Anton bought a boat.
It’s a shark of a slope, less than 20 feet long with a single mast, built in the 90’s. It came with a new outboard engine which had been only used for about 6 total hours by a previous owner who didn’t have time to sail due to health reasons.
Anton’s sailing experience had previously been limited to classes at a local sailing club attached to the university and using rental boats, which are provided immediately ready to sail. Therefore, he expected his first outing with Merry to be a little different since we would be handling the boat from beginning to end. He understood what to do but had never personally gone through the motions and, since I hadn’t been on a sailboat in decades, I made it clear that I was there to help but he would need to tell me what to do.
In retrospect, the marina he decided on wasn’t the most practical choice for a pair of noobs — not at all — but it certainly made for a more interesting experience. We arrived a little before sunrise while it was still quiet and empty.
When we arrived, one man was putting a small aluminum fishing craft in the water. We watched the way he threaded his small craft through to the marina to the mostly open water of Joseph Sound. It seemed simple enough.
Anton was excited to get started. I had no idea what I was doing, so I followed his lead.
First we raised the mast. Within moments of doing so, Anton realized we forgot to attach two of the stays, so we lowered the mast, attached the stays, and raised it again. The base of the mast is secured by two metal pins. That’s it. Anton hammered them in place and tightened the stays appropriately on all sides, adding support for the mast from various angles. He wanted to anchor outside the marina before putting up the sails so we left the weatherproof sail-bag in the cabin.
After we attached the outboard motor, I left him reading the manual for the motor and went to pay for a $10 parking pass at a kiosk by the water.
Next, the ramp. Single lane. Unforgiving walls.
We knocked off one of the trailer’s taillights while putting the boat in the water. I used ropes to guide Merry alongside a small floated dock where I secured it to a cleat until Anton returned from parking the Jeep. He attached the rudder, started the engine which sputtered and seemed a little shaky but functional, then I shoved us off and jumped in.
Sitting at the tiller, Anton maneuvered Merry toward a right turn at snail speed. As we turned, I noticed we wobbled a bit and didn’t stay exactly in the center of the wide lane and started to drift toward boats parked nose-first in slips on our left.
Trying not to be a worrywart since I didn’t know what constituted “normal”, I calmly told him to watch out.
Anton commented that Merry wasn’t steering as nimbly as it should and then said, “Crap, we forgot to put the keel down!”
Without a keel, a ship’s pilot has little to no control of the steering (not to mention important things like how it prevents capsizing) and by that point our port side bow was drifting almost sideways toward four huge outboard motors of a big motorboat in a slip to our left; its motors were trimmed up with the propellers above water. Our boat was about to rake against the line of large propellers with the full weight of our boat.
I shouted, “Stopstopstop!!”
There was a step protruding from between the engine pairs, clearly meant to support human weight; I leapt out onto it, turned at a crouch, and physically stopped our boat from hitting anything. Brought Merry to a stop.
Anton hastily dropped the fin keel from within the cabin, I clambered back aboard, and we motored out to open water and anchored among large anchored sailboats.
The channel outside the marina bustled with boats of all sizes; jet skis zipped around rampantly. There was a stiff wind and a strong current. Merry pulled hard at the anchor line as Anton and I unpacked the sails and finally ran them up the mast.
We talked about sail boats for a while. To illustrate his ideas, he pointed to some of the bigger boats around us since they sported aspects or equipment he to which he was referring. He had wanted a boat for a while now. Well, he dreamed of a bigger one, but he wanted to start small and learn with something humble that can withstand the punishment of a green sailor.
After a bit, we weighed anchor and Anton sat at the tiller and narrated what he was doing as he continually adjusted both the mainsail and jib (the small sail) relative to the direction of the wind in order to maintain a desired heading.
We ran north for a little while before crossing the motorized traffic of Joseph Sound to some little islands where a few boats were tied, with their owners visibly chilling on deck or on shore.
It was between islands that the color of the water varied and so we felt it a good idea to turn on the depth-finder. We’re glad we did. At intervals the built-in device beeped wildly as the digital face, which generally averaged a 7 ft reading, sprang to 3 ft nearly without warning, to 5 ft, to 3 ft, back to 7 ft.
With the pattern of numbers we were seeing, we realized there weren’t too many boats there because we must’ve been sailing above maze of submerged dunes. When the reading hit 2 ft and the depth finder was screaming like a fire alarm, I nervously asked how long the keel was below the waterline to figure out at what depth we would run aground (secretly thinking the units must’ve been meters and not feet, because feet didn’t make sense to me), but Anton told me to take the tiller and he played the sails sharply, turning Merry on a dime with the wind and we doubled back to deeper water.
