Escapade 19.4. Know when to hold ‘em

by Larry Caillouet

A slip opened up for us in American Yacht Harbor in Red Hook, so Towboat US came to tow us in.  Two inflatable rigid dinghies came out to serve as tugboats to put us into our slip and after a bit of confusion and shouted instructions we were in.  The misfortune of 2017’s Hurricane Irma was our good fortune on this day because after the Customs and Immigration office in St. John had been destroyed it was relocated to Red Hook.  A short walk and a few minutes was all it took to clear in. Now we were living in luxury with shore power, a good grocery store, and free WiFi. Man cannot live by bread alone. In 2019 he needs WiFi.  Days of unseen emails were dumped into our laptops, phones, and iPads. Answers to burning questions of geography, history, commerce, and philosophy were at our fingertips. Life had gone from good to great at the click of a few keystrokes.

A look around us showed that we were in good company here at AYH.  Our next slip neighbor was a beautifully restored and refitted 1994 Bristol 57.  I envied all of its gleaming brightwork, its impeccably polished navy hull, its golden teak deck, and its owners lounging in the cockpit with nothing to do.  They in turn admired my industriousness, climbing in and out of my lazarette in my ragged cut-off jeans, so they invited us over for some refreshments. I don’t know if they pitied us or just wanted some relief from watching us work.  On the other side of them at the T-dock sat the pride of the marina, an 86-foot powerboat named Gypsea.  No one was on it, but it knew it was king of the hill.  My admiration of it only grew when I discovered that it belonged to the patron saint of St. John, Kenny Chesney.  

When the initial elation of arrival had worn off, we began to deal with the realities of our situation.  Most pressing was the transmission problem. What did it need and who could do it? We were fortunate that the resident guru of diesel mechanics had a shop at Red Hook.  We were unfortunate that he was so good he had weeks of work scheduled. I camped at his office door toward the end of each workday to beg a few minutes of his time. He came to the boat, took a look, and said, “I can fix that.”  “When?” I asked, feeling both relief and anxiety at the same time. “In two or three weeks. I’ll let you know when I see an opening coming.” The awkward uncertainty of that schedule was compounded by the fact that hanging out at the American Yacht Harbor was costing about $150 per day.  

The guru did give me enough advice and insight that I could formulate a plan.  The transmission was installed in Road Town, Tortola, about 18 miles away by sea.  A call to the manufacturer assured me that Parts & Power in Road Town would be the best place to get warranty service.  So if we could get out of the marina without hitting a dock or another boat, we could make it to Road Harbor. Once there we could anchor and dinghy in.  

We escaped AYH without any further damage to our boat or our dignity and sailed to Road Harbor, the site of various mechanical miseries in previous visits.  Parts & Power was located on the east side of the harbor in an ugly industrial complex, but since there was easy access from an anchorage there to the shop, we chose to set the hook, spend the night, and bring a technician to the boat in the morning.  We had anchored here once before in the mistaken notion that it was a protected anchorage. It was one of the two worst nights we had ever spent at anchor. It was phenomenally rolly. Everything slid from side to side including us who were trying to sleep.  But that night was just a sample of one. Surely it wouldn’t be like that again. You guessed it—it was exactly like that again. That anchorage now constitutes 2 of the 3 worst anchored nights in our boating life.

We brought the technician to our boat in the morning and he was able to correct the problem that day and for numbers in the low hundred$.  In my imagination it could have been a lot worse. Finally the boat was ready to set out for the Panama Canal and the South Pacific. The boat was ready, but what about the crew?

We counted heads on the boat and could only find two—Diana and me.  By now our crew schedule was totally messed up. We have made it a policy to not sail more than two overnights with only the two of us as crew.  The rigor of having someone on watch all night long, even in shifts, takes a toll on anyone’s energy and mental alertness. Well, to be honest, I did exactly that in my college days, but those days were years behind me.  I’m either wiser or lazier now. Either way, I won’t do it.

Perhaps we could get some crew to help us sail on to Panama where we would get ready for transiting the Canal.  We counted days on the calendar and found that there just weren’t enough days to get a couple of crew onboard and sail across the Caribbean to Panama to meet the schedule that we had laid out.

What to do?  We had fought through storms, repairs, crew changes, and sea sickness to get here, but now what?  Kenny Rogers had built a music empire on the simple advice “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”  Gambling is not completely unrelated to ocean sailing. In spite of all our heartaches over the crashing of a lifelong dream, our sea gambler’s calculus told us that it was time to fold ‘em.  We would not cross the South Pacific this year. Equipment had been purchased for this voyage, fees had been paid, but we didn’t hold a winning hand. It was time to fold ‘em and walk away.

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