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Fatty and his bilge rat in the early 80s, cruising the Bahamas
Fatty and his bilge rat in the early 80s, cruising the Bahamas

Bilge Rats and the Joys of Bad Parenting

Being a writer has some downsides—especially when you’re a ‘pure’ journalist such as me. Pure? Yeah. I journal, I don’t hunt for stories; stories hunt for me. Every month, I just write anything I can remember (less and less, lately), and send an invoice with it. But this method of journalism has its drawbacks. For instance, almost anything I remember reflects badly on me. So, if I want to eat, I have to have a thick skin and large ego. I’m cool with that. But many publications prefer ‘schmaltzy’ stories which are warm and fuzzy. So I’ve had to write a lot of those as well. Along the way, I became an inadvertent expert on dis and dat.

Take parenting as example. Due to a birth control malfunction, I had a daughter. (Don’t worry: I can write stuff like that because we never taught her to read … clever, eh?)

The first thing I did was buy a 250-foot dinghy painter. I could barely hear that baby wailing astern!

The real beauty of raising a child aboard is that Social Services don’t have canoes, don’t row, and can’t swim. Thus, sea-going parents like me are relatively safe. Besides, most of the employees at Child Protection in the USVI are of African descent, and I’d scream racism by alleging stuff like, “This is a cultural issue! All pale-epidermis parents of Euro-descent feed their babies boot-top barnacles!”

Actually, our daughter’s diet varied: mahogany birds, for example. Chameleons. Bilge scrapings. Occasionally she’d complain of hunger. “Eat a few handfuls of sand,” I’d suggest sympathetically, “that’ll make you gain weight fast!”

I’ll never forget the first time she used the facilities ashore, came out, and said loudly, “They use paper, not discarded dock lines!”

Why is it that certain landlubbers—when they hear a sailor say something undeniably true—claim he’s callous?

Yes, we neglected her reading skills and she was deemed illiterate at one point, but we then had more time to double-up on her verbal skills. For instance, as we traveled internationally, she could spot the garbage pile nearest the dinghy dock and say, “Snack bar,” in the appropriate language. How cool is that!

On a boat, of course, everything has to do double-duty. Plus, our shipboard energy is limited. And we all know that there are times when babies cry, cry, and cry some more. There’s also no question that varnish doesn’t hold up in the tropical sun. So why not dip the child’s legs and arms in epoxy, momentarily place her on sand, and then transfer to any hot area of your vessel which needs sanding.

No, we could never train her to do in-line but she was fine with orbital.

… plus, they sleep well afterwards!

In the Caribbean, bareboats anchoring too close can be a problem. But a pinch or two on our daughter’s bottom … well, they’d be moving to the other side of the harbor!

On passage, to teach her to swim and save on diapers, we often towed the little tyke behind us. This had the added bonus of re-enforcing her survival skills. “What do I do,” she’d scream when a shark began to approach. “Kick, kick!” I’d scream back while stirring my piña colada.

Once, seeing the other boat kids playing, she demanded her own PFD. “What do I look like,” I roared. “Midas?”

I could foresee global warming even back then. Thus, I knew it was important to teach my offspring how to avoid such a fate. So I initially focused on ‘waste not, want not’. The kid rapidly began to enjoy ingesting various shells and skin as her mother and I dined on lobster, shrimp, and conch—all high-quality ‘roughage’ to the max.

She looked so cute as she trooped off to Kindergarten in Bequia—in that lovely ‘storm jib’ dress we recut for her. (“Those outfits on the other kids could never stand up to a gale,” my wife sniffed with pride.)

Ah, the innocence of youth. She was dating as a teenager before she realized that head deodorizer and antiperspirant weren’t the same. Ditto—using the kero-lamp-black for eye shadow, which worked fine for ‘dress up’ but less well at Brandeis University?

There’s nothing worse than a child who clings, in my opinion. Our daughter didn’t. She’d yell at passing Chinese fishing vessels, Thai Pair Trawlers, and Malaysian Squiders, “Take me! Take me, please!”

Once, cruising the Torres Straits, we came across a 34-foot boat with 294 people attempting to sneak into Aussieville—and our daughter shouted out, “Room for one more?”

Another time, while watching a pod of whales cross our bow, she muttered, “If it was good enough for Jonah then why not for me?”

