Conversations

Answering Court

Court’s question is: Don, you’ll excuse my asking, but how did you come by the knowledge required to pilot such a vessel? I ask because in the summer of 2000 I spent a month aboard a similar yacht sailing down the coast of France. The skipper was a bitten old British fellow who had devoted his whole life to the sea. (He read Conrad and Jack London and then at age 16 ran away to go to sea. It is only right that the world should actually contain such people.) He was the kind of guy who had GPS onboard, but navigated with a sextant because it was fun for him. I distinctly remember thinking, “This is a body of knowledge that I am never going to acquire.” After that, I just was along for the ride, lending what help my clumsy landlubbing ways would allow. I think by the end I could successfully tie a bowline. Ever since I have remained very much in respectful awe of those who successfully navigate the seas. I believe in the posts on your earlier blog you said you were raised Arkansas … how did you acquire your seafaring ways?

Here is a picture of me aboard my first sailboat, it was cut out of the weekly newspaper in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, sometime in late 1968. Why I was in this newspaper isn’t relevant, but is definitely another story. The photo below is aboard the same boat, taken heading out of Kailua Bay. Forty years later I have hardly changed 😉

Sailing the Kahlua in 1969Steering with my foot?

Merritt on the Kahlua, Nov. 1968

First, you do not need a captain’s license or an operator’s license to run any boat that does not have paying passengers aboard, and that was the case in the photo in the previous post showing my wife, our friends and me on the sailboat pictured there, although I did in fact have a Coast Guard Captain’s license valid at that time (such licenses run for 5 year periods and must then be renewed, I stopped renewing mine in the late 80s, because I no longer used it). You must only be licensed and inspected if you carry passengers for hire.  Here is more or less how I ended up with a Captain’s license.

In the photo I am 23 years old and have recently arrived in Hawaii from a newspaper job in South Haven, Michigan. Yes, that’s a shark’s tooth — what can I say?  I was 23. Being a good ole boy from southwest Arkansas, who had prior to this time only been on a rowboat stringing perch lines across a big pond, and who did not have direct experience with consequential snow, bugged out of Michigan after the first blizzard. I was living with an intensely erotic young woman who wanted to be a folk singer like Judy Collins — I do wonder whatever happened to her — who suggested we cash out (which meant selling an old VW bug and whatever of our stuff that wouldn’t fit in luggage) and take ourselves out to the islands. Which we did.

We ended up in the village of Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island, which was a village in those days, population about 500, as I recall, existing mainly for the thousands of sport fishermen who visited the harbor annually to take one of the couple of dozen fishing boats out for Pacific Blue Marlin, which were abundant in those seas then. I took a job digging ditches for a construction company — I do not recommend spending much of your time trying to dig holes in lava — and we took to sleeping a la mode in a beach park south of town, where Cynthia stole fruit from the jungle across the road and I speared fish with a metal rod in the lagoon off the beach. I made money digging holes in lava enough mainly just to keep me in cigarettes and us in truly fine MaryJane.

One day I am hanging around the Kona pier watching the big fishing boats coming in, when this trimaran sloop comes into the bay filled with passengers. The water in the bay was a bit rough. The skipper ran the boat onto the beach and started off-loading his passengers. It looked to me like he could use a hand, so I waded into the water and held the bow off for him. He was appreciative. I went back to sit on a dock bollard watching giant fish being weighed while the sailboat skipper took his sloop out to a mooring in the bay, from where he swam back to the pier. He stopped back to thank me for my help. Our conversation went exactly like this:

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You want a job?”

“On a boat?”

“With me, on that boat,” he nodded his head toward the anchored Kahlua.

“I have never been on a sailboat in my life.”

“That’s okay. I can teach you to sail this afternoon.”

His name was Beans, his business was called Captain Beans’ Cruise, and a few years later he would kill his girlfriend and then commit suicide. He taught me to sail that afternoon. Literally. I was his first employee.

I met him on the pier after lunch and swam out to the boat with him. We spent some time walking around the boat while he named things — this is a halyard, sheets aren’t sails, these are wenches and they turn this way, this is a tiller and it works backwards from what  your first reaction will be, this is port and this is starboard … . Beans did not believe much in book learning, although I would later find out that he had a Master’s degree in English and had been a teacher before coming to Hawaii to build the Kahlua by hand and start a charter cruise business; he thought people remembered faster and more thoroughly what they had to do, with do being the key word, rather than what they were told or what they read. He watched me raise the sails and we headed out of the bay with me at the tiller, which does indeed work bassackwards –push right, the boat goes left (if you picture how a tiller and rudder work, it makes sense, of course).

So we sail out for quite a long time, out into the open ocean, heading for Japan if we keep going. All the while Beans is telling me stuff about sailing, about how sailboats work, about currents and wind and waves and airfoils, and we keep getting further and further offshore. Then Beans says: “The only way you’re going to learn to do this as fast as I need you to learn to do it is if you have no choice. I’ll see you on the pier.” And he dives off the boat and begins swimming back toward Kailua. I, on the other hand, am sailing toward Japan and have already forgotten how to turn the fucker around.

