We were about six years into our second circumnavigation – within a year or two of our finish – when we started picking up cyber chatter about a family reunion in Great Cruz Bay, our home harbor in the U.S. Virgins. Ruth didn’t contact us directly. It was her fellow organizers and other attendees who let the cat out of the bag.
“Your cousin Ruth invited us to the Goodlander gathering,” wrote one such person on my website. “And we’re sooooo excited!”
“Who else in the family will be attending?” queried another interested party who befriended us on Facebook. “Morgoo? Black Snake? The Sea Siren?”
“We’re bringing our Whitby 42 down from Maine – God, those prices at the Westin are outrageous!” e-mailed yet a third.
I said nothing – pretending to be in deep ocean, and out of cyber reach.
As we sailed out of the Med and started transiting westward across the Pond, the communications became more loving. “Your cousin Ruth told us about you swimming away from Carlotta as the eye of Hurricane Hugo rolled over you – with your seven-year-old daughter in your arms! We can’t wait to hear such tales firsthand.”
Cyber space is such a weird neighborhood. We had just spent years in Micronesia, Borneo and Vanuatu. We weren’t used to the easy intimacy of such chatty, too-familiar, too knowledgeable strangers.
Oh, they all seemed nice enough – but still.
This is part of the problem of writing your autobiography in your early 30s – everyone knows the grittiest, goofiest details of your life story. My entire life is an open book, literally and literarily.
Particularly avid readers begin to form a relationship with the book without realizing that it is one-sided. They slip into believing that their interior monologue is really a dialogue. They alter their reality to include the reader and the writer having shared experiences together – even if the beloved writer is strangely mute on the subject. The fact that there would be a number of such fans at the reunion that Ruth was organizing didn’t bother me. Hell, I’m used to that. While I’m not a household name ashore in America, being the long-term editor-at-Large of Cruising World magazine means that most international sailors know of me – at least by name.
I began to look forward to the event with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation, but was also fully aware the reunion probably would not happen. There was no mention of a date. Ruth never contacted me. Other family members weren’t planning on attending.
I expected it to fizzle. I was wrong.
We returned to U.S. soil in January of 2012 and had a large party at Maho Beach on St. John on Feb. 2 for my 60th birthday. Since we’d been away for seven years, I publicized it widely. All were welcome. It was well attended with a number of Fat Heads (what my devoted-yet-daffy readers have self-labeled themselves) attending as well.
The shocking part: two of the vessels attending were there on the island of St. John for the Goodlander Reunion that Ruth had organized. It was to be held in Great Cruz in six days. Ruth was already on-island staying at the Westin.
“Is she okay?” one middle-aged, rum-soaked lady asked me on the beach. “I mean, Ruth’s not here, is she? Is she ill? Or jet-lagged? Or just busy organizing that last-minute details?”
I am seldom at a loss for words, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. I just stared.
The confusion was apparent on her half-sloshed face. “It isn’t – like, a surprise reunion, is it? I mean – I haven’t blown it, have I?”
I assured her she hadn’t, and asked, as innocently as possible, “Do you have Ruth’s mobile number?”
“No,” the woman said, “but just call Westin reception, Room 1602.”
Did I mention, dear reader, that I don’t have a Cousin Ruth, never had a cousin Ruth, and doubt I ever will have a cousin Ruth?
Much of fame – especially the tiny fame of an almost unknown writer such as myself – puzzles me. It is often the 500-pound gorilla in the room. For instance, many people pretend they don’t know who I am, which gets confusing when you know they do. You are both pretending to share alternate realities, and that makes for some really weird, disjointed, stop-and-go conversations. But you have to play along with their sham or risk being accused of being egotistical, stuck-up, or worse.
Other folks get argumentative and want to put me in my place. Just as bad, are the deferential folks who concede all without a whimper because my pen is notoriously sharp.
And then there is the small matter of sequence. One of my newspaper features was plagiarized by a local writer I’ll call Ben the Borrower. I was a bit shocked, and complained. He sincerely begged forgiveness and offered a plethora of excuses: he was tired, there was deadline pressure, he was so enraptured of my words he subconsciously wanted them to be his.
I graciously allowed him off the hook. I saved him from being fired and professionally disgraced. A few years later I put the plagiarized story into one of my books, and a number of faithful fans called me up in shock. How could I have so blatantly ripped Ben off, almost word-for-word?