We threw the anchor behind one of the little islands to rest for a bit. Anton was crouched near the bow, tying up the loose lines, when Merry rolled just right in a trough from waves of passing boats and nearly launched Anton overboard. Launched. Like a lacrosse ball. Hanging on for dear life, he looked back at me with an expression that said DID YOU SEE THAT!!
We took the opportunity to sit and rest. Sailing a small boat is a friggin’ workout. We talked about everything like we always do. He played jazz on a waterproof speaker.
At one point, I crawled inside the cabin to rummage for something when the sails caught a gust just right and, combined with the wakes of passing boats and a jarring current, Merry fairly rolled onto her side. Recovering from pitching headlong into the bulkhead, I dove out of the cabin and joined Anton on the bench on the high side until our combined weights brought the boat’s hull back down. The sails never touched the water. Thank God. We had a good laugh over that one.
Anton was accustomed to renting bigger boats that don’t get manhandled by the elements so easily. Taming this little shark will be a different sort of adventure.
We wanted to pull the sails down and motor back but the motor didn’t start. Sails tied appropriately, we hunkered down with the manual, trying to troubleshoot. The oil light was on. But we checked the oil before we started, it was fine. Oil level seemed fine. The gas—we had a ton of gas. Anton added more oil, pulled on the ripcord SO many times for forever, got it to start, but he did something wrong so he had to turn it off; it didn’t work the second time. Heehee, we thought we were screwed for a while there.
But the oil light was the only indicator.
Anton dumped more oil in for good measure, because we had no idea what else at that point since the oil light kept flickering as he pulled the cord—the engine started.
I cried, “DON’T TURN IT OFF!”
I scrambled up to the bow and bent over the edge for the taut anchor line. Hand over hand, I dragged the boat to the anchor since the current wouldn’t let us have it any other way, and heaved the metal anchor up. It was piled high with mud and sea grass, which I dumped off and earned a splash in the face as the muck slapped back into the water below.
Stowing the anchor, I called back, “It’s up! Go!”
We chugged back to the marina, slow and steady. I steered, Anton babied the motor. He was frustrated that he didn’t understand machinery more. Entering the marina, we weaved our way inside through the aisle and rows until we approached the dead end with the floating dock and single lane boat ramp of doom. Anton didn’t want to hurt Merry by turning off the motor too late and, instead, turned it off too soon. As a result, we stopped too far out.
I looked back at him. “Now what?”
He told me to throw the rope for a cleat.
I wondered if this situation wasn’t uncommon and if there was a technique to it. “Dude, I like cowboys but I can’t lasso worth crap.”
A guy washing his boat in a slip nearby saw us stopped and floating there, Anton laughing, and me swearing I’ll kill him as I threw a stupid rope that clearly wouldn’t reach — anyway the guy was awesome and helped pull us in. Before we left, he gave Anton a tutorial on different ways to tie off your boat to cleat and posts.
By that time (around 3pm), the marina was bustling like downtown Disney on a holiday weekend. We blocked traffic a few times because the parking lot is one-way and neither of us are fluent is backing up with a trailer. Kept putting it in at an angle that didn’t accommodate the boat. Knocked off the trailer’s other taillight. Thanks to the pity of an experienced onlooker who offered to back up the Jeep and trailer for us, we pulled the boat on to the trailer and drove it out of the water.
We dismantled Merry, chugged some water, and made it all the way home in one piece without taillights on our trailer. The end.
P.S. Despite the general mayhem, we had fun. It was an adventure. It’s not an adventure if everything goes right. And our wry, sometimes dark humor certainly helped.
Since this sail, Merry has had some improvements.
- First, she now has a back stay. That was a must to further support the mast. It wasn’t included in this model but was optional and so Anton installed one himself.
- She now has a computer thing for charts of Florida waterways, and several backups including offline usage and hard copy maps.
- Life jackets, life lines, brightly colored coats for I don’t know what, but I like safety things (I bought Anton has a lightweight first aid container for hiking, I might get him one for sailing, too.)
- A bimini top. Because of the small size of the boat and the position of the boom, the bimini top has to be down while sailing but us nice to have up when anchored in calm waters.
- Anton is now a master of backing up the Jeep and trailer.
- The marina where we went first was Dunedin Marina (google “dunedin marina boat ramp” images and try not to shake your head and say “IDIOTS”, but you will; yeah, we’ll never go there again. Wretched place for newbies who suck at backing up trailers. And it’s ridiculously busy if you’re there any other time than first light)
- The second boat ramp Anton took Merry to was in Fort Desoto. When I first saw pictures of Fort Deosoto… (Google “fort desoto beach boat ramp launch” images. It’s a stinkin’ asphalt beach, dude. We should’ve gone there. There was SO much more room for us to be idiot noobs.) But I’ll get over it.