Aweigh

A master and commander decides, after a lifetime on the water, that he will no longer go down to the sea

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.

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