Every time I get discouraged by recent events—global warming, the rise of fascism, the sudden return of racism as a well-trodden path to political power, and the almost instantaneous waning of American international prestige—I go sailing. That’s right, I mess around in boats. I don’t have to sail far. I don’t have to sail aboard a fancy nor expensive vessel. All I have to do is get out on the water and trim my sails—Mother Ocean kindly does the rest.
I don’t need to study Zen—I sail.
Of course, I realize my going sailing doesn’t help the world. It only helps me. Still, helping me isn’t such a bad thing to do—especially if you are me. We all have to take care of ourselves in these turbulent times—or we’ll explode individually before we explode politically. And, I remember these words from my days as a protester during the 1960s: the first duty of a revolutionary is to survive.
The way I currently survive is by looking at my jib tell-tales in the South China Sea—by meditating on ‘em. Here’s the brutal truth: I’ve considered suicide—but never with a tiller in my hand.
And when I can’t actually be physically out of the water, I just think all the wonderful, weird, crazy things that have happened to me and my demented sea gypsy friends.
Why? Because during these globally gloomy days, we have two choices, laugh or cry. Laughing is usually the better option. So I turn to the solace of Mother Ocean. I love everything about saltwater and, crazily, I kinda think the water likes me back.
However, it’s not as much as my fellow circumnavigator Webb Chiles. Webb bills himself as an ‘artist of the wind’ and publicly challenges/taunts Neptune to take him. He once sailed an open 18-foot Drascombe lugger named Chidock Tickbourne across an ocean and laughed each time it capsized and dumped him out… in mid ocean, at night, during a full gale. “Come get me, Davy Jones!” is Webb’s attitude. (After the first capsize, he tied together all his remaining possessions with strings because the initial swamping took most of his food.)
A few years later, in the dead of night, a sloop of about 40 feet sank out from under Webb in the Gulf Stream, and he idly treaded water for 26 hours until a fishing boat drifted by. He thought to himself, “Took you long enough!” as he swam aboard. Both rum-reeking crew members were passed out. Webb was hungry after his swim but decided to wait. He was in no hurry. He dozed. At dawn, the two drunk fishermen awoke—confused and hung over.
“Okay if I scramble up some eggs?” Webb asked as they nearly jumped out of their skins.
I love Webb. He’s convinced that he can’t drown—that his drowning is cosmically impossible.
“Lord knows, I’ve tried,” he laughs.
Yeah, crazy sh*t happens offshore.
One day in mid-Pacific I was doing the ‘pole dance’ on the foredeck of our Hughes 38 Wild Card in preparation of jibing when the Genoa sheet half-hitched itself around my left arm and yanked me into the sky.
“This is awful,” I thought as my feet left the deck. Then suddenly the sheet went slack and I was smashed back onto the deck, hard. Nearly unconscious, I was a tad slow in brushing away the knotted sheet and thus was yanked aloft again. This time, being suspended in the air didn’t seem so bad—not compared to being whipped into the deck…then, bang again! This time I’d only been smashed into the deck for an instant, but long enough to realize my Casio watch was preventing me from clearing the line in the nano-second I had.
Dangling there in the air—with the Galapagos 1,600 miles astern and the Marquesas 1,600 miles ahead—I could hear my wife below on the off-watch, complaining, “What the hell are you doing up there, Fatty—wrestling elephants?”
“Is this a joke?” she screamed, obviously pissed off now. “Do you have any idea how loud that is down here?”
Whooooosh… back in the air I was pulled.
Luckily, my watch band broke while I was ass-over-tea-kettle on deck instead of swaying above the deadly deep blue sea.
Yes, marital strife is quite common at sea—even off Cape Horn. Our friends Noel and Litara Barrott of the heavy wooden ketch Sina were in a heavy gale off the Cape, when their large vessel was deck-swept by a large breaking sea. Litara was at the helm at the time and she saw her husband, her daughter’s boyfriend, and their tripled-lashed dinghy go overboard at the same time.
She caught sight of the young boyfriend swimming for the dinghy, so she opted to pick up the elderly Noel first. In times like this, MOB drills really count. Under trysail and storm staysail she managed to bring the heavy ketch to a stand-still beside her husband who managed to grab the rail. With his winter clothes on, he did not have the strength to bring himself back aboard. As Litara ran to help, Noah began complaining that she’d done it all wrong. He’d drilled her to pick up a MOB on the leeward side, not the higher windward side. Litara, who is a strong, no nonsense woman, listened for a second, then said, “You’re right,” as she attempted to push her husband back into the freezing sea off Cape Horn. “Let me try again!”
“No, no, no,” he screamed, the panic plain in his voice, “this is fine, honey, just fine!”
