VOYAGE OF THE SLOOP ELIZA
© 1991 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved
who would be captain of his own fate - consider well thy
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.
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!
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
"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;
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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