Lost with Land in Sight [Non-Fiction]

On April 27, 1975 my father started the diesel engine of his 65 foot Gaff-rigged schooner American Eagle, with a crew of seven on board, and set out to fulfill a lifelong dream. The boat, built in 1927 as a snapper schooner, came with a rich history; caught by the feds on its first illegal rum run during prohibition, sold to a fishing fleet, and then plying the waters off the coast of Campeche, Mexico before docking at Watson Island, in Miami.

My father had dreamed of returning to the South Pacific ever since his Marine Corp days during World War II. My four brothers and I had been raised on stories of the islands where he had been stationed during the war, including Guam and Okinawa. But his dream was to return to one small island, Espiritu Santo, located between Australia and Figi, in an island chain called The New Hebrides (renamed Vanuatu after gaining independence in 1980).

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Photo by Johannes Plenioon Unsplash

Upon retiring from the City of Miami Police Force after a career as a homicide detective, my father convinced my mother to sell their home and buy the old wooden schooner American Eagle. Preparations for the exodus got underway, despite the glaring fact that none of us had any sailing experience whatsoever. My husband and I, both in our early 20’s at the time, had been invited to join them on the journey – and in all the work reconstructing the boat to accommodate his five children, one son-in-law, and three dogs. My husband, a mechanic, began working at a diesel company on the Miami River not far from where the American Eagle was docked. There he would learn how to repair and maintain the boat’s diesel engine.

The plan was to learn to navigate while the work was being done, and learn to sail when it was finished. We managed neither by the date of departure determined by my father. Meanwhile, one of my brothers decided to remain in Miami with his girlfriend. A close friend of my husband took his place.

After wrenching farewells, my father guided American Eagle down the Miami River, through the bridges, and out Government Cut without incident. We motored into the wind and headed across the Straits of Florida on our way toward the Bahamas, the first leg of our journey, relying on RDF (radio direction finder) and navigational charts to find our way.

On our first night out, the stars above the horizon were the only distinguishable divide between the black sea and the black sky. With my father at the wheel and I in the bow as look-out, we narrowly avoided an outcropping of rocks that were clearly noted on our charts. How on earth were we going to make it to the South Pacific? I thought to myself.

During the three days it took to arrive in Nassau, we dodged huge freighters, fixed broken and clogged bilge pumps, replaced a steering pin in the tiller, and learned to sail (somewhat). After winding our way in the dark through a tricky channel into Nassau Harbor, we dropped anchor in fifteen feet of the clearest water I have ever seen, straight out from the posh British Colonial Hotel.

Uncertain about our navigational skills, we coaxed a navigator off a freighter docked at the port and motored him by dinghy to the American Eagle. He noted we had all the correct charts but politely declared us insane to try to sail to the South Pacific with our lack of sailing experience.

After a week of repairs, rest and recreation, ignoring the advice of the seasoned sailor, we set out again, following our charts toward the Windward Passage. But after passing the east side of Eleuthera, and with land in sight, we were unable to determine our exact location. And during the forty-eight hours since leaving Nassau, we’d had one mishap after another; a cruise ship veered too close, creating havoc with its wake; my husband was briefly knocked unconscious by a boom that got loose as sails were being reset; and the diesel engine began surging erratically.

Finally, after almost running aground just before dawn, a vote was cast and the decision was made to turn back. The relief was palpable for most, the disappointment felt by all. We spent the next three months successfully sailing through the cays of the Bahamas, anchoring in lovely protected coves, living on fresh caught fish and conch, exploring the reefs, and meeting locals and other travelers.

The South Seas dream of my father never came to pass, but the memories of that trip have lasted and enriched all on board the American Eagle.

Written by Pat Bonner Milone – Redland, Florida

Cover photo by Bobby Burch on Unsplash

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