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Yankee Trader, Fatty-Style

 

For many decades I’ve earned my living under sail. Mostly I do this by trading words for money, but occasionally I’ve been forced by economic necessity to buy and sell stuff—to temporarily become a sailing Yankee Trader.

Most of the gear I buy and sell is marine-related—if for no other reason than that’s what I know best. Once upon a time, I was the chief buyer at Marine Discounts, a used marine gear outfit on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale.

Once I purchased an entire double garage full of ‘boat junk’ in South Miami. Within hours, I recovered my money by selling just one of the seven Chelsea clocks to an eager, on-my-list marine antique buyer in Palm Beach.

When GPS came into wide use and sextants stopped being manufactured, I made a point of buying every used sextant I could. I have never lost money on a sextant and have made thousands of dollars in the process. This led me to Walker Logs, compasses in binnacles, ship’s bells, belaying pins, bronze anchors, small brass cannons, hand-bearing compasses, etc.

Another factor is international transportation. In Tonga the fishermen who carve the bills of swordfish are happy to get ten dollars for their ‘idle-time’ labor, while a buyer in Aspen is equally happy to pay $500 for the same thing. Win-win! My fellow circumnavigator David Wegman turned me on to importing Molas from the San Blas islands. (Buy from the canoe-borne transvestites—they sew the best ones!)

Vanuatu is the place to buy nambas—nobody does penis-sheaths as well. Vava’u and Niuatoputapu are renowned for their woven pandanus leaf baskets. Australia has many Aboriginal artists who create lovely boomerangs. The Dyak Indians specialize in poison blow darts—just don’t lick your fingers or you’re dead within five minutes.

Fatty and his Simon's Town trinkets
Fatty and his Simon’s Town trinkets

Even the Lesser Antilles still has the occasional treasure. We used to buy those beautiful brass rat traps made by the French prisoners in Guadeloupe. And once upon a time I considered exporting the fine lace linens those Saban ladies make—the elderly Dutch darlings who hustled you on the streets of The Bottom in the 1970s.

Right now you can buy hundreds of swords in Sudan for ten bucks a pop. But if you want the gloriously engraved British ones you have to pay $50 or so.

Opals are dirt-cheap in Australia—and both Madagascar and Borneo are rich in gemstones.

Speaking of cheap gemstones, Burma (now called Myanmar) is awash in rubies, sapphires, and jade. (Jade feels cold to the touch—an easy test. To test pearls, gently scrape the pearl on the bottom of a tooth—if it is smooth, it is a plastic or glass fake. Real pearls feel like sharkskin.)

Of course, there’s often sadness involved in buying antiques in such places as Burma. People don’t usually sell their cherished objects cheaply unless under severe stress—and profiting from their past misery seems both unfair and dastardly.

But life is hard and I’m a heartless capitalist. I don’t make the marketplace rules, I just abide by them. Besides, someone will buy and sell the items if I don’t. (Ah, how facile and transparent my thin moral justifications are!)

But the best cruising port currently for buying antiques is Simon’s Town in South Africa. Tie up at the False Bay Yacht Club. Within yards of its gate are a dozen shops selling highly desirable stuff at amazingly low prices.

Why?

Apartheid.

Once it was over, there was a mass exodus of fleeing wealthy white landowners. One minute they had hundreds of acres to store their expensive trinkets; the next, they were waiting in line at the Cape Town airport with two suitcases. This glutted the market as the local blacks weren’t overly interested in elaborate British tea sets. In fact, they viewed such gear as the visible reminders of the colonial era, and actively sought to punish the ‘curio shop’ dealers.

When the economy tanked in 2008, many formerly wealthy South Africans lost everything—further depressing the price. Then President Jacob Zuma started speaking out on international television and every time he opened his mouth, the rand went into global free-fall.

All of which is highly desirable if you happen to be passing through South Africa in search of such baubles. Simon’s Town is particularly blessed if you’re on a boat because it has been a wealthy navy town for over 300 years.

You’re hard-pressed to visit any building in the area without seeing a historical plaque about some Antarctic explorer such as Robert (with his wife Kathleen) Scott or such early sailing stars as Lord Nelson, David Livingston (I presume), nation-builder Cecil Rhodes, cartographer Robert Jacob Gordon, and the Portuguese explorers Bartolomeu Dias (who named the area the Cape of Storms), and way-cool-dude Vasco da Gama.

In fact, the oldest documented skeleton found in nearby Kalk Bay is over 15,000 years old—and was presumably visiting for the fishing. (Seals, penguins, and Great White sharks still abound.)

… and this isn’t even mentioning the most famous South African sailor in the Royal Navy ever—the legendary Just Nuisance, a Great Dane (dog) with a deadly thirst for British beer.

Such international illuminati soon attracted the attention of the local social-climbing diamond miners who craved respectability along with great wealth. They built the huge mansions in Simon’s Town that dot the area to this day.

The Dutch East Indian Company used Simon’s Town as its summer base—until forced out by the Brits.

This translates today into the antique shops being filled with dusty sextants, faded mortarboards, giant bronze flare guns, large deck-mounted gyroscopes, huge anchors, deck cannons, whale harpoons, yellowed compasses, gimbaled lamps, and dull-brass spyglasses—all at prices which make a happy buyer blush and feel guilty—well, not too guilty!

The good news is we just hauled our 43-foot ketch Ganesh and raised her waterline two inches. The bad news (heavy sigh) is that modest rise wasn’t nearly enough.

QUESTION: Have any favorite ports of call for finding treasures?  Chime in below in the comments…

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