A Day to Remember - My Greatest Sea Story

Life has taken various twists and turns as I have endeavored to follow disparate interests and meld them into some kind of coherent narrative with only limited success. I think the problem has been that I am incurably curious and am fascinated by so many things that I have always had a hard time deciding which competing interest to pursue at any given time. Thus, my existence seems to have broken down into somewhat mutually exclusive sections in an effort to bring some order to the chaos. My strategy was to dive head first into the pursuit of a particular passion, drinking it in, thus endeavoring to experience it fully, before being inexorably pulled in another seemingly contradictory direction. I was doggedly determined to fit it all in despite the awkward fit of some of the puzzle pieces.

One of my “lifetimes" I spent as a professional sailor.


Through a remarkable set of circumstances, I was able to procure, as a relatively novice sailor, one of the greatest sailing jobs ever as the First Mate aboard the Schooner Brilliant at the Mystic Seaport Museum. This position I held for two years in the early 90’s. The boat was a Sparkman and Stevens designed 70 ft. schooner and was unusual in many ways. Built during the depression by P. T. Barnum’s brother, she had a teak hull as well as the traditional teak decks. Since everyone was out of work at the time, top craftsmen were employed and only the best materials were used in her construction. She was a beauty. And fast?? We won every classic wooden boat race we entered and were the pride of the fleet, turning heads on our weekly trips to Block Island, Newport, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and other amazing harbors in Southern New England.


During these years in the winter, I would seek sailing positions in warmer climes, and as such, I found a berth on the 153 ft. Pride of Baltimore ll, a sleek and fast Privateer, the kind of vessel used during the American Revolution to strike at British Naval ships and then outrun them to escape retaliation. Pride 1 had gone down at sea in the Bermuda Triangle with several crew members lost, inspiring the City of Baltimore to rally to construct a new vessel with the same lines but incorporating modern safety features. On only the second voyage of Pride ll, we set sail from Baltimore in the cold of December with ice hanging from the rigging bound for the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, Bermuda, the Eastern Caribbean, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas before returning back home. About a four month voyage in all. I could tell many stories from the passage including weathering a gale in St. Georges Harbor, Bermuda on Christmas Eve as well as encountering another gale at night off the treacherous shifting shoals off Cape Hatteras, known as the graveyard of the Atlantic. But I digress.


Part of the journey was spent in beautiful Marigot Bay, St. Lucia, an especially picturesque harbor. Just to the south were the Pitons, two giant pillars of rock towering hundreds of feet over the beach below. They served as icons, pictured prominently in postcards depicting the island’s incredible beauty. One day we sailed to the Pitons and anchored off the beach, taking the dinghy ashore to catch a glimpse of the legendary Buppa the elephant. Buppa had been brought to the island years ago and could be seen happily running out from the thick palms and jungle-like vegetation when she spotted a visiting yacht, hoping to be fed her favorite delicacy… grapefruit. We gladly obliged, delighting in the whole bizarre experience.


On the last day of our time on the island, our vessel was hailed on the ship’s radio. As it turned out, there were two other tall ships in the area just off the coast. One, the Pelican, (top right) was a large Barkentine with square sails which had been functioning as a “Head Boat”, taking tourists from the main town of Castrees out for day sails to the Pitons and back. She was a steel hulled vessel built originally in France

as an Arctic fishing trawler. Pelican had an unusual rig based on a design employed by the Barbary Pirates that made her more maneuverable than the typical square rigged vessels of the day. The other was the majestic Astrid, (bottom right) Built in 1918 in the Netherlands as a lugger, she was later transferred to Swedish ownership, renamed Astrid and sailed on the Baltic Sea until 1975. She then sailed under a Lebanese flag and was allegedly used for drug smuggling. After being found burnt out on the coast of England in the early 1980s, she was overhauled and used as a sailing training vessel.


We happened to be raising anchor when we got the call and were about to embark on the next leg of our journey to Venezuela. We were invited out for a sail and, up for the challenge, we set a course taking us to the vicinity of the tall-ships who were already under sail near each other and were biding their time until we could catch up.


The sight of these two amazing ships on the horizon built our expectation and excitement for what was to come. It's one thing to see one of these great vessels at a dock or even in the distance at sea. To be sailing within tens of feet of these massive hulls while being immersed in the power of the wind and waves is another experience entirely.


The Pride is a traditionally rigged vessel and it took most of the crew to accomplish things like raising a sail or hoisting the anchor. We considered ourselves the lucky ones when we were tapped to climb aloft underway to attend to one of the ship’s many topsails. (right) The adventurous voyage had truly been a taste of heaven for me and it was about to get even better.



There we were, sailing along at a brisk pace in the blustery 25 knots of wind that blows consistently in that part of the Caribbean, literally right next to these two behemoth beauties. I was in my favorite spot, the foredeck, helping to deal with the large and heavy canvas sails. Several of us climbed out on the 30ft bowsprit (left) to unfurl a large jib and as much concentration as it took to navigate the foot ropes, I was unable to take my eyes off the two huge vessels only yards away.


At one point, the captain ordered the jib to be raised and as we labored to hoist the heavy sail, the wind filled it in and we surged powerfully forward. With surprising speed, showing her colors as a Privateer, we began to dramatically pull ahead. As we did, the Captain called for a volley of cannon fire from the two authentic cannons that we had aboard.


