a Fam­ily’s Trou­bled Wa­ters

Cruising World - - Front Page - Story by JON KELLER

Shoal-wa­ter an­chored in the Ten Thou­sand Is­lands on the west coast of Flor­ida, with the sky burn­ing or­ange and the man­groves black and low. The last of the day’s light falls tan­gled over the wa­ter. A half-sub­merged hull of a fiber­glass flats boat looms in the shad­ows. I turn my cell­phone on to check it, as I have

each morn­ing and each evening. This time I get a mes­sage. It’s my friend Brian. He’s the one who owns the boat I’m stand­ing on. His voice comes as flat as the wa­ter. He tells me his wife, Abby, 36 years old and a mother of two, just died. He tells me he’ll meet me in the Ba­hamas.

I pic­ture Brian’s wife as I’d last seen her, up in north­ern Michi­gan, tall and beau­ti­ful and smil­ing as their two kids climbed her legs. I stare at the man­groves, the sunken fiber­glass hull, the burn­ing sky. I hang up the phone and go back to the cock­pit, where Josh and Shan­non are drink­ing beer and cook­ing din­ner.

Four weeks ear­lier, I’d been iced-in at a ma­rina in Port­land, Maine, where I lived aboard my Tar­tan 34C, when Brian had called and said things didn’t look good for Abby. She wasn’t go­ing to make it to the Ba­hamas. It would just be him and the kids, he said, and they wanted out of Michi­gan as soon as pos­si­ble. He wanted to scoop the chil­dren up, set them on a plane, then step off the plane in the Ba­hamas.

I’d of­fered to drive out to Tra­verse City to be with him, help where I could, but he’d said, “Just get my boat to the Ba­hamas. We’ll need it there when this is over.”

I’d known Abby had been in bad shape lately, but she’d been in bad shape be­fore: She’d fought var­i­ous can­cers since her late 20s. She’d sur­vived mul­ti­ple brain surg­eries, a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy, and more rounds of chemo and ra­di­a­tion than I could track. This time, though, was dif­fer­ent. This time she’d had a seizure that changed things.

So that was the re­quest. That I get to Flor­ida, do a few days’ worth of work on the boat and get Blue Moon to the Ba­hamas.

I’d helped Brian ready and sail Blue Moon to the Ba­hamas be­fore. For the last hand­ful of years, he and Abby had worked through the snow­less sea­sons in Michi­gan, then win­tered in the is­lands. Too of­ten, how­ever, Abby’s time con­sisted of hos­pi­tals and can­cer. She had a rare ge­netic dis­ease called Li-frau­meni syn­drome

that caused her body not to fight can­cer, so can­cers came at her like deadly punches — as soon as she thought she’d ducked one, blocked an­other, re­cov­ered from a ma­jor hit, more came. On and on and on.

Sail­ing was the respite. It’s what kept the fam­ily knot cinched, al­lowed them to carry on. As soon as the leaves turned and the doc­tors gave a nod, they headed south to Flor­ida, then east to the Ba­hamas. But ever since a par­tic­u­larly ugly Gulf Stream cross­ing, they de­cided that Abby didn’t need to fight sea­sick­ness as a re­lief from can­cer. That’s where I came in. I’d fin­ish my sea­son on a lob­ster boat in Maine and fly to Flor­ida to pre­pare Blue Moon and cross the Stream with Brian.

Blue Moon is a 23-foot Hiron­delle cata­ma­ran. The four of them would spend months aboard her. They’d snorkel the reefs and walk the beaches, and in the evenings, they’d gather round the cock­pit as Brian fried hog­fish over a Cole­man stove. Com­pared to the sailors on the yachts that sur­rounded them, they had next to noth­ing, but com­pared to the life they’d left back in Michi­gan — a life of hos­pi­tals and en­durance and tragedy — they had ev­ery­thing they could pos­si­bly want. They were a fam­ily afloat in the Sea of Abaco, so close to each other that one need only reach out an arm, day or night, to be re­minded that, yes, they were still to­gether.

Iflew to Flor­ida and ren­dezvoused with fam­ily friends of Brian’s in Naples. They gave me the keys to his par­ents’ condo, where his van full of sup­plies and tools was stuffed in the garage. In the condo’s en­try­way, and along the garage walls, he’d stacked their win­ter sup­ply of dried and canned food, his spare wa­ter jugs and gas cans.

