When Nick Went to Sea

It was a buoyant night for such a solemn, sad, sorrowful occasion, organized on short notice by the newly widowed Flo to celebrate, if that is the right word, the passing of Nick, her beloved husband who would have certainly given a chuckle. The large living room was filled to overflowing for the turnout of those drawn to a man they viewed as cheerful, amusing and warm. I suppose no man is without enemies, but Nick came close. A child of privilege, he was educated at St. Paul’s but lacked the drive and ambition and competitive edge of Franklin Roosevelt, another graduate, and of countless other notables. If a failure to find your muse be a weakness, it can contain the strength of a warming appeal.

Flo, in an attempt to cover her utter devastation, asked that anyone who cared to speak about Nick, please do so. The crowd lined up to share snippets of Nick’s life as they remembered them. One nephew set the mood with his report on how Nick used to take a group nephews and nieces when they were younger to the movies, where he passed out straws so that they could all partake of the beverage that he had provided. The beverage, of course, contained a modest amount of vodka, which seemed to amuse us all.

Nick had a well developed sense of humor. He was a sturdy, barrelchested man who had boxed heavyweight at prep school. A natural Santa Claus in the making, he had gone down well before his time, the victim of a coronary occlusion that was unwarned, immediate, and devastatingly final. Barely 50 years old, he gasped his last before he hit the floor.

In a way, his demise was no surprise. He was no stranger to vodka. In a less amusing way, his health had never fully recovered from his bout with alcohol, which had led him into a 21-day coma before the flickering light of recognition came on again. He devoted his time at a hospital as a volunteer in support of alcohol recovery efforts when he was not visiting his mother at a summer cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. It showed well stocked book shelves and had access to terrain for bird watching, at which Nick excelled.

The Nick stories, both touching and outrageous, reflected widespread moments of his life in a disorderly fashion, and I was inspired when my time came to add a chapter that astounded most of the gathering. “You may not know this, but I can attest that Nick had a brief career as a mariner."

It was a few years back, when Nick and I were employed together that a fellow worker and friend announced that his brother was entered into the annual Bermuda yacht race out of Buzzard’s Bay and that he had agreed to retrieve the 36-foot sailboat, an aging C and C, after the race and return it to the shores of North America. Jim had been instrumental in teaching me how to sail, and invited me along as a watch captain. My partner in a different sailboat, Tom, was also invited. I had never sailed offshore before and looked forward to the challenge.

To round out the crew, he had asked Nick to come along as the cook. Nick’s sailing experience was approximately zero, but his credentials in food preparation were first-rate. Friends often pushed him to open a restaurant, and he admired the concept but was daunted by the claims of such an enterprise.

He was enchanted, though, with the notion of traveling as a cook and preparing copious and exotic viands for an assembled and admiring group of six. The sailboat, named Circe, came with a working but underused oven, and imaginary aromas of roast lamb with rosemary wafted as Nick and Captain Jim described over and over the meal in waiting. It needed only Steinbeck to add a touch of Lenny and George: “Tell me how it’s going to be…”

Nick and I flew to Bermuda in advance of the gathering, rented motor bikes, and explored the island while tapping into numerous beers. All was well.

The group gathered and undertook the provisioning for the trip, which was scheduled to take four and maybe five days. For that, we bought sufficient victuals to cover us as if we were to be lost at sea—for months. Two lamb roasts, seven cases of St. Pauli’s Girl beer, three cases of tapioca puddings, two cases of canned Dinty Moore’s Beef Stew, and on and on, and whatnot. A few limes for scurvy. We laughed that we were ready for the sequel to “Two Years Before the Mast.”

As an aside, I had never eaten tapioca pudding before and have no plans whatsoever to do so in the future. Dinty Moore’s I’ll come back to. Oh, and Nick and I were detailed with sharp knives to the garden of the lovely estate where we were staying to fetch ripening grapefruit from the trees. We selected 30.

The boat settled a bit as we loaded this bounty aboard and stowed the provender into every nook and cranny. Looking for a life vest? You might encounter a can of chili beans.

Sailing day arrived and we made a stop at the end of the island to take on eight blocks of ice before the journey. The island was as attractive as first love, and the ice detail of Tom and myself stopped for a last brew. We watched an airplane take off, and I remarked that maybe we should stay here. I should have been a seer.

It was mid-afternoon, but off we sailed, a jolly old crew, Captain Jim, Tom, Hugh, the Captain’s business partner who knew a lot about computers, a little about sailboats, and was comfortable with obeisance; the Captain’s brother-in-law, who barely spoke English (he was a Yugoslav) and knew little of sailing; and Nick, and me. Tom, at least, had served in the Navy on a destroyer before tearing up a knee while salling one night into Boston Harbor, and I had completed a course at the Annapolis Sailing School.

All in all, the experience level was thin; we counted on the Captain to know it all.

