It was nearly Christmas of 1969 and we were backwatered, Silas and I. We were vestiges of some 1950’s dream dumped into the late 60s. His wife had left him and my girlfriend had left me while we were overseas. All the replacements from girls we had known in college were so vehemently anti-war we could not get a date. Job interviewers cautioned us not to put that employment on our resumes. All we really had was a chest full of medals on our uniform jackets. What is your work background? We were U.S. Marine officers in Vietnam during a Tet offensive. Several personal decorations…. Must be killed-crazed maniacs…Next! It seemed like the time to escape all this.
Si did have some money and bought a 30 ft. Rhodes Hull Chesapeake Bay racing sailboat. We thought perhaps we could find a cove somewhere in the Virgin Islands which had no prior judgment of us. Of course that sleek a wooden racer was wet much of the time with water washing over it low decks, and it had about as much room below as a garbage can. In December, when we picked up the boat in Norfolk, Virginia there was ice on the decks. (I still tell people I learned to sail with ice on the decks.) But it was our home now, for the foreseeable future. I seem to remember that we ceremoniously threw our uniforms and medals overboard in a spot deep enough we would never go back for them. That was freedom, in its way, but really resolved nothing.
The temperature was about 20 degrees when we left Norfolk on the Inland Waterway. The Inland Waterway from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami is a part of thousands of miles of inland waterway once used for commerce. The shipping of goods by water was – and still is – the least expensive way for goods to get between cities and regions of the country and world. Trucks, of course, long ago obviated most of the advantages, and so most of the U.S. waterways and canal systems do not have the constant dredging and maintenance that commerce that depended upon them would require.
A sailboat like ours, with a draft of 5 feet, will run aground in the soft silt bottom, and more than once we had to tilt the boat to shallow the draft and make it through. We could usually did this by shifting weight to one side of the boat, including our bodies of course. Sometimes the sail would help heel us if the wind was right. Very infrequently we had to jury-rig a way to support one of our bodies out on the sloop’s mainsail boom, extended out to the side. This was quite amusing to the locals sitting onshore – leaning back, drinking beer and spitting chewn tobacco from their back porches. Often these were fishermen and power boaters who had no use for the nostalgia and craft of sailboats, and certainly not for a sailboat’s 5 foot keel.
We kept going for 10-12 hours a day. At about 5 knots (read MPH), that made us maybe 50 miles a day. The first cold stretch was god-awful miserable. One of my lingering memories was sitting at the tiller at dawn, wrapped in blankets and a windbreaking poncho that didn’t. Nothing was moving onshore, seemingly stilled by the cold. My beard was full of icicles formed from my breath. And yet, out through a barely opened hatch came Si’s hand. In it was a steaming mug from our stove below. I took it to my breast and almost cuddled the mug for warmth. The smell of alcohol warmed my nose. It was –Ah — a glorious hot buttered rum at dawn, and forever after I have known why fishermen out to work in their small boats start drinking in the early morning.
After that cold stretch, through Virginia and North Carolina, the weather became more accommodating, though not entirely pleasant. Most of the land around the waterway was coastal and very flat and often swampy. That meant birds, and the birds must have been migrating or looking for food or something, because the sky was always full of birds at some point in the day. Their screeching seemed generally cheerful and, though we were intruders, neither of us seemed to threaten the other.
We spent Christmas of 1969 in the Sapelo Sound off Georgia. The water came in from the ocean there, and we picked a fairly scenic spot to drop anchor on Christmas day and warm ourselves with a Christmas drink (or two) and cook a Christmas pot roast on our alcohol oven. It was not really an oven, but a collection of shields that channeled the heat from the alcohol flame around the pot with the pot roast in it, cooking slowly in its own juices plus a broth we had added. It would take hours to cook so we sat around with hot buttered rums. I played my guitar and I think Si was wheezing out something on a little harmonica. After a while we fell asleep, in the dark, below decks, on Christmas day, in near a northern shore in Sapelo Sound.
We were awakened with a crash. The pot roast had slid off it alcohol flame onto the floor of the boat and the greasy liquid made that floor slippery. Jumping out of the side couch/beds where we slept, our feet hit the greasy floor and slipped out from under us. We did not have a battery to provide lights below, so we were lying there in dark cramped quarters, practically immersed in our Christmas pot roast. Had something hit us as we anchored there? Were we sinking? We tried to make it up the tilted ladder steps to the hatch above, and finally peered out to see what had happened. Nothing we should not have anticipated: the ocean’s tide had gone out as we slept, and the bottom ground came up under our boat, which then leaned violently to the right on its deep keel. Took a full grimy day to clean the pot roast grease from the bilge and floorboards.
