The Crossing

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“What a long, strange trip it’s been.” –The Grateful Dead

Well, better late than never, as they say. It took me a while—fifty-nine years, to be exact—but after a lifetime of sailing, more than my share of lost and sunken boats, two lost and sunken marriages, and the usual coming and going of storms both material and ethereal that all of us must face, I finally crossed an ocean and made it to the other side, still standing aboard the same vessel I set out upon. If I were to say nothing else about it, a simple “hurrah!” would suffice to convey much of what I feel. I have witnessed, from a small and fragile arc, something of awesome expanse and power of the Earth that few people ever know. I have sailed literally in the wake of Columbus, known some of the same fears, watched the same mysteries unfold, by the same means and methods. It is good to be alive.
But there is more to it than that—much more. For starters, I now realize just how dramatically the world has changed since I first pointed the bow of a sailboat toward the horizon, as a boy. I recall an old photograph I snapped of my high school girlfriend against the backdrop of Annapolis Harbor in 1975. Years after I stopped gazing at the girl in the photo, I noticed that among the great array of sailboats moored in the harbor behind her there were none larger than thirty feet from end to end. In Annapolis Harbor today, and certainly in the Caribbean where I am now, there are scarcely any boats under forty feet, and the great majority are closer to fifty feet. More […]

April 7th, 2017|

Bligh’s Revenge

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Most people have heard of the mutiny on the Bounty. Even though the actual events occurred in the year 1789, the drama is just perfect for the silver screen, which explains why no fewer than four movies have been made about it. All the elements Hollywood could wish for are there: sunny, palm-shaded islands on the far side of the world; credulous, naked Tahitian women; homesick, pasty-faced British sailors who decide (surprise!) they would sooner betray king and country than give up all that to return to the squeamish, straitlaced sweethearts waiting for them at home.
But for all its prurient allure, the story of those gullible sailors and their fetching paramours is not nearly as compelling as the one told by the guy who was set adrift. With no charts, no sextant, and only a five-day supply of food and water, Captain William Bligh navigated a wave-swamped, twenty-three-foot open lifeboat loaded to the gunwales with eighteen men, over 3,600 stormy miles of the Pacific, landing safely forty-seven days later in Timor. In statute (land) miles, that’s the equivalent of drifting from New York to Los Angeles and back to St. Louis. It was nothing short of a miracle, and it remains to this day the greatest feat of navigation and survival at sea in the history of the British Royal Navy.
Along the way, Bligh made copious entries in a daily log that was published upon his return to England. The resulting work, “A Narrative Of The Mutiny On Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty; And The Subsequent Voyage Of Part Of The Crew, In The Ship’s Boat” (available free on Kindle), might have benefited from a shorter title, like “Bligh’s Revenge.” It’s a fascinating tell-all, psychological […]

December 16th, 2016|

God Save the Queen

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The inscription on the chancel screen of All Saints Church in Blackheath, London: “To the Glory of God and in Memory of Brave Men who fought in the Great War, 1914-1918. Their Name Liveth For Evermore.”
This past Sunday, November 13, was “Remembrance Sunday” in Great Britain. Everywhere this month as in every month of November for nearly a century, red poppies made of silk or paper or plastic, collected in exchange for donations to the “Poppy Appeal” of the Royal British Legion, have appeared on the lapels of Britons of every creed and tribe and political stripe, men and women alike. Inspired by the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian physician Lt. Col. John McCrae during World War I, the Poppy Appeal symbolizes honor for the memory and gratitude for the sacrifice of the nation’s war dead as well as commitment to the needs of present-day veterans.


by Lt Col John McCrae (1872-1918)

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.
There is a tremendous swell of good feeling and patriotism surrounding the Poppy Appeal. I first witnessed this a year ago while traveling between London and Wales. Scrupulously polite army and naval officers, smartly dressed in uniform, their smiling faces brimming with the happy promise of youth, gather in […]

November 15th, 2016|

President Trump: Why The Polls are Wrong and This Nut May Win

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For those feeling confident about a Clinton victory in the wake of recent polls showing Trump behind, consider the poll taken just before WWF wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura—a celebrity joke candidate with no political experience—“shocked the world” by winning the governor’s race in Minnesota in 1998. Ventura was polling third at 15 percent three weeks before the election but got 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race against Hubert Humphrey III, a well-liked Democrat whose family is as close to royalty as you can get in a liberal, deeply Democratic state notable as the only one to vote for Mondale in Reagan’s 49-state landslide in 1984. Minnesota Public Radio, which conducted the poll, reported Ventura as a footnote in the race that was seen primarily between Humphrey, the Democrat, and Coleman, the Republican:
“Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III enjoys a double digit lead over Norm Coleman . . . as the race enters its final three weeks. Statewide, 56 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Humphrey, while 23 percent have an unfavorable opinion . . . In a match-up, Humphrey captures 44 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for Coleman, with 15 percent backing Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura . . .”

