Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sailing to Jamaica: Part 1


My father was visiting friends out of town when one told him the following story.

So, this kid is walking along the dock and meets two guys from Bermuda who have stopped in Beaufort for provisions before leaving the Intracoastal Waterway for an open ocean passage to Miami. The kid starts talking with these guys, and they tell him they are delivering a boat to Jamaica. The kid says he has always wanted to sail offshore, and they ask him if he wants to join them; they just lost their third crewman and will need a third when sailing offshore.

The kid says he wants to go, then calls his parents, tells them where he is leaving their car parked and says he will call them whenever they next stop at a port. The parents ask about the Bermudans; he tells them their names are Ed and Ollie and the ship is named Elska out of Connecticut, bound for Miami before crossing to Jamaica by way of the Bahamas. Then he is gone.

It is two days before the parents hear anything; they are quite relieved to receive a collect phone call from Southport. Their son has laid over there for a couple of days and needs clothes etc., all the things he did not have with him when he suddenly decided to sail to Jamaica when he had only gone to the coast for the day to surf.

The parents throw some clothes, books and a camera into his backpack and drive a few hours down to a marina near Southport. When they arrive at the marina, they begin looking for their son, but do not know where the sailboat is berthed or what it looks like. They walk down a dock looking into the companionway of each boat for their son.

The son calls to them from a few boats down the dock.

The parents look and there is their son sitting in the cockpit of a white-decked, blue-hulled ketch with two black men; one short, trim and athletic, the other almost six and a half feet tall, looking like a pro football lineman. They try to keep the shock they feel from showing on their faces as they hurry to the boat and embrace their son.

"O.K., so what happened then?" my father asked the teller of the tale.

"I think the kid ended up sailing into a bad storm off the Bahamas."

The teller of the tale paused.

Then he continued, "But can you imagine how the parents must have felt seeing their son for the first time since he called to say he was sailing to Jamaica with two strangers? Can you even imagine?"

"Yes, I can," responded my father. “The story is about my son Jim.”



Like many people, I followed the five year round-the-world voyage of young Robin Lee Graham in National Geographic. He was not much older than I. I imagined the pleasures of such a voyage without much consideration for the true risks. I never yearned to circumnavigate, but I did always believe that I would spend my life close to the sea. It has not panned out that way as I have lived inland ever since I returned to Chapel Hill to finish school. Nevertheless, once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a wonderful adventure at sea. My story follows. It may help explain why I am so comfortable beginning a cruising life.


"Mom, I'm going down to the beach today. I'll stop by Beaufort on my way and talk to some shrimpers about work, but then I'm going surfing near the Point."

I threw my Birdwells in a small red daypack with a water bottle and some wax, strapped my surfboard onto the rack on top of my father's station wagon and headed for the beach. The sun was just beginning to rise as I turned off the highway onto the back road that winds through quiet farmland. A cool summer mist lay gently on the fields, and the sky was perfectly clear. A great day to be in the water! I prayed for good waves.

The drive was peaceful; I enjoyed the solitude, the green fields of corn and tobacco stretching down long rows to clusters of dark woods, the small towns of Trenton and Maysville draped in Spanish moss, the black water creeks disappearing into lowland wilderness. It was only an hour to the coast, and there was rarely any traffic at all on the country roads. At most, I usually passed a tractor or two and a few farmers piddling along in their pickups, studying the land and their crops. A few miles before Maysville, I saw a car coming toward me. As it drew close, an arm emerged from the driver side window and a fist turned thumb up. "Surf's up!" As the car passed me, I recognized a friend from Swansboro. I waved and immediately thought about skipping the visit to the fishing docks in Beaufort.

But I knew I had an obligation to my parents at least to make the effort to find a summer job. I had postponed my first year of college and lived outside Morganton on a friend's farm near Casar and the South Mountains for several months, then returned to Kinston in the middle of a recession to try to find work. After a semester studying welding and (separately) art at the local community college, I found a job as a maintenance man at a local motel. They were desperate. My technical skills extended no further than the changing of light bulbs and the removal of broken bed frames. When they insisted that I clean the pool with toxic acid because it was cheaper to have me and the dishwasher do it than it was to hire people who knew how to work with the acid safely, I quit.

