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The Last Desperate Voyage of the F/V Winthrop

Fatty’s ill-fated voyage in the Canadian winter

The year was 1972, it was winter, and I was glumly sitting on a bollard of the Boston fish pier with Mister Toad, when a strange creature appeared before us. It appeared to be an ancient, snaggle-toothed sea captain, stoned out of his obviously-feeble mind, and intent on luring young boys to their deaths off George’s Bank in the dead of winter. “…can you fish?” he croaked the question. “Are each of your finger’s marlinspikes, Laddies?” Mister Toad, a sailing friend of mine so named because he smashed up motor cars with great regularity, was the first to respond. “Duh,” he said, and stared down the front of his winter coat dully, as if checking for fresh drool. “Fish? Far out! …fish as in, like, go-to-sea-and-fish?”

“Oh my, aren’t you the bright one,” the fisherman gushed, and ignored me even further as he zeroed in on Toad. “Can you steer a course, cast the lead, and stand a watch?”

“No, no, and no,” said Toad with great sincerity and just a hint of belligerence.

“Okay!” said the salt, and then followed up with, “…can ye swim?”

“Yeah,” said the Toad.

“You’re hired!” screamed the skipper while lolling his tongue, “a good man is hard to find! Be back here at dawn. Bring a friend if you have one. Bring your sea boots, too, and your Last Will and Testament. You’ll need both. Oh, yeah. Do you have a Bible? Excellent! Tomorrow, then! Aboard the 108-foot, 1924-built, riveted, cast-iron, rust-streaked fishing vessel Winthrop. Berth #7. At dawn mateys!”

I know, I know… it was utterly stupid. But, at dawn on the following day, Toad, I, and a mutual loser named Bilbo stood before the rusty, silent Winthrop.

It was bitter cold. Storm clouds were gathering. The temperature was falling as fast as the barometer was dropping. The sea gulls was huddling on the water — sure sign of an impending blow.

To report that the Winthrop looked unseaworthy would be to make a vast understatement. There were drums and cables and poly docklines and fishboxes and cases of empty beer bottles clogging the lee scuppers — as if she, and she alone, had just experienced an earthquake. Many of her portlights were cracked. The radar dome tilted at a crazy angle. The green starboard running light dangled from a bare wire. The faded red life ring was cracked in half, and its hemp line laced with rot. The fiberglass VHF antenna was snapped in two, with the upper half lazily swinging in the frigid breeze. Her topsides were so rust-streaked that we had to be told her hull was green — or had been many years ago.

…yet she wasn’t ugly. She was, in her own way, beautiful — like a faded black-and-white photograph of a nautical tragedy waiting to happen. She was the type of vessel any sailor-worth-his-salt would be proud to drown aboard.

The pilothouse door was slightly ajar. I knew the skipper would not want us to expire before we got to sea. Thus I ushered the three of us aboard. Just aft of the pilothouse, was the skipper’s cabin. It could only be described as, at best, a ‘filthy lair,’ a sea-going hovel. In one corner was a disassembled portable gen/set, in the other a Bashful Betty blow up sex doll. A mildew-mottled Playboy magazine lay open, right next to a tub of pump grease and an oily rag. The bunk held two scattered issues of Al Goldstien’s SCREW! newspaper, and a copy of Paul Krasner’s The Realist magazine. The bed sheets on the bunk appeared to have been changed, perhaps, pre-WWII. A hookah pipe was knocked over atop a half-eaten, green-tinged Big Mac. There were no rats I could see, but the mice scurrying around our feet were big as cats. An empty Famous Amos cookie bag fluttered about. A pair of blood-stained socks were hung to dry over a cold space heater. There was a reek of diesel fuel, a stink of moldy feet, a faint whiff of clogged head — plus, a coy underlying hint of stale vomit. Alas, the faded ‘pine-scented’ automotive air fresheners didn’t help much. Yes, it looked and smelled exactly as a floating crash pad in the late ‘60s should.

Suddenly, the Good Skipper burst into the cabin with a drunken fellow named, appropriately enough, Talkie.

