Monthly Archives: August 2014

Break Out Another Thousand

Boat. Acronym: B.O.A.T. : Break Out Another Thousand

Boatyard Dictionary of Acronyms

They say that the happiest day in a man’s life are the day he buys a boat, and the day he sells the boat. Here is how I felt when I bought my boat.

It is May 2004. I have just bought a boat. The office is underneath a larger building next to the wooden boardwalk of the floating dock. It is not far to walk down the dock to my new boat. Jake is a casual, easy-going fellow, not so much older than me, with whom I have been negotiating for a few hours. The book value of the boat is $40,000. I am exhausted from my scouring of the US East Coast. I have to get a boat today. My money is running out; I have done a deal with my conscience that I must spend this ‘dirty’ money on something ethical. Boats are ethical. We all need to take to the water. The sea is a place where humans take responsibility for their actions. They learn to live without guarantees. It makes them better people. It frees them from consuming. It stops them from consuming. My money is earned from Rupert Murdoch’s SKY1. It is burning a hole in my pocket. I have been from San Diego to New Orleans; Daytona Beach to New England. I have found the most boat for the least money. I have looked at my choice of boats, and have been studying the options over coffee in the Daily Grind Cafe. Boats in New York, South Carolina and beyond. They look something like this:

Bargain              Seaworthy          Work Needed      Slip Price          Resale                  Comments

Dufour 29.5 Any Offer, roller furling Long Island 4,500 Also Catalina needs keelbolts $5000 Good, solid hull. Couldn’t really judge deck but seemed good. Rig can be examined. Will be strongly made at least. Will need bottom paint, keel needs looking at (not serious), stove, equipment, mainsheet traveller could be customised. Expensive. Would have to be dropped in and moved from NY to ?Newport. Not bad in Europe Double ish Would have to commit to it for two or three months possibly. No v berth. Racer/cruiser. Liveaboard??
Columbia 9.6 32/31.6 Probably will take 8,000 Seems big, beautiful and seaworthy. Mixed opinions about Columbias – love/hate Keel cracked not serious. Large saloon. New electronics Keel and bottom paint. Deck soft spot. Various cracks in gelcoat. Bad year for blisters. Needs GPS, roller furling?, batteries etc. has been neglected. As above. Possible charters. Very good resale – triple. Feels like the prettiest boat I’ve seen. (shape). Liveaboard.
Newport 30 12,500 in Wickford by roadside Too light, I think. Well equipped. Coastal cruiser. Hull paint a bit old. Apart from that really tidy. Engine to go back in. Could be dropped in and taken to Newport easily and probably free. 30% profit. Good, but not what I’m looking for.
Concrete engineered 35 ketch. Any offers. Huge. Could kit it out for world cruising. Very seaworthy. Drop keel. Odd boat, has never been blue water. Strong rig. Needs some modifying?? Mainsheet traveller. Foresail sheet cars. Could do with hatches in cabin top. Needs GPS etc, but would have money over for that. Easy and cheap slip. Possible work in Baltimore. Not well payed but good. New life possibilities. Possibly twice, possibly more. Not the beautiful boat I was looking for, or I would jump on it.

This is the one I choose:

Sandpiper at dock

I walk back to my new boat. The paint is peeling, but that’s just paint. People don’t realise what I can do, how fast I can work. I will fix this boat. The stainless steel wires of the rigging all look strong and new. They are thirty years old, but they don’t look it. The engine is old, and I have never heard of it. But the inside has lots of decent-looking woodwork in it. The bronze portholes are small. She is a seaworthy boat. She was built by a NASA rocket scientist.

I reckon I can get her out of Baltimore in six months. Even less, if I find some crew to come with me. She is shabby, but she’ll sail, I reckon. When I get back home, everything changes. Three years later, we, Dorry and I, are finally ready to leave, in a whole new context. Together.

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I look at the above now. What a fool. A fool for love, a fool for the sea, a fool for my principles. But a fool. Nothing like a deal with your conscience to change your life…   It is just as I leave that I’m casually talking on the dock with the first of many nay-sayers who I meet on that same dock many years and sea miles later. ‘You know what it stands for?’ We’re on the dock. I’m pressure-washing the fuel tanks which I have painstakingly managed to pull out from under the cockpit floor, pushing them past the sharp corners of the engine without scratching the zinc coating off them. I am covered in the filthy backlash of the pressure-washed fuel, staring at the light coming in through pin-holes in the fuel tank. I am morose. ‘What?’ ‘Boat’, says the onlooker, sympathetically, or is it smugly?’ ‘No’, I say with resignation. ‘Break Out Another Thousand. B. O. A. T.