What The Washington Post wrote about the race after the election sounds eerily familiar:

“Campaigning with little money for television ads but plenty of name recognition thanks to his wrestling, movie and talk radio careers, ‘The Body’ at first seemed not to take his own candidacy seriously. He openly spoke of resuming his radio show after Election Day. But as his cut-rate campaign gained in the polls, Ventura kept the experts on edge with his odd pronouncements – he publicly pondered […]

October 26th, 2016|

I Feel Bad About My Leg

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I have to be honest. I’ve been a little sad lately—and not just lately, actually, but for a while. It’s not a feeling of despondency or despair or even depression (whatever that means), so much as a sort of ache that is by now almost familiar. Nothing is really broken, but something is clearly missing.

I’m not sure how to explain it, but this comes close: things as they are now are not as they once were, and things that once were will never be so again. I am not pining for the past or despairing of the present so much as I am quietly aware of the coming of a very different future. Life moves on, and it sheds its skin in places as it goes. There is an inescapable sadness to that. I can see it. I can feel it. I just haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it—until now.

In my case, I am swirling in the wake of two failed marriages and all the emotional turbulence that goes with such calamities. But what I am feeling is not really what most people would recognize as grief, nor is it something I expect ever to “get over.” It is rather more subtle—an indescribable strangeness that surrounds the people, places, and rituals in my life where once there was an ease so familiar to me that I scarcely knew it was there, like the beating of my heart or the motion of my leg. Have you thought deeply about your leg, today? I would guess not, but I bet you would if it were no longer attached to your body. This, oddly enough, came to me as something of an epiphany.
If […]

September 15th, 2016|

Pilgrim’s Progress

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It has been a little more than a year, now. I remember well the day. It was filled with the kind of eruptions seemingly about nothing in particular that, in a marriage, are too often the harbingers of something very particular. Such arguments always seem random and senseless at the time. Only in hindsight do we recognize them as volcanic, arising from deep, unseen fissures that open slowly as a relationship comes apart. They may lie dormant for a while, but eventually they widen and explode. A critical eruption in my life came at ten o’clock in the evening of July 17, 2015, when my wife of five years asked for a divorce. I lacked the will to fight. The truth be told, I felt a strange mixture of fear and relief that she had spoken out loud what we’d both been thinking.
It was not the first time. There had been tremors before. We had separated the previous May, then had a change of heart in June. Now, the pendulum had swung back. I felt a sense of defeat, of inevitability.
Divorce, that always inopportune change of life, happened at an especially inopportune time for me. Six weeks earlier, I had been rescued five hundred miles south of Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean after my thirty-foot sloop started taking on water from structural damage. Offered rescue by a passing ship, I made the decision to abandon my boat and my quest to sail solo to Ireland, where my wife and I had planned to reunite and, however naïvely, renew our vows. A week later I returned to Charleston amid some modest fanfare from an AP story about the rescue, but deep down I was […]

September 4th, 2016|

Au Revoir

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The French have a wonderful way of saying goodbye that seems appropriate for the start of a sailing voyage. It’s not goodbye at all but rather, “until we meet again.”
I write these words late at night in a café in Calais whose lovely and charming wait staff have suffered gladly the use of their facilities and Internet connection long after my moules mariniere were a happy memory. (To be fair, all French girls seem lovely and charming to me.) The Nevermore lies contentedly in the well-protected Calais marina, where the showers are hot and the bathrooms cleaner than those in any home I have ever owned. The harbormaster, Etienne, made sure I was looked after and insisted there was no rush to leave. But leave I must, tomorrow morning, with the tide. The weather and the wind are too perfect not to go. Everything is ready, and so am I. Once again, I recite the words of the classic Richard Hovey poem, “The Sea Gipsy”:
I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.

There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the Islands of Desire.

