I am a lover of music—and always have been. I grew up in the 1950s singing aboard our schooner Elizabeth. My father was a devoted Barbershopper and my mother a member of Sweet Adelines International. We harmonized on deck as a family almost nightly. I currently play guitar, piano, and a smattering of other instruments. I regularly go to concerts ashore, both pop and classical. My musical tastes are eclectic. And I have a mega-watt stereo system aboard our 43-foot Amphitrite ketch Ganesh that could make a dead man’s ears bleed. Plus, we carry numerous radios and video players—all interfaced with the six speakers we have aft, main, and forecastle. Our main media hard drive is almost full—we have a terabyte of entertainment at the touch of a button.
While cruising through the Caribbean, I often have hootenannies in our cockpit with sailing singers such as Joe Colpitt of Virgin Fire, Foxy Callwood of Jost Van Dyke, Thatcher Lord of Trinka, Barefoot Davis of Splinter Beach, Michael Beans of Marina Cay, Mighty Whitey of St. Thomas, Kevin Boothby of Ruth Avery, and the Fiddler with his Sun Mountain Band.
Yes, my love affair with harbor music is a life-long one. Back in the 70s in Gustavia (St. Barts), I’d fall asleep many evenings listening to Jimmy, Mishka, and Heather Nova playing on deck aboard the double-ended gaffer Moon—with Buffett eventually giving a hand-up to the other two to secure their lucrative record contracts.
There is, however, one thing I don’t have when it comes to music: exterior speakers. In fact, my current vessel came with two huge cockpit speakers—and I gave them away.
One reason is that sound carries over water. Two, one man’s music is another man’s noise. Three, I’m almost always a visitor and a guest—and I don’t think visitors should set the playlist nor provide the sound track for their hosts. And four, as much as I love music, I love people more.
This was brought home to me when I anchored off a tiny island in Fiji. I had just been ashore, doing the kava ceremony in the Men’s House. It was a very primitive place—with no electricity, cars, or man-made noise of any type. You could hear a pin drop.
While returning to my vessel, I hesitated outside a thatched shack from which an ancient grandmother cooed an age-old Melanesian lullaby to a fresh-baked baby; while the baby-mother worked in the fields, also singing as she swung her sickle under the tropical sun.
It is for such precious moments that we sail.
As I was untying my dinghy painter, a shining Aussie racing boat came in, fresh from the King’s Cup in Phuket. It was manned by a delivery crew—six guys in their early twenties, having the time of their young lives. They tossed over their anchor and hoisted two huge portable speakers in their rig—which immediately thundered the rock tune by Men at Work entitled, ‘Down Under!’
I love the song—but it was so utterly wrong in this particular time and sacred place that I could only sadly leave the anchorage, shaking my head at the juvenile conduct of my fellow yacht-punks.
I know, I know, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” Perhaps I am too old. Or perhaps that saying is best uttered in your own backyard—not the backyard of your neighbor, especially if your neighbor was born 15,000 miles away from your birthplace.
Needless to say, tolerance is the key to happy anchorage habitation. It is also silly to rail against what you can’t change. And it is even sillier to sail to a tiny island in the Maldives, row ashore, and tell the natives how to behave.
Nonetheless, noise pollution is pollution. Part of the glories of my watery lifestyle is that I hear natural sounds almost exclusively, 24/365!
Sure, there are times when a cruising vessel might need to run its generator—but, hopefully, its thoughtful skipper will take that in account and thus avoid anchoring too close or directly upwind of another vessel or too close to shore.
My pet peeve is cruising folks with noisy portable gasoline gen-sets which are so, so, so damn loud—that the moment they crank them up, they are forced to immediately leave their boat to avoid the irritating, teeth-jarring noise—which the entire harbor and its shore inhabitants are now forced to endure while they don’t.
This is why I have six large solar panels on my boat—because my panels never irritated anyone.
We boaters need to be considerate—especially when the entire State of Florida is trying to forbid us from anchoring anywhere we’d want to anchor. (Say, for instance, in an empty harbor or cove.)