Finally, in Miami beach, the warm sun bathed us. We needed a place to tie up our boat for a while, and decided to stop and ask the rich people with homes and docks on the various canals. Probably they could call the cops and run us off. But we lucked out. On our second stop we met one woman who said she had been hoping someone would want to tie up to her dock. In fact, she was divorced and lonely and we were a sure antidote. With a houseful of memories and furniture and clothing, and her twentyish son jet setting around Europe at the time, she was able to dress us in her son’s wardrobe and took us out to the Jockey Club and other Miami spots we might never have afforded.
We wanted to avoid a North wind against the five-knot Atlantic current coming from the south along the coast of Florida, because that combination makes the waves stand up ten feet high or more. We wanted to cross to Nassau when the wind was just right, and for ever so many fun-filled days of Miami high-life, the wind was never quite. The possibility of being kept young men on sailboats was dawning on us. We met Gary who had another sailboat with another young man, and he was welcomed as well. This could have been a long free vacation, waiting for that perfect wind, but finally the wind came from the south along with the current. That wind was forecast to stay the same, and we sailed out of Miami toward the Bahamas on a perfect day, for an overnight sail to Nassau.
The fairest of days turned to the foulest of nights within a few hours. The South wind we had been counting on headed South, and in its place a North wind roared down the Miami coast, setting the waves up to ten feet in height on a cloudy night. We had a compass for navigation, but no sun and no stars. Amidst being tossed about like a bottle someone had thrown in, we saw the phosphorescent flying fish skipping over the waves, awesome sights in the midst of peril. And peril it was, because if we sailed straight across and missed Nassau, we might hit the corral reefs of Bimini, great for snorkeling but lying within a few feet of the surface. They rose sharply within a mile of shore from hundreds of feet deep to about 3 feet. If we did not avoid Bimini, our boat would be scuttled banging up and down on the reef, and then we humans would be adrift, bounced up and down by the waves with dragged like pot roast by the currents across the knife sharp edges of corral.
Gary, in our accompanying boat had no navigation equipment but a compass. We had an old, old radio navigation finder from the 50s. It picked up Morse code signals sent by towers in Florida. We had a map with those towers on it and their identifications. With the boat tossing around in the storm, Si and I laid the map out in the cramped quarters below, and put the radio direction finder on the floor. We badly needed two strong signals with which to triangulate our position. Direction with a compass is one thing, but in the darkness with reference to sun or shore lights or stars, position is incredibly important and our means of determining it were not leading edge. Finally we did determine our position and with our estimated speed, it looked like we would smash into the reef at Bimini within half an hour on the current course. We could change direction, but we had to catch Gary in the maelstrom and communicate (with no radios, ironically having been in military communications). We would have to catch him somewhere out ahead of us, and get close enough to his boat to shout out a new heading over the storm.
We must have missed those shoals by a few minutes, and let the Gulf current carry on a northward heading. Just trying to avoid hitting anything big in the night. The sun broke in the morning and we could see a port with power boats going in and out. Gary was still out there somewhere, but Si and I followed the crowd with our little motor on and sails down, bedraggled boat and crew after a scary night on the water. On shore we contacted their search and rescue group and they brought Gary in the very narrow 50 foot wide channel which had been blasted from the low lying corral reef. Later I would get free rides from Miami back to Freeport, which is where we landed this first time on the North end of Grand Bahama Island. One of the jobs we had was ferrying boats across to Miami and Fort Lauderdale with airfare back, but instead in roamed the docks gaining a free ride by offering to be the pilot who would take them in to Freeport. What a deal.
Another of the jobs I had was first mating on sport fishing boats. I would bait the hooks with small fish, herring or sardines, wrapped with steel leader and concealing a very big hook. The captain would find schools of marlin and other fish feeding on surface creatures and algae, I guess, and would maneuver the boat and trailing bait from the fishing poles, while the customers would jump into their deckchairs and wait for a strike. The idea was that the big fish chased the little fish and chomped down on them. With the boat moving about 35 mph that planted the hook deep in the jowls of the bigger fish. Sometimes it took an hour or more to reel them in. Sometimes they were hooked and being dragged by out boat, and the sharks would smell the blood an swim as fast as the boat to take huge bites off the body of those marlin or swordfish. Sometimes nothing was left but the head to reel in.
