Skip to main content

Pier head jumper

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

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.

Related

00-LEAD-210918_11HR_AZIMUT48HRS_AMO_00411

11th Hour Racing Team's Green Mission

“I’ll admit, it’s still hard to watch the boat leave the dock sometimes,” says former Volvo Ocean Race sailor Mark Towill. Since meeting during a Transpac campaign over 15 years ago, he and his teammate Charlie Enright have sailed thousands of miles together aboard two Volvo ...read more

D61_JKELAGOPIAN-3

Boat Review: Dufour 61

Dufour, long one of France’s most well-respected builders, has been producing sailboats in La Rochelle since the dawn of fiberglass boatbuilding. Having recently merged with another La Rochelle-based builder, Fountaine Pajot, Dufour has now joined other European mass-production ...read more

m138123_14_00_210609_TORE02_SE_2152_2504-2048x

The Ocean Race to be “Climate Positive”

The 2023 Ocean Race intends to be one of the world’s first climate positive sporting events, offsetting more greenhouse gasses than are produced. The two-fold effort means cutting emissions by 75 percent and investing in ocean projects that sequester carbon and restore ocean ...read more

01-LEAD-Ancients-3-2048x

Cruising Lake Superior

Almost anywhere a sailor drops the hook someone else has been there before. We are hardly ever the first. That remote Maine harbor without a soul in sight: there’s a lobster trap. The south coast of Newfoundland: the crumbling remains of a fisherman’s cabin lie hidden among the ...read more

01-LEAD-Tablet-Holder-4

Fabricating a Tablet Holder

During the pandemic, I was stuck aboard Guiding Light, a Lagoon 410, in St. Lucia for over a month. During that time, as I worked on the boat, I started by doing a spring cleaning in my spares locker and finding some parts and material that I forgot I had. As soon as I saw them, ...read more

00-LEAD-AdobeStock_486335954

A Catamaran for a New Era

Anacortes, Washington, is an unassuming sea-salty town near the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, and the Betts Boats yard is easy for a passerby to miss. But within Betts’ facilities, the dawn of an era in Pacific Northwest production boatbuilding could be breaking with the ...read more

X5_plus_slide-01

Boat Review: Xquisite X5 Plus

The Xquisite X5 Plus is a major update of the boat that SAIL awarded Best Large Multihull and Best Systems titles in 2017. The changes were not just cosmetic, but genuine improvements to an already fine boat, making it lighter, faster and less dependent on fuel. The builder’s ...read more

01-LEAD-AdobeStock_40632434

Cruising: Offshore Prep Talk

When I began preparing Minx, my 1987 Pearson 39-2, for extended Caribbean cruising, I had to balance my champagne wish list against my beer budget. Every buck spent on the boat before leaving would be one less frosty can of Carib down in the islands. On the other hand, I had to ...read more