News‎ > ‎

A MIDWINTER’S TALE By: George Robinson

posted May 11, 2010, 8:28 AM by Sean Murphy

Thanks to Paul Lee for providing this story written by our 2010 Memorial Honoree:

The following account is actually two tales; one is an automotive saga, and the other- an account of a series of sailboat races.  Although they could each stand alone, I will combine them in a single chronological account, because that is the easiest way for me to recall the significant events. 

First, the cast of characters: The skipper is one Paul Lee, an athletic young (22 year old) man, currently a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, who has been sailing small boats since he was a toddler.  Crew (and writer) is a rather flabby man in his mid-sixties who’s chief claim to fame in the sailing world is some mechanical ability and a willingness to follow orders with enthusiasm, if not always with competence. 

Second, the location: St. Andrews Bay, a part of the Inland Waterway in the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico.  The Bay itself is about 15 miles long by perhaps 5 miles wide. Host Club, where we camped, is the St. Andrews Bay Yacht Club, a very nice facility with only one drawback- the showers were always cold. 

Third, the event: The Flying Scot Midwinter Regatta, an annual race series of near national status.  This years regatta involved 56 boats from around the country (we were the only Michigan entry), divided into two divisions, Challenger and Championship.  We elected to race in the Championship fleet since Paul had already taken trophies in Challenger Division in other regattas and felt ready to sail with the “big boys.” 

We set out from Detroit the evening of Saturday, March 26, towing a brand new Flying Scot (19 foot centerboard sloop) with a 1979 Mercury Capri equipped with a high mileage 2.3 liter 4 cylinder engine.  I admitted to some concerns about the ability of this poor little machine to tow 1,000 lbs of boat 1,100 miles to Florida, and back, but my skipper assured me that it would be “a piece of cake.” 

At any rate, we got under way at about 5:30 pm and headed south.  It soon became apparent that the engine had an oil consumption problem.  I might have guessed that from the fact that Paul took a case of oil along with us when we left Detroit.  At any rate, we added about two quarts of oil every 200 miles.  Most of the oil wound up on the boat, which was very well lubricated by the time we reached the site of the regatta.   

We arrived at the Club about 12:30 Sunday afternoon, after roughly 19 hours of continuous driving, mostly by Paul.  By then, it was apparent that the oil loss was due to a blown valve cover gasket, which we planned to replace before the return trip. 

Being early (the regatta wasn’t due to start until Monday), we were able to get our new sails measured in before the rush.  We then set up our tent, a nice four man outfit which Paul had borrowed from the Coast Guard.  (It still isn’t clear to me why the USCG should stock tents, but it certainly worked out well for us.)  Finally, we rigged the boat and went for a sail.  It was beautiful.  The air was 10-15 mph, waves were minimal, and everything worked perfectly.  We took the boat back out of the water, hopped in the car, and went out to eat.  Turns out, everything in this part of Florida is closed on Sunday except for one Dairy Queen Restaurant, where we had a couple of overpriced 99 cent hamburgers, and a small grocery store where we bought supplies for the week.  (Two loaves of bread, a package each of baloney, salami, and cheese, a jar of mustard and a case of Busch beer.) 

Following a good nights sleep and a nourishing breakfast of baloney sandwiches and beer, we launched the boat again. (Note: to save repetition, let me indicate here that we pulled the boat out every night after sailing and re-launched the following day, with one exception to be noted later.) 

Monday’s schedule included two short practice races, which we sailed with perhaps 20 other boats, other contestants still arriving because the first official race wasn’t until Tuesday at 2:00 pm.  The wind was still 10-15, and we did well, finishing about fourth in both races, and the sails looked beautiful.  Monday night we went out to eat, the town now being open, at a place recommended by our friend Linda Armstrong- a seafood restaurant called J Michaels.  The food was simply great, and Paul thought the waitresses were super beautiful (I agreed).  As it turns out, this was the high point of the entire trip. 

Tuesday morning, after our usual breakfast, we found an auto parts store, bought a new valve cover gasket, installed it, and felt our car problems were solved.  There was one minor incident, where the engine failed to run after starting, but this didn’t recur (yet).   

All this time, Paul had been trying to think of a suitable name for our boat and finally decided to call her “No Excuse” -- since we had a new boat and new sails, that seemed appropriate.  We put the new name on the transom with strips of duct tape.  Meanwhile the wind had started to build and, by noon, was about 20 and gusting. 

As we sailed out to the course, we began to have some reservations.  With the wind as strong as it was, we were frequently overpowered and couldn’t keep the boat flat.  Most of the other boats were carrying three people (a couple had four!) and we just didn’t have enough weight.  We had a good start, but were last at the weather mark and last at the finish.  When we got back to shore, Paul removed the name from the transom. 