Speaking of pet peeves—I can’t leave out the cruisers who put their VHF radios on their cockpit speakers so they can hear them over the roar of their diesel engines, anchor, and then immediately leave the boat … sometimes for weeks, as the nearby residents afloat and ashore suffer Channel 16 blaring loudly at all hours of the day and night. (Sigh.)
But even classic music is really just organized noise. I cruised the Med for a while with a lawyer from California who was a Dead Head. Each evening, as we’d anchor, he’d crank up the tunes and pull out the rum. We had some great parties. But I could not stop myself from mentioning that, hey, perhaps everyone in Sardinia wasn’t as eager to hear Jerry Garcia as he was. “But I’ve been told I have great taste in music,” he said, appalled.
Me—I love to love songs, singers, and composers that others hate: Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Erik Satie to name a few. And, sure, I occasionally twist the knob off my volume control while listening to jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra—but only far, far offshore. Even weirder, I confess to enjoying heavy metal in heavy weather—there’s something about big-hair guitar bands and big-ass waves that seem to compliment each other.
Of course, my all-time favorite picker is Andre Segovia—a perfect choice while becalmed on the equator aboard ‘a painted boat on a painted ocean’.
I also use my Bose noise-cancelling headphones often—both to listen to music and to mute the gale. Actually, they are worth their weight in gold if you occasionally sail offshore with lubbers—I’ve had crew in tears with unfounded fears. I’ve hove-to, tucked them into their bunk, and placed the Bose noise-canceling headphones over their ears … and then had them ask me half an hour later, “When did the storm drop?” (We take great pains to quiet our halyards and other noise-makers while offshore. How much safer and calmer a quiet, neat, well-ordered boat feels!)
Mostly, all this comes down to good manners and kind consideration. Yes, I love my tunes. Yes, my neighbor loves his tunes. And, well, maybe it is best if we don’t force each other to endure what we prefer.
I was delighted while cruising Greece to be given a number of musical CDS—one of which I still listen to today. Ditto, Carolyn and I often listen to our Tahitian albums when we want to fondly remember our many Pacific cruises. And we purchased many albums in India—the best are the traditional Kerala Lullabies.
And, yes, music is an incredibly powerful cultural force, for good and for bad. Music is perhaps America’s greatest, most influential global export. Deep in the jungles of Borneo, Madagascar, or Africa—I don’t tell the natives my hailing port is St. John, USVI, I tell ‘em I anchor off Bob Marley’s house. Everyone everywhere instantly smiles at that!
Oh, the things people learn from music! Carolyn and I were returning to the dinghy dock in Hellville (Madagascar) where the ‘dock boys’ traditionally charge a dollar a day to protect your dinghy from themselves. I had no problem paying—it was surviving the instant of payment that was the problem. There was usually between five and twelve really big fellows there. The moment they caught sight of our imminent approach, fistfights would break out over who would get the dollar. Basically, the last (bloodied, as they were bare-fisted) man standing received the payment. Only this particular time, the final two combatants had true grit and amazing stamina—and my wife Carolyn was knocked to one knee and almost smashed into the water. This fist-fight-on-the-dinghy-dock was a reoccurring problem in the harbor—and a very dangerous situation with the air filled with testosterone, aggression, and the scent of fresh blood. It even intoxicated me. Without thinking, I jumped in front of Carolyn in defense and loudly screamed words I rarely use … the M and the F words.
Everything stopped, including the combatants. The meanest, nasty looking fella looked at me in puzzlement, pointed to himself, and said, “… me mudder …?”
I froze. I hadn’t meant to say what I said. It had just been sorta ripped out of me. And here I was in a very primitive country surrounded by some very primitive men … whom I’d just called … undeniably … something I should not have. Oops.
Lucky, the Big Man then broke into a wide grin and started High Fiving his Bros—he’d just been called that word they’d all been hearing on the Rap records from America—YES!
Carolyn and I took the opportunity to slink away in our dinghy during their celebration. We returned to our vessel to play Bob Marley’s One Love—and to ruminate on the power of music and the strange, unexpected joys of global cruising.
Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn are currently heading northward up the Malacca Straits, dodging modern super tankers and ancient pirates alike. They just published a new book entitled CREATIVE ANCHORING.