Aweigh

A master and commander decides, after a lifetime on the water, that he will no longer go down to the sea
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Consequential decisions can be triggered by inconsequential causes. She leaned over, picked up the phoneand I knew then that I'd be filing for divorce. But later, introspective curiosity sets in. And the search for self-justification. So we poke around dormant gray matter trying to bring out a plausible teleological narrative. All this has been happening to me since I decided to sell my boat.

More in The Atlantic by William F. Buckley:

The American Idea: A Proposition (November 2007)
"Ours are loyalties to an ideal, not to a revelation, and this must have been the reason, even if he was not conscious of it, why Lincoln referred to the American 'proposition.'"

Bush for President (October 1988)
Employment is up; inflation is down; and success as a social ideal now commands prestige. Why repudiate the politics that have brought us to this felicity?

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The Attack on Yale (November 1951)
"God and Man at Yale, written by William F. Buckley, Jr., is a savage attack on that institution as a hotbed of 'atheism' and 'collectivism.' I find the book is dishonest in its use of facts, false in its theory, and a discredit to its author." By McGeorge Bundy

Selling a boat one has spent happy decades on is, in a way, a fateful decision. It can be likened to a decision to stop skiing or playing the piano, if one has skied a lot or played the piano a lot. The sequence here is critical to the effort to explain a self-inflicted privation.

What brought it on? It wasn't that I decided to do away with my boat after narrowly surviving the storm I took it through. I wasn't making a gesture of despair and remorse after losing a companion overboard.

Dramatic forerunners engender sequels that are self-explanatory, most of the time. There was none such here to account for my decision. If there had been a catalytic event, you would be looking for something quite simple, on the order of resolving to file for divorce after finding your wife in bed with another man—a banality. It was the inconsequential factor that I searched for.

What did happen is that Michael, a first mate I had retained—as I regularly did—to crew for me one day every summer week and ten days in August, had had to pull away. A mortal cancer had seized his mother, quickly killing her. Of course he would leave me for a period, to be back in Canada with his father; I expected his return after two or three weeks, but then he reported that he had contracted an episodic malady of sorts that would keep him away for the balance of the sailing season. He would be returning directly to Yale to get on with his graduate work in molecular biology. My summer schedule was put awry.

A few weeks later, my plans reconstituted, I was sailing on Patito with three very old friends off Cape Cod. I blurted it out to them at dinner, on the fourth night, that I had decided to sell my boat—on which, as on its predecessors, they had all sailed with me over many years, and to distant places. Their stupefaction was gratifying, in that it confirmed the felt gravity of my decision. I had acted on impulse—but not, I tried to explain to them, impulsively.

In September of 1938 two of my sisters and I received distressing news, relayed to us by our governess. It was that two weeks hence we were to embark for England, where for one academic year we would attend English boarding schools. This disruption of happy lives, home-schooled in northwestern Connecticut, we found unbearable. My father, who had thus struck us down, was at the time visiting Europe with my mother and other siblings. He had given no reason for this arbitrary move, beyond saying that the experience of foreign schooling would be educational for us; never mind that we had all already been to British schools five years earlier, when we were living in Europe. Age twelve, I wrote to him resignedly (there was no alternative to complying with my father's decisions) about the impending extraterritorialization, and took sly and arrant advantage of his predictable defensiveness—he owed us one, and he had a very tender heart. I told him with a letter that I pined to have a sailboat when we got back from the English ordeal.

And so, nine months later, in June of 1939, I beheld my own sailboat on the neighboring lake.

It was a torrid affair from the moment I sighted her. I thought it a filial gesture to name my boat Sweet Isolation, reflecting my father's political leanings in the pre-war years. My little (seventeen-foot) conventionally rigged Barracuda (sailing class extinct) took me around the triangular course on Lakeville Lake twice every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, mid-June to Labor Day. I contended in the no-handicap marathon against six other boats of different designs, all of them captained by aged men and women in their twenties and thirties. We all struggled hugely to acquire the trophy. You needed to win it three times before taking permanent ownership. An exact replica of it could be found at the local hardware store, on sale for $21.