Wednesday again dawned bright and beautiful, with moderate air, and we decided to find a laundry mat to dry our clothes (we had returned completely soaked the day before, and also every day thereafter).  However, the car failed to start – acted as if the ignition switched off.  A detailed survey of the under hood wiring (as detailed as possible, considering that the entire engine compartment was thickly coated with engine oil) and disassembly of the ignition switch failed to reveal anything. 

The schedule Wednesday called for two races sailed “back to back,” starting at 1:00 pm.  By then, of course, the wind was blowing hard, and our Tuesday experience was repeated.  We may have beaten one boat, but I can’t be sure because I was completely exhausted at the end of each windward leg.  Actually, Paul had it much harder than I, since he had to continually play the main to keep the leeward rail above the water – but then he is a lot younger, so we were both in the same pitiful state. 

Wednesday evening we attended an “Oyster Bar” sponsored by Fisher Sails.  Neither of us had ever eaten an oyster, and we probably wouldn’t have then, except that we promised our friend Chris Henry Jr. that we would have some for him.  (Chris had originally planned to sail with Paul, but a knee problem had prevented it – hence my participation.)  I am still convinced that the first human to ever eat an oyster was starving to death.  A couple of ladies were removing these little creatures from a large wooden tub, prying their shells open, removing one half of the shell, running a knife around the poor little body (still living, I presume), and placing them on my plate, while I watched in a state of shock.  By the time I realized what was happening, she had given me five of them!  Paul had even more – either braver than me or slower to react, I guess.  Anyhow, having promised Chris and being men of honor, we proceeded to eat every one. We both concluded that oysters are highly overrated, and will never eat another (unless starving, of course). 

Thursday morning, after added fruitless attempts to start the car, Paul called a local dealer, who sent a wrecker and towed it away to fix it.  The dealer called shortly after to report that the car ran fine and he couldn’t fix something that was working.  Paul subsequently got a ride to the dealership and drove the car back to the club. It worked fine, and the problem remained a mystery. 

The races, again two back to back, and the wind in the 20s, were a virtual repeat of our Wednesday experience, although there were two noteworthy events.  About two minutes before the start of the first race, we were reaching along the line at the stern of the committee boat when something felt strange to me.  I turned around to see what Paul was doing and was dismayed to find myself all alone in the boat.  I dropped the jib sheet and headed for the tiller when suddenly Paul’s head appeared over the stern.  Turns out he had dropped the tiller to sheet in the main and had slid gently off the boat.  He immediately scrambled aboard and yelled “Tack!” at me, so I new things were back to normal again.  I believe we beat several boats in that race. 

However, the second race was the really memorable one.  We were running along beautifully on the final leeward leg, planning frequently, with the spinnaker drawing like a dream when Paul decided to jibe the boat.  I swung the boom over and was reaching for the spinnaker pole when Paul said “(expletive deleted), we’re going over!”  This was also immediately apparent to me.  Paul went over the high side and I paused to reach down for the halyard winch crank.  This turned out to be a wasted move, because the crank headed for the bottom of the bay just before I did.  We had broached and the wind on the exposed bottom of the boat was enough to turtle it right then.  We got up on the bottom of the boat, caught our breath, put our fingers in the centerboard slot and brought the boat back up.  – But not for long.  It immediately blew over again.  By then, I was becoming a little discouraged, and completely “pooped.”  So pooped, in fact, I was unable to swim 10 feet to the crash boat which was now on the scene.  Paul literally saved my life by towing me over to the crash boat, where I was hauled aboard. 

For the record, neither of us wore a life jacket, because they “got in the way.”  Don’t think I will do that again. 

All that remained was to get a line from the crash boat to our Scot, right it and tow it home.  This, of course, was non-trivial in winds now about 25.  However, the boat was righted, and with Paul standing on the aft deck to keep the bow out of the water, we headed for home.  One of the fellows on the crash boat joined Paul, and Paul started bailing.  He had the boat about half empty when the tow boat made a sudden change in speed, and the inertia of the water remaining in the boat caused the bow to go under and the boat went over once more.  Rather than continue this heartbreaking tale, let me conclude by saying that Paul finally succeeded in righting and bailing, and had the boat nearly dry by the time we reached the club.  We left the boat in the water Thursday night, saving our remaining strength for an hors d’oeuvres/cocktail party hosted by Shurr Sails. 

Friday was to have been the final race of the regatta, and the weather remained the same – if anything, a little heavier.  Seeing this, the Race Committee, in its wisdom, cancelled the race.  We, of course, voiced our objections, (“who’s afraid of a little air?”), but were greatly relieved. 

Paul decided to get an early start home, rather than stay for the awards banquet, hoping to reach Detroit by Saturday morning, in time to race in the DYC Spring Series (with different crew, you may be sure—this one was all used up).  Accordingly, we struck camp, loaded the boat on the trailer, and were on the road by 2:30pm Florida (Central) time. 

