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VI Sailors International

I’ve been a globe-trotting sea gypsy so long that I’m losing track of my tribal badging: I’m a human being, I’m fairly sure of that. I mean, I’m not so socially and culturally confused that I’m denying my species. I might be a worthless human, but human I am.

My passport says I’m an American. My mother thinks of me as a Chicagoan. My wife sometimes tells people we’re from the Midwest—which strikes me as a clever way of being specific, concrete and definite… yet so vague as to be useless.

I guess I’m a Westerner in current global-speak—but the lines of the Lace Curtain aren’t as defined as the Iron… and even First, Second and Third World demarcations blur as America sinks and China rises.

I’m certainly not a Christian—although there are a couple of The Ten Commandments I vaguely follow… through morality or laziness, I’m not sure.

Yes, it isn’t easy after 48 years of living aboard and ocean sailing to know what I am or who I am—or even where I’m heading.

One thing I do know for certain is that I spent the best years of my life anchored off a tiny island named St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands—and that they were the best years of my life in large part because of the warm, wonderful West Indian people who live there.

If you live in the West Indies for over twenty glorious years as I did—and it gets under your skin regardless of your pigmentation… ‘dat de truth, me son!’

The music. The laughter. The language. The love.

The Virgin Islands is the only place I’ve ever lived from which I did not feel I had to escape. For a Goodlander, that’s saying a lot. Yes, I eventually sailed away… I physically left… but a large part of my heart was left behind.

The bottom line: I never stayed anywhere willing for as long as I stayed on St. John—and thus that tiny rock is labeled ‘home’ within my heart forever.

I am not the only one who feels this way. Others do too. They leave and fly back to the economic glitter of the States… or to the adventure of Europe or to their roots in Mother Africa… but they are always looking back over their shoulder… wondering which road march was best at carnival… which calypso song was almost banned… which senator is going to jail for what foolishness.

But there is a silver-lining to even the darkest cloud. One of the nicest things about being a sailing Virgin Islander is that you get to meet up with other Virgin Island sailors as you circumnavigate.

Right now there’s whole nest of ‘em in Majuro, Marshall islands, Pacific ocean.

Judy Knape and Brian Lane of Ursa Minor (Saga 43) are dear friends. I remember attending weekly meetings with Judy of the VIMI (Virgin Islands Marine Industry association) and the VICL (Virgin Islands Charter Yacht League) back in the late 1970s and early 1980s… never dreaming that she’d eventually become president of both organizations at various times in her marine/legal career.

Prior to coming to the Virgins, she was a lawyer in the Marshall islands…oh, 30 years ago or more. A few months ago she pulled into Majuro and somebody in the public defender’s department said, “Oh, haven’t seen you in awhile, Judy… here’s a new case.”

When she explained that she’d been gone about three decades and thus probably wasn’t still licensed to practice law within that territory… they just ‘tsk, tsk-ed,’ checked and she was still all legal-eagle. “You’re good to go,” she was told, “and about this case…”

Oh, ain’t the Third World wonderful?

Judy was influenced by her brother John (and wife Lucy) who circumnavigated in the late 1990s. They had so many so many sons (they were too active to accurately count) that their small red boat seemed like a can of blond-headed worms.

Anchored fairly close to Judy and Brian is Seaquester Ted aboard his highly-modified Jim Brown Searunner trimaran—a multi-freak who used to work as a wood butcher making cattlemarans with the zebra crew of Gold Coast Marine in St. Croix.

We recently hung out with him and his wife Karen while in New Zealand and they had dinner aboard with us in Whangerei just before we shoved off in 2006 (or was it 2007?).

Speaking of Teds… perhaps all of us Virgin Islanders were influenced by Ted SEYMOUR, a runner and a teacher who was also from St. Croix and who circumnavigated in Love Child in the early 1990s… the first black circumnavigator ever.

But that’s another article: Ted Seymour is such a rare, remarkable guy… a runner, teacher, sailor, stock market whiz, devoted father, vivid storyteller (I like his tale of ‘Love, Hate and the Boat Boys of Egypt’ best) that I’d need to devote an entire article to the Good Captain just to do him justice. For now I’ll just leave it at how much I respect and admire him… as both as a man and a sailor.

…see what I mean? How the VI gets under your skin and into your heart?  Anyway, back to Virgin Islanders cruising abroad.

One of Judy Knape’s best friends in the VI chartering scene was Gwen Hamlin.

Gwen is a bit of a renaissance women: novel writer, dive master, yacht captain and journalist are just a few of the professions she shines in. Right now she’s in Vanuatu with Don Wilson aboard their CSY 44. (They’re really savoring their ultra-slow circumnavigation: we keep lapping them!)

She currently writes the Admiral’s Angle column for Lats and Atts.

Just a few boats over from Judy and Brian is the well-known wooden boat shipwright Woodchuck (Chuck Handy) of the Independent Boat Yard (IBY) in Brenner’s Bay Lagoon, St. Thomas.  The thing I remember most about Woodchuck is his smile. He’s always smiling, always grinning, always spreading good cheer. I’d always make a point to stop by the IBY when he was caulking an old wooden boat or putting in a new plank—and he’d always take a moment or two to casually gam with me. 

