My personal Bermuda Triangle was the sail on a very small boat
Or: The attack of the killer sunfish
In the early 1970s, while I was an advertising copywriter, the ad agency I worked for sent me to Bermuda. It wasn’t truly a vacation because I had to attend a few meetings with clients of the agency, but the trip didn’t cost me a penny and I had ample spare time to explore, swim and sail.
The hotel where we stayed had free sailboats for use by guests. They weren’t big or complicated. They were Sunfish, weighing about 150 pounds and measuring about 14 feet long. They were intended to be sailed by just one person, and all that the single sailor had to handle were a few ropes and the rudder. Designed in 1951, the Sunfish is both simple and durable, basically a VW Beetle that moves on a liquid highway, with a sail instead of an engine. The guy who was in charge of the hotel’s fleet asked me if I had sailed before, and I quickly answered, “Yes, Admiral!” and gave him a fake Navy salute.
He said the Sunfish was “a cute little boat and shouldn’t give you any trouble at all.” Fortunately, the admiral of the fleet did not ask me for details and there was no written application, test or oath. I did not have to supply dates, details or references.
I did not lie when I said I had sailed, but most of my sailing was in motorized vessels that had no sails. I also rowed some rowboats and paddled some canoes and I had once been a passenger on a 24-foot sailboat. When asked or commanded by the real sailor, I willingly moved from port to starboard or from starboard to port. I also coiled up some ropes and hung bumpers over the side when we neared the pier.
My major achievements were staying out of the way, not falling overboard and getting a good tan. I knew that the bow was up front, the stern in the back, a john is a head, a rope is a line and food is in the galley. I know a bit about halyards and clevis pins and cleats and I even know that “forecastle” is pronounced “foc’sle.” I also like to swim in and drink water, and if drafted to serve my country—Aye, Aye Sir!—I’d choose the Navy. Despite my only partially impressive résumé, I felt up to the task.
A Sunfish is an itty-bitty boat—not much bigger than a canoe—and I was sure I could handle it. Sunfish advertising talks about simplicity, stability and a “forgiving feel” that’s “suitable for beginners.” That’s my kind of boat. And since my mother didn’t have any stupid kids, I was sure I could teach myself to sail in Bermuda’s beautiful protected harbor, where Spanish sailor Juan de Bermudez arrived in 1503. Bermuda was named after him.
I quickly figured out how to get the mast vertical and unfurl the sail. A convenient puff of air took me gently away from the pier, and I felt ready to skip right from raw recruit to admiral. Had I attended Annapolis like an actual admiral, or even read the Boy Scout Manual chapter on water safety, I would have known to check the weather forecast before venturing out. It turned out that the little puff of air that kindly and conveniently propelled me away from shore was actually an advance sign of THE BIGGEST FUCKING WINDSTORM TO HIT BERMUDA IN 68 YEARS.
That initial puff was very quickly followed by a breeze, and then a wind and then a squall. The wind speed hit 52MPH—the fastest non-hurricane wind on record. I was never so busy in my life. I was simultaneously trying to learn how to sail, keep the boat upright, keep it from taking me out into the Atlantic Ocean, and trying to avoid being decapitated by the boom that kept swinging from port to starboard to port to starboard. I longed for an outboard motor, or even a simple rowboat, and gained new appreciation for the HMS Bounty mutineers. I was wrestling with the Sunfish, and it was both wrestling and boxing with me, and karate-chopping, too.
The “cute little boat” was beating the crap out of me. Every time I got up, I got knocked down or knocked overboard. My arms and legs were abraded raw and red from the sandpaper-like surface of the deck. I was clearly no match for the Sunfish or the squall.
I suddenly realized that my worst prospect for the formerly sunny day had progressed from merely having a lousy time to actually dying of a concussion from a swinging boom or drowning or being lost at sea and becoming fish food. There was no way I could control the “cute little boat.”
Applying some very basic nautical analysis, I realized that the wind—normally a source of cooling and propulsion—might actually kill me. The only way to minimize the effect of the wind was to minimize the size of the wind catcher—my sail. I had hoped to lower the sail and just use the Sunfish as a giant surfboard or kickboard and slowly move it back to the beach.
Unfortunately, the ropes were so snarled that there was no way to lower the sail. Reluctant to abandon ship, I wrestled with the mast and tipped the boat over. With mast submerged and keel facing the sky, I was able to both kick and paddle it back toward shore.
After a while I noticed that the mast, boom and sail had become detached from the hull socket, but they were still tethered to the Sunfish by rope and were following me to the distant shore.
Despite the much smaller profile without the sail, I still had to fight the wind, and the waves were growing. It seemed to take forever to reach land.
When I got close, I saw an ambulance with flashing lights on the beach, and two men wearing white shirts with red crosses and white Bermuda shorts and knee-high socks were running toward where they thought I would come ashore.
As soon as the boat stopped moving, I crawled away from it through the shallow water and onto the sand. I collapsed and tried to spit out the salt water, seaweed and sand in my mouth.
The two medics kneeled in the sand next to me, and seemed to be examining me. They spoke, but their words didn’t register.
I either rolled over on my back or was rolled over by them, and eventually I sat up with their support. I felt like I was still bouncing on the waves.
One of them opened a medical kit and took out bandages. Then the two of them started swabbing me, and I saw that the bandages were quickly turning from white to red. There were even red spots on their white Bermuda shorts.
When my head stopped spinning and my breathing returned to normal, they helped me to stand up slowly. They supported me under each of my arms. I looked down and saw that I was covered with blood from shoulders to fingers and toes. Even my nose was bleeding. I was told I had a black eye and that I should be X-rayed. My sunglasses were gone. My diver’s watch was gone. So were my waterproof camera and most of my bathing suit.
Every part of me that had feeling felt really bad. One of the medics asked me if I had been attacked by just one shark or by several, and if had I lost a passenger. I said that I was sailing alone, but it took a while before I could admit that I had been attacked by a cute little sunfish.