The wind was constant, the sailing easy, and St. Pauli Girls smiled come-hitherly as we hurdled along, hardly a care in the world. The cook served hors d’oeuvres, and 9 p.m. and darkness arrived with another round of beer and no plans for a meal or sailing Circe. At 9:30 p.m, Captain Jim slipped into slumber. About 10 p.m. came the first freshet, a slight change in the strength and timbre of the wind, perhaps the leading edge of a front. On the Chesapeake, that arrival often preordained heavier winds, even tempests, and was the time to take in sail. Through the bursts of hilarity, Tom and I initiated a discussion about sailing the Circe. We designated three watches, split up various chores, reefed the main, and then Hugh and I went below to sleep before the next watch. The Captain slumbered on.

Just shy of midnight, we awakened to the rattle of a boat in 35-knot winds and the reappearance of the Captain, who started shouting out instructions. Pipe down, I interjected, we already took care of that. It was the first of many amendments of the Captain’s authority, and he was not amused but just grumbled and returned to sleep. In time, Hugh and I took over the helming and we sped through the night. After the early morning shift change, we were ready for real sleep. Not to be.

We were awakened to shouts of “All Hands on Deck.” The mainsail had blown out, reduced to a ripped tatter of cloth flapping in the wind. The captain confided that it had lots of miles on it and was ready for replacement but that he had gambled that it could make just one more trip. He also confided that the engine was possibly on its last chug because of an electrical problem that could only be fixed in a marina on dry land, and that our usage was restricted, at best. Nick treated this news with a funny look.

While Tom held the helm, I was designated to affix myself to the boom and use a screwdriver to loosen the little screws that held the main in place, all while the boat pitched through the yawning seas. In modern boats, you press a button. Nick appeared wide-eyed and helpless as a spare main was eventually pressed into place. Phew!

That chore was barely complete and the prospect of sleep barely in place whence came a familiar shout: “All Hands on Deck.” This was even more serious. The line that connected the wheel to the rudder had parted, and we were functionally without steering. The Captain produced a long tubular object from the bowels of the boat and we set about attaching it to a fitting in the cockpit as an emergency tiller. It would steer the boat, but only if it was kept under constant tension to keep from dragging. It scraped knuckles and qualified as the devil’s answer to helming. On we sailed.

We slipped into Day Three. The winds picked up even more and the seas with them. We pulled down the jib and main and were reduced to a staysail. Waves crashed into the cockpit and helming was akin to bathing with water jets. The winds reached 55 knots, which is serious wind that actually flattened the waves at times; the seas reached 30 feet; and we bounced along the fine line between exhilaration and terror. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are probably fewer on small boats in an ocean storm. The notion of one’s being in charge seemed preposterous, best left to the Almighty.

Nick seemed almost catatonic. Below, after a shift change, he quietly asked Tom, a naval officer and a gentleman, if he thought we were to going to make it. The reply was not out of leadership school: “I’m not sure.”

The Captain was equally reassuring, chain smoking while pacing up and down below, repeating over and over: “There is no threat to the integrity of this vessel. There is no threat to…” Finally, l shouted: “Who brought it up?”

Sleep was enticing, but topside absorbed our energies. At one point, Tom, bent on straightening out a line, attached himself to the boom. When the wind shifted it swung him well out over the ocean. His legs pumped vigorously until the winds shifted back, and I was able to retrieve him. Nothing like learning to walk on water.

Later, we noticed that the jib, the foresail, had been left on deck and had been partially dragged into the ocean as we pitched through the waves. It was acting as a sea anchor. The captain seemed content with this result, while Tom and I were of a contrary opinion that it would seriously interfere with our ever reaching land and loved ones again.

So, I went forward on my hands and knees, attached my sea harness to a stanchion and began pulling the errant sail back aboard—inch by inch. It was slow going at first until I found that the pitching was of some assistance. On the downstroke into the oncoming wave, it was possible to take a deep breath, close one’s eyes to the rush of water, and take up some slack as the pressure on the sail eased. Ultimately, the sail was pulled below through the forward hatch.

If Nick was troubled, he still felt a sense of responsibility about his prescribed duties. I was holding up the bloodying tiller when a large arm was thrust through the hatch carrying a plastic cup. “Here, get some C’s,” Nick said. It was Dinty Moore’s, not lamb roast, but as I contemplated its taste a large wave overwhelmed the cockpit. When I finished blinking, I was left with a swirling cupful of greasy water doomed to be etched forever in my memory but not in my taste buds. I pitched it into the deep.

Nick went back to sleep. When he next awakened, he sat up in his bunk and encountered the swinging arc of a netting filled with grapefruit. He took the first hit with a mighty thud, and fell backwards. Up he came just in time for a second bump. He appeared confused, reminding one of Jersey Joe Walcott at the hands of Rocky Marciano.

After the third punch, I could stand no more. “Nick, Nick, Stay Down,” I shouted. He took one more hit before he slid to the prone and evaded the concussive punches.