I would rise early on racing days to gauge the wind's preliminary dispositions, and to contemplate a strategy for that afternoon. I would be driven the five miles to the lake, arriving an hour before race time so that I could practice my starts and coach my crew (usually one of my siblings). We had three summers of this before the Wononscopomuc Yacht Club races became a casualty of Pearl Harbor; they did not revive after the war. The spring-fed lake, one mile square, is still there, and from it, when the winds are still and the sun is low, you can discern the brick profile of the Hotchkiss School. On the opposite rise, in the low Berkshires, Wanda Landowska could view the lake from her house where, for RCA, she recorded her historic harpsichord renditions of The Well-Tempered Clavichord. On the afternoon of the recording session, after beginning to play, she stopped. She advised the state police, by telephone, that they must close the entire road east of the lake to traffic, so that she could have the total stillness she needed. No one had ever before made such a request; no one else ever will; but the police, dumbfounded by the high Teutonic voice of the lady whose face had graced Time magazine, complied.

There was no sailing for me during the war, but I was discharged from the Army in May of 1946 and had Sweet Isolation back in the water a week later. In July, I contrived a cradle on a four-wheel trolley. Attached to the station wagon, it took my boat to Edgartown. We sailed, my sisters and the childhood friend I'd be sharing a room with at Yale a month later, in those glamorous waters. One afternoon, off Chappaquiddick, the mast was disabled in a strong wind and my sister Tish was swept into Nantucket Sound. For harrowing minutes, as we struggled desperately to bring the boat about, we knew she was at risk of drowning. A Coast Guard vessel spotted her flailing arms and picked her up; then it fetched us and my crippled boat, and towed the bedraggled lot back to a marina.

That night, silent, we looked at the dinner menu at an inn overlooking the harbor. We were woozy from the afternoon's trauma, and unstimulated by alcohol (I wasn't yet twenty-one, and management would not serve me a beer). My eyes idled over to the cruising boats slipping into the harbor, their red and green running lights twinkling off the cozied water. There was shelter here from the heavy winds that continued to roil the sound outside. One vessel, especially imposing, was identified for our benefit by the waiter, a college student doing summer work and crewing in the afternoons on one of the racing boats. That boat going by—he pointed—was the Manxman, a surviving Class J boat, 136 feet long, created to compete for the America's Cup in the 1930s. I counted twelve or more crew members in the dimming light, fastening down sails, two or three of them, wearing yellow jackets and khaki shorts, crowded around the skipper. The sight of that long dark beauty, and of the sloops and yawls and cutters and schooners nestling in the harbor, many of them secured now on their moorings, paralyzed me with longing. A cruising sailboat! That was now the object of my desire. For several years I read the yachting magazines as a window-shopper, praying that one day I would put my foot in the door, and sail into Edgartown Harbor as the captain of my own boat.

I did that in 1954, having conscripted my brother-in-law, who had never before sailed, into a joint purchase of The Panic, the name we gave to our Dutch-built forty-two-foot steel cutter. It was the most misbalanced sailing vessel ever created. In a hard wind, making way close-hauled, you needed the strength of both arms to hold the tiller to the desired angle.

