So it’s 2017 and here I am writing in the dark by the Hillsborough River at the oldest shipyard in America. The interstate buzzes in the distance, the loudest thing in the shipyard is a dripping hose and my iPhone playing electric jazz reminiscent of the late 1990s. I like it best here at night, when all the world has gone to bed and the river is quiet and shimmering, thats when my dog Cynthia and I sit out under the tent, not fifty feet from the suffocating mud and rocks of the river bank.
2016 is gone, it all started with a Friendship Sloop but oh boy where it went from there. Borrowed a pile of money to buy that sweet little wooden boat, then took a delivery of a 36′ wooden ketch across the Gulf of Mexico to pay for it, but it couldn’t work out that easily. The delivery was plagued with problems, we were hit by three different cold front, and because of problems with the rig and a lack of radar to spot any of the 4,000 oil rigs offshore we tried to run inside, which slowed our progress to a crawl. When we finally pulled into Corpus Christie we had been running all night under full press of canvas and the engine at 2200 RPMs, one hour on, one hour off. I had dragged a sleeping bag into the cockpit and when one of us weren’t fighting the weather helm of that heavy tiller while glancing paranoid between the chart plotter and the dark shapes around us, we tried to sleep. I still have nightmares of that night, the delirious adrenaline of driving that ketch to 9 knots while surrounded on both sides with shoals and islands, all the while trying to find that next marker, was it lit? Kyle said he passed one still blinking underwater, probably hit by some tug and barge trying to thread the needle of the narrow waterway.
Yeah we made it, over 850 miles in about 15 days, pushing both the boat and the crew to close to breaking point. The owner of the boat met us at the marina, took us to dinner, then back to the boat where he stiffed us on the bill by over $800. We took the Greyhound back to Florida, a long and uncomfortable ride back around the Gulf, albeit much drier.
Florida awaited with more boat problems and drama on shore. A few local boat deliveries were to be had, short trips on boats on which nothing worked, so we brought our dinghies and outboard motors to supply propulsion, and laughed because the only thing that worked was what we brought with us.
A call from a captain friend found me taking a Morgan Out Island 41 with a leaky engine water pump and incompetent crew to Pensacola. As we approached the Panhandle we were surfing that old tub at 12.6 knots under jib and jigger, how she would shake and grumble at being pushed to those speeds! We made 350 miles in 52 hours and I was relieved to step ashore and into a rental car headed back home at highway speed.
Hurricane season came creeping and we took the Friendship Sloop across Tampa Bay, hip-towed to a 20′ powerboat, only to find our way blocked by bridgework. Two weeks the little wooden sloop sat at a municipal marina till the city cleared us to pass, on the same day as a Tropical Storm nonetheless! We made it most of the way up river without too much trouble, till we sat circling waiting for a bridge to open and got caught in the first bands of the storm. I was at the controls of the powerboat, Kyle on the helm of the sloop as we yelled back and forth and tried to maintain control as the rain blew sideways and visibility went down to zero. Squalls like that make minutes into hours. The rain cleared and we powered our makeshift raft through the bridge and came to the old shipyard and tied up, exhausted and soaked.
The shipyard I had admired for years, tucked 5 miles up the Hillsborough River, surrounded by residential neighborhood. I first saw it over a decade ago while out on the river with a friend who had an old daysailer and an electric trolling motor, which we would use to mount expeditions from his house on the river in Sulphur Springs. We were headed downriver with cold drinks in hand when we rounded a bend and there was an old shipyard, with proper railways and a Travelift, old moldy boats lining the docks, with even older and moldier boats up on land, I was in love. Hunting through the neighborhood for weeks I finally found the place, the long driveway hid it from view, but the old sign and the vintage outboard motor as a mailbox gave it away. Sure I went right in and started poking around, only to be asked to leave, not so politely, by the owner. For years I kept going back and for years I got turned away. Now Kyle had got his 25′ sloop on the hard there, and had even managed to get hired! When the owner saw pictures of our new Friendship Sloop he fell head-over-heels for her (much like myself) and told us to go ahead and bring her n up the river, so there we went.
If you have never spent a summer in Florida working in a shipyard, don’t. The night doesn’t ever really cool down, and the daylight is enough to broil a human until the meat is well done. You can hear the mosquitos and no-see-ums argue who is going to get to try and drain you of blood each afternoon right before the sun goes down. You can try to put up tarps to hide from the sun, but the humidity lives in the shade too. You may be able to sleep at night fitfully with a box fan on full power, but no fan can beat the heat of the day. We would adjourn to Kyle’s sloop with a window air-conditioning unit in the companionway, but at midday even it can’t compete with the wrath of the sun. About mid afternoon, when chocolate can no longer survive as a solid, then the clouds come, all rain and whipping winds, only to go back to a deadly still while you watch the rain puddles steam back into the atmosphere.