I quietly hate him. But I have another thousand. One more. But he doesn’t know what I can do. He hasn’t seen me move mountains. I will eventually move mountains, but I have a lot to learn.

We wake up moving in a dusty, dimly-lit cabin. It smells of teak oil and outdoor pursuits. The bed cushions are hard-edged, the covers a hideous yellow nylon. They are thin. There is a pounding sound. Somebody is beating a huge metal object outside our cabin. Blinking, I open the hatch, stick my head out, and I am looking into the eyes of a businessman drinking from a paper coffee cup, twenty feet away across the water . He is studying me absent-mindedly, intently. In five minutes he will be out of the fresh morning and in his leather air-conditioned office chair. Perhaps he will still see me through mirrored glass from high above. I crane my head around towards the noise. A huge pile driver is smashing metal columns into the Chesapeake bedrock of Baltimore’s foundations. This has been going on for three days. We haven’t caught up on our jetlag, and things are feeling desperate. People are friendly, but seem to ‘zone out’ when we talk of getting the boat out of the marina and into a boatyard where we can work on her.

Living Classrooms Foundation: Working Amongst the Disadvantaged of Baltimore

We are starting to argue about getting under eachother’s feet, and which of the hundreds of jobs to engage on first.   Dorry goes out after some bickering. I pull out my rudimentary toolkit and carry on trying to figure out how the engine oil filter works. I am up to my elbows in the governor of our old Italian fishing boat engine. I have never dared to take a governor apart in a diesel engine before, but I have no choice. The handbook is in Italian. There is no information, online or elsewhere, on this engine. A google search returns no matches for the maker. Not one. But the engine won’t run; the oil needs changing as part of the project. Dorry hates it here. We both hate it. When she comes back, I have fitted the stereo, and put on a favourite CD. The sudden invasion of something gentle which we actually like, amongst all the misery, makes us both burst into surprised tears. A big hug. We WILL get the boat out.

Bear Creek

Cormorants perch on pilings in the city, and mussels squeak and crack when the small tide subsides. At night, the fish loom out of the water around the rudder of the boat. I imagine a grappling at the sharp shells by a drunken overweight hand, trying to claw its way back from the depths. But I will not think of it. The moon is waxing, gibbous, over Dominos sugar factory, as a freighter loads its hold. Across the rippling black water is the Rusty Scupper Dock and Restaurant. Baltimore.

Two days later, we leave the slightly hostile, maddeningly noise-polluted dock in the Inner Harbour of Baltimore Sea Port, for Historic but run-down Dundalk, where we will ‘haul out’ the boat. What will it be like? Will it be irretrievable? It has been in the water six years, with no care. We will ask a man to lift her out of the water with his crane, after our first voyage of seven miles. Not, however, before we have met Matthew, who will stay with us, sometimes watching from afar, but through thick and thin, for the next ten years.   There is a knock on the coach-roof. I wake up startled, sunlight flooding in through a round porthole. I am tired. What time is it? We are at the boatyard, tied-up to the dock by the ‘Travel Lift’. Today we are ‘hauling-out’. But it is early. Not yet eight. In fact, my watch says seven o’clock. Are we in the wrong place? I slide back the companionway hatch, and am greeted by a small latino guy. Pablo, as I will find out. A fine-looking grey-haired man in a baseball cap is looking around the boat from the dock. This must be Bill. Thankfully, Matthew, in the boat next to us, appears out of his hatch before I get a word in. ‘Good Morning’, he says to Bill. I struggle up out of my sleepy boat into the cockpit and introduce myself. ‘Ah yes, The Brits’. I don’t know what this means, but I am faced with a gently spoken tall grey-haired man, with a lilting North Carolina accent, who ends up, over the next few years, taking me to Nascar Stock-Car races, explaining how it was originated from ‘build-your-own’ jallopy races in the backwoods of his homeland, spending Thanksgiving with him, being given access to amazing discounts via his accounts, Dorry being danced-through Zydeco tutorials in his office, and generally being helped through those first desolate years of keel to mast restoration.

