Next to sailing on a lovely beam reach or watching a sunset across an anchorage at happy hour, stories are the best things about time onboard. Tall tales are usually screwups that live large and get better with the retelling. To protect the (somewhat) innocent, some shouldn’t be told at all.
A while back, we were anchored on the back side of Bora Bora in French Polynesia, swinging to the hook in the fabulous trade winds. The batteries on our cat were shot, and they weren’t getting a break on this trip since we had a man aboard with a CPAP machine that ran all night. Every morning, I had to connect the battery banks and pray I could get at least one engine started. Our windlass had no intention of turning even with two engines running when the voltage was hovering around 10V. Morning departures were often dramatic.
Each evening, I ran both engines to charge just before turning everything off at bedtime. On our second-to-last night, I had grown lazy and asked my friend Joe to turn on the engines and rev them to 1,500 rpm. The stars were mesmerizing, the wine flowed, and we were just at the end of a row of fellow charter cats, safely tucked up behind the motu.
Suddenly, Joe’s wife Betty said in her southern drawl, “Joe, I think we’re spinnin’. ” Joe dismissed her with, “Oh Betty, you been drinkin’. ” But we were indeed spinning, in a long, slow arc. That wasn’t the night sky just moving around us.
I jumped up, pulled both throttles back, and the boat settled with the bows into the wind. The throttles on that model had buttons on the side that had to be pushed in hard to keep them in neutral before revving. One engine had been engaged, and we had been driving lazily around our anchor, which miraculously never pulled out. I looked at my neighbors, hoping there were no witnesses. All clear.
The next morning the captain next door called over. “What were you guys doing over there last night, drills?” Busted.
“Oh, you know,” I said casually. “We were making sure our anchor was screwed in good and tight—otherwise they don’t hold!” I bribed him later with rum punch to keep that between us.
Recently in Greece, my friend Frank and I were up at the helm of our 42-foot cat, standing watch and looking at the chartplotter as we sailed along. The screen was full of AIS targets, and we had a lengthy and fairly adamant conversation about how AIS should be aboard all boats because it’s ridiculously irresponsible to run without it. That’s when we heard a slap/bonk/clunk, and I thought Frank’s girlfriend, Cori, had dropped something in the galley. Instead, she shouted up from the cockpit, “What did we just hit?!”
A small buoy popped up behind the cat from between the hulls. It was more like a ball with a thin black stick rising up—basically, a vertical broom bobbing in our wake. I immediately looked at the plotter to check what it was. Nothing on the chart. We weren’t in a channel or the shipping lanes, there were no shoals, and a quick scan of the horizon showed no boats setting nets. I ran forward and hung off the trampoline to look below—not a scratch.
There were 30 more seconds of stunned silence followed by belly laughter and strict orders to never speak of this again. Nothing like having been haughty about how safety is critical, then running over a buoy. Frank called Cori to the helm and without missing a beat, she stepped up and asked if we needed help looking out for markers. Too soon, Cori. Too soon.
Dumb things happen out there, whether perpetrated by yourself or others. If you’re lucky, you’ll walk away with a lesson but little else to mark the occasion. Smart people vow to carry these events to their graves. Dumb ones publish them in a national magazine.