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Move Over, Gilligan!

A dicey, dicey cruise reveals a crew’s true mettle.

I like to look good. If you stop by my North Florida ranchero most any time, I’ll want you to think good thoughts about me, like, “Wow, this guy’s got a helluva spread here. And look at that shop he has out back—all those tools hung up neatly on a giant pegboard. He must really know what he’s doing.”

The syndrome gets worse when it comes to boats. If you stop by the ol’ Betty Jane II most any time, I’ll not only want you to think good thoughts about me, I’ll want you to think great thoughts, like, “Wow, this guy’s got a helluva stunningly beautiful, spectacularly maintained, virtually perfect boat here. And look at that 240-horsepower Yanmar 4LHA-STP down in the machinery space. Seldom is such cleanliness and order seen anywhere in the world today. He must really know what he’s doing.”

Of course, there’s nothing terribly wrong with this sort of thing, I guess. After all, once you struggle into my particular age bracket, people oughta cut you some slack, right? But then again, it is possible to get a little over-involved egoically now and then, particularly when a bunch of your boat’s component parts start flubbing up, day after day. Take what happened recently, for example. 

The plan was simple enough. Our new managing editor, Simon Murray, would fly down to Jacksonville, Florida, to spend three days cruising up the St. Johns River with me. During that time, I’d help him tweak his nautical skills and get to know him better. Cool?

Yeah, but there was a fly in the transmission oil. Betty, a 30-year-old vessel I’d only recently purchased and begun to rehabilitate, was not quite cruise-worthy. More to the point, the rather uproarious replacement of her entire sanitary system, followed by a new freshwater install that was incomplete, had seriously degraded her amenity quotient. And hey, it was February in North Florida—temperatures at night were dipping into the low 30s. With my new, reverse-cycle Aqua-Air AC replacement unit still in its shipping crate and the old unit gone, there was absolutely no heat on board. 

“Think of this thing as a camping trip,” I told Simon before he left Connecticut for the so-called Sunshine State. “Of the winter type.”

Calling our excursion an extended sea trial would have been more accurate. On top of a raft of freshwater hangups (including a pair of edgy, antiquated faucets and the possibility that leaks would hiss all over the place if I was ever able to energize the water pump), virtually everything on board was untried, at least in terms of long-haul travels. I’d never put the engine through her paces for any length of time, or the electronics, or the galley appliances.

“Yeah, I love Cracker Barrel,” said Simon shortly after I’d picked him up at Jacksonville International that first evening. The fact that the young fellow was into one of my gastronomical favorites, I told myself, boded well. He seemed agreeable. Maybe he’d be unfazed by frosty temps, leaky faucets, and utter chaos.

We spent the first night dockside in Jacksonville. Conditions were frigid. While Simon took a hot shower in the shoreside facilities the next morning, I tried to crank Betty’s Yanmar. But dang—the little jewel wouldn’t start.

“Engine issue,” I explained when Simon got back. We stood there, on the edge of the engine-room maw, watching a talented boatyard mechanic named Chip jury-rig a provisional fix for an electrical harness. I felt embarrassed—Betty was misbehaving.  

Chip eventually got the Yanmar going but developments continued to go down hill. Indeed, as Simon and I pressed on, from that morning forward, problem after problem obtruded. For starters, I couldn’t get a pre-departure radio check on either VHF. The issue, it turned out, was a broken antenna cable which generated a three-hour delay, complete with two trips to West Marine. Then later, well after we’d hit the trail, the Yanmar began leaking fuel from some mysterious location—not lots, but just enough to require periodic engine pan mop-ups and infuse our evenings with the fragrance of Eau de Diesel. Then, on the following day (after a truly humbling docking extravaganza), my newly hatched freshwater pump decided to run ceaselessly, an issue that took  a couple of hours to fix. And then finally, it got cold—I mean, COLD!

But here’s the deal. As the mini-catastrophes continued to catastrophize and I continued to feel bad about them, my buddy Simon kept right on chuggin’, exhibiting a level of sturdy, can-do acceptance and understanding that is rare in a shipmate.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said as we parted company at Jacksonville International at trip’s end. And to the greater glory of my pesky little ol’ ego, I think he genuinely meant it.

Read Simon Murray’s take on the cruise “A World Apart” here. ▶

Read more of the Exploits and Misadventures of Capt. Bill Pike here. ▶