It took me four long days to ready and launch Blue Moon. The first day was spent clean­ing her — she’d been to Michi­gan and back on a trailer, and was cov­ered in leaves and pine nee­dles and road grime that had baked on in the Flor­ida boat­yard sun while the darker cor­ners grew mold.

Once clean, I picked up where Brian left off. A lot of projects were left un­fin­ished. I started with what I knew: I wired a small chart plot­ter and a cig­a­rette lighter port. I in­stalled the new-used Yamaha 9.9 out­board Brian had left in the van, built a new hatch cover for the port an­chor locker out of a scrap of ma­rine ply­wood and in­stalled the com­post­ing toi­let.

I wor­ried that I was call­ing him too of­ten: He was in Tra­verse City, main­tain­ing a vigil I couldn’t com­pre­hend. Abby was home, mostly in bed, and there was talk of call­ing in hos­pice. But he seemed to like the boat talk. It was a rare dis­trac­tion, and over the past decade, we’d talked boats over the tele­phone while he stood in hos­pi­tal wait­ing rooms, or holed up in a ho­tel room near a can­cer cen­ter, or paced Detroit’s empty streets while Abby slept in re­cov­ery. He’d coached me through the pur­chase and re­build of my boat, the essence of his en­cour­age­ment al­ways be­ing an in­de­fati­ga­ble sense of fear­less­ness. Never mind that I had lit­tle money. Get a boat. Never mind that I barely knew how to sail. Get a boat. Never mind that I didn’t even have a place to live. Get a boat. Live on it. Just do it. Life is short, time pre­cious.

And I did, and I would not have if not for Brian.

Many of the things I stowed aboard

Blue Moon be­longed to Abby. I glimpsed her bathing suit within a clear plas­tic box. Her dive gear. Her sun hat. Her binoc­u­lars and bird guide. Her hand­writ­ing was on the la­bels as I stuffed the hulls of the lit­tle boat, and I tried not to pic­ture the scene Brian and the kids were go­ing to ar­rive to af­ter their wife and mother was gone.

I got the boat stocked, begged help to step the mast and fi­nally launched her. I called Brian when Blue Moon was afloat, and he said that he was lucky for this time with his wife, that he and Abby were able to say their good­byes, were able to have all the talks they needed. I sat in the cock­pit of his boat, look­ing at all of the work he’d done to pre­pare Blue Moon for his fam­ily’s va­ca­tion, and I tried to put my­self in his shoes, tried to com­pre­hend the pain and fear and empti­ness, but ul­ti­mately all I could do was re­al­ize the in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity of what he faced.

Then came the weather. Blue Moon is 23 feet long, and needed a win­dow of calm to cross the Gulf Stream, and the weather that win­ter hadn’t been pro­vid­ing those open­ings. The 10-day fore­cast wors­ened with each new day.

My plan had been to mo­tor across the Okee­chobee Wa­ter­way from Fort Myers to Stu­art, then cross from Lake Worth to the Ba­hama Bank, but with 10 days of north winds, it didn’t look like I’d cross any­time soon. On the phone, Brian told me that I had plenty of time, so I might as well en­joy my­self. Sail south around the Keys, he said, then back up the east coast to Lake Worth.

I left the boat­yard in Port Char­lotte and mo­tored down the long stretches of canals that fil­tered to­ward the sea, and I spent my first night aboard an­chored near the lock that would, the next morn­ing, spit me out into Gas­par­illa Bay. From that canal, I called my friend Josh in Mon­tana, and told him the sit­u­a­tion. Two days later, I picked him and his wife up in Fort Myers, and we started south in Blue Moon.

I stuffed my­self into the star­board aft co­coon­like berth and gave Josh and Shan­non the “mas­ter bed” in the bridge. It was a tight fit, sim­i­lar to shar­ing a

back­pack­ing tent. Nei­ther of them had sailed be­fore, but both were adapt­able and out­door-ori­ented, and we’d been in plenty of odd places to­gether, from the Utah deserts to the Alaskan tun­dra.

Nev­er­the­less, I was ner­vous about get­ting Brian’s boat to him in one piece. I’d got­ten it in my head that if some­thing went wrong on Blue Moon, if some­thing broke, it would be cat­a­strophic for him. From my van­tage point, the only thing keep­ing him afloat in the time sur­round­ing his wife’s death was this lit­tle boat that was now my re­spon­si­bil­ity.

