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Thursday, February 22, 2024
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HomeCruiseReminiscing Fritz Seyfarth: A Tribute to a Caribbean Sailing Legend

Reminiscing Fritz Seyfarth: A Tribute to a Caribbean Sailing Legend

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Back in the ‘70s, on the island of Conception in the Bahamas, we were the only boat in the anchorage. We swam naked. We made love on the foredeck. 

At night, we hugged our rum bottles and howled at the moon. 

The rest of the world faded. 

We had a world of our own—a watery Garden of Eden.

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A week went by. Perhaps two. 

One afternoon, in search of conch, we took our dinghy a mile or so around the windward point. When we returned from our hunting/gathering, Tumbleweed had joined our ketch Carlotta in the anchorage.

No one was aboard. There was no dinghy lashed to her deck or trailing on a painter astern. Yet all her hatches were open. 

Her owner must be nearby—perhaps looking for lobster under the reef ledges to the west. The reason we’d been looking for conch was because we’d eaten too much lobster! 

The water in the Bahamas was gin-clear. It felt as if our boat wasn’t floating—that it was, instead, suspended eight feet over pure white sand. 

Conception is part of the National Park system of the Bahamas. It is, was, and might always be—uninhabited. And the particular cove in which we’d found a lee was seldom visited. 

Why?

Because it was protected by razor-sharp coral heads that were difficult to see against dark turtle grass. I’d carefully powered in with the sun high and over my shoulder—and twice almost came to grief.

Cruising Tales: The End of a Charter Skipper and his Gallant Lady

I’d heard the name Tumbleweed before—or did I have it cross-wired with a title of an old John Wayne movie?

She was a lovely old wooden boat—justified by time and King Neptune, as if she’d learned a lesson from each wave that had slapped her. 

Boats weren’t disgraced, back in the day, with crass nameplates nor other promotional branding. Knowledgeable sailors could spot the distinctive bow shape (apple-ish, in the area of the bobstay) of Alden, the chunky, slab-sided cabin houses of William Atkins, or the graceful joining/comingling of the toe rail, transom cap, and counter that made L. Francis Herreshoff’s transoms so harmonious. 

Strangely, Tumbleweed’s engine exhaust had been bunged with wood. Whoever owned her had sailed her in through the coral heads without an engine.

Happy Hour was just around the corner. Carolyn, my wife then and now, was already tossing around pots and pans in the galley—preparing to make conch fritters, laced conch, and sweet & sour conch. 

On an unrelated note, I once went to an eye, ear, nose, and throat doctor. I looked okay but he took his sweet time examining me, then asked, “…automobile accident?”

“Actually, it was an animated discussion with a dozen gang members atop Fort Hill in Boston. I thought I was cleverly winning the debate until they pulled out short sections of rebar.” 

“Ouch!” said the doctor.

Fritz in the Stocks
Fritz in the Stocks

My point is this: to an ordinary person, due to the miracle of modern medicine, I appeared normal. However, to an expert, it was obvious that my nose had been broken, my cheekbone fractured—and my left tear-duct crushed so badly that half my face turned yellow from its month-long oozing. 

I’m like this with boats. They speak to me—usually of their pain. Or their neglect. Or of their longing of the open sea. 

I snorkeled over to Tumbleweed to give her a closer look. I could sense her noble spirit. But it was also apparent to me that she’d recently suffered a terrible tragedy. 

To others, she was just an aging boat. To me, she was a tragic tale as yet untold. 

In her bow area, she had more Dutchmen (short planks) than the Hague. One side of her stem looked different than the other. Her rail cap had been replaced to port—not with matching ribbon-cut mahogany but with cheaper Miranti.

Parts of her rig—actually, all of it—was a mishmash of different manufacturers. Even the size of the clevis pins didn’t match. 

Her split rig had four spreaders—each different in shape, finish, and wood type. Some were, yes, Sitka spruce; but others were Douglas fir. 

Yes, something major had happened to Tumbleweed—something bad that had taken a determined-but-penniless wood butcher years to repair. 

…well, repair as best as they could with what they had—which was little or less.

