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The Smile

Potential charterers often ask if they’ll be able to get back on board Breath after swimming. Some are worried about their bad leg, their new knee or titanium hip, or they’re just way out of shape. Women invariably complain they lack sufficient upper body strength. We answer that we’ve never failed to get anyone aboard yet—if necessary we’ll get out the bosun’s chair or rig up a cow sling, but so far we haven’t had to. As I think back over 25 years of intermittent charters, there have been some unusual cases.

One involved a day sail with two couples who wanted an exclusive day—no other passengers on board.  We wondered who these people might be and weren’t left long in doubt.  The men were a Texas oil tycoon and his young assistant, a hot shot tax lawyer.  The lawyer’s wife was young, drop-dead gorgeous, and dressed in the finest clothes and jewelry—not an airhead per se but much more interested in showing off her figure than in discussing oil issues.  

The tycoon’s woman was older, a sweetheart, still good looking but no match for her young friend. While helping out in the galley she confided to Dorothy that she’d recently gone to a plastic surgeon for some tactical augmentation.  When she entered the water it became clear she’d never drown—her new D cup software flipped her around onto her back like a class A lifejacket.  She had an awkward time maneuvering in the water and had it hard to get up the ladder.

A sorrier case was “Frank” whose wife questioned me at length as to the swim ladder and boarding station:  was there a gate or break in the upper lifeline where people could easily step aboard without contortions worthy of a gymnast?  Answer: No.  Breath is very stable and has strong handles to grip and scupper holes for the feet…but it does not have a break in the lifeline—because I love my lifeline as is, one intact continuous run from bow to stern of ss rod that was once the proud head stay of a racing yacht laid low by a hurricane. One can tightrope walk between the stanchions on my boat, it doesn’t fray or chafe like rope, won’t develop fish hooks like stainless cable, it’s flexible but rigid, and damned if I’m going to cut it to indulge some overweight guest.

Frank’s wife came right to the point:
“How strong is your boarding ladder?” she asked.
“Strong!  The best I could buy!”
“Will it take 350 lbs.?”
“350 lbs. What are we talking, sumo wrestler?
“No, a professional linebacker whose muscle has …”
“Turned to fat?”
“Yes.”

Frank did have a problem getting aboard.  The ladder was strong enough but once he jumped off and went snorkeling, he couldn’t get on the ladder’s lower rungs—just couldn’t do it, no matter how he tried. We managed to get him on board by towing him to shore where he could get up, clamber into the dinghy and from there get aboard.

 But our greatest challenge was not an overweight bimbo with no upper arm strength, but rather a frail looking old man with a tentative, endearing look about him. He was part of a group of six from New York City. They were enthusiastic and eager to please and looked relatively seaworthy, except for Izzy—Israel—who walked with a cane. A woman took me aside to tell me that Izzy had recently had a stroke that paralyzed his whole right side. Nonetheless he was very eager to do this trip, having sailed in his youth. I noticed him watching our conversation with an intent, worried look. A couple other boats had already turned him down, citing insurance quibbles.  Consequently I’d been told over the phone that one of this group had a little difficulty in climbing. So here I was responsible for the safety and comfort of a cripple on the high seas. I said we’d try, invoking the same “We’ve never failed to get anybody aboard, but inside I was screaming, “Lord, why me?”

Actually, Breath was a good boat for the job—her heavy pole masts dampened the motion. Izzy was easy to lift with the help of his friends and my crew. I stashed Izzy in the shaded cockpit and told him to hang on to the corner post. He stayed there for the trip as we sailed to Roadtown to clear Customs, then went to Norman Island. He was taking everything in with a kid’s delight. He watched the others throw crackers up in the air for the gulls, and bold ones took them from their hands. When the rest of us went snorkeling, our little black schipperke snuggled up to him and the two shared a companionable half hour.

On the way home a squall built, came straight at us, and laid our rail in the water. Spray started pelting the cockpit, and white water glowed under the low black, writhing clouds. I luffed the main and everyone went below—except for Izzy who asked for a foul weather jacket and stayed topsides, exclaiming at the wind gusts and the seas. Talking to him, I learned that he had flown across the islands during the war on the run to West Africa. He’d been a meteorologist and loved weather, the wilder the better. Admiration filled his features as the rain hurled down and the boat roared through the water.  “Beautiful . . . beautiful. . .” he said under his breath.

 Back in Coral Bay I got Izzy ashore for the last time.   When I shook his good hand he gave a smile—a beautiful, triumphant, intense smile that welled up from his very soul—a blaze of sheer joy. It almost brought tears to my eyes to see what the day had meant to him. I’ve never forgotten it. I can see his incandescent smile pierce the years that have gone by. They promised to come back and do it again next year, but instead I got a card from Izzy’s widow. He had died in the winter. She said he’d often reminisced about the sail that day; it was one of his favorite memories.

Those of us who do charter work don’t always realize that our work is as noble as any. Taking people from their workaday world—so much of it polluted and stressful and man-made and ubiquitous—and showing them the beauty and majesty of the sea, the lure of the is lands, the spectacular scenery of the underwater reefs and doing it in safety and style. . .well, suffice it to say it is no small contribution to the vacationers’ well being. The immensity of the sea stirs the spirit as mountains do. No wonder so many people say their day on the water was the best of their vacation. . . maybe of their life!

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