Things went well for about 400 miles, although we began using more oil than anticipated.  Disaster struck at about 9:30 that evening, in Northern Alabama.  We were cruising along I-65 at 75mph when the mystery disease struck again.  The engine ignition suddenly failed, as it had last Wednesday.  Fortunately, we were able to coast to the next off ramp and came to a stop about 100 feet off the expressway, in the middle of nowhere.  Well, almost nowhere.  On the opposite side of the expressway was a brightly lighted plant (Copeland Chemical), and we could see at least one person over there.  Paul walked over (wading through the median which was partially flooded with rain water – did I mention that it was raining?) and returned with the news that a tow truck was on its way.  Sure enough, in about half an hour, the truck arrived (Winkles Shell and Wrecker Service), with a very helpful driver.  He elected to tow the car and the boat together.  Before starting, he called on his CB radio to make a reservation for us in the Motel Hartselle; Hartselle, being his home base and the only town around.   He then proceeded to tow us to the station, parked the boat in one of the stations service bays, drove us to the motel and said he would pick us up in the morning and drive us back to the station where we could get the engine fixed.  Great!  After checking in, we walked across the street to what appeared to be a party store to buy a six pack, only to discover that we were stranded in one of the few dry counties in Alabama. Not great!  Anyhow, we did get a much needed good night’s sleep. 

True to his promise, the tow truck driver showed up at about 7:30 Saturday morning and hauled us back to the station where several mechanics made themselves available.  Of course, now the engine started and ran with no evidence of any ignition problem!  After watching it run for about an hour and wiggling every wire in sight with no effect, we decided to install a new ignition coil.  This wasn’t entirely without logic, since the coil did seem to be running hotter than normal.  At any rate, we felt better having done something, and resumed our journey. 

We were again back to our quart /100 miles oil consumption, and we made our first stop in the next county (to restock beer), I noticed a slow but steady flow of oil at the front of the engine.  Apparently the front cover gasket or front oil seal, or both, had now gone.  This is when our luck turned bad.  We proceeded from one oil stop to another, occasionally adding some gasoline, and listen to the hydraulic valve lifters clatter ever more loudly.  Just north of Toledo OH, having optimistically passed the last gas station exit, we lost all oil pressure and things began to get really loud.  Since we could no longer hear the radio, even at full volume, we pulled off at the next exit whose sign indicated “Gas.”  Turns out, there was a gas station there, but it had apparently closed in the late ‘70s.  Not daring to shut the engine off (it was, after all, still running), Paul circled around the defunct station and crossed to the other side of the highway where there was a lighted building.  Unfortunately, no one was there.  Paul considered breaking in, in hopes of setting off a burglar alarm and thereby bringing the police.  But I vetoed this.  Anyhow, we again were fortunate to have a truck stop for our frenzied waving (after being nearly run over by several cars whose occupants obviously didn’t like our looks.  I can’t say that I blamed them considering our appearance at the time.)  The driver said he would get us some oil, and he did—a gallon milk carton containing a sticky black substance which he assured us was “good oil.”  Actually, neither of us were too concerned about oil quality by then—it didn’t stay in the engine long enough to make any difference. 

Underway once more, with half of the milk carton in reserve, we made another mile or two before the oil pressure again hit zero, paused long enough to add the last of our oil, and kept going.  By this time the sound of the engine was truly impressive.  We could hear every rod and bearing, or the places where they had once been, and all of the lifters were long gone.  Simply amazing that it continued to run!  However, rather than push our luck (luck?), we finally pulled off at Luna Pier, 6 miles north of the Michigan/ Ohio border as the last of the oil poured out of the poor little engine and parked in front of the only visible signs of life, a small building housing Pisano’s Pizza Restaurant.  Seemed like a good place to stop for supper, it being about 10:30pm. 

I was resigned by then to spending the weekend at Pisano’s, but Paul hadn’t given up yet.  To my amazement, he proceeded to call our friend Chris Henry in Detroit, explained our problem, and asked if he would drive the 60 miles to us and tow the boat back to the DYC.  I’m really not sure how I would have responded to the request but Chris, bless him, arrived a little after midnight, hooked up to the trailer and took us back home.  Paul left his car parked appropriately, next to Pisano’s garbage dumpster. 

We arrived back at the DYC at about 1:30 am Sunday morning, after nearly 40 hours of “on the road” and with the change of daylight time; I reached home in Rochester at about 4:00 am. 

I later learned that Paul borrowed his brother’s car and towed the little corpse back to Detroit on Sunday, where it now awaits disposition (burning, drowning, dismemberment…?) 

In retrospect, we had a lot of fun and shared some unique experiences.  However, the next time Paul ventures out for a regatta, I will be “pit crew” rather than riding on the boat, and I will probably travel by some form of public transportation. 

G. H. Robinson


Sean Murphy,
May 11, 2010, 8:33 AM