Waltzing through life
By Tim Askins
Images by Kathleen Buckley.
I sold my sailboat in 1990 or ’91; it’s hard to remember. Today when I think about boats and returning to the sea, it is like reuniting with a former lover willing and able to accept my tired and worn tenets. When I see a beautiful sailboat, my hand travels along the toe rail to the cockpit fresh and glistening in new varnish. The tiller stands ready to drive a new course. I envision sails blustering like a blouse, loose in the Atlantic breeze, dolphins playing in the bow wave. The allure of deep-sea sailing still lingers like a faded photograph in a crumpled girly magazine. Discarded but somehow possessing a subliminal primal draw.
Islandia, my 36-foot Arthur Robb-designed Cheoy Lee sloop, was purchased in Stamford, Connecticut. I had a brown bag stuffed with Benjamins skimmed from a beach bar venture in Myrtle Beach in the summer of ’78. We would end up logging thousands of miles at sea together armed with a plastic sextant, a Timex and an AM/FM radio for navigational tools, some beat-up sails and a derelict Atomic-4 four-cylinder gas iron jenny. The little sloop would prove to be one of my seminal possessions. It defined not just a lifestyle but a career. I was already an experienced woodworker, but the sloop would provide doctorate degrees in woodcraft, psychology, rum-ology, mechanical engineering, electrical theory, sail making, rigging and paint chemistry.
Right out of the chute the lessons began, accompanied by an early season October snowstorm. Two months in the yard getting everything shipshape ended a few miles down the creek at City Island with the Atomic-4 blown. Across the Bronx, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson were leading the Yanks to another World Series title. A replacement motor was found and installed. Ted “If I only had a little humility, I would be perfect” Turner had shocked the New York Yacht club by winning the America’s Cup the previous summer. He had Courageousberthed on the same dock at Minneford Yacht Yard. In an act of generosity he graciously donated a dingy to the cause of a fellow Southerner stranded on City Island, albeit I must admit unknowingly.
Hurricane Kendra would be the next lesson and first test of the sloop’s offshore prowess. Leaving City Island, we passed under the Throgs Neck Bridge and motored down the Hell Gate and under the Brooklyn Bridge past the Statue of Liberty in Buttermilk Channel. We rounded Sandy Hook, pushing to get out of the Big Apple in search of more southerly latitudes. We did not have the luxury of the Weather Channel in 1978. The lesson on patience would be served up off the Delmarva Peninsula as the weather went south much faster than the little sloop. Twenty-four hours of gale winds with the tiller lashed down under bare polls will certainly humble a fellow. There is nothing that can compare to a near coast passage with no electronic navigational tools and a gale bearing down. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and you’re not real sure exactly where in the hell you are. The boat did fine.
By the 1970s the implementation of Loran-C and the new microprocessors had dramatically increased the use of electronic navigation tools on smaller vessels. Their range was impressive but for a sailor on a shoestring budget still out of my reach. Instead, I listened faithfully for the six BBC pings followed by a bong denoting GMT time, checked the trusty Timex and made my noon sights. It was an improvement on Joshua Slocum’s method of dead reckoning but even so, pretty useless in that weather off of Delmarva.
Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World inspired many generations of sailors and wannabe sailors. His matter-of-fact style and witty recantations of his adventures aboard Spray drew readers into his stories of the epic “first” solo navigation. Prior to that voyage, Slocum made landfall at Bull’s Island on the Liberdade on October 28, 1888. He had departed Mayaguez 13 days earlier on the last ocean leg of a 5,560-mile journey from Brazil on a boat he built for less than $100. He was impressed with the framers of the South Santee and raved about his hosts, the Anderson family, in his book Voyage of the Liberdade.
Charleston was home to a robust community of live-aboard sailors in the late 70s and early 80s. On the impulse of the moment, they might grasp a sextant and the sheets and cast their luck to the wind with little regard to timely decisions, just to have the thing done. No right. No wrong. Just to get blue water under the keel, winter in the islands, soft tropical breezes and easy beam reaches. It’s a seductive dream. Nary a sailor has not succumbed to the promise of sailing carefree, shrugging the shackles of life on “the hill.” That reality does not always pan out — like taking cold showers at the marina in January. The constant drip of condensation or “oh hell, is that another leak?” Going swimming with your clothes on or dragging them behind the boat for hours and calling it “doing the laundry.” Cooking in a tiny space with no refrigeration. Dealing with the, you know, poo, and then the puke for those who succumb to seasickness. You might even get to visit the pump-out station and vacuum some of that poo and puke.
