I’m a positive thinker and an upbeat kinda sailor who love boats and has made his living singing their praises… but, of course, this is really just a matter of demented perspective. The case could just as easily be made that these boats have ruined my life, made me unemployable, driven me to drink, and kept me penniless.
Take the Alden schooner Elizabeth, for example. She practically bankrupted her wealthy owner Lyn Williams of Chicago—then burned and sank. My father, who had a fast growing, highly profitable sign business at the time, purchased her salvage rights (underwater, as-is & where-is) for $100. Within the year, his business was nearly bankrupt because every penny that it earned went into the ‘blackhole’ of his new ‘super cheap’ vessel.
All boats are expensive—but aging wooden vessels in particular make cocaine seem cheap. While you’re replacing the horn timber, the stem is rotting. Think you’re winning while replacing both garboard planks? Silly you—the frame ends got punky while you were doing so!
Much of my youth was spent playing in the shade of Elizabeth’s hull in the shipyard. Her builders said she was ‘state of the art’ because they’d eliminated butt-blocks and, thus, the free-flow of air between her ceiling and her planking would almost eliminate rot! Plus, as a bonus, the boat was even lighter with no butt-blocks and their lack meant less maintenance, since they didn’t rot! How cool is that?
Alas, not very cool at all.
Instead of ending planks on butt-blocks (which could be easily replaced), they ended her carvel planks on her frames. This not only rotted the frames but allowed that evil rot to travel further and spread quicker than ever before—and the frames were almost impossible to replace compared to the butt-blocks.
What was touted as a huge advance was really a cheapening of the product that greatly reduced its life expectancy.
It was a lose-lose-lose that was touted as a win-win-win.
Of course, as a youngster I was all in. Everything about boats and our lifestyle was super-cool at six years of age. For example, if we needed cash money we just unbolted a bronze porthole and lugged it to a scrapyard/pawnshop. Instant cash! As I grew older and smarter I eventually realized that we were scraping far more bronze than we were redeeming—and only getting pennies on the dollar. And how the hell were we going to anchor in Tahiti when we’d just sold our hundred-dollar foredeck cleats for 85 cents?
Yes, I was a happy junior sailor until reality reared its ugly head.
Now, you may have heard, dear reader, that many of these huge Alden schooners (like, for example, Mandoo and Caribe) disappeared into the drug trade, but I have a different theory. Who else but a drug smuggler making millions of dollars a week could afford to buy and maintain such a vessel?
Here’s the truth: You don’t own a boat, the boat owns you. And not just your money, it’s your time, your pride, your everything. If you neglect her, she hits back by, say, sinking, burning, breaking loose…or all three. Here’s the truth of it—there’s nothing more dangerous than a vessel scorned.
What’s that ole parental advice that used to circulate around shipyards back in the day? Buy your son a traditional wooden vessel when he turns 18—and he won’t have time to engage in pre-marital sex or to get into legal trouble…nor have enough money to buy drugs either.
Of course, buying sunken boats and/or abandoned vessels probably isn’t a good idea, but we Goodlanders do it all the time. Our vessels are like yo-yos—they’re up, they’re down, they’re up…!
Now, you’d think that watching my father be ruined by his vessel would have taught me something—not so.
I’m a sailor. We sailors don’t learn—we just sail away from our problems. That’s our sole M.O.
At 15 years of age, I purchased salvage rights to the abandoned 1932 Atkin’s double-ender Corina. Obviously, I had to drop out of school to rebuild her—and, nach, I had no time for an honest job. How did I support myself and buy parts for my new vessel? By fast-talking slow-thinking girls with jobs (one of whom I just celebrated our 52nd anniversary with) while living aboard, of course, a broken-down vessel with a disassembled engine.
Seriously, it is hard to talk a young lady into the cruising life. I asked my future wife Carolyn a series of questions: One: Would she support me while I worked on my boat? Two: Could she, if she had a second to spare, also work on the boat? Three: Would she be okay with having no jewelry and wearing rags so that the boat could have sails and fancy do-dads? Four: Was she willing to embrace a life of poverty, deprivation, and misery? Five: Did she have anything against puking? Six: Was she cool with being aboard offshore for months at a time? Seven: Would she mind each and every woman who lived ashore looking down on her? Eight: Could she handle being the second-most important female in my life? And lastly, nine: Would she mind having only a sliver of my attention?