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A few days later, a photo finds me standing on the deck, having worn out grinding discs, trying to cut-back our hull for repainting.

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I am desperately trying to find a way to sand-blast my boat without damaging it, until Bill comes up with a solution. And from here on in he is one of Sandpiper’s greatest allies. Quietly, and imperceptibly too, he starts to believe in us. He is, maybe, the first.   Insert Photo   Our first Haul-Out   I have never hauled a boat out before. But now is not the time to say this. Bill and Pablo are running the straps unde the hull. They are massive webbing strops which hang from the booms of the travellift frame and drop into the invisible water either side of the boat hull. I don’t know if they are in the right place. One photo I have gives an idea of the hull-shape.   It is a ‘sink or swim moment. If he drops the boat or bends anything, I have no idea how I will fix it. The boat could come out of the water and be a rusted mess. It could be that I have to pay thirty thousand dollars to dispose of the hull of a disasterous liability. She looks solid, and I have surveyed her meticulously from the inside. But who knows what will be revealed once she is in the open air?   Bill reassures me that he has a guessing technique which always works. Matthew reassures me that she is ‘bulletproof’. The travel-lift engine revs, and the booms start to lift, making the strops tight around her bilges. Suddenly I realise she is coming up. I can see her hull below the waterline. She is shiny. A bit green. A lot green. Barnacles are on her, as well as growth like moss. Her rudder is big and thick. The stainless steel strips holding it in are big. The propeller is starting to show. It seems tiny and archaeological as it comes up out of the water. A distinctive shape, but all the wrong material. It looks like stone.

Then the shoe of the rudder post, at the end of the keel-skeg. It is massively thick. It is bulletproof. This will save me in the future., but I don’t know this yet. The big issue is the centreboard, but as the boat comes out, like the raising of the Titanic; the disinterment of some relic, I realise that six years in the water doesn’t seem to have done any real damage to this perfectly-rounded hull, and its overbuilt extensions. No paint, in places, but not a hint of rust or damage, The shell is completely in-tact. She’s a keeper.

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My joy at her soundness is tempered by an overall feeling and understanding of the size of the task. Matthew, my friend, has his own concerns. His own boat has some blisters in the hull, which he will have to work on. We are two islands in our thoughts. Neither of us have the capacity right now to support the other. Slowly, as I try to sand the paint off, scared of cutting through the cement into steel rods, and realise how this hull is going to be a lot of work, I start to lapse into the ‘hunker-down, war-zone’ mentality. This will be a big job. And Dorry is not very confident. I feel that I am carrying the project, but realise soon that she is carrying me…

In 2006, we finally set off. Here is the log.

Scuttled in the Pacific!

Doug’s Sea-Dog Tale of Scuttling of Sculduggery

 

‘Scuttle’. Verb. 1; sink (one’s own ship) deliberately. 2; deliberately cause (a scheme) to fail

Oxford English Dictionary

The faded name of Michelle Hamilton peers at me from the filthy cardboard flap torn off of a Yuengling beer box. Her number is written next to it. The beer was drunk in the rowdy and entertaining company of Paul Caouette, under the transom of our boat in the boatyard at Green Cove Springs. A few days later, and in the water, Michelle and Doug came over from their Tayana 42 to celebrate us ‘splashing’ Sandpiper with a ‘dram’ from our bottle of Welsh Single-Malt Whisky, and an unusual sea tale…

As we all sat down for a bit of socialising, Michelle announced in her easy west-coast drawl:

‘Doug has agreed to tell you his story’. We were alongside the quarter-mile long Pier 11 at green Cove Springs. Relatively deserted now, these twelve piers had been a hive of US naval activity during the war, when liberty ships were made, fitted-out, and sent to the aid of the beleaguered north atlantic fleet of the British Merchant Navy. There had been mention of some story which Doug had the other night, when we had gone to eat dinner somewhere, and I thought it would be interesting, although I was brimming with excitement to show off our boat and all the work we had done on her. But it was good to sit at a saloon table on the rickety dock. What evolved was somewhat reminiscent of a Joseph Conrad novel, and as I was given the mobile phone surreptitiously by Dorry, who had opened the ‘Voice Recorder’ App., I realised that this was some big privilege we were in for.

