The Other Side

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“It’s blowing 17 knots at the offshore buoy and you don’t want to know what’s happening at the inshore buoy” said the voice on the radio, barely discernable above the howling of the wind. The voice belonged to Capt. Eddie Dwyer on the TICKET, a 54’ Carolina custom sportfisherman. It was his tournament we were fishing on my 29’ Mirage, TUNER, and as the smallest of the fifteen boats entered in the 2nd Annual Other Side Invitational, the crew was anxious to hear what was happening inshore of us. The name of the tournament refers to the “other side” of the Gulf Stream off central Florida. This is primarily a tuna tournament and the other side is where the big ones hang out.

We had left Port Canaveral 11pm and at 5:45am were 95 miles east of the coast, 75 miles from of the inshore buoy. The wind had been calm most of the evening and the sliver of the first quarter moon made for a gorgeous ride out. The lights of a large Hatteras, WavePaver, were visible just north of us for most of the trip. Around 4am we began to see the flickering of lightning far astern. The radar drew what appeared to be an unbroken squall line 40 miles to the west. At 5am the line was 10 miles behind with muffled thunder and a fresh breeze of fifteen knots.

Some of the slower boats, inshore of us, began to report fierce winds, heavy lightning and high seas. JESTER, a 55’ Hatteras, told of his color TV crashing from its perch and lying in pieces in his salon. Another Hatteras, ToyTime had forgotten to latch the fridge and had chicken wings in every corner of the cabin. The seas were so steep the forward automatic bilge switch kept turning on and sticking, lighting a dash warning light and causing the captain of the ReelLiving to dispatch a crew member to tape it down.

At 5:20am the squall hit us in the predawn darkness. Heavy rain, continuous lightning and wind to 35 knots with the seas quickly becoming 10-12 feet straight out of the west. Turning into the sea, we were able to make less than 1 knot back toward land, and land was where everyone suddenly wanted to be.

“Go ahead and give us the good news, Eddie.” I heard myself trying to sound calm on the radio. The NOAA forecast had called for 10-15 knot winds out of the South, with seas of 3 feet or less for the entire weekend. “The inshore buoy has winds of 27 knots, with gusts to 35”, came the terse reply. I calculated that 30 knots of wind over the 70-mile fetch between the inshore buoy and us would result in some far nastier conditions quickly. Even in the middle of the Atlantic, that public school education is still paying dividends!

To give some background, this adventure started a month earlier when I got a call from Keith Lawhun. Keith is an accomplished captain who regularly fishes the other side in his 34’ Proline, Barely Rigged. Keith was in the process of re-powering his boat and it would not be ready for Dwyer’s tournament. I recently re-powered with a single 260HP Volvo diesel that yields an 800mile range with 200 gallons of fuel. Keith asked if the new radar on the TUNER could spot the birds that frequently accompany large schools of tuna. I answered yes. He asked if we would like to fish with the big boats in this “other side”, invitation only event. I answered “Hell yes!” My best fishing partner Doris, who does double duty as my wife, and I were already entered in the Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament on the Thursday and Friday preceding the event Keith described. We left Beach Marine in Jacksonville at 5:00am on Friday morning, fished for king mackerel until 4:00pm, loaded the TUNER on the trailer and were in Canaveral by 9:00pm. After unloading kingfish tackle and loading the tuna gear and enough supplies to keep 5 adults going all weekend, we departed Port Canaveral. The crew consisted of Keith, his daughter, Rhonda, Todd Tharp, Doris and me.

It’s now just past 6:30am and the sky is the color of bruised lead. There are these low scudding clouds just above us that are absolutely racing by. The rain is coming in heavy bands. The wind screams a toast to its total unreasonablility. On the radar, squall lines seem to be forming over the Gulf Stream and pushing rapidly east toward us. There is no way to cover any ground back to Canaveral. The longer we stay the worse the conditions become. There appears to be a southern boundary to the squall lines and we turn and make 20 knots to the South, trying to get around the storm. I tune the GPS plotter to the 100mile range and pick up Walker’s Cay at 80 miles to the Southeast. I alert the TICKET to our plan to head south, possibly the Bahamas if the wind continues. Capt. Dwyer elects to stay and ride out the storm, as do some of the other boats. He wishes us good luck. I remember thanking him via the VHF while thinking, “I don’t need luck, I need a bigger freaking boat!”

By 9:00am we are 60 miles out of Walker’s. It appears we are going to be successful in skirting the southern edge of the storm. At 9:30 we are 50 miles from Walker’s. The radar shows the huge storm a couple of miles to the north of us and a smaller storm just to the east. The wind has dropped to 25 knots and the seas are down to 8 feet. The crew is soaked and tired. I have been awake for 30 hours. The fishing in Jacksonville the day before is a faint memory. We stop to take a biological break. In the 5 minutes that we are slowed down, the 2 storms collide around us to produce the heaviest rain, most intense lightning and strongest winds of the morning. The radar screen shows solid rain for 50 miles. At one point, the wind is blowing so hard, we have no option but to let it push us eastward.

By 10:00am the wind diminishes once again to a more familiar 25 knots and we are only 30 miles from Walker’s. Terra firma and a hot bowl of conch chowder are sounding pretty good to me right about now. There is a short debate about being disqualified in the tournament by docking in the Bahamas. I like to think the decision to land was unanimous.

