Oars as Barometer

Fatty often writes small stories from small craft
Fatty often writes small stories from small craft

My rasta pal Red Mon, he lives in a little shack on the de beach near de dinghy dock.

He say, “Watch de oars, Fatty, de oars tell de story.” 

I tink he right. 

Here’s what happens: an East Coast yachtsman—we’ll call him Sam the Sailor—arrives in the Lesser Antilles around Christmas. He drops his hook, hoists his center console inflatable into the water, lowers his big outboard onto its transom, and goes roaring off looking for a good time.

He finds it. 

It’s like a dream—the rum is almost free, the ganja everywhere, and he likes the local ladies just like his coffee: strong, sweet, and black. 

The only problem is those pesky reefs.

The first one he hits at night and it mangles his prop. The second one he hits while distracted by a spilled Pina Colada—hey, sh*t happens. That one ruins the lower unit and worse—allows his inflatable to drift onto the coral. His dinghy is destroyed and his legs get cut-up while attempting to fend off. 

The coral cuts get infected. Sam the Sailor’s friend suggests that he use 151 to disinfect the cuts, but Sam says, “Whaa, you think I’m stupid?” as he takes a long pull on the Bacardi bottle. 

Money is tight.

And, truth be known, Sam was always worried about having such a big expensive dinghy—too many teefs around. And Sam is into recycling. And there is an upside down plywood dinghy on the beach with a hole in it. Sam is positive the owner wouldn’t mind having his dinghy fixed up and, hey, Sam would give it back immediately if requested. 

It ain’t like he’s stealing or anything. 

So Sam patches the dinghy and tosses a used 2-horse on it—and he’s good to go. Only problem is that a couple of evenings later, Sam gets into a wrestling contest with his buddy Jack—and Jack wins. 

Thus, Sam ends up swimming around the harbor yelling, “F#&k Jack Daniels!” This wakes up the other liveaboards. They get into the dinghies and help him get back to his boat with his overturned dinghy. 

Hey, nobody said yachting was going to be easy, right?

The following morning he’s as surprised as anyone to see that forlorn prop sticking straight up into the air—kinda like it’s shooting him the bird. Sam would have dealt with it right then and there—except there was a big beach party that day with free food. So he swims ashore, and a couple of days later when he decides to deal with his drowned outboard—well, it is frozen solid with rust. 

Damn it!

In disgust, Sam deep-sixed that 2-horse as-is, where-is. Perhaps it will make a better fish home than engine. 

He goes to the marine store and buys a pair of oars—which are waaaaay more expensive than they should be. 

Now most Continentals like Sam the Sailor pull up at this point—knowing they’re on a rhumbline course to the grave while hugging a bottle of Mount Gay. So, they change. They learn. They cut back on the drinking, smoking, and screwing around. And they begin to enjoy the silence while rowing—hell, the exercise is even good for you!

Alas, some sailors have fallen so deep into their bottle that they can’t swim out. And Sam is sad to notice that the residents of the harbor—his fellow boaters—aren’t as friendly as they used to be. The first few times he ended up in the water, they hurried over to help gather his dinghy, his mandatory PFD, his bailer, and his oars back together—but the last few times, not so much. 

In fact, the last time he was clinging to his mooring ball while calling for help, the boat next to him closed the curtain and cranked up the reggae. WTF? 

Oars float, of course, but oar locks sink. But you don’t need ‘em, not really. Sam attempts to create some thole pins with sticks he found on the beach—but settles on a loop of discarded Dacron he found mostly buried in the sand. 

It’s inefficient but, hey, he ain’t in a hurry. He came to de islands to relax, and relaxed he is. Actually, sometimes he’s a tad too relaxed—and while shipping his inboard oar, his outboard oar silently slips away. 

He finds another oar on the beach (well, under a dinghy) but it’s a tad long and he has a tendency to row in circles—but, hey, that’s life in the tropics. 

And it is always something. Now his dinghy painter is chafed. Luckily, Sam the Sailor finds an old halyard while dumpster diving at the shipyard—and cuts off ten feet for a new painter. Only Sam doesn’t realize the cordage was that newfangled Dyneema stuff. 

…that’s what happened. It wasn’t his fault. He was sure he tied a bowline—or a reef knot. Maybe a granny? Whatever! 

Sam finds his dinghy (well, somebody’s dinghy) a few hours later. It’s pounded on some rocks. It is leaking badly. There are no oars in sight—no bleach bottle bailer, either. 

Okay. Anybody can have a bad day. He collects some tree branches—and even finds two that vaguely match. Alas, they don’t work—he’s not sure if they have too much or not enough wetted surface. 

Finally, he stumbles upon a short three-quarter inch thick pine plank—and uses that as a paddle. It kinda works—he just has to remember to change sides. And he does. Mostly. But not always. And occasionally he looks up and sees silent people watching him from their cockpits—and he sees in their eyes what no man ever wants to see. 

Bastards!

The next day—just his luck, it is low tide—somebody has their dinghy in his spot on the beach. Don’t they know that’s his spot? Newcomers! Screw them! So he lugs his dinghy up as high as he can—right to the transom of the other—only now his painter doesn’t reach the tree. 

He’s frustrated. 

Paradise? Hardly! And, like, he hasn’t got all frik’n day. So he loops his painter around the aft thwart of a dinghy that seldom moves. Seldom ain’t, alas, never. When Sam comes back his dinghy isn’t there—it ain’t anywhere. Well, at least the tropical air is warm. Sam passes out in a semi-soft inflatable—fairly comfortable, really. Only problem is some new Rambo-type a-hole comes down in the wee hours, and tosses Sam’s ass on the beach, literally. Sam tries to defend himself but, hey, the guy is like an MMA fighter or something. Sam ends up with a black eye and no toenail on his starboard big toe—he has no idea how. 

Sam would sail away if his engine ran or his sails hadn’t dripped off his boom—man, the sun is strong in the tropics. 

And sleeping on the beach is out—not with pale-skinned, aggressive Nazis roaming the shoreline in search of prey.

About an hour before dawn, Sam finds half a windsurfer half buried in the sand. He uses his hands for paddles—he should have thought of this years ago. He gets out to his boat okay—but fails to stand up while climbing aboard. He wobbles. He falls in. The half-a-windsurfer begins to float away. Sam swims for it—then decides it is too far. He turns back—but now the boat is too far as well. And when the sun comes up, it only makes matters worse. 

“When dey begin using dere own flippers for de paddle,” Red Mon told me later, “dat’s always a bad sign, dat’s always near de end.”

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com