I had brought a bottle of Penderyn – in my opinion the finest Single Malt available, all the way from Wales for this launch moment. I poured another shot into peoples’ glasses, and it was duly appreciated. Doug began:

‘I wanted to tell you this story, because it meant a lot to me at an early age. I had just finished school, and it was my first job. Sailing academy, for the Merchant Marine.’

Doug is a professional sea captain, although you wouldn’t think it, given how stern that occupation sounds. Doug’s demeanour is fun-loving, open and easy-going. But he uses dynamic GPS to link pipes together in the open ocean, for oil to travel through, and is in charge of a massive responsibility. I asked him how many years ago it was that he graduated.

‘It was in 1983. You gotta understand, there weren’t many jobs around, and I didn’t seem to be able to get the experience to get a job. People wanted somebody who had done a few jobs already, as well as the paperwork I had. So after a while, I started to get desperate. It was then that thi job came up. The ship had a Captain, but they needed a second Captain for whatever reason. I didn’t ask too much, but I reckoned I could live with being second in command. So we shipped out of San Francisco, southbound for the Polynesian Islands. I should have known on the first day, or even before we got onboard, that something wasn’t right. The provisioning of the boat seemed a bit sporadic and weird, but this crew all knew eachother, and I wasn’t going to be the one to get all regulation on them. This was my chance to get on, as a Captain, and get the experience I needed for my next real job.

So we set off, and went down the coast. After a couple of days out to sea, after turning west, the crew were getting bored, and they started throwing bottles into the water and shooting at them. It was pretty weird, because I had never thought anybody would bring a gun aboard. But suddenly. Everybody seemed to have brought their gun. On a freighter!!!

It was even weirder when one night, I was woken up with a knock for dinner, and went into the Mess to find a huge feast of roast chicken and bottles of wine and beer. It was endless, and for no reason.

The next time I was to wake up, it was with the call ‘The Ship is Sinking’.

It was the next day after the unexplainable feast, and there was a thump on the door of my cabin. I rushed out, and sure enough the boat was listing badly. This was a massive ship, now, with nothing whatsoever wrong with it. I couldn’t get anybody to tell me what had happened, but as I walked around the corner, I was met by one of my ‘buddies’ with a small sailing dinghy which was somehow onboard! He had two lifejackets and some clothes.

‘Come on Doug. I got some clothes for you, a lifejacket and everything’. The shirt was my size!

This whole situation was weird, and I refused to go with him on his little boat. We deployed the two liferafts, and the ten of us got in; five in each. I was in charge of mine, and the other captain in charge of his.

 

