ORIGIN OF A BUM KNEE
And other learning experiences
About a week ago, I injured my knee and was puzzled.
I was puzzled that my perfectly healthy 45-year-old knee had given out under me at the end of an ordinary swing at an ordinary softball and had dropped me without warning at home plate, my leg folded excruciatingly under me. Doctors asked if it had ever been weakened by a previous injury. “Well, no …”
But in the week of contemplation afforded by the wonder of HMOs and preauthorized medical care, it occurs to me that this injury was actually an old boating accident come back to haunt me!
About 1993 or 1994, I heard somehow of an outfit in the Upper Florida Keys that chartered shoal-draft sharpies for bareboat adventures in the waters of Florida Bay. I was living in Fort Lauderdale at the time with a wife and a new baby, and it had been 5 years since I had come home from a 10-month sail to Tahiti and back. I had not sailed in those years – not once – and so I got my hands on a photocopy of a magazine article about the company and the boats, and studied it until it was dog-eared and soft.
It seemed fantastic that just a couple hours’ south of my traffic-jammed home, I could reach a primordial paradise of untraveled (relatively speaking) Florida. Florida Bay is a 1,000 square-mile body of water shaped something like an acute triangle, bounded to the north by the southern shores of the Florida Everglades, to the east and south by the long string of the Florida Keys, and to the west by the deeper, unsheltered waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Most of it is within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, but “park” status is not what shields it from the hordes of boats choking the rest of South Florida.
It’s the water – or rather the lack of it. Most of the Bay is probably 24 – 36 inches, with some “holes” and channels of 4-6 feet. Aids to navigation are few and far between, mostly consisting of white poles set by who-knows-who. They mean nothing unless you have a chart and know exactly where you are – and even then, the bottom can shift with a storm. So it is a tough place to take a Bayliner or a Sea Ray without local knowledge. Besides, there aren’t any shooters bars or restaurants, so the crowds do their crowding elsewhere.
My wife at the time had had little interest in boats after our marriage, and even less after the birth of our son. To her credit, she did tolerate being a sailing widow for quite a few years prior to our marriage. Nevertheless, if I was going to have a Florida Bay sailing experience, camping aboard a bare-bones sharpie with a bucket for a toilet, it was going to be a solo deal.
It was about a year before I was able to finagle the time off from work and home commitments. I was practically levitating with excitement as I dug out the old photocopied article and dialed the number to make a reservation.
Sadly, the company had gone out of business and the three or four boats in the fleet were long gone. I had a problem!
There were few options. Boats with a draft shallow enough to roam Florida Bay are not exactly common. Finding such boats available for charter proved impossible.
Just to interrupt the story for a second … what does it mean that such an incredible business concept as thin-water charters can’t attract enough business to remain viable? Can it be that there aren’t enough people interested in an offbeat retreat to keep just one business going? Hard to believe! Then again, it’s hard to believe that the circulation of MAIB remains more or less constant instead of growing wildly as we might expect. I guess folks with our tastes are something of a rare species. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, by the way.
So … I pretty much had to let go of the Florida Bay retreat idea, but I still had a solo sailing vacation to plan, somewhere in the Keys! I located a Cape Dory Typhoon for charter and figured that with its relatively shallow draft, I could still see some of Florida Bay. I began to assemble the gear I would need to make a bare daysailer into a cruising boat for a week.
Don’t you know that the planning and low-budget acquisition of gear is half the fun! Robb White’s term is “the joy of the relentless pursuit,” and that exactly describes the experience for me. Propane camp stove, saucepan, Clorox bottle shower, my very own set of one-handed dividers and parallel rule, charts, a huge straw hat … all the fine details occupied my leisure hours for months.
Finally, in late May 1995, the trip was only a week away after a spring spent in ecstatic planning. I called the charter firm to check in … and was told that the boat had been damaged in a storm and would not be available for charter. The only other boats in that fleet were 28 feet and up – a long way from the kind of messing I had in mind, and way beyond my budget.
Talk about relentless pursuit! Finding any small sailboat for bareboat charter in the Upper Keys in my price range was a challenge. One option briefly considered was a Compac 16 down in Layton at Mile Marker 68, about midway down the Keys. I made a day trip to inspect it … and it was truly a bare boat, rented only occasionally by the hour, without cushions, engine, or a bimini top and with a poor suit of misfit sails. It just wouldn’t be reliable for any overnight cruising. I kept looking.
I finally found a fellow in Tavernier, closer to the north end of the Keys, with a back yard operation and a fleet consisting of two old Hunter 25.5s. Still out of my price range, but we were able to negotiate a 5-day deal I could afford. She had had the pop-top screwed shut long ago, had gone many years without much love or money, and had a small reef of barnacles and crud growing on the keel. The rig was sloppy but all the clevises and cotter pins were in place (tape unraveling but I could forgive that detail), the sails were pretty fair, and there was a new Mercury kicker on the transom bracket.
Now, the Upper Keys are just plain gorgeous arriving by car. Leaving Fort Lauderdale and passing through west Miami on the Turnpike is about as bleak a drive as there is, except maybe west Texas. The city of Homestead at the edge of the Everglades and Florida Bay is the gateway to exotic American isles, but you’re not there yet. For the next 50 miles or so, the Overseas Highway is a bad 2-lane road through marsh grass, with an occasional patch of brackish water to whet the appetite and heighten anticipation. When that road opens to 4 lanes at the top of the Keys, you might feel a hint of the good old tropical Buffet-time feeling, but there is not much water to be seen yet.