No, it isn’t easy finding a gal who will happily sign up for all of the above!
The Corina didn’t have a rig nor engine when I purchased her. And the boat was so rotten that the only thing keeping her together were the roaches holding hands.
She’d been used as a gang hang-out and they’d not only repeatedly spray-painted the word FOCK inside, but also pooped in the bilge and lit campfires in the forepeak to keep warm during the winter.
There wasn’t enough money in the world to rebuild that boat properly—and as a gigolo, I could only service so many clients per day, right?
My plan was, needless to say, to sell Corina at a vast profit. And I was delighted to sell her four years later—for exactly half of what I’d spent on her rebuild (not including my time, of course).
Yeah, I am a remarkable entrepreneur. My friends remark (and smile) about my business acumen all the time.
Disgusted with wooden vessels, I next built a ferro-cement ketch by flinching chicken wire from unguarded chicken coops and scooping up cement-dripping from the chutes of unsuspecting cement trucks at construction sites.
Carlotta sailed like a half-tide rock—and weighed about the same, too.
Every time we’d be walking down a sidewalk with friends, my wife would emit a strangled cackle and sing out gayly, “A cement sidewalk, honey—you could build another boat!”
Carlotta took me seven solid years to construct from scratch. I eventually sold her for one-sixtieth of the money I had into her—a new Goodlander low! (No, I don’t include my labor because, if there is one thing my life as a pseudo shipwright has taught me is that my time is utterly worthless.)
My next vessel was a Hurricane Hugo victim that had sunk along the north coast of St. John.
When I told my wife I’d paid $3,000 for Wild Card as-is, where-is, she initially said, “You got ripped off!” Of course, she later changed her opinion to: “You got royally ripped off, Fatty. What the hell were you thinking?”
Are there any advantages to repeatedly buying boats underwater? Well, yes. Water magnifies. My wife wanted a bigger vessel than the 36-foot Carlotta and Wild Card looked HUGE on the bottom of Mary’s Creek. (Of course, I suspected that a Hughes 38 wasn’t too much bigger, but why rain on my wife’s myopic parade?)
This was my first fiberglass vessel in 1989—and I must say, working with glass is miserable. I itch just writing the word fiberglass! Plus, it ain’t just the itching—you have to bathe in various toxic chemicals for months to rebuild a vessel!
And I was so penniless in those days that the only high I could afford was the polyester fumes. Damn!
The finished product was…well, not perfect. I was so ashamed of my craftsmanship and marine wood butchery that I left the VI. Ditto, the Panama Canal, Tahiti, New Zealand—that’s right, I circumnavigated twice in that misshaped, frozen-snot-smeared vessel—not because I wanted to see the next port, but because I grew tired of sailors looking at my vessel, shaking their head sadly, and asking in horror, “Who did that to your boat?”
Have you ever sailed aboard a vessel that was, like, a knot faster on one tack than the other? I have—around the world, twice!
If you let go of the tiller of Wild Card, she spun in circles with the rudder on the centerline! Weird! (Maybe I should have taken a few moments to look at the starboard side before fiberglassing the port?)
No, the hull wasn’t perfectly fair—fat men could hide in the low spots in the shipyard; ditto, young whales when she was in the water.
One nasty, arrogant shipwright said, upon sighting down my topsides, “I’ve seen mashed potatoes with fewer lumps! Why, Rodney King had less lumps!”
When I fart-blocked Wild Card in preparation for Awl-gripping her topsides, passersby would say, “That stinks!” and I suspected they were referring to both my craftsmanship AND the odiferous fart blocks.
Needless to say, my wife was worried about Wild Card’s structural integrity. “Why, she’s weaker than your morals!” she repeatedly told me, which I’d lamely countered with, “…probably not that weak!”
Which brings us to our current vessel Ganesh. Her topsides are so high, we bungee jump off them. Ditto, her barn-door transom—which I’ve been forced to install reef points in, ha ha!
My wife wanted me to buy Ganesh because there was 12-volt refrigeration.
How does our new boat sail—well, just like you’d expect a refrigerator to.
Another advantage—now we can live aboard a vessel with two heads that need rebuilding! Want to know an even BIGGER advantage? Running aground affects our speed very little.
Remember at the outset of this article, I mentioned that sailors don’t learn? Well, it’s true! And, thus, it’s a sailor’s life for me!
(Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn are lost somewhere in Sou’east Asia—panhandling outside all the better yacht clubs.