Molly, aka Florence Mary Avery

As a child, you see things up-close and remember them. A scratch on a tabletop, a chip in a skirting board. My grandmother always had a powder tin to hand, to dab the skin-coloured pink powder over the tiny blue blood vessels you could see all over her nose. She wore nylon frocks and pinafores when she was cleaning. But in her youth she was a sort. She had grown up mainly in London, had seen the blitz through with two young kids. Her bright pink lipstick, flaky skin, and grimacing as she moved her arthritis and polysythaemia around her granny flat in the old peoples’ complex made us cruel kids want to get out into the gardens as soon as possible. But amongst all that pain, and the losing battle against the march of time, housekeeping chores, the head-on loneliness of bereavement blossomed into a heroic fight for fun in her last two decades.
She became a character about town, happily compromised many of her principles in order to blithely campaign forwards and enjoy retirement. She had been a farmer’s wife – my grandfather had escaped the drone-like life of a bank clerk in the city to become a smallholding fruit farmer. And he was a campaigner, too. His politics seem complicatedly right-wing liberal to me now, but he did some good stuff. But underneath Grandma’s blundering old-lady appearance were two things. The most obvious was her fluttering social manner. A nervous well-spoken aspirational demeanour, taken-in by feats of technical brilliance as well as awestruck by people with any inkling of society, she was peculiarly of that useless strata of mid twentieth-century who were so useful in Churchill’s War Effort, so easily impressed and doggedly loyal to something they sometimes seem nowadays to have had little understanding of. But they won the war for Britain. And she was quietly brimming with pride over this. The second more subtle attribute of Grandma was her canniness. And you wouldn’t have thought it would creep up on you long after knowing her. She said things which were right, but sounded laughable at the time. She would grab your arm plaintively as she made a point, and you would not take her seriously.
Her maiden name was Avery, and there was a famous pirate with this name, John Avery, who we are all supposedly related to. And we probably are. But Grandma had had a series of bounders in her ancestry. Her deified mother, the concert pianist had died when she was four years old. Her father, the International Correspondent had done a moonlight flit, leaving her only good memory of childhood encoded in the ubiquitous series of black and white ebony and ivory key-codes. So obsessed with these objects was she that she was finally banned from tinkling by her adoptive aunt, who she never forgave. They had no money for lessons, living in a flapper world of Mrs Dalloway characters, and so she became a secretary as everybody did in the 1920s, it seems.
Her bank clerk suitor whisked her away with his motorbike, salary, his wartime firewatching dering-do, eventually his farmer grin. And they became forever identified as the ‘Darling Buds of May’. She got freckles in the Kent sunshine as she helped out in the orchard, and he replaced her christian name, Florence with Molly. (Mole-ley, geddit?). And that was who she became. Molly Lake. Forever.
But that was all over now, and as she sat in her ‘home’, with unruly and sometimes beligerent teenagers to control, she tried to take an interest. I was always the technical one (whether I liked it or not, and I didn’t) who was ‘like Grankie’, so birthday presents always consisted of tools. But as I grew older, my understanding of tools became more serious. It was difficult to be the only boy, actually. There was expectation, but the women didn’t know how to entertain me, and it was assumed that I would be more emotionally robust than my sisters, and wouldn’t mind playing second fiddle (almost literally) to an older sister as her musical endeavours were praised, mine mocked. But I was The Man, and men were normally seen as absent. Indeed my father, the underpaid teacher, was slaving away marking essays most of my childhood, it seemed. Moments with him, we all now agree, were gold-dust.
So Grandma took to reading The Times. Principles be damned. Or maybe she had always taken it. Anyway, she always fell for the rubbish advertised in the back pages. China ornaments, meaningless medals, ‘collectibles’. One year she gave me an extra christmas present. ‘I thought it was marvellous, and such good value for money. It’s meant to be one of the best brands…’
I opened the heavy little package, the size of a harmonica case, and my heart sank. A ratchet screwdriver. Bright yellow plastic. A clicking mechanism. Small phillips and flat-head bits to go in the hexagonal holder. Plastic. Yellow. Great. ‘Thanks Grandma’.
Like so many things you hate, it went in the bottom of the toolbox. And like those things, it kept working long after I wanted it to. But to my extreme consternation, I unexpectedly started to see its uses.
When I first went on a film set as an on-set Art Director (Standby), it was always in my pocket or bag. And the ratchet never broke. People would ask me about it, and we would notice that it was made in the USA, and that you could throw it on the floor and it wouldn’t break. Time passed, and at some point, when I was supervising a trainee, I explained it to her, and we christened it ‘Molly’.
And so Molly became part of my lifetime kit. And like so many other things I have hated, I came to love it, and thirty-four years after getting her for christmas, fifteen years after Molly Lake’s passing, ‘Molly’ is still getting me out of trouble mid-ocean, in storms. So once again, as I tighten-up another inaccessible screw-bolt, stopping the boat from filling with water, I look back at that improbably wisdom of my ridiculous grandmother and silently thank her in the darkness. I get up out of the heaving hull, my own knees creaking now, and stagger back onto the wave-washed decks of my boat where my crew are trying to grasp the bucking wheel: ‘All done; fixed! I’ll take the wheel. What’s the course?’
Thanks, Molly.
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Molly, fixing the fresh water pump on Sandpiper’s plumbing system

Negotiating Jacksonville Landing, and the ICW to Saint Augustine, FL

‘Scope-creep’. noun; coined by Doug and Michelle Hamilton. 1. The enactment of the unconscious expansion of projects. Often, but not exclusively, related to marine projects. 1a. An affliction highly contagious amongst sailors of all races. Applications: ‘suffering from…’ resulting in delayed launch-time, increased wallet-lightness, and boatyard insomnia. ‘the … got him in the end. He’ll have to wait til next year to leave.”It would have been OK if his scope hadn’t crept…’ Not to be confused with ‘Anchoring Scope’.
Rupert’s Own Glossary of Nautical Terms

After many days of tweaking, this morning finds us in Chamblins rambling massive bookshop/cafe in downtown Jacksonville. Nearly six weeks of 90-100 degree boatyard temperatures, where the only air-conditioning is in the tiny, smelly toilets of the yard, is making us love the cool, erudite and fun atmosphere that Ron Chamblin cultivates here.

