A Night to Remember


It had been a long couple of days. I had headed out of Charleston harbor on my 1987 Morgan 41 Classic, Impulsive. With me was my oldest friend in the world, Hod Arnett. We have known each other since kindergarten and have been best friends through grade school, High School, College, and even the USAF. He has been with me on every major trip I have taken with Impulsive and several charters in
the BVI.

Hod and me

We were on our way to Fernandina Beach to meet up with another crewmember, Marty Coalson. He and I worked together for a number of years and he has been interested in sailing for some time. This was to be his first adventure on a sailboat, to test if this was really something he wanted to do. You know the dream (thanks to Gardner McKay and his ship the Tiki as it plied the waters of the South Pacific)…sell the house, buy the boat and take the wife, sans kids, on that round the world sail. Even as I type this, and I already have a boat, I keep thinking…count me in. Marty!! I had been trying to dissuade him of that idea until he took the kind of trip he was signing up for with Hod and me. His wife, Dianne seemed truly grateful.

Well, he was on a schedule and waiting for us at the marina in Fernandina Beach, FL. Now, Hod and I and a couple of others had tried to sail around the ICW in Georgia several years ago on a journey from the Chesapeake to the Keys, but the Atlantic kept suggesting, and in no uncertain terms, that we might be better off trying the long and winding route through Georgia on the ICW. We had tried for Florida, but made only 13 miles in 14 hours. Stono inlet, the first inlet from the Atlantic south of Charleston, looked like a likely respite. Now I know others would have said, why not keep going, but this was our first real foray into the North Atlantic, and getting beat up for the next couple of days just didn’t seem worth it. We are, after all, a couple of old boys from the flatlands of Illinois and Nebraska.

Coming into Stono inlet was a trip, since there was nary a light visible from shore, except for one dim white marker way inside the inlet on the point of land marking the river’s entrance into the bay. This was also a first time completely dependent on and trusting the chart plotter as well, because, with the exception of the lights on the channel markers, we were pretty much sailing blind. We did find an anchorage in a creek in 12′ of water and were surprised to see we had parked in the middle of absolutely nothing. Got to love that chart plotter.

The next morning we checked the NOAA report for the area and decided to try it again. Never, up until then have I experienced a NOAA report to be accurate. And once again, it was off by about 120 degrees and the waves were much higher than they predicted. We only made it to the north end of Hilton Head island (thankfully before sun went down), and decided we would take the inside route the rest of the way to Florida. We did get stuck at a place called Devil’s Gate at low tide trying to find a way through, but only until we got enough weight up on the boom and out over the side and were able to reduce our 5′ draft enough to push through a little mud to a spot with 6′ of water.

Well, that’s another story, and this is about the trip that did work out to Fernandina Beach. The difficulty Hod and I discovered was that with only two of us to stand watch out of Charleston, neither of us were really out of the cockpit for the next couple of days. Catnapping just doesn’t quite fulfill the need for rest. NOAA turned out to be pretty accurate and we were sailing the entire way. It was, when we felt rested enough to notice, a treat that most flatlanders will never get the chance to experience. I have to say it was the most remarkable sailing experience I had ever had (at least in a positive way) up until that point. Dolphins off the bow, the Milky Way overhead and the unceasing rhythm of the Atlantic were the perfect antibiotic for the hectic disease of civilization.

While we were clearly enjoying our voyage, the time awake was beginning to take its toll on both of us. Not on our friendship, mind you, which has managed to survive 60 plus years of living, but on our collective and individual judgment. As we approached the entrance to Fernandina Beach, I remembered that the rock jetties pushed out into the Atlantic around 3 miles. Since it was about 9:30 PM in January, they were not visible to the naked eye. We had taken down the sails and cranked up the iron jenny as we turned Impulsive west into the entrance. At this point it is probably important to tell you that Hod had been taking some medications for a condition that has since cleared up, the side effects of which were the possibility of visual instability. Well, hallucinations really!

Hod without the meds

At any rate, neither of us felt like we were at anywhere near 100% functioning, so anything manifesting itself out of thin air should not be a surprise. Our exhaustion, the lateness of the day, the darkness of the night and the fact that in front of us were these two fixed and immovable jetties that we could not see left us…well me at least… a bit on edge.

