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 😉
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:
“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.
And here is that fishing boat.
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.
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.