Shark!?

Shark!?

As a tow boat captain, Greg spends most of his time on the right end of the tow line, as the rescuer. We’ve now been on the wrong end of that line three times. (Without him I count four.) Our first dramatic episode together probably had something to do with bringing us closer and eventually turning us into a couple.

Our second happened this spring when our neighbor Portia purchased a 16-foot Precision sailboat and we offered to take her out and give her some positive memories since all her previous outings had led to near disaster. The three of us set out on a clear and sunny day with mild winds, with plans to go north up the Intracoastal Waterway. To do this we had to sail out quite close to the inlet and then make a hard turn and tack upwind. We should have thought this through. But we were used to being in a pretty big boat – and heck, we could always turn on the engine…

As we neared the inlet, Greg spotted what he at first took to be a bed sheet or something hanging off our stern. Then he realized it was a 7 or 8-foot … shark?! The three of us looked back aghast at this beast that was half the size of our boat – then Portia noticed its long saw-shaped bill.

“It’s a sawfish!” she exclaimed, “I think they’re almost extinct.” The long, white fish trailed behind us for another minute, long enough for us to marvel, and then it was gone. We were gobsmacked. Those are the kind of moments you live for out on the water – flashes of nature’s power or beauty, reminders that we humans are just one part in this grand experiment.

Moments later we tacked and began heading… well, not north. Because of the outgoing tide, at best we were not making any headway. For a split second I saw us as if from above, a stationary speck in the water, frozen in a tug of war between the boat’s ability to harness the wind and the power of the outgoing waters. The water was winning. It began sucking us out the inlet, out to the sea.

Port Saint Lucie web cam

The inlet is narrow opening between two rocky walls. In books and on charts and in the lore of local captains, it has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous in Florida.

Never fear, we had an engine. But then the engine wouldn’t start.  As Greg leaned over the two-horsepower, two-stroke motor, trying to figure out what was wrong, I took over the tiller and the sails. Portia stood paralyzed in the companionway, watching as we closed in on the inlet.

Greg and I have both sailed in small boats on the ocean. I’ve raced on a Martin 242 several times with four-foot seas smashing against the bow. But we were not psyched about taking this boat out to sea. Portia hardly knew a tack from a jibe; she was not ready for this. And even if we could make it out of the inlet without incident, we risked being swamped. It has happened to larger boats than ours. In April a father and son drowned when a wave washed over their 24-foot vessel not far from here.

Greg and I exchanged looks. It was time to call for a tow, and we knew Greg’s colleague Hoff was sitting on a mooring not far away. Once we’d hailed him on the radio, the wait seemed eternal.

There’s something about single-handing a boat that makes you feel fully in control of the vessel. With one hand on the tiller you can feel the water over the rudder, and with the other on the lines, you can feel the wind in the sail. Your body becomes one with the boat and you can react in micro-adjustments. I could feel it – and yet I could not win. The water just kept pulling us backward like a rubber ducky circling the drain. I told Greg that I wanted to turn the boat around and exit into the ocean bow-first, in control. The desire was almost physical – fight or flight.

“Hold steady,” Greg said.

With less than a hundred feet to go, Hoff arrived, threw us a line, and in seconds we were speeding away to safety. True story: Portia sold her boat and has not been sailing since.

On Thursday I was taking pictures from the cockpit as we neared the Saint Lucie Inlet. “Shark!” Greg hollered, “Hammerhead!” Sure enough, not far from where we encountered the sawfish, an 8-foot hammerhead shark chased a fish right up to our boat, then whipped around toward our stern. I scrambled to re-orient and managed to snap a few blurry pics.

“That’s a good sign,” Greg said.

“Ya think?” I asked, pondering whether or not sharks were usually a good sign. Well, time will tell, I thought.

And so it did. Six hours later we found ourselves on the wrong end of the tow boat for a third time.