Saturday, August 11, 2012

God Looks After Drunks and Fools….

Is something we’ve all heard. Well,  sometime prior to the events of this story he expanded this coverage to include bi-polar seasick chemical dependant sailors, apparently.

This is an absolutely true story. The type of story that no one will believe who hasn’t been “out there.” And the type that most who have been “out there” could up the ante on.

But this isn’t a story about God. It’s a story about Calamity Jack. (Names may have been changed to protect against the litigious.)It’s a story about full circles and the crazy way some people have of weaving through our seemingly straight ahead paths in life. 

Before my first trip south with Charis I invested in the services of a weather router. He earned his keep that year and we had a good passage.  Many who arrived in Bermuda just before us were still licking their wounds when we arrived.  We settled into the pack in St. George’s pretty quickly and it was a great start to the cruise. Among the cast of characters we met there was a single hander I call calamity Jack, for reasons that will present themselves as we go along. He was on a Halberg Rassy 35. This is a boat I always respected, but ended up in pure awe of, again, for reasons that will unravel with this yarn.

Through the rounds of dinghy club sundowners, cricket matches, and other various cruiser events, I socialized a bit with Jack. He had an interesting trip to Bermuda, including being boarded for a time by an owl, of all things. As if to prove the sagacity of these creatures, the owl left and Jack stayed on. Sort of. He admitted he was sick for the entire 2 weeks it took him to get from Massachusetts to Bermuda. Couldn’t take seasick meds because they might interfere with his bipolar prescription.  And he didn’t know how to reef. And his autopilot failed. And several other calamities I have since forgotten. In the end, he was found drifting about in the vicinity of Bermuda with inoperative engine, sails in a shambles, and little or no food or water left. He was towed in by a good Samaritan.

Some time along into our stay, a strong front was forecast to hit Bermuda, so being also at the time, a single hander (between crew let’s say) I felt it appropriate to offer to help Jack move his boat off the concrete wall in his lee and set an anchor. No-can –do he replied. I don’t have a dinghy. My reaction, not truly knowing Jack yet, was “wow, I heard you had a rough ride, but your dinghy got washed off the deck?” “Not really,” he admitted. “I was towing it.”  From New England. Yup, you got it right. He was going to tow his dinghy to Bermuda. The image in my mind was old Dan Stromeyer, the dean or our yacht club for ages and ages. In showing me over his beloved Concordia Yawl one day he was very detailed in his deck dinghy arrangement description, because, as he said, towing a dinghy was a “lubberly thing to do.” Amen. You taught me well my old friend. But I digress.

This conversation took place in Jack’s cabin. Strewn about were dozens of bags from “Andy Cap Pub Fries” and a few empty water bottles. The place was trashed. There was nothing to indicate that someone lived there and a lot to indicate that a frat party had just ended. Jack got beat against that wall pretty good when the weather did arrive, but his boat, being a good one, pulled him through. Again.

I lost track of our protagonist for some time after that. All I knew was that he was headed next for Puerto Rico to meet a lady friend.  In fact, it was well into the winter cruise when I next saw Jack settled into what was known as “boat trash” corner in Road Town, Tortolla. The story from others was lucid, in stark contrast to his own. Jack was 23 days from Bermuda to Tortolla. Except had not been headed for Tortolla. Seems that a week or so out of Bermuda, another voyager had stumbled upon Jack’s boat wallowing with the sails on deck and the engine inoperative. He  was half dead and completely out of food and water. After he topped up in Bermuda he eventually figured out that his engine wouldn’t drink the water he’s put in his fuel tank, and he couldn’t drink the fuel he’s put in his water tank. Add to that, somewhere along the way he flooded his bilge and mixed his gear oil with seawater. Point of fact, I was going to name him emulsification Jack, but Calamity had a nicer ring to it. So, as true sailors will, this kind stranger sorted Jack out. He drained and oiled his transmission, gave him jugs of fuel and water as well as food for several days, and went on his way. .

Another week went by and Jack was reported overdue by his friend in Puerto Rico. Notices were broadcast and a search was conducted. It was a search that never stood a chance because he was actually drifting around north of Tortolla at the time. Someone else found him and dragged him in half dead.

When I saw Jack next, his lady friend had joined him. Together they were bolstering the illegal drug trade in Tortolla in a magnificent fashion. Jack asked me to help him figure out why his rudder was jammed. He blamed the hydraulic steering. He claimed he’s just returned from, get this – the  Gallapagos. I know it was the crack talking, but this served to highlight just how far gone Jack was. The rudder problem, I learned later, was nothing but a barnacle colony between the rudder and the keel since his boat hadn’t moved in months. I was only too glad to put Jack out of my mind as I sailed down island and, I though, out of his sphere forever.

