This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue
I don’t know about you, but although I much prefer to go to sea with tried and tested buddies, there are times when I end up shipping out with total strangers. You’ve met the type. They might be those credible people you run into in a waterfront bar with a tale to tell. “There I was, and the waves were 40 feet high…” And so on. Then there’s the friend of a friend, which often turns out to be the only claim a salty-looking hopeful has to being a level-headed, good-natured companion. Many a candidate for our love and affection contradicts early promise by mutating into a monster of the deep as soon as land sinks below the horizon. I’ve done my best to expunge these misfits from the moldier corners of my memory, and an occasional shipmate has boarded without recommendation, then renewed my flagging hope in human nature. One, however, remains a total mystery—living proof that at sea, things are not always what they seem.
Early on a crisp autumn morning 25 years ago, I sailed my classic cutter through Hell Gate, ghosted under the Brooklyn Bridge in the lee of the jungle of concrete and glass, then trickled on down the East River as the sun rose and the New York City traffic began to thicken up on FDR Drive. (If you’ve never treated yourself to this astounding experience, it’s time you did, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about right now.) Rounding up into the tide, I luffed alongside a berth on South Street, in downtown Manhattan. That day, my stout old boat was scheduled to serve as committee boat for the Mayor’s Cup schooner race.
At 51 feet along her flush deck, the boat was well able to accommodate the race administrators along with a lively group of guests and a few hangers-on. Having arrived in good time, my crew and I cleaned ship, brewed up, then relaxed to enjoy the passing scene. At 10 o’clock, a catering van screeched to a halt on the boardwalk. Chefs in white hats swarmed aboard and took over command. For 15 minutes all was pandemonium as they unloaded canaps, lobsters, ice, champagne, and a 6-foot submarine sandwich we somehow contrived to stow on the galley top in one piece. No sooner had the caterers left than the committee arrived in cabs from the New York Yacht Club uptown.
I had imagined that this event would be a fairly home-town affair, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Half a dozen proper yachtsmen clambered across the rail, dressed in blazers, NYYC ties, salmon-pink pants, and Sperry Topsiders. Their chairman had been one of the America’s Cup race officials who earlier that summer had faced the unpopular task of awarding the Auld Mug to Australia II. These were not people to take lightly. With them came a merry throng of wives, sweethearts, journalists, and dignitaries.
The sun shone and the river sparkled as we sprang out of our berth into the last of the gurgling East River ebb. The Brooklyn Bridge receded as we dropped downstream to anchor off the Battery at one end of the start line. We hoisted our identifying flags, loaded the gun, set the clock, organized the paperwork, and settled down to wait for the action. I was sitting by the wheel when an elderly gentleman stepped smartly up, dapper in a striped Edwardian blazer and straw Panama hat. I didn’t recognize his club tie, but his tidy white military moustache gave him away. He was the living image of one of those crusty old buffers from P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books. I hadn’t realized that characters like him still existed.
“Jolly fine day for a spot of yachting, eh, Skipper?” His clipped English accent instantly gave him away as being as full-blooded a Brit as I am. I’d been far from home for a while and, to be truthful, I couldn’t believe anybody still talked like that in the 1980s, but he had exactly the right air of implied superiority coupled with a not-quite-patronizing friendliness to place him squarely on his turf in the British class system. I sat securely at least two rungs down, even as captain of my own yacht in such elevated circumstances as host to the Mayor’s Cup Committee. I’d met his like at many a village fete in another life. He was the retired colonel required by all rural English communities if they are to consider themselves complete.
I chatted politely for a while about the history of my boat, which seemed to interest him, but when I asked what had brought him to New York he grew vague. Searching for common ground, I next asked about his regiment. Many members of my yacht club are ex-army, and this was long enough ago for my guest to have served with one of them in WWII.
“Rather hush-hush, don’t you know,” he responded with a conspiratorial wink; then he toddled off toward the snacks.
The race got under way at midday with a respectable fleet of schooners thundering off toward the Verazzano Narrows on the rising breeze. With all the starters logged, we shifted over to Ellis Island for the finish later in the afternoon. There we anchored and pounced on our excellent lunch. I watched as the colonel served himself a large lobster tail and carved a foot or so off that remarkable sandwich. Then he accepted a silver tankard of champagne, which he sucked down with the enthusiasm of a thirsty bilgepump in a sinking ship. Later I noticed him with a refill, deep in conversation with one of the younger officials.
I forgot all about him, though, in the excitement as the big gaff-rigged two-masters came beating home on the flood, cracking on under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty with rails down and every stitch set. A Maine boat took the gun, the second and third made it almost a dead heat, and the rest straggled back over the next half-hour. With the last schooner safely in, we motored back to South Street, one and all declaring it a grand day out.
As the guests left the committee to crunch the handicap numbers and sort out a winner, the colonel hopped briskly ashore with the ladies, tipping his Panama in a courteous “Thank you.”
“Friend of yours?” asked the race-committee chairman.
“No,” I replied.” I thought he was with you. Nice fellow.”
“Never saw him before.” The great man rubbed his chin. “Neither did anyone else. It’s amazing the lengths some people will go to for a free lunch.”
I’ve pondered on that straw hat and blazer many times since then. However plausible people may seem as they come over the rail, these days I always take time to consider whether a pier-head jumper might—just might—be sailing under false colors.