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The #1 Boat Maintenance Task

If you only maintain one thing on your boat—let it be your sense of humor. Let’s face it: life continuously offers us opportunities to either laugh or cry. Laughing is more fun. Yes, the key to successful cruising isn’t so much what happens but how you respond to it.  Is the approaching rain squall an ordeal or an adventure? It’s your choice.

“Of course, we’ve got a huge advantage over most cruisers,” I often say. “Because we’re broke, our $3,000 boat is mess, and we’re both complete idiots.”

It’s true. Our pathetic attempts to survive—even thrive within the global sea gypsy lifestyle—provide us with endless opportunities to laugh both AT ourselves and WITH our friends. Plus, we have to earn our living as we sail… which is even crazier!

When I first started writing, my wife Carolyn called my manuscripts ‘boomerangs’ because no matter where I’d send them in the world—they’d fly right back.

Yes, it was a tad ego-bruising. I mean, even the sloppiest Caribbean ‘fish-wrapper’ would not have me. I applied to one such local publication and the guy said, “…we don’t pay!” Since I needed to get a Topsider in the door, I said, “Luckily, I’m a rich, trust-funded brat… and I’ll write for free.” I did so for a couple of months. Finally, the guy came back and said, “You’re fired, Fatty. Your stuff isn’t worth what we’re paying it.”

I was flabbergasted. “…but you pay me NOTHING,” I reminded him.

“Exactly,” he replied. 

But I have never let abject, total, complete and/or utter failure stop me.

Finally, I applied to Jim Long at Caribbean Boating. I was hopeful because he’d hired Andy Turpin (now senior editor of Latitude 38 and dear friend) and thus I knew Jim Long lacked good judgment… hell, any judgment! 

Jim hired me but when I went to collect my pay check, he gave me an address in Red Hook instead. “I owe you money and this guy owes me money,” Jim said smoothly, “so all you have to do it collect it and keep it and everyone is happy-happy-happy!”

The guy in Red Hook owned a ‘going out of business’ fish wholesale operation and didn’t have any money… but did begrudgingly give me a couple of frozen fish heads instead.

At this point my wife Carolyn wasn’t used to being a writer’s wife, and thus asked in wonderment, “You get paid in dead fish?”

The next week was the same thing only different. Jim Long gave me the address of a ‘going out of business’ grocery store in Brenner Bay. They weren’t nearly as cooperative but I did manage to swipe a couple of jars of Planters as I ran out the door shouting, “…even-steven, okay?”

That evening my wife Carolyn, realizing I was now being paid literally in peanuts, said, “I’d prefer dead fish!”

Thus, I started working for Radio One, WVWI. Nicky Russell, Rick Ricardo and Tex Murphy told me the key to success was having pre-recorded ‘actualities’— not just yak-yaking into a microphone. This was around the time when the St. Thomas USCG safety office was just beginning to institute ‘random drug testing’ for all USCG captains.

Thus in the middle of my Saturday morning ‘Marine Report’ radio show, there came a loud pounding on the radio studio door and (at least this is how my pre-recorded spoof sounded to the Radio One listener) a group of shrill US Coast Guard drug testers burst in… violently thrusting a paper cup at me.

“But I’m ‘live’ on the radio,” I explained, “I can’t do a drug test right now!”

But they insisted, pointing out that ‘random, unannounced’ drug tests were just that.

So I… peed into a paper cup… ‘live’… while on-the-air.

I thought this was VERY funny. Many people did not. The phone lines lit up like a Christmas tree… oophs!

The following Monday morning, station owner Bob Noble called me into his Franklin building office to dismiss me for ‘intentional audio urination.’

I couldn’t believe it. “…nobody told me I couldn’t take a leak on the air… it ain’t fair!”

“…what do I have to do, Fatty,” he sputtered in anger, “give you a list: no peeing, no crapping, no farting… no vomiting?”