Noel now shyly admits that he hasn’t criticized anything about Litara since. And they even managed to bring the kid back aboard—although the dinghy was never seen again.
Wives can definitely come in handy. Off the coast of Brazil during our third circ, a huge group of birds descended upon our 43-foot aft cabin ketch Ganesh as we sailed through a tuna fleet at night. The birds were everywhere—in the cockpit, on the Bimini, on the aft deck. And each, upon landing, relaxed not only their bodies and their tiny bird-brains, but their sphincter muscles as well.
Carolyn was sleeping below and I didn’t want to wake her—but it was like a scary, fish-scented ice skating rink on deck. I was knee-deep in slippery, odiferous bird poop—and with swarms of fleas that accompanied them. Thus, I had to chase the huge birds away. Allowing them and their fleas to stay was not a reasonable option. I grabbed the boat hook and poked at one who just stared at me blankly. It was totally without fear. It had no idea that I was the biggest, baddest predator on the planet. So I took my boat hook and sort of insistently pushed the bird sideways while it glared at me as if shocked by how rude and ill-mannered I was. So there I was, in the middle of the South Atlantic, with birds making a monkey of me! This was NOT good. I’m a macho man, and, hey, my wife was aboard, so I’d show those pathetic birds who was boss!
Not only was every square inch of my deck occupied by birds, they kept coming. Regardless, I began to violently drive them away with my boathook in one hand and a swinging rope in the other.
My aft deck was the worst. It was absolutely thick with giant beasts. It was so dark out that I couldn’t see well as I finally battled the last bird away.
Since I’d slipped a couple of times, I was now smeared in bird poop. It was almost time to wake Carolyn for her watch, so I decided to clean myself up in the aft cabin shower, dry off, then wake her.
Alas, while undressing in the pitch blackness of my aft cabin—right under the open hatch—a giant trapped bird which had fallen below suddenly flew into my arms. Yikes! I was naked and poop-smeared and tired and scared… and had an actual prehistoric monster in my arms that was now biting my nipples off! Yeck!
The damn thing had me pinned down on the cabin sole at this point. It was flapping atop me acting victorious, when the naked Carolyn burst in and leapt upon us both.
“The sheet, the bed sheet, you fool!” she was screaming.
Did I mention the wind was up, it was rough and we were wallowing downwind in huge seas… and I was in a life and death struggle with a surviving member of the Pterodactyl family?
Finally I manage to sort of roll/crawl/whimper into the aft head area while the brave Carolyn bundled the equally-terrified animal into my bed sheet, brought it on deck, calmed the bird down, and then profusely apologized to the bird for my ‘inhuman’ behavior.
So much for me demonstrating my macho-ness to my wife.
Yes, it is easy to get into hot water circ-ing.
We were hanging with the crew of a Wetsnail 32 on a volcanically-active island named Tanna, in the Vanuatu group. Why? I can’t recall—because the husband was nice and the wife was hot? Something like that. Anyway, the islanders on Tanna are extremely nice but a tad impractical. When they realized that the people in NYC didn’t have ‘hot holes’ of constant temperature everywhere to cook food—they told me to ‘…tell the New Yorkers to send us their food. We’ll cook it, then send it back!”
Nice, but—yeah—slightly naive.
Anyway, one day the four of us mentioned we’d like to ‘hot tub’ together. We were instantly brought to a specific pool amid many pools—all steaming but this particular pool had a natural bench that was at a perfect level for sitting, plus the temp was just right. We had a swell time chatting together for the next couple of hours—until Carolyn and I wandered back to our dinghy.
The woman off the Wetsnail 32 went for a walk, and on the way back she thoughtlessly stepped into another identical-looking pool—which happened to be just a smudge below the boiling point. Ouch! (If she’d have fallen instead of being able to spring back out, she’d have died instantly. As it was, her dipped foot just stank like boiled pig for the next month or so.)
Yes, it is best to laugh about life—because crying doesn’t help.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that sh*t happens at every level, all the time, both on-and-off the water. We just have to deal with it—and the way I deal with it is by laughing.
We earthlings are currently suffering from a convergence of cosmic poop, that’s all. But as screwed up as the world currently is, our wind is still free. Mother Ocean still calls. My advice to all is to shut off your screen, go sailing, and avoid harbors with wifi like the plague… oh, darn, such an unfortunate choice of words!
Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn are currently celebrating Fatty’s 70th birthday in Southeast Asia. She bought him a comb, his daughter bought him a hair brush, and both his grandchildren chipped in for some bowling ball wax. “Gosh,” he said gamely as he opened his presents, “You have no idea how this makes me feel!”
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