There are only a couple of things that I am more proud of than helping first-time boat owners meet their cruising goals and suceed with their endeavors—my two daughters. Spirited first-time owners with a cruising goal are not much different than children. They shop for their boat and accessories like kids perusing the toy section in a Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog, almost smelling the newness of every toy. (Okay, I guess now it’s Amazon and eBay.)
New cruisers are eager to learn and often expect me to teach as much as I can in a short amount of time. But teaching within a short time window can be stressful for both student and instructor alike. It is impossible to convey 40 years of experience in just a few days. Some try, some cry, some succeed, some simply give up.
In 2007, I met two of my more memorable students, Cathy and Tyler, shortly after they’d purchased a new Island Pilot 44 and I’d become the service department, rigging department, warranty department, parts department, and delivery captain for Island Pilot Yachts. It was a small company offering me the opportunity to give diversified personal service, something I truly enjoy. Upon their purchase, I learned the couple wanted to be on site during the commissioning process as it was their first boat, and they wanted to start the learning process ASAP. I also learned Tyler had a prosthetic leg and Cathy might top 90 pounds soaking wet!
With that information, reluctantly, I conceded, allowing them to be present. My first major concern was the launch and recovery of the dinghy from the hardtop over the aft deck. Changes to the mounting and rigging of the dinghy and launch/recovery mechanisms had to be made in order to improve the system.
Cathy and Tyler’s classroom consisted of lawn chairs on the seawall behind my home/shop, 20 feet from the boat. Class for them would start with a Bloody Caesar in the morning, a picnic lunch, afternoon beer and wine. Hell, they were settling in just fine with the pirate spirit! However, exuberant concern about all the necessary holes I was drilling in their new boat created the need for an excessive amount of explanation. But hey, they were trying.
Upon completion of the rigging, I spent five days with them, slowly and methodically moving the boat from Ft. Myers, Florida, to Ft. Lauderdale through the upper Keys with an extended layover in Key Largo. After a late-afternoon departure, 25 miles up the Caloosahatchee River, we arrived too late at Sanibel Marina to have dinner at Gramma Dot’s Seaside Saloon. I cried.
With the first leg of our four-leg instructional cruise completed, we shoved off early the next morning and headed for the Gulf of Mexico. On the second leg, together we charted a course around Cape Romano Shoals and the Ten Thousand Islands, and then through the Florida Bay Yacht Channel and Channel Five, arriving at our destination, Postcard Inn and Marina on Islamorada, in time for happy-hour libations at the world famous Tiki Bar. I smiled.
We spent days three and four at the Ocean Reef Club on Card Sound. Here, we practiced docking, launched and retrieved the dinghy, and worked on anchoring. In preparation for the fourth and final leg to Ft. Lauderdale, I had the couple chart a course from Card Sound to Miami without my assistance. I always teach the paper-chart method, allowing my students to learn the electronic method on their own. Even though Cathy’s father was U.S. Coast Guard and had served as communications director in the Reagan White House, they struggled and ultimately, they cried!
But, they did it! And a rental car was waiting for me in Ft. Lauderdale for my trek back to Ft. Myers. Cathy followed me to the parking lot like a sad, hungry puppy. Crocodile tears streamed down her cheeks. “Steve,” she said, “he’s going to kill me out there.”
“You’ll be fine Cathy, he’s doing really good.”
With just that reassurance, she walked back to the boat. After that, the pair would go on to make The Great Loop and find a winter home for four ensuing years at a rickety dock in Caloosa Cove Marina on Islamorada. My definition of a rickety dock has more to do with personalities and characters than structure. Billy Burton is one of those lovable characters, “with stories to tell,” as Jimmy Buffet says.
At my last get-together with Cathy and Tyler, we were all throwing darts in the Safari Lounge at Caloosa Cove. At one point I was seated beside Billy on a bar stool watching him throw darts into Tyler’s prosthetic leg!
“Dammit Billy,” said Tyler, “that leg cost more than an E-Tech Evinrude!” We all busted a gut. The pair had become bona fide boaters, an enviable status that includes making lifelong rickety dock friends like Billy. They tried, they cried, they succeeded!