Wednesday, May 16, 2012
"Call me Odysseus." A Landlubber's Dream of Sea Adventure Remains Just That: A Dream
"Call me Odysseus. In my seventh decade I put out to sea in a 38-foot sloop.”
So began a story which won't happen and won't be written. Not on sea anyway. Last Saturday I thought I was putting out to sea but the dream turned to reality within 24 hours. Here's what happened.
My friend Philip is a sailor. He knows another sailor by the name of Pat Shannock who upgraded to a 38-foot sail boat from a 25-footer. Pat wants to sail the inland waterway down to Myrtle Beach for the summer and then head down to the Caribbean. He says he has a lot of sailing experience. He's even crewed on Olympic races. All that may be true but when I met Pat he was a bit thin and scrawny to sit in the Mount Olympus of my imagination. That didn't matter a whit to me, though, as long as we could get out of town before I had to find a new place to live. You see I live in the old house, in a sleeping bag, with my son's black cat, Russell, the sweetest cat that ever lived, and a new family will be moving in real soon so Russell and I need a new place to call home.
"Cherie Amour: Newtown, Connecticut" it says on the back of Pat Shannock's boat. It's in drydock in Portland, Connecticut, but that's a minor detail. The problem was the major details. And Pat Shannock turned out to be a bit shaky on the Big Picture.
That first meeting last Saturday morning got my hopes up. Pat seemed a bit thin and emaciated but he told a good sea story, at least initially. I noticed when he smiled his teeth had a bit of a yellow cast, as if he didn't brush enough. His arms were long and lean. Actually, lean makes them seem more fit than they are. Lacking in musculature is a more apt description. I did notice a lot of medicine bottles on the table in the mess. When I use that term I'm not just identifying the kitchen below deck where we had our discussion that morning. I'm also describing the look of the place. I said I'm used to living in clutter, although the truth is that Russell and I keep the old house pretty neat. We've had to. It's easier and faster to get ready for showing prospective buyers that way. Cherie Amour was more cluttered than Russell and I have become used to, but I figured we'd get used to it. After all, this old boat needed work, and a lot of straightening up, but it sure looked like an exciting way for Russell and me to get out of town soon. And I needed to escape because I was pissing off a lot of people on Facebook. Some of them were even threatening to beat me up or kill me even, if I continued going to the kids' dance clubs. That was another similarity between Odysseus and me. He was always pissing people off and getting himself chased off the islands he had his adventures on. In his case it was cretins like one-eyed Cyclops. In mine, a bunch of age-bigoted, verbal-weakling kids who dislike an old man who dances like an uninhibited maniac in their dance clubs where their main interest is seeming cool and popular and looking good.
I liked what Pat Shannock was telling me. "I need to get the boat down to Myrtle Beach before hurricane season begins, which is June first." I knew from my years of riding the big surf at Matunuck and Point Judith that the typhoons twist up the eastern seaboard starting the beginning of June and going through the middle of October. So when Pat said we'd have to spend a few weeks getting the boat ready, I figured we'd be able to hit the road, the sea, really, well before Russell and I had to vacate the old house. "But I've got another problem," I said, "my son's cat. I'll need to find a home for him while I'm at sea." No problem, Russell can go with us, Pat assured me. We'd just put his cat pan underneath the table. I liked Pat's willingness to accomodate my needs but wondered how Russell would deal with being cooped-up on a sailboat when he's used to having free room of a four-bedroom house with a back porch overlooking trees, and lawns, and, most delectably, birds he can stalk by sitting near the windows and making squeaking noises at all the wildlife on the other side of the glass. I was also concerned that Jamie's cat might fall overboard on Cherie Amour. I mean Russell's agile but he's used to level floors. He's never been on the deck of a ship at sea. All that rising and falling would scare him to death. And the fiberglass surface of the deck would give his claws no purchase. Nothing to keep Russell from slipping off, into the sea. That thought bothered me a lot.
