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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales


© 1991 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved


"He who would be captain of his own fate - consider well thy navigator!"
Reverend John Charles Nelson


Whenever someone asks me how I learned to navigate I have to smile. Not that it was all that funny at the time, stumbling into Havana, Cuba by accident. Twice.

But I'm way ahead of my story. It begins in Key West, Florida, back in 1973, in the days when I first heeded the call of the cruising life. I was a young man out to see the world, haunting the waterfront, ready to crew aboard any sailboat going anywhere just for the experience and the adventure. Little did I know, when I spied the weathered little sloop Eliza along the quay, just how much adventure and experience was in store for me!

Eliza's owner/captain, Joe, was a crusty old Scotsman who had, by his own account, sailed the 27-foot, bilge-keeled sloop across from England. With an Aires windvane bolted to the

transom and baggywrinkles in the shrouds, the boat looked to my novice eye to be a real passagemaker, as did her bearded captain.

"Aye," said Joe in response to my query, his briny Scotch brogue conjuring images of tall ships rounding the Horn, "I'm casting off within the week for California by way of the Panama Canal. And sure, if you want to come along I suppose we could use the third hand. Ah! Here comes our other mate now. He just signed on yesterday."

Down the dock swaggered a character straight out of Disney's Treasure Island. Short and swarthy, his rugged face was consumed by a full beard and tangled hair tumbling over broad shoulders. A roguish smile flashed beneath a nose broken more than once in the past. Yet his eyes twinkled, perpetually amused at some private joke. The loose-fitting shirt was unbuttoned, knotted at the waist over a broad-buckled leather belt that secured shabby bell-bottom trousers. The scarf tied on his head looked like a prop from an Errol Flynn movie. All that was missing was a cutlass clamped in his teeth. Sure enough, he was introduced to me simply as "Pirate." I never knew him by any other name.

Pirate, I soon learned, had recently been released from prison (for what offense I dared not ask). But he sounded (or, at least, looked) like a sailor, and Captain Joe seemed to have every confidence in him. So it was agreed we would ship out together.

I was excited at the prospect of such a long voyage and made no secret of it. "I know my way around the deck of a boat all right, but I don't know any navigation at all," I confessed. "I'm really looking forward to learning."

"Not to worry," said Joe, a favorite expression of his that, before this trip was through, would grate on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. "Not to worry, I'll teach you what I know of it."

"Me, too," volunteered Pirate, who had a way of taking a long time to say a few words.

"Great," I thought, "two navigators to learn from!"

The plan was to head southwest for the Yucatan Straight and enter the Caribbean Sea between Mexico and the western tip of Cuba. From there it's roughly another 800 miles south-southeast to the Panama Canal. That was the plan. Here's what actually happened.

We set sail and had hardly cleared Key West when Captain Joe ran Eliza hard aground on the sandy shoals around the off- lying keys. Maybe I should have suspected his seamanship right then, or at least his ability to read a chart, but I was the neophyte so I kept quiet and did whatever I was told.

After awhile we picked our way clear of the shoals and put to sea in earnest, bearing off on a broad reach with a fair but light breeze. As the sun set we watched the low land slip beneath the horizon astern. We were off!

Through the night we sailed southwest, the wind a paltry force 2 or 3. The small boat made only a few knots under working canvas. Joe set the windvane and said nothing about standing watches, so the three of us read, talked, and slept as the mood struck, the boat looking after herself through most of the night. This was all new to me and I just figured salty sailors like Joe didn't need anyone on watch. After all, he was the experienced captain, right?

The next morning I watched Joe pull out the sextant box. Ah, here at last was that most revered tool of the mariner's craft. I had never even held a sextant before and eagerly anticipated my introduction to the sacred knowledge; Celestial Navigation! 

But when Joe opened the box he just sort of stared at the gray plastic instrument - a brand new, inexpensive Davis beginner model still in its cellophane wrap. Then he began thumbing through the little instruction booklet that came with it, scratching his head.

"Joe," I said, "how come you have a new sextant? Where's the one you used to navigate from Europe?"

"Well," said Joe, "that sextant wasn't mine. Belonged to the fellow who crewed with me across. He actually did the sights coming over."

"But Joe, you do know how to use a sextant, right?" I was beginning to suspect the truth, and it was not reassuring.

