Since I grew up aboard, it was always a given that someday I’d circumnavigate—but there was ‘many a slip between the cup and lip’ as they say. My first boat rotted faster than I could wood-butcher new planks and frames into her. It took me a while to build a new 36-foot ketch from scratch with empty pockets. Thus, I was in my mid-twenties in the late ‘70s before heading down to the Lesser Antilles for a brief shakedown cruise before shoving off on my first circ.
Luckily, in the Bahamas I met a cowboy bullrider from Texas named Fritz on a heavily-damaged boat called Tumbleweed. He claimed to have been just rescued by the USCG Cutter Sagebrush—at which point, I stopped believing anything he said.
There was one problem with the Virgins back in the day—a bottle of Cruzan Gold rum cost 82 cents at the Long Bay Woolworths and it seemed to me that if I wasn’t drunk, I was wasting money. (Of course, I occasionally attempted to stop being a rummy by the application/inhalation of a well-known West Indian herbal medication—without much success.)
The first place on St. Thomas that I set foot on was in French Town—where a strange guy with a black beard who loved to dress up in fancy fetish costumes (or so it seemed to me) was leading a parade of Carnival-crazed kids in the park. He told me his name was Cain Magras and that he was a senator. “Yeah, right!” I told him, then, “Don’t take me for a fool, mon!”
On the way back to the boat, there was a white guy ranting about the National Park—with a young boy at his feet sitting on a stack of damaged windsurfers. The grease-smeared young boy was intently souping up a Sea Gull engine by tossing in a domed piston and port-and-polishing the cylinder wall. Strange!
“And what are you two guys up to this fine day,” I asked in an attempt to gloss over the father’s obvious anger-management issues.
“We’re building a one-wheel marine railway,” Dick Avery said crazily, “It is darn right silly that railroad trains have four wheels—don’t you think?”
The young boy, who went by the name of Morgan, hoisted an eyebrow at me as if to say, ‘See what I gotta put up with?’
I ignored them both, and strolled down the waterfront—where a bar called Sparky’s was advertising the Mamas and Papas. Had the world gone nuts while I was at sea? A fella named Bill Grogan was walking out and blinking his dilated eyes at the bright sun. He invited us back to Barnacle Bill’s—where Paul McCartney was shrilly demanding a pack of ZigZags. “Got any paper? Got any papers,” Paul kept asking. (We later saw John Prine at the Barnacle Bills—but a nodding John was clearly too cross-eyed to see us!)
A photographer skipped by with a camera and claimed to be Howard Johnson—did I look gullible or something?
Once word got out that I was an aspiring writer, everyone referred me to Herman Wouk on Water Island who’d just written Don’t Stop the Carnival and would eventually team up with Jimmy (yea, as in Buffett) for the musical.
Anchored off Avery’s was an engineless powerboat with a penniless, wrench-twisting South African refugee aboard pathetically ranting about the lack of outboard headgaskets. His name was Robby Ferron and, out of pity, I bought him a beer—the best money I ever budgeted.
Was that youthful circumnavigator Robin Lee Graham of Dove-fame strolling by?
Out in Red Hook was Johnny Harms who had a crowded liars table at his waterfront bar—not that any honest fish head would wander in. We dropped the hook amid the Lagoonies in Brenner Bay Lagoon—and bumped into Timothy Carstarphen being drowned (well, almost) by an evil Russian Princess.
Okay, in Timothy’s defense, the Russian gal was hot, hot, hot!
Oh, dem were de days, me son! Timothy, Parker Hall, Austin Gumbs, Mighty Whitey, Mace, Tim Peck, I, and numerous other reprobates used to terrorize Bottom’s Up throughout the ‘80s. I’m still friends with Timothy’s sister Tere of schooner Maverick fame—she lives in NZ now.)