I also liked the money part of this venture. At first I got the impression this was going to cost me a lot more than living on land in an apartment. My share would be two to three hundred a week. That worked out in my mind to eight to twelve hundred a month which was a lot more than I knew I could get a small place to live on land in Middletown. The problem was this: Pat was just not clear in the way he expressed himself, in a lot of things. When I told him that was a lot more money than I wanted to spend he said that was only while we were underway. Once we're in port, living off the boat, it's just the docking fees which would only be a few hundred dollars a month. While we're sailing on the high seas we have to pay a docking fee each night and that gets expensive. The alternative is to moor the boat offshore every night and pay nothing. In that case we'd have to take a tender boat to shore. From there you either bicycle into town, hitch a ride, or pay for a cab. Pat said he planned to do a budget so I could see how much it was going to cost me, but my share would be about a third and he'd pay the rest. Since the trip to Myrtle Beach would take us two to three weeks and then we'd be in port for through hurricane season, that would cost me two-fifty or so to three hundred a week underway but then very little after that. That all sounded reasonable to me. Maybe a bit too good to be true. I'd reserve final judgment until I saw the written budget. Trust but verify.
We spend the better part of an hour-and-a-half below deck talking, sharing life experiences. Pat liked the idea I'm older, wiser, more seasoned. He told me he's 52. Married once, to a woman eight years older. Divorced her after nine months. She turned out to be the bitch from hell. I've heard that from lots of men but then you meet the woman and of course there's an entirely other story to the marriage. But maybe Pat was the exception who proved the rule. I didn't care what the truth was. He talked a good game. So did I, of course. I am a good talker after all. Anybody knows me knows that's the case.
I told Pat all about myself. The marriage, The Law, the misadventures and the adventures. I had no problem living in tight quarters but my wife was concerned I'd get seasick. Pat said that's not a problem on a sailboat. You know you'll be in port every evening so you just throw up over the side. Keep your eyes on the horizon as much as possible. I never got seasick when I paddled my seakayak all over Long Island Sound and over in Rhode Island on flat water and rough wavy seas. In my Riot Boogie surf kayak I've surfed 12-12 waves at Matunuck and Point Judith (12-feet-high and 12-second period hurricane swell) and never had a problem. Of course that was when I could always see the horizon. I've never spent time below deck in a stormy sea. But I wasn't scared off by that thought. I knew I'd adapt to it eventually.
We hit it off so I agreed to come back Sunday afternoon to begin helping him paint the boat and get it ready for our sea voyage adventure. I did make note of the fact until I came around he was going to have to pay a young man twenty-five an hour to help him paint the boat. I wondered if I'd be able to get credit for my labor at some lower rate, given my inexperience, since the sweat equity I was going to help Pat accrue would be applied to his boat. I decided to take that up with him tomorrow, once I saw what it was like to work with him and not just talk.
I left Cherie Amour in a state of high infatuation and excitement. A sea voyage. Ocean adventure. Spending the summer in South Carolina right on the water. Hanging out at the beach. Surfing. Dancing in new dance clubs where people weren't sick of me. Then sailing to the Carribean for the winter. Finally, not just filtering my experience of life and my marriage through Homer's "Odyssey" but actually living out the mythology. I couldn't believe my luck. But somewhere back in my brain it seemed too good to be true. I focused the dimly-perceived awareness of looming problems on the issue of Russell. Would Russell really feel comfortable as a sailor-cat on a sailboat? I don't remember Odysseus having a cat on board his vessel. Had his son Telemachus had a cat which followed Odysseus on his adventures in Troy would Odysseus ever have been able to have had all those sea adventures? On Odysseus's ship were many sailors, a full crew. Russell hates strangers. Would Telemachus's cat have liked his father's crew any more than Russell might or might not like Pat Shannock, let alone living on his boat?
Despite my mental reservations, which were outweighed by my enthusiasm, I called Susie, our eldest son, my brother, sister, and brother-in-law, and my friend Brian to tell them of my new plan. I mentioned it to my minister and his wife the next morning after church. They were all supportive, although the minister's wife seemed a bit skeptical, and Susie must have shared Sister Stefanie's thought-process because she did have a suggestion. Susie thought I would be best-off with a permanent place of some kind on land, a home base. Susie is so practical and, in this case, probably knew better than I did that seasickness or not, enthusiasm or not, this plan was a bit far-fetched. As she told me the other night, the night before I first laid eyes on the Cherie Amour, when I was feeling a bit vulnerable about the idea of leaving the old house, "Bob, not matter what, I've got your back." We may not be living together as man and wife but I still consider Susie my best friend and the only person who loves me. I know I don't show it very well, but I feel the same way about her. I only want the best for this woman I've been with for the past two-score and four years. That's a good chunk of our existences in this life. We've got a lot of history together.