But she was all ours, including the tiny captain's cabin, not much bigger than the berth it housed, and we gave it an enormous ice box in which, for long hauls, we could store as much as 250 pounds of ice. We laughed a lot on The Panic, cruising, on most summer weekends, my wife, Pat, presiding over a remarkable cuisine that evolved from three Sterno stoves that hung from individual fixtures. Multi-gimbaled, they were indifferent to any motion of the boat, fore and aft or side to side. One night in Maine, Pat's imaginative dinner was prolonged in preparation. I announced that in order to celebrate appropriately the wind, the sun, the stars, the moon, and the harbor in Maine (there is always reason to celebrate aboard a boat), I would pour myself a third drink, and I went to the bottle of pre-mixed margaritas she had brought on board. I wondered whether, having already drunk two, I would be courting tipsiness with a third, but I poured it anyway. I thought to ascertain the strength of the drink, and so tilted the kerosene lamp to read the fine print on the label. It described the ingredients and then gave directions: "Pour two ounces over ice. Then add tequila." I had been near tipsy from drinking lime juice—causing my crewmates and my wife to be tipsy with amusement.

Cruising in October to Bermuda, we had to make our way through the eastern end of a hurricane. After a very hard day's combat using only the storm jib and trysail, I finally hove to for a long night of furious wind. This capitulation at sea is achieved by adjusting the reduced sails to vie against one another in such fashion as to induce relative immobility.

The next day the crew, shaken after the struggle of the day before and the shriek of the wind against the shrouds during the sleepless night, was somnolent and detached. The dishes were unwashed. No one had moved to make breakfast. There was cloud cover, and we were too far from the island to take radio bearings on Bermuda's commercial radio station. I had to tell them that I simply didn't know where we were. Demoralization was setting in. I revived the crew by serving hardtack and port. The sweet alcoholic potion revived their spirits, and the chewy hardtack gave sustenance. The sun soon crept out, giving me a sight, and on we slogged in a 40-knot wind, eleven hours close-hauled on a starboard tack, ocean water taking up one third of the cubic space of the cockpit, arriving finally in that tipsy boat at St. George's Harbor.

Earlier the same year we had raced The Panic with the Newport fleet to Bermuda. On arriving, I learned at a festive cocktail party the hairy tale of the metallurgist. He had raced in his brand-new thirty-eight-foot Swedish-built aluminum boat, on which, forty-eight hours out, was heard a thwack unrelated to the conventional creaks and groans of boats hard pressed under way. The thwack came again forty minutes later. The metallurgist took a professional interest in what was happening. He disclosed after the fourth thwack—they were coming at decreasing intervals—that when the interval was down to one minute, the vessel would have at most one remaining minute to stay afloat: an entire aluminum bulwark on the port side would at that point simply fall away. His boat arrived in Bermuda when the thwack-time interval was at four minutes. The owner sold the boat and never sailed again.

For all that his was a singular experience, his decision to get rid of the boat after undergoing it is hardly inexplicable (never mind that the Swedish builders flew in an engineer, and presumably a lawyer, to cope with the derelict). I would soon learn the psychological impact of a boat loss, not only on the owner but on others. The Panic was destroyed by a hurricane in 1961, in my back yard, so to speak. It was uprooted from its mooring at the Stamford Yacht Club and splayed across the stony breakwater at the harbor's entrance. The shock of its loss was felt by others who knew the boat. Hugh Kenner, the aseptic critic, let out a full-throated jeremiad. Here was the end of a boat that had "done much for her friends, in the summers before her side was stove in," he wrote to me.

She had taken them all around the Sound and along the New England coast, and even to Bermuda (thrice), and shown them Wood's Hole, and the Great Fish that eats taffrail logs, and the Kraken, and the strange men of Onset with their long faces, and perfect Edgartown; and lapped them at night gently to rest; and given them the wind and sun and made for them a place of adventure and refreshment and peace; and taught them this, that beyond illusion it is possible to be for hours and days on end perfectly and inexpressibly happy.