I must forth again tomorrow!
With the sunset I must be
Hull down on the trail of rapture
In the wonder of the sea.
The island of my desire is a tiny volcanic eruption named La Palma, in the Canary Islands, exactly 1660 nautical miles from the end of the pier at Calais. From that starting point, I will execute the first of three complicated navigational maneuvers to make my landfall: two lefts and a right.
So it is goodbye at last to Paris, and […]

May 4th, 2016|

Down the Rabbit Hole with Border Control

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Well, it’s official. Queen Elizabeth and I have finally come to a parting of the ways. And so it seems only fitting at this time to say farewell and look back at my six-month sojourn in that “green and pleasant land” of my grandfather’s birth. An essay about what I learned of life in England and Wales during my time there is soon to follow. But first, a bit of background and some well-earned grousing about the manner of my leaving:
Those who have followed my Tale of Woe are aware that, after coming to England last fall on a winter sabbatical to complete my third novel (which I happily did), I got the wild hare to buy yet another yacht and sail it around the world. This plan was all well and good, the only problem being that the six months of leave expressly granted to me as a tourist to remain in the UK (as clearly stamped on my passport) was due to expire on April 12, whereas some very necessary repair and refurbishing of the vessel by a British boatyard was not due to be completed until the end of April. Moreover, the season during which it is considered safe to cross the often treacherous Bay of Biscay on the way to the Canary Islands—my first port of call—does not begin, in the eyes of sailors much more seasoned and expert in matters of weather than I, until May 1.
So, being a lawyer charged with the duty to obey, not flout the law, I did what no normal person in his right mind would do: I dutifully left the UK on March 31 to come to France for a one-week holiday, then […]

April 25th, 2016|

Women’s Work: The American Cathedral in Paris

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It was a glorious morning today at the American Cathedral in Paris, where the choral service at eleven brought back fond memories of my home church, Grace Cathedral, in Charleston. I had the distinct pleasure to hear the homily given by the dean of the cathedral, Lucinda Laird. Dean Laird is one of that rare breed of Episcopal priests in the vein of Nancy Allison and John Zahl who have a Calvinistic zeal for good preaching, and that was certainly in evidence this morning. Elaborating on the story in The Book of Acts, chapter 11, verses one through eighteen, she explained how revolutionary the idea was in the first century that the gospel should be given to non-Jews. In comparison, she noted her own astonishment as a member of the Episcopal Church at a time some decades ago, when women priests were still unknown, at seeing trailblazer Bea Blair raise the Eucharist during mass. Upon hearing a female priest say the words of the liturgy, “this is my body,” a young Lucinda Laird understood fully for the first time that that sacrifice was indeed meant for her and her own flesh instead of as something one step removed in the body of a man.
It pains me somewhat to think that we are still in a place and time theologically in which female priests must so often speak of being female as black politicians speak of being black. No one, I am quite sure, is interested in my thoughts on being male. But lest we forget, not far from the altar of the American Cathedral in Paris where the Eucharist was celebrated today by two women priests of outstanding caliber, competence and holiness, stands another altar in the […]

April 24th, 2016|

The French Law of Pastry and Women

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Somehow, I always knew it would be the French—that they would have the answers to the burning questions about life and love. And, of course, they do. As I sit alone here in Paris, that liveliest and loveliest of cities, this wisdom came to me in an unexpected, artistic, nuanced, metaphorical and, therefore, quintessentially French sort of way. I learned it through pastries.

Women and pastries are about choices. There are lots of them. They are rich and lovely and, taken in quantity, potentially very bad for you—fatal, to be sure, even if you do go in a rather pleasant, somnolent, and satisfied condition, rising on dust clouds of powdered sugar to heaven. But if you don’t wish to die or become disabled and no longer able to function you cannot have them all. You must choose.

The thing about pastries and women is that you cannot try before you buy—at least not without a lot of shouting and unhappiness and recrimination and demands for payment of damages. You must choose before you try and damn well not complain about your choice after you do, because there won’t be another. Herein enters the need for a method of choosing. Some criteria. On this score, French pastry chefs make your job as difficult as possible.

First of all, the selections are behind a glass case, where they cannot be touched or smelled but rather only admired from afar. You look. You lust. You dream of what lies within that glistening, creamy exterior. But you do not know. Not really. And the pastry chef, who is conspiring with the pastries to deceive you and who in any event is French and does not speak your language, has no interest […]

April 21st, 2016|