Now the protocol here is interesting—two vessels in a deserted anchorage, each seeking solitude. Tumbleweed’s owner had done the right thing. He’d anchored as far away from Carlotta as possible. Thus, I didn’t immediately row over and start peppering him with questions like a Feeb (FBI agent). Instead, I rowed around the harbor with my glass-bottom bucket until I gradually/casually drifted within hailing distance as the sandy-haired, brown-as-a-coconut skipper tossed his string of reef fish and his Hawaiian spear aboard Tumbleweed’s aft deck. 

Cruising Tales: Breaking in a New Charter Skipper – Part One

He wasn’t a large man but he rippled with muscle—or, perhaps, it was his poverty that kept his abs so sculpted.  

“Howdy,” he said, and dipped his head in deference. I heard many things: West Texas, most clearly. Country. Grit. Hard work. And, again, tragedy sprinkled with pain. Oh, and an echo of reluctance—and fear, even—to be hurt again. And again. 

He wore his heart on his sleeve—which isn’t where he wanted it but where it resided and what-was-a-man-to do? 

“That mainmast is plenty forward, isn’t it?” I said, staying on safe ground—sticking with what I knew.

“All of Alden’s ketches are like that,” the man said, “And they balance beautifully I’m single-handing and—not only don’t I have a self-steering device—I don’t need one.”

“I grew up on one of John G’s designs,” I said. “The schooner Elizabeth. Design #213, sistership to Yvonne.” 

Suddenly, the man looked at me—really looked at me. 

Bonding by boats. It used to happen all the time when boats were as unique as their owners. 

His eyes were both watery and piercing—but there was something wrong with their tracking. (He was blind in one eye—which gave the impression he was looking through a person.) But there was also an earnest boyishness about him as well, a self-effacing modesty. That, and, incongruently, a steely-eyed determination. 

“You don’t say,” he dawdled, as if needing time to make a decision. 

Again, the twang of a barn struck my ear—faint reverberations of horses braying. Then he smiled—like warm sunlight spilling over a ridgeline. I took it as an invitation. 

“I got an Italian wife,” I said. “Loves to cook—especially for Texans. Care to come aboard for Sundowners?”

_________

The first Great Truth—or obvious incongruity—of Fritz Seyfarth was that he was the gentlest of men and that he rode bulls. Big bulls. Real bulls. He was a man of many talents—and an equal number of contradictions. Wildcatter of oil rigs. Petroleum engineer. Texas A&M graduate. Yacht racer. Friend. Sea gypsy. Charter boat skipper. Womanizer. Loner. Entrepreneur. And much, much more. 

Whenever Fritz glanced away, it was as if he was searching for a distant horizon—rooms ashore seemed too small to contain him.

But there was no swagger cloaking Fritz—only a shy self-awareness that, no matter how well Fritz rode the bulls of his life, they’d always throw him into the gutter. 

…always leave him broken, bleeding, and bewildered—yet, perversely, wanting more. 

A sliver of Texas nobility clung to Fritz. He was a man who kissed life full on the lips—despite getting repeatedly kicked in the teeth by it. 

When he was younger and sprier, sometimes he’d walk away from the bull. But increasingly as the years passed, he’d limp or crawl away—first to a chiropractor, then to the surgeon. Eventually, every time he rode a bull he broke a bone—until the last time when the damn bull broke so many bones that the doc ran out of adjectives to describe his injuries. 

“Sometimes in the middle of an offshore gale,” Fritz would joke, “when I’m trying to tuck a reef in and I lose my footing and come crashing down on the wet deck… well, I think to myself, ‘shit, this ain’t nutt’n! Not compared to that Last Bull!’”

I can’t remember the name of that Last Bull in Fritz’s life, but he sure could, and he’d often bring up the name with a shy, exasperated shake of his head. 

…dang life was confusing!

Life, especially life ashore, perplexed Fritz. There was a whiff of the hayseed about him but his bewilderment often translated into humor. Humor was his camouflage. He openly laughed so he didn’t privately cry. 

He had a million jokes, and he and his ‘don’t-fence-me-in’ mentality were the brunt of them all. 