He was right. I screwed up a lot, gybed dangerously a couple of times, wandered quite wildly around that piece of the Pacific Ocean, and after a while, sailed that baby right back into Kailua Bay, under full sail, right up to her mooring block, dropped both sails just in time to glide right up to the hook, which I grabbed and secured her. Beans, sitting on a bollard on the pier, stood and applauded. Then gave me a job working on his cruise, paid 10% per day of whatever he made per day.

What I know about sailing a boat I learned that afternoon. The rest of it came about because Beans wanted more than a deckhand and performing diver — part of my job was to dive down to the reef and feed soda crackers from my mouth to reef fish, while tourists hovered above ooing and ahhing. He wanted a substitute skipper so he could take time off and still have the cruise operate. He gave me a pile of books and orders to go learn everything in them. Being somewhat of a natural book learner, that’s exactly what I did. He then flew me to the Coast Guard headquarters in Honolulu where I took the Coast Guard Captain’s exam, pleasing Beans to no end when I passed it on the first go, a fairly rare event.

After a while, I took some charters ferrying passengers inter-island, and also did some boat deliveries. Beans was a volatile man, to put it in the mildest terms, as strong as the proverbial bull, with a temper he could not control. I turned out to be the only person who could work with him, which was why he sort of adopted me. But eventually, even I gave up. I was offered a job as captain of a sports fishing boat. The pay was significant and the work easy — I thought of it was a glorified bus driver on the ocean, the deckhand did all the work, I just drove and hustled the wives of the fishermen on board. I did this job until leaving in 1971 to go to college.

Here is one of those fish, and me as skipper. I’m in the gold jacket with the fisherman who caught it.

small marlin, caught in 1971

And here is that fishing boat.

Dancing Dolphin, Kona, 1970

Trivia: In the background below the palms and just to the right of the red roof is the infamous bar, the Red Pants, pictured on the cover of my novel, The Common Bond.

Finally, here is a picture of a better fish, caught by the girl I came with from Michigan, Cynthia (whatever happened to you?) one Sunday when the two of us were out just goofing around when I had no charter. This fish weighs 425 pounds.

Cynthia and her Pacific Blue Marlin

That is my boat in the background. Cynthia fought this fish, which was only bill-wrapped, for more than three hours. It was quite Hemingwayesque.

Thanks for asking, Court.

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9 replies »

  1. My pleasure. And what a story it is.

    So if you fancied this story up (in a literary sense), I’d say, Damn, that’s a good story, and wouldn’t even think twice that it wasn’t fiction. Because of course a story like this must be made up. And as I mentioned in an email, I see the bare bones of The Common Bond in this, too.

    Shit, I have a couple interesting anecdotes from my travels but nothing of the scope of this.

    So, then, after all that time on a boat, you moved on. Easy to do, or do you still miss it? You just walked away from the sea, and that was that?

    I can’t help but thinking, and maybe this is just because I never did anything near this cool, that such an adventure as this would be damn near impossible these days. By the time I set out into the wide world, about 12 years ago, there was already a Lonely Planet guidebook for everything and everywhere and it had all been done, and the book written, and website made. You pretty much had to go to a warzone to find something that hadn’t already been tracked over ..

    As I say, though, I probably just wasn’t adventurous enough. Or, more likely, it’s just my makeup. In the midst of all the traveling I did, I found myself somehow restless and wanting to return to stories, those in books and those I wanted to write. So I never had the aptitude to learn a useful, exciting trade like the one you’re describing above. My mind was just too apt to wander, however pretty the scenery.

  2. Ah, these fascinating entries about your life. I love it when you post old photos.

    I was on Skype five years ago when a close friend in France insisted. It feels intrusive to me to have to speak or even show my shabby self through a web cam when I’m alone at home…People bug me about it though so maybe one day I’d give in.

    Here in Hong Kong my tango friends like to go to Argentinian food. As much as I like steak, it’s just too much to handle.

    Stay sane in that summer heat.

  3. Im scooting over to make room on the bench for four of us now.

    I think you’re onto something, Court, about the times. I was 21 in 1966, an adult-enough person to meander into the world, way before the WWW was even a gleam in the Pentagon’s eye. There was plenty of adventure in what today would be a simple trip, a little ride on a plane, a cheap hostel filled with amiable, like, companions, built-in, backpacks with tension adjustment straps. Then, big adventure was easy to find. Now, you have to be an eco-tourist to be in the “wilds.”

    All this is time-related. Consider what a grand adventure it was a hundred years before me to go from London to Rome, or from Omaha to Seattle, or when a trip to the Dark Continent would most likely get you killed.

    Isn’t it probable that a hundred years after us, all adventure will be mental, will be conjured up through induced thought from one’s cocoon?

