After having bought Oriental Lady in the Caribbean in May of 1981, Sue and I were seriously out of money. We'd been on the road for 16 months and were surviving on cash advances on our credit cards. So we anchored Lady in Rodney Lagoon, St. Lucia, and flew back to California to work.
While home, we also researched and bought lots of bits for our new boat: Solar panels, VHF and SSB radios and their antenna systems, new fridge components, an electric anchor winch, lights, a stereo system, etc., etc. To get all this stuff (and ourselves) back down to St. Lucia cheaply, we contacted the parent company of the charter outfit in Rodney Lagoon - Steven's Yachts, in Annapolis. Yes, they had an S&S 47' cutter named Skyline that needed delivering about when we wanted to go down, and yes, we could crew on her and take as much stuff as would fit on the boat. But they wanted a real, bona-fide delivery captain as skipper. We didn't find out why until later. But the deal was fine with us, as it saved us several thousand (1982) dollars.
The skipper was nice enough, if a bit of a cocaine addict. He gave us the nice, big, aft master cabin, and most of our gear fit in there as well, out of other people's way. He had a 100-ton license, and apparently made his living driving tugboats. He certainly didn't make his living sailing, as I'm not sure he knew how.
After getting the briefing from Steven's Yachts (which I tagged along for) we set off from Annapolis, down the Chesapeake bay. Several hours later found us becalmed, in fog, in the shipping channel - without any diesel. Apparently, Skyline's fuel tanks had not been filled beforehand. After spending the entire day listening for other boats and being sure we were about to be run down, the Coast Guard nicely came out and towed us into Norfolk, VA (they don't do this anymore). Their "safety inspection" discovered the hose that should have gone to the (non-existent) toilet holding-tanks. The skipper and I, knowing that these tanks had been illegally left off on purpose, looked at each other for a moment and then assured the Coast Guard that we'd look into it.
All the water that pours into the Caribbean from the Atlantic has to escape somehow, and it does so by squirting past Florida and up the eastern seaboard of the US, forming the Gulf-Stream. The winds often run counter to this huge "river" of warm water, setting up difficult, square-sided seas. As we were sailing across this one night, all wrapped up in as many waterproof layers as we could, Sue suddenly noticed the steering go slack. We were pounding along in the middle of the night, in ugly conditions, in a boat we could no longer steer. Luckily, the briefing had included the location of the emergency tiller, so we dug that out, set it up, and set our course for Bermuda to effect repairs. This was actually OK with us, as we'd never been there. Then the engineer in me had to take the steering pedestal apart the next morning and fix the silly steering, thereby robbing myself of a paid vacation in Bermuda. Sometimes my own stupidity amazes me...
The rest of the passage was uneventful, except that we motored the whole way and had to put into Antigua just to get some more fuel. Our gear for Oriental Lady should not have had to pay duty in St. Lucia, but the customs agents at that time tended towards tin-gods. One we called Mr. "Yes-sir" Patrick, as it was necessary to listen to his socialist blatherings, saying nothing more than "Yes, sir" at appropriate intervals, until he ran down enough to complete our paperwork. He was very proud of the fact that he had a desk job, and he grew his little finger-nail about 2" long and painted it in red and white stripes so that everyone else would know it as well. Given this, we decided that what they didn't know wouldn't harm anyone. We slowed down and arrived after dark, transferring our gear after they'd gone home, and then cleared in officially the next morning.
It was only after we got down to St. Lucia that we discovered the rest of the story about Skyline. It seems that she was the replacement for a previous boat, also an S&S 47', but the story was so incredible that the insurers hadn't wanted to pay out...
The original boat had been fitted out in Annapolis and been ready for delivery to Steven's Yachts in St. Lucia in February. Now, most delivery skippers know better than to sail out of the Chesapeake then, so there was a bit of a problem finding someone to deliver the boat down to the Caribbean. So when a guy stepped forward and said he'd take her down, nobody asked many questions. (His references later turned out to be more bar-room type references than sailing references.)
That skipper quickly put together an inexperienced crew consisting of another guy and 2 women. The 4 of them set off down the Chesapeake and out into the Atlantic. Somewhat predictably, when they reached the Gulf Stream just offshore, with its wind-against-current and square-sided waves, they were way out of their element. To his credit, the skipper realized this and decided to head for Bermuda for (presumably) more instruction. So they dug out the radio-direction finder (RDF), found the Bermuda beacon, and headed east.
They continued sailing east for several days, following the radio beacon. More and more days. GPS hadn't been invented yet, and the boat carried no other form of electronic navigational aid. It's unclear if the skipper even had (or knew how to use) a sextant. After much longer than they thought reasonable, they finally saw a freighter. So they called it on the VHF radio and asked for their position. They were told they were just off the Azores, hundreds of miles past Bermuda and, in fact, most of the way across the Atlantic!
How could this be? They'd followed the Bermuda RDF beacon!
The answer lies in how an RDF works. It's basically a cheap AM radio with a ferrite bar antenna. You look up Bermuda in the signal book, dial in the frequency, listen to the signal to make sure it's the correct one, and then swing the RDF to find which direction the signal goes away - that is the direction of the beacon. (It's much easier to find the minimum signal than the maximum signal.) The problem is that there's some ambiguity. The beacon is either directly in front of you, or ... directly behind. It seems that our nit-wit skipper had sailed past Bermuda in the night, passed the beacon without noticing, and they'd then been sailing away from Bermuda for several days.
When the freighter gave them their location, the second guy on board decides that this is too much, and he is going to take over control of the boat. But first he decides to climb onto the freighter to get some advise. After he does so, the 2 women look at each other, proclaim that they don't want to be left alone with the nit-wit skipper, and they also get onto the freighter. The skipper then decides that he doesn't want to be left alone and he also gets onto the freighter, leaving nobody on the yacht.
The decision is then made that the freighter will tow the yacht into the Azores. So they put a big rope around the yacht's anchor winch, throw a bunch more rope into the water (don't want to have the yacht too close behind), and the order is given to get underway. But the slack from the big rope gets caught in the propeller's back-wash, and the yacht is reeled in like a giant fish on a powered winch, only to smash into the back of the freighter! They quickly take the freighter out of gear, unwind the rope as best they can, and try again - with exactly the same results. I'm not making this up! The way the story was told to me, they did this some 7 times before the front of the yacht crushed, fell off, and the poor yacht sank. (No wonder the insurers didn't want to pay!)
And we were delivering the replacement boat...
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