One day, at the age of seven or eight, I poked my head out of the schooner Elizabeth—and was amazed to see a large commercial excursion boat named Ranger III tied up on the other side of the dock. This was big news because I considered myself the pint-sized king of Slip #7, Vinoy Basin, St. Petersburg, Florida—actually, I felt I was the diminutive King Neptune of the entire harbor.
Who dare they enter my domain without permission?
Its skipper was a long, lean man named Captain Dave Winters. A Florida cracker with thick skin of brown leather, he carried his silence with ease. He looked me up and down calmly—as if in no rush—then gave a tug on the forward spring so I could hop aboard. His wife Irene was slight in build and half his height—and as talkative as he was taciturn. “Welcome aboard, son!” she said, “The harbormaster tolt us about you’all and your family’s blowboat—We hope you won’t mind all the noise but we’ll be gone by 9:30 seven days a week—feel free to take some ice whenever you want.”
Now we Goodlanders knew about ice and had even tasted it on rare occasions—but ice represented great wealth to us and the idea that we could partake of as much as desired simply did-not-compute. Even more amazing, the following day the phone company installed a ‘booking phone’ on the dock and Captain Dave built a wooden box around it—and gave us the spare key.
It was like, well, a spacecraft had landed and started giving out amazing, futuristic gifts. Wow!
Now I had a problem at the time—I was playing hide-and-seek from the local truant officer. He hadn’t got the memo that we sea gypsy children didn’t have to go to school—that we felt landsharks, bean-counters, and other dirt-dwellers didn’t have much in the way of useful education to offer.
Captain Dave got a twinkle in his eye each time the truant officer came around and I frantically hid 1.) under the dinghy tarp, 2.) in the port cockpit locker, or 3.) buried myself under sailbags in the forecastle.
My poor mother—in every port we stopped, she’d end up standing in the cockpit, staring up at hard-hearted officials in leather shoes, and saying, “I don’t have any idea where that little rascal is!”
Actually, starting my first job wasn’t such a big step—as I was already helping Captain Dave from sunrise to sunset getting the boat ready for the winter tourist season. I just sort of ‘oozed’ into being the soda jockey aboard. We could carry 88 passengers but normally had 40 to 60 aboard. We’d stop to swim and snorkel before having lunch in Bradenton, Treasure Isle, or Mullet Cay. It was a long day—we wouldn’t return to the dock before five in the afternoon.
Sodas were ten cents, and Dr. Pepper was almost as popular as Coca-cola. Canada Dry did pretty okay, too. Sure, we had candy bars, crackers, Slim-Jims, bottled water, bubble gum, potato chips, and snacks—you name it! I was practically running a restaurant, I was. Not only did I have to make change and guard the plastic bowl of money—I couldn’t allow no shoplifting either! Oh, I had responsibilities, I’ll tell ya!
And, yes, I got free sodas and snacks from the time we left the dock until we returned—and the only time I took a day off was to visit the local dentist.
Now the deckhand on the Ranger III was an old sailor named George R. Law from Maine—and George reeked of rum, had a red nose with blue veins, and was filled to bursting with sea yarns. He was ‘seven times a shellback’ (crossed the equator undersail) and certainly the most entertaining adult I’d met outside my family. “The seas would be so big, our ears would pop on the crests,” he’d thunder, “and in the troughs we’d snatch lobsters off the seabed in mid-Atlantic!”
Now, even as young as I was, I knew enough not to press George too hard on the facts for fear he might reduce his sea stories to just them alone—and then where would I be?
Now, before we left each day, Miss Girty and her husband Al would set up their table on the side of the road in front of the dock—and she’d bark. “All day! Shelling! Beachcombing!” she’d yell, waving a fistful of brochures. “Three stops! Porpoises, guaranteed! Perhaps manatees or sharks—why, sometimes we cruise alongside whales for an hour at a time!”
Girty was as big as a full-rigged ship—with a hefty top hamper and plenty of weigh-on when in a foul mood. The problem was her hubby Skinny Al—he always carried a nip or two of rum in hip pocket—and every time that a customer would ask Miss Girty about something in a sales brochure and she’d be distracted—he’d take an exaggerated swig from his trusty bottle, and give me a happy wink.