At various times, without my wife’s permission, I attempted to … well, shrink our crew list, so to speak. While clearing in, I always checked the ‘stow-away’ box, and claimed one.

“Stow-away can’t have same-same last name,” said a hawk-eyed immigration official in Phuket, Thailand. “Even if you do normally refer to her as a bilge rat!”

Damn! Thwarted again!

Of course, every kid develops some goofy ideas. Whenever people would ask our daughter what she wanted to do with her life, she’d say, with great vehemence, “Marry a land-lubbing farmer who lives in a land-locked state!”

If they asked about potential professions, she’d snap, “Coalminer!”

When asked if she planned to buy her own boat to live aboard, she’d say, “I’d rather be on the wrong end of a suicide hotline!”

Once, during an art class at university, she blurted, “I like paintings—well, except seascapes!

Kids are gullible. All kids. Well, especially ours. She actually believed that washing in fresh water would make her skin fall off. That TV was another anagram for TB. That fish scales were the best part. That catfish skins were a delicacy. That five cents (a month) was the average U.S. allowance. That combs were evil and soap caused rashes. Even that teenage boys adored pimples!

Sometimes, perhaps, my joking went too far—like teaching her to fold down four fingers each time she saw a cop. Or asking every teacher why, if they were so smart, they always hung out with snotty-nosed kids. Or asking any man with a tie why he wanted to be jerked around.

Each time she’d get expelled, I’d waltz into school with dilated pupils, torn jeans, filthy hair, and a forehead full of four-letter-word tattoos, and scream, “Where does she get it from?”

There was some confusion about drugs. Her friends at university had a hard time convincing her some herbs weren’t illegal. Ditto, when she saw her first advertisement for Coke. For years she called the doctor who wrote her ‘scripts for sea-sick medicine her ‘pusher mon!’

Many modern kids are fat and muscle-less. Not our daughter.

Often I got eye-strain watching her work on the boat with her mother, which is, perhaps, why she had such a hard time understanding Cinderella.

“What was Cindy always bitching ‘bout?” she’d ask. “Her life ashore seemed pretty nice to me!”

Yes, our daughter had some odd perspectives on life. Once, she was filling out one of those girlie quizzes in Cosmo magazine, and under ‘turn-ons’ she listed men who can’t ‘swim, row, or sail’.

Of course, occasionally a sailing suitor would attempt to break through her defenses. But she’d often catch them by yelling, “… starboard!” or “… coming up!” or “… buoy room!” to see if they’d flinch.

She was thrilled when my autobiography Chasing the Horizon was published. She snuck a copy ashore, brought it to a judge in the VI, and said, “Your Honor, open it at any page and read a couple of sentences. Should a man like this have custody of a child? A dog? Even a tropical fish?”

Alas, the judge was an avid yacht racer who owned a J29 named OVERRULED—and it was ‘back to the brig’ for our daughter.

Once she turned 18, of course, she fled to Boston and started a ‘Victory Garden.’ She hung around dirt-dwellers and rock huggers exclusively. Once, a college boy almost drowned in his dormitory bathtub and she said, upon rescue, “Wanna go out sometime?”

During her wedding ceremony, she held up a Danforth anchor and shrilly demanded of her husband-to-be, “Are you sure you don’t know what this is?”

She was in Boston when we returned to US soil after our first circumnavigation—and immediately fled to Holland. As we approached the western Med during our second circumnavigation, she and her family next fled to Singapore.

“Oh, too bad,” she said happily, “it’s behind you and to windward, eh?”

Oh, she’s geo-smart, alright.

Now we’re approaching Southeast Asia on our third circ and she’s already saying stuff like, “Gee, your three-year old granddaughter seems fairly well-adjusted. Are you sure you want to spoil it?”

The funniest part—and the reason I was recently prompted to write this article—was because I was just commissioned to write the Forward for a ‘how-to-raise-a-brat-aboard’ book. I kid you not. Sure, I made ‘em pay through the nose. And told them, “And I’ll need a comp copy, which I’ll sign and send to my daughter.”

Ain’t the cruising life grand?

 

Bio note: Actually, Fatty and Carolyn just had their daughter and granddaughter aboard for two weeks in Bali—so both could appreciate how lucky they are. 

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and is currently on his third circumnavigation. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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