"Oh, not to worry, not to worry. We'll just have a look at it. Can't be much to it."

Soon Joe and my other promised instructor, Pirate, were shaking their heads in bewilderment at the instruction booklet while turning the sextant over in their hands, as if closer inspection would reveal its secret. After awhile they seemed to give it up, deciding, I suppose, to rely on dead reckoning to get us there. So I picked up the booklet.

To the credit of the Davis Instrument Company, the instruction pamphlet was really very good. It walked me through the mechanics of adjusting the error out of the instrument with the mirrors' jumbo thumbscrews. Then it described how to bring the sun down to the horizon and "rock” it to establish vertical position. Finally, it gave a pretty clear explanation of how to work out a sun sight.

That's when I realized two things; one, that I needed a chronometer, a nautical almanac, and sight reduction tables, and two, that none of those things were aboard Eliza.

Well, almost none. There was a copy of last year's Royal Navy nautical almanac jammed in among the paperbacks on the bookshelf, left no doubt by my predecessor. Perusing this I discovered an encouraging fact. It is possible to derive the Sun's current declination from last year's almanac by making a single correction to the year-old figure.

I combined this with the Davis pamphlet and soon taught myself to work out a noon sight. That is, I was able to determine our latitude based on the sun's height at local apparent noon. During the next couple of days, as Eliza ghosted across the Florida Straight, I grew adept at this simple computation. I became, by process of elimination, the ship's navigator. However, without an accurate timepiece and the sight reduction tables, it was impossible to figure our longitude.

Captain Joe and Pirate were subdued on the subject, but glad enough to get the daily position report, which I gave with increasing confidence. Each mid-day I performed the ritual of shooting the sun, inwardly bursting with pride at my newfound skill. On the chart I crossed the latitude thus obtained with a line of position representing our compass course line. The point at which they intersected

 I called the daily fix, although as I was about to learn it was not a "fix" at all, nor even good dead reckoning.

Our progress was very slow in the prevailing light easterlies. After apparent noon of the third day out, I showed my shipmates the mark on the chart. "Less than 100 miles ahead is Cabo San Antonio at Cuba's west end," I asserted. There was a beacon I thought we'd spot by the next evening. "And look," I commented as an aside, "we're on the same latitude as Havana."

According to my figuring, Castro's lair lay about 80 miles due east where the Cuban coast arches up closest to Florida. In those days Cuba was a place to avoid at all costs. We'd all heard horror stories of American yachtsmen being arrested and imprisoned for passing too close, their boats confiscated. Our sloop flew a British flag and Joe was a Scot, but Pirate and I were both U.S. citizens. If we neared the communist island-nation, it would be at our peril.

I had hardly put the sextant away when we noticed what at first appeared to be a large ship heaving into view over the southern horizon, its monolithic superstructure seeming to float above the ocean. Soon the distorted image became two, three, and then many "ships."

"Hey," drawled Pirate, squinting through binoculars, "those look just like buildings."

"No way," I protested. "We're a good 30 miles off the coast of Cuba and there aren't any cities along this stretch."

Yet as we drew closer, a whole city-full of buildings, complete with surrounding land, rose from the sea. This time it was I who sat scratching my head, looking dumbly from chart to sextant.

We made out a freighter anchored off the great harbor, so we did what all lost navigators do when the opportunity presents itself. We swallowed our pride and pulled alongside to ask where we were. The fact that the ship's red flag bore the hammer and sickle was a grim reminder of the hostile regime in whose waters we trespassed. Several Russian crewmen gazed down at our diminutive vessel.

Pointing toward the land, I called out, "Que ciudad es esa? (What city is that?)," though I think in my heart of hearts I knew the answer.

"Havana," was their reply.

"But," I stuttered to my shipmates as they glared at me with open scorn, "we should be way west of here." And then, to defend myself against their unspoken accusations, I reminded them, "Hey, I'm the one who was supposed to be learning navigation from you guys! Remember? Anyway, the latitude was right."

Unbeknownst to us, the problem was that we didn't understand the significance of the little arrows on the chart. Later I learned that they indicate the set of the current, these printed arrows that sweep up through the Yucatan Straight, east along the north coast of Cuba, and then north between Florida and the Bahamas. Nor did we suspect that the tiny numbers beside these arrows - 1.0, 1.4, 2.3, 2.6 - represent the speed in knots of the current's drift. With a novice's ignorance (that's my excuse, anyway) I had simply disregarded the side-sweeping effect of the Gulf Stream on our course from Key West. That's how we accidentally discovered Havana. It's all plain enough to me now, but at the time no one aboard - captain, mate, or neo-navigator - had any idea how we'd gotten where we were.