Day 4 provided no let-up until mid-afternoon. Suddenly, the wind dialed back, the rain subsided and the winds died sufficiently that we were now threatened by becalming. At that point, we were battling the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream, which can run four to six knots southbound. Without a reliable engine we were reliant on the wind, also pushing southeast. We took a chance and ran the engine for a few hours.

During that time, Captain Jim and I stood the evening watch and took the time to repair a relationship that had undergone some strain. I said that I was only intending to be helpful and not to be captain, and he said he understood. Discussion about alcohol awaited another time.

The evening’s quiet interlude came to an abrupt end with the sudden visit of another storm, a terrifying one with much lightning. Typical in the Gulf Stream. Knowledge that the boat was grounded to the keel was of small comfort as flashes from nearby low-lying black clouds zigzagged around us. Amidst speculation about the effect of a direct lightning hit, the Captain rolled out a cheerful story about a sailboat that had pitched down a wave straight into a whale wallowing in the trough. Hey, something is going to get you some day!

This storm was sufficiently disorienting that the Captain altered course, or recognized the inevitable. We were well south of our rhumb line. Our push toward New England had ended. Our new destination became Little Creek just outside the Chesapeake Bay.

Reaching New England would have taken several more days and disrupted several travel and work plans. We had also fallen into the area known as the Bermuda Triangle, home of sailing mysteries, but were still on course to clear Cape Hatteras and the graveyard of the Atlantic. The crew’s spirits were somewhat lifted by the news. We were too tired to conjure with the paranormal or to focus on the fate of the late Joshua Slocum, who had sailed the world single-handed but was lost on a trip down the Atlantic Coast to Grand Cayman.

Morning brought another respite. Skies cleared, and the wind fell, and we felt the sweltering heat of a mid-Atlantic summer. During the sweaty afternoon we lightened our load, disposing of the fresh food floating in the fridge. The 30 grapefruit followed the lamb roasts overboard and colorfully decorated the Sargasso Sea, like a Salvadore Dali painting. The Sargasso Sea overlaps the Bermuda Triangle and is where seaweed collects, eels spawn (although no man has ever seen one because of their abyssal traits), and lost things accumulate, such as mounds of plastic trash. A line off the stern brought forth a dolphin fish but no appetite for a sushi dinner. No one was seasick, but tender stomachs showed zero interest in eating. Or drinking. Cases of St. Pauli Girl smiled and sailed on, untouched.

Anticipation of reaching Little Creek began to build, but was interrupted by a brief but disorienting squall. We were guided by Loran, which relied on the triangulation of radio signals received by a wire mounted on the stern. Supposedly, it could pinpoint one’s location to within 10 feet, although it was notorious for losing its signal in, you guessed it, the Bermuda Triangle. Outbound, we might have worried about missing Bermuda and ending up in Angola; inbound, we were bound to bump into a continent. I memorialized our concern with a couplet: “Wire, wire, in the night. Where the hell is Chesapeake Light?”

We almost ran over it. Suddenly, the stanchions of the lighthouse jumped out of the gloom on the starboard beam, only yards away. Shaken perhaps, we were glad to confirm our whereabouts in a weary, wet world. From there, the trip into Little Creek was mundane, but interminable. The winds had died and the going was slow. The port was identified on the chart as a 4-second repeating green light, and we strained to pick it out of all the other lights in the distance, some flashing, some green, some red, some white and some steady Finally, somewhere in the middle of the night, we pulled into an open slip and tied up. The ordeal was over. No celebration. We slept.

In the morning, we were up and making plans. The Captain had to figure out how to organize another crew to get the boat back to New England, and how to unload three cases of tapioca pudding, two cases of Dinty’s less a can, six plus cases of St. Pauli’s Girl, and other food items. The refrigerator, nearly bereft of ice, needed a good clean. And Tom experienced a belated reaction to the stress of the trip with a rapid heart rate that took 45 minutes to calm down.

I called Hertz, and they delivered a rental car to Tom, Nick and me to return to the Washington D.C. area. When we stopped at Nick’s, the restaurant at Yorktown, looks in the mirror betrayed briny, sunburned refugees who needed baths. We were seated away from guests less salty and odoriferous. It’s a wonder the Coast Guard hadn’t taken us in. We left a generous tip.

In a verbal postscript, we agreed that our friend, Captain Jim, needed to work on an alcohol problem (which he eventually did). We agreed that technical knowledge was not a substitute for good judgment, and that our boat had been under inspected and was not really up to the challenge.

Nick had good words for the intervention of Tom and me, although I reminded him that Hugh had mentioned that morning that Tom and I had not shone sufficient respect for the Captain at times. Nick shook his head.

Finally, I said that I would certainly pick a bigger, more modern boat next time. “Next time?” said Tom. There was the sound of two persons laughing.

Nick had a faraway look as he affirmed: “I’ll never go again.”