“My name is Talkie because I can’t shut up,” he said, “not that I want to. I don’t. Not really. I like to talk…”

“…what the hell is wrong with you sea-fuddled idiots?” asked the Good Skipper with outrage, “do you not have enough sense to fire up Bertha?”

Bertha, evidently, was diesel-fired cabin heater. He knelt before her, primed an unseen pump with a jerky stroke or two, threw open a hinged tin-drawer at the bottom, and struck a match. A huge flame shot out and lit his rum-reeking beard on fire. He glowed orange briefly. The smell of burning hair and hot mouth-spittle filled the cabin. “That’s better!” he roared with laughter as he struck himself repeatedly in the face with torn pillow. Feathers filled the air.

“Are there six of us?” he asked. I was about to response there was only five and to formally apply for Baggins and I to be hired — when a palsied, grease-covered arm reached out from under a discarded sail.

…under the sail was an oil-soaked, rat-faced little fellow who was almost invisible. He appeared to be hugging a recently-removed, still dripping crankshaft. And using an oozing gallon can of Gunk for a pillow.

“Ah,” said the Good Skipper with a maniacal grin. “Eddy the Engineer! I picked him up shipwrecked in Indonesia, from an unnamed cannibal isle. The savages there had eaten the rest of his crew — but they claimed he was too difficult to clean!”

“…six it is, Skipper!” croaked Eddy.

Suddenly the skipper whirled at me with red-bleeding eyes of desperation. “…do you know how to steer?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and started again to ask…

…when I was cut off with, “…then do so, you freak’n farmer!”

There was a burst of frantic activity. The skipper dashed on deck screaming, “Cast off! Cast off! Cast off all hope!”

Eddy the Engineer stood up. Despite the cold, he was naked. An old battery tester, a red-bulbed hygrometer, was crazily duct-taped to his pot-marked arm… like an oversized, obscene hypodermic needle.

This caused Toad, Bilbo, and I to dash on deck in revulsion.

I last caught sight of Eddy the Engineer disappearing through the engine room hatch, his white ass bobbing down the steel steps like a frightened deer’s.

Suddenly the Winthrop rumbled, shivered, shook, belched, hiccupped, farted, and then erupted in wonderful, live, pulsating, quivering sensation. Her two-story engine was running!

“YES!” gushed the Skipper. “All system’s GO! Chop the umbilical cords to civilization, gentlemen! Cast off the lines, Laddies! Unplug the shore power, men! Screw the bill collectors! To hell with the teef’n banks and the gun-toting sheriffs and all the landlubbers and all their dusty bean-counting cohorts ashore… we’re SAILORS!”

Toad was at the bow, wrestling crazily with a hawser as thick as a sewer pipe. Bilbo was aft, chopping away at his bitts with a fire ax. The skipper was writhing in ecstasy on the deck, master of his own-watery-universe, as bizarre as it may be.

I felt the engine speed up and boat begin to move with all the swiftness of a glacier.

I dashed up the pilothouse ladder (two rungs crumbled to rust, but I kept going) and grabbed the spinning wheel. It felt righteous in my hand.

The Winthrop was an absolute bitch to steer. But if I worked at it I could keep her headed, more or less, in the quadrant I wanted. And I was dry.

I could see Toad and Bilbo being occasionally swept off their feet by green boarding seas.

“…I don’t remember the short, fat one — Ole Lard Ass — as being so clumsy on previous trips,” mused the Good Captain, looking down on the struggling Bilbo. “You’d think he’d never been to sea!”

At this point, a horrible thing happened. Fate stepped in. It wasn’t Bilbo’s fault. He was staggering drunkenly in front of an open drum of fish-heads (originally intended to be used as bait). Unfortunately, they were old fish heads from a previous trip. They were supposed to have been thrown overboard a few months ago. Now it was Bilbo’s job to pitch-fork them over the side. But, alas, they were more… soup than heads. So Bilbo was using the pitchfork sort-of like a paddle in an attempt to splash/empty the drum as efficiently as possible.