But we all knew exactly where to go - away! We came about and steered north until the land sank back into the sea whence it had arisen. Then, falling off to port, we headed due west, wing and wing, still intending to weather Cabo San Antonio. All through the night and the next morning we ran before the gentle breeze, averaging maybe three knots. When my noon sight established the latitude the next day, we gibed the mainsail and added two points of southing to the course, hoping to sight a Cuban landmark to confirm our longitude. We expected to be a good 75 miles down the coast. So imagine our surprise when a large and familiar looking city again appeared off the port bow.

"Them buildings sure look a lot like yesterday's," noted Pirate. He had a way with words.

Sure enough, we had spent 24 hours sailing three knots into a three knot current, so while we'd moved 70-odd miles through the water we had in fact remained in the same spot offshore. This, I believe, was beginning to dawn on us when we saw the gunboats.

Two business-like vessels came charging out of Havana harbor, one circling out ahead of us, the other swinging wide off our stern. Suddenly, Pirate pulled out a funny looking cigarette and lit it.

"Pirate," I exclaimed, "where'd you get that? I don't believe you're smoking a joint with the Cuban Navy coming after us!"

"Hey, man, I'm just destroying the evidence," he grunted while trying to hold in a lung-full of smoke. "Wouldn't want to get caught with this aboard, would we?"

I guess there was some logic to that.

Captain Joe just kept mumbling, "Not to worry, not to worry." I think he was trying to convince himself more than us.

Well, those boats just kept right on going out to sea. Seems they were only fishing boats after all. So we wasted no time following their good example, not wishing to tempt Fate any more than we already had.

But Fate didn't seem to require further temptation from us. Our very presence on the ocean was apparently provocation enough, because that night is when the storm struck. For the next two and a half days it rained and thundered and blew a gale out of the east, wind against current, kicking up monstrous seas and tossing Eliza about like a volleyball. Captain Joe simply took down all sail, leaving the boat to lie a-hull broadside to the weather. Talk about tempting Fate! He sat forlornly below muttering his not-to-worries while Pirate and I exchanged nervous glances every time a particularly large sea threatened to overcome us.

Nevertheless, the sloop Eliza survived. When the storm finally blew itself out we were good and lost - again. Only this time we knew it. I guessed from observing our drift that the wind and seas had blown us far to the west, and that we were somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, maybe north of the Yucatan Straight. Captain Joe and Pirate thought that sounded reasonable enough to them, which in itself should have caused me to reconsider.

What happened next comes under the heading of just plain bizarre. Adrift at sea, becalmed after the storm, with remnant cloud cover preventing even a noon sight, we saw the oddest vessel approaching. Like a phantom ship from the 1930's, she was an old Trumpy motor yacht, maybe 90 feet overall, her paint mostly peeled off and all about her a look of total neglect, withered elegance. She was passing within a quarter mile of us, clearly intending to keep right on going, when we hailed her with waving arms and shouts. The Trumpy, nameless as far as we could see, pulled up close by to see what we wanted. Aboard were at least a dozen Latin men. Several were brandishing rifles; tough looking hombres in coarse street clothes who somehow didn't strike me as yachtsmen-types at all. Again we fell back on my high school Spanish as our chief navigational tool.

"Buenos dias, señores. Por favor, donde estamos?" Might as well get right to the point.

The question didn't seem to confound them nearly as much as the sight of us three scruffy, bearded gringos clinging to the shrouds of our little ship in mid-ocean. They muttered among themselves, then shouted back something about "Capitan!"

After a brief delay the captain appeared on deck and called out our latitude/longitude coordinates, which I translated into English and scribbled down on a scrap of paper. There was some more muttering among the armed crew; a few hard stares directed at us. I figured them for smugglers and feared they were discussing what to do about us, because I don't think they wanted to be seen en route to Florida. Well, they apparently decided there was no need to do anything. We looked harmless, if not helpless, which was true enough. So they left, steaming northward, and soon vanished from view.