And then – you come to the bridge across Tavernier Creek, and by God you have done arrived in Paradise. Stretching left and right of the road is an emerald canal with all manner of local craft, large and small. From this point and all the rest of the way to Key West, you are in the Caribbean, and the Bahamas seem just around the corner.
The three or four times I had made this trip by car to Key West over the past few years, the sight of those waters always had me aching to rent a boat of any kind and get out there. Once or twice I did manage to rent a little something for an hour or two in between other family tourist-type pursuits, but that little morsel of messing about could never satisfy.
But now … at last (I thought to myself) was the sailor returned to the sea. Ahead of me was four full days of doing as I pleased, with no plans in particular other than to wander where the wind pointed. It was Wednesday May 31st, 1995, a day after my 36th birthday.
Once I had driven down, signed papers with the owner, and loaded the boat, it was already 5 o’clock. I hanked on the sails, furled the main tightly with a single tie for easy release, and tied the jib down to the bow pulpit. Shortly, I was motoring out of the side canal, then eastward into Tavernier Creek out to Hawk Channel, open water but sheltered from the sea by the famous reefs a few miles offshore. A couple of hours later, I had sailed to an anchorage a few miles northeast and snugged down for the night.
Next morning I decided to pick up a couple of forgotten items in town before leaving the area, so I returned to the home dock and took a quick car trip. After running my errands, I set out once more — and that was where I got into some trouble, messed up a knee, and was lucky not to mess up a lot more.
The log says that I got a little “rattled” leaving the dock this time — got blown sideways, hung up on the other Hunter, and had a little bit of a time getting clear. I had forgotten that part, but it’s all clear now: I was frustrated and swearing peevishly as I straightened up the helm and opened the throttle to head down the creek. I was free at last and on my way … and that’s when I saw the jib bag, loose on deck, and blowing towards the gunwale near the port shrouds. I was about to lose it overboard.
Now, I could have throttled back, stopped the boat, and picked up the bag. Hell, even if it had gone over, I could have plucked it out with the boathook. Even losing it entirely wouldn’t have been all that big a deal … so there really was no excuse for the pigheaded, impatient, cocky thing I did next.
I left the helm and made a dash for it.
Leaving the helm for a brief second or two to grab your glasses or a drink or whatever is common enough. Doing it while motoring down a confined canal with moored boats on either side is, uh, perhaps imprudent. Aw, heck, an experienced sailor with good coordination in prime health and in a hurry to get loose from land oughta be able to push his luck a little and get away with it … but … doing that while wearing inappropriate footwear is damn foolish, as I was about to discover.
Readers who have spent time in Key West may have become acquainted with “Kenos,” which are a simple, inexpensive leather sandal with a rubber sole, handmade in a little factory/storefront a few blocks off Duval Street. They’re charmingly low-rent and they wear well and they’re a fun way to bring a little of your vacation back with you. And they are no good at all for any kind of running or quick change of direction – a fact I had completely forgotten when I had worn them on my errand, returned, and headed out again in the boat.
My dash out of the cockpit went well, but as I planted my right foot to bend down, snatch the bag, and dash back, my heel slid out of the sandal. My toe stayed in, my leg twisted way too far, and my knee failed me. Next thing I knew, I was lying in the scuppers with my knee hurting like hell and drowning out all the lesser aches and pains of the fall. My toe was bleeding copiously after snagging on the (untaped) cotter pins on the shroud turnbuckle — and the bag was still blowing overboard. To add insult and confusion to the whole fiasco, the bag’s drawstring had snagged my sunglasses from where they had fallen and was taking them over the side with it. And we were making 5½ knots down the canal with no one at the helm.
I tell you what, my sore knee hurts like hell just writing this. I had to pick myself up and hop one-legged back there to the tiller right quick before we really banged the hell out of someone else’s boat. I managed to shift into reverse and scoop up the sail bag just before impact.
It was an undignified mess of tangled rails and bruised egos but nothing got busted. Fortunately there was only one fellow on the dock at the time to see the circus, and it wasn’t his boat I hit. He was mercifully nonchalant about the whole thing and must have figured I was suffering plenty as it was, because he didn’t make any smart remarks and even let me loop a mooring line around his bow rail so I could stop and collect myself.
I had a lot to collect, starting with my wits. If I was flustered and irritated when I left the dock less-than-gracefully a minute or two before, I was in a rage now, breathing hard, scared, sweating profusely in the midsummer Florida heat, and on the verge of crying with frustration. I was afraid I had ruined my vacation by hurting myself. I had succeeded in retrieving the damned sail bag, but had lost a good pair of glasses overboard – a very bad bargain. My knee was already swelling and I had bled all over the deck. On top of it all, my dignity was just plain gutted – after all, I was a pretty experienced sailor to have wound up in such a sorry-ass state!
After I cleaned up, calmed down, and returned to town for an Ace bandage and a pair of drugstore sunglasses, my vacation did continue successfully and my knee apparently healed on its own, but that’s another story for another day. At the end of the log entry for that trip, however, I did scribble quite a number of lessons learned, three of which were:
1. Never wear sandals on a boat.
2. It does too matter if the turnbuckles are taped!
3. Leave ego at the dock.
Reviewing that log 10 years later, I would add a fourth lesson: Don’t play softball with a weak knee. It can really interfere with the important things in life, like messing about in boats.