On another occasion, I heard of a brazen sailor cruising the Pacific who had read my Chasing the Horizon, and taken all my carefully crafted sea yarns for his own. He didnâ€™t write them down. Iâ€™d have had him cold if he did. He just retold them conversationally â€“ and, evidently, to good effect. People liked him. A lot. Many still do.
I was bemused, mostly. I took it as a compliment, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. But a few years later â€“ during my own crossing to New Zealand â€“ a number of skeptical sailors accused me of lying, saying theyâ€™d met the real guy I was pretending to be â€“ â€œmet him years ago!â€
â€œGet a life!â€ one snarled.
It seemed a tad crazy to attempt to explain to him that I had had a life. Iâ€™d written it down entertainingly with great effort and now was feeling a bit, er, set upon. Strange, eh?
Now a â€œCousin Ruthâ€ was in town, and the shit was about to hit the fan. Or, perhaps not. It turns out that this Ruth â€“ whoever she was â€“ had her husband and her son with her, as well as her seaborne entourage.
The situation was becoming more complex by the minute. What if Ruth was suicidal? What if rudely and publicly exposing her little charade kicked the flimsy props of her existence out from under her unstable feet?
â€œOh, thatâ€™s silly,â€ said my wife. â€œWhy not just confront her? Our inaction is killing me. Weâ€™ve been mute too long. Why not be pro-active?â€
â€œWe do nothing right now,â€ I said firmly. â€œI donâ€™t want to spook her or, perhaps, spook myself. Letâ€™s face it â€“ Ruth hasnâ€™t really done anything legally or morally wrong, at least not yet. Sheâ€™s never even communicated with us. Maybe it is the others who are lying about her. I think we should just wait-and-see.â€
We waited. The Big Day arrived. Nothing. The other â€˜family reunionâ€™ guests anchored in the harbor seemed to purposefully avoid us.
Finally, two days after D-day and three days before Ruth was scheduled to depart, one stopped by and started stammering â€¦ beating around the conversational bush incomprehensively.
â€œJust spit it out,â€ I said, totally exasperated.
â€œRuth is worried.â€
â€œAbout?â€ I asked.
â€œWell, as you know she used to drink pretty heavy. And smoke. And snort. Evidently â€“Â in the past â€“Â you and her had some words. She is totally over it, but worried you might not be. You know Ruth, she is soooo shy. And a lot of time has gone by. Youâ€™re semi-famous…â€
â€œDid she ask you to speak to me?â€ I queried, attempting to suppress my anger. The whole scene was beginning to make my blood boil.
â€œOh, no! Sheâ€™d die if she knew,â€ said the informant. â€œBut sheâ€™s, well, sheâ€™s Ruth! Sheâ€™s sensitive â€“ so easily slighted. But you know all of that, Fatty. The point Iâ€™m trying to make is, do you think you could make the first move?â€
The hotel at the head of Great Cruz Bay was originally called the Virgin Grand, then the Hyatt, and is now the Westin. I was anchored there in the bay when it was a deserted, pristine cove in the early â€˜80s and heard the first â€˜bangâ€™ of the societyâ€™s pile-driver with sadness. We boaters discover cove after romantic cove only to have the people who follow eventually throw us out.
But the Westin couldnâ€™t exactly throw us out, as many of the moorings in the bay were â€˜grandfatheredâ€™ in. It was a standoff between the boaters (who hated the hotel) and the hoteliers (who hated the boaters). Thus, I felt like I was behind enemy lines as I sipped a G&T and patiently watched the door to Room 1602.
Eventually, three people emerged, one of which could have been the son, and the other the husband. The woman, who I assumed was Ruth, appeared to be in her mid-50s. She had a ferret face, and a nervous, jailbird manner. She seemed to be blinking a lot â€“ as if life was too bright for her.
She ducked and feinted as she walked. There was a slight cringe to her. I was sure Iâ€™d never seen her before. Still, she was a human being. They strolled by. I waited until they were completely past, and then yelled sharply, â€œRuth!â€ She whirled to look at me, the fear plain on her startled, contorted features.
I dashed over, and scooped her up. I gaily swung her joyously around like she was a young, giggly girl. â€œYou donâ€™t look the slightest bit different!â€ I laughed aloud. â€œIt is so good to see you again after all these years!â€ (the end)*
Postscript: Eventually, we (gently, gently) pieced together the truth. Ruth was a friend-of-a-friend who had once met my father. As my mini-star rose, so did her, er, our, cousinhood. We had a wonderful three days together. The pseudo-family reunion was a gas, and, yes, I even sold a few books.