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The Ghosts of September

 

It is early in the morning here in Langkawi, Malaysia. It is still dark. We’re about half way through our second circumnavigation. I’m holding our ship’s bell in my hand—and reading off the names engraved on it: Bill Rich, Thatcher Lord, Ken Betts, Cid Hamling, Mary Pat Sica. Bill Henderson. Mike Sheen. Steve and Irene Macek. Jack Simmons. Fritz Seyfarth … just a few of the wonderful people who helped us in our hour of need.

The date today is September 18, 2009. I’m also watching our ship’s clock. It is 6:21 A.M. Only two minutes to go. I sigh. I shake my head to clear it. My eyes start to mist. It all seems like only yesterday. I glance up—and count down the seconds to 6:23. “…five, four, three, two, one… NOW!” I say aloud to my silent vessel.

Exactly 20 years ago, at the height of Hurricane Hugo, I lost my previous boat Carlotta. A 68 foot schooner named Fly Away lived up to her name and started doing just that in 150+ knots of wind. We were in Culebra. She dragged her anchor. We collided. Our rigging tangled. She became sideways to the wind against my bowsprit. My four anchor rodes started popping like over-wound banjo strings. We were driven ashore. On rocks. Holed. Game-over!

Carlotta wasn’t just a boat or just our home—she was the physical manifestation of our watery lifestyle. (See related story in this issue.) A sailor can’t be a sailor without a boat. I’d built her in Boston from a few sheets of paper over the course of six long years. One pre-Hugo minute I was an intrepid captain and a daring sea-rover—the next instant I was a victim.

I hate being a victim.

It was as if somebody had removed the color from the sky. I and my family were still alive—but in a new, frighteningly-limited world. We were ashore. We were jetsam. We couch-surfed for a while, thanks to the compassion of wonderful friends—but living off the compassion of others is wearying.

I felt like I was shrinking. Hurricane Hugo lessened me. It temporarily crippled me. I felt less confident. I couldn’t quite concentrate. My existence went from stereo to mono. I suddenly found myself speaking too loudly. My jokes began to fall flat. For the very first time in my life, I thought, “I’m unlucky.” I was more than just homeless and broke—I was stunned. I felt punch-drunk. I began to doubt everything—including myself.

Natural disasters like Hurricane Hugo do these bad things to good people. They slap them in the face. They play “52 Pick-Up” with their entire lives. They not only knock them down—they repeatedly kick them while they’re still in the fetal position.

It isn’t pretty—especially when it is happening to you. It overwhelms you. You want to cry so much—that you break down and actually do cry. And then you feel both better and ashamed at the same time.

However, every dark cloud has a silver lining. I’d been coasting through life: as a sailor, as a husband, as a father—and even as a writer. Hugo shook me. It made me reexamine my priorities: did I want to be a boat bum or a circumnavigator? Did I want to be husband or just have a wife? Did I want to be father or just have a cute kid around? Did I want to just dabble in writing—or dedicate my entire professional life to The Art of the Sentence?

Heavy stuff, eh?

One month after our vessel was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, my wife Carolyn came to me. She had red eyes. “I don’t mind losing our home, Fatty. I don’t mind losing every single material thing we’ve ever worked for. I don’t even mind not having any clothes or shoes—or any of that crap! But we’re losing control of our lives, Fatty. And that scares me. It really scares me…”

There is a solution to most problems in life: hard work. It sounds simplistic and when we’re young we don’t want to hear it—but it is the truth. Yes, much of what happens to us is random. Chance plays a capricious role. But it is also true that character is destiny. We can’t control what happens to us but we can control how we respond to it. And, generally, the harder we work, the luckier we get.

One day I woke up and decided to stop being a victim. I sprang into action. I decided that even doing the wrong thing was preferable to doing nothing at all. It immediately felt like a million pounds had been lifted from my shoulders. I stopped thinking about all that I had lost and started thinking about how rich I was. Most important of all, I got my butt in gear. I cast off my storm-induced inertia—and started, once again, to create my own destiny.