Boat owners tend to upgrade, and I now had the insurance money. I very quickly bought, sight unseen, a forty-foot Sparkman & Stephens yawl of illustrious design (Nevins 40) from its four owners in Miami. It was offered with a piquant story. The sailors had served together in the Army in Japan and, aged twenty to twenty-two, had dreamed of owning a sailboat and taking it around the world. They could put together only enough money to buy the bare boat and engine from the American boat company in Hong Kong. It was all teak—teakwood was cheap in that part of the world. They flew there joyfully upon their discharge, men with varied skills learned as civilians and in the Army. They sanded and painted the hull, mounted the rigging, installed the plumbing and electrical systems, and finished the deck. Two months later the boat was ready, and they set out, westward, for Miami, arriving eighteen months later, flat broke and happy. They calculated that they had spent $l.75 per person per day. That updates to about six dollars. I paid them $30,000 for the Suzy Wong, and sailed her for sixteen years, some weekdays, most summer weekends, here and there cruising on blue water, running two races to Bermuda and one to Halifax, very contented until I found the Cyrano, a sixty-foot schooner with an eighteen-foot bowsprit—a big upgrade, though bought for the same $30,000 I realized on selling the Suzy.

There was much to do to make that schooner habitable—indeed, to transform it into the dream boat that I sailed for ten years, and took across the Atlantic, Miami to Bermuda to the Azores to Gibraltar, with my son, my sister-in-law, sailing friends, a cook, a hand, and a mate. I built a dodger (this shields the deckhouse from the wind) and installed a circular sofa whose center could be raised and stripped of its cushions to form a circular table; with the center level on the springs, its cushions in place, four or even five flopped-out sailors could rest or read, and when it was lifted eight people could dine. Two long berths at either side of the navigation table proved handy, and now the rudder could be electronically controlled when the helmsman sought shelter. Protective canvas could be rolled down on all sides to seal in the entire area.

While standing in the navigation well, examining the almanac, the ship moving in a moderate following wind, I spotted the Pico light off Horta. Landfall after eleven days of sailing. I shouted back to my son, Christopher, at the wheel. His childhood friend Danny Merritt, who has sailed with me since he was a teenager, was sitting alongside on the taffrail. He stood up and peered excitedly in the direction I signaled. I wrote a book (Airborne) about that passage.

But the next year, sailing the Cyrano from Fort Lauderdale to Cozumel, again with my son and Danny, I reflected hard on the running costs, tucked into my briefcase by my bookkeeper. The figures spoke to me unanswerably: I had to sell the boat. There was only that single reason for doing so, but it was decisive. The Cyrano cost too much to maintain, my grand plan to subsidize it through chartering having failed after nine years of trying. If anybody (rich) is looking for a perfect boat, track it down, and live happily ever after.

It was then that I bought the Patito.

I left the purchase of the new boat in the hands of Christopher and Danny. It was they who thought to call it Patito, which is the Spanish diminutive for "duck," a term I use when addressing my wife, and she when talking to me. I knew that they would find the right boat, this time in fiberglass, to succeed the old wooden boat they had wearied of maintaining. I beheld the Patito for the very first time after giving a lecture at Trinity College and then driving for almost two hours to Essex. I arrived at the dock in cold April weather at about eleven, and my new boat was there, lit up below with candlelight, a flicker or two of snow falling into the cockpit, the salon well warmed with a kerosene heater. Christo and Danny, in high spirits, had a bottle of wine open. The Patito is thirty-six feet, and the most intimate of my boats. I have written about it that it is perfect with four aboard, and that five are three too many. The Patito has been with me full time. I have been faithful to it except for three transoceanic sails on the Sealestial, a boat I skippered but did not own.

The Sealestial is a seventy-one-foot ketch. On trans-oceanic runs the rule was that I and my friends would do the sailing, and the (paid) crew would do the maintenance. It was a good arrangement, giving us, at work and at play, eating and sleeping, a privacy beyond even the gross privacy of living on a little boat in great oceans. On a 3,000-mile Pacific run, Hawaii to New Guinea, we did not once in thirty days see another ship at sea or a plane overhead. Such apparent alienation sharpened the miniaturization of it all. I calculated that from the starting point, in Hawaii, I could have directed the boat to land in Japan instead of New Guinea by altering the rudder a mere four degrees—one ninetieth of the orbit of possibilities. On that passage we had the run of experiences at sea, recounted in a book I wrote, Racing Through Paradise.