The mate cried, “Fire in the Hole!!!”…. and then a resounding BA BOOM !!!!


Again, “Fire in the Hole!!!! …… BA BOOOM !!!


The cannon fire echoed as the shots across the bow reverberated off the nearby Pitons. Then after trimming the sails for maximum efficiency, we rocketed forward with remarkable speed and set our course for South America. As the Astrid and Pelican slowly receded in the distance, we all reflected, still in awe of what we had just experienced.


So many times I have told that story and every time introduced it with the words, “ Of all the great stories of my time at sea…. this is my Greatest Sea Story.”


But wait… there’s more…


One year later, the following winter, I was looking for another sailing job. I picked up a copy of Wooden Boat Magazine. Brilliant and the Pride had both been featured in its pages and it was a favorite read every month. I turned to the classifieds in the back and noticed an ad for a position as First Mate aboard a private schooner out of the Bahamas. I was a little apprehensive as I had heard stories about crew aboard private yachts being treated as servants by wealthy owners. I had lots of questions when I made my very first call in my attempt to find a berth for the season.


I was able to get a hold of the captain and found that the boat was docked on the island of Bonaire off the coast of Venezuela. My interest was piqued as I heard more of the details. The boat was another classic, a 70ft. wooden shallow draft schooner with centerboard. Very unique and designed by the famous John Alden to navigate the shallow waters found in the Bahamas where she had been for the last ten years. We would be delivering her to San Diego and thus would be traversing the Panama Canal and visiting some of the world's most exotic ports along the way.


I was still wondering about the owner and was told he was a musician. Hmmmm….. Good so far. I took a chance and asked the captain his name. Who knows? The sailing community is a surprisingly small one and owners of the classic boats and sailors often know one another. He replied, “David Crosby”. (right) It didn’t hit me at first. My mind started putting the puzzle together. David Crosby? Yes! THE David Crosby of Crosby Stills and Nash. Wow! What an adventure I was about to have and I couldn’t wait for it to begin !!



I flew down to Venezuela to meet the Mayan (left) and through the course of the trip, as predicted, we visited some very wonderful spots. Cartagena, Columbia, the San Juan Islands of Panama, lots of exotic ports in Costa Rica featuring wild parrots and monkeys. We hit most of the destinations on the west coast of Mexico including Mazatlán, Acapulco, Puerta Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas and others. Sadly, I didn’t get to spend time with Crosby until we got to San Diego. He was supposed to have met us on an idyllic island off the coast of Costa Rica and was to have stayed for a month (wow, that would’ve been fun!) He was injured in a motorcycle accident, however, and was laid up in a wheelchair for six weeks and couldn’t make the trip.


Now for the small world story of all time……


There we were.. the three crew.. a Panamanian named Ozzie, a pirate-like character named Cliff and myself. We were sitting around a table having a couple beers at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. The term yacht club was a stretch. It was a run down stucco structure with an open air tiki bar type feel. There was barbed wire around the perimeter separating it from the city of Colon, Panama and the word was not to venture outside of the fence. Despite this, we went into town one day and everywhere we went, we saw big bullet holes in the walls, evidence of the U.S. Invasion that captured Manuel Noriega a year before. We spent a week there over Christmas that year as we waited in line to transit the Canal.


One particularly hot day (hotter than all the other hot days in Panama) we went to the bar to get out of the sun and have a cold drink. Several other yachtsmen from around the world had the same idea so before long, beers were flowing and so were the stories. Someone had an idea. We would go around the table and each of us would tell what we considered to be our greatest sea story. As eager as I was to hear the others' tales, I couldn’t wait for my turn. I was certain that mine would be the greatest of the great sea stories. When my turn came, I told with relish, as I had done before so many times, the saga related above. My Greatest Sea Story. With great enthusiasm, I built up to the climax where the cannons fired. “Fire in the hole!!” BA BOOM!!! BA BOOM!!! I relived again the excitement of sailing away from the two great vessels into the horizon on that incredible day. I was sure that my story was the best and literally the Greatest Sea Story.


The torch was passed to the Englishman to my left. An older fellow with quintessential seaman’s gray hair and white beard. He looked at me in astonishment. He exclaimed that his story had already been told. Puzzled, we asked what he was talking about. He said that the story he had intended to tell and had been about to begin was the same story I had told. Still no one understood until he explained that on the great day of sailing with the tall ships off St. Lucia that I had described, he had been the captain of the Astrid!!! He too had also always rated the account of that very day as his Greatest Sea Story !


I have told this tale many times and am still amazed at how the stars had aligned to make this happen. The incidents were one year apart and the timing was impeccable. I just happened to get the job on Crosby’s boat, happened to be in Panama at that exact moment and happened to go to the yacht club on that particular day. We happened to meet, happened to sit at the same table and of all things happened to decide to tell our greatest sea story. If any of these details had been absent for either of us, this amazing confluence of events never would’ve taken place.


I never heard from him again but suspect that somewhere in the world there is an Englishman telling of the day that his Greatest Sea Story became his Greatest Small World Story as it had for me.


Epilogue:


In a tragic turn of events, the magnificent Astrid met her demise as she went aground off the coast of Ireland in 2013. The 95-year-old vessel suffered engine failure and was blown on to rocks at the mouth of Oysterhaven bay, near Kinsale in County Cork. All 30 on board were saved in a dramatic and complex rescue operation.


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