Coffee in the Street outside Chamblins Bookstore, Downtown Jacksonville.
At 7pm, after a beautiful, sunbleached sail down St Johns River, we pulled gently up onto Jacksonville landing – the city’s free municipal dock in the middle of downtown ‘Jax’.

It was a perfect journey, after a nightmare morning. Departures are never easy, even after a few days, and Sandpiper has been in Green Cove Springs Marina for nearly five years. A lot accumulates over that kind of time. At the last minute, we discovered we had a grommet missing from our hand-built Dudley Boycott mizzen sail, and there was a flurry to fix it.


Our Mizzen Sail, built by Dudley Boycott of Baltimore

The absence of that not-inconsiderably-sized sail did not cause us to make less than five knots, though, from marker buoy to marker buoy, and under the tall Interstate bridges into ‘Jax’. She’s a fast boat, but I always forget her pedigree when she’s been in the yard for too long, with ferro-cement doubters casting aspersions.

But as the finishing touches have gone onto the boat, and we are starting to polish up the brightwork, and varnish the teaks, it has almost become a point of embarrassment how classic and hand-crafted the boat is. As always, these touches only occur at the end of the project, and are the easiest bit, but have the biggest visual impact.

What with hot water for cleaning the now spotless engine, itself so solidly mounted on its steel bed, with a nice shower in the cockpit, the bilge pumps automatically pumping, the batteries quietly solar-charging, and the the hull spotless both outside on the curves, and inside – in the very dirtiest corners of the bilge, she is an efficient boat. But one cannot help being satisfied, too, by the pretty transom, shining stainless, deep varnish and warm bronzes of the old classic. A combination of Chesapeake’s best – Hull designed by Olin Stevens for famous and repeated wins in ocean races in the ’50s, superstructure designed by generations of Chesapeake ‘Skipjack’ fishermen. She’s a beauty, and there are no two ways about it.

Avoiding a Massive Crowley Barge on the St Johns River, FL

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First Mate Dorry Spikes

The new engine purred like a kitten, the prop spun nicely in its perfect alignment when the the engine was at rest, suggesting an extra alternator installation on the shaft at a later date to make ‘sail powered electricity’. It was nice to retrace our path on the GPS, too, and remember how it was coming into Green Cove – how we had docked in the town to start in a force eight blow, with three inches to spare on each side, and two inches under our keel. We have lost a lot of self-belief over these years, and during our darkest hours woken in the middle of the night with the worst possible ‘yard-fear’ and ‘scope-creep’, and wishing to somehow end it all. Finally, it is suddenly another world. We are water-borne again, with our perfectly functioning home ready to take us anywhere on The Planet.

WE BEAT THE SCOPE CREEP!!!

 

After the Squall

Our lovely cockpit after a Squall

 

We have a GalleyAgain!

The Galley…

 

Greyhound Valentines Day

‘Passage’ 1. noun 1; the action or process of moving through, under, over, or past something on the way from one place to another >the action or process of moving forward… >a journey by sea or by air…
Oxford English Dictionary

A lovely ‘RV’ we saw in Jacksonville, FL
I wake up with a nudge in the darkness. I am on a strange boat. We are fifteen feet in the air. We are ‘on the hard’, ‘on the hill’. We are in the boat yard. Sodium light glows through the rectangular porthole. The heater fan is blowing, still. North Florida should not be this cold. Even in February.

Then I am on the stainless steel bus looking across the aisle at the dark skin of the lady who is talking.

‘Not ove’ he’, ove’ the’. Not ove’ he’, ove’ the’…’ She is making the point emphatically. Her overweight shell-suited friend nods.