"We should have asked them for a few joints," was Pirate's only comment. I could never quite be sure when Pirate was joking. I headed below to plot the fix on the chart.

Even after our misadventures so far, the fix they gave us came as a shock. We were 200 miles off course. Hell, we weren't even in the Gulf of Mexico! In spite of a 60-hour gale from the east, we had drifted miles eastward from Havana, against the storm. (Hey, maybe those little arrows on the chart really do mean something!)

We were dangerously close to the Cay Sal Bank, a cluster of offshore reefs and islets between Cuba, Florida, and the southwest corner of the Great Bahamas Bank. We were also dangerously close to mutiny aboard the sloop Eliza

It was painfully apparent by then that the captain possessed, at best, only a basic knowledge of sailboat handling. We were surviving more by dumb luck than skill. We had been at sea for more than a week and were now farther from our destination than when we began. Fresh water and food were getting low; morale even lower. We all agreed it was time to regroup, i.e., to get back to land before we really got hurt. When I suggested that maybe we ought to sail north to Coconut Grove, a sailors' haven I'd once visited just south of Miami, the "ayes" were unanimous.

So with renewed enthusiasm we got under way, this time travelling with the Gulf Stream. But the gods who intimidate ignorant mariners weren't quite through with us yet.

Pirate and I regularly cooled off by diving overboard and hanging onto a line trailed astern. That afternoon I had just finished my turn swimming and was climbing back on board when Pirate, with his usual flare for understatement, congratulated me on my "good timing." In answer to my puzzled expression, he indicated that I should look in the water behind me. There, exactly where I had been just a moment ago, loafed a 12-foot gray shark, so close alongside our boat that I could have reached out and petted him! Whether he had approached from idle curiosity or genuine hunger, he didn't say. How long he had been lurking just below the surface watching me I'll never know. But that I never again swam like that in deep ocean is a fact to this day. I've since learned the local sailors' term for dragging people on a line behind a sailboat in those waters. They call it trolling for sharks.

That night we all bedded down, letting Eliza sail herself with no one standing watch as was our custom - because it was our captain's custom and Pirate and I didn't know any better. Sacked out in the cockpit, I was awakened sometime after midnight by a rumble nearby. I gazed to starboard through sleepy eyes and saw a huge cruise ship lumbering past us heading north. It was so close that I had to look up to see the brightly lit decks. At the same moment, a southbound freighter was passing equally close to port. I'm sure tiny Eliza, sandwiched in between, was invisible to both vessels and avoided being pulverized only by an act of divine providence.

Finding Miami wasn't hard, even for us. At night the loom of the city beckoned from nearly a hundred miles away. We arrived around midnight, greeted by a dazzling array of lighted navigational aids blending against a background of white and colored lights ashore. Where the Cape Florida channel was, was anybody's guess. Even the bumbling crew of the sloop Eliza knew enough to stand off and wait for dawn, by which time a howling Norther was roughing up the sea.

We found Stiltsville Channel and, since the engine had long since quit working, short-tacked into Biscayne Bay against the ebb tide and the fresh northwest breeze. Hours later, the sloop Eliza staggered into the crowded anchorage off Coconut Grove. Captain Joe managed to run her aground on the sand bar locally known as Idiot Shoal.

"I swear," I half-whispered to Pirate, "if he says `not to worry' one more time I'm going to swim ashore right now!" Pirate laughed so hard his eyes teared.

Late that night as we slept like dead men in the windy harbor, Eliza dragged her anchor. The ensuing Chinese fire drill, accompanied by the grumbling suggestions of the skipper whose boat we bumped, seemed by then just standard operating procedure aboard our little ship of fools.

Early the next morning I packed my gear, shook hands with Joe and Pirate, and moved off Eliza. As I hiked into town in search of a hot breakfast, I reflected on the journey. In spite of the comedy of errors throughout the voyage of the sloop Eliza, or maybe because of them, I had learned a great deal about navigation and seamanship. Most of the lessons came from doing it wrong the first time. I learned that the sea can be rough on the incompetent, and that just because a man owns a boat doesn't necessarily mean he knows how to handle it.

That was 40 years and 150,000 nautical miles ago, and I’ve been learning from the sea ever since. And when some would-be cruiser asks me if it's really hard to learn celestial navigation, I just smile and say, "Oh, not to worry."

~ End ~

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