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Surviving the Stars & Stripes!

© By Mike Keenan

In Hilton Head Island's Harbourtown, perched on top of the red-and-white lighthouse, I enjoy a panoramic view of the harbour, filled with luxurious, expensive yachts. One gargantuan, anchored in Calobougie Sound, appears too huge for the harbour. Exceptionally windy, it's difficult to remain outside on the platform. My skipper, Dave Lyle, sinewy with a relaxed air and a deep, resonant voice, thinks that the oversized yacht belongs to the upcoming MCI golf tournament. I wonder about our soon-to-be trip aboard Stars and Stripes, Dennis Connor's former entry in the famed America's Cup race for nautical millionaires.
     It seems crazy to set sail in a hurricane-like wind as seventeen rookie "crew" board near the exit end of the harbour. The wind so powerful, when we edge from the slip, we are pushed immediately backwards hard towards the other immobile yachts. Thus began an ordeal for Lyle, desperately trying not to play bumper car with millions of dollars of boats. Anguished owners suddenly rush to protect their prized investments from our potentially crushing weight. Lyle frantically ties off ropes as he jumps on and off adjacent craft. Unfortunately, we are fixed perpendicular to the howling wind, impossible for us to turn. Insurance adjusters sharpen their pencils. Yacht owners pray. After 10 minutes of classic struggle with the elements, we've drifted completely to the rear of the harbour with no respite. Miraculously, a zodiac boat from Eco-Tours arrives to our rescue and tows us towards the harbour entrance. We now face the wind directly and are able to make some progress.
     It's been a 12-minute battle merely to exit from the small, safe harbour. What's in store at sea? The wind whistles, suggesting we are mortal fools. Most passengers sit towards the front on top of floatable seat cushions that we are instructed to throw into the water if someone accidentally slips overboard, the idea being that there's a nice pattern to mark where I drowned. I hug fast to the stern rail, a very thin rope, the only impediment besides gravity to prevent my communion with the sea.
     The mainsail is tied off a bit as a token precaution so as to not completely unfurl in this tornado. Up goes the jig and most of the mainsail. I now realize why a crew of ten is necessary for racing - to coordinate ropes, winches, sails, steering and prayer service, particularly in the high wind and seas of today. As we pitch at a 45 degree angle, I'm wedged beside two retired resident couples from Maine. "Don't write anything good about Hilton Head," they plead. They want it all for themselves.


     I'm impressed with the machinery, a winch that two mates employ to raise and lower sails, the chrome double steering wheels and identical controls on port and starboard sides of the vessel. Once accustomed to the fury of the sea, the captain allows several passengers including me to steer the boat. When we sail past Dafouskie Island, the wind picks up speed and so do we. It's so blustery today that Lyle wisely keeps us from the open sea.


     As we take in sail upon return, I wonder how we will manage to revisit the slip, given the petulant wind and the small window of opportunity in which to dock. Nonetheless, the captain masterfully cuts Stars and Stripes like an accomplished, big-city, parallel parker, the Zodiac mercifully waiting just in case we need a slight nudge. Lyle is now my favourite captain from whom I would never mutiny. He adroitly responded to the pressure of safeguarding passengers and millions of dollars of boat. When I shake his hand, it's remarkably dry. If our team had the football on the goal line, needing to score on the last play of the game, I would want Dave Lyle to be the quarterback.
     Stars and Stripes was purchased in 1996 from bankruptcy in Savannah Georgia. Over $3 million was spent in re-construction and maintenance; it's now worth $12 million. Dennis Conner sailed it twice - in 1983 as Spirit of America, and in 1987 as Stars and Stripes in preliminary races to qualify for the America's Cup. He then chose to sail the Liberty because of different seas but lost to the surprising Aussies. As for my yacht-racing future, after today, I no longer wish to emulate Mr. Connor, content to read Jules Verne, Joseph Conrad and Yann Martel from the safety of a dry couch, the only water required to be added to scotch.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

If you go
Hilton Head Island Vacation and Visitor's Guide:

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilton_Head,_South_Carolina
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Hilton_Head_Island_(South_Carolina)

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Maps (Mapquest) U.S. & Canada: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp
Maps (Mapquest) World: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp?country=GB
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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