Usually when your friend asks you for a boat tow in a harbor you don’t expect to be floating around in the ocean, your right foot nearly severed at the ankle, your propeller jammed stiff on your precious bones and sharks and mantas surrounding you. Yet, that’s just what happened when, ten years ago Stephan Tremblay asked me to help move his boat out of the channel in St. Augustine, Florida.
I had met Stephan about nine months earlier. Both of us were hungry and cold, picking oysters from the banks of a Georgia swamp a few days before Christmas. We met again in north Florida and busked on the streets together. Later, he helped me float a hurricane wrecked 21 foot Chrysler sailboat from a small creek. We hung out together a lot during that cold winter, catching crabs in our traps and enjoying the boat bum life.
Later that year, Stephan traded his 28 ft Lancer for a well used 40 foot early 70s trimaran. I watched for many months while he and his new girlfriend rebuilt the trimaran, stopping leaks, replacing rot, and getting and mounting masts and sails (the hole bit!). One of their more controversial decisions was to make the boat engine-less. They wanted to be hardcore, and despite many debates, they figured the trade off of the engine for the weight and expense of having one was worth it. (I later to came to question that decision as I was surrounded by blood, floating adrift in the ocean.)
One Tuesday, Stephan told me that the next day the tides would be perfect and that his boat was ready to head out on their journey. And since I had a borrowed dinghy and the luxury of an engine, everything should be perfect for me to tow them out to the ocean, so they could cross the mighty Atlantic direct to Europe.
I left fifteen minutes early for my lunch break, jumped into the dinghy, and zoomed over to their vessel, complete with a 24 case of beer as a send off gift. The trimaran was mostly ready and my borrowed dinghy was quickly tied tightly at the back of the boat, between two amahs, like a very miniature pusher tug boat. The tide helped a great deal and other boaters honked their horns as we left the anchorage because that trimaran had been a broken landmark of the St. Augustine shoreline for many years. Things went very well until we started hitting the ocean swells that rolled right into the channel. Speed wasn’t a great concern and the tide was a great help. We were elated to be moving and Stephan steered the boat expertly, allowing me and the 4hp engine to just be the power. (Did I already mention that the forty foot trimaran which was twenty feet wide, and my dingy were being powered by a tiny four horse power Johnson four stroke engine?)
The journey went well. I became used to the waves which lifted me up and bonked my head on the beams between the two hulls to the right and when we ran out of gas Stephan was right above me, ready to pore some gas over the dingy, some into the engine and a majority onto myself. The gas, poured from above trickled down my body, finding every tiny bite hole, burning wherever the tiny biting no-see-um like flies had found me.
Soon, we were far enough out and the sails were raised for usage the very first time. I cut the engine, climbed aboard, joked about the salt water and gas which covered me, and left the dingy to tow. Half of my beer can done, I saw that the boat was making great time and we had covered a few miles north, northeast up the coast. I decided it was time to return, said tearful goodbyes, popped back into the dingy and headed back.
Because of my limited draft (perhaps aided as well by the beer can type of draft) I decided that I could cut through the offshore sandbanks that made for such great surfing and shark habitat and could make a bee line for the harbor entrance.
After fifteen minutes of great diagonal movement, I felt very comfortable and began to enjoy riding the dingy through large breaking waves, the rush of being picked up, and being carried along the waves of the curling monsters. I didn’t have a care in the world and was thrilled at having (at least in my head) invented dinghy surfing. As usual with me, that overconfidence came back to bite me, literally.
Not so long after the thrill had gone to my head, I stopped paying as much attention to the waves. So it was with some surprise that I found myself in the ocean, swimming alone, and with the shore far out of site. These were unpleasant waters and I knew I had two options: to try to swim for the shore, which I figured was vaguely “over there”, or to find the dingy.
Thankfully the dinghy’s engine turning mechanism was loose, and while annoying to drive because it was finicky, when let loose it simply turned the boat in a huge clockwise circle. Swimming at the top of a wave, no life jacket either on me or in the boat, I saw the light dinghy skipping and shooting over waves, made a mental calculation, and went for it.
By some miracle, I caught the front side of the dingy and was able to grab the rope, which ran down its side. The speed of the boat made my body plane up and suddenly the engine stopped dead, completely embedded in my right heel.
Without a single thought, I yanked my foot away from the propeller, climbed into the boat and assessed my situation: there was one flooded camcorder, one gas can, and one collapsible paddle. I removed my dollar store purchased t-shirt, twisted it, and connected the neck hole to my big toe and a sleeve hole to my little toe, kinda helping to cover the gaping wound left by the propeller blade.
Now roughly stabilized I tried to start the engine, only to discover that it was now stuck, covered in my foot goo, right into a sandbank. I tried using the collapsible paddle to lift us up but it mostly just folded, so I jumped back into the thigh deep water, the paddle now a walking stick and drag-hopped the boat from its stuck location.
I should probably mention that sharks and some kind of rays were growing pretty thick around me and over the next hour I had to be in and out of the boat a variety of times. I grew impatient with dodging the sharks and sometimes used the paddle to bonk them on their face, something that, I’m sure, made them much happier. The water inside and around the boat was filled with blood, and I felt it was only matter of time before it came down to me versus sharks in a winner takes all battle.
Thankfully, as my energy was almost drained, I found myself clear of the breaking waves and sand bars and decided to follow the deeper water course back to the St. Augustine channel. Along the way, I started to feel stronger and passed a number of boats, all of which probably would have helped me. But I felt that I had pretty much won by then and so waved as I went by, shirtless in the tiny dinghy.
I passed by my anchored boat and friends, pulling up to the municipal dinghy dock.
To his absolute credit, the marina manager who had been walking the docks on a VIP tour stopped what he was doing, took me to an office and put some gauze on my foot. He made me feel like I was going to live.
Naturally, my next move was to go to the marina shop, buy some orange juice to build my blood sugar back up, and hail a taxi back to work. I knew I was going to be OK because my friend (who owned the camcorder that I just destroyed) worked there and was a medic in the naval reserves from the Annapolis Naval Academy. He immediately assessed the situation, grabbed the vodka from the work fridge, quickly drank some and then poured some over my injured foot. Afterward, he bandaged it, and well that was it. I couldn’t wear shoes for the next six months and spend most evenings dangling my foot in the St. Augustine salty water off the edge of my boat. It healed completely except for a few chop marks on the skin, which still show this day, where the propeller jammed in.
I stayed in St. Augustine until hurricane season, where the edges of a few major storms caught us and I lost my cat, presumed overboard to the mighty waters. I was fortunate to have had this experience—not only it’s a great story to share, but Stephan, the medic, and even my friend who had lent the dinghy are all friends of mine and I count my blessings each day.