“Rum squall!” he’d cackle as he’d skip past me. “Stationary drunk front!”
“…what did you say to that boy?” Miss Girty would bellow, “don’t you go filling his head with any of your barroom nonsense! Cad! Rake! Drunkard! Scalawag! Bottle-hugger!”
That’s how it was back in the day in ‘newly-wed & nearly dead’ St. Pete—most men drank and had nagging women following them around telling them not to. A few men didn’t drink—and those were the captains, leastwise according to the US Coast Guard.
With a hundred folks boarding and unboarding Ranger III daily, a lot of landlubber stuff ended up getting inadvertently deep-sixed. Luckily, my trusty dive mask was always within reach. I dove up numerous watches, wallets, and wedding rings—quickly realizing that, while I could recover the item on the first dive, the fourth or fifth dive was always more profitable.
Now Irene had ‘a head for figures’ and thus was able to tell us daily that we were either going bankrupt fast or going bankrupt slow—that seemed the two marine options. George R. Law agreed, “If you want to make a small fortune on the waterfront, start with a big one!” And as a youngster, I was amazed to realize that Captain Dave and Irene didn’t really own the Ranger III, that a bank did—and that bank was always threatening to take her away.
Captain Dave was generous to a fault. He was always helping out around the harbor, sharing his expertise, his muscle, and his tools. He never said anything about it but it was during this time that I realized that a sailor’s reputation is only as large as the circle of sailors he assists.
Dave, of course, never sang his own praises—but that was okay because Girty, George, and Irene were always willing to. They told and retold a story about the Ranger II when, as a hurricane approached, her engine stopped from water in the fuel—and she would have been lost if not for a good Samaritan in the harbor. As a direct result of this, Dave was always super-aware of his fuel quality and always had a dozen spare Racor filters on hand. Plus, before hurricanes, he was always all over the Vinoy Basin—helping everyone get ready to seek safe harbor.
Since we were underway seven days a week, we assisted in many rescues of men and material. Captain Dave, once a tugboat skipper in Tampa, was a superb boat handler. We saved many a vessel from certain destruction—and I loved these ‘emergencies’ to demonstrate our pluck. If a boat could be snatched off, we’d snatch her off—as a point of honor. Occasionally, I’d assist George with manhandling the towline, but my favorite times were up on the bridge when I’d take the wheel for Dave while he ran aft to communicate or whatever. Oh, the looks of admiration from the other kids! Occasionally, he’d have me throttle down the Morse controls—and shift her into and out of gear while we attempted to drag/dredge a vessel off a shoal.
These were engineering puzzles to Captain Dave—and I greatly admired him for figuring them out. The more I watched, the more I realized he not only was my hero, but that he deserved to be. He helped people. He cared. And safety was always Job #1 with Dave—and with me for my ensuing 60 years offshore.
Think of a zany retelling of Tom Sawyer and the Tampa Bay Excursion Boat and you’re close to the reality of those sun-kissed days—ever since there has been a blurred line between family and crew in my life.
Of course, reality finally intruded. The truant officer won—they always do. I was shipped off to the Mary A. White grammar school on Fourth Avenue at ten and half years old—with a dog-eared copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in my back pocket that had all the dirty parts underlined in Crayon.
But we always kept in touch. Years later, in Chicago, I got a letter one late summer that, as promised, they’d be sending me a jet airplane ticket for the big ‘paid-off-the-ship’s-mortgage’ party. Alas, it was not to be. Captain Dave had helped one-too-many boaters prepare for a particularly threatening hurricane—and been late in getting Ranger III out of the harbor. She went down with all hands. And as I cried at the news I realized that Captain Dave, talented seaman that he was, was now teaching me his final lesson: that the sea is a harsh mistress.
And that the sea has no compassion—she will take the good along with the bad without hesitation.
A hard lesson, true, but one that every offshore sailor needs to learn. (Bio note: Fatty and Carolyn are somewhere in between Thailand and Indonesia in the middle of their fourth circumnavigation.)