The recession marched on. I looked for work, but there was none to be found. I had always wanted to work on a shrimp boat, so I regularly checked the docks for openings. Nepotism was the first rule of hiring among the captains. Still, they were friendly in refusing my inquiries.

So, to Beaufort I went. It was mid-morning when I parked beside the docks. The water of Taylor's Creek rippled lightly with a soft morning breeze. Seagulls drifted overhead, scanning for schools of baitfish. Across the channel on Carrot Island, a few wild chestnut ponies grazed.

It was midweek and the streets were empty. I strolled along Front Street and admired the row of stately 19th century homes that faced the water. Formerly homes to merchants and whaling captains during Beaufort’s glory as the largest whaling town in North Carolina, many of the buildings needed renovation; still, they were magnificent. Along the waterfront, the old chandlery and warehouses were being adapted into restaurants and gift shops.

The docks were still dirty and worn, stained with diesel fuel, bird guano, fish scales and dried offal. As I walked onto the dock, I did not see any shrimper's outriggers. But, as I approached the water, I spied the mast of a small yacht; it was low tide, and the deck of the boat itself was several feet below the dock. I walked up to a short, athletic black man as he tried to lift himself from the deck up to the dock. I offered my hand. He waved me off, saying something about being in good enough shape despite his age to climb up by himself.

His accent caught me by surprise; he was British. Living in the South, I had never heard a black man with a British accent.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"Bermuda," he replied.

"Where are you headed?"

A second, larger man jumped up to the dock. He could have played pro football; six and a half
feet tall, probably 350. And the biggest, friendliest, happiest smile I had ever seen.

"We're taking this boat to Jamaica," responded the second man. "Name's Ollie." He extended
his hand.

"Mine's Jim. So how long have you been out? Where have you come from?"

“We left Elizabeth City yesterday, but we started in Connecticut."

Ollie and I chatted for a while as the captain, whose name I learned was Ed, arranged for provisions. They had left Bermuda a month earlier, flown to Canada for a holiday, then down to Connecticut to pick up the ketch. The boat had been purchased by Larry Mott (of the General Motors Motts), who owned The Silver Spray Club in Runaway Bay, Jamaica. Ed owned a marina in Bermuda and had met Larry there. Ollie ran a charter boat out of Ed's marina. Larry had purchased the boat sight unseen and arranged for Ed and Ollie to handle the delivery.

Neither Ed nor Ollie had ever navigated offshore before, so they had followed the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) all the way south from Connecticut. Ed was trying to learn celestial navigation through a correspondence course as they traveled. Ollie was skeptical that the knowledge had taken root with Ed.

They were planning to leave Beaufort with a course offshore that would let them sail the most direct route to Florida, a course almost due south if they could avoid the northward rush of the Gulf Stream. They expected to save a few days sailing by getting offshore, reprovision in Miami, then cross southeast along the western edge of the Grand Bahama Bank to round the eastern end of Cuba. They were beginning to get anxious about finishing the delivery so they could return home to their businesses and families.

Ed returned, and said to me, "So, do you want to sail to Jamaica?"

"Are you kidding!" His question came so quickly and casually that I was sure he was joking with me.

"No. We fired our other mate and put him ashore in Elizabeth City. He was a friend of ours, but he was doing too much whining about how badly he wanted to get back to his girlfriend. And we will need a crew offshore."

My mind raced. Yes, yes, yes, I thought, but then remembered my father's car, no spare clothes, no toothbrush, nothing. Yet, I could not say no.

"I don't have my passport with me."

"I don't think you need one as an American travelling to Jamaica, probably just a driver's license or something. But anyway, we can find out before we get there, and we could drop you in Miami if we found out you needed the passport," Ed replied.

I did not want to refuse them. Sailing a delivery to Jamaica... how could I NOT go? But it was not practical. I needed to return the car and get all the things I needed to travel for a few weeks.

"When will you leave, 'cause I need to take my parents' car back home; my mother could bring me back. It would take 3 hours or so," I explained.

Ed shook his head. "We need to leave within the hour."

Part of me was relieved. He had let me off the hook by giving me no option. I was disappointed, but it was still a good story. I had had the opportunity, but the logistics just did not work out. I could repeat the mantra: if only they could have let me take the car home, if only I could have planned for the possibility, if only....

