older man, about in his 80’s, walking around the sailboat.  As we greeted each other, he recognized me from the night before and started to tell me his story of how they came to need assistance. He and his wife had spent the weekend in Key West. They had listened to NOAA Weather report on the VHF Radio and were assured the weather was going to be perfect for sailing back to Marco Island. As they made their way north, the weather took a turn for the worst. The skies darkened. The wind speed changed from 5 knots to almost 50 knots. Rain and vicious thunder and lightning were all around them. While holding their course and heading for Marco Island the wind and waves battered the side of the boat making the trip extremely uncomfortable. After awhile they choose to head west, “the lesser of two evils” so to speak.

When I gave him the bill for the towing service, his head dropped to his feet.  He called to his wife, who appeared in the companion way and asked her to pay me.  She asked me to wait a minute while she went below to get a check. As she came back up on deck she was shaking her head saying she would never trust NOAA Weather again and how terrible it was down below.  That once the weather began to get rough, they retreated down below and were very sea sick. She said vomit was everywhere.  As I walked away from the boat and headed back to my car, I held the check from the corners thinking of her description of inside of her boat. I couldn’t help but think “I hope I am that adventurous when I’m in my eighties”.


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10 Responses to “The Unexpected Storm”

  1. oldsalt1942 Says:

    I have to disagree with you regarding the GPS vs Loran. Loran TDs would get you BACK to a spot more accurately than any GPS would ever do. Loran was sketchy on Lat/Long but TDs were spot on. Also, the GPS signal is intentionally degraded so as NOT to be spot on which never made sense to me. Supposedly that is done so the “enemy” can’t drop their nuclear bombs with great accuracy. But I always wondered…does it really matter if the 100-megaton warhead detonates right on top of me or a block and a half away?

    BTW…I held a 100 ton license for 20 years and worked all over the east coast, upper Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, Mississippi River and the Med.

  2. frigginloon Says:

    Years ago our family sailed to a popular island off the coast of Western Australia. We had been moored there for little over a day when the authorities notified all the boats and yachts that we had to evacuate the island as a big storm was coming. I don’t know what idiot thought it was a good idea because we all headed back to the mainland right into the friggin thing. Having a yacht the sails were virtually useless so we had to motor back. Our dictionary got caught in the bilge pump so the cabin was full of water and I was so seasick I couldn’t move off the bunk. I swear I saw a shark swim pass the porthole 🙂 . It took both my parents to hold the rudder to keep the boat from capsizing over the waves. We were pretty sure this was it for all of us. We battled it for over two hours but when we got into port and sailed up the river it was as calm as anything!

    • wenchhandle Says:

      Those are good memories, lol. We use to sit anchored in the river and watch boats come hustling thru the inlet at Marco Island when the weather would take a turn for the worst. We use to joke that they were coming in with their tails between their legs. I have seen some of the boat rescues taking place off of the coast of Australia on television. One that stands out in my mind was outside of Sydney. The water was really tretcherous. The coast guard had to be rescued after they went out to assist another boat.

      • frigginloon Says:

        That is the Sydney to Hobart race which happens every year. It is so treacherous many ships fail to make it in one piece.


      • wenchhandle Says:

        Loon, what do they call the people, in Australia, that go out and rescue boaters in trouble? Are they also called the Coast Guard?

      • frigginloon Says:

        Nope…friggin idiots 🙂 blahahhahaa . They are called Sea and Surf Rescue. They do an amazing job. Australia’s coastline can be treacherous and full of sharks. In rough weather they have the helicopters to winch them out.

  3. Terri Says:

    Great story you tell it so well…I could almost see and feel the waves…thanks for a great story..keep it up love to read about your sailing trips

  4. Lynn Says:

    We should all be so lucky as to attempt a sailing trip in our 80s. I can see you and Scotty doing that, can’t you? Great story Wenchhandle!

    • wenchhandle Says:

      Yes, if we are sailing in our 80’s that would me we did something right to live that long. We have proff it’s been done. Glad you liked the story, thanks 🙂

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