I grew up on a farm where the horizon was filled with more farms. My earliest yearning was to see beyond them. I did, finally, by learning to write, and learning to sail, and buying a boat to practice in. The combination led me places that, down on the farm, I’d never imagined.
Just having a yacht that could go anywhere expanded the possible. Dreams got bigger, courage stronger, stories longer. Here are a few:
My first sail beyond the horizon was smack in the middle of Florida. I’d picked up my “new” yawl, a 35-foot Allied Seabreeze, on the west coast of Florida. Launched in 1970, Ranger was the beauty I could afford. She promised the world but first needed attention, and I was headed to Beaufort, N.C., where a friend had offered a free slip and trusted professionals who could help me upgrade.
The quickest and safest route — I was, after all, a newbie — was on the Intracoastal Waterway, which cut across Lake Okeechobee. I didn’t realize until I was on the lake that it is 25 miles across. The cottonwoods and alligatored swamps soon faded into a western haze, and I might as well have been on an ocean, were it not for its uniform 10-foot depth and channel markers strung out just far enough to require real navigation — steering by compass, correcting for drift, adjusting the sails to make the boat go here, not there.
At five knots it takes a long day to cross Okeechobee. With thunderstorms boiling up from the Everglades, the Port Mayaca Lock rose like Emerald City, along with an inner glow that I had done it: I’d voyaged out beyond sight of land — farmland, actually — and lived to sail another day.
Headed back to Florida in October 1997, I slowed down as the temperature rose. I was singlehanding, anchoring off when I could, and reading history in the barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Increasingly tidal, this was a wilderness, out of sight, often, of settlement.
One night, as I was anchored in a deep, slow river where the water ran brown with tannins, it rained, and I felt as snug as if I were in a snug house with a fire. The patter on the cabintop, the gentle rocking of a boat at anchor — I slept the sleep of a king.
Several nights later, near sunset somewhere off Georgia I turned out of the Intracoastal channel, nosed into deep water between large tufts of sedge, and set an anchor. Around me marsh grass tinted gold by the sunset was slowly emerging from ebbing waters. I was alone in a floating cottage with a waterfront view that changed by the hour.
A third night I tied up to an old wood dock in front of a village. Barely a month into living aboard I’d opened a beer to toast my fortune when a man from the village walked onto the dock with a bucket and ball of netting. With a practiced arabesque he threw the net. It blossomed into a ten-foot parachute that dappled a circle and sank. In a few seconds, he pulled the line and wet flopping creatures spilled onto the dock. He sorted through them, discarded several, and repeated the motion. Half a dozen throws later the bucket held two handfuls of shrimp.
“Supper,” he said, and walked off.
The scene was magical, almost Biblical, its grace and bounty, its sense of proportion — one man, one meal — evoked a sustaining ocean.
Anchored off Key West in 1998 I was surrounded by sailors who routinely sailed to Cuba, 90 miles away. Cuba! Castro! Ghosts of Che and Khrushchev!
Though sailing to Cuba was not illegal, trading with the enemy — even spending a dollar — was. Some of my pals had girlfriends there. Several carried humanitarian aid on every trip, medical supplies in particular, like steel fishing leader that Cuban surgeons used to close incisions.
I decided to test the waters. I invited two friends with sailing experience to crew. We had to cross the Gulf Stream, which flows east between the Keys and Cuba. When the wind is strong and easterly the strait piles into square, squirrely waves. And so they became, unexpectedly, after we got underway.
Around 2 a.m. the helmsman woke me to report banging in the bow. I soon figured out that the anchor had come unchocked and was hanging by its chain, striking the hull whenever the boat hobby-horsed in the rough seas. I jacklined myself forward, wrapped my legs around the bow like a bullrider, and, amidst the bucking, began to secure the anchor. At some point the hull rose and fell like a sounding whale, Ranger’s spoon bow parted the waters and I was drenched by two curtains of beautifully warm water.
Gulf Stream waters! I let out a whoop. I was OK. We were OK, and making headway. We bore off a bit, and by dawn Cuba lay before us. We found safe harbor in Hemingway Marina, crowded with Americans and their U.S. flagged boats. At the yacht club, which was happy to take our dollars, there were two TVs. One was filled with Castro making another five-hour speech. No one was watching that. The other, the one over the bar, beamed Larry King Live.
Of all the things that Ranger taught me, the most important was to mind the wind. It blows in unexpected ways, without intention or premeditation. Your job as sailor is to go with it.
I had planned to sail west, through the Panama Canal and into the South Pacific. But a hurricane happened, and I stopped to write a book about it. An ill wind gusted up, and I followed it 300 miles up the Alabama River to do civil rights work. While there I courted a woman with cocktails and overnights. She and I sailed away, back to the Gulf Coast. Another hurricane took our home. The very thought of Ranger — all I had left, was a balm to us both.
I sailed Ranger across the Atlantic and spent a decade in the Mediterranean. We tarried along the Portuguese Algarve. We rode the tide 50 miles up the Guadalquivir to witness Semana Santa – Easter – in Seville, Spain.
Through the Straits of Gibraltar, I discovered two Meds — Europe and Africa — and explored both. I preferred the African side to the expensive, developed Costa del Sol. My U.S. flag was welcomed in fishing ports and marinas, and the people were anxious to talk one-on-one about America and our human commonalities, even in a post 9/11 war on terror.
When the warm winds of the Arab Spring turned bitter, Ranger and I came home — the long way, up the beautiful, historic Italian coast.
When I put her up for sale, not far from where we first met fifteen years before, I told a friend that I struggled for words to sum it all up. He did it for me: “She made a sailor out of you.”