Fritz was a handsome, soft-spoken, almost-growed-up cowboy who cried out for mothering—and potential mothers came forth in every port from San Diego to San Blas, from Trini to NYC. 

Fritz was never a kiss-and-tell guy but sometimes his good eye blazed in erotic remembrance. 

There was something dangerous and fleeting about him—like holding a firefly within your fist: if you can see its light, it flies away. 

And here’s a brutal truth: a sailor is a one-trick pony. They leave. That’s their sole trick. They sail away. And, at first, there’s a sense of relief for them; a sense they’ve escaped the velvet handcuffs of shore. But, in time, they remember the loose ends. The broken promises. The shattered shoreside dreams.

Fritz looked worried when he’d stare back at his frothing wake—and woulda’, coulda’, shoulda’s flooded his brain. 

He was a rough and roving cowboy with a too-sensitive conscience, always a bad combo. And like cowboys of yore, he didn’t want to be fenced in by some dirt dweller’s morality.

Offshore, there are no fences. 

…nor gossips, for that matter. 

But the main problem with Fritz wasn’t the things he actually did—it was the fact that he blamed himself for what he didn’t do as well. Think: silent cowboy with a tear in his eye. 

And, worse, Fritz thought that if he was just a better person—that his sins would somehow be washed away. 

Fritz ended up being about the most intriguing person I ever knew. And it stemmed from this lifelong, flickering internal conflict…the dark hidden secret that he wasn’t quite as good as he should be. 

No one is. And Fritz, as wise as he was, didn’t know that. 

Yes, there was a bit of the reclusive monk about Fritz (as there often is with singlehanders), as if he was atoning for a sin in a previous life. And, in a different person, this might have melded into total misery or the grumpy life of a hermit. But not with Fritz. He was a ragged survivor and wasn’t going to allow yesterday to ruin tomorrow. He mostly lived in the moment. And he continuously laughed—not at life nor at others; solely at himself. 

Everyone was daft—he only more so. 

And so, he hid and played peek-a-boo using his humor. On his eventual office wall would be a sign that read, “We’ve upped our literary standards—so up yours, pal!”

Of course, he became addicted early. Not to booze or drugs—to sailing. And soon he was skippering the foredeck of one of the most famous California racing yachts in San Diego. And he trained many young sailors on the setting and dousing of light air sails—even a young kid named Dennis the Menace of America’s Cup fame, who, at this point in Dennis’s youth, could still see his toes.

And, for a while, Fritz had it all—a prestigious job as a civil engineer, a loving wife, and two (equally handsome) sons. 

Then, one day at work, his boss asked Fritz what he wanted to do with his life. Cowboys aren’t just slow talkers—they’re slow to even begin speaking. They don’t use fill-words, they don’t beat around the bush. Their thoughts are like tumbleweeds blowing through lonesome canyons in their minds. But they think deep. And hard. And have very, very little pity for themselves. 

Fritz stared out the window at the oil-rig-strewn desert while deciding how to put what was in his heart into words. And, since it was complicated, he stepped outside to consider the question. And walked down a dusty road—away from the oil wells—to a backwater shipyard where he purchased the real love of his life… the built-in-1935, Alden-kissed, carvel-planked, ketch-rigged Tumbleweed. 

Now I have a confession to make, dear reader. I don’t sail around the world to tell others who I am—but rather to discover who they are. In a sense, my entire watery life has been spent sailing in the wake of my heroes. 

How can you become who you want to be if you can’t recognize those traits in others?

Let’s put it another way—without misfits and melancholies, I’d have no friends at all. 

As I listened to Fritz spin the yarns of his many voyages, I soon realized that Fritz was the sailor I wanted to be. 

And, over the course of the next 30 years, as I saw him interact with friends—so open-heartedly and yet shyly fragile—Fritz also became the man I wanted to be as well. 

Perhaps because he didn’t want to reveal anything about himself, he always asked about others. What did they need? How could he help?

Helping others—be they rich or poor—focused his mind.

The following evening in that fateful anchorage of our first meeting in the Bahamas—we had Fritz over for dinner. Fish, of course—with a conch appetizer and lobster for the main course. For drinks, we had lukewarm plasticky-tasting water—the drink of choice… er, of necessity for cruising sailors in the 1970s. 