I walked the beaches of St. John in search of a free boat. I wasn’t looking for a good boat or my dream yacht—just a reasonable vessel that I could “win” without too much money upfront. I found Wild Card (a 1978 Hughes 38), holed and driven ashore on the rocks in Leinster Bay. I paid $3,000 for her salvage rights—and had to accept full responsibility to remove her from National Park waters without damaging the environment—or pay to have the NPS do so.

It was a big risk for, potentially, a big reward.

I pulled it off. I managed to get her to the Independent Boat Yard on St. Thomas—where Pieter Stoken hauled her immediately—knowing full well I had empty pockets and a mammoth rebuilding project ahead of me.

Fixing the big hole in her portside was the easy part. I managed to complete that itchy job within the first month. But her bulkheads were no longer attached, her mast step had been pulverized and her engine was a rusted hulk. It took many years to turn her into a strong, storm-ready, ocean-sailing yacht.

Every penny went into the boat. Every spare second was spent either working on her or earning the money to do so. Up until 1995, I sailed her without an engine. Then we purchased a brand new Perkins M30 from Tom Gerker of Parts and Power in Tortola. This was a big step. I had a goal now—but I was too shy to admit it. In 1998 Carolyn came zooming back to the boat in our dingy—and was amazed to see an expensive Monitor self-steering gear on its transom. “…looks like we’re going somewhere,” she said dryly.

What an understatement. Since that moment, we have sailed Wild Card over 50,000 ocean miles. We’ve circumnavigated. We’ve rounded the Cape of Storms, tasted the Roaring Forties, been repeatedly entertained by the Indian Ocean. The entire world is, literally, our oyster. And we’ve had the highest possible quality of life I can imagine—all aboard our modest little $3,000 craft.

There are two pivotal moments in my life—one of them is the launching of Carlotta. It was a wonderful day. I was bursting with happiness, with pride, with confidence. At 19 years of age I’d set out to build an ocean-going boat—and I and my wonderful wife had done so. I wasn’t a dreamer—I was a doer.

The other pivotal moment was a dozen years later—when I lost her.

I thought, at the time, it was horrible-rotten-bad luck. But was it? In hindsight, I don’t think so. I now believe that losing my previous vessel—as dear and precious as she was to me—was really the first agonizing step in growing up. I was man-child before Hugo, and man-man after. It forced me to think. Certain sects in Tibet pray for major problems so they can learn from them. Hurricane Hugo was my watery Zen Master. Without Hugo’s savage push, I might never have accomplished my life-long dream of sailing around the world. I had to bottom-out in order to realize my wealth wasn’t my boat—my wealth was my health and my wife and my child and my own heart.

I’m lucky. I have a life partner. This is no small thing. Whenever I falter, she is there. She is my rock. Not only couldn’t I have built Carlotta without my wife’s help—I couldn’t have survived Carlotta’s demise without her. Nor could I have circumnavigated.

But life is strange. We humans don’t know what is happening to us while it is happening. We’re ignorant. We really don’t know what is good luck or bad luck. We think we do, but we’re often wrong. We win the lottery and think, “…good luck!” as the money destroys our marriage, takes away our health and lands us in bankruptcy court. Or our home is destroyed in a tornado and we think, “…bad luck!” Maybe not.

Sometimes you have to lose ‘everything’ to realize that everything isn’t terribly important. Material things mean little. Things are just stuff. We get tricked by consumerism into thinking ‘stuff’ is important—but it is not. Stuff is crap. Stuff is just brightly-colored baubles. Nor is money important. Money merely buys convenience—which isn’t terribly valuable anyway. What is important is the stainless steel within our souls. Ours were tempered in Hugo. We are, strangely and ultimately, grateful.

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. Currently, he says, “We’re working on the boat to get her ready to duel with the Somali pirates. (I have a new slingshot and have been practicing!)” Fatty 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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