"Well, I guess that's it then. I can't go. I sure would like to, but I need to return the car and get some gear, books, you know, a toothbrush and everything."

"Oh well. Maybe we will be able to find someone else before we leave or pick up another crew later. Best wishes."

They each shook my hand, smiled and then dropped down to the deck of the boat. I watched as they ducked through the companionway into the cabin, then I turned and walked back up the dock to my car.

As I drove out of Beaufort and headed for the beach, my mind kept churning. I should go, but what could I do with the car? What about clothes? Books? All the other stuff I would need? All what other stuff? Did I really need a lot of gear to sit on a sailboat with the bow slicing through warm blue waters driven by balmy tropical winds? I needed a bathing suit and maybe a t-shirt; the thought hit me like a flash. I have what I really need. I could buy a toothbrush and a book. But what about the car? I could just leave the car. Yes, I could leave the car. Call Dad, tell him where I parked it and lock the keys inside. No, he would not go for that because then he and Mom would have to drive to Beaufort just to pick up the car; they would have to leave after work and get home late.

But how often does anyone get the chance that I was just offered? This is the stuff of dreams. A true adventure. The kind of opportunity that I would die for if I heard someone else telling the story. And how could I face a lifetime of having made an excuse NOT to go? I could drown in phrases beginning with "if only". What makes an adventure is the unknown, the surprise, the ill- prepared nature of the pursuit, the spontaneity, the willingness to take the risk, to accept the fact that the outcome is neither controlled nor assured.

I knew then that I must go. If it was not too late. I turned the car around at the next corner and hurried back to the dock.

"Ed, I want to go! Have you found anyone?"

"No. We've been busy stowing everything."

"Look, I need to call my father and see if he will let me leave his car here. If he will, I am going to buy a few things at the drugstore across the street, and I'll be ready to go. OK?"

Ed chuckled at my excitement and my plotting, "Sure, that's okay. But we need to be leaving in about 15 minutes, so hurry."

I found a pay phone at the chandler's shop next door and called my father at work. With nervous restraint, I told him what had happened, what my plan was and attempted to make it all sound like the perfectly reasonable and logical idea that it was not. After asking a few relevant questions like who the two sailors were, where they were from, was I really comfortable sailing away with two strangers, and what was the name of the sailboat, he agreed to let me go. I was almost as shocked as I had been when Ed asked if I wanted to crew with them.

I thanked my father with continued restraint so that he would not realize how surprised I was or how doubtful I had been that he would agree. He might have changed his mind. Or he might have decided that he needed to consult my mother. And I knew she had too much common sense to be persuaded by the sheer adventure of it all; she would have convinced my father that this was the ill-conceived plan that it truly was. But at the same time, I also knew that she would have wanted me to have the kind of adventure that the voyage might become; and she would have wanted to know that I would return safely from the journey.

I bought a toothbrush, toothpaste and Alive, the story of the Andes airplane crash survivors, not even thinking about the potential foreshadowing. I had with me a bathing suit, a towel and the jeans, t-shirt and sandals that I was wearing.

"I'm ready," I announced in a loud voice from the dock, my throat tight and my stomach knotted with anticipation.

"Come aboard!"

I hopped onto the deck and stepped down into the cabin. Ollie showed me my berth in the bow beside the sail bags. I dropped my daypack and turned back into the saloon, not really knowing what to do or say next. Filled with disbelief at what experiences might lay before me, I surveyed the saloon, the gimbaled galley stove, the portholes, the charts stretched over the dining table. Then I noticed the motion of the boat rocking ever so gently, but rocking nevertheless, a motion never present on land. And I felt a lightness in my stomach, a brief twinge of fear; was I going to be seasick? Then Ed called me up on deck to tend the dock lines. We were ready to embark. For the moment, I forgot about the feeling in my stomach.

We motored down the channel past Radio Island into the turning basin for the Morehead City port, then cut the engine and set sail on a starboard tack, the bow rising into the swells rolling through Bogue Inlet. With Fort Macon to starboard and Shackleford Banks to port, we could see the diamond black and white pattern of Cape Lookout light clearly as we veered south into the deep green open ocean. We immediately settled into the easy rhythm of the ocean swell and declared that it was time for lunch.

My voyage had begun.

1 comment:

  1. Jim, I'm enjoying your story very much, you must be having fun re-living it all.


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