Susan Tuttle retired from teaching special education. To begin her new lifestyle she looked to the horizon as she set a course for an offshore sailing adventure. The easy part was finding the same style boat, a Contessa 26, as the one Tania Aebi completed her round the world solo circumnavigation in the mid 1980s. Having a friend who was an experienced sailor enabled Susan to have someone teach her the fundamentals of sailing. Then, the adventure began.
As an experienced commercial airplane pilot Susan understood the need to make course adjustments depending on the wind currents. The first leg of her maiden voyage from Crawfordville, Florida to Isla Muejeres, Mexico took 11 days. Along with her crew Susan confessed, “We spent an extra week getting there due to a northern current that we failed to account for which in essence was taking us to Texas.”
In addition to failing to account for the current Susan mused, “I wish we had reefed earlier on our fifth day out. By the time the squall hit us it was a difficult balancing taking the sails down with waves as tall as my house rolling us fore, aft and side to side. My boat is quite small and with the dinghy strapped on the foredeck I am sure I will forevermore heed the golden rule to reef early.
Safely arriving in Isla Mujeres Susan’s crew flew home. No stranger to living by herself Susan relished the time she spent exploring the village by herself while planning to sail to a more remote anchorage near Excalata, south of Isla Mujeres. To interrupt the solitude Susan paddled her inflatable kayak to shore where she took several bus trips to visit neighboring villages and the many ruins that have survived the passage of time.
An unexpected pleasure came from meeting a guy she had previously met in her home port. Then, she met another solo sailor. He was from France. It was Susan’ introduction to the small world of sailors who roam the seven seas. After a few weeks Susan again sailed to an even more remote area near the Mayan jungle. She anchored in an abandoned fishing village. Again, the call of the sea beckoned Susan to set sail even further south.
It was on this leg of her journey that her contentness alone at sea caused her ship’s demise. Susan said she had been below deck cooking, reading, and relaxing for about three hours when she heard the crackling crunching sound of a fiberglass boat being crushed on the rocks. Anyone who has made such a fateful mistake as failing to keep watch need not be questioned; the auto helm on a boat like cruise control in a car still requires human interaction. A mistake is a mistake, even like this one a costly one.
Fortunately, she was able to get herself safely to land while her Contessa lisped along the reef. Imagine how she felt walking several miles until she came upon a resort where she made a deal with some local fisherman to free her boat. They charged her $1500 which was considerably less than what the officials would bill her for.
Susan described a disheartening scene as her pride and joy filled with water. Then, when the rudder broke free she knew her boat would best be left as scrap. Susan sighed at the remembrance, “It was just a terrible thing.” Throughout the ordeal she never felt afraid. She just got busy doing what needed to be done. In fact, in all her sailing adventures thus far the only time she felt fear was when anchored about 14 off the coast of Key West. Speed boats were flying by at what she thought were reckless speeds. It was during the night that she realized how vulnerable she would be if one of ‘those guys’ decided to board her boat.
Did crashing her Contessa on the rocks or the fear of ne’ar do wells damper her spirits? Did she give up sailing? Did she wallow in her depleted life savings? NO. Rather, Susan took a job as a special education teacher in Huslia, Alaska. It is an Indian outpost about 250 miles west of Fairbanks. Every spare penny was saved and two years later Susan traded her earned cash for a FLICKA 24. Being similar to the Contessa Susan was confident to once again set sail.
This time, she cruised, alone, along the west coast of Florida to the Dry Tortugas. Returning north her engine was not cooperating. Taking advantage of her Sea Tow insurance, Susan was towed into the nearest port, Everglades City. Looking for assistance she wandered into the town’s museum and was eventually connected to a mechanic and me.
Though most of her two weeks were spent on maintenance repairs, she was able to get her inboard diesel purring like a kitten. I am grateful to have had the privilege to drive her the required 40 miles to Wal-mart for provisions. We idled away many hours as sailors do, sipping wine and sharing tales of life at sea.
When asked what she has learned from her adventures she shyly smiled. Then, as if with indignation she said, “It is a lot of work. It looked like sailing would be easy, but it’s not. I don’t have a windlass and my anchor weighs 22 pounds.” With a sigh we nodded at each other, filled our glasses, and continued to gab til we fell fast asleep.
Susan’s spirit invigorated my passion for sailing solo. Something I may do again. Hopefully, reading this will inspire you to ‘sail through life, either on a boat or other means.’
The picture below shows Susan navigating the Barron River in Everglades City on her homeward voyage along the west coast of Florida. Her boat is a Flicka 24.
For more information about Susan you can access the May issue of the Mullet Rapper published for and about Everglades City or contact me at email@example.com
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