In the end, I managed to sweet-talk my way back into my ‘radio journalist’ job… Bob Noble really was a great guy who treated everyone with dignity and respect… while paying ‘em about ten cents an hour.

 Ah, yes! The immense joys of being a much-loved, seldom-paid Caribbean journalist!

It was incidents like the above which forced me back into the more serious ‘print’ journalism.

I remember the first time I sent off a sailing yarn to a national sailing magazine. “…do you realize trees have to die so you can write this dribble?” was the response.

I figured I was aiming too low and too narrow. So I sent off a story to one of the top literary magazines in New York—whose editor must have been in a particularly foul mood to scrawl, “In twenty-five years of editing, this is the worst manuscript I’ve received.”

Just to show him I wasn’t discouraged, I sent him another one. Just to show me he was of the same opinion, he replied, “…I stand corrected. Your previous was the second worst of my career.” 

“How’s the writing going,” Carolyn would ask me at the end of each literary day.

“Well,” I’d respond doggedly, “A lot of editors say I’m writing memorable stuff!”

Of course, it is wonderful to be married to an understanding woman like my wife. Our marriage vows should have included a warning about ‘…being forever the brunt of his jokes until death do you part!’

“We’ve ocean-sailed together now for over thirty-seven blissful years,” I often tell new acquaintances, “and if she is good for just another three… I’m gonna allow her ashore!”

Once she mentioned the word divorce and I responded angrily, “What?!? Wild Card needs to be hauled, could use a new mainsail, and to have her chain re-galvied… and you bring up something frivolous? I mean, don’t be so selfish, okay?”

I can’t believe she puts up with my shenanigans. “She’s only made two mistakes in her life,” I say, “‘I’ and ‘do’ were both of them!”

Or, “…how could someone that pretty be so dumb when it comes to men?”

Of course, she can dish it out too. “We’re poverty-stricken because they pay my husband what he’s worth,” I heard her tell a friend. On another occasion, “…my husband’s a realist with low self-esteem.” Or, “…what he lacks in intelligence he more than makes up for in stupidity!”

One morning I awoke and said to her brightly over the galley table, “I’m feeling optimistic today,” and a couple minutes later I heard her telling my mother-in-law, “…now he’s delusional!”

Yacht racing, of course, provides a fertile field for laughter. I’ve learned, for instance, never to say, “…what reaching mark?” while in the protest room. Ditto, “…but how could you know that… we hit the starting pin on the side away from the committee boat,” is another.
         
You have to be careful how you brag to a yacht racer. For example, BVI International judge Robin Tattersall wasn’t too impressed when I told him, “Why, I’ve never seen a sailboat I couldn’t make go slower!”

I mean, a line like that will have cruising sailors rolling in the lee scuppers—yet leaves yacht racers cold.

“I’ve been passed by jelly fish! Sandbars silt in faster! Why buy a knotmeter when calenders are free? Sure, I factor in continental drift… did I ever tell you about the time I cruised Alaska and was overtaken by a glacier?”

Navigation is another area filled with laughter-potential. I mean, the reason they called it ‘dead’ reckoning before GPS was because that’s how many navi-guessers ended up. My sailing father used to repeatedly quiz me as a young lad on the finer points of coastal piloting: “What’s the difference between deviation and variation?” he’d demand and I’d answer, “The latter is a small, easily-held magazine and the former is non-missionary fun?”

Yes, I remember when even Jimmy Cornell spelled noonsite differently. And when peering each evening through a telescope at celestial bodies didn’t mean you were named Tom… a simpler time when ‘shoot the moon’ meant something truly innocent.

Sailing around the world can be a tad ego-deflating. In fact, at first I was even confused by the basic terminology: I grimaced, grabbed my crotch, and twisted away in mock pain before a more knowledgeable, globe-trotting sailor set me right with, “…not circumcision!”

