Monday, September 13, 2010

Of High Seas and Square Groupers

I am a river rat.  Grew up in a fish camp.  Spent my life on the water, mostly with an outboard tiller in my hand.  I suppose like most young boys my dreams were often filled with swashbuckling pirates, sailing ships and high seas.  

So it was, many years later, that I jumped at the chance to participate in an offshore sailboat race.  I had never been on a "real" sailboat before and was as excited as a fat rat in a cheese factory to finally get the chance to feel the wind in my hair under billowed sail.

She was a small craft, a Morgan 27, but well founded and designed to compete in the MOR (Midget Offshore Racer) class.  The race was from Baja Georgia up to Fernandina Beach, a distance of about 30 miles.  The plan was for me and my buddy, Bobby, and his brother, Dennis (ship's captain), to motor the boat from its inland marina out to the Inter-coastal Waterway and anchor for the night.  The next morning we would pick up Nancy (ship's owner) at a diner in Mayport and head out to sea for the race start.

The Friday night trip from the marina was one of learning the "ropes" or, I should say sheets and cleats, halyards and lanyards, forestay and backstay, jibs and spinnakers and the like.  I will never forget the feeling when we hoisted the mainsail and the boat heeled in the wind.  I've been a junky ever since.

We arrived at the starting point, the St. Johns River sea buoy, just before sunrise and joined about 80 other boats all circling for starting advantage.  This was a handicap race so boats of all sizes and ability were involved, the winner of two classes determined by a handicap points system.

As the starting time approached, the circle of boats got tighter and tighter, each crowding the starting line, each trying to judge wind and boat speed against the clock.  I was positioned on the bow sprit.  A rather harrowing place to be in the pitching sea.  My job, to avoid collision by informing the skipper how near we were to any other boat and prepare to fend off if necessary.  It's like a chess match as those on starboard tack (the wind from the left) have right of way.  Near misses were often only a matter of inches.

When the starter's gun sounded, everyone set their course and we were off.  That is, we were off for about 45 minutes of an 8 hour race when the wind died.  It didn't actually die, it did what sailor's call "lie down," that is, there was still a slight breeze but the ocean was calm, just large, gentle swells which made for a pleasant sail as the boat glided over them but would make for a very long day if the wind didn't pick up.

After about three hours, the fleet was spread out across the ocean.  We were among the lead boats and the string of sails behind us was a beautiful sight to see.

Then a strange thing happened.  I was sitting on the windward rail just enjoying the ride, when I noticed, in the distance, a seagull appeared to be standing on the water.  I grabbed the binoculars to take a closer look and sure enough, a seagull was standing on the water.  As we sailed on I saw another, then another.  I alerted the crew but no one seemed interested.  They were focused on their charts and scanning the horizon for wind.

After seeing several more I said, "Look boys, I might be from the woods but something ain't right here."  Finally, they took notice and we altered course just so slightly as to sail past one.  When we drew close, the gull flew away and we saw that he was standing on a plastic wrapped bale of something floating just on the surface.  I grabbed the boat hook and pulled it over.  Bobby cut it open and, you guessed it, Mary-Jo-Wanna!

It had obviously been in the water for quite some time as it was waterlogged and already had barnacles growing on it but still, here before us was an entire bale of the magic weed.  I hinted that this could be fortune smiling on us as a whole bale of this stuff might be worth as much as the boat itself, but my law-abiding crew took no notice and set it adrift as nothing more than an idle curiosity.  

I didn't even get a hand full.  My heart ached as it floated away.
Altogether, I counted 13 seagulls standing on the water.

Again taking up the binoculars, I scanned the fleet behind us and saw one boat after another drop sail and drag something out of the water.  By the time we reached the Fernandina sea buoy half of the fleet had dropped out of the race and turned back for home.

Later that evening, as all of the boats were rafted together at the Fernandina pier, I noticed that the outside boat, A J-24 manned by a youthful crew, was one I saw pull something aboard.  Curiosity getting the better of me,  I went out and introduced myself and told them I had seen them snag a square grouper and was dying to find out how it tasted.  They welcomed me aboard.

They had pulled a pound or two out of the bale and were in the process of trying to dry it out in a skillet when I arrived.  It turned out to be worthless.  The salt water had ruined it but the whole incident sure made for good conversation over hot rum the rest of the weekend.

Oh, by the way, we finished 3rd in class.


  1. Poor smoking makes for going to a strange town for good selling.

  2. i dated a sailor for a bit when i was very young. i still remember him telling me how comfy a sailbag is and still cringe that i totally missed the implication.

  3. Actually, my eyes kind of glazed over as soon as I saw your header, so I didn't get to read the story.
    I'm just messing with you. I've got some family in the Caribe that I need to alert to look for seagulls that stand on the water. Later.

  4. Is that where Deep Purple got "Smoke on the Water" from? Hahaha...that was a great story with an excellent moral. Never sail with squares!

  5. Like the sailing story a lot. I have a Cape Dory 36 and she is fine. I also have a Catalina 22 that I love. Never found any square groupers but our research vessel came from a confiscation of a shrimp boat that was selling weed.

  6. I guess high seas has more than one meaning.


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