Waterlines: The Company We Keep

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Just because some crew are crazy doesn’t mean they all are

One of the best pickup crews I ever sailed with, after an autumn gale in the Gulf Stream. Not seen is the one guy who got scared the first day and hid below for the duration

One of the best pickup crews I ever sailed with, after an autumn gale in the Gulf Stream. Not seen is the one guy who got scared the first day and hid below for the duration

It is a big leap of faith, heading offshore on a sailboat. Even if you are experienced and well prepared, you commend yourself to the elements when setting sail and are taking a chance they will not be kind to you. You take an even bigger chance when you set out with people you’ve never sailed with before.

I pondered this while organizing crew for a passage south to the West Indies last fall. I met with prospects, we warily sussed each other out, each wondering how tolerable the other would seem after several days at sea, but in the end, I had to tell them: you never know until you’re out there. I signed up two likely fellows, one of whom suddenly canceled on me. I found another who wanted to come, but then couldn’t. Then I found a woman on a dock, a day before leaving, who was willing to make the proverbial pierhead leap.

We had a fine passage together, which is, of course, the great miracle of this game. It usually works out. You live cheek by jowl with total strangers, endure isolation and discomfort with them, and they become your friends. It’s actually a great way to meet people—except when it isn’t.

Case in point: we have one unhappy skipper, Rick Smith, who as I write is awaiting trial in St. Thomas for “seaman’s manslaughter,” as federal prosecutors have charged him in the unfortunate demise of one crewmember who, as it turned out, wasn’t quite stable. Smith, a well-known and respected charter skipper, has for years plied the waters between Maine and the Virgin Islands on his 43ft yawl Cimarron. He was southbound in the fall of 2015 with two other crew aboard and stopped in Beaufort, North Carolina, to pick up a third, David Pontious. He’d never met Pontious before, but the man came recommended as an experienced sailor.

Pontious appeared the day before departure, looking out of shape, weighing over 250lb, with feet so swollen he couldn’t wear shoes. Some might see warning signals here, but in practice, I doubt many would be cold enough to turn away such a man. Another signal presented itself the next morning, an hour or so after departure when Pontious became seasick. Not a good thing, obviously, but there are many sailors who do get seasick from time to time.

The following day Pontious was still seasick, wobbly on his feet, and couldn’t keep food down. He also started experiencing mild auditory and visual hallucinations, which Smith and the others attributed to dehydration. They urged Pontious to keep trying to drink water.

On the third day of the passage, the hallucinations grew much stronger. Pontious announced he heard voices below and started pacing the boat anxiously. That night he accused Smith and the crew of drugging and kidnapping him. At one point he saw an open door in a cloud off to port and insisted that Smith, who was at the helm, turn toward it. When Smith refused, Pontious attacked him, punching him in the face and choking him. Smith, almost 100lb lighter than Pontious, was gasping for help and saved himself by turning sharply to starboard, throwing Pontious off his feet.

Once he recovered, Pontious leaped off the port side of the boat.

Smith was not eager to get Pontious back aboard. He had the crew, who were now quite frightened, deploy a spotlight, but he did not stop the boat and initiate a search. The final Coast Guard report did not fault him for this, as Pontious clearly posed a threat. It noted too that Pontious, who told Smith beforehand he was taking no drugs, had various heart medications and antidepressants packed in his bag.

A cautionary tale, to be sure. But what does it teach us? What would you have done differently? Would you have told Pontious he seemed too fat and weird to go sailing with? Would you have turned around to put him ashore after he got seasick the first day? Would you have searched for him after he tried to strangle you?

I know some skippers who say they will never sail with anyone they haven’t sailed with before. But if you follow such a rule to the letter, you never get to go sailing with anyone, do you? It does take a bit of faith after all. 

Note: The charges against Smith were eventually dropped

Photo by Charles J. Doane 

March 2019

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