At 11:30 we idle into the marina at Walker’s in bright sunshine and a honking southwest wind. I’m still thinking conch chowder, when I realize that my wallet is sitting in my truck in Canaveral. A quick check with the crew reveals we share a similar plight. We’re in a foreign country with no ID and no money. The public school thing kicks in again. We should have no problem ‘cause I figure Customs is closed on Saturday, the harbormaster remembers me, and I can remember my American Express number. Who says you can’t leave home without it? We’ll just grab some diesel and chowder, wait for the wind to die, and head off toward Florida in the morning. After 200 miles of open ocean, the muscular little Volvo has used a scant 58 gallons of diesel!

There are no rooms available at the hotel. The TUNER is air-conditioned and sleeps 2 comfortably, but 5 adults in the cabin are not going to work. Luckily, Keith, Rhonda and Todd run into a captain they know, who invites them to spend the night on his boat, TruePlayer. There is camaraderie on the dock at Walker's you don't usually see in the States. Todd owns a lure company, interestingly enough called Todd’s Rigs and Lures. His unique manufacturing process results in some of the best looking head castings I’ve seen. Evidently they catch fish too, as several of the boats at the dock are customers of his. We have a good dinner and go to sleep looking forward to getting home the next day in time for the weigh-in with some tall tales to tell.

We leave the marina early the next morning following Keith’s friend who is also headed to Canaveral. The wind is 20 knots out of the southwest and the seas are 6 feet and growing as we leave the Bahamas bank. At 35 miles out, we lose the starboard trim tab. I can no longer keep the nose of the boat down and the ride becomes very uncomfortable. Doris and I decide to head back to Walker’s and wait for a better day. Keith, Rhonda and Todd want to get back and opt to jump to the TruePlayer and ride with him back to Florida. The transfer goes without mishap with each one hopping from my swim platform to the other boat. We wish them a safe journey and quickly get back to the island.

Walker’s Cay is a wonderful little place with great fishing and diving, and some of the friendliest folks in the islands. When the wind is blowing 25 knots however, there is not a lot going on. We spent most of the rest of Sunday cleaning up the TUNER and checking the weather forecast. Monday was not looking any better as far as trying to make it home. Sunday night we ran into Capt. Sam Crutchfield at the restaurant in the main Walker’s hotel. He was waiting on the wind to lessen as well before heading back to Ft. Pierce.

Capt. Sam is a lifelong charter captain who began recording CDs a few years ago when Jimmy Buffet told him his songs about fishing were too good not to sell well. He suggested we fish on Monday for grouper and mutton snapper in the lee of some of the islands and promised some good fish. We agreed to meet for breakfast.

It was the following morning while eating that I remembered that we hadn’t cleared Bahamas Customs and still didn’t have any cash. Customs does not take credit cards and ATMs haven’t made it to Walker’s yet. Not only that, but Customs is open 7X24 and we have been in the country illegally for two days. Capt. Sam predicts they will carry me to jail in Nassau, but loans me $100 just in case. The customs officer is a very pleasant man who remembers the TUNER from previous trips. He is not amused when I tell him my story. “Mon, dey got a small cell in Nassau for you!” After a serious tongue lashing, he is about place me under detention awaiting transport to jail. Capt. Sam appears and intervenes saying, ”His momma raised ugly kids, not smart ones. “ The customs officer grudgingly takes my borrowed money and stamps my entry papers and fishing license. This is a lesson for life.

We spent the rest of Monday fishing for mutton snapper. Capt. Sam showed us some of his secret spots around the island. We caught some nice fish, but the highlight was a spot that produced 2 African pompano for Sam and Doris, each over 20 pounds. Capt. Sam has not only bailed me out of a Bahamian jail, but also turned out to be great fishing companion. That night we feasted on the pompano prepared 5 ways by the hotel’s chef. The day started on a sour note but rapidly improved and is now a cherished fishing memory.

The wind had been an incessant 20-25 knots for the past 4 days. Monday night, lying in my bunk aboard TUNER, I could sense the wind shift by the way the mooring lines altered their rhythm. Tuesday morning dawned bright with the wind due out of the west at 20 knots. Capt. Sam was ready to head back to Ft. Pierce in his boat. Without trim tabs, going straight into the wind was not a good option for us. Doris and I figured that by filling the 2 forward fishboxes with salt water, we could add about 1000 pounds to the front of the boat. The net effect was similar to tabs. We followed Capt. Sam out across the Bahamas Bank and over the Gulf Stream toward Ft. Pierce. We had headseas of 6 to 8 feet in close sets, but the extra weight up front kept the bow down and we were able to make around 14 knots without pounding. The boys at Mirage built me one fine boat!

As we neared the east coast of Florida, the westerly wind lost its effect on the seas. We bid Capt. Sam farewell on the VHF and began to swing north toward Canaveral, still 60 miles distant. I drained the fishboxes and TUNER once again showed her proud bow. After the storm tossed trip to Walker’s, the trip home was a nonevent. Running up the coast, 3 miles offshore, a smoky haze obscured the beach. The sun was bright and the Atlantic Ocean was parking lot flat. The horizon shimmered in the afternoon heat. As we entered Port Canaveral, all was right and once again the world was spinning in greased grooves.

Copyright by Capt. Wiley Horton