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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Thick darkness shrould earth and sky-was an excerpt from the poem "The Prairie Fire" by George P. Morris an American journalist, poet, playwright and author of the early 19th century. His poem, "Woodman spare that tree," is his best known poem. Morris was known as General Morris, not because of a military career, but because of his commanding personality. He lived from 1802 to 1864 and founded the New York Mirror in 1823. I substituted "sky" for "prairie" in the last line. It seemed an appropriate exercise of editorial license while musing about some way to describe the launch of the shuttle Endeavor.
I had never seen a shuttle launch, except on television and we had waited for months to see this one. Endeavor lifted off just after 2200 hours on November 30th on a pillar of fire and a roar that shook the deck of Sojourner even though we were floating nearly three and a half miles away. The U.S. Coast Guard keeps boaters and other onlookers at a safe distance during launches. But we studied our options and located an area off the Intracoastal Waterway due West of the launch pad that provided an unobstructed view of the launch facility. Interestingly, we were approached by a French family that was cruising the East Coast about a good spot from which to see the launch. The wife's English was pretty good, but her accent made understanding her a challenge. We were also looking for a good spot, so we got on the radio and called the Coast Guard for suggestions as to the best viewing location. They were very helpful and gave us good information, which we shared with the French family. It is understandable that any attempt at speaking the local language by foreigners is responded to with generous offers to help. We knew how hard she was trying to communicate and we were more than happy to go out of our way to assist. They did not choose the same location to watch the launch as we did and they headed out to their selected area. We picked our spot and were joined by fifteen other boats and we saw at least two dozen small planes circled overhead as launch time neared. We arrived early and were treated to a beautiful sunset in a crystal clear sky. After the sun set, huge floodlights lit the launch gantry and shuttle. We could clearly see the launch pad, the shuttle and its huge orange external fuel tank. It was an otherwise dark night with a new moon that had set before the launch. We could hear no sound at all. A few seconds before launch we studied the scene through our binoculars. When ignition occurred, the flame was so bright, we had to look away or stop using our binoculars. It was like staring into the sun. The shuttle rose slowly on a column of flame that steadily lengthened as the ship rose. Still we heard nothing. We estimated that the shuttle was about five thousand feet in the air and seven to ten seconds post-launch when the sound from the launch pad finally reached us. Initially it sounded like a dull rumble from a great distance, but it became louder and louder and louder still until it was deafening. The shock wave and subsequent vibrations from the shuttle's engines could actually be felt through Sojourner's deck even though we were floating a mile off shore. The roar slowly subsided as Endeavor rose higher and higher and the engine flame grew steadily dimmer. We watched the separation of the booster rockets and watched as the ship arced over into its orbital trajectory and finally disappeared below the horizon. The main engines were still burning when we finally lost sight of Endeavor. We could only imagine how thunderous the noise must be and how the ground must shake on Cape Kennedy itself during a launch. This was an experience to remember for a lifetime and one we wish everyone could experience. The sight, the sound and knowing that the shuttle is an American project left us with feelings of pride and wonder at the awesome complexity and enormity of the program.
After the launch, we returned to Melbourne to visit friends and finally left the area on Monday, December 4, 2000. It was a cold and blustery day with a steady wind from the North. Since we have only a small electric heater and the stove on board, for warmth, we were ready to head South. Sailing out in the Atlantic was ruled out as being too rough with the North wind blowing against the Gulf Stream, so we stayed in the Intracoastal Waterway and motor sailed for three days until we finally reached Ft. Lauderdale on the afternoon of Thursday the 7th. The trip was uneventful except for two stops we made. One stop was due to heavy rains. Ordinarily, we wouldn't stop because of rain, but we were in an area where the waterway was fairly narrow and we felt it was prudent to get off the waterway and anchor until visibility improved. We also had a cooling water intake clog and had to stop to clear the grass and debris out of the filter. The wind and rain had stirred up quite a bit of material that was floating on the water. When the water intake became clogged, the starboard engine began to overheat, the alarm sounded and we had to shut down the engine to correct the problem. Fortunately, we were in an area, where we were able to get off the waterway and anchor for a few minutes while we corrected the problem.
The weather steadily got warmer as we continued South and we really enjoyed the beautiful sights along the way. There are a surprising number of undeveloped areas that are either parks or wilderness areas that are set aside because they are wetlands or wildlife sanctuaries. But of course, there is a great deal of development also including an incredible number of high-rise condos and apartments. This area of the waterway has a great many draw bridges that open only at certain times, so a good bit of time was spent waiting for bridge openings, but that was a minor inconvenience. Eventually all of the drawbridges will be replaced with high rise (65 foot clearance) bridges that will not impede water traffic. As one would expect at this time of the year, most of the traffic was boats heading South. A surprising number of which are from Canada. By and large, the Canadians are friendly and safe boaters, but some don't seem to understand common boating etiquette. But then a lot of Americans don't either. Most states still do not require a license to operate a boat, so many boaters don't bother to learn anything about safe and courteous operation of boats and just jump in and take off. For instance, powerboats are responsible for any damage their boat's wake creates, so the proper thing for a power boater to do is to slow down when passing a smaller boat. Ninety percent of boaters do this, but every now and then some irresponsible driver zooms past and all the smaller boats rock and roll until the wake subsides. Sometimes people get on the radio and complain, but by and large it is an aggravation that little can be done about unless a Coast Guard or state Marine Patrol boat is in the vicinity and actually witnesses it.
Once in Ft. Lauderdale, Sojourner was surveyed for insurance purposes. This was called a Condition and Valuation survey. The insurance company wanted to be sure that the insured value was reasonable. The surveyor checked everything from Coast Guard documentation and bill of sale to dates and serial numbers on the engines to dates of the most recent inspection of the fire extinguishers. He also cycled all of the through hull fittings, tested all the electronics and generally gave the boat as thorough an inspection as he did before we purchased Sojourner. The survey took over two hours and the only thing he omitted, was a sea trial and hauling her to inspect her hulls. He accepted the receipts from our recent haul out as evidence of that having been done. We used the same inspector we had used before we bought Sojourner, so he was familiar with the boat and us. This certainly made the process faster and smoother.
With the survey behind us, we continued South to North Miami, where we had our life raft inspected and re-packed. We have an automatically inflatable four-person life raft that must be inspected annually. It is a really neat device that looks like a floating tepee when fully deployed. When not deployed, it resides in a container that measures about two and a half feet long by one and a have feet wide by one foot thick. When tossed in the water, a lanyard activates a cylinder of carbon dioxide that is compressed to over a thousand psi, which inflates the life raft in about five seconds. The raft contains emergency water, food, motion sickness pills, first aid kit, flashlights, knife, air pump and signal flares. All of these items, plus the inflation of the raft must be inspected. Out dated items are replaced and the whole apparatus is repacked in its container. It is about a three-day job, in that the carbon dioxide cylinder has to be sent to a laboratory for testing and recharging. It is a device we hope we never need, but it is nice to have it on board. Catamarans are supposed to be unsinkable, but I'm not sure I want to test that theory.
As soon as the weather permits a comfortable
crossing of the Gulf Stream, we will sail to the Bahamas. Stay tuned.