Warm Current

Cruising on a sailboat is like taking care of young children: if you want to enjoy yourself, you learn to put away your own designs and ideas, adapt to conditions as they unfold, otherwise your patience is tested beyond the breaking point sooner or later.

Rarely, but sometimes, you can damage a relationship for life, or sink the boat forever. You always damage yourself allowing anything beyond your control to rob you of patience: the whims of the weather, the desires of a child, the mood swings of a bi-polar human being; it doesn’t matter how long you hold on, it only counts if you have patience for as long as it’s needed. Lose it, and whatever you were hoping to gain by it slips beyond your grasp, at least temporarily, until you rally and regain patience.

Leaving Stock Island for Marathon, I waited for the wind to blow my way. Patience ran out before the wind turned.

Beating north in four-foot chop, head-winds gusting, I motored up Hawke Channel. It was a beautiful bright November day, warm if you were out of the wind and dry, not slapped with salt water every time the bow of the boat dove over the crest of a white cap, dug in, and sent the spray flying.

A week later leaving Marathon in fair weather, the southwest wind laid Hawke Channel flat. Offshore, in the swell of the Gulf Stream, a steady, stiff breeze out of the southwest, wrinkled the surface of the ocean, the swell running my way, no chop. Riding the Gulf Stream north. The sun went down with the full moon rising. The wind came aft of the starboard quarter, on a broad reach. With everything up, the boat dug a hole, she was going so fast; I had to shorten sail, and slow her down. A gorgeous night, the moon so bright the stars were obscured.

A mile to starboard, the big ships ran parallel to the reef of the Keys, lit up in the moonlight, no danger to me. The ocean lay low as a silvery pond, visible to the horizon. A night you don’t forget because perfect conditions are rare.

I came in sight of Miami, the loom of city lights strange and reassuring. The breeze died down in the deepest part of the night. As the eastern sky turned pale, the wind picked up and swung south, backing to the east. Sailing north, I debated whether to bypass Fort Lauderdale and head for home in these ideal conditions.

Lack of sleep had me looking at choices like I was underwater with my eyes open trying to read a newspaper. I couldn’t see clearly, but home was only four days away, five tops, if I stayed offshore. Putting in at Fort Lauderdale, going inside, motoring the Inland Waterway, would take weeks.

I asked myself if I had the chops to stay offshore and do it. If I did, the ocean was going to wear me out again, like it did coming from Mobile to Key West. I was already in the hole a full night’s sleep. I would be running parallel to the big ships all the way. To ride the Gulf Stream current and get home quick, I would have to keep the big freighters in sight as they blew past, knowing the ships followed the apex of the warm current. I dreaded going without that much sleep. I dreaded the muscle cramps I would probably have to deal with, and the fear I could already feel accumulating.

But I looked at the sky so blue and the wind and the Gulf Stream going my way, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I owed it to myself to go back out as far as I could get, be as close as I had been in the Gulf of Mexico to whatever it was I keep trying now to frame and describe, that spoke to me, almost loud enough, that someone might hear it and confirm it. But it was not loud enough, and it made me wonder if I was dabbling with insanity.

Suddenly I saw my dead father. If I did not turn and look directly, he was sitting right next to me on the boat; so real, I could feel his hand on the back of my neck.

He said, “It’s all right, you don’t have to go.”

“I’m not a coward,” I said.

“Please forgive me,” said Daddy.

My grudge and the bitterness of a lifetime dissolved.

“I didn’t mean it either,” I sobbed.

“I forgive you too,” Daddy cried.

There was so much forgiveness to ask for. It felt like his arms were around me. Anyone within shouting distance could have heard me wailing. It felt so good to cry, like a boy with permission to be a child. Through the tears, I saw the sky, the sun flashing, the blue ocean.

I looked over the westward rail of the boat.

There were the red and white spires of the incinerators that marked Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale.

I wiped the tears out of my eyes and drank the rest of the milk from a bowl Raisin Bran I was eating before Daddy showed up.

I felt good. I felt justified.

I made the turn and set the auto pilot for the Lauderdale sea buoy.

An hour later I could see the jetties. On a Saturday in early December, a clear, warm noontime nautical rush hour at the port entrance, hundreds of small craft coming and going for the 17th Street Bridge. I waved to the speedboat drivers and pretty girls. One of them came blasting up the channel, running from cops in a blue light boat, a suntanned kid with streaky blonde hair and muscles.

He had a lead on the blue light, and he had a girl with him who was regal, wearing almost nothing. The two stood at the center console, the driver with both hands on the wheel, the girl with a hand resting in the crook of his elbow, the other hand lightly touching the windshield, her balanced for speed, them getting away. The girl was laughing, her perfect rear end, bisected by the thread of a thong, vibrated as the boat took over the pebbled surface.

They turned hard right behind the jetty, disappeared leaving the cops. The blue light came around the bend, siren wailing, the officers looking ahead saw a tangle of slow moving pleasure craft.

I imagine the girl in her thong, lying on a white towel spread over the bow cushions of the go-fast boat. The driver has the engine off, drifting near the jetty with a fishing rod out, plugging the rocks for a snapper.

I wave to the cops, but they don’t see it.