It was good that my sea books featured the same friends, given that one's memory of a boat incorporates the company aboard it. That essential factor of human pleasure—a small crew, mostly with repeat companions—struck me most vividly when, walking past the fleet that had just completed the Annapolis-Bermuda Race, I spotted and spoke to a friend who had crewed aboard what they call a "maxi"—a boat longer than the seventy-two feet permitted during my racing years. I asked if he had got on with the rest of the crew. He replied that half of them (there were eighteen) he had not even met during the passage.

The convention involving the Patito did not change. The operative day each week was Friday. We would gather at my house for a drink, and sometimes a look at the Weather Channel, though we could see the waters of Long Island Sound by looking out the window. The mate would have the boat ready, and soon after 6:30 P.M. we would set out for Long Island, usually Eatons Neck or Oyster Bay. In a hard southeaster we would sail east to Norwalk, or west to Greenwich. Depending on the wind, the sail would take an hour and a half or two hours. We had gotten used to a dry martini on arrival. Music was instantly at hand. "The Entertainment Committee never sleeps" was my mantra as I slid in a tape of Dick Wellstood or Claude Debussy. A half hour later the meal began to arrive, prepared at home but cooked by the mate. The mates changed every year, handily recruited mostly from nearby Yale—young men who lived in the area, knew how to sail, were anxious to do so, and welcomed the stipend. They were quickly integrated into a Friday routine that usually ended with a game of poker and a swim.

The Patito ventured out from the sound from time to time—to Bermuda (twice), to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, to Saint John River in New Brunswick and thereabouts—but the Friday-evening sail, twenty years of it, was simply an organic part of my home schedule, and of my life, and the binds to friends deepened.

What happened when Michael told me he couldn't persevere with his duties was that everything I had correlatively planned for the August sail changed. I could not ferry the boat east, where I had thought to pick it up and sail in Passamaquoddy Bay and over to Digby, in Nova Scotia, and back to Saint John and up the enchanted river.

The crew needed recomposition. As I assimilated these alterations in plan, minuscule under the aspect of the heavens, my mind turned to the composite administrative infrastructure of owning a boat. Such concerns not only seem exiguous; they are that, really, especially if you can get some help. For some, boating is incomplete without the foreplay of sanding and painting and lubricating and all that. The satisfaction gotten from doing such things yourself, if ever you had it, diminishes as you get older. And then up there, up over the clouds, toward which you are gradually climbing, is the mountaintop from which, looking down over it all, you see for the first time ever the whole scene. And you have risked asking yourself that mortal question: Is the ratio of pleasure to effort holding its own? Or is effort creeping up, pleasure down? I mentioned giving up the piano. That actually happened to me, after a dilettante's lifetime of playing, even with nine (spotty) performances on stage as a harpsichord soloist. The fingers get rusty, the dividends are more laboriously achieved, the memory is shakier. One can putter on—or quit.

Piano playing (at normal speed and for normal lengths of time) is not a physical exertion; and as the master and commander progressively offloads the physical work at sea, exertion is minimal except when visibility attenuates, and wind and seas assert themselves. Then there is concentrated work and thinking to be done, and a measure of anxiety. But these aren't physically taxing, unless I have missed something that Freud et al. passed along. I resist the word "tedium," because sailing can have so many rapturous moments, and there are accompanying pleasures. When you are in a harbor, there may be four congenial people around the table, eating and drinking and conversing, listening to music and smoking cigars, the wind and the hail and the temperature outside faced up to and faced down. Here, in your secure little anchorage, is a compound of life's social pleasures in the womb of nature. So, deciding that the time has come to sell the Patito and forfeit all that is not lightly done, and it brings to mind the step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.

William F. Buckley Jr., is the editor-at-large of National Review. His next book, Miles Gone By, is an autobiography.
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