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There’s much to envy about Mr. Fix-it

Sailing by day and chilling out by the bonfire at night, sipping a beer and strumming the guitar. Being driven by the joy, the wind and the tide. Sounds like the theme of a Jimmy Buffett song, yet the sailing universe still harbors characters who live this fantasy. Not necessarily on an island in the Caribbean but right here in the U.S. of A., strange as that might seem.

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There is this fellow out on the West Coast who works a day job, is happily married and still seems to have all the time in the world to mess around with boats that others deride as landfill material. And he’s playing Jimmy Buffet tunes on his guitar. As a true self-sponsored amateur, he doesn’t have a Pentagon budget, but he plays by his own rules, which are strictly defined by fun and affordability.

Brad Cameron will never scale the pedestal that’s reserved for those who battle for medals and millions. But closing in on 50, he couldn’t care less, as long as there are jalopies that can be bought for a song, fixed up, raced hard and put away wet. Besides, he generates revenue in the supply department. Paint, epoxy, sandpaper, hardware, fasteners, rigging, sails — it all adds up.

More customers like Cameron, who insists he doesn’t have a golden donkey in his back yard, would be a boon for the U.S. boating industry. Statistically he still is under the average boater’s age, and he spends almost every free minute and discretionary dollar to get his boating fix. He’s pulling down a trucker’s salary hauling recycled oil for re-refining. “A cushy job,” he calls it, because it gives him enough time to sail and plenty more to think about boat improvements or race analysis while he’s cruising his tanker down the boring stretch of Interstate 5 from Redding in the northern Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Once a sailor, always a sailor
Cameron started as a liveaboard child in Berkeley, Calif., on a 38-foot Block Island ketch with his parents and older brother. The family shoved off to sail to Hawaii when he was about 6, but the trip went bad 10 days out. Broken backstays, a recalcitrant rudder and a bout with mal de mer that knocked out the family forced Dad to steer by hand without relief. The final blow came when the water in the bilge turned out to come from a busted freshwater tank. Rough weather thwarted Dad’s attempt to transfer the family to a passing ship, so the only way out was the way back.

Life soon took a different tack for young Brad. After his mother’s untimely passing, sailing was no longer a priority. In the mid-1970s, when he was 17, he moved to Gulfport, Miss., to unload banana boats. He also crewed on a 35-foot trimaran, which whetted his appetite for sailing again but also brought about homesickness. Back in California he worked construction and, pretty soon, every imaginable position on a J/24. The boat was under the command of Capt. Bligh’s reincarnation, so Cameron jumped ship to sail with John Gulliford, who happened to work at the same company and became his sailing mentor.

“Brad is gregarious, a wheeler and dealer, and a great schmoozer, but he’s also valuable because he can do any job on the boat,” says Gulliford. “If it’s true that God looks out for sailors and fools, Brad qualifies on both accounts.” 

Many boats, the right spouse
By now Cameron knew enough about boats to embark on his “career” as Mr. Fix-it, but it didn’t all come easy. “I once bought a Thunderbird that needed a ton of work,” he remembers, laughing. “But I couldn’t keep up with the bills.” So the boat went the same way it came: It was impounded and sold to cover marina fees owed.

He learned the virtues of downsizing and acquired a Columbia 24 “to do a little cruising” with Debbie, who at the time was his girlfriend and in 1995 became the second  Mrs. Cameron. “I’m not a sailor, but a sailor’s wife,” she says, describing her role in Brad’s universe.

She only goes out when the weather is fair and others do the work, but she accepts her husband’s affliction because she admires his talent and likes to see him happy. “He brings home a crappy boat, fixes it up and does well with it,” she says. “Makes me wonder what he could do if money was no object.” How many boats has he owned since she has known him? “My gosh, too many to count. I guess at least a dozen.”

Early on, Debbie watched as he got into Tornado catamarans and Force 5 dinghies (note the plural here), a Hobie 20 cat and a Wing Dinghy, making friends along the way.

“My wife says Brad is my girlfriend,” jokes Steve Eyeberg, one of Cameron’s longtime sailing buddies. “He’s fun, he’s stable, and I can trust his judgment. When I want to buy a boat, I call him to get advice.”

Eyeberg says he enjoyed Cameron’s guitar playing (something he picked up during his wandering years) so much that he learned to play bongos so he could join the Jimmy Buffett campfire jam sessions. Eyeberg also crewed when Cameron hit warp speed at 27 knots on the hand-held GPS while reaching on the Hobie during the Delta Ditch Run. Earlier in that race they had pitchpoled, and Eyeberg cracked two ribs when he was hurled against the shroud. “It hurt like hell, but we still finished fourth.”

A defining moment
At one point Cameron inherited his father’s Newport 30 and again found his means stretched to the limit. “I had to get something I could afford, so I sold it and got Red Stripe, a Sonoma 30,” he says. “Same length, but 4,000 pounds less displacement, so I could drysail it.”

A Carl Schumacher design, the boat was fast but somewhat of a bear to handle because it was fitted with a rudder from an Olson 30. With a little help from his friends, Cameron put her against boats that had better sails and better, more experienced crew, yet he posted a string of top finishes in the competitive fleet of the PHRF Sportboat Division.

All was fine until the day things came unhinged between Alcatraz and Treasure Island. “We were flying the kite and making good time,” says crew Rock Van Schoiack, recalling that afternoon on Red Stripe’s foredeck. “Two tugs and a barge approached from the South Bay, and it looked like a clean pass. Brad called for a jibe, but the tugs changed course unexpectedly, so he called for another jibe. It blew a steady 20-plus, and suddenly all hell broke loose.” Spinnaker boom and halyard tangled.

By now one tug had passed in front and trapped Red Stripe between its stern and the barge. “Oh my god, we’re all going to die!” is how the skipper expressed his innermost fears. Luckily, the captain of the forward tug backed off the throttle, so the barge caught up and the cable sagged. When they got the spinny down, Red Stripe was about one boat length from that cable. Cameron slammed the tiller down, spun her around and sailed out of trouble. With some bad luck, they could have made the evening news.

The journey continues
After some soul-searching, Cameron put Red Stripe on the block for a fistful of money and bought a Merit 25, a less-extreme design. He dreamed about finishing the Pacific crossing that he and his folks had abandoned more than 40 years ago, and considered entering the single-handed TransPac. But the cost was prohibitive, so he went looking for another worthy wreck.

“For years I had lusted after this 22-foot cold-molded Pocket Rocket that was wasting away in the marina,” he says. After tracking down the owner and some haggling, a deal was cut: one cent to the dollar. “It took a while to realize that this boat would cost me $140. How can anyone pass this up?” he says.

Of course he couldn’t, so it was déjà vu all over again: fixing the delaminated hull, rebedding the keel, patching, priming and so on. However, the Rocket remains mostly mothballed because Cameron got sidetracked by the Contender, a classic single-handed dinghy with trapeze. He snapped up a used one just in time to begin practicing — “a steep learning curve” — for this year’s Contender World Championships, which will be held Aug. 18 to 23 in Kingston, Ontario, where the Olympic sailing events were contested in 1976. He won’t win a medal, but that’s beside the point.

“Top 50 or so and I’ll be happy,” he says. One surmises that this son of a sailor will be happy just being there, having fun on the water and strumming Jimmy Buffett tunes by the campfire.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue.