The 1928 Alden Schooner Charm III was returning to the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta having skipped a year. She was leaving Anguilla for St. Maarten on Friday April 8th to provision and pick me up. Charm’s owner/skipper, Richard West, started the engine and then went ashore for a few minutes. He returned to a silent boat, the timing belt of the Perkins Prima 50 had snapped and driven pieces of the camshaft through the side of the engine.
With only seven days to the start of the first race in Antigua, providence stepped in and set us on course for an amazing week that damn near killed me.
A phone call to Ray Longbottom, St. Maarten’s long-term Perkins dealer, brought news of a rebuilt Perkins 4108 that would drop straight into the boat.
At dawn Saturday, Richard and long-suffering crewman Manfred Ebner sailed Charm III to St. Maarten and into the haulout slip at the Crown Boat Yard (ex Bobby’s boat yard) in Philipsburg, where Best Boat Yard Services, led by Erik Koning, hauled her and went to work.
The chase was on.
I arrived at the boatyard late Saturday to find the dead engine in the workshop and the rebuild, dazzling in an odd shade of blue, sitting on the ground next to the boat. Below decks, the engineers peered into the dark, oil-spattered hole where an engine should be.
When I returned to the yard on Sunday, Koning and his engineer Michael Cole had the engine in and connected. What the guys had achieved in the dark hours was very impressive, but still unconvinced I spent the day half-heartedly whipping the ends of new halyards and mooring lines with an overriding sense that the boat was going nowhere for a long, long time.
On Monday I wore my editor’s cap, stayed at my desk and heard nothing from the boatyard.
On Tuesday, at 11am, I received a call.
Richard: “Where are you?”
Me: “At home, working on the magazine.”
Richard: “We’re leaving.”
I almost upchucked my breakfast. Here was a man who refused to quit, and a team of marine engineers who had gone more than the extra mile.
I stuffed clothes, camera and laptop in my sea bag, called a friend and scrounged a lift to Philipsburg, then called my wife to say “I’m gone.”
As I suspected, Charm wasn’t ‘quite’ ready and we worked on into the night.
Come morning, with lines ready to slip and 48-hours to the start of the first race, I took a pee down the electric head, the one the owner had proudly installed to replace the ever leaking Baby Blake. “It’s wonderful,” he said showing me the button. The button I now pressed only to hear the pump clatter and clunk to a stop.
Telling the skipper that I had broken the head wasn’t the highlight of my day. Neither was ladling out the pee with half a plastic water bottle so he could fix it. In the mean-time the galley stove refused to work and an electric bilge pump gave up the ghost.
Spares for pumps and stove were impossible to come by, but, by George, headless or hungry, we were off to the races.
With no wind, three exhausted men motored one hundred miles to Antigua, dropping the hook in Falmouth Harbor at 5am prior to moving to our marina berth at first light. Never has a newly rebuilt engine received such a punishing workout!
Racing a 22-ton schooner is hard work when the combined age of the crew is 179 years. We needed more brawn. Builder Luke Thomas arrived from Florida, and yacht designer Butch Dalrymple-Smith from the South of France. Both were old hands aboard Charm III and had flown in specially to race. Neither knew how lucky they were not to be staring at an empty berth. Antigua Olympic sailor Rhone Kirby signed on, as did our own rock star Gerard Knight. After playing a set, Gerard asked the audience if anyone needed crew. Our skipper parted the crowd and signed him on the spot. We recruited Adrian Higgins, a pig farmer, builder and schooner man from Martha’s Vineyard; and Anthony Johnson, the mate of a super yacht who had a day off. Todd Patane, on vacation with his wife and baby, joined us (with their blessing) and we were kept in line by the skipper’s wife Maryse and his daughter Mirabelle. We had our crew and they were among the best I have ever sailed with.
Light winds on all four days of the regatta made for slow going among the heavies, but I didn’t care. We’d beaten the odds, made it to Antigua and were sailing amongst the most magnificent fleet of classic yachts in the world. We even finished second in our class and won a silver salver, which the skipper gave to Rhone, and a rather strange bowl (which put me in mind of the broken head).
When it was time to sail home to Anguilla the wind blew and the rain came down. No problem for hardy schooner men. Around midnight, with Antigua 40 miles astern, I checked the bilge to find water almost lapping the floorboards. Knowing that the pulley for the engine-driven bilge pump hadn’t been fitted in the rush to leave St. Maarten, and that the second electric bilge pump was in pieces, I thought it best to wake the skipper.
“I think I’ve found something else for you to fix,” I said.
And he did.