I try never to be serious. I think ‘being serious’ is stupid. I prefer being an eternal child. Perhaps Bob Dylan put it best: Don’t Look Back. And, like a child, I have no desire to tell others how to live. In fact, I try not to judge. I’ve learned long ago that my answer might not be your answer.
But I’m in a melancholy mood today.
Yesterday I had dinner aboard the Mary Harrigan, a lovely 64 foot L. Francis Herreshoff-designed wooden schooner owned and skippered by Len Hornick.
Len’s quite a sailor. He’s chartered Mary Harrigan for over twenty years in Maine, Tortola, and along the east coast of the United States. Besides being a consummate seaman, Len loves boats. He’s passionate about boats. In fact, boats are at the core of his long, eventful, salt-stained life. He’s a sailor’s sailor, through and through.
But he’s also bitter.
“I don’t like ‘em anymore,” he says. “Most boaters don’t know anything about their boats, nor do they care. You can’t talk to ‘em about boats… they don’t have anything to say… except maybe which part number they ordered yesterday or which circuit board will go missing in tomorrow’s FedEx! So I don’t hang around ‘em. I just don’t. I got no use for ‘em. I anchor off, far off. So, yeah, I’ve mounted the Charlie Noble and cranked up the Shipmate— we’re wintering in Marlborough Sound on the south island of New Zealand. Yeah, it will be cold, but yeah… it will be away from the maddening crowd too.”
“You’re an old fart, Len,” I blurt, and immediately regretted it.
My words hit him like a body blow. He reeled a bit and then begrudgingly agreed. “I wasn’t always. There was a time I’d sail into a harbor, splash the dinghy and visit with every boat in the anchorage… all three of ‘em. Now there’s a couple of hundred boats in that same harbor and I don’t want to visit with a single one.”
There was a strange look of both belligerence and resignation on his weather-beaten face. I didn’t know what to say and the silence hung heavy. Finally, my mind lit on one subject I did agreed with him on.
“When I was a young’n aboard my first boat, I ate, slept and dreamt boats, boats, boats. And so did my best friends Dave Lovik and George Zamiar and a young Italian chick named Carolyn… we wanted to learn everything about every aspect of boats. So we sat worshipfully at the feet of more experienced sailors, like giant sponges. We also read the Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, we memorized pages of Kipling, pored over Conrad, learned by rote the sails of a full-rigged ship… we learned knots and fancy rope work… we did canvas work… stood on our bow and learned the difference between a cranze iron, gammit iron and the Norman cross.. we sang sea-chanties, for gosh sakes… and when I built the ketch Carlotta with my bare hands… I did every single thing on that vessel which didn’t require a metal lathe… every frig’n thing, save for turning the prop and rudder shaft!”
“…I cast a lot of the bronze hardware for Mary Harrigan myself,” cried Len with watery eyes as he pounded the galley table so hard he almost knocked over his gin bottle. “She cost me three times what they said she would— and I’ve gladly given her every penny since. What do I care? Woman have babies, sailors build boats..!”
…but I interrupted him with, “…and I’ve spent months at Mystic Seaport and the National Maritime Museum in England… why, I’ve held the actual log of Bligh’s Bounty in my trembling hands in New South Wales… and I’ve knelt and touched the very spot where Nelson died aboard the HMS Victory…”
“…I’ve had thirteen boats, wooden vessels all,” said Len, “and one of my former wives said, “Boating with you is… well, Len, you’re simply not rational about it!’ Did I mention she was an ex-wife?”
But I, too, was on a roll. “And I devoured every word written by Slocum! My wife Carolyn bought me a 1832 Bowditch, and I dog-earred it. Ditto, one of the original copies (only 500 privately printed) of Slocum’s Voyage of the Liberdade. Oh, how we laughed as we read (naked and in bed) each other sections of Frederic A. Fenger’s Cruise of the Diablesse… like it was erotic literature! I literally teethed on Eric and Susan Hiscock’s books. Ditto Harry Pidgeon, Carlton Mitchell, and the living legend called Irving Johnson and his beloved Yankee. Why, when my father introduced me to Ann Davison (in the mid ‘50s, aboard Twin Geminis) I was absolutely amazed to hear him say, ‘…this women is more man than I’ll ever be!’”
“I told Bud McIntosh I wanted more than just a boat,” ranted Len. “I wanted something… graceful and beautiful and strong and permanent and classic and noble and… a real boat!”
“And there were lots of other men… other boys… other Caribbean sailors, who cared about their boats and their marine traditions as much as I way-back then,” I rushed on. “Thatcher Lord. Paul Johnson. Bill Rich. Fritz Seyfarth. Big Jack Simmons. Fletcher Pitts.”
“…there’s no reverence for maritime tradition anymore,” lamented Len. “None!”
And I seconded that with, “A couple of days ago… on April 13, I happened to be walking past a boat and said to its owner sitting in the cockpit, ‘Did you know that Olin’s birthday is today… he’s 99 years young?’ And the guy said, ‘Who?’ I said, ‘Your vessel’s designer.’ And the guy said, ‘No, she’s built by Swan!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m talking about your designer, Olin!’ and he ducked below for a moment to check his ship’s papers and then came on deck to say, ‘No, she’s designed by S&S’”
“…don’t you just want to scream,” asked Len.
“And, on the same day, I’m talking to a guy on a double-ender about Colin Archer and William Atkin and such historic designs as the Irene and the Eric and he blows me off with, ‘No, this is a Westsail!’”
The bottom line: while accusing Len of being an old fart I discovered I was one too.
This was brought home even more forcefully the following morning as I pored over my semi-annual All at Sea ‘care’ package. I really enjoy getting the back issues. I like to keep up with what’s happening in the Caribbean: how the KATS program is progressing, the local race results, who’s screwing who, etc.
But it also made me feel old. I remember Jeannie Kuich as a young flower-kissed fox protected by a Hell’s Angel-type of guy named Mike. I first met Peter Holmberg when he barely knew how to row. I became friends with Peter Muilenburg just after he pissed off the president of the United States by sailing back and both in front of the Caneel Bay resort with ‘While Nixon Lazes Indochina Blazes’ on his mainsail. I knew Les Anderson when he was MORE sex crazed than he is now! Hell, I knew Manfred when he was just beginning and had only fathered a dozen or so children!
And we were all here in the Caribbean to get away from America, Europe and South Africa… not to replicate it.
…or invest in it.
…or put a price tag on it.
It may come as a shock but many white folk came to the Caribbean and Hawaii without the intention of becoming real estate agents.
We were sailing adventurers, far off the beaten track. Our first question in a new harbor wasn’t “…WIFI?”
A few days later my wife Carolyn, as usual, puts the whole subject into proper perspective. “Len says when there were three boats in the harbor he loved to visit with ‘em… well, there’s probably STILL three boats he’d love to visit with… he just can’t find ‘em among the three hundred. The world is getting more crowded, Fatty… more people, more boats, more cars. That’s progress. Get used to it. In the early days of automotive design, cars were unique things too. People felt passionate about them. Now they’re just ho-hum methods of transportation. Something similar is happening with boats. They are becoming… just things. Again… that’s progress. Get used to it.”
But some of us old curmudgeons don’t want to.
“It’s a crying shame that I gotta sail half way around the world to find a decent shipwright with wood shavings in his hair,” laments Len. “We’ll haul out in Whangarei soon… gotta take care of Mary Harrigan while I still can… before I toss off this mortal coil!”
Yes, Len. You must. It is your sacred duty. We sailors understand. You are her ship’s husband. She depends on you. Fight the good fight, Len! Stand tall, me son!