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Charles Thomas – Retired Caribbean Charterer

Copyright 2009 by Cap’n Fatty Goodlander

The key to writing a Caribbean marine column for 30 years is—don’t panic! The story will come. I believe in fate. My job is not to seek but to recognize. And to relax while doing so. The less static in my brain, the more receptive my antennae. That’s my core journalistic belief—that the weird & wonderful stories I bring to these pages will find me if I but listen.

Recently, while on deadline to All at Sea, I was invited to a wedding party at the Rebak marina on the island of Langkawi, just off Malaysia’s west coast. I knew nothing about the happy couple—only that free food and drink would be available.

Or, to put it another way, I knew enough. Let’s be honest: at my pay scale, I’d go to the opening of an envelope if it offered free crackers and ice cubes. So I wasn’t paying much attention to the giggling newlyweds as they came swooping in on a golf cart trailing tin cans, cut the large, lavish cake and danced romantically—I was too busy scoping out the delicious trays of chicken wings, platters of shrimps and mountains of fried fish… Mmmm, where to start?

…when suddenly, the 77 year-old groom detached himself from his blushing bride, strolled across the floor and said to me, “Fatty?”

I knew I knew him—but in what context? That’s a problem for a travel-addled circumnavigator such as myself. My memories are scattered to the four corners of the world. But I immediately recognized him as a boater… then a charterer… then the BVIs popped into my mind… and the image of a lovely Mason 63 named Zinga which had chartered in the Caribbean for over a decade.

“…Charlie?” I asked. Charles Thomas is a sailor’s sailor and a man with a unique overview of American boat building—and the entire recreational marine industry as well.

“I was in Korea and it was freezing,” Charlie told me. “I’d go into this warming hut every other hour to thaw out from guard duty. In there was a copy of Yachting magazine. There was a picture in it of a smiling guy on a boat in Tortola—and I decided to be that guy.”

Funny how life is, eh? Charlie had no history with boats—but that image changed him forever. Once out of the service, he decided that boats and boating would be the centerpiece of his life. He set about it, like everything he does, in a methodical, business-like way. He wrangled an invitation to crew from famed west coast Dragon sailor Willis Boyd.
“Do you know how to set a spinnaker?” Willis had asked him and Charlie had said, “Sure,” and then spent the remainder of the week being privately tutored by a local sailing instructor.

Saturday morning came and Willis told Charlie everything was all set but Charlie held his hand up before they left the dock and said, “Willis, I pack my own chute, okay?”

They became fast friends and won many races. This allowed Charlie to meet all the local sailors—and scope out the exploding California boatbuilding scene at the same time. Soon he was working as the marketing director of Jensen marine—then skippering the company.

“All in all, I worked 17 years for Jensen,” Charlie says. “We made Cals and Rangers… and eventually took on the O’day, Luhrs, and DeFever lines as well. At one point, we had 800 people working for us. It was a great time to be a boat builder in the 1960s and 70s, especially in the Costa Mesa area of California. Jack Jensen and I’d go to a bar after work and have a drink with Bill Lapworth, Gary Mull and Bruce King, etc. There would be the building crews from Westsail, PAE, Columbia, Downeast, Ericson, Norhaven, Hobie and Islander… all sitting down and having a brewski together after work. Innovation was in the air.

“We at Jensen were the first to develop the floor pan or grid concept—which was dropped into the bare hull with bulkheads, fixtures, plumbing, wiring, etc., attached. This saved both time and money and, if done right, made the vessel stronger as well. We were all building on our mutual successes, turning out a stronger, cheaper product. And we all wanted to win—to sell the most boats. I had my own Cal 46 at the time, and I’d modify it almost weekly. The best part, the most rewarding part, was coming out with a new model. There are many variables. It is risky. I’d sit down with our marketing team, our designers, our floor foremen and our accountants—and try to figure out the best value for our customers. We had a number of dramatic successes—and, of course, some failures too.”

Eventually Charlie shifted from racing to cruising—and decided he, too, wanted to sail the world. When Jensen marine eventually sold to a large conglomerate, he was happy to jump ship for a year dozing in the Caribbean (aboard his Cal 46) and five years of headquartering out of the Isle of Venice area in Fort Lauderdale.

“I really enjoyed cruising the Bahamas and the Florida keys,” Charlie says, “but investment bankers kept calling me up and asking me to help them turn around badly managed marine companies. I found this quite challenging. Many of the people involved were wonderful hardworking folks who made a great product—and were just horrible businessmen. I’d step in and help them for a year—to demonstrate sound business practice. Then we’d gradually give control back and allow them to do their own thing. I’m still friends with a lot of ‘em after all these years. But it was hard, stressful work walking up to a hard-driving CEO and telling him was a nice guy… who was doing it all wrong.”

By the late 1980s, Charlie wasn’t interested in boat building nor corporate interventions—he wanted more time at sea. So he purchased a Mason 63, named her Zinga (after the fictional warrior monks), and began skippering her in the USVI/BVI charter trade.

“I had a great 11 years,” Charlie says. “Most seasons I did around 20 weeks of charters. I enjoyed my guests and loved the whole scene. I got along great with Lynn Jachney and Ed Hamilton, two of my favorite charter brokers. When I had a rare week off, I’d sail into Coral Bay and hang out at Skinny’s with Thatcher Lord and the other local St. John sailors. Or I’d sail up to Marina Cay to hang out with Fritz Seyfarth, the writer. Jeannie Drinkwine and Reg Buxton at the Virgin Islands Charteryacht League were good friends on St. Thomas, but I booked with Francis David at Caribbean Connections in Tortola.

“In the off-season I’d blow over to Sint Maarten and visit with Robbie Ferron of Budget Marine or just hang out in St. Barts at Le Select. It was a magic time and a magic place. I really enjoyed it—despite making very little money for my time and investment.”

Eventually Charlie realized he was tired of raising the mainsail. “I didn’t tire of the sailing,” he muses, “just that first mainsail hoist on a new charter. It started to get old. After a decade, the work seemed to be increasing faster than the fun. So I quit. And look back on it all with happiness.”

But Charlie wasn’t done with boats or adventuring yet. In Thailand, he met his current wife Tam and decided to switch to a trawler as well—which he’d done a lot of thinking about while building the DeFever line. He started off with a Grand Banks 50 and soon traded up to a Cheoy Lee 66 motor yacht named Bravado.

Alas, on every parade some rain must fall. He and Tam blew a main engine in Indonesia and were ‘trapped’ there in Jakarta for many months. “It was horrible,” he says. “It is the most corrupt place on this earth. Pay-offs are a way of life. Nothing gets done without them. Alas, no matter how much you pay—it isn’t enough. And more and more ‘officials’ show up to demand an ever larger share. It was just utterly awful. It pains me to think about it. At one point I almost grabbed a golf club and started swinging it. I really did. I was that close to losing it. I had to pay $400 each for our kidnapped passports—and the American embassy wasn’t even interested. In all my travels it is the only place I hate. And someday, well, I hope to even up the score a tad. I’m not sure how… but, hey, I’m ever hopeful!”

Despite his 77 years of age, Charles Thomas still bristles with raw energy and good humor. He has numerous friends scattered through Southeast Asia AND the rest of the world. Best of all, he’s in great health. (He’s also still intrigued with martial arts—a hobby he took up in his 50s—but no longer competes in tournaments against men half his age.)

“I haven’t made a ton of money but I’ve had a lot of fun,” he says. “Boaters are interesting people—always have been and always will be. Tam and I entertain a lot. We enjoy it. She’s a great cook and loves to play hostess. We plan on heading back to Thailand and working on her house soon—then, who knows? Maybe in my eighties I will begin to slow down. Or not. Right now I’m having fun. With Tam and with Bravado. Last night we strolled down the dock and joined your little sing-along—didn’t we, Fatty? Life is good. Tomorrow’s a new day.”

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of “Chasing the Horizon” by American Paradise Publishing, “Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies” and “The Collected Fat.”  For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com.

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