In the midst of our shipyard-sauna-summer we worked to remove the diesel motor from the Friendship Sloop, got all the spars on shore, and I began the work of tearing up the rot out of the cockpit. And then I got a call from Boston, would I know anyone who wanted to be the first mate on a 125′ steel schooner for the summer running two hour sails, three times a day? Yeah of course I knew someone, me! And with that I packed my bags, got a babysitter for my dog and put the sloop to bed, Kyle dropped me off at the train station and away I went, northbound for the next two months.
Boston was a completely different planet from Florida. The hustle and bustle of that city doesn’t end on shore, boats and ferries are constantly criss-crossing the harbor, sailboats tack back and forth while whale watching boats herd people out to look at the leviathans of the deep. We were docked next to the aquarium, and at 8:00 am every morning they would start playing whale songs over their loudspeakers while the ship horns pierced the city marking the departure of each and every ferry. Late nights working till past dark, sometimes almost midnight, then blurry visions of a dark little Irish pub where the crew would post vigil every night till we stumbled back to the ship, only to start it again the next day, awoken by the songs of whales and the horns of ships.
I left in August, just before the cold weather began to roll in. The train took me right back to the heat and humidity that had never left Florida. Back to work on the sloop, I chopped off the cabin top, and using bamboo cut down from a spot on the riverbank I raised a tarp roof over the now open boat. The rot in the cockpit was so pervasive that I cut the cockpit out too.
Another phone call found me northbound on an airplane to join a wooden schooner in Gloucester in another shipyard, trying to reassemble a ship that others had taken apart. Working from dawn till dark every day for three weeks we pieced it all back together and a new captain and crew arrived and headed south, while I flew back to Florida.
This time I only had enough time at home back at the sloop to pack my tools and belongings into a truck and head to Jacksonville to spend the next month helping rebuild the 125′ schooner I had sailed all summer in Boston. They were hauled out in an industrial shipyard just outside of downtown along the St. John’s River. This shipyard never stopped, barges and tugs had welders and grinders going twenty four hours a day. At least the weather was much cooler, the dog and I slept on deck each night while the work went on ceaselessly. My time was mostly spent ripping out old rotten deck planks and replacing them with new Douglas Fir, but I also spent over a week working on the varnish on the many hatches and doors that had been pulled off. Four weeks went by in a blur of constant work and activity till finally they launched the schooner and with all my tools in a Subaru wagon I was finally headed home, or so I thought.
My father said he had something he needed to tell me and sent me a plane ticket to San Fransisco, I left for four days that I spent divided between wandering the wild Pacific coastline and arguing with my father, who told me to to abandon my plans and come west. I said no, in many more words than that, and flew home, only to turn around and fly to Texas to visit my mother.
We drove to central Texas with my sister to see my grandmother who had been put in an assisted-living facility. My grandmother was frail and seemed confused; her memory, I had been told, was getting worse. She turns 90 in January and is trapped living in what amounts to a prison for those whose only crime is out-living everyone else. Her first words to me were, “So whats the outside world like?” and her last words as we left were, “You aren’t going to leave me here alone?”
I spent the next few days in Texas visiting old friends, trying to make sense of it all. Here I was in the city of my birth, where I had lit out from so many years ago to chase the foam of rolling waves. Where was I really? Did it matter?
As a sailor, you must first know your position, and knowing that, the next thing you need is a direction, a heading for which to attach your course to. At sea this is relatively easy, you study the charts, pick a direction on the compass and trim your sails to allow yourself to move forward.
Life is harder to chart.
I flew back to Florida with a heavy mind, but a set determination. My sloop and dog were waiting for me to pick up my tools and get back to work. The heat and humidity had finally fled the state as the cold fronts swept over the vast savannah plain of Florida. Now here I am, a long way from open water, with my sloop stuck in the mud five miles up a winding river.
An old captain I know told me once, “There are only two sorts of captains in this world: those who have run aground and liars.”
Just because you find yourself stuck in the muck doesn’t mean all hope is lost. The tide always turns, and all rivers lead to the sea. Don’t give up and abandon ship just yet. Hold fast to your dreams and hopes, they give us real meaning and purpose and keep us from living hollow lives of monotony.
The dog is asleep and snoring in the dewy grass next to the river which is as still as glass. Sometimes being stuck in the mud ain’t that bad.