Island time - Half in the bag to the bitter end - Soundings Online

Island time - Half in the bag to the bitter end

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A scurvy sailor once again puts his vagabond ways behind him and slinks back to civilization

A scurvy sailor once again puts his vagabond ways behind him and slinks back to civilization

To those of you who have visited this space over the past couple of years, I have a confession: I have failed again. In fact I am beginning to think I am a serial failure. This is the second time I have tried to quit the grind and wander the islands, and the second time I’ve had to come back to toil in an office. Your eyes, I’m sure, are moist with sympathy.

We came back because our most recent Caribbean strategy fell through. In Plan A, my first mate, Kelly, and I sailed to the Dominican Republic to operate a tourist charter fishing business. We were told to get there ASAP, but by the time we arrived, our Dominican partner — the “fixer” one needs to do business in that country — had withdrawn because some of his other businesses were in trouble.

Then Plan B: I had a new job in Annapolis, 1,200 miles away, and the boss wanted me there as soon as possible, so we turned my ketch, Rio, around and pointed her back the way she came. To Kelly, I said, the great thing about going “home” would be the sailing; you can count on the easterlies to give us a reach all the way.

Power to spare

May is usually pretty settled in the Bahamas, but not this time. We were stuck for days waiting out the squalls and big seas caused by distant winds; there was either too much or too little. In the end we motorsailed almost the entire distance to “The Sailing Capital of the Galaxy,” or whatever it is they call that shining city on the Chesapeake.

In previous scribblings, I have omitted the fact that Rio was carrying cargo. No, nothing illegal, just a big spare part. The ultimate spare, you might say. When I mentioned my Dominican plan to Richard Mastry of Mastry Engine Center, the big Yanmar distributor in Florida, he convinced me that I should buy a used but serviceable Perkins 4108 he had sitting in his shop. Rio, you see, is powered by a 4108, so why not buy a spare? The price was right.

So I built a cargo palette on the aft of the cockpit and attached it to existing deck fittings with turnbuckles. We lashed the engine to the palette as close to the centerline as possible and had room for other gear as well. I fretted about so much weight above the waterline, but then dismissed my doubts. What’s 500 pounds? Think of it as if it were two really Rubenesque ladies chatting about all things Oprah on the back deck.

We played the weather with even more caution than usual, and the old Perkins enjoyed a boat ride to the D.R. and back without ever coming out of its wrapper. On the return trip, the other cargo was gone so I began treating the palette like my own captain’s poop deck, perching there in a beanbag chair, sipping a beverage with Lena the Cat and my buddy, Blue Perkins.

I really despise contemporary cruising sailboats with the “jungle gym” of stainless steel arches, antennas, davits, solar panels and windvanes behind their cockpits. In practice, however, I have carried a certain amount of “stuff” back there myself. Now we were arriving at the Galactic Capital with reservations at one of the nicer marinas. When we were backing into the slip, with our scrap wood palette supporting a beanbag chair and spare engine (tastefully shrouded inside a blue plastic tarp), I imagine some of the neighbors must have heard the theme song to “The Beverly Hillbillies” playing in their heads.

Poop decks and beanbags

As soon as I can sell the spare engine I’ll remove the palette, but actually, like the platform it creates. I’m thinking that a good fabrication shop could recreate it out of aluminum tubing, and I would bolt it to the deck and plank it with finished teak like a deck. Without Mr. Perkins, there would be space for two beanbags.

What’s with the obsession with beanbags? you may be asking. My editors here at Soundings actually cringe when I bring up the topic, but since it’s my last column, I will briefly share my advocacy of beanbags.

They fit into any nook of your cockpit to provide comfort on long night watches and warmth on winter passages. So what if I got the idea from a couple of Bohemian sailors I knew back in Newburyport in the ’70s? Ed and Margot Siegmann always looked like characters from “Alice in Wonderland,” bagging it in the cockpit of their wooden ketch, Frolic.

I was skeptical, but after a couple of ocean passages I became a bag believer.

Here in our Annapolis slip we are surrounded by unblemished spars and freshly molded fiberglass. To my eye, these new boats have an odd helm configuration. There’s not even a place to sit, let alone park one’s posterior in a glorious sack of polystyrene bits. I thought the jungle gyms were bad, but incredibly on some of these whizzy new boats, the helmsman is meant to stand at the wheel, facing a chartplotter and other electronic readouts mounted at eye level. He or she would actually have to step aside to see in front of them. If they sat, they would see neither their instruments nor much of the road ahead. It seems to me like the designers have combined the very worst elements of the 19th- and 21st-century helm ideas.

Many vessels here are pleasing to the eye, not the least of which is that Hallberg-Rassy on our port side, but so many production boats have a look that reminds me of stretched out, stylized household appliances. Kelly likes this look, and she should, since it was her they had in mind when they drew the lines.

Imparting nautical ‘wisdom’

In any event, we are here in Annapolis for the foreseeable. We’ll clear out the cruising clutter — fishing pole, conch shells, milk crates — I’ll sell the spare Perkins, and Rio will begin to blend in with the other white plastic boats.

My commute to the office involves getting in the inflatable, crossing Back Creek to the dock by Davis’ Pub and walking five minutes to the offices of Waterway Guide publications, which I have tricked into hiring me as its managing editor.

There I will try to repackage my 40 years of misadventures on the water as nautical wisdom. I will say things such as: “You know you have a problem when you fall off your boat sober.”

Then I will launch into the story of when I fell off a fast sloop I once owned and, yes, alcohol was involved. It happened back in the days when I knew Ed and Margot. A non-sailor named Phil was my only crew, and I was demonstrating how my boat “sailed like a witch” by tacking up the mouth of the Merrimack River into Newburyport. This demonstration of seamanship was Phil’s reward for bringing a fine bottle of California red to our daysail.

To make the dogleg around the shoals at Plum Island, I showed him how we’d have to harden the jib, and bury the rail. I was cranking in the starboard sheet when IT happened. Suddenly I slipped, plunging into the river’s fast moving cold water. What lifelines?

My world went into slow motion. As I tumbled under the water, I remember thinking, “Boy, you really screwed up this time.”

Then I saw an astonishing thing. Within a few feet was the bitter end of a line, which seemed to stand still even though it was traveling past me at 5 knots. I reached out and grabbed it. The line had been stowed on Meerschaum’s fantail and been swept overboard when a wave had washed over us out in Ipswich Bay. Without knowing it, we had been towing a warp.

I popped out of the water under tow and hollered to Phil, “Pull the tiller toward you,” which steered the boat away from the bar ahead. The boat never slowed, but, hand over hand, I was back on that old horse in seconds, thanks to adrenaline.

The plunge made me superstitious, and forever after I towed a 100-foot line whenever I sailed single-handed, though I never again fell off a boat sober or otherwise.

And there you have it: I figured I had to work that story into my last column. I had been saving it, waiting for someone else to fall off their boat so I could weave the two events together into a story, but no one cooperated.

So if you happen to be in the Chesapeake Bay, and you see an old Morgan ketch named Rio with beanbag chairs strewn about, come up alongside, and we’ll swap some stories over a frosty Yuengling or two. I’ll warn you now: The first liar doesn’t stand a chance.

’Til then.

Peter Swanson, 51, is sailing southern waters aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net .