We had swashbuckling characters back then—real people from life’s cubby holes who formed the newly-created crewed charter boat business.
The time was shortly after the last great ‘labeled’ war. Us new golliwogs began buoying up a livelihood by floating people around on little yachts that had been designed for New England yacht club socials.
Old blue haired ladies in North America scalped a commission from our charter money to send affluent sailing folks to the Caribbean when the snow began to fly. We complained, but back then those ‘Ladies’ were our food supply. Our off-time pleasure was to meet at the local dockside bars, exchange sailing adventures…and maybe be entertained by one of the Caribbean characters that drifted between watering holes.
In those days, character handles were assigned by our peers, be they friend or foe. Champagne Nick, Dave Dingaling, or Bar Breath Sowden, they were Caribbean tags worn with humiliation, disgust or distinction. “Pudley Dope” was a proper English gentleman who sailed aboard his private yacht with his beautiful wife and young daughter.
My first encounter with Pudley was during my charter for a group of self-proclaimed treasure hunters from Minnesota who had come up with the location of an undiscovered wreck on a reef off an island near Antigua.
I was surprised when they actually located a shipwreck on a reef where I had been spear fishing for the past three years.
Sure enough, lying cemented under dead, broken coral was a pile of debris. It looked more like a Carib Indian midden pile than a shipwreck. We stumbled ahead, extracting brass and copper jetsam along with a ship’s bell and three small swivel guns, with the hope of discovering the name and origin of the discovery (long before anyone ever had a thought that maybe global ecology should be practiced before we depleted our planet of fish and historical shipwrecks.)
When we returned to harbor, Pudley was anchored in the bay. Recalling his happy hour stories, I reckoned he would be the man to have a look at our salvage. He was delighted to come across with hammer and chisel in hand and we all watched in anticipation as he expertly removed encrusted coral from the small cannons. He took paper etchings of the markings and noted the name on the bell, and left to confer with his research notes compiled over the years.
Pudley returned the next morning at sunrise, his English ‘spot of tea’ in hand, excited about his findings. Seems our shipwreck was English. The swivel guns, however, were Spanish. Not unusual, we were told. What did seem unusual was Pudley’s fact that our shipwreck was not where we found it. It was lost on a reef off the island of Bermuda some 800 miles to the north!
"Not unusual either," was Pudley’s answer. "Ship Captains were not noted for their clerical expertise. At the time of your shipwreck, the island had a different name that could be confused with Bermuda. The bean counters just assumed the captain made a spelling error and logged the lost vessel as being another of the many on the reefs off Bermuda."
"But how do you know this as a fact?" was my question. Pudley’s eyes were blazing with excitement. It was like he had just unlocked the secret of the Holy Grail. He savored his words so that we waited in anticipation for his response.
"Quite elementary, my dear fellows," he responded with the swashbuckling air of a pirate standing over a buried treasure in the sand. "Look for yourselves." He fluttered a musty sheet of xerox paper in front of us, pointing to the center of the page with one excited finger, "See there." We couldn’t see.
He explained again. "Old sea captains never won spelling bees, but they were superb navigators. Copy scribes of the day had command of the written language, but knew little about the sea. They assumed the name of the island, then copied the captain’s latitude and longitude. In this case, it was 800 miles south of Bermuda; exactly the spot you, my fine gentlemen of the coast, found your shipwreck!"
"TREASURE!" someone shouted.
Pudley’s eyes widened. He let his rendition of Sherlock Holmes slide to that of a not-yet-conceived Captain Jack Sparrow . . ."Treasure, ye say, lads," cocking his head and trying to divert his left eye to look in a different direction. "Treasure, ye say? …Why you’ve picked the wrong vessel. The bell you salvaged is inscribed. The name of your wreck was the HMS Griffin, ship of the line departing Antigua at the time they were constructing forts above English Harbour. Its homeward cargo was sugar for the colonies. After departing Antigua the Griffin was never heard of again…until now. The only treasure, me old cocks, is the adventure you will remember."
Our shipwreck expert was in real fact a renowned historian and novel writer, though no one had ever read a book written by “Pudley Dope.”
Born Dudley Bernard Egerton Pope, he inherited his Caribbean pseudonym one evening at Fearless Freddie’s bar when Captain John "Bar Breath" Sowden’s Tortola wife Gloria couldn’t pronounce a name like Dudley Pope. Between two Cuba-libres, everyone toasted Pudley into Caribbean immortality.
We discovered that Dudley was a midshipman wounded in the last Great War. He became the protégé of C. S. Forrester, famous for his Hornblower maritime fiction series and “The African Queen,” which became a classic movie. Dudley’s historical fictions, the Lieutenant Ramage series, are still selected reading to 17th century buffs.
The polished gentleman sailor from England would write a number of great nautical adventure novels while cruising with his family aboard their 54ft ketch, Ramage. Their home was where the anchor dropped.
One afternoon we had dropped off a charter in Antigua. We anchored in
Falmouth Harbor and hailed Ramage. Dudley and his wife (and life-long editor) Kay rowed across for charter leftovers. Victoria swam over and in a minute was skimming across the bay on our windsurfer. Dudley rambled on about the novel writing business, Kay related their shell collecting adventures, and we all kept an eye on the windsurfer chasing the sunset.
At the end of that evening, as Dudley pulled his dingy alongside, he had a plastic bag in his hand. "This is the newest one,” he said, "fresh off the press." It was a copy of his latest book, “The Ramage Touch.” I was delighted! He knew I collected his Lieutenant Ramage series.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later, while sailing our schooner Antares to Bermuda, that I had a chance to begin the read. It was my wife that noticed first. I had missed the dedication page. She held it out in front of me: To Dave and Roz.
We had swashbuckling characters back then. The Pope family were the treasure keepers.
David R. Ferneding is a retired charter boat captain who spends summers in Penobscot Bay, Maine and winters aboard his Alberg35, CIELO, with First Mate, Martha in the San Blas Islands, Panama. He has written three fiction novels and collections of short stories available on Amazon.com and is presently working on his fourth book, “Plundering the Caribbean with a smile.”