Once when some ministers of the new government of Pendling, freshly granted independence from Great Britain, were having a day out, they pulled in a large barracuda, snapping its jaws at our legs and fighting all the way. The customers retreated to their small cabin with drinks as I grabbed a two by four as a club and tried to hit the barracuda in the head while it was writhing and snapping at my legs. The two peered out of the cabin window, jiggled the ice in their drinks, and thought this was great fun. I wondered who bet on the barracuda. Maybe both. After all, I was a white man in the new dark-skinned Bahamas, free at last from colonial rule and charting their own course.
Another job I had was cleaning barnacles and algae off boat bottoms in the marina. They were very large pleasure boats and I was free diving and at times I became disoriented in coming up for a breath, and small the length of the boat instead of the width. Once I was asked to clean off the decks and the entertainment area on one of these 90 foot power boats, since the owner had apparently given his paid crew leave for the weekend. After finishing in the hot sun, the owner, all alone with the boat, offered me a gin and tonic. It was a lazy afternoon, and all I had to do was drink and listen. Apparently this boat owner was a Consigliore for the New York Mafia. He and many other easterners with tax evasion cases came to Freeport and lived on their boats in a country where the U.S. could not extradite them.
As we drank gin and tonics he mixed expertly from the bar on the main deck, he related to me how the Mafia are true patriots, because they stopped the communists from putting LSD in the Los Angeles water supply. (I wondered if anyone would note behavioral differences in Hollywood.) After another gin and tonic, he told me how the Mafia is considered a great service organization by the U.S. police, because they maintain order among all the petty street criminals who could make things really dangerous in American communities. And after another round, he told me of all the influential Senators and Congressmen and movie stars he regularly has dinner with. I learned a great deal that afternoon, and later he said he could give me his Hollywood lawyer if I wanted to be a screenwriter. Tempted as the general ignominy of Hollywood would later make me feel, I never took him up on it.
During those loose and rambling days, Si and Gary and I got dock jobs and floated into a little bar near the marina at days end. One of our frequent companions was a Canadian named Michael Gordon, a blond haired tanned God of a young man, who had a small runabout with an outboard motor. He would free dive with no scuba gear, and spear fish which he brought fresh to the back doors of kitchens in the large hotels and Casino’s which served Grand Bahama Island, and the whole East Coast of the U.S. when you come down to it. Michael was always the soul of fun and on the days when the hotels were buying, good for many a round. We loved him for total freedom he represented.
I had just brought some smuggled engine parts from Miami – risking life in a dingy prison on the Bahamas – and then Si and I took a charter around the Island, also illegally. Life was good. I had just met Brenda and that made life even better. We were pushed by forces we could not tell. In sailing, the wind comes at an angle against the mast, forces down on the keel and spurts the boat forward like a watermelon seed squeezed between two fingers. Sailing thus into the wind was once a military secret and allowed the British Navy to rule the known world because its gunships could sail into the wind and around an enemy ship which could not go into the wind, filling it with cannonballs and splintering its masts until the surrenders. Now we were the watermelon seeds, pushed out by anti-war feelings in the States, and in our escape pressed forward here and there by circumstance.
It did not strike Si and I what we had been through until we saw them drag Michael Gordon in dead. We had money from the charter and wanted to buy him a few rounds, along with the rest of our bunch. But there he was, and the Bahamian police put him in a body bag, and we shook our heads. He had been hit between the eyes by the spike on a manta ray’s tail, they said. Hardly every happens. What a good guy, we thought, and were a bit morose as we entered the bar. After a few rounds we stopped talking about Michael, and about the yacht race setting up off Freeport.
“Wonder if Michael will find a girlfriend on those crews?” Someone said.
“They’ve probably been warned about him…” Si started to say. And then we looked at each other. We had had to grieve so quickly in Vietnam for lost friends, and then get back to business in minutes, as if they were gone in the wake of time. And now it had happened again. Michael was dead, tragically for such a one so young and blessed, and we had shut it off, instantly, out of grim habit that persisted here where we were safe. I wondered how long that business-like reflex about death would stay with us. Perhaps it will never quite return to normal.