"Cast off all lines and run up the mainsail, matey!" yelled Big Bob Smith and that's how it had started out, as just a two to three week sailing adventure but what it turned into was something else. Bob knew that I had always wanted to go sailing but didn't know anything about it so when he had to make a short trip to the Windward Islands he invited me along to keep him company. It was going to be an easy sail out to the South and East of Florida to visit some of the islands East of Cuba. There was no rush so he had decided to sail down and combine business with pleasure. The rigging on his boat had been designed in such a way that Bob could handle it by himself so my lack of knowledge would not really hinder him.
Every evening he would start the engine so we had power and he would check the Marine Weather broadcast for our area. There had been some concern about a storm but it was very early in the season for storms so he had decided to go ahead with our plans. As Mr. Burns says about the best laid plans of Mice and Men and ours went overboard with everything else. What made it worse was that Bob had gone overboard as well. He had been trying to fashion and install a sea anchor. He had no more than tied it off and thrown it overboard than he was caught by a wave that tossed him over the side along with it. That would have been no problem as he was wearing a safety line but something sharp on deck had severed the line.
So here I was stuck on a sail boat, not knowing how to sail, not knowing where I was nor how to fight the storm that had caught us. As a pilot I knew something about navigation and how to read charts so not all was lost, just me! I knew where we had been the night before but not how far the storm was pushing us nor in what direction. We had lost our mast shortly after the storm had started, it had come on us so fast we hadn't even had a chance to drop the sails, but we had been able to recover the sail and much of the ropes and lines for what good that would do. I tried to do what Bob had said would be necessary by keeping the boat headed into the waves. The sea anchor took care of most of that, all I had to do was check to see that the line didn't rub, try to hang on and not get carried overboard like he had.
When the storm had finally blown itself out the first thing I did was to start pumping out all the water that had come aboard. Much had entered the cabin area and from there on into the bilge. A full stroke on the handle of the little wobble pump was only about 12 inches so it took a lot of strokes. I would pump with one hand until that arm was about to drop off and then switch to the other hand. I had found it necessary to stop several times before the pump finally sucked air. This had taken several hours and I now checked the engine to see if I could dry it out so I could start it again. With power I was hoping I could get on the radio and find out where I was and broadcast a distress signal. If I was found soon enough it might still be possible that we could back track and find Bob also. He had been wearing a life jacket which would keep him afloat so it was still very likely that he was alive and could be saved.
I could find nothing wrong after a cursory inspection of the motor other than water in the electrical system. I dried as much of it as I could and then left the whole compartment open to the air hoping the heat of day would help to dry it out faster. I then started to check over the radios to see if they had survived. With transistors and now microchips radios had come a long way and were not nearly the frail, fragile things they had been. Again a cursory check could reveal nothing obvious wrong so I waited.
While doing so I checked over the supplies that we still had onboard. We had been heading for one of the islands east and south of Cuba to take on water and other supplies. There was supposed to be plenty but Bob had said you always fill up with water when you could as a precaution. With just me there was food for several weeks as long as I didn't mind eating the survival rations he had onboard. Water turned out to be the problem. Somehow most of what was aboard had become tainted with sea water. One of the filling fittings on deck had probably come loose allowing sea water into the fresh water. I now had less than three gallons in the small reservoir that I could use. By being very strict that should last me for up to a week. Surely in that time someone would spot the boat and see our distress or I could get the motor and radio going and call for assistance.
Something had proven wrong with the motor and I had never been able to get it started. With no power the radio was useless also. It was on the third day of being without water that I saw something in the distance that gave me hope. It was a cloud that did not seem to move. Bob had told me early on that this usually denoted a land mass as the land didn't heat up as fast as the water and the cloud was formed from the moist air of the sea breezes that traveled to the land cooling as it would rise. During the time I had been drifting about I had removed the boom and had lashed it to the stump of the mast giving me something to hang sails from. It wasn't as good as a new mast but it was surely better than nothing at all. I now adjusted my course as much as I could to head towards the clouds. If nothing else maybe it was a rain cloud and I could save some of that water.
It is funny how complacent we become about distance. 120 miles is less than two hours on the freeways and interstates but at sea we had thought that was a good days travel. We had not been trying for speed just constancy. After two hours I could see the tops of some trees. Using the binoculars I had to look carefully but I could make them out.
It took three more hours for me to get there. As I neared the island I had to be careful of a reef that surrounded it. I finally found an opening through it and beached the boat not far from a stream that ran into the small lagoon. Say what you want about wines and so forth, that water was the Nectar of the Gods! I had never tasted anything so fine in my life.
At first I just took a few sips and then sprawled out in it. I let its coolness wash over me. After so long I figured my skin could act like a sponge and just soak up moisture from the outside as I fed it from the inside. I didn't want to get sick from too much too fast so I took it easy with just a few sips at a time.
I spent an hour or so of just soaking and sipping before returning to the boat. Now I did the things I should have done before. I ran out the anchor lines after checking to see where the tide was. From the lines of debris that had been left on the shore I thought it must be nearly to low tide so I pushed off the boat until it was again floating, let it drift a bit from shore and then dropped the anchor. From the rear I let down the small stern anchor and then took up some of the slack on the front one again. I soon had the boat anchored between them with enough slack that it should be ride ok during high tide. Now it was time to explore the island.
From the boat I removed a canteen and filled it before checking out the island. Having had my water intake restricted for so long I wanted it available if my body called for it. Exercise calls for more fluids than resting does anyway. As islands in this area went it was a good sized one, over a mile wide and nearly three miles long. I couldn't understand why there was no one living on it, no permanent residences. It had everything one would need, there was a nice lagoon for fishing and shelter for a boat. There were lots of palms for nuts and the thatching. The water was excellent and there were even tubers of some sort growing that were eatable. I found them in a survival handbook that Bob had onboard.
I was starting to get hungry and I didn't want to eat any more of the rations if possible so I made use of the snorkeling gear that was aboard. There were lots of fish available so it didn't take long to pick out dinner.
After cooking and eating aboard the boat I inflated the dingy and threw it overboard. I then tossed a couple of large cans into it and from the stream started to refill the water tanks onboard. First it was necessary to empty and flush out the large cistern to get out all the salt from the sea water. Emptying the tank was easy, all I needed to do was open the petcock at the bottom and allow it to run into the bilge. I did this before I went to fill the containers. I would pump it overboard later. Then one at the time I poured the water containers into the tank and emptied the contents again. I kept doing this until the water coming out was the sweet water I had placed inside.
From all the exercise I had been doing I knew I would be very sore the next morning and intended to work out some of it by pumping the bilge clear. I had recently retired and was in fairly good shape but regardless a 55 year old body in good shape will never replace a 25 year old body in good shape!