A Eulogy for My Brother

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Jay Edwin Hurley, Jr.
July 10, 1941 to December 3, 2017

What has come to me today, and to all of us, is the unexpected, unwelcome and, frankly, impossible task somehow to punctuate the end of my brother’s life with a statement of what his life meant to us—unexpected, for me, because even though I knew Jay was not well and hadn’t been well for a long time, I never imagined this day would come so soon. Jay was only 76 years old. To some that may seem a ripe old age, but not to me. Jay and I shared a father who, despite a disastrously destructive lifestyle that would have killed most men a dozen times over, lived longer than his eldest son. Jay died almost two decades younger than our Grandfather Hurley, who was born into poverty in England in a century that did not know penicillin or most of the vaccines we take for granted today. My brother died many years sooner than did our mother, and her mother before her.

I don’t mention this as a shortcoming to find fault with Jay somehow for not giving us more of himself. The truth is, I’m a bit angry with God. I have been a trial attorney for most of my life. I rarely lost a case and it never rested easy with me when I did. I was also not over fond of judges, but when things didn’t go my way I made my objection and yielded gracefully to the judgment of the court, as every lawyer must do. I lost my appeal to God about Jay, and I take exception to that decision. I wish here and now to note my objection for […]

December 10th, 2017|

Letters from the Sea: A Sinking

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A
s a few friends will recall and the few readers of scattered press reports at the time have surely forgotten, I was sailing alone, ten days out of Charleston, when I made the decision to abandon a leaking, weather-beaten, fifty-year-old ketch named Prodigal in rough seas about 500 miles south of Nova Scotia. The month was June, in the year 2015. I was one-third of the way to Ireland on a 3,500-mile passage I had planned for months. The implosion of my second marriage had come just three weeks before. I had set sail anyway, already mired in one storm, headed inevitably for others.
As was the case with most of the boats I have acquired through the years, I had bought Prodigal for a pittance and fitted her out for a king’s ransom. I sailed her for a week up the Chesapeake Bay from Norfolk in 2013 and solo for seventeen days nonstop on a shakedown cruise to Bermuda and back in June 2014. Mechanical wind vane self-steering gear—the indefatigable but dear Monitor brand—freed me from all steering responsibilities offshore and allowed me to get snatches of sleep at night. The split ketch rig made for steady sailing in rough weather with the mainsail furled and the mizzen and foresail (the smaller sails at each end of the boat) flying.
Prodigal had leaked a bit on the 2014 voyage to Bermuda, but no more than could be easily mopped up with a few swipes of a sponge from the cabin sole. She was an old boat, but I am an old man, and we hardly begrudged each other a few imperfections. The passage to Ireland was different. After a glorious week of good weather, Prodigal […]

September 3rd, 2017|

Notes on a Revolution

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It is the birthright of every American to have an opinion about the president—however indifferently the holder of that office may be loved or loathed. But with President Trump, it’s different. The birthright has become a bounden duty. Our opinions about Trump, for or against (as the prevailing mood tolerates no middle ground), are demanded of us in even the most mundane social interactions as a kind of identity card—a passport among fellow travelers in a fierce brand of tribalism not seen since the Civil War.

I have been living outside the United States, now, for over two years—since right about the time Trump descended the escalator in his Manhattan tower and completely blew everyone’s mind forever. Today, whenever I meet a compatriot in some far-flung corner of the world, within the first fifteen minutes the same intricate ballet occurs between us: the gently rolled eyes, the shaking of the head, the casual remark punctuated by the well-timed sigh until we have sussed out each other’s politics enough to declare, in unison, “Isn’t Trump just awful!”

So far that has been the prevailing view—even among the few people I meet who admit to voting for him. If you are an American living in America, you likely have had more frequent occasion to declare your feelings about Trump than to show your driver’s license. It is only natural, then, that I should publish my own views—not just about Trump, whose myriad flaws are well cataloged and seemingly on permanent display, but about how we got to this truly remarkable place in American history and where, pray tell, we might be headed from here.

First, in a salaam to the new tribalism in which “reality” has become less a matter […]

August 4th, 2017|

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.

IN FLANDERS FIELDS

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 ketch 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|
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