You might be, as I was, surprised to learn vast numbers of “liveaboards” don’t actually go sailing anywhere anyway. Instead, they stay tethered to their shoreside obligations. And then there is all that stuff you have to gather and stow before setting sail. The endless checklists: Check the diesel, get the ice, stash the grub and pick up the beer. Malcolm Tennant, the renowned New Zealand multihull designer, used to say, “Everything on a boat is a compromise … including the captain.” Being a liveaboard sailor as opposed to just a liveaboard requires an individual willing to compromise comfort and surrender convenience to gain the rush of adventure and freedom of living under sail.
I was determined not to succumb to the lure of “the hill,” keeping sailing as the primary point of having a boat. There was the annual Sailboat Billfish Race, jaunts to Rockville and harbor sailing on the weekends and any afternoon the wind was moving. That effort culminated with a one-year cruise through the Leeward Islands and Bahamas shooting fish and catching waves. And the Cruzan was cheaper than the coke.
On returning to Charleston I planned to replace the Atomic-4. Gasoline engines should never, ever find a place in a sailboat. Nothing good can come of it. Gas engines require spark to move you from one place to another. Spark requires electrical input. Electricity and water are incompatible, last I checked. I had to have a Yanmar. A three-banger. It was at Mt. Pleasant Boatbuilding and that’s where I headed.
Islandia survived Hugo anchored up in Hobcaw Creek. The memory of the day after Hugo is still a surreal dreamscape. Only a couple of boats remained floating. Some were hanging from broken pine trees while most lay on their beams high and dry or partially submerged in the debris collecting along the banks. Many lay completely hidden beneath the brown tidal waters with only a mast or cabin top to reveal their location. Islandia and I soldiered on for a bit before I hauled her out eventually and drydocked in my side driveway on Ferry Street. Not long after, I accepted an offer and she was gone, just another wet dream.
The Islandia chapter closed. My blue water attentions shifted to go-fast sportfishing boats. I learned to offshore fish from the back of a sailboat, and the idea of a proper cockpit, even a fighting chair, held great appeal. My business partner, Randy Dixon, and I settled on a Ray Hunt 31 Bertram as our first blue water sporty. Like the legions of other ’31’ aficionados, we would spend many times over the original cost restoring and customizing that ride. With classic lines and proven success raising fish, it was a good first choice.
Sportys are the striptease dancers of the boating world; sailboats are the hula — both exotic and intoxicating in their own way. The sportys are sexy and sleek and can suck you dry at the fuel dock. But the tuna is good, the wahoo spectacular. The adrenaline rush of a “blue” crashing the baits all lit up is as exhilarating as getting robbed at gunpoint on Saturday night. Those were the RB’s days with a Walker’s Cay state of mind.. Square grouper and fried shrimp with a side of slaw, please. The Donzis stacked across Shem Creek like cordwood, the golden boys and bikini girls dreaming they had just raced over from Lauderdale to party for the weekend. Living in the fast lane, fishing in the blue water.
These days I find myself siding with the witches in fairy tales. They moved out in the woods and killed anyone who bothered them. I found such a place and spend many of my days there riding a tractor instead of pulling sheets on a sloop or fueling up a marlin boat. Farming, I found, has more parallels to boating than might be imagined. You fret over the weather. Too much rain? Not enough? Hold the line as you drill the grain. No one wants to see wavey furrows. Is the pH correct? Are we going 10-10-10 or 40-10-20? And there is always, always something else to fix, another ditch to dig or game to clean.
Along the way, I learned a couple of secrets. Want to know the best way to make a million dollars boating or farming? Start out with two million — or more. The first rule of boatbuilding and farm boy engineering: It takes 90 percent of the available resources to complete the first 90 percent of a project. It takes another 90 percent to finish the last 10 percent.
These are lessons learned in the dirt or on the water, and the beat goes on, waltzing through life in three-quarters time.
Tim Askins is a USCG Master Mariner and has been a licensed captain since 1980. He continues to operate his real estate development and construction business while devoting time to his farm, children, and wife, Karen. He is an advocate for wildlife habitat with Quail Forever and returning ex-convicts to the workplace with the Turning Leaf Project.