Fritz was talking to Carolyn about something—and the book Tales of the Caribbean came up. 

“Did you read it?” I asked Fritz. 

“Many times,” he said, grinning

“Me too—and I loved it,” I said, still not catching on, “It was truly a Feast of Islands.” 

“Um,” said Carolyn, always the smarter, more-aware one, “He wrote it, Fatty.” 

“…you’re not THAT Fritz, are you?”

I was astounded. Sure, the boat’s name had rung a muted bell—but many do. 

Now, they say not to meet your heroes but this certainly wasn’t the case with Fritz. Not only was he open-and-willing to share his writing process—he was amazingly encouraging as well. 

“Don’t listen to anything about writing from a non-writer,” Fritz told me, “And then only to about half of what a writer says… make that a quarter of what most writers say!”

As a struggling wordsmith who’d dropped out of high school after failing sophomore English, his reassuring words were a breath of fresh air. 

I saw Fritz through fresh eyes—not just cowboy, man, and sailor—but as an established author as well. 

He was already the master of everything I aspired to. 

“It’s not about grammar or punctuation nor the wording of a query letter,” Fritz told me, “It’s about spinning a yarn. Ever told a story about one of your passages to a friend—and they really loved it? Well, if you can translate that story onto the printed page and translate it into prose, you can be a professional writer. Don’t allow anyone to tell you different. The idea isn’t to get everyone to love your stuff—only a few readers here-and-there will do. The world is a big bookstore, with word-of-mouth the best advertising. Your reader signs your paycheck—not the editor or publisher. But, you gotta get your stories out into the marketplace, you gotta give your writing the promotional labor it deserves. And a few readers in the Caribbean add up. Plus, some sailors in the Bahamas. And in Fort Liquordale. The Chesapeake. Maine, too!”

Listening to Fritz made it all seem do-able. 

…hell, he’d already done it! He was living proof. 

His advice wasn’t theoretical—it was practical and step-by-step. 

“Don’t be dismayed by rejection slips—they are just failing publishers too stupid to see the worth of your work! Next week, they’ll all be out of business, but a sailor with a pen pulsating with ink and a heart full of desire will never starve… be hungry, yes; starve no.” 

Here’s the truth—I glommed on to Fritz like a tossed ring buoy in a storm. No man, save for my father, ever taught me more in less time. 

Finally, Fritz said, as we hoisted anchor ten days later, “Look up Dyke and Inga of the Alden schooner Mandoo—wait a sec, on the Gallant 53 Zulu Warrior.” 

At the time, Dyke and Inga Wilmerding were the gold standard of the crewed chartering world. They’d chartered for more than 30 years in the Caribbean and made a million friends, four or five dollars—and not a single enemy. They both brimmed with warmth and a laidback charisma. 

“Fritz recently wrote us a letter from Georgetown, Great Exuma,” Inga said as I scrambled aboard, “And told us you were coming. Beer or Mount Gay & Coke?”

They soon introduced me to Peiter and Pat Stoeken of the CYS 44 Independence. Thus, within 24 hours of my arrival in the Virgins, I had two names that would open almost any door (or, more importantly, companionway) in the Lesser Antilles. 

Fritz soon showed up in Virgins aboard Tumbleweed. I became his sidekick. I spent months following him from cockpit to cockpit while he regaled his hosts with the story of his almost fatal collision offshore—and being too busy bailing to even get the name of the freighter that ran him down in the Bermuda Triangle. It had stopped—he assumed to rescue him—then sped away. (Eventually he was saved by a USCG vessel named, appropriately, Sagebrush. How cosmically-perfect is that!)

“The whole stem was smashed and twisted to starboard,” Fritz would say, “And I had to stuff a mattress in it immediately or I’d have sank within the first few minutes. The mainmast was gone and the mizzen badly damaged…” 

Or he’d tell hysterical stories of what a terrible charter skipper he’d been—always, somehow, managing to end up with the ‘guests from hell!’