With north winds per­haps too good, we had a fast run south to Marco Is­land and into the Ten Thou­sand Is­lands, then worked east through the man­grove keys. I be­came ob­sessed with an­chor­ing, en­vi­sion­ing the hook drag­ging, the boat pil­ing in the surf. I set an alarm and woke each time the wind or tide shifted. I didn’t al­low the boat out of my sight when we landed on the lit­tle beaches in the is­lands, de­spite the fact that if ever there was a boat easy on an­chor, this was it. The Hiron­delle was per­fect for the Ten Thou­sand Is­lands. She drew about a foot of wa­ter, sipped gas and was light enough that we could nose the bow up onto a beach and jump onto the sand.

We spent four nights in the is­lands, in­clud­ing a visit to Ever­glades City, then holed up off Cape Sable in a nasty east­erly blow. We tried once to leave but got turned back in a rain­squall so blind­ing that I couldn’t see the chart plot­ter in front of my face. Fi­nally, we shot across to Lit­tle Pine Key, and ran south for Key West with fol­low­ing seas that lifted and rolled the small boat.

We had two nights in Key West be­fore Josh and Shan­non flew home, de­spite my protests. Then, a round of heavy north wind and rain kept me pinned aboard, the har­bor too rough for the lit­tle dinghy. I spent three days wait­ing, then I went for it.

The 10-day fore­cast was still bad. I’d en­ter­tained no­tions of cross­ing the Stream from the Keys, head­ing for Bi­mini or around to Ge­orge Town, but not when it was blow­ing 15-plus knots out of the north ev­ery day.

In­stead, it was a rough chug north­ward, dead into the wind and sea, the deck awash with each surge, the bridgedeck pound­ing with each wave that passed be­tween the hulls. I an­chored at Lit­tle Torch Key, then Long Key, then ducked be­low the Chan­nel 5 Bridge and dropped into the calm, green wa­ters of Flor­ida Bay.

By that point, Brian and I had changed plans. His kids would stay with his par­ents at the condo, and he and I would get

Blue Moon to the Ba­hamas. I picked him up at Key Largo. He was fraz­zled, shocked and ready to leave the hard­ships of dry land.

The weather was still cold, the wind still push­ing out of the north. We poked our way up the Flor­ida In­tra­coastal Wa­ter­way. We stopped here and there for burg­ers and beers, spent hours in si­lence and other hours talk­ing about death, about how it is one goes on liv­ing when the other is gone.

When we reached Lake Worth, he rented a car and drove to Naples to be with his kids at his par­ents’ condo. I stayed aboard, wait­ing for good weather. It had been three weeks since I first scrubbed Michi­gan pine nee­dles from Blue Moon’s decks, and there hadn’t been a win­dow for cross­ing the Stream yet.

But even­tu­ally, our for­tunes changed and we got the weather we’d been wait­ing for. It wasn’t great, but it was doable. Brian said good­bye to his kids — he’d fly back from the Ba­hamas to get them — and re­turned his car. We made a last run to the gro­cery store, pulled an­chor in the dark and mo­tored through the steep swell of the Lake Worth In­let. The first half of the cross­ing was rough;

Blue Moon tossed on all quar­ters, but some­time af­ter noon, the Gulf Stream smoothed out, and that night we glided onto the Lit­tle Ba­hama Bank, the dark, deep wa­ters of the Stream sud­denly turn­ing shal­low and translu­cent in the moon­light.

“We’re in the Ba­hamas!” Brian yelled, hold­ing his hands in the air, his fists clenched tight.

I looked around. We were alone out there. Noth­ing but Blue Moon and the sea bot­tom shin­ing blue be­neath the moon. This wasn’t the trip he’d counted on. His wife wasn’t aboard, and would never be aboard again, but as I watched him stand­ing in the cock­pit with his arms bent and his fists lifted, I un­der­stood that with his boat on the wa­ter, so­lace was at least pos­si­ble.

Brian is on the helm as he and Abby take ad­van­tage of a good weather win­dow to get Blue Moon back across the Gulf Stream at the end of the cruis­ing sea­son.

From left: Blue Moon awaits a ris­ing tide in the Aba­cos to get off the beach. Brian and Abby at­tend a pic­nic with the kids. Shan­non, who’d never sailed be­fore, joins Jon in the cock­pit.

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