    I will have to think about how I ended up with the life I have. I do know that I have been lucky beyond anyone’s deserving, and that my life has been filled with adventurous doings. There is some suspicion that I was too seriously influenced in my early Arkansas years by reading too much Hemingway, and spent a lot of my subsequent years subconsciously emulating my writer hero of youth. I think there’s some accuracy in that, but I do hate to think it was just a life of emulating.

    Anyway. Do I miss the life and times I had on boats in the ocean? Often. But then, I miss a lot from the old days. I miss my youthful energy, I miss my hair, I miss my ambitions, I miss marijuana, I miss volatile passion … I do NOT miss poverty, or anger, or threat, or overwrought emotions.

    I want to read all the interesting anecdotes all of you have, so when you have time, don’t be shy. If they are long for tacking on as a comment to some post, just send it to me using the email address for this blog and tell me it’s a post not a comment, and I will put it up as a guest post. If you have a photo that fits with it, send that too.

    Don’t let this be a monologue.

    Court, I know you lived in Thailand, you wrote here about a month sailing off France … got to be stories there.

    Brad … ?

    Nicole … ?

    Tracey … ?

    and for Chrissakes, Rose!

    and you lurking in the background … ?

  4. Rose, no more shark’s tooth, sorry, but I did hang onto my puka shell necklace for a very long time. Puka in Hawaiian means hole, so a puka shell is a shell with a hole through it, good for stringing together into a necklace.

    I hope you will send me something for here when your brain is working in that direction. It is good Jack is kicking your butt because that means you are hard at work on it.

    You can easily put that live traffic feed on your blog. Click on the link at the top of it that says “Get FEEDJIT.” Then follow the directions. Basically you copy some html code that is inside a box, then paste that code into a spot on your blog. Poof! You got a live feed. One problem, it will also note your own presence when you look at your blog, but if you click on “watch live” you can click on a box to delete your own IP from the list. It is entertaining seeing where visitors are coming from.

    I’m waiting …

  5. Been catching up and enjoyed every minute, what a rogue you are.

    Things a bit rough at the moment, mum not doing so well but will try to trawl the memory banks for adventures long forgotten.

    Mine’s a tea, thanks.

  6. Sorry about your mother.

    I definitely look forward to tales from your youth, although in your case that would be what … ? A year or two ago?

  7. “All this is time-related. Consider what a grand adventure it was a hundred years before me to go from London to Rome, or from Omaha to Seattle, or when a trip to the Dark Continent would most likely get you killed.”

    You’re right there … I remember reading about the guy who re-discovered Angkor Wat in Cambodia in the late 1800’s. Some American with a yen for adventure who had to hire elephants (!) in Bangkok and trek overland through the heart of malaria country and, whilst out painting pictures of picturesque native Khmer villages, stumbled upon the lost city of Angkor, possibly the ancient world’s greatest monument after the pyramids and the Great Wall.

    Even further, I like to think about the monks who, legend has it, set off into the charted seas from Ireland in search of holy solitude, some of whom landed in Greenland and, maybe, even Canada.

    Or the Polynesians who colonized the whole of the South Pacific on boats cut out of coconut trees.

    I suppose, then, relatively speaking, when my grandkid’s greatest adventure consists of rolling out of the living room into the kitchen on their automated mobile motion device, since their legs will have withered away on account of never having been away from a computer screen since the womb, they will think my little travels to be epic.

    Have you seen the movie Children of Men? There’s a scene when the hero is at a fancy dining table with a man and his son, who will not look away from his computer game even to take his pills. The son is a grown man. It is a frightening scene. Sometimes I fear the future will be like that.

    There were some sublime moments in that trip down the French coast. At one point we were followed for half an hour by a pod of dolphins in jellyfish-infested waters somewhere off La Rochelle, I think, and I hung down from the gunwale trying to touch them. The skipper was right pissed off at me for that, but I pretended I couldn’t hear him yelling at me and it was one of the sublime moments of the voyage.

    But we got along famously, the skipper and I. The old seadog was on ships that loaded rainforest teak straight off the river shark-swarming bays in Malaysia and Java and Sumatra, stripping the land and displacing the indigenous peoples, acts which he recalled with regret but, as he said, When you go to sea at 16, you have no idea of these things. He’s the one who had the good stories. Maybe I’ll put some up one of these times.

    • I hoped these stories would start leaking out.

      No, I haven’t seen that movie, and it sounds depressing in the kind of way one doesn’t want to have his worst fears confirmed.

      If you want to write up one of these stories, add a photo or two, send it to me as an email and I’ll put it here as a guest post.

      I read enough Conrad to still get a tremble when I see … “The old seadog was on ships that loaded rainforest teak straight off the river shark-swarming bays in Malaysia and Java and Sumatra, stripping the land and displacing the indigenous peoples, acts which he recalled with regret but, as he said, When you go to sea at 16, you have no idea of these things.”

      Didn’t I post at some point a while back that I read “Lord Jim” aloud to my daughter at her crib when she was an infant, even when she was asleep, theorizing that language like that would soak in and effect her future. I don’t know if it did or not, but it was a pleasure to read it aloud.

      Thanks for my afternoon’s reading entertainment, Court.