The rest of that winter was the usual mix that cruising, and life in general will tend to be….Great times, good times,  some bad stuff and lots of just pretty OK stuff. I don’t think I thought once of Calamity Jack.

I was on my way home to New England that June. The trip to Bermuda was a mixed bag, with a turbulent and fiery finish in the form of severe electrical storms that kept us hove to outside of St. Georges overnight. We arrived safely and congratulated ourselves at having brought the ship in safe when others arrived broken and battered. Such is Bermuda. My mate stuck around until she had to return to work. I was sad to see her off.

My first morning alone on board was grey and overcast, which matched my mood exactly. I was lounging in my bunk late, reminiscing and replaying the events of my first sojourn. I was getting back near the beginning and had for the first time in months, though of Calamity Jack. I wondered if he would ever get out of the Virgin Islands. Plenty of other chemically dependants never did. After all, they had found a place where everything was acceptable. Why leave? Anyway, as I was lying there wondering there came the sound of a diesel at close quarters. My only thought was how inconsiderate some people could be – interrupting a lazy rainy morning that way. I went back to my book. For all of 30 seconds. The Diesel sound was back, but even closer. I jumped up angry and looked out a porthole. I will never forget that image. It was the bow of a Halberg Rassey 35 Aimed square at me and coming on fast.

Now folks, I’m not one to freeze up in a panic. For that matter I’m not one to even slow down long enough to put his pants on in a panic. And so it was that I found myself seconds later in the dinghy, in my underwear, along side Calamity Jack’s boat, looking at a guy who was Not Calamity Jack, and clearly had not slept in days. There wasn’t time for questions. On the other quarter of Jack’s boat was another cruiser climbing aboard from his dinghy. Jack’s boat was racing along in circles full ahead, but with its anchor on the bottom. Other cruiser guy went forward to retrieve the anchor. I instructed Not Calamity Jack to steer anywhere away from our boats. I dove into the bilge to figure out why Jack’s engine would not respond to the throttle, gearshift, or fuel cutoff. It didn’t take long to figure out. None of those controls were connected to anything. Neither was the fuel filter. The engine had been jury rigged to run forward and full speed. Nothing else. These are the days that try mens’ marine engineering training. I went to the injection pump and told the others to aim for a clear anchor spot and be ready. I ripped the jury rigged fuel hose off the injection pump. A few seconds later all was quiet. The anchor was set. Three strangers sat down in the cockpit for the next sordid chapter of the Calamity Jack tales.

The mystery zombie crew was in fact two days plus without sleep. He was crew on a race boat outbound from Bermuda. A day or so out, they had come upon Jack’s boat in its native state, wallowing with sails on deck and engine off. Jack was starved nearly to death and dehydrated. As usual he was out of food and water. The race boat was skippered by a doctor who assessed Jack’s condition as sufficiently critical to require evacuation. He notified Bermuda Harbor Radio and they dispatched their only rescue resource – the St George’s Pilot Boat. Jack was taken off and to the hospital in Hamilton. The mystery man volunteered to take Jack’s boat back to St Georges’ for him. Little did he know what he was getting in to. The race boat crew got Jack’s diesel running and pointed their mate off in the right direction. Then he came along and popped out of my dream state like some sort of diabolical Jinni.

Well, Jack eventually got out of the hospital looking more skeleton than man. I still don’t know if it was withdrawal or starvation that did it. It was a while later before I got the prologue from another cruiser. Seems he eventually patched up that old boat of his and headed home for New England. Got rescued from that leg too, so I’m told. Then he got home and hired a lawyer to sue the pants off the manufacturer of his EPIRB, on the basis that it failed to notify the satellite constellation and bring him timely rescue on his last leg. The saddest part of all is that, having now been more than once on Jack’s boat, I knew that Jack didn’t have a satellite EPIRB. He carried an old, outdated 121 MHz VHF FM EPIRB. Didn’t slow the lawyers down much though I guess.

The moral of the story of Calamity Jack, from where I stand, is never, ever, ever allow yourself to think of people like this once you have left them in your wake. Use hypnosis, booze, meditation, or beg your crew to bludgeon you if necessary. But DO NOT take the chance of conjuring them up from your past.

Now excuse me while I go set out some fenders…just in case.


  1. Great blog...I look forward to reading more!