It must have been gruesome work. I felt like puking just watching. He was completely covered in the liquid-fish-gloop, with fish bones and jaw-teeth filling the air — as random seas would pick him and sluice him down the slippery deck. This happened repeatedly, and each time Bilbo heroically, stoically, stupidly resumed the task-at-hand. Alas, during one of these violent surfs down the deck — with the pitchfork held out valiantly in front of him — Bilbo hit the grate with such force that it snatched the poorly-attached metal part (the pitchfork part) off his wood handle.

“…slacker!” screamed the skipper from above. “I saw that… that… deliberate act of intentional sabotage! We’re talking ship’s equipment here! Mutiny! Insubordination! Criminal conspiracy! Dereliction of duty! GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY!”

“It wasn’t his fault,” I started to say in his defense, but the skipper whirled on me and asked, “…which crew member is that? Thatcher or Stevie?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Well?” yelled the skipper. “Which was it? Thatcher or Stevie?”

“Neither,” I said. “He’s new.”

“New?” asked the Good Captain. “This is the graveyard of the North Atlantic in the middle of winter, Laddie. This is no place for new! This is no place for a freak’n amateur!”

I didn’t say anything. I just kept steering.

“I didn’t hire him,” said the Good Captain.

The conversation wasn’t going exactly as I hoped — especially when the Good Captain added, “…did you?”

“No,” I said, feeling, truth-wise, to be on safe ground.

“…then, by God, I’ll string him up from the yard arm,” vowed the Good Captain, who was, by this point, beginning to froth at the mouth.

“…perhaps,” I gently suggested. “We should work him to death first, then Billy-Budd him at the end.”

Luckily for Bilbo, we’d arrived at George’s Bank by this point. Along the way, we were informed we were here to wrestle lobster, not slaughter fish. Oh, well. So what? Toad, Bilbo, and I could barely tell the difference anyway.

What we had to do was simple, really. We merely had to haul the long strings of very heavy lobster pots 600 feet up off the bottom, and then suspend them in the air four feet above the deck. These pots were not like the varnished coffee-table-type lobster pots you find in cheesy seafood restaurants. They were made out of heavy welded mesh and razor-sharp rebar. Two strong men could barely lift one. And they were whizzing through the air at great speed, dripping seawater and kelp and blue crabs and moray eels and Portuguese Man-o-war… yeek! Even worse, the deadly, hissing cables holding the pots were three-quarter inch thick galvy-wire—and deadlier than Charlie Manson.

We were only able to bait replacement traps for six hours before a Canadian gale swept over us. We were, of course, the only boat out there, duh. In order for us to survive, I had to slowly power her into the massive building seas. Only one problem: the saltwater kept freezing on our bows. First there was a thin layer, than a thick layer, then many tons of the stuff… and, soon, we were in danger of floundering.

The solution was simple. We had to pick-ax off the ice. This was not easy, nor fun. Picture trying to pick-ax off the frozen top of a mountain — while the mountaintop reared up and down in 30-foot swells.

Eddy the Engineer, of course, sensibly never came on deck. The Good Skipper, obviously, couldn’t stoop so low without losing the respect of his men. Me? I was strapped to the helm 24/7, thank you. This left Talkie, Toad, and Bilbo — all of whom hadn’t lifted anything heavier than a bong in years.

Eventually, of course, we ran low on supplies. Just as the gale subsided and the other fishing vessels were headed towards us to resume profitable fishing — we had to pack it in. None of us ever saw a lobster.

When we returned for our paychecks, Winthrop was gone. We never saw a penny from our labors. Dockside gossip was, 1.) she’d been lost at sea on her way to Nova Scotia, 2.) broken up for scrap during bankruptcy proceedings, or 3.) impounded by the local sheriff and declared unsafe by the USCG.

But my wife Carolyn had never looked so good as I fell into her welcoming arms. “How was it?” she asked. “Wonderful!” I replied.

Cap’n Fatty contributes his unique stories monthly to All at Sea Southeast. He and is wife Carolyn recently completed yet another circumnaviationg aboard their 38-foot sloop Wild Card, which is now up for sale as they search for a replacement home.

 

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