“I had $300 when I left San Diego,” he’d say, “And considerably less when I arrived in the Virgins a couple of years later. 

I’d watch the faces of the listeners. 

Yes, Fritz could spin a sea yarn—and, ultimately, transfer his passion and lust for living onto the printed page. 

Could I do the same?

I went to Caribbean Boating to find out. They initially paid me between $5 and $10 per story—which made me a total sucker to most people and a ‘professional writer’ to myself. 

Often, owner Jim Long wouldn’t actually come up with the ten or fifteen bucks he paid me per week,  but would give me a list of advertisers who’d stopped paying him. 

“All you gotta do,” he’d tell me in a very reasonable tone, “is pistol-whip the money outta them!”

“Welcome to the literary world,” my wife would smirk. 

One grocery store paid me in dead fish—another refused and so I grabbed an armful of Planter’s Peanuts and fled. 

“First they pay you in dead fish,” my wife said, “And now you’re literally being paid peanuts!” 

“Ignore the nay-sayers,” Fritz would advise. “They aren’t writers—you are! I loved that story about you puking on the nuns—and the one before that about being arrested in Michigan with the twin blonds… both were genuine knee slappers!”

Fritz’s praise, coming from an established writer who made his living with his pen, was pivotal in my fledgling career. 

I kept spewing words—overcoming my lack of talent with sheer volume. My wife called my stories ‘homing pigeons’ because no matter where I’d send them in America—they always came straight back home.

Meanwhile, Fritz managed to charm his way into an office—just a tiny shack, really, on Marina Cay. From there he churned out six wonderful books, mostly about pirates. 

At one point, he was having difficulty shoving books out the door fast enough. So, he decided to hire a Tortola gal—a secretary—who came highly recommended. This gal could type, like, a million words a second! Fritz was wowed. “You’re hired,” he shouted. 

“Not so fast,” the girl said, “my grandmother needs me to take her to the hairdressers on Fridays. I can’t work on Fridays.” 

“Fine,” Fritz said. “Four days a week is fine.” 

“But,” said the gal, “my mother wants me to help her in the garden on Mondays—and my girlfriends always meet in Virgin Gorda on Thursdays.” 

Fritz was starting to get the idea. Still, he persisted. “Well, when can you work?”

“Wednesdays,” said the gal. 

“Okay,” said Fritz with a smile. “Wednesdays it is.” 

On Wednesday, the gal showed up as promised—but with an important question before she’d start work. 

“Every Wednesday?” she asked Fritz.

Fritz always told this story with admiration. 

He didn’t like to work to someone else’s schedule—why should Tortolians? 

He loved the Caribbean and its people, once telling me he’d ‘written another love letter to the Lesser Antilles’ when he came out with a new book. 

Best of all, he shared the step-by-step details of his literary successes with me on a weekly basis. 

We had him aboard Carlotta and Wild Card for dinner dozens of times. 

“Hell,” he’d say, “If a bull-addled, West Texas fool such as myself can get pennies to dribble out of his pen—so can you, Fatty!”

I followed Fritz’s advice nearly word-for-word. Lothar Simon of Sheridan House loved my Chasing the Horizon but I wisely turned him down and kept full rights by sending it to Russ Tate of Van Volumes instead. It was a move that ultimately made me a quarter of a million bucks I might not otherwise have… thanks to Fritz and his shy-but-accurate counsel.

We visited each other regularly and we both sailed our vessels in various local regattas. I’ll never forget the bizarre time in St. Bart’s when Tumbleweed came limping into Gustavia with no visible boot top. I immediately rowed over to help Fritz bail. 

Fritz was thigh-high in bilge water and floating floorboards but he graciously welcomed me aboard, gave me a cold Heineken, and told me to sit in the lotus position atop his (relatively) high icebox. 

Then he made small talk as he bailed his bilge water into the cockpit with a bucket. 

“Let me help,” I said. 

Fritz was a single-hander in every stubborn sense of the word—and refused. 

I was confused. It didn’t make sense to me. Fritz’s boat was still leaking badly from its garboard being strained during the race. WTF?

I jumped down and started to help without his permission. 

It was the only time Fritz ever got mad at me. 