So right after the Mother's Day service at church I went over the bridge again to the marina. There was Pat finishing sanding off the old paint from Cherie Amour's port side. It was no longer a good angle to see the old girl. Pat was complaining to me about the cost of the pain. "$115 a gallon. That stuff's not cheap. And the worst thing is this. The guy who was going to help me fix the engine says his transmission broke down so he can't get down from Enfield to help me. And I've also got to repair the entire electrical system." In broad daylight, Pat looked even more sickly than he had the day before when we sat below deck and took the measure of each other. Looking at his scrawny arms I wondered how the heck is he going to deal with all the hard physical labor involved in running a sailing vessel in bad weather? And that was just the beginning of the reality-testing I did that afternoon.
Pat started right out telling me that I had to take the Acetone and wipe off all the blue paint dust residue which remained from him sanding off the paint that morning. Then I had to put a prime coat on the spots where he'd scraped off the rotting paint so the finished surface, once painted, would be mostly smoothed out. He seemed tired, as I imagine anybody would be from using an electric sander to take all the paint off the bottom-half of a 38-foot aging sailboat. How long is it going to take us to paint the boat, I asked. At least two weeks of solid eight-hour days. Hmn, I thought, that alone will take us right up to the beginning of hurricane season. And the engine has to be fixed, the guy who was going to do that can't get himself down from Enfield, and the electrical system is shot. How are we going to get down to South Carolina by the first or second week of June, I wondered?
And then all the problems poured out of Pat Shannock. It was as if he was having a major bout of seasickness and all the problems were like the contents of a drunken sailor's stomach in a wobbly sailboat: it all had to be vomited overboard. I happened to be the ocean water into which all this stomach-stuff needed to be thrown up. Well, we'll be lucky if we can get underway before late July. Maybe even next year, he cautioned me. Look, it's an old boat. Needs a lot of work. And it's all pretty expensive. That's the way it is with sailboats.
I was beginning to loose my enthusiasm about this sailing adventure and, more particularly, the prospect of spending a lot of time with Pat Shannock. I cross-examined him, gently but directly. "Yesterday you said you wouldn't want to be caught sailing off the coast of New Jersey in hurricane season. Now you're saying we may get underway in mid to late July." Well, he explained, hurricane season doesn't begin until late July, the beginning of August. "Look, I don't want to be nasty about this but that's not what you said yesterday. I'm beginning to get the idea this trip may never take place." His tone of voice and the look on his face were more tired than yesterday, a bit annoyed even. "Boating is not cheap. When I moved up from my old 25-foot boat to this 38-footer, I knew there was going to be a lot involved in making it seaworthy." Why, I wondered, did he not just hang on to the old boat. "In boating, like life, it's always about Moving Up. You never move back down." I told him this did not square at all with my own philosophy of life. "I'm at a time and place in life where I want to scale back, go minimal, live with less. Less is actually more, in my experience." Pat Shannock just looked at me. He is clearly not a well man. He'd told me he lives on some small savings plus his disability checks. That was the first I'd heard explicitly of disability. "Sorry to be intrusive, but I need to know what you're disabled from if we're going to be on a ship on the high seas together for any extended period of time." "Well, you saw all the medication down in the cabin." Yes, I had, but I hadn't taken a look at what was in the plastic orange transparent pill containers, those little cylinders with the white labels you get from CVS or Walgreens. "It's my heart," he explained. Oh, boy, I thought to myself, just what Russell and I need, to get on an ocean-going sailboat with a man with a heart problem. Russell would never approve, I'm afraid, if he could speak English and not just Cat. I know what a big baby that old tiger really is. I've lived with Russell for too long to take a chance piloting down the eastern seaboard on a ship with a heart-challenged captain.
Look, I told Pat, my wife and I will be selling our old house very soon. I need a place for Russell and me to move into. I have a sneaky suspicion you're just not going to be able to dress up Cherie Amour in time to take her down the coast to Myrtle Beach this season. Maybe next year. If you still need a crew and a cat then, let me know, I might be interested. I didn't want to offend him so I didn't put the emphasis on the might, but with his heart problems, his shallow financial pockets, and his sickly appearance, I'd have to take a long, hard look at the operation before forcing Russell to learn to live on a sailboat.
In the end I thanked Pat for his time, wished him luck, and told him he knew how to reach me if he still needed a crew and a cat when he and Cherie were ready to push off from shore. I was disappointed with the realization that I'd have to continue my life as a landlubber, experiencing the Odyssey largely in my mind. James Joyce's "Ulysses" is the story of the Odyssey in one action-packed day in Dublin. I wonder if Joyce moved his mid-life story from sea back onto land because he too once encountered an Irish sailor just like Pat Shannock?