Aweigh

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

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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