In Coral Bay was a small 28-footer with Tom and Barb Gerker aboard—Tom wanted to know if I knew where he could get a job and I sadly advised him that—honestly?—I didn’t think anyone would hire him. Thus, Coral Bay Marine and Parts & Power of Tortola were born out of necessity.
It didn’t take long on St. John until I needed to find a connection—although Connections turned out to be a phone answering service run by Cid Hamling (whom I’m still in love with all these years later). Cid introduced me to Peter Muilenburg who made it into Time Magazine by sailing his boat back and forth in front of Caneel Bay Resort while Tricky Dick was there—with a mainsail that said, “While Nixon lazes, Indochina blazes!”
I used to love anchoring in spacious Cruz Bay in the 1970s—when artist Les Anderson, architect Glen Spear, Albert Willis, Bob Nose, Forest Fischer, and Professor Gilbert Sprauve might wander by while Russian opera star Ivan Jadan would sing like a caged bird (when Ivan wasn’t planting Lignum Vitae trees throughout the island, of course).
Oh, the local yacht racing scene was quite liberal in those days—especially the big-breasted babes racing with plastic surgeon Doctor Tattersall of the Purple Palace with his rainbow-breast-flag and his professional motto of ‘Tits by Tat!’
Yes, the Holmberg Brothers were playing in the sand at the STYC. This was long before Taylor Canfield was a gleam in father Bill’s eye.
Yes, the carnival on Saint Tee was a blast—especially with yacht racer and gymnast Rudy Thompson’s trampoline on wheels as he drunkenly jumped over live wires downtown—so what electrical madness! (Nobel-prize winning author John Steinbeck wasn’t always hovering over Rudy, only sometimes.)
Actor Kelsey Grammer could be seen wandering about—but actress Lisa Canning and porn star Jasmin St. Claire were too young for me to remember. (Ditto, basketballer Tim Duncan.) World champ boxer Julian Jackson, however, was a familiar sight on St. Croix. Of course, Alexander Hamilton was long before my time—I’ve only seen him on a ten-dollar bill.
I do, however, remember a tennis star and school chum of my daughter’s, Hannah Jeter, who ended up on the cover of Sport’s Illustrated 2015 swimsuit issue—my, how they grow!
But the most amazing thing about my arrival in the Virgins during the late 1970s was that it was all actually true—utterly true that the Virgins were paradise on earth for wayward sailors.
That bullrider named Fritz Seyfarth in the Bahamas told me to look up Dyke and Inga Wilmerding on Zulu Warrior and that couple amused me for years telling wild tales of the early days of chartering aboard their wooden Alden schooner Mandoo. They turned me on to Pieter and Pat Stoeken—Pat still helms their beloved CYS Independence on daysails to St. John. Both introduced me to Neil Lewis of the Nevis-built schooner Alexander Hamilton, an ex-disc jockey at the local radio station WSTA. Neil played guitar and had a deep, thrilling voice. He also refused to say whether he did have, or did not have, an affair with author/actress/commie Lillian Hellman. Neil was an old ‘60s radical—one of his boats had a red star on its mainsail and was named Red Hooker. (Sadly, I gave Neil’s eulogy at Latitude 18 awhile back.)
Oh, the early charterers of the VI who berthed an international industry were a fascinating bunch of rummies. Dick and Joni Stout of Dragon, for example, had a cut-off switch on their shower pump next to the captain’s place at the galley—where Dick would shout that he’d ‘see if he could get the fresh water pump working long enough for you to rinse off’ to his guests. No, there were no watermakers in those days.
Or Basil Symonette of Sea Saga who went on to nurture the Bitter End into tourism (and sailing) greatness.
It was the perfect place to spend a season on ‘shakedown’ before setting off on my first circumnavigation… so I spent a happy two decades there before setting off on my eventual Big Fat Circle. True, I no longer live on St. John in the Virgin Islands—I’m headquartering out of Singapore now—but the deeper truth is my heart never left.
These lovely isles made me a man—and I was, am, and always will be grateful for their joyous welcome. (end)