“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 than a few are massively larger. They are all fabulously expensive and new and posh—save one. That would be my boat.
The Nevermore is a 1967 Camper Nicholson 32—a heavy, traditional, full keel sloop built in England and famous in her day for being one of the few pleasure craft built to Lloyds Shipping specifications, a stringent and expensive regimen of construction inspections and standards usually reserved for commercial vessels. The company traces its history of building some of Britain’s greatest ships back to the Napoleonic Wars. Fully eight of the few hundred Nicholson 32s that were built in the 1960s have sailed around the world. One of them, in January 2017, took me and an intrepid novitiate—fifty-five-year-old Londoner Jillian Gormley—across the Atlantic from East to West.
Nevermore came to me, like many of the good things in life, in the nick of time and rather unexpectedly. In the wake of losing another boat, a worthy but wounded thirty-foot ketch named Prodigal, on a failed attempt to cross the Atlantic solo from America to Ireland in June 2015, I sold everything I owned and made my way to Dublin by plane. From there I wandered for a few days on foot across a small patch of Ireland, then for two months and five hundred miles along the northern border of France and Spain on the “Camino a Santiago de Compostela,” the ancient pilgrimage route known as the Way of St. James. While walking the Camino I convinced myself that my sailing days were well and truly over, and that seemed no cause for sadness as I gazed upon the ageless glories of Galicia. But by the time I flew into London in October 2015, I faced a dilemma. Great Britain would allow me, as an American tourist, just six months to remain in the country; the rest of Europe, only ninety days more. I had no desire to head home. My holiday in Britain gave me just enough time to finish the novel, The Passage, that had been languishing half-finished on my laptop, but I needed a plan for what would come next. That plan was Nevermore.
As I often tell the uninitiated, a sailboat is not merely a means of conveyance or a pleasant hobby. It is a snug and safe and well-ordered home. It is a dream machine. It is a magic carpet, borne aloft by the power of imagination against the weight of despair, capable of flying to the remotest, most unlikely corners of all that is possible in life. Fighting against my own despair, I stood in a shipyard in Essex one cold, rainy day in February 2016 and imagined that a battered, unloved but unbowed vessel formerly known as Morica could live to sail and strive again, and that I could live to sail and strive again aboard her.
I wish (almost, but not really), I could tell you that the eighteen days I spent sailing alone from England to the Spanish island of La Palma, off the northwest coast of Africa, and the twenty-eight days Jillian and I spent sailing from La Palma to the West Indies—more than five thousand miles in all—were fraught with danger, drama, and death-defying feats of bravado. Not hardly. To be sure, there were difficulties. Nevermore, like her captain, is an old vessel. She has her idiosyncrasies and more than a few quirks—like the navigation lights that shorted off of Omaha Beach, near Normandy, filling the forward cabin with thick smoke and turning her into a pirate ship, ghosting two thousand miles down the coast of Portugal, every night, in near total darkness. A gale hit us on the first night of the Atlantic crossing, overpowering our self-steering and shaking the rigging so hard that the radar reflector flew off the backstay and crashed to the deck in a shattered mess. We lost our engine a week later, then our navigation lights (again). By the end, the only thing lighting up the boat at night was an eight-dollar solar-powered garden spotlight that I bought in a London hardware store on a whim, before we left. We hooked and ate a delicious mahi-mahi in the first week, but a week later an eight-foot marlin ate our hook and quickly left the scene with our blessing and 300 yards of fifty pound test line that it snapped like a thread. There were four more continuous, uncomfortable days of gales and twelve foot seas, midway, that made us wonder aloud what we ever thought would be “fun” about crossing an ocean.
But that’s the thing, you see. It was fun. Seriously uncomfortable, at times, but great fun nonetheless—made so not leastly by a sailing companion who was cheerful in all weathers and never uttered a discouraging word—not one—and a boat that never stumbled or strayed from her objective—not once. We would do it again, and we just might. But for now, I have more important things to do. As I type these words, I am bathed in balmy breezes, surrounded by tropical birds in the air and tropical fish swimming at my feet, listening to the lapping of clear, blue-green water and the whoosh of coconut palms high overhead. It has been two months to the day since we made landfall. I have a suntan but no watch on my arm—the battery ran out a month ago, and I can’t be bothered to replace it. I can’t really remember what day or even what time it is. All I know is that the sun is warm, that my boat is nodding at a mooring in a charming little nook known as Marigot Bay on the island of St. Lucia, and that the waitress has promised to bring me another Piton, soon. I am sitting on the water’s edge in a restaurant named Dolittle’s—so called because, as it turns out, this bay is where the movie based on the famous book about Dr. Dolittle was filmed. I am filled with newfound peace and newfound confidence. I have crossed a great ocean in a small boat and seen the wonders of the world. Talking to animals? Sure. Why not? Anything is possible.