Deliveries: Bringing Her Home Alive
By Tom Neale, 8/24/2006
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It wasn’t going to be a good trip. I’d agreed to take a boat that a friend had just bought from Hampton Roads, up the Chesapeake Bay, to Deltaville Virginia. It was a “delivery trip” of sorts, but not for pay—just to help a friend and because I liked being on boats. “I’ll never turn down a boat ride,” I’d said. As it turned out, I wished I had. The boat was a well used sailboat and had been built with a balsa cored hull which had soaked in lots of water over the years and rotted. A previous owner had “fixed” the problem by paying a yard to scoop out the coring and refill it with epoxy and filler. This added so many pounds to the boat that she was drawing almost a foot more than she was supposed to.
The boat was around 40 feet long, with an auto pilot, good electronics and all the tricks, I’d been told. I thought this would be fun. My friend, the proud new owner, didn’t go. I took with me my oldest daughter Melanie to help and for company. This was around 20 years ago and she was around seven and already knew a lot more about boats than most people.
It was a record setting hot day, but we had plenty of ice and water, and we were used to record setting hot days. The VHF weather radio said that the day was going to stay clear, just the usual 3 H’s of hot, hazy and humid. They didn’t have a clue. As we cleared Hampton Roads I noticed that it was beginning to get hazy, just as they’d said. But they hadn’t said how hazy. The day got hotter and hotter and more and more hazy. After a couple of hours it was so bad that you couldn’t see the shore unless you went in so close that you’d run aground. I’ve been traveling the Bay all my life. When I began, it was all eyeball navigation, at least for a poor boy like me. I usually know where I am by the shore line. This wouldn’t work today. Usually, even at night you could figure things out by the lights ashore and light patterns on the buoys, but this, I knew, wouldn’t’ work on this day either. This trip was before the days of chart plotters (at least any that I knew of) but we had an old Loran aboard that was one of the few “neat things” that was working. We also had charts. I bring them even though I never think I’ll need them. I often do.
The boat didn’t make anywhere near the speed she should have. Small wonder with the extra weight and draft. The little engine could barely push her. And for some reason she wouldn’t hold a course. The prop thrust on the rudder pushed it over to the side with great force, making her steer around in circles unless you fought the wheel every minute. Small wonder that the auto pilot didn’t work. But that was OK. We both knew how to steer a straight course and we both liked boat rides anyway.
Then the leaking started. It was like the stuffing box hadn’t been stuffed since the first day the boat was put into the water. I’d checked it before we left, and there was just the proper sort of drip. But while underway, the drip turned into trickling. The trickle turned into pouring. The pouring turned into gushing. The boat was turning into a submarine. The bilge pump was whirring and whirring and whirring. It was pumping a small fire hose sized stream of water that was shooting from the hole in the side of the hull. Considering everything else on the boat, I was expecting to see smoke coming out of that hole any minute. I started looking for a bucket and found one. That meant I had two, because we’d brought one of our own just in case.
At this point we were beyond the half way point and the most sensible thing to do was keep on chugging rather than try to find our way back into busy Hampton Roads. The bilge pump was keeping up with the flow from the stuffless stuffing box and we had buckets enough and a manual pump if the electric one gave out. Now all we had to do was find the Piankatank River and then the mouth of Jackson Creek—assuming we also didn’t have to swim. The haze grew thicker and thicker. It wasn’t like fog because you could see for maybe a mile or so, but it was getting more and more difficult to see aids to navigation, much less land. And something else began to worry me.
You couldn’t see the horizon either. All you could see was that big ball of a sun burning down through the humidity. I like to see the horizon for a lot of reasons, and one of them is for weather. I didn’t care what the weather voice was saying on the VHF, I didn’t like what I was feeling. It was just the type of day for severe afternoon thunderstorms. They can be notoriously fierce on the Chesapeake. They start with a barely noticeable filling in of gray on the western horizon. Very soon the gray is black and it’s rapidly spreading toward you. You learn to watch for this. I could barely see the sky, much less the horizon. And the entire world seemed gray, except for that smoky orange hot sun overhead.
We’d planned to get in shortly after noon, but that was before we knew that the boat’s alleged speed was a myth. I kept staring out to the west, but I couldn’t see a thing other than haze. But I could feel something. I could sense something. And I could sense it strongly. It made me feel like we were sitting on a keg of dynamite.
We found the mouth of the Piankatank and started heading westerly instead of the northerly course we’d been holding much of the day. There was less current in the river to set us to the side, and it was a little easier to find the buoys. As we were looking for the one off the creek, we heard the first crack—and then the immediate crash of thunder.
I didn’t know whether I would have preferred some warning or not. This way I had had less time to fear it. Another crack came. There was no mistaking what was going on. Huge bolts of lightning were hitting the water somewhere nearby. There was no rain and no wind—just gray moist stillness and the occasional hiss, crack, crash and even the smell of the lightning. Then it stopped and all was ominously still again. The air had a strange smell, and we knew that the stillness wasn’t good.
My wife, Mel and my younger daughter, Carolyn, were waiting on Chez Nous, not far from our destination. They both knew weather and they both knew what we were experiencing and the danger we were in. We tried to call them on the VHF, but we found that it wasn’t getting out far enough. So we called them on my friend’s mobile phone that he had left with us. At that time we had no phone of any type on our boat. We had to call a pay phone near the Chez Nous and ask whoever answered it to get Mel. “Come get us in Deltaville,” we said.
We headed into the creek and soon saw our destination marina. We tied up as quickly as possible, got our gear and headed for our car, diving in. It was good to be together as a family again. My friend later asked, “Oh, did you have a good time?” he said, “I wish I could have gone with you.”
It wasn’t long thereafter that he sold the boat.
Copyright 2004-2006 Tom Neale