The really positive aspect here was that the chart plotter clearly showed the jetties in front of us about 1/2 mile. It was at this point that two things happened. I don’t know if the first had to do with a solar flare or a temporary electronic malfunction, but the chart plotter did this spinning around on the screen and seemed completely unable to fix our position relative to the jetties. Hod, thinking fast, immediately went into the salon and grabbed my iPad, which has iNavx loaded onto it. He turned it on and booted up the chart plotting App. This would have worked beautifully if either of us had thought to dim the screen. Alas, neither of us did, until it was too late. Once we fixed our eyes on that screen, both of us were functionally blind to anything else.

At this point, my exhaustion is beginning to take hold and I am now in the grip of absolute panic. The chart plotter has failed, I am blind, and the rock jetties are hungrily anticipating a meal of fiberglass and aluminum. I grabbed my iPhone and called Marty, who has been awaiting our arrival most of the day. He is at the marina and I brief him…well more like scream at him about our circumstances and ask him to find someone there who might give us some assistance. He manages to get the phone number of the Sea Tow’s “on call” representative.

This guy’s name is Capt. Joe. I have been a subscriber of Sea Tow for several years and had never had any need to call on them. I think Capt. Joe would have helped me even had I not been a member. I call him and give him the brief, in I’m sure a panicky sounding state, of my condition, and he proceeds to calm me down. Now, I’m thinking he is going to hop in a runabout and come meet us, and guide us into the harbor. That initial thought gives me some relief from what is rapidly becoming an increasingly apoplectic state. While this is happening, Hod is now beginning to experience the potential side effects of his meds. He keeps holding up the iPad to my face, re-blinding me, and I feel like I swatting flies to get that bright screen away from my eyes.

Capt. Joe is a stalwart of cool, calm and collected. He tells me he can talk me in faster than he can come out to guide me in. I confess, that did not relieve the surging sense of panic I was feeling, but his continued calm eventually won out. Meanwhile, while Capt. Joe is helping me acclimate to the lights on shore and getting me focused on the range markers, Hod suddenly tells me we are about to run into a dock with people dancing on it. I peer out into the gloom, with Capt. Joe assuring me that there is no dock in front of me, searching for the scene Hod tells me so convincingly is there. Once Capt. Joe gets me lined up with the range markers, and convinces me that I am in the middle of the channel, safely away from the
hungry jetties, I begin to calm down.

Now that I think I have a handle on my panic, and try to calm Hod down, he screams at me from the bow…where he is effectively blocking my ability to see the range markers , while trying to help me peer into the darkness, that there is a tree directly in front of us…Capt. Joe heard my response and assured me that if the range markers were one on top of the other (and they were), I was in the middle of the channel and there were no trees there. I do not know what those prescription drugs were that Hod was taking, but some night when I am safe and absolutely certain of surviving the night, I want to try some of that stuff! I think we may have found a legal way to take a trip and never leave the farm.

About this time, whatever had messed with my chart plotter decided to give it back to me. When the screen flopped over into what I had been expecting all along, I could now clearly see Impulsive in the middle of the channel and the rock jetties beginning to fade into the distance as we entered the ICW and made the turn south towards the marina. I told Capt. Joe thanks for all his help, and that I thought we were OK from that point to the marina, but he said he was going to stay with me on the phone until I saw the lights of the marina.

I cannot thank Capt. Joe enough, and I never learned his last name. As we saw the light of the marina and I tried to tell him how grateful I was for his help, he just said “that’s what we do at Sea Tow…we try to make sure people are safe!” He told me we should have a drink and toast him after we tied up. No problem there, amigo!

As we pulled up to the marina, there was Marty standing there waiting for us. It was about 10:30 PM. The last hour was probably one of the most confusing and clarifying hours I had ever spent on a boat. Marty was waiting for the story, but not until after we had some wine. He is a bit of a wine aficionado and had brought with him a couple of his favorite bottles, which we drained…and then some!

Marty and Hod

He had also convinced the restaurant to stay open until we docked and had been able to get some nourishment. Once we had secured Impulsive to the dock, we sort of staggered up the ramp to the restaurant, where Marty had stowed his gear and the wine, ordered something to eat, and Hod and I both started recounting our separate versions of what had become “a night to remember!”

Story submitted by Drew Whitler of S/V Impulsive