…spending five minutes basking in the sunlight of Woodchuck was enough to keep me in a good mood all day.

Woodchuck loves boats, loves life and loves people… and that shows through brightly with every smile.

I always thought that Woodchuck was so good at making sawdust that he was sort of wasting his time and talent patching up the dilapidated craft of the local Lagoonies… but now I realized he was just living and laughing with the people he loved… and the economic bottom line be damned. (Now Woodchuck fixes up old sailing ships for the movie industry which is much more lucrative than panhandling the local Red Hook rummies!)

…somehow or another the Legendary, Notorious and Infamous Tim Peck of Awlgrip fame gave Woodchuck his lovely 42 footer Deviant—probably because the name fit both men so well.

…see, it really is the people who make a place. Marcus Compton. The charming Austin Gumbs. Tugboat Tom. Kiwi Brett. Morgan Avery. Bruce Merced. Mighty Whitey. Mike Sheen. The Holmberg boys. Pieter and Pat Stocken. Dyke and Inga Wilmerding. Peter Muilenburg. Les Anderson. Calvin the Crane Mon and his faithful sidekick Danielle. Carlo. Custom Canvas Chris. Inflatable Frank. Mace. Parker Hall. Will Howe. Neil Lewis. Davis Murray. Skip the Rigger and his droopy, droopy mustache. Cees. Andrew Pan. Mouthpiece Ruth… oh, what a cast of unbelievably cool, too-strange-for-fiction Caribbean characters!

…and, of course, Timmy Carstarphen, formerly of Fabian’s Landing. I remember one wild night I was on St. Thomas—on a demented mission to do a truly goofy thing. I needed help. It was late. Thus I trolled the bars of Brenner’s Bay until I found Tim. I whispered what I had planned in his ear. Now ANY sane person would have told me to get stuffed but Timmy just sighed and said, “Why not?”

One of my favorite things to do back in my ‘drinking daze’ was to get Mighty Whitey and Timmy Carstarphen together at the Bottoms Up, buy ‘em a few drinks, and then egg ‘em to spew about the early cut-throat days of USVI’s marine industry… the real story behind the embryonic chartering industry, not the glossy PR stuff. (Yes, I realize that Bottom’s Up is no more—but I just can’t bear the thought of St. Thomas without it). 

Damn, that was a wild & crazy time with some truly remarkably Wonderful Waterfront Wackos and lots of Lush Tropical Vegetables!

…and one of the few names which runs through it all is Carstarphen.

Which finally brings me to the point of this missive.

Just last night, we had Teri Batham (formerly Carstarphen) and her husband Michael over for dinner aboard Wild Card—in Phuket, Thailand.

Teri grew up aboard the schooner Maverick on the St. Thomas waterfront in the 1950s and 1960s, and was a ‘wild child’ in every sense of the word.
“I’ll never forget sailing into St. Thomas with my parents in the 1950s,” she told me wistfully. “…those three gently rolling hills of Charlotte Amalie… I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world… and it was!”

She and her brother Timmy weren’t home-schooled, exactly, because ‘home’ was usually on charter. However, they both had a small locker ashore for their school books and when Maverick would daysail, they’d be put ashore to ‘go to school’ unsupervised.

Timmy wasn’t exactly an eager student but Teri ate it up—and often completed the entire school year within a few months. Then, since her penny-pinching father certainly didn’t want to spring for more ‘ridiculously expensive’ tuition… she was allowed to go to work.

Her first job had a dramatic effect on her whole life: she worked as an ‘assistant’ to the famous marine photographer Howard Johnson (no relation to the restaurant). Each morning they’d lug a huge ‘plate’ camera to the entrance of Charlotte Amalie harbor—and photograph all the (then lovely) daysail boats charging out on port tack. (Aren’t the tradewinds wonderful… that I can know, from forty years and 15,000 miles away, what tack they were on?)

In the afternoons, a (very thirsty) Howard would ‘retire to the bar to promote sales’ and Teri would develop, print and sell the resulting photographs.

On special days, when the air was particularly clear, she and Howard would laboriously climb up various hills around St. Thomas and take many of the most well-known photographs of ‘old’ St. Thomas that exist today.

Yes, Teri and Michael & Carolyn and I have much in common. We’re Virgin Islanders. We’re sailors. We all hooked up with our current partners at 16 years of age. We’re both feature writers for Cruising World—and photographers as well. We’ve both written marine-related books (hers in a cruising guide to Japan).

And there we were, half way around the world, “…laughing ‘bout dis and dat ole ting! Like de time she and Rudy Thompson (of Cold Beer) brought de trampoline to carnival… and dey were flying so high dey almost hit the overhead cables… ya mon, dat was sum’ting, eh?”

Editors note: Fatty and Carolyn are recovering from the Thailand ‘honeymoon’ charter of daughter Roma Orion and son-in-law Christian Rojas. Check out fattygoodlander.com for more info.

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