The asiatic-looking man who changed my twenty-dollar bill earlier is looking-on. The younger, but toothless ‘hip-hop hoodie’, who also helped us get the exact change for the fare, left the bus, punching the driver’s fist with a ‘Later’ even before the bus had pulled-off. He had just got on to for the entertainment, like the downs-syndrome guys who sat on a seat chewing his McDouble for ten minutes. With no intention of travel, he was escorted, off the bus, with a hug from the driver, when it was time to pull away from the stand.

‘Not ove’ the’, she says again. Strip lights catch her straightened fringe, which protrudes over her forehead from the front of her headscarf. Like mature women all over the world, she has her trolley for shopping, and is dressed up for town. Her big african-american lips pronounce the impenetrable words with emphasis, and I imagine the environment where every word is understood. What does it sound like in her own living room? She will probably buy her weekly food from her regular ‘stores’, maybe get her hair done, or perhaps see a doctor or dentist. These people will understand her accent. It will be a nice day for her. Dawn is not here yet, and she does not fit in, somehow, with the sombre night-owl atmosphere on the municiple bus into Jacksonville from Orange Park, all sleek and shiny and shadowy.

 

Our bags are stacked in the aisle, heavy with two huge bronze sailing winches I cut from an abandoned boat in the ‘Back Lot’ of the boatyard yesterday afternoon. We will carry them all the way to Cuba. It is ironic to me that, in this fluorescent cold-lit ‘night-world’, there may be a Cuban who knows the village where we are heading, the backstreet lady who sells honey in rum bottles, garnered from her farm in the mountains, the cobbler in the empty storefront, or the busy tyre-fixing workshop. It is a thousand miles away, but Cubans get around in Florida, despite how difficult it is to come across the Straits from home by raft, or even windsurf-board.

The old lady gets up, and lumbers along to the driver. ‘Lemme off here, honey’, as he pulls to a stop. Maybe today she’ll buy some flowers for a wayward daughter, and give them lovingly with a ‘shucks, chile, Happy Valentines’. It is the fourteenth of February.

 

I had seen Baron in a blur through the darkness this morning, driving around the filthy boatyard, looking for us. I had overslept, and seconds before this, I was pulling my trousers on, staggering around, trying not to wake Michelle, or break anything on that unfamiliar boat. On deck, I had nearly toppled as I made my way to the ladder down. ‘Focus Focus Focus’. I carefully climbed down. Molly the dog had been pleased to see me, even at five thirty in the morning, as I dragged out our heavy bags from the back of Michelle’s massive covered pickup. ‘Damn these winches – I ached from the labours of the previous day – I had spent most the day before parting two massive bronze winches from a mast, like dumbells, to carry with us, however we were to do it, getting back to our boat.

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Moonrise over Green Cove Springs, on a previous evening…

‘Yeah, Man, I was wondering where you were, so I got in the car and started driving around!’ Baron. What a guy. I have often said to Dorry I want to be like Baron when I grow up. The point being that at eighty-two, he has never grown up. I am so relieved that is here, and ready to go.

 

‘No problem!’, he had said, ‘I’ll take you to the Courthouse in the morning. Is that where the bus leaves from?’. Baron had seen me bringing the winches back from the ‘boat graveyard’ in the area they call ‘California’ of the marina property. ‘Lemme give you a ride, man…’ he had grinned, as he helped me stuff them into my bag…

We had introduced Baron to the Chinatown Bus service, connecting the ubiquitous chinese restaurants in every town throughout the United States, and connecting all the big cities with a ‘Chinatown’ district.

‘Shit man, I had no idea, and I been travelling around this country for the last eighty years.’
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Statue of Liberty, New York, from seat number 6c of a Chinatown Bus. Note the sign: ‘We are not responsible…’


‘Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, We’ve all gone to look for America’ (Paul Simon)…

Baron used to smuggle cigars from Cuba in his tiny sailing boat, then use the money to head for Europe to hang out amongst the artists and poets of the Parisian Rive Gauche. Word is that he had broken many a french girl’s heart, and undoubtedly is still doing so with dynamic and humble abandon, age clearly being no impediment to him. Baron’s tales are legendary. The story of how he ended up in france explains some of his life – a job interview got by his probation officer in the US, for a position in Cheltenham, in the UK, on condition that he leave the USA for a new liffe. It had gone so well that he got drunk on his way back to London on the train, and ended-up, inexplicably, in Paris, for THREE YEARS.

