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Cruising: Old Sailors Never Die

The author as a much younger man contemplating the latest boat project

The author as a much younger man contemplating the latest boat project

“Old sailors never die, they just get a little dinghy.” It may be a hoary old joke, but one of my problems at age 79 is I can no longer get easily in and out of a little dinghy, and neither can my (several years younger than me) wife. For this, and various other reasons I will list in excruciating detail below, a few years ago we finally sold Dolphin Spirit, our lovely, cutter rigged, Mason 53.

I had owned her since 1992, and she had taken my wife, son and me around the world safely, comfortably and serenely, in the face of my many mistakes and general ineptitude. How many of us have friends, family or even spouses who can suffer such indignities and still stay silent and forgiving?

To be clear, I am a cruising sailor, not a racing sailor. I do not tack more than once a day, and then only after hours of contemplation. Having said that, many years ago, I loaded Dolphin Spirit up with 15 people (just two of whom had actually sailed before) and more snacks and drinks than should be legal, and we finished third in our division in the Newport-to-Ensenada race. The next year we bettered our previous time by more than six hours and did not place—as good a reason as any to never race again.

During our six-and-a-half-year circumnavigation, I did all the maintenance and fixed everything that broke. To do that, I carried an extensive inventory of spare parts, with tools and operating manuals for almost everything. However, all that would have been useless without some flexibility—mine!

I found early on that many absolutely essential maintenance tasks can be carried out only by a contortionist who has the ability to ignore pain. There has to be a special place in hell for those designers who know jobs like changing the raw water impeller, replacing the drive belts and changing fuel filters have to be regularly done, but still place these items at the extreme limits of human reach.

This was no problem for the younger, more flexible me. To check the gearbox oil level, I could slide feet first under the sole, twist and bend double to essentially touch my toes and then hold that position for as long as necessary. Today, sliding in feet first is still not a problem, but pretty much everything else is.

As every cruiser knows, the captain’s main responsibility is to keep the toilets operational. That requires a strong stomach, spare parts and the ability to spend prolonged periods of time crouched in confined quarters. How many times did I yearn for a return to those seats with holes in them leading directly to the sea that were once used on the old square-riggers? One time, my oldest son and his future bride came to be with us while we were at anchor in Mykonos. Within 10 minutes of arrival, she had to use the toilet, and it immediately blocked up. I jumped into action and had everything operational again within 30 minutes. I tell this story, not simply to note the way I endeared myself to her by quipping that I now knew more about her than her doctor did, but to proudly point out the 30 minutes. A similar problem early last year took two days to fix and was followed by a trip to the chiropractor and the decision that moving forward we only really needed one operational toilet on board.

Then there was the time the forward head sink blocked up. An easy fix: turn off the through-hull, remove, clear and replace the non-return valve; lie on your side on the floor, twist upper body so as to insert head and one arm through the opening under the sink; through-hull off, hose clamps loosened, screws taken out, valve maneuvered free—10 minutes max. Same steps in reverse to re-install. All done in 25 minutes without breaking a sweat.

Alas, that was back in the day. This was now. Faced with another blockage a few years ago, I got down on the floor easily enough—gravity works! Head through the opening—no problem. Raise arm and twist upper body to allow arm insertion—not going to happen. What had to be done was there, right in front of me, no more than 12in from my nose. But it may as well have been on the moon. For the sake of brevity, we will gloss over how I got back up off the floor again. Let me just say it was not with the same cat-like grace that once left any beholders in awe.

On a happier note, actually sailing the boat was not on the list of problems, as I had long since set up Dolphin Spirit for singlehanding. Electric winches take all of the hard work out of unfurling and furling the in-mast mainsail, and controlling the jib and staysail. The autopilot handles the steering, so I can adopt my usual feet-up lounge position in the cockpit—the one that took me around the world. If nothing broke or malfunctioned, I was still the master of my ship, and life was good.

Anchoring was also not an issue, as my wife and I had long ago worked out a system that safely, quietly and with minimum effort got us secured thousands of times on every type of bottom in depths up to 150ft (in the Maldives) and every kind weather. That said, anchoring out requires use of a dinghy to get to shore, a significant problem at 79 (see the opening paragraph).

Then, of course, there’s going aloft. Dolphin Spirit’s mast is 64ft tall. In the past, to get to the top for repairs and routine maintenance, I used a continuous line hoist (similar in operation to the chain hoists used in garages to lift engines) which I muscled up to the top using a spare halyard with the gear reduction in the hoist doing most of the work. As an extra safety measure, I would attach a second halyard to the bosun’s chair, which my son Ryan would keep in position with a winch. As the halyard bore no weight, this was something a 9-year-old could easily do.

No surprise, there are now several problems inherent in this otherwise simple operation. Surely the mast has grown taller, the bosun’s chair has shrunk, and the hoist gears must be slipping (or someone changed the ratio), because I now found myself having to stop every foot or so to catch my breath. Further complicating matters is the fact my wife is the one who now handles the backup winch, and she often chooses this same time to discuss matters important to her, but not necessarily agreed to by me.

Let me be very clear, I remain a young-feeling, reasonably mobile 79-year-old, still actively employed in my consulting company, with my own teeth and no need for glasses. In spite of this, I was forced to accept the realization that long cruises on Dolphin Spirit were no longer possible for my wife and me to undertake independently.

Paying others to carry out all the necessary maintenance and repairs may have been viable, but a necessary evil in a marina, but it would not be an option while cruising. Certainly, we had our pick of crew to do all the work that would allow us to cruise again. But that option, that loss of independence, that loss of privacy, was something we just couldn’t accept. Dolphin Spirit is a long-distance cruising vessel. Seeing her no longer seeking new horizons was distressing, so she was sold to someone we knew would make great use of her capabilities.

Now if someone could please just tell me what to do with the 4ft-high pile of charts I still have which helped us navigate our way to the 56 countries we once visited! 

Lawrence (Laurie) Pane, his wife, Carole Wells, and their son Ryan spent six and a half years circumnavigating aboard the Mason 53, Dolphin Spirit. Laurie and Carole have also co-authored two books—Chasing Sunsets: A Practicing Devout Coward’s Circumnavigation with his Wife and Son and Steering You Straight: Tips for Cruisers, Soon to be Cruisers and the Envious Everyone Else.

September 2022

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