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PRIVATE LIVES

You never know what to expect when sailing. A brief cruise might even turn into a big headache.

Isn't the Boy Scout motto "Be prepared"? Isn't "Semper paratus" (always prepared) the motto of the U.S. Coast Guard? Shouldn't sailors who've been sailing for more than 35 years (even crossing the Atlantic, for goodness' sake) have similar mottos and stick to them?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Why then did my husband and I completely ignore them and our years of experience, deciding on the spur of the moment to take a little putt in our old Morgan sailboat in order to give our new Suzuki outboard a trial run?

It was a beautiful Saturday morning with blue sky, fluffy white clouds and a gentle breeze. We planned to be out an hour or two. Our dock is just off the Intracoastal Waterway and about 10 minutes from John's Pass. I called the bridge tender, who told me: "Bring her right up, Captain." We cruised out into the gulf.

Once well offshore, we raised sail and shut down the Suzuki, which was proving to be just fine. About 12:30 we headed back to the pass. Once again, I called the bridge tender, and once again he told us: "Bring her up." We did _ but he didn't. We saw the gates for auto traffic go down, but the bridge didn't go up.

That happens sometimes. Sometimes there's a glitch, and the bridge-raising takes a little time. That day it did not rise. I called again.

"We're having a problem," the tender told me, "and I don't know how soon the maintenance men will be here. I've sent for them. It'll be at least a half-hour."

We left the VHF on and heard captain after captain request an opening. The response was the same: "We're closed to marine traffic, and I don't know for how long."

"Can't you give us an idea?"

"Negative, Captain. I'm waiting for the crew to get here."

The weather was fine, and we didn't much mind ghosting around in the vicinity of the pass. We decided we'd wait until 2. Then 2:30. Then 3:30. Nothing was happening, and we were mightily bored. And hungry. Did I mention that we'd brought no food with us, had no books aboard and were carefully rationing a half-gallon jug of water between the two of us?

At 4, we realized there was nothing to do but head south to Pass-a-Grille's North Channel, then proceed up the Intracoastal through the three lift bridges back to Treasure Island and the Isle of Capri. We again raised sail and headed south. We were hot, hungry and keeping a careful eye on our diminishing water supply. (The Emily Jane is a 25-footer that we're in the process of refitting, and the water tank hasn't been readied.)

At least we had our charts with us. The sail down was pleasant enough, with good weather and a nice breeze.

You don't want to enter North Channel on a weekend in a small sailboat, but we had no choice. The cigarette boats shooting by and countless sport fishermen rile the water so intensely that a sailboat rocks like a crazy cradle. But we were finally in and it looked as if we'd be just in time for the opening of Span C on the Pinellas Bayway. Great. Once again, I manned the VHF.

There was a pause before the bridge answered. "Sorry, Captain, we're closed to marine traffic at this time."

My language can get salty at sea, and I let fly. Then I pushed the transmit button again and said, calmly as I could: "Gosh! Don't tell me you're broken down, too. How long will it be?"

"I can't say, Captain. We have to wait until the crew gets through at John's Pass."

Talk about sinking spirits. We'd never considered Treasure Island a gated community, but that day it surely was.

Our only alternative to waiting around in the descending dark was to go down to the Tierra Verde Yacht Club. Just go in, tie off, then have dinner _ at least a beer _ and take a taxi home. (We had no bedding aboard.)

The dock master found us a spot at the end of the pier. We made fast, locked up the boat and gratefully stepped ashore.

"Janis," my husband asked, "uh _ do you have your purse with you?"

I had a little bag with a comb and lipstick (as if I needed those!) and Tylenol (which I did need).

He had no money, either, and no credit card. Our dreams of a cold beer and dinner were dashed.

Grimly, we took our water bottle and walked down the dock to the clubhouse where people were laughing and talking, drinking and eating. We persuaded a waiter to call a cab, and I filled the bottle in the restroom.

Our ride was late arriving. "Sorry," the driver said, "but the bridge was up, and I had a long wait."

The bridge was up? We didn't want to know about it. But when the cab took us home via the Bayway, cars were stopped once again. The bridge, now functional, was rising on schedule.

When we got home, we drank lots of water, lots of gin and tonics, and prepared the quickest dinner we could think of. Never have hot dogs and baked beans tasted so good.

The next morning, we took a taxi back to Tierra Verde. This time, we had a cooler of fruit, drinks, water, peanut butter, sardines, crackers and candy bars. We carried along an extra fuel tank, and Phil wore his proper boat shoes. I had money and credit cards. We even called John's Pass to make sure the bridge was operative.

Our little shake-down cruise had turned into a two-day event that cost us $50 for the boat slip at the club and $40 for taxis. You know what they say _ a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money.

But we've learned. "Semper paratus" is our motto. The unexpected always happens when you're sailing.

Janis Benson lives in Treasure Island. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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