He held up his gnarled hand for me to stop—then sternly bade me get back atop the ice box. By way of explanation he said, almost hissed, “It’s my water, Fatty.” 

Stubborn? Yes, absolutely—but it was the stubbornness of someone who carries their own water on all levels, and never demands someone else do so. 

By this point, Tumbleweed was rotting faster than a nearly penniless skipper could repair her. Her engine hadn’t run in a couple of decades. He’d “…placed the Black Shroud upon it,’ in his own words. 

Worse, in the mid-90s Tumbleweed was severely damaged by hurricanes Luis and Marilyn. 

Fritz ended up giving her to a young dreamer who took her to Coral Bay, St. John and almost immediately allowed her to sink. 

A part of Fritz died with Tumbleweed—his final desertion. 

But he soon managed to buy a horribly-blistered Valiant 40, a wonderful Bob Perry design. He began to make boyish, hopeful plans to singlehand offshore once again, but this time in a boat that didn’t have more leaks than the White House, more weeping holes than a spaghetti-strainer. 

There was a lot of Tom Sawyer in Fritz—a dreamer, yes; but a dreamer with determination and grit. 

His happiest period was when he was reunited (by a name discovered by happenstance in a dusty phonebook) with his two sons. He invited them aboard Tumbleweed and cruised the Virgins. And they reciprocated by flying him to America and showed him the Grand Canyon. 

If things went well in life—Fritz made light of them. If they went horribly astray, he made riotous sea-yarns of them. 

My favorite was when, in the mid 90s, he went to Goddard University to study under a best-selling literary novelist that he much admired. 

It was an expensive trip ashore—but worth it, Fritz was sure. 

The novelist, however, considered himself a Don Juan of considerable distinction—and spent all his class time attempting to seduce adoring female students. Worse, Fritz had one of his stories critiqued by a room full of uber feminists who didn’t take his old-fashioned, aw-shucks ideas on gender equality kindly. They savaged him. Fritz, of course, was too shy to point out (to the room full of the unpublished) that his pen had dripped money since before they were born—and that the particular story they’d castigated him for had sold to six different publications around the world.  

“Some days,” he told me later, “it’s best not to step ashore.” 

Alas—despite or because of his new Valiant 40—Fritz was dead-broke. So, he took a delivery job on Sirocco, a bright red go-fast that needed to get to Newport for the summer season. 

That night, on the eve of setting off on yet another ocean passage, the 69-year-old Fritz Seyfarth passed away silently while anchored off Caneel Bay, St. John, USVI. 

That morning, as I passed through Love City, one of the EMTs, a sailor, took me aside and broke the news. “Your buddy passed away during the night.” 

“My hero, you mean,” I said, after learning it was Fritz. 

Now the USVI has all the rules and regs of the US of A—and you can’t just carry off a dead body and do whatever. So, Fritz went to St. Thomas to ensure that no foul play was suspected. None was—his delicate hereditary heart condition was widely known. 

Now, the vast majority of Virgin Islanders aren’t rich. They have their own way of dealing with the dead, none of which requires money. Thus, Fritz was sort of ‘left out’ on the loading dock at a specific time—and a bunch of wonderful fishheads from Red Hook wrapped him in rusty anchor chains and rolled him up in an old sail—then stitched/lashed it all together. (Traditionally, the sail needle gets put through the nose of the dead sailor at the end… just to make sure. This part was, thankfully, left out since Fritz had an official death certificate.)

And then Pat and Peiter Stoeken—along with myself—made the sad journey out to the French Cap drop-off. We said some words—words too private to repeat in print. 

And we sent Fritz off on his final voyage down into the Deep Blue Sea. 

…honored. I was honored to see him off.

He was, and forever will be, my favorite cowboy. 

Every time I hear that Lyle Lovett cowboy song about a horse and a boat, I think of Fritz. 

And I am also grateful—grateful, at least in part, because I’ve become the salt-stained inkslinger Fritz encouraged me to be.  

Fair Winds, Fritz—fair winds. 

(For more on Fritz and some free book downloads, see Fritzseyfarth.com)

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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
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
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