‘I met the love of my life, man. What you gonna do?’

Baron

Baron, with Phil Rees of Anju in the background

Baron’s own wayward daughters keep him busy and anxious in his old age, and he is the first to admit that this is probably down to the fact that he disappeared on them, and stranded them and their mother in England during this time. He is paying his dues with paternal steadiness and ingenuity, making money as an unofficial taxi for cruising sailors to get to and from airports and seaports from the boatyard. His daughters are in their late fifties. The family is close, loving and insane. Just how he likes it.

Baron has a cheap car and a solid boat. And lots of friends in both high and low places. And he shares with us a love of fine strong cheese and british motorbikes. Amongst other things. Right now, I am looking at the headlights of his car, making a positive identification. He winds down the window. It IS him.
‘We’re just over there, opposite the work area’. (There is a communal workbench with grinding wheel Bench Vice.)
‘You can see our bags behind the truck. I’ll be there in a second, just going to the head.’
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The Work Bench the year before, with our engine raw-water strainer ready to refit.

This morning is falling into place nicely. I run into what residents laughingly refer to as the toilet block. Termite ridden, with one toilet serving upwards of two hundred people at times, including old and infirm retired sailors. I have had times of extreme stress in here, dodging work for two minutes, mulling-over frustration after fustration over five long years of boat projects. In this building I have waited in excruciating pain for old men to finish on the toilet, I have called hopeful numbers written on adverts on the communal corkboard, I have researched engineering solutions and marine suppliers, hiding in the air-conditioning from the intense Florida heat in High Summer. I have ransacked the free-table, where people leave unwanted clothes and sailing kit, both furtively and savagely. I have dug splinters from way up the back of my fingernail, cutting up the nail with a stanley blade, trying not to faint on unsteady legs, with no option but to avoid infection and hospital fees at all costs, And I have taken shelter from the world in free books from the bookshelf, sitting in the easy chair as my laundry has whirled round and round in the back room, and cockroaches have scuttled and mayflies have flown round the ceiling fan in the evening-time.
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Bottom Dave’s Truck in the Boatyard
And now the hand dryer is making that unbearable high-speed shriek, and I wonder if this will be for the very last time that I try to avoid the stains on the wall with my freshly-cleaned hands. I have seen this toilet block in all sorts of states. I have cut down my own fingernails to remove splinters, my face blacker’n Bottom Dave’s. But for all its quirky fascination, the marina can be too much for me these days. Too many ordeals, too much stress, so last summer, for the last time, we launched and sailed our shiny, lovingly finished boat out of the launch slip and south to the Caribbean.

 

Bottom Dave

Bottom DaveAnd that is where we are heading, having made some calls here and seen some wonderful old friends. I run back to the truck, and Dorry and Baron are loading the car. We head out of the yard, and up to the highway, past Megan and Steffan’s tiny trailer/caravan, and past John and Laura’s massive RV/Motorhome. Two opposite properties from one world in which the goal and the soul are the same the same; forced by the need for living life fully to find a way which makes more sense than a controlled, ‘hooked-in’ existence. Megan and Steffan have been improving their boat in the yard whilst adventuring into the interior of the continent, and the Rocky Mountains. John and Laura too have reports of exploring the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the Yukon. John and Laura travel by R.V. Megan and Steffan by old-fashioned train-hopping. They know all about the dangers and delights of box-cars and sidings. John knows the same amount about Russian Oligarch business partners and Swiss numbered accounts. Both couples are looking for a better way.

Now I am on the Greyhound Bus, and I look out of the window at the sun flashing off of the windscreens of cars passing across the freeway, and the deep blue sky behind the sandy highrise buildings along Interstate 95. I am starting to feel the heat of the day through my woolly sweater, and realise that we are heading into the warm country at last. The shocking and vulgar hideola of Orlando’s ‘beltway, the latino chic of Miami, then Key West, then Havanna. We are on the way back to our boat. All we have to do is find a boat heading across the straits to Cuba, upon which we can ‘work our passage’. It may be hard; it may be easy. We don’t know yet, but we’ll find out…