Nor was geography my strong point. Carolyn had to set me down in mid-Pacific for some serious global tutoring: “…let’s see if I can put this in terms a male sailor can easily understand… the South Pacific, think laughing women with flowers in their hair and easily removed pareos,” she instructed me. “Let’s see… heading west… I feel sheepish even mentioning New Zealand but that probably explains why the ‘roos are so quick in Oz, eh? Bali High says it all, doesn’t it? Thailand, massage parlors. Burma, foot-fetish… you’ll love the curly-toed shoes, Fatty! India, Kama Sutra. Africa and the dark continent…”

Even the most basic of marine maintenance tasks can sparkle with the right perspective. Recently a wooden boat owner was complaining about keeping up his extensive bright work, and I told him, “…the only thing varnished on Wild Card is our toilet seat… and I polish it twice a day!”

He seemed a tad confused. “…with what,” he asked.

“Soft pads,” I replied.

 Yes, sailing— especially racing— with some of those ‘traditionalists’ is a bit strange. Once, during the old St. Barts Regatta, we raced on a giant sexually-confused brig. Carolyn was helping to man the foredeck, and its sailing master was intent on catching the large gaffer just ahead. He wanted every possible scrap of sail up. After Carolyn had all the flying jibs aflutter and even the topsails topping… and he still wasn’t satisfied. “Spanker!” he cried.

“Over my dead body,” she spit back.

Ah, the perils of nautical lingo! It is important these days to be PC. Example: genderless terms like “rail beef” are still okay but bilge bunny, dock box and sail bag are increasingly frowned upon.

I personally feel that this trend can be carried too far: I don’t want to end up steering my vessel from a “male-member-pit.” These linguistic subtleties are especially important to a writer: sure, it is easy to say people hanging around waterfront bars love seamen… if you spell it correctly!

A lot of cruisers have kids… it’s a short jump from rug rat to bilge rat. I grew up on a boat and enjoyed every second of it… well, until I was teenager and started working on George’s Bank aboard the old (1926) riveted iron offshore lobster vessel Winthrop. The only reason I signed up was because its skipper, Cap’n Georgie Morten, had been a master mariner aboard square-riggers in his youth. Anyway, my job was to pitch-fork fish heads into the large wire-mesh pots—to manually bait the lobster traps— as they were being swung overboard. It wasn’t easy work but I did my best. One day Cap’n Georgie came down from the pilot house to joke with me. “You’re getting pretty good at…”

I tossed the pitchfork onto the deck, raised both my fists and hissed, “Don’t say it!”

Yeah, teenage boys are sensitive about that.

 

Generally speaking, sailors are easy-going. But there are limits even among seafarers. For example, soon after Carlotta was christened, I had family members aboard for a sail. We had a great day tacking around Boston harbor— it had been years since I’d sailed with my sisters Carole and Gale. Since my ten foot Lawley tender wasn’t very beamy, I’d had to ferry family members out two at time. By the return trip ashore it was afternoon and even rougher. Plus, we’d all had a few drinks. Thus I was happy to have just purchased a new two horse outboard for my dinghy. My friend on the boat next to me wasn’t so well equipped: he rowed his small pram with a single paddle… but wasn’t making much headway as I putt-putted passed with Carole and Gale.

I slowed when he waved his paddle. “…can I borrow your ‘oars,” he asked.

I’d patiently waited for just his set of circumstances for almost a decade.

“No,” I shouted back, “and they’re my sisters”!

Alas, it is traditional-yet-contemporarily-bent jokes like the above which make my wife’s life so crazy. Recently she was signing our 38 foot sloop Wild Card up for a little ‘fun’ regatta in Vava’u (Tonga) and was asked by one the form-shuffling race officials, “…what’s your handicap?’. Carolyn replied without missing a beat, “I’m married to Fatty Goodlander.” The race official must read this publication because he